The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Democrats say Build Back Better can save them. Does their data back that up?

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In this edition: The Democrats' 2020 autopsies get an update, two red states give the GOP a redistricting bonanza and a Texas Democrat switches parties.

If you read the newsletter backward and upside down, you'll find the CBO score for Build Back Better. This is The Trailer.

María Teresa Kumar was feeling bullish, more than she'd been in a while. The president of Voto Latino had just spent the afternoon outside the White House, where the president signed the bipartisan infrastructure package — and when the Build Back Better budget passed, Democrats would have a story to tell.

“If they’re able to pass Build Back Better,” Kumar said, “all the groups that were able to turn out voters in 2020 can do our job.”

It's a common sentiment among Democrats and strategists, from the center left to the far left, two weeks after Democratic losses in Virginia. Yes, there was a double-digit swing against the party, but good candidates resisted it. Yes, the president's approval rating has sunk into the low 40s, but good policy can fix that. 

Ever since a 2020 win that was closer than Democratic pollsters expected it to be, liberal think tanks and political data companies have pointed in the same direction: The party's winning coalition is fragile, and will fall apart if it doesn't deliver and doesn't communicate that it did. Across the many autopsies of the party's 2020 performance, even when researchers disagreed, they rhymed.

“Democrats generally treated Black, Latino, and AAPI voters as GOTV targets, concentrating outreach efforts closer to Election Day and in some cases after early vote was already underway,” wrote Marlon Marshall and Lynda Tran in a study commissioned for Third Way, Latino Victory and the Collective PAC.

“For too long, campaigns have ignored the Hispanic voting bloc, assuming they would turn out reliably for Democrats,” wrote the authors of a report, “How 2020 Shapes 2022,” prepared for the liberal group Way to Win.

Those reports had plenty of critics, who pointed out everything from the corporate funding behind Third Way to the decision by Way to Win to emphasize turnout data that obscured how badly Democrats performed among Latino voters in Florida. But there's a grimness in all of the autopsies, including one published shortly before the Nov. 2 election by the data firm Catalist, and one published this month, “Commonsense Solidarity,” by the socialist magazine Jacobin through the new Center for Working-Class Politics.

Democrats aren't sure how to win back Latino voters. Every autopsy found Republicans improving with Latino voters, and none had an immediate answer for reversing that trend.

“With such a large number of new Latino voters in the electorate, it is plausible that they drove a big part of the change in Latinos' overall support numbers,” shrugged the authors of the Catalist study. Third Way's report suggested that Democrats lost Latino votes by aligning themselves with the racial justice protests of summer 2020, but not distancing themselves from the most unpopular protest demands, such as defunding police departments. 

“The GOP consistently framed the moment in ‘law and order’ terms, which resonated with voters on both the right and the left — including Latino men and women,” they wrote.

Way to Win's analysis was less gloomy; Democrats were winning Latino voters and would simply need to message constantly to remind them of why they shouldn't vote Republican. Catalist's data got more specific, finding that Democrats did worse with Latinos, relative to their 2016 performance, as voters got younger. Latino voters over 65 in Nevada, which was studied closely, shifted toward Trump by three points. Latino voters under 30, who voted in smaller numbers, shifted by nine points toward the GOP.

Democrats are pretty sure turnout won't save them. The socialist origins of the “Commonsense Solidarity” report don't stop it from criticizing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In both of his presidential campaigns, Sanders talked about mobilizing nonvoters by giving them something clear and deliverable to vote for. But there's not much proof, the authors argued, to support the theory that “low-propensity voters are natural allies” of left-wing candidates. 

“If nonvoters came into the electorate, they would be no more attracted to progressive candidates than current voters,” the report's authors wrote. “Our results provide little evidence to support the theory that many low-propensity voters don’t vote because they don’t see their progressive views reflected in the political platforms of mainstream Democratic candidates.”

The other studies of the party's problems celebrated the party's 2020 turnout, the highest in history, which came after the highest-turnout midterms in a century. The message: Just keep it up. Way to Win concluded that the best way to keep non-White voters mobilized was to inform them that “the Democratic trifecta they delivered is now passing historic policies,” and to get them voting in 2022, Democrats must “tell that story and keep them engaged.” But the idea that Democrats could overwhelm the GOP by turning out a new electorate, fairly popular before 2020, didn't survive the autopsies.

