In this edition: A preview of Tuesday's battle for the suburbs, cash flows in next week's special elections and why “IRS snooping” is going to be a 2022 campaign ad mantra.

The only newsletter that can explain what's going on in both Erie counties, this is The Trailer.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, a Democrat running for sheriff is promising to “fund the police.” In Long Island, Republican ads link a Democrat’s support for cash bail policy changes to a gruesome murder. And in rural Colorado, MyPillow founder Mike Lindell appeared via Zoom to oppose a mandatory masking policy — moments before a member of a school board supporting it resigned.  

“There’s more science than you guys even know of!” Lindell said, joining a local conservative activist who’d campaigned against the new policy. He added, falsely: “The masks are related to suicide and addiction. They’re directly related.” 

Next week's elections in Virginia have grabbed the national spotlight, but the same issues roiling those races — crime, the coronavirus and school curriculums — are shaping local elections across the country. Democrats who made deep inroads into once-Republican suburbs and cities are trying to hold their seats. Republicans are trying to win back voters, and find new ones, with messaging that fits a race for school board just as easily as it can fit into a 2022 campaign for Congress.

“This new coalition of 'school board moms and dads’ is leading a political awakening against Democrat policies and leftist overreach that has gone way too far,” said former Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken, a candidate for U.S. Senate, explaining why she donated to dozens of Republican-backed school board candidates. “I believe the ‘red wave’ we’ll see in 2022 starts with a flood of freedom-minded school board candidates winning on Tuesday.”

In much of the country, Republicans are starting from behind. Democrats won a string of victories in Trump-era off-year elections, starting four years ago. They swept the GOP out of power in places like Chester County, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, and Westchester County, N.Y., a onetime Republican stronghold that produced politicians like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro. They captured city hall in Albuquerque, after eight years of Republican control, and broke a Republican grip on Manchester, N.H. 

Those trends kept up through 2020, pointing to the narrow suburb-focused majorities that would give Democrats control of Congress and the White House. Conservatives kicked off the 2021 cycle with a focus on school board elections, which Republicans now universally see as a way of defeating left-wing ideas at the local level and keeping activists motivated to knock on doors and vote. The party has become fixated on those races, as shown by everything from Lindell calling into a hyperlocal meeting in Colorado to a Senate hearing this week at which Republicans asked whether the Department of Justice viewed parents as “domestic terrorists.” 

The same debates are happening across the country, with Democrats responding in very similar ways. While Democrats captured control of New York's Nassau County four years ago, Republican county executive nominee Bruce Blakeman is hitting Democratic incumbent Laura Curran over the restrictions imposed at the height of the pandemic. 

“Schools must never close again,” Blakeman told the Long Island Herald. “Big-box stores should never be allowed to stay open while small businesses are shuttered. Restaurants should be allowed to keep outdoor dining and continue their indoor operations.”

In the race for county district attorney, Republicans focused relentlessly on how the Democratic nominee, state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, supported easing of cash bail requirements, one of the criminal justice priorities Democrats moved once their suburban victories gave them total control in Albany. Kaminsky has outraised Republican challenger Anne Donnelly, but her sharp-edged ads feature the mother of a murder victim, saying that the end of traditional cash bail led directly to the tragedy.

“Senator Todd Kaminsky helped write the law that set my daughter’s killer free,” Jennifer Payne says in the ad, holding a picture of her daughter, Sarah. 

Kaminsky has pointed out that he did not write the law, and favored a less permissive version. Since last year, crime is down in Nassau County overall. 

Democrats in other suburbs are trying to avoid the appearance of being soft on crime, an issue that had faded from many local races until last year's crime spikes. In Bucks County, Pa., another part of the Philadelphia suburbs where Republicans had been losing ground, the Democratic nominees for sheriff and district attorney appear in ads that emphasize their support for greater police funding alongside new money for mental health and officer training. 

“We know that to fight crime, we must fund the police,” sheriff nominee Mark Lomax says in the 30-second spots.

Messaging like that, with Democrats separating their own agenda from the activists who dominated political debates last summer, is everywhere. In Erie County, where former deputy police commissioner Kim Beaty is running to be the first Black, female sheriff, she's emphasized her own experience in law enforcement. She's de-emphasized the race for mayor of Buffalo, the county's largest city, where democratic socialist India Walton secured the Democratic nomination only to face a write-in campaign from a fellow party member, Mayor Byron Brown.

