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The Trailer: Stalled in the Senate, surging in the states: The next stage of the voting wars

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In this edition: The voting wars head back to the states, three retirements in House districts carried by Joe Biden, and the first blunt-smoking campaign ad of 2022.

Please, readers — keep us informed of any and all blunt-smoking political commercials. This is The Trailer.

Democrats want to make ballot drop boxes available to voters anywhere in the country. They just don't know how.

The Freedom to Vote Act, one of the two omnibus election bills that the Senate will pick up today, would require election officials to set up “in-person, secured, and clearly labeled drop boxes.” States would be permitted to use “remote or electronic surveillance” to watch the boxes. It’s all there in Title I, Part 6, Subtitle D, in legislation passed by the House and expected to fall to a filibuster in the Senate.

Republicans in Wisconsin wanted to prohibit ballot drop boxes — and last week they got their way. On Thursday, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren ruled in favor of conservative plaintiffs who argued that the state’s election commission violated the law by allowing drop boxes, which aren’t mentioned in Wisconsin election law, in the 2020 election. 

“It’s all good and nice,” Bohren explained, “but there’s no authority to do it.”

This week’s Senate votes are shaping up as the end of the Biden administration’s election reform push, with activists already trading blame to explain why nothing’s going to pass. Republicans, who’ve attacked the legislative initiatives as a “federal takeover” of elections, were telling the truth: President Biden and his party argued that Republicans, at the state level, were going so far in slanting elections their way that the federal government needed to stop them.

“State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities,” Biden said in last week’s speech to voters in Georgia, aligning himself with the activists who’d said, for years, that the filibuster needed a voting rights carve-out. “If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority.”

If Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) disagrees — and she’s already said she does — federal election law won’t change. The voting wars will unfold where they’ve been fought since November, in politically competitive states. In each state where the 2020 election was closest, there's at least one campaign underway to alter election management — to transfer more power to state legislatures, to ban private grants going to election officials or even to throw out the 2020 result. 

Wisconsin. Thursday’s victory for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty was a long time coming, starting after pro-Trump attorneys unsuccessfully sued to invalidate ballots from the 2020 election that were cast via drop boxes or at county-run turnout events. While the state Supreme Court could review the case before upcoming August primaries, Bohren prohibited drop boxes in next month’s local elections.

That unfolded as an investigation led by former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman entered its seventh month, moving past the Dec. 31 deadline initially set by Republicans. One reason was a legal battle between the GOP and Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, over Gableman’s ability to subpoena local officials and privately collect their testimony. But House Speaker Robin Vos (R) has made clear that Gableman’s mandate, and funding, will continue as long as it needs to. 

After a pro-Trump sheriff in Racine County accused the Wisconsin Elections Commission of enabling voter fraud at a nursing home, Gableman’s team started to look into it. Conservatives have accused the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which got nearly $350 million in donations from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in 2020, of distributing grants designed to turn out Democratic votes in major cities; Gableman has asked “whether the millions of dollars each of these mayors received from the Zuckerbergs” were used to “get out the vote for Joe Biden.” Efforts to ban “Zuck Bucks” have advanced in Republican-controlled legislatures, but no state has launched an investigation as large-scale as Gableman’s.

Arizona. Trump’s Saturday rally in Florence focused again and again on the 2020 election, with nearly all of the ex-president’s warm-up speakers saying Trump had carried the state, and several saying that Joe Biden’s victory could be wiped off the books.

“I am a yes vote to decertify,” said state Sen. Wendy Rogers (R), encouraging Trump voters to call their legislators until they joined her. “The communists stole the election from him. He is the duly elected president.”

State Rep. Mark Finchem, who’s running for secretary of state with Trump’s support, has campaigned around the country for decertification, arguing that last year’s review of Maricopa County ballots raised enough questions that Biden’s 10,457-vote margin of victory could never be proved.

“With all the evidence we have, the Arizona election should be decertified, with cause, by the legislature,” Finchem said. “It is time for us, the Arizona legislature, to move those counties, which are irredeemably compromised, into the ‘You’re Decertified’ section. This is how the people can get justice.”

Michigan. Republicans are gathering signatures for three ballot measures, including a Secure MI Vote initiative that would bundle together a few of their priorities: A ban on private grants going to election officials, preventing election officials from sending out absentee ballots to voters who didn’t request them, and tighter voter ID requirements for in-person and mail ballots.

In Michigan, when a ballot measure gets enough valid signatures to go before voters, legislators can choose to pass the measure as-is — not subject to a gubernatorial veto, and never going before the larger electorate. That’s the plan for Secure MI Vote, with Republican strategist Fred Wszolek telling Bridge Michigan that the ballot initiative rule was “put into the constitution to get policy accomplished.”