Democrats don't know what to do about wokeness. Like critical race theory, the idea of being “woke” — staying alert and on watch for threats to Black Americans — came from the left and was redefined by the right. Biden won the presidency while talking frequently about the goal of racial “equity,” a term that is undergoing the same journey as “woke,” with conservatives describing it as a CRT-inspired way of dividing people by race.

The people crunching Democratic data are still arguing about how to approach this. The Commonsense Equality report, based on YouGov polling conducted for the authors, argues flat-out that messaging gets weaker, and less popular, if it emphasizes racial equity. That might be the effect of a policy, but by making it explicit, it gained nothing with non-White voters and even alienated some who responded well to race-neutral messaging.

“Non-woke candidates fared better than woke candidates among whites, who were equally positive toward progressive populist and mainstream moderate messaging,” the authors wrote. “By contrast, blacks were roughly equal in their support for all Democratic candidates. Latino respondents were the most supportive of mainstream moderate rhetoric, the least supportive of woke progressive messaging, and had similar levels of support for woke centrist and progressive populist rhetoric.”

Way to Win's study pointed in the same direction, without getting into how Democrats could please every demographic in their base while doing specific messaging to each group. The overall goal, authors argued, was to “find messages that unify the whole coalition.”

Some of that thinking has shown up in party messaging. Nathalie Rayes, the president of the Latino Victory Project — part of the coalition that put together the Third Way report — said in an interview that Democrats needed to rebut the idea that they were prioritizing one kind of American over another.

“It’s about ensuring that communities that are historically marginalized have a seat at the table,” Reyes said. “I don’t think we want to marginalize any voters. We want to grow the tent, not shrink it. It’s not about taking chairs away from the table.”

What would it take to do that? It all came back to actually passing the agenda, and seeing where the conversation went once voters had something tangible to celebrate from Democratic rule. “Build Back Better is part of the promise we made to voters,” she said. “I really think that if we had passed that last month, we'd have had a different story to tell in Virginia.”

Reading list

“Republicans seek a U.S. Senate takeover in 2022 but struggle over candidates,” by Michael Scherer and Mike DeBonis

Too many Sean Parnells, too few Rob Portmans.

“This PAC was founded to 'turn out' Democrats. Most of the money went to a private firm with the same founder, by Kayla Epstein

Inside a shockingly common donor-duping scheme.

“Biden has underestimated problems facing the country — and Democrats fear that has become a political problem,” by Tyler Pager 

Does the White House know why the president's become less popular?

“‘He’s nuts and he’s got a vendetta’: Cuomo won’t leave New York alone,” by Anna Gronewold

The former has a big campaign war chest and a lot of time on his hands.


Three years after Utah voted to create an independent redistricting commission, Gov. Spencer Cox (R) approved a Republican-drawn map that keeps the state's four congressional districts safe for the GOP.

“I understand the frustration that people are feeling right now,” Cox explained in a town hall meeting, clarifying why he wouldn't veto the maps. “The place that that should be directed is making sure that that we elect people that have the same interest that you do.”

The 2018 redistricting ballot measure had passed by a handful of votes, and the GOP supermajority in Salt Lake City wasn't bound by its recommendations — or by its rule that maps had to be drawn without consideration of how many Republicans and Democrats lived in a district. Instead, it sliced up Salt Lake County across all four districts, diluting Democratic strength and creating districts carried easily by Donald Trump last year.

“By pinwheeling Salt Lake County, lawmakers in the Republican supermajority are seeking to ensure that all four of Utah’s congress-members will have no ability to truly serve their constituents,” Utah Democrats said in a defeated statement on the new map.

Salt Lake County's shift to the left was dramatic, briefly allowing a Democrat, former representative Ben McAdams, to win the 4th Congressional District on the strength of votes just outside Salt Lake City. More than a third of Utah residents live in the county, and some splintering between districts was inevitable. But the county wasn't politically competitive until 2008, when Barack Obama carried it by just 296 votes out of nearly 370,000 cast. In 2020, the county cast nearly 570,000 votes, and Biden won it by nearly 70,000.

