In this edition: Gerrymanders go to court, Wisconsin Republicans go after election grant programs and New York's attorney general won't run for governor.

Stop reading this newsletter and subscribe to Philip Bump's. All done? Welcome back. This is The Trailer.

In North Carolina, primaries have been delayed by two months. In Texas, the Justice Department is suing to throw out Republican-drawn maps, citing alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act. And in Ohio, a series of lawsuits could alter maps drawn by Republicans that were only going to last until the middle of the decade. 

“If it is challenged, and it's back here, this could go on forever,” Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said during Wednesday's oral arguments in Columbus.

This year's round of redistricting promised to be messy. It has lived up to that promise, with census-driven delays and a stack of lawsuits driving months of uncertainty in politically competitive states. A process that's typically wrapped up by Thanksgiving of the year before the next election is likely to extend into the spring, with both Republicans and Democrats getting bolder about what they could drag into the courts.

“Gerrymandering is a cancer to our society,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Thursday, after Democrats ignored his nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw a map that retained their 7-1 House seat advantage, which he vetoed. “I think it should be resolved at the federal level.”

Hogan, whose veto can be overturned by the Democratic supermajority in Annapolis, had previously joined an unsuccessful case that asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down partisan gerrymandering. That loss freed up both Democrats and Republicans to draw more aggressively advantageous maps this year — and sent lawyers looking for other ways to challenge them. At a meeting last month of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Adam Kincaid of the National Republican Redistricting Trust said the party was in a good position to lock in safe seats but that maps would be pulled apart by courts for longer than anyone could predict.

“We'll be wrapped up sometime by the end of April next year with the first round of maps,” Kincaid told his audience, according to a recording published by the nonprofit watchdog group Documented. “But I suspect that a couple of states will have maps imposed by courts even into the summer, potentially in some places. So we just have to wait and see about how aggressive some of the federal and state courts are going to be.”

As of Thursday, 25 states had approved new maps, almost all of them to be used for the rest of the decade. (Ohio voters passed a 2018 ballot measure requiring any map that did not get bipartisan support to be redrawn after two election cycles.) Several are now facing legal challenges, and one of them is the reason that North Carolina's primaries, initially scheduled for March, were pushed to May by a state Supreme Court with a narrow Democratic majority.

“To throw this process into chaos in the middle of filing leaves North Carolinians with uncertainty ahead of the election,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R), who opted not to run for Congress after U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R) switched to run in the new district where Moore lives.

North Carolina has gotten used to chaos, after Republican-drawn maps were thrown out multiple times between 2011 and 2020. Initially — and before the Supreme Court decision that took away the Justice Department's pre-clearance power to vet maps in states with histories of racial discrimination — the Obama administration did not object to a map that gave the GOP a huge advantage.

That was then. The Biden administration's lawsuit against Texas, invoking parts of the Voting Rights Act that courts left intact, makes an argument that Democrats could well have made in North Carolina a decade ago. While the “minority population represents 95 percent of the last decade's growth in Texas,” according to the lawsuit, Latino voters and Black voters represent the majority in fewer seats than they did under the old map.

Republicans don't expect this to succeed, after other Supreme Court decisions raised a very high bar for proving that a map discriminated on the basis of race. Cases like this have led to complications and delayed primaries before, including one in Texas, 10 years ago. But a blockade of Barack Obama's judicial nominees, and Republican efforts to confirm as many of Donald Trump's nominees as possible, created a much friendlier legal environment for partisan maps.

That hasn't stopped anyone from suing. Judges in Illinois will review a Democratic-drawn state legislative map this week, after Latino groups accused Springfield Democrats of limiting their power in order to minimize the number of Republican districts. Georgia Republicans expect a lawsuit over maps that pushed two Democratic members of Congress into the same district; depending on the timing, a suit like that could complicate candidate filing, which ends in March.

There may be challenges to maps drawn by nonpartisan commissions, most of them in Democratic states. At the ALEC forum, Kincaid pointed out that Michigan's new commission, which his group had unsuccessfully sued to stop from being formed, was rankling some Black advocates, because it was “drawing districts in Detroit that are well below 50 percent plus African-American.” 

And Republicans were still “digging,” he said, into one of the factors that delayed the census results and the redistricting process — the Trump administration's attempt to leave noncitizens out of the census. While new maps were drawn, the Fair Lines America Foundation, also led by Kincaid, had been suing for information on how the census results were completed, and whether people census-takers weren't able to find were added to the count.

“How in the world did Arizona not get any seats and then New York by some miracle only lost one seat?” Kincaid said. “I don't see a new apportionment happening, but I think it's something that we need to look at for next decade and get right. We did not get it right this last time.”