Pennsylvania. Republican legislators in Harrisburg, flummoxed by Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) vetoes, are pushing four new constitutional amendments — two of which would alter how the commonwealth runs elections. One of them would require voter ID, and the other would create a mandatory election audit. Both would need to be approved by the legislature, twice, before appearing on a ballot as soon as next spring.

Georgia. Republicans in Atlanta had altered local election laws months before the president arrived for his speech last week, which was a major reason he went there. Not that it changed senators' minds. Biden's visit became an opportunity for Republicans to explain what needed to pass next, on top of the 2021 legislation that gave the majority party more power to review or replace local election officials.

While last year's legislation put limits on the number of absentee drop boxes that counties could set up, the conversation over banning them altogether has come to Georgia, too; Butch Miller, the president pro tempore of the state Senate, is running for lieutenant governor after proposing a drop box ban. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who Trump and other Republicans have accused of being suckered into making absentee ballot requests too easy in 2020, has told election skeptics that he's probing allegations of “ballot harvesting” — the practice of campaigns picking up and delivering absentee ballots for voters, legal in some states but banned in Georgia. 

When Biden announced his visit, Raffensperger called for a nationwide ban on the practice, and for a constitutional amendment to prevent noncitizens from voting in any U.S. election. Just a few states — Georgia isn't one of them — allow noncitizens to vote in some local elections. Neither of the Democrats' omnibus voting bills would deal with it in any way. 

But it's the states, and particularly Republicans in the states, driving the debate over how voting should change. On Tuesday, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) accused Democrats of setting up their voting bills to fail, throwing “chum at the Democratic Party’s progressive base” as a distraction. Democratic voters, however, are girding for a letdown — and watching Republicans, in swing states, deliver exactly what the party's base started demanding last November.

Reading list

“The left dreamed of remaking America. Now, it stares into the abyss as Biden’s plans wither, by Jeff Stein

Remember the 2020 primary? Remember how the Senate could be forced to support Medicare-for-All? What happened to that?

“Kristi Noem’s on a political rocket ship. But don’t rule out a crash,” by David Siders

How the Iowa caucuses look from Pierre.

“The Justice Dept. alleged Jan. 6 was a seditious conspiracy. Now will it investigate Trump? by Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, Tom Hamburger and Rachel Weiner

The next steps for the insurrection investigation.

“Trump-supporting Arizona politicians push election lies at Florence rally,” by Ray Stern

The ex-president's warm-up speakers set the tone.

“Democrats fret about delivering on health care promises ahead of midterms,” by Rachel Roubein

Yeah, about those lower insurance bills that you were promised in 2020.

“On noncitizen voting, New York City blazes another trail,” by Maya Wiley

A look at a change in municipal elections that conservatives in other cities would like to ban.

Retirements

Rep. John Katko of New York announced his retirement Friday, becoming the third House Republican to hang it up after voting to impeach Donald Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

“My conscience, principles, and commitment to do what’s right have guided every decision I’ve made as a Member of Congress, and they guide my decision today,” Kakto wrote on Facebook.

Like every other Republican who voted to punish Trump, Katko had drawn some primary challengers, though none had raised much money by the end of the third fundraising quarter last year. (Numbers for the fourth quarter, which ended Dec. 31, are not available until the end of this month.) No challenger, from either party, really threatened Katko's hold on the seat after he won it in 2014 — he won his final reelection by 10 points, as voters in his Syracuse-based 24th Congressional District were rejecting Trump by nine points. 

Pro-Trump conservatives wanted Katko gone anyway, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia calling him a “Democrat” and the Conservative Party, which endorsed Katko in his other races, announcing it would not support him in 2022. (In New York's fusion-voting system, candidates can run on multiple party ballot lines.) “Another one bites the dust,” Trump said in a statement.

Katko's decision surprised both Democrats and Republicans; Andrew McCarthy, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran who had been running in an adjoining district, announced he would seek the nomination in Katko's district. New York Democrats, who control the entire redistricting process for the first time this century, haven't released new maps yet — but on Monday, the nonpartisan commission that looks at the maps before the legislature weighs in suggested merging Katko's district with the more conservative 22nd Congressional District, where Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) has lost and won close races.

Two Democrats in Biden districts announced their own retirements Tuesday — Rep. Jerry McNerney of Northern California and Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island. 

McNerney, who flipped a swing seat to join the House 16 years ago, had locked down his increasingly Democratic district ahead of the new redistricting cycle. California’s latest map shifted his 