That trend was looming when Proposition 4 passed; Republicans watered it down by reducing the new commission to an advisory role, giving them the power to ignore whatever it came up with. The Republican map removed some Salt Lake City-area Democratic precincts from the 4th District, now represented by Rep. Burgess Owens (R), adding them to the safely Republican 3rd District. The state's candidate filing deadline is five months away, but no Democrats have filed to run in any Utah congressional district yet.

“The map looks like it was surgically drawn to create Republican districts,” state Rep. Brian King, the Democratic leader in the Utah House, said in an interview. “They did a very effective job. It certainly didn't have anything to do with keeping these communities intact.”

Breaking up a city to dilute its vote is typically called “cracking.” The opposite, putting Democratic strongholds into as few districts as possible, is called “packing,” and Ohio Republicans took that approach to new maps that create just two safe Democratic seats — down from four — by addressing voters around Columbus and Cleveland. 

Donald Trump carried the other 13 districts on the map being advanced by Columbus legislators this week, including the 9th Congressional District represented by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D), whose current district went for Biden by 19 points. The 13th Congressional District, now being vacated by Rep. Tim Ryan (D), would be carved up between the new, safe Cleveland-area seat and the safely Republican districts that cover eastern Ohio.

Trump lost both Kaptur's and Ryan's districts in 2020, but won by single digits on the new district lines. While Kaptur's old district stretched from Cleveland to Toledo, to force then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich into a primary he was destined to lose, the new district puts the Democratic (but Republican-trending) Toledo area together with redder parts of central Ohio. Ryan's old seat packed Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley together with deep-blue Akron; Democrats collapsed in the Mahoning part of the district, and after Ohio lost one of its seats in the 2020 Census, the old Ryan district was the most obvious target for elimination. 

Ohio Republicans characterize both seats as competitive, but the first Republican in the Kaptur race is running to the right. In a video statement last week, 9th District Republican candidate J.R. Majewski told supporters that the new map would turn the seat “red for the first time in over 30 years,” which, on paper, it would. Majewski, who was at the Jan. 6 insurrection but did not enter the Capitol, tweeted a photoshopped image of Kyle Rittenhouse on Tuesday, portraying him as Captain America. He's raised a bit over $100,000; Kaptur, who has not had a serious challenge since being placed in the gerrymandered seat, has raised twice that, but less than many other Democrats in competitive races.

“Redistricting is beautiful,” Majewski said in another tweet.

Democrats plan to sue over the new map if Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signs it. They've been citing the passage of a 2018 anti-gerrymandering ballot measure that put limits on partisan redistricting — and hoping that the 4-3 Republican majority on the state Supreme Court sees things differently than the Republican legislature. At the start of the process, Republicans argued that because the party had won 81 percent of statewide elections since 2011, maps that locked in their advantage would fulfill the ballot measure's requirement: districts that “correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio.”

Ad watch

Texans for Greg Abbott, “Wrong Way O'Rourke.” Nearly a month before Beto O'Rourke launched his campaign for governor, the governor's reelection campaign put out a negative spot with CGI straight from “The General” insurance ads. An O'Rourke stand-in drives the wrong way down a dark highway, and quotes from O'Rourke's brief presidential campaign, when he endorsed gun confiscation and talked about dismantling the border wall. The imagery is slapdash but evokes the DUI that has haunted every O'Rourke campaign.

Poll watch

If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives were being held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate? (Washington Post/ABC News, 1,001 adults)

Republican candidate: 46% 
Democratic candidate: 43% 

The last time this pollster asked voters whom they intended to support in congressional elections, and Republicans held a lead, was late October 2010 — right before the party won the House by a landslide. When the question is limited to registered voters, Republicans do even better — a 10-point lead. Republicans' own internal polling has found a shift away from Democrats in suburban districts, which is what's happening here, more dramatically. Sixty-four percent of White voters without college degrees say they'd support GOP candidates, and the party leads with suburban voters by seven points. 

Based on what you have heard of the Arizona audit, did it find significant evidence of voter fraud, or did it find that Biden won Arizona fairly? (Monmouth, 811 registered voters)

Significant evidence of voter fraud: 13% 
Not sure, probably fraud: 16% 
Biden won Arizona fairly: 36% 
Not sure, probably fair: 21% 
Both: 7% 
Not sure, no guess 7%

A year of audits and Republican questions about the 2020 election hasn't really moved the numbers, or gotten voters out of their partisan camps. Monmouth's general polling on whether the election was fair has not budged all year, with more than 60 percent of voters — i.e., nearly every Biden voter and a small share of Trump voters — saying it was not rigged. The months-long effort that Arizona Republicans called “America's audit” succeeded in prompting other state Republican leaders to explore audits. But it didn't move many voters outside the GOP base. Just 29 percent of Americans say the audits showed there was fraud (“probably,” at least) in Arizona.

