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The Trailer: Gerrymandering is creating more safe seats — and fights over who should have them

In this edition: Gerrymandering creates some base-first elections in North Carolina, Republicans and Democrats argue about Kyle Rittenhouse, and pollsters start asking if the president's too old.

The only newsletter it's legal to read while stuck in traffic on I-95: This is The Trailer.

The newsletter will be celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday, and return next Tuesday to catch you up on the latest on redistricting and candidates gearing up for 2022.

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter referred incorrectly to the remains of a current North Carolina district. It is a new, safely Republican seat. The newsletter has been corrected.

DURHAM, N.C. — Wiley Nickel held an unlit candle and took his seat at the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony Saturday, waiting his turn to speak. The first-term state senator, a Democrat now running for Congress, would discuss some “reasons to be optimistic about the justice system,” like his successful fight to help a transgender woman change her name. 

Other speakers had bigger ideas. Jose Romero, an activist who worked with the city's LGTBQ Center, asked the crowd, including Nickel, to join them in call and response against transphobia.

“This is the year that every police department empties out their pockets to Black trans folks,” Romero said. “This is the year that sex workers will get paid. This is the year that Black trans women will spray-paint the words ‘we are the intervention’ on the rubble of the courthouse.”

Durham, the deep-blue center of overwhelmingly Democratic Durham County, was the heart of the old 4th Congressional District, which reelected Rep. David E. Price (D) for decades. This month, the Republican-controlled legislature in Raleigh passed new maps that put Durham into a new, more urban 2nd Congressional District — one where 3 out of every 4 voters backed Joe Biden last year. To maximize their numbers in the House, the GOP packed most of North Carolina's urban Democrats into three safe seats, and Price got one of the safest.

But Price, who turned 81 this summer, is retiring, kicking off a primary for one of the most liberal districts ever drawn in North Carolina. The 2021 round of gerrymanders, which in Republican-controlled states have packed Democrats into compact, liberal districts, will change who gets elected to Congress. With so little territory to fight over, the party is heading for a confrontation over how best to represent places where Republicans are irrelevant locally but in command statewide.

“I don't think Democratic primary voters in this district are particularly concerned with moderation on policy,” said Asher Hildebrand, a former Price chief of staff who now teaches at Duke University. “I just pick up a lot of anxiety and a sense of wanting to fight back.”

Price has not picked a successor ahead of the March 8, 2022, primary, one of the earliest in the country. (If no candidate secures more than 30 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will head to April runoffs.) Nickel, a 46-year old White attorney who won his seat in the legislature three years ago, had begun organizing a campaign even before Price's announcement. But the diverse district had only ever been represented by White men, and Price had faced primary challenges from Black candidates before winning his final terms.

“The question is, who's the best progressive?” Nickel said. “The voters I talk to want someone who's going to represent their values.”

Nickel was followed into the race by Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, who turns 28 next year and would be the first Muslim ever sent to Congress by North Carolina, and the youngest woman ever sent from any state, if she wins. 

Days later, state Sen. Valerie Foushee, 65, entered the race, angling to become the first Black woman ever to represent the district, and pointing out that the Republican gerrymander could reduce the Democratic delegation to a single Black member, Charlotte-area Rep. Alma Adams (D). Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D), who had represented a safely blue seat in the state's Black Belt, was retiring after the legislature made his district more conservative.

“When you draw these districts to create a 12-3 or 11-4 advantage for Republicans, you are taking away representation from a lot of people,” Foushee said in an interview. “There's not just the African-American voice that you are eliminating. You are eliminating everything except for a conservative voice, leaving just a few people to argue for the rest of the state.”

Every Democrat in the race describes himself or herself as “progressive,” with only good things to say about Price, an early opponent of the Iraq War. But this year has been frustrating for Democrats, especially on the left, with much of their agenda unfinished despite unified, if narrow, control in Washington. 

Allam, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president, said she would have stood with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and refused to move to the bipartisan infrastructure bill until it was accompanied by the Build Back Better social spending package. Nickel and Foushee said they would have supported both — not joining the holdout Democrats who demanded the infrastructure vote first, or a Congressional Budget Office score before a Build Back Better vote, but not standing in leadership's way. 

“I would have been championing the Voting Rights Act that was introduced at the federal level, and it's something that we should be able to get, especially when we have a Democratic majority right now,” Allam said. “And I'd be fighting to increase the minimum wage. We can't keep waiting and depending on Republicans to do right by North Carolinians and actually give people a living wage.”