Reading list

Who's drawing what, and who's probably going to sue.

The lowest-turnout campaign in modern history, remembered.

Losing a son, then managing an impeachment.

Can a Rose Garden strategy work without the roses or the garden?

Holding out until 2023? It's an option.

Republicans expand their ambitions at the hyperlocal level.

Come for the strategy details, stay for the “retreat” puns.

Big changes in the first round of redistricting since the Supreme Court trimmed the Voting Rights Act.

Voting wars

The campaign to ban private grants for election officials in Wisconsin was dealt a setback Wednesday, when the state's elections commission rejected a complaint that called those grants illegal. But at the very same time, the state Assembly's Campaigns and Elections Committee was holding hearings on the 2020 election, with testimony from skeptics who believed the results may have been rigged — and one who argued that grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) could have violated a state law against bribery.

“We want to make sure that election officials aren't being financed by the left-wing or right-wing organizations to get out the vote,” aid Erick Kaardal, an attorney who filed multiple lawsuits to challenge the 2020 election. “So, you have a Democratic city, and the left-wing organizations are funding get-out-the-vote. You have a Republican county and the right-wing nonprofits are funding it. Why not just stop it?”

Kaardal, a Minnesota attorney and self-described “neo-populist,” was one of three witnesses at the Wednesday hearing, part of an ongoing series of investigations into the last election. Two other witnesses, pointing to the surge of new voters in 2020, urged investigators to study their data and told them of the ongoing, grass-roots effort to identify “phantom voters” by going door to door and seeing whether people whose ballot was cast last year actually cast it.

“It's better than 50-50 that your election was stolen,” said Douglas Frank, a physicist who has appeared with Donald Trump at campaign rallies to discuss theories about “phantom” votes that have repeatedly been debunked. The state, he said, needed to investigate the ballots cast by voters who had been registered for at least 10 years but did not cast ballots before 2020: “I believe that that's a very unusual red flag that may indicate that votes are being cast in their names.”

But as the probes of the 2020 election have expanded, CTCL's grants have loomed larger as targets for investigators. The think tank, led by veterans of the defunct liberal New Organizing Institute, distributed more than $6 million in grants to the state's largest and most Democratic cities: Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay and Racine. They weren't the only cities that got grants — around 200 smaller municipalities got them, too. 

“Every legitimate application was approved, which is one reason why federal courts and state governments like the Wisconsin Election Commission have dismissed these frivolous challenges,” Tiana Epps-Johnson, the CTCL's executive director, said in a statement to The Trailer. “Over half of all grants nationwide went to election departments that serve fewer than 25,000 registered voters. Private funding is used to supplement a variety of government services where there are funding shortfalls, including schools and libraries.”

Republican critics, including members of the elections committee, have come to see that as a ruse for a get-out-the-vote program — one that the cities advertised at the time, and one that Kaardal said had potentially violated the law. Speaking as the attorney for the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, and citing documents about how the grants paid for get-out-the-vote programs for “people of color” and former felons, he asked whether cities had used private money to prioritize turning out Democrats over other voters.

“By saying that they're going to provide van service to people of color and not other people — that's racist,” said Kaardal, citing a funding plan for rides to the polls in Kenosha. (The plan also said the vans could transport “elderly people” and “disabled people.”) “It's discrimination. It's like, really? I mean, really? You took private money with the intention of doing that. What were you thinking?”

Wednesday's decision by the Wisconsin Elections Commission had found no problem with the grants, but other Republican legislatures have already banned private election grants after 2020, using the same reasoning. The grant program had begun after the state's April primary, conducted at the height of fear of the coronavirus pandemic, when turnout fell and election officials had trouble staffing polling places. Kaardal and the committee's Republican members said that the Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan brought in by CTCL was, in his words, a “Trojan horse” for a Democratic turnout effort, not a way to keep voters safe.

“The safest thing is not to vote at all,” Kaardal said. “That's just public health. I mean, if you vote absentee and you go to the mailbox —  I don't think that this was about addressing covid at all, it was about getting out the vote, from the inception.”

Ad watch

Club for Growth Action, “Biden Loves McCrory.” It's a recurring theme in the conservative Club for Growth's advertising: If a Republican said anything critical of Donald Trump, you'll hear about it. The latest hit on former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, who's running for U.S. Senate, combines McCrory's criticism of Trump for trying to overturn the 2020 election with comments that were not, in context, anti-Trump. That includes a 2012 clip of McCrory praising Mitt Romney — at that time the Trump-endorsed GOP nominee for president — and a chopped-up segment from McCrory's radio show in 2020, when he ranked five politicians who needed to “get off the stage,” and ranked Trump first. “He’s my president, and I want him to be reelected,” McCrory said of Trump, “but he’s got to get off the stage occasionally and let Joe Biden take over the number one position if he wants a second term.” The ad slices that into “Get off the stage, let Joe Biden take over the number one position” — falsely implying that McCrory wanted Trump to lose in 2020.