“I can't tell you enough: I live in Lancaster,” Beaty told the podcast The Square this summer, emphasizing that she didn't have a vote in the race for mayor. That hasn't stopped the Republican nominee, John Garcia, from running ads with images of last year's riots and a warning that Beaty and Walton would “dismantle the pillars of community safety.” 

From race to race, Republican messaging has been heavily nationalized, shaped not just by developments in county governments and local school boards but by a sense that a national left-wing political experiment is playing out everywhere. In Chester County, where Republicans were wiped out of power during the Trump years, the local Republican Party has publicized materials in school training documents that invoke race and equity, linking it to critical race theory, and it's running ads that portray the Nov. 2 races as the way to fight back.

“Parents make the decision for their children's' health, not school boards,” a narrator says. “Exercising our First Amendment is not domestic terrorism. It's time to stop this insanity. Vote Republican.”

Reading list

When good government reforms go wrong.

The closing Virginia message from the White House.

How to talk about “election integrity” without a huge backfire.

What happens on Tuesday to the 2017-2019 Democratic wave?

The battle for the Columbus exurbs.

They ran on paid leave, and a prescription drug plan, and they'd like to run on having passed some of that.

Will he or won’t he? 

Special elections

Candidates in next week's three special congressional elections released their final fundraising numbers this week, offering some insight into races that haven't attracted much interest from outside groups.

In Florida's 20th Congressional District, Broward County Commissioner ​​Dale Holness led the crowded Democratic field while blowing through his war chest. Holness raised nearly $276,000, and spent more than $330,000, entering the race's last weeks with campaign debt. State Rep. Bobby DuBose was close behind, raising more than $192,000 and spending more than $276,000, but with nearly $120,000 in the bank. Only one more candidate, state Sen. Perry Thurston, raised more than $100,000; he spent nearly four times as much, and lent  his campaign $70,000. 

The winner will be the nominee in a safe Democratic district where Republicans are not competitive, but candidates who spend down everything they've raised before Nov. 2 will have to find more donors ahead of a potential 2022 primary.

All three candidates saw their spending dwarfed by the race's self-funders, Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief and three-time challenger Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a business executive who's now lent her campaign a total of $3.7 million — and taken back $2 million of it. That actuarial juggling act made it look like Cherfilus-McCormick blew the field away in the third fundraising quarter, but she's spent far less, putting around $1.8 million into the race, money visible in the omnipresent billboards and frequent TV ads promoting her “people's prosperity plan” that includes a $1,000 monthly universal basic income. Among all the candidates seriously competing for the seat, Cherfilus-McCormick has raised the least — a bit more than $18,000 — from individual donors.

State Rep. Omari Hardy, who's positioned himself to the left of the rest of the field, raised less than $80,000 and spent less than $90,000. In an interview for The Trailer this month, Hardy suggested that the defeat of former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner in an Ohio special House election this summer kept liberal money on the sidelines, and groups that invested in Turner's race, like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, have largely ignored the Florida contest. Hardy has, however, gotten the only significant third-party support in the race, with the newly formed Florida Democratic Action PAC putting more than $100,000 into hundreds of 15-second TV ads on MSNBC.

The ads are brief, noting that Hardy grew up in the district and “fought Big Sugar,” and they're not the only outside interventions into his campaign. On Wednesday, the Democratic Majority for Israel's PAC bought a full-page ad in the Jewish Journal, a free South Florida publication, highlighting an interview the state legislator gave to Jewish Insider in which he said he'd have voted against extra funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile-defense system this year. Hardy also called the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement the “only option Palestinians have to draw attention to their plight” — leading the DMFIPAC to accuse Hardy of backing an “anti-Semitic” campaign.

In Ohio's 11th Congressional District. Democratic nominee Shontel Brown raised and spent heavily in the final weeks of her race against Republican candidate Laverne Gore. Brown raised nearly $790,000 and spent nearly $890,000, and had $270,000 left to spend — her August primary against Nina Turner did not fully drain her resources. Gore has raised less than $40,000 for the entire race, and reported slightly more debt than cash on hand. As in the Florida race, Republicans haven't bothered investing much here, having drawn the district in 2011 to pack some of the most Democratic parts of Cleveland and Akron into a single seat. Turner, who Brown defeated in August, has filed paperwork for a potential rematch in the May 2022 primary, and has a bit more than $262,000 left in her campaign account.