In other districts like this one, left-wing groups have mobilized early to help candidates like Allam — young, non-White and responsive to community activists. Justice Democrats, founded after the 2016 election, has endorsed three young, non-White candidates in Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas, all states where Democratic cities are packed into as few seats as possible. Every Democrat in Price's seat, like him, has embraced Medicare-for-all. Activists are hoping for more than that, seeing the party's future in the left-wing “squad” members who've taken over safe seats in major cities.

They're also seeing a better-organized resistance to their strategy. Candidates backed by the left went winless in this year's competitive, safe-seat special election primaries in Cleveland and New Orleans — both in districts drawn by Republicans to limit Democratic power. Allam, who won her seat in 2020, had already faced criticism for a 2013 tweet, long since deleted, consisting of three words: A profane one starting with the letter “F,” and “the police.” It resurfaced again days after Allam entered the House primary. 

“Almost ten years ago I used some language that I regret to express a frustration shared by so many Black and Brown people who don't feel safe in their communities,” Allam explained. Asked about calls to “defund” police, which hurt some incumbents in Durham's municipal elections this year, she prioritized “investing more resources in social services” without talking about cutting law enforcement budgets.

Republicans, confident that they'd limited Democratic power with the new map, were still discovering how it would change who the state sent to Washington. Last week, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R) surprised the party by announcing a reelection bid in a new seat that included the Charlotte media market — safe Republican territory that was seen as a landing pad for state House Speaker Tim Moore. For a new, safely Republican seat west of Durham, Cawthorn was backing Bo Hines, a former Yale football player who mirrored the congressman's messaging-first, Trump-focused politics.

That worried some Republicans, who knew that the new map would lock up most of the state's districts through 2031. Dallas Woodhouse, a former executive director of the North Carolina GOP, was critical of Cawthorn's announcement, in which the freshman warned that a “go-along-to-get-along” Republican might win if he didn't run.

“The future of the Republican Party cannot be people who are opposed to any kind of governance,” Woodhouse said. “He made no argument — there’s issues with former textile-manufacturing communities, or with clean water — no argument about why he was best to serve. He was just afraid somebody else was going to win it.”

Reading list

“Biden and aides tell allies he is running in 2024 amid growing Democratic fears,” by Michael Scherer, Tyler Pager and Sean Sullivan

Folks …

“Joe Biden's big squeeze,” by Jonathan Chait

The Democratic donor class vs. the Democratic electorate.

“A MAGA squad of Trump loyalists sees its influence grow amid demands for political purity among Republicans,” by Jacqueline Alemany, Marianna Sotomayor and Josh Dawsey

The pro-Trump caucus leads the party from behind.

“Biden’s political standing fuels Democratic worry about 2024,” by Steve Peoples

Why the printers aren't churning out Kamala 2024 stickers.

“RNC agrees to pay some of Trump’s legal bills in N.Y. criminal investigation,” by David A. Fahrenthold, Josh Dawsey, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Shayna Jacobs

Republicans stick close to their best fundraiser.

“Purge at DSA: Why are activists trying to expel [Rep. Jamaal] Bowman? by Ross Barkan

A trip to Israel opens a socialist rift.

“Ohio county commissioner denies knowledge of attempted breach of local election network,” by Amy Gardner

First it was Colorado — now, questions about election data security in another state focused on at Mike Lindell's forum.

“Trump poll tests his 2024 comeback map,” by Marc Caputo

The pollster who saw Trump winning 2020 easily before covid sees him winning in 2024.

Turnout watch

The rancher introduced himself as “Robert,” telling Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke on Friday that he was a “native Houstonian” who wanted to get in his “grill.”

“We don't want you here,” he said after O'Rourke's Houston rally, according to a video shared widely over the weekend. “Don't come back.” A minute later, after O'Rourke's supporters had pushed the rancher away from the crowd, he raised both arms above his head. “Kyle Rittenhouse!” he said. “Kyle Rittenhouse! Kyle Rittenhouse, baby! Kyle Rittenhouse!”

The acquittal last week of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who killed two men and shot another during August 2020 riots in Kenosha, Wis., was celebrated by most of the Republicans who commented on it, and criticized by most of the Democrats. The range of Republican reaction was broad, from saluting the jury for its decision to attacking tech companies that had initially cut off donations to a Rittenhouse legal fund.