Building Back Together, “A Long Time Coming.” The pro-Biden nonprofit began running this ad before Thanksgiving, putting $2.5 million behind it in politically competitive states. The product this time: The bipartisan infrastructure bill, a “once-in-a-generation investment in America” dramatized with B-roll of roads and hard-hat-wearing workers.

Demand Justice, “Confirm Dale Ho.” Days after the Judicial Crisis Network began running ads against U.S. District Court nominee Dale Ho, the liberal judicial confirmation group returned fire. If you study advertising in the judicial wars — we can't recommend that, but you're reading this newsletter anyway — the format here may look familiar. It's similar to how the JCN promoted Trump nominees, using an uncontroversial clip from an opening statement. “I've represented people who are members of both political parties, because that's how our system works,” Ho said before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That makes it in here; the JCN ads portrayed Ho as a radical who would unbalance the courts.

Poll watch

Is it very easy or difficult for you to afford this expense? (Monmouth, 808 adults)

Mortgage/rent
Very easy: 16% (-5 since May 2019)
Somewhat easy: 24% (-1)
Somewhat difficult: 24% (-)
Very difficult: 13% (+4)

Grocery bills
Very easy: 19% (-14 since May 2019)
Somewhat easy: 37% (+1)
Somewhat difficult: 30% (+9)
Very difficult: 12% (+3)

Health insurance premiums
Very easy: 22% (+1 since May 2019)
Somewhat easy: 24% (-2)
Somewhat difficult: 23% (+1)
Very difficult: 17% (-1)

Taxes
Very easy: 18% (-4 since May 2019)
Somewhat easy: 27% (-2)
Somewhat difficult: 27% (+1)
Very difficult: 17% (+2)

Inflation has hit some markets harder than others, led by gas prices and housing, with other prices staying more stable. Pollsters, who haven't asked about inflation in years, are finding different ways to check the mood, like these questions. Americans haven't seen insurance costs rise by much, and taxes haven't increased in most of the country. But far more adults say it's harder to pay for groceries, and those who do are disproportionately White adults without college degrees. Fifty-two percent of them say it's at least “somewhat” difficult to afford groceries, compared to 29 percent of White adults with college degrees, and 38 percent of non-White adults. Fifty-five percent of Republicans say it's gotten harder to pay for groceries, compared with 30 percent of Democrats. That's a significant partisan gap on a nonpartisan question.

Greg Abbott (R): 52%
Beto O'Rourke (D): 37%

Two months ago, before O'Rourke launched his campaign for governor, Quinnipiac asked Texans if they thought the former congressman would be good at the job. By a 17-point margin, voters said “no.” That was the environment O'Rourke walked into, and Abbott's own popularity has stabilized since the start of the year, when the state's electrical grid failed during a winter storm. In two months, Abbott's job-approval rating has ticked up from 44 percent to 53 percent, and Abbott's effort to build border walls where the federal government hasn't helped give him a lead on the issue. In September, by a three-point margin, voters said they disapproved of Abbott's handling of the border, but he leads O'Rourke by 23 points when they're asked which candidate would do a “better job” there. Among Hispanic voters, Abbott leads on the border question by 17 points.

On the trail

A $2 million recall election in Seattle is going down to the wire, after thousands of ballots counted on Wednesday broke heavily in favor of City Council member Kshama Sawant. The “yes” campaign ended Tuesday night with a six-point lead, which shrank to just 0.6 points on the second day of tabulation. Sawant, a socialist who recall campaigners accused of breaking the law to fuel last year's protests in the city, was a few hundred votes away from keeping her job.

“In every one of our elections, there has been a dramatic swing after election night in our direction,” Sawant told supporters at her victory party Tuesday. “Given the unprecedented nature of this undemocratic December election, while we cannot be sure of the final result, if past trends hold, it appears working people may have prevailed in this fight.”

Those “past trends” were the vote patterns in 2019, when Sawant faced an expensive reelection against a business-friendly candidate backed by a Chamber of Commerce PAC. (The PAC was heavily funded by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) 

All elections in Washington are conducted with mail ballots, with ballots counted up to 20 days after Election Day, so long as they're postmarked by then. Because younger voters make up a bigger share of last-minute voters, and because they tend to be the least conservative part of the electorate, Democrats and left-wing candidates tend to gain ground as more ballots come in. That's what happened in 2019: Sawant appeared to be headed to defeat when the first ballots were counted, and surged ahead as the final votes were added to the total.