Workers at John Deere factories recently went on strike. As things stand today, do you side mostly with the workers or mostly with the employers? (Selzer & Co, 810 Iowa adults)

Workers: 58%
Not sure: 19%
Employers: 16%
Neither: 7%

It's rare to see a poll question on an ongoing strike, and this one finds widespread bipartisan support for strikers at a time when the Democratic Party's support in Iowa is bottoming out. (Selzer & Co polling has found the president's approval rating sinking under 30 percent, and Trump winning a prospective rematch by 11 points.) Most Republicans side with “workers” here, as do nearly all Democrats.

Dems in disarray

Texas Republicans picked up a majority-Latino seat in a special election two weeks ago, and picked up another on Monday, when state Rep. Ryan Guillen crossed the aisle to join the GOP.

“The ideology of defunding the police, of destroying the oil and gas industry and the chaos at our border is disastrous for those of us who live here in South Texas,” Guillen explained, joined by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in Floresville, a small city not far from San Antonio — and not far from the 118th House legislative seat won by Republican John Lujan on Nov. 2.

Guillen's switch came after Republicans redrew the state's legislative maps, making his own district, which had voted for Trump last year, overwhelmingly Republican. Democrats also downplayed the significance of the switch, pointing out that Guillen had backed the new abortion law that Democrats were suing to reverse, and that he'd voted for a bill that excludes transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports. In both cases, Guillen was the only Democrat voting yes. (Biden had carried the 118th District, which made that loss tougher to explain away.)

“Everybody has known that Ryan Guillen is really a Republican who is attached to the wrong label,” Abbott said Monday. “We're glad you finally came out of the closet.”

The national Republican State Leadership Committee joined the celebration, with president Dee Duncan saying the switch was more evidence of Democratic collapse, when “even elected officials in their own party cannot support their radical agenda anymore.”

In the states

Vermont. Eight-term Sen. Pat Leahy (D) announced his retirement Monday, telling reporters in Montpelier that it was “time to put down the gavel” and “pass the torch to the next Vermonter.” Very quietly, many Democrats felt relief: The senator, who turns 82 next year, was briefly hospitalized in January, causing a slightly-less-than-quiet panic about the party's new majority relying on the health of octogenarians.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott (R), a moderate who voted for Joe Biden last year, quickly confirmed that he wouldn't run for the seat, and the state's GOP bench is barren: Democrats hold every other statewide office, and Joe Biden carried the state by 35 points last year. (After Scott, the best-performing Republican was Scott Milne, who lost to Lt. Gov. Molly Gray (D) and has now been defeated in four consecutive races, including a 2016 loss to Leahy.) Rep. Peter Welch (D), who's held the state's sole House seat since 2007, has been telling Democrats he plans to run. 

Welch turns 75 next year and would be one of the oldest men ever elected to the Senate, in the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress. If Welch runs for Senate, Gray has not ruled out a run for the House; neither has state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale or Senate President Becca Balint

Texas. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke launched a campaign for governor of Texas on Monday, giving Democrats their first well-known candidate against Gov. Greg Abbott just weeks before the filing deadline. O'Rourke confirmed weeks of rumors about his plans with a 134-second video and a mini-junket of interviews, the first with Texas Monthly's Jonathan Tilove.

“I don’t know how much any candidate is going to have to do to convince the people of Texas that Greg Abbott has failed them as governor,” O'Rourke told Tilove. “I’ve seen it in the polling that shows him very unpopular, and a large number of Texans see the state headed in the wrong direction.”

O'Rourke hired Virginia-based Democratic consultant Nick Rathod to manage the campaign, and focused his first day of interviews on Abbott and the failure of the state's electrical grid in February. “Those in positions of public trust have stopped listening to, serving and paying attention to and trusting the people of Texas,” O'Rourke said in the launch video, citing Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization as issues most Texans agreed on, but Abbott wouldn't deliver on.