The race for Ohio's 15th Congressional District, which covers part of Democratic Columbus and stretches into reliably Republican exurbs, is the only Nov. 2 special election contest into which both major parties have put serious money. Democratic state Rep. Allison Russo raised $550,000 for the race's final stretch, spending slightly more and ending with around $181,000 cash on hand. Trump-endorsed attorney and lobbyist Mike Carey raised and spent slightly less, but got help from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which co-sponsored an ad this month linking Russo to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Donald Trump carried the district by 14 points last year after carrying it by 15 points in 2016. 

Ad watch

The 2022 elections have been underway for months, even before the next set of congressional maps is finalized, and the National Republican Congressional Committee is already running ads on a perceived Democratic vulnerability. Digital spots in 15 targeted districts warn that Democrats are “spending billions” to “hire an army of IRS agents to spy on your bank account.” That's the way each ad ends: A picture of a Democratic incumbent, and a warning that they want to start “spying” on bank accounts.

The Democrats' ever-shifting Build Back Better plan hasn't generated the same kind of mass opposition as the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010, or the Republican tax reform package that passed in 2017. But the IRS monitoring provision, which began with a proposal to monitor bank accounts that saw more than $600 in annual transactions, has animated business groups and stood out as a target in Republican polling. The American Action Network, a pro-Republican third-party group, has run a series of ads warning that Democrats want to “spy” on personal bank accounts. Democrats proposed it as a way of clawing back revenue lost to tax fraud, and have raised the amount that would involve the IRS to $10,000.

While the NRCC's battleground polling found Democrats vulnerable on a number of spending questions, few of them are balking at the reconciliation bill as a whole, and just a handful have been working to remove some provisions. On Wednesday, 21 nervous House Democrats — some targeted by the NRCC ads, some not — signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, asking “that this proposal not be included in the Build Back Better package.” They did not say outright that they would oppose the reconciliation package if it did.

Senate Majority PAC, “Standing in the Way.” The first ad of the 2022 cycle from the Democrats' Senate super PAC is less notable for what it says than in where it's not running — Nevada's KTVN 2 News. To support Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) for reelection, the ad claims, among other things, that Republican candidate Adam Laxalt opposes extending the child tax credit, because he's said that he wouldn't have supported the legislation that contained it. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee disputed that in a “takedown” letter to stations, noting that the sources supplied in the ad didn't back up the chyrons. “Your station is now on notice of airing a false and defamatory advertisement,” they wrote, enough to persuade one station not to run the ad. It's still running on other networks. (After this newsletter published, the station reversed itself and began to air the ad).

Youngkin for Governor, “Dark Money, Big Favors.” Virginia Republicans have hit Terry McAuliffe from the right and the left; this ad uses an argument that the Democrat's primary rivals mentioned, but never put money behind. As governor, McAuliffe signed legislation that benefited Dominion Power, and the company supported both his 2021 campaign and a PAC that bashed Youngkin. Though both parties supported the legislation, the ad puts the blame on McAuliffe for higher energy bills, and clips a statement from a 2014 news conference he gave on the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline to include only a line about him working with Dominion. The issue isn't top of mind for Republican voters, but it would help the GOP if some Democrats decided not to bother voting for McAuliffe, or backed left-wing third-party candidate Princess Blanding instead.

Club for Growth Action, “Real.” Before J.D. Vance became a candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, mysterious texts were being sent to voters reminding them of the author's (now-deleted) anti-Trump tweets from 2016. Nobody took credit for those messages, but the CFG, which endorsed former state Treasurer Josh Mandel in the race, is elevating the tactic with video clips and screenshots of Vance criticizing Trump, calling himself a “Never Trump guy,” and pondering a vote for Hillary Clinton. Lots of Republicans changed their minds on Trump after he won — the CFG spent millions trying to block him from the nomination. But old clips like this have weakened Republicans in primary after primary since that election.

Poll watch

New Jersey governor 2021 (Monmouth, 1,000 registered voters)

Phil Murphy (D): 50% (-1 since September)
Jack Ciattarelli (R): 39% (+1)

The only gubernatorial reelection campaign in the country has gotten far less attention — from media, surrogates and PACs — than the campaign in Virginia. Since late summer, Republicans have published internal polling pointing to a single-digit race. Pollsters who only took one recent look at the field found Murphy separated from Ciattarelli by a high single-digit margin, suggesting a race that was closing fast. Monmouth, the only pollster that's surveyed the race more than twice, has found little movement all year — some Republican gains, but an electorate cooling on Murphy. 