There was fundraising, too. Donald Trump's Save America PAC texted the “GREAT NEWS FOR KYLE RITTENHOUSE” to supporters, along with a link to a donation page. “We cannot allow the Left to DESTROY America! We must RESTORE LAW & ORDER!” 

Most Republicans skipped offering the donate button, commenting on the case and condemning mainstream media for how they covered it. Arizona venture capitalist Blake Masters, booked on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” bemoaned the Democratic and liberal reactions he'd seen to the verdict, especially from people who didn't realize that the men killed in Kenosha were White.

“It was unjust that he was on trial in the first place,” Masters said. “I mean, the evidence was so clear.”

Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican challenging Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler over her impeachment vote, shared a video on Twitter that played footage of Rittenhouse in Kenosha alongside “Keep Your Rifle By Your Side,” a song from the game “Far Cry 5" repurposed for another heroic story.

“Biden slandered Kyle as a presidential candidate and chose a VP who advocated for and enabled deadly riots as a U.S. senator,” Kent wrote. “They say trust the system now because the violence they supported last year served its purpose and any violence now would only hurt them politically.”

Some candidates shared memes, which celebrated Rittenhouse as a hero whose victory had broken a media smear machine. Donald Trump Jr. posted an image, shared by some candidates, of his father presenting Rittenhouse with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “King James must have eaten some lemon heads,” tweeted Teddy Daniels, a Republican running for Congress in Scranton, Pa., next to a meme of Rittenhouse wiping tears out of LeBron James's eye. He expanded on his thoughts in an interview with a local Fox affiliate.

“Thank God this young man was acquitted of these charges, because it wasn't just Kyle Rittenhouse who was on trial,” Daniels said. “It was the American people's right to defend themselves.”

Democrats weighed in, too, and sometimes stumbled while reaching for language that covered the facts of the trial and the anger coming from some civil rights groups. In a statement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Sean Maloney of New York initially said that Jacob Blake, whose shooting by a police officer inspired the 2020 riots in Kenosha, was “unarmed” and “killed.” 

That wasn't true  — Blake had been carrying a knife and he survived the shooting. While Maloney's statement was retracted and corrected, it became another data point about liberals mischaracterizing the case to turn it into a racial reckoning. Both Gov. Tony Evers (D) and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) had reacted to Blake's shooting by condemning the police officer who fired the shots. Barnes, now running for Senate, said Friday that “countless people are coming together in this moment” to think of Blake and the two men killed in the scuffle with Rittenhouse; both men were White and had criminal records, facts that Republicans plan to point out in campaigns next year.

“The Rittenhouse trial taught us what we already knew: The left wing partisan media will do whatever they can to manipulate the American people into believing their narrative,” tweeted Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.), who won a swing seat in 2020 and is seeking reelection in a district that is now safely Republican.

By Saturday, however, it was clear that the verdict wasn't setting off the violent reaction that the state had prepared for. Evers was criticized by Blake's father for mobilizing the National Guard in anticipation of a “not guilty” verdict. There was no rioting and only a little protesting in Kenosha on Friday night. In New York, protesters briefly shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. In Portland, anarchists clashed with police, as they had night after night since last summer.

But there was no wave of uprisings, and Republican messaging about the verdict remained, mostly, about Rittenhouse as the victim of the media. “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, one of the most prominent critics of Rittenhouse trial coverage, followed Masters onto Carlson's Fox News show to discuss how someone eventually acquitted by a jury was sometimes prevented from raising money for his defense. 

“A lot of the Silicon Valley tech companies actually matched employee donations to the rioters who were burning Kenosha down, but wouldn't allow Kyle Rittenhouse to actually crowdfund his legal defense,” Vance said. “I think about these Silicon Valley technology companies as the enemies of Western civilization. They are willing to burn down our entire constitutional republic so long as their share price goes up a nickel.”

Rittenhouse, newly free and able to speak for himself, did not echo all of the criticism. He sat for an interview with Carlson after the verdict, criticizing his initial legal team, including gadfly attorney Lin Wood, for letting him spend 87 days in juvenile detention and urging him to court media coverage. 

“Imagine what they could've done to a person of color who doesn't maybe have the resources I do,” Rittenhouse said of the state prosecutors who made the case against him. The “Free Kyle” website that Rittenhouse's family had set up to raise defense funds had already stopped selling merchandise, and the 18-year old said he wasn't interested in politicizing what had happened at all. 