And that pattern repeated itself this year. On Wednesday morning, “yes” was ahead by nearly 2000 votes of 32,129 counted. Sawant won 62 percent of the day's ballots, bringing the margin down to 246 votes out of 39,274 counted. Nearly 2,000 more ballots received by Wednesday hadn't been counted, according to King County return data, and turnout had already pushed past the city's expectations — 53 percent so far, comparable to turnout in the Nov. 2 municipal elections.

Harry Bridger, the chairman and manager of the recall campaign, told The Trailer that he was “confident” of winning as the votes came in. “We see last night's results as sending a clear signal,” he said Wednesday. “District 3 is tired of not being represented on Seattle City Council by someone who is allergic to accountability, [and] District 3 voters are ready to restore civility and build a better and brighter Seattle.”

But Sawant and her allies — a coalition of socialist and left-wing groups — also expect to win. There are more ballots not counted than votes separating “yes” from “no,” including and 656 challenged ballots with problems that voters, who can check whether their own ballots were counted, have weeks to correct.

In the states

New York. Attorney General Letitia James (D) abandoned her campaign for governor Thursday, shocking Democrats who’d endorsed her primary challenge to Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and pulling the rug out from under candidates who’d already begun running for James’s job. 

“I have come to the conclusion that I must continue my work as attorney general,” James tweeted Thursday, moments after her office announced that it would seek Donald Trump’s testimony in an investigation of whether his company had misled investors about its assets. “There are a number of important investigations and cases that are underway, and I intend to finish the job.”

Investigations of Trump had defined James’s term as attorney general, though, and until Thursday, nobody described them as hurdles in a run for governor. James announced her campaign just 41 days ago, collecting endorsements from some Albany legislators, county executives and the Democratic Attorneys General Association. 

James’s high profile simply didn’t carry over to the new race. She trailed Hochul in endorsements, polls and fundraising, while raising eyebrows for how little she time she was spending on the campaign trail. In a Siena poll released Tuesday, just 18 percent of Democratic primary voters said they supported James, and the Democrat who could have been the country’s first Black female governor was backed by just a third of Black voters.

At the same time, James — but not Hochul — was entangled with the investigation that forced former governor Andrew M. Cuomo out of office. Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s former secretary, told investigators that James had not seen Cuomo’s accusers as credible, and told her that “everything is going to be fine.” When those quotes came out, just weeks into James’s new campaign, Cuomo’s spokesman accused her of “abusing her government power to leverage her political future.”

Two other Democrats, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi, are still running for governor. Williams, who like James won as the candidate of the Working Families Party, now has less competition to his left; Suozzi, who's running as a “pragmatic” candidate against left-wing excess, has a narrower path without multiple Black and left-wing candidates splitting the vote. And Democrats who hoped to replace James are sorting through their options. State Sen. Shelly Mayer ended her campaign after 36 days, endorsing both Hochul and James for reelection. Attorney Zephyr Teachout, who lost a 2018 primary against James, did not respond to a question about her own campaign, which began three weeks ago with a blizzard of interviews about how she'd pursue corporate and government corruption from the AG's office.

Texas. The final busy hours before the state's filing deadline have seen candidates pull out, jump in, switch districts and switch parties. Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Matthew Dowd ended his campaign for lieutenant governor after just 69 days. In a statement, he cited the “diverse field” that had emerged for Democrats — 2018 nominee Mike Collier, state Rep. Michelle Beckley and party Vice Chair Carla Brailey, who's expected to announce before the cutoff on Friday.

“When I first announced, the only other candidate was a White male Christian,” Dowd said, referring to Collier. “I do not want to be the one who stands in the way of the greater diversity we need in politics.”

Republican-drawn maps drastically reduced the number of competitive House seats, and few candidates filed in the new districts with preordained results. Wingstop founder Antonio Swad filed as a Republican candidate in the 32nd Congressional District, where Rep. Colin Allred (D) had been a GOP target in 2020, but Joe Biden won the new district by 25 points. In the districts that Republicans had morphed from swing seats into safe seats, the candidates who'd lost narrowly in 2020 didn't seek rematches, and the candidates who have filed are almost completely unknown. 