Republicans responded with eye-rolls. Abbott's campaign had already released videos mocking O'Rourke, before he entered the race, and the Republican Governors Association dubbed the candidate “Beto 3.0.” 

Michigan. Donald Trump endorsed former Department of Housing and Urban Development official John Gibbs for Congress, elevating him over a field of MAGA challengers to Rep. Peter Meijer (R) in the 3rd Congressional District. Gibbs had entered the race just three days earlier, after no other pro-Trump candidate had raised enough money to be competitive with the freshman, whose family owns the Meijer supermarket chain.

“It was an honor to serve in your administration and you can bet I'll continue the fight in Congress,” Gibbs tweeted, sharing Trump's statement, which said little about what Gibbs had done for the administration.

Gibbs, a computer scientist, went to work for HUD when then-Secretary Ben Carson tapped him as a political adviser. Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began, Gibbs became the acting secretary for community planning and development, and last July he was tapped to run the Office of Personnel Management but was never confirmed. A key factor: CNN's Andrew Kaczynski printed deleted social posts from before Gibbs joined the administration, including tweets accusing Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman of engaging in a satanic ritual.

Five months later, Gibbs got a different, temporary appointment: a role on the 1776 Commission, which quickly produced a report responding to the New York Times's 1619 Project with a less apologetic view of American history, and was scuttled by President Biden.

New York. Attorney Zephyr Teachout launched a campaign for New York attorney general, which she'd hinted at ever since Attorney Gen. Letitia James entered the race for governor. Teachout lost to James in a 2018 primary, and argued that her own theory of power and corruption had been validated by the state's experience under former governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

“I will go after politicians who lie and who think they are above the law,” Teachout said at her announcement. “You know I will not stand for it.” Daniel Goldman, one of the attorneys for Democrats during this year's impeachment trial, entered the race a few hours later, warning of an “existential threat to our democratic ideals and the rule of law.”

California. Rep. Jackie Speier (D) is retiring after seven terms in her safely Democratic Bay Area district, which was not dramatically affected by the first new maps from the state's independent redistricting commission. “It's time for me to come home,” she said in a video announcing her decision. Biden carried her 14th Congressional District by 57 points last year.

Candidate tracker

The Democratic primary in Florida's 20th Congressional District is over, and the party has a nominee — unless somebody sues.

Home care company CEO Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick declared victory Saturday, after a mandatory machine recount confirmed her five-vote lead over Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness. The Associated Press called the race on Tuesday, after the state certified that count. But Holness didn't initially admit defeat, and he had appeared on “This Week in South Florida” the very next day to say he might sue to get 12 uncounted military or overseas ballots added to the total.

“It’s supposed to be that you give the benefit of the doubt to military personnel,” Holness said. “We will see if those 12 votes can be brought in, and then that would determine the outcome.”

Cherfilus-McCormick finished the manual recount with 11,662 votes to 11,657 for Holness — a margin of just 0.04 percentage points. Those numbers didn't shift during the machine recount, after which Broward County Elections Supervisor Joe Scott called Cherfilus-McCormick “the apparent winner of the Democratic primary,” and Cherfilus-McCormick began thanking voters.

“I’m overwhelmed,” she told reporters after the count was finished. “It’s a huge responsibility to even walk in the footsteps of the late Alcee L. Hastings.”

The 42-year old Democrat had run and lost two races to Hastings, who died in April of complications related to pancreatic cancer. Neither race was as close as this low-turnout Nov. 2 primary, which ended with both candidates observing the recount. That was where they watched a dozen military or overseas ballots get disqualified. Where Cherfilus-McCormick saw ballots too flawed to be counted — several did not even come from outside the United States — Holness saw a potential case.

Unless Holness sues, ballots for the Jan. 11 special election will be printed with Cherfilus-McCormick as the Democratic nominee and ex-felon Jason Mariner as the GOP nominee. President Biden won 77 percent of the district's vote, and Cherfilus-McCormick is likely to be sworn in by mid-January, filling the last vacancy in the House. Holness had said nothing else about the challenge by Tuesday afternoon, when the AP made the call.


… 29 days until the candidate filing deadline in Texas
… 56 days until the election in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 105 days until the first 2022 primaries