“I’ve never seen something so polarizing in my life,” Rittenhouse told Carlson. “This wasn’t a political case. It was made a political case.”

Ad watch

Club for Growth, “Caved In.” With one exception, the House Democrats who demanded a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal before the Build Back Better budget package was ready voted, on Friday, to send Build Back Better to the Senate. Among their rewards: 15-second digital spots like this one targeting Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) from the Club for Growth, which opposed both pieces of legislation, telling voters that their Democratic members of Congress are about to raise taxes. “He promised he'd stop the left from raising our taxes,” a narrator says. “Now he says he'll vote yes.” 

The ad doesn't specify which part of Build Back Better it's talking about, though polling for business groups has found the new tax on investment income, which most Americans won't be paying, to be unpopular if attacked the right way. Case's district voted for Biden by 29 points, though, and he may be more vulnerable to Democratic pressure than to anything like this.

American Action Network, “Hey Andy.” One of several ads by conservative groups urging swing-district Democrats not to support the Build Back Better package, this one uses file footage to portray angry New Jersey workers and warns that passing the bill would cost “71,000 New Jersey jobs.” The source for that claim is Vital Transformation, a health-care consulting firm that's attacked the potential prescription drug pricing changes in the legislation by warning they would lead to layoffs and lower profits for the industry.

Building America's Future, “Biden's Reckless Spending.” For a decade, a bipartisan group called Building America's Future has campaigned for the federal government to spend more on infrastructure. Mission accomplished. That is a totally separate entity from the Building America's Future funding this ad. That's a project of the Coalition to Protect American Workers, a conservative anti-tax group founded in March and led by Marc Short, former chief of staff to Mike Pence.

“We complained,” said Marcia Hale, a spokeswoman for the other Building America's Future. “They don’t care. It’s downright rude.” The ad hits Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) from the right and left, claiming she's about to vote for $4 trillion in spending (double the current cost of the Democrats' Build Back Better package) and that it includes a “$16,800 tax cut for millionaires,” referring to the rollback of a 2017 tax change that limited how much residents of states with sales taxes could deduct on their federal taxes.

Teddy Daniels for Congress, “Violent Left.” Daniels is one of the Republicans running in a light-red, Democratic-held House district around Scranton, Pa., the only one in the race who'd joined the protests of the 2020 election in Washington on Jan. 6. Footage of rioting from last year makes up much of this ad, including images of Kyle Rittenhouse defending himself in Kenosha and a man bleeding on the ground after being kicked. “We didn't want to have to do this,” Daniels says in a voice-over, as he's seen rising from a lake holding an AR-15. “We wanted to raise our kids in peace. But the violent left kept pushing.”

Poll watch

Do you think Biden’s age is interfering with his ability to serve effectively as president? (Fox News, 1,003 registered voters)

Yes: 53%
No: 40%

The oldest president in American history largely neutralized the age issue in 2020, when the alternative was an erratic incumbent who turned 74 during the campaign. Biden's critics never relented after his victory, though, and Biden has not held as many news conferences or interviews as his recent predecessors. The attacks have stuck: Even 29 percent of people who voted for Biden, and 30 percent of self-identified “liberals,” agree that his age is “interfering” with his duties as president. While Biden carried voters under 35 last year, 56 percent of people in that demographic agree that his age is a problem now. It's a question pollsters haven't always asked about, but it could explain the ongoing discrepancies between support for Biden's legislative agenda and approval of the job he's doing.

In the states

Pennsylvania. Author and U.S. Army veteran Sean Parnell abandoned his campaign for U.S. Senate on Monday, quitting the race hours after a judge gave sole legal custody of his children to his estranged wife, Laurie Snell. 

“There is nothing more important to me than my children, and while I plan to ask the court to reconsider, I can't continue with a Senate campaign,” Parnell said. “My focus right now is 100 percent on my children, and I want them to know I do not have any other priorities and will never stop fighting for them.”

Parnell, who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention and narrowly lost a campaign that year against Rep. Conor Lamb (D), got Donald Trump's endorsement in September, a few months after he entered the race to replace Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R). That cracked the door open for other high-profile endorsements from Republicans who either stay close to Trump, like Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (R), or MAGA-adjacent Republicans who are working to elect veterans, like Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R). Parnell had raised $1.7 million since entering the race, adding to that in November at a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser with Trump himself.