There were more filings for the state's most competitive seat, the 15th Congressional District, and in safe seats where members are retiring. Hidalgo County Health Authority Ivan Melendez filed in the 15th, where Rep. Vicente Gonzalez is retiring after Latino voters shifted sharply to the right last year, and Republicans added more friendly precincts to the district. Wilson County Justice of the Peace Sara Canady entered the GOP primary for the seat; Monica De La Cruz (R), who lost to Gonzalez in 2020, is running again.

In the 30th Congressional District, a majority-Black district based in Dallas, state Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D) officially filed to replace Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who's retiring, and has endorsed her. In the 1st Congressional District, which Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) is leaving to run for attorney general, Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran jumped into a race that includes former Gohmert intern Aditya Atholi and businessman Joe McDaniel. The new East Texas district, like the old one, voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020.

Georgia. State Rep. Donna McLeod (D) joined the Democratic primary in the new 7th Congressional District, drawn by Republicans to create one deep-blue seat in the northern Atlanta suburbs. Rep. Lucy McBath (D), whose 6th Congressional District was redrawn to elect a Republican, switched to the 7th District last month; Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D), who won the seat in 2020, is running for reelection.

Bourdeaux was one of the moderate Democrats who demanded a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before a vote on the Build Back Better package, and McBath has never represented Gwinnett County, which makes up most of the new district. (The Republican map transformed her Democratic-trending Cobb County-based district into one that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.) McLeod has criticized Bourdeaux over her brinkmanship, and questioned whether McBath could step in to represent a brand-new electorate.

California. Ten years after his first campaign for Congress, former Trump administration National Security Council staffer Ricky Gill is running in California's 10th Congressional District, which Rep. Josh Harder (D) has represented since the 2018 Democratic wave.

“I'll put the [Central] Valley's interests ahead of Washington's broken politics,” Gill said in a launch video, released Wednesday, a few weeks after he filed paperwork for a campaign. While the video mentions his work for the federal government, it doesn't mention Trump, who lost the current 10th District by three points in both of his runs for president. The focus instead is on a message almost identical to what Republicans ran on in Virginia this year — fighting inflation and giving parents more control of schools.

Iowa. State Auditor Rob Sand (D) will run for reelection, not for governor, removing a potential challenge to Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who's seeking a full second term next year.

Ohio. The Collective PAC, which supports Black Democrats in competitive races, endorsed consumer activist Morgan Harper's U.S. Senate bid against Rep. Tim Ryan (D). Harper, who lost a 2020 primary challenge to Rep. Joyce Beatty (D), entered the race after Democrats already began rallying behind Ryan, and criticized him for declining to debate her.

“We've had a lot of situations where people request debates and they never end up being in the race,” Ryan told Spectrum News on Tuesday, suggesting he could revisit the issue after the candidate filing deadline passes next year. Harper and her campaign staff responded, on Twitter, that she was definitely running and he was being too dismissive.

“Tim Ryan has been in Washington for 20 years — the epitome of insider arrogance, aloofness and condescension,” Harper said. “That’s not what Ohio needs in a Senator.”

2024

Former vice president Mike Pence traveled to New Hampshire on Wednesday for the second time this year, fundraising with the state's Senate Republicans and keynoting a small Heritage Foundation “Save Our Paychecks” event — part of a campaign to defeat President Biden's spending proposals by tying them to the threat of higher inflation. 

“The battle is right now,” Pence told WMUR's Adam Sexton, sidestepping questions about whether he'd run for president. “We've got to stop 'Build Back Broke' before it gets to President Biden's desk.”

Hours earlier, in a friendly interview with radio host and Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt, Donald Trump said his political base was “going to be very angry” if he decided not to run for president in 2024.

“They will be very angry,” he repeated, after Hewitt suggested there were other potential candidates who could run. “I think we have a couple of people that are, would be very good, but it’s, you know, very early.”

Meanwhile, on his second full day as a candidate for governor of Georgia, former senator David Perdue told Axios that he would not have certified the state's 2020 election until an investigation into the claims Trump and Republican activists were making about voter fraud. In a statement, he expanded on that, saying he would have followed activists' lead in demanding a special legislative session “before the January election,” referring to the runoff that cost him his Senate seat.

“Any issues should be investigated and audited before an election is certified,” Perdue said, raising the possibility that he, as governor, could pursue other options before certifying a close presidential election. “Get the answers, then certify. How can you certify something with so many questions around it? Not just in 2020, but in general.” Georgia conducted a risk-limiting audit and two recounts after the 2020 election, and before the vote was certified, finding no significant missteps.

Countdown

… two days until municipal runoff elections in Louisiana 
… six days until the 2022 candidate filing deadline in Texas 
… 33 days until the election in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 82 days until the first 2022 primaries
… 334 days until the midterm elections