That electorate still agrees with Murphy on most issues, and is ending the race without a very firm view of the Republican nominee. Murphy, whose campaign emphasizes the liberal goals he's achieved since 2018, has also separated his own job rating from Biden's. While the president's approval numbers have fallen 16 points since August in Monmouth polls of New Jersey, Murphy's has fallen by a single point, stable at 52 percent. Asked if Murphy has been “able to get more things done than Biden,” 32 percent of voters say he has, and just 7 percent say he hasn't. Half of Democrats and half of Republicans agree that Murphy has only achieved as much as the president, but Democrats are more likely, by 10 points, to say that the governor has done more.

New Jersey governor 2021 (Stockton, 522 likely voters)

Phil Murphy (D): 50% (no change since September)
Jack Ciattarelli (R): 41%

The release of this poll last month found the Murphy-Ciattarelli race within single digits, the first public poll that did so. One month and several million dollars of ad spending later, nothing has changed. Murphy's approval rating remains above water, with 52 percent of voters rating him positively. By just 3 points, more New Jersey voters say the state is heading in the “wrong direction” than the right one, but that's had little impact on the governor's support. As in Virginia, the share of voters rating the pandemic as their top issue has fallen, and 27 percent now cite taxes as their biggest concern. That could benefit the GOP, but like other recent nominees in the state, Ciattarelli is struggling to convert enough independents and Democrats to pull ahead.

Virginia statewide elections 2021 (Wason Center, 944 likely voters)

Governor
Terry McAuliffe (D): 49%
Glenn Youngkin (R): 48% (+3 since early October)
Princess Blanding (L): 1%

Lieutenant Governor
Hala Ayala (D): 49% (+1 since early October)
Winsome Sears (R): 48% (+4)

Attorney General
Mark Herring (D): 48% (-1 since early October) 
Jason Miyares (R): 47% (+4)

Pollsters in the commonwealth have been publishing their final surveys of the statewide races this week, all of them pointing in one direction — margin-of-error contests where independents and voters outside of Northern Virginia have moved toward the GOP. Since the penultimate Wason Center poll, McAuliffe and his running mates have actually held or gained ground with their base, capturing more than 90 percent of Black voters and over 95 percent of self-identified Democrats. They've simply lost their leads with independents, putting each Republican in striking distance, while each Republican has consolidated base voters who weren't all there a month ago. Republicans also say they're more excited to vote than Democrats, by a 15-point margin, up from 6 points in the last month. That's why Democrats are closing with a flurry of surrogate visits and by trying to bait Donald Trump into a campaign stop: They see a Republican base that's already motivated and a Democratic base that can overwhelm that, perhaps narrowly, if it turns out.

In the states

California. Billionaire developer Rick Caruso hired two of California's most successful Democratic strategists ahead of a possible campaign for mayor of Los Angeles in 2022. Ace Smith, whose BearStar strategies helped Gov. Gavin Newsom defeat last month's recall attempt, went to work with Caruso after 12 years of speculation that the businessman who built the Grove and Americana shopping malls might want to run the city.

Caruso, who left the Republican Party in 2012 and is now an independent, worked as a city water and power commissioner before his career in real estate. According to FEC records, most of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's given to political candidates has gone to Republicans; his largest donation was nearly $250,000 to a super PAC supporting then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich in his 2016 run for president.

Last summer, Caruso offered a better look at his views in an open letter published after the killing of George Floyd, declaring a kind of solidarity with racial justice protesters. “I’ve tried my best over many years to help in the best way I know how to support and work with organizations that serve the most underprivileged children in Watts,” he wrote. “I realize now that I need to do more and haven’t done enough and for this I am sorry.” Caruso added to that in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, saying that city leaders failed in their “sacred duty” to keep peace when rioting broke out.

Meanwhile, test prep company founder Ramit Varma, also a registered independent, officially entered the mayoral race with a speech to a few hundred supporters at the Banc of California stadium. Rep. Karen Bass (D) entered the race last month, as did city council member and former state Senate leader Kevin De Leon (D).

New Mexico. Republican TV news reporter Mark Ronchetti officially entered the 2022 race for governor, 11 months after his single-digit defeat in his campaign for U.S. Senate. In a nearly four-minute launch video, Ronchetti reintroduced himself as a political outsider — the 2020 race was his first — frustrated by “bad policy” and blaming it for the state's increased crime rates, while attacking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) over everything from pay increases for staffers to withdrawing the National Guard during the Trump administration's 2019 border surge to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“She's wagged her finger at us,” Ronchetti said. “She's robbed us of our freedoms.”

Countdown

… five days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 75 days until the election in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 124 days until the first 2022 primaries