Trump went ahead with that fundraiser even after Snell, in sworn testimony, said Parnell had once strangled her, told her to “get an abortion” and slapped one of their three children hard enough to leave welts. The candidate forged ahead, denying her claims, but on Monday, Judge James Arner cited the Senate run among his reasons to give Snell custody. Because Parnell expected to “win the election,” he wrote, he would be spending more time than Snell away from home.

Parnell's problems had scrambled the crowded race, with other Republicans considering whether to join a field with no strong front-runner. Mehmet Oz, better known as TV medical commentator “Dr. Oz,” has talked with Republican strategists about entering the race; so has David McCormick, the CEO of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates and, like Parnell, an Army veteran. 

Vermont. Eight-term Rep. Peter Welch (D) entered the race to replace Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D) on Monday, working quickly to consolidate support inside the party and getting an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I).

“Peter has the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running,” said Sanders in a statement; like Welch in his own launch video, Sanders highlighted his support for universal health care and far-reaching climate policy. The two men have known each other, and grown to like each other, over lengthy careers; Welch first sought the House seat in 1988, two years before Sanders would win it as an independent with the support of Welch and other Democrats.

The Sanders endorsement may help Welch avoid real competition in the August 2022 primary. Last week, state Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky told the Intercept that she might run for Senate against Welch and court voters who were “desperate for change,” but “if Bernie is going to endorse Peter there’s not much point doing it.”

While Gov. Phil Scott (R) is one of the most popular leaders of any state, in either party, he's continued to rule out running. Three Democrats, all women, are continuing to look at the race to replace Welch: Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, state Senate President Becca Balint and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdal

New York. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown decisively won reelection after a count of write-in votes found him taking nearly all of them in his race against Democrat India Walton

“This election was not an end, but a beginning,” Walton said Friday, conceding her defeat. “The new ideas we articulated, the new energy we inspired, the new volunteers we trained and the new relationships we built will only grow in the coming years.”

The Brown-Walton race was the first truly competitive mayoral contest Buffalo had seen in years, with 64,361 total votes cast — about two-thirds of the city's total turnout in the 2020 presidential election, and just short of the 66,466 votes cast when Brown won his first term 16 years ago. The mayor ended the count with 38,338 votes, more than he'd won in any race since then; Walton got 25,773 votes, the lowest total for a Democratic nominee in the city since 2009. 

Maryland. Donald Trump endorsed Del. Daniel L. Cox for governor, explaining in a statement from his Save America PAC that the candidate had “fought against the Rigged Presidential Election every step of the way.” It was a blow to Kelly Schultz, a member of Gov. Larry Hogan's cabinet seen as the candidate most like the popular Republican governor — one of few who didn't vote for Trump last year. 

Hogan had criticized Trump at last week's Republican Governors Association meeting, telling both The Trailer and the New York Times that Trump simply wasn't a winner in his state — and that he had “run 45 points ahead” of Trump's 2020 margin when he was reelected in 2020. Trump called Hogan a “RINO,” and the governor repeated his criticism in a tweet. 

“Personally, I’d prefer endorsements from people who didn’t lose Maryland by 33 points,” Hogan said. Cox led a group of protesters to Washington for the Trump-led rally on Jan. 6.


On Saturday, Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) announced she wouldn't seek a 16th term, opening a safe Democratic seat in Dallas that the state's new Republican gerrymander had made safer.

“I have gone back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, the whole time, because of the pleading and the asking,” said Johnson, who turns 86 next month. Only one member of Congress, Alaska Rep. Don Young, is older, and Young is seeking a new term in a seat he's held since 1973.

Like other long-serving members of the House, Bernice Johnson had picked up primary challengers ahead of her final terms; she suggested Saturday that “anybody that’s already been rejected by this district” won't get her support, a promise that covers several perennial candidates. One of them, former state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, has lost five races in the district and has filed for 2022. Other candidates may be more competitive: Democratic strategist Jane Hope Hamilton was already in the race, and according to Gromer Jeffers Jr. at the Dallas Morning News, half a dozen local legislators have expressed interest.


… 18 days until municipal runoff elections in Louisiana 
… 22 days until the 2022 candidate filing deadline in Texas 
… 49 days until the election in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 98 days until the first 2022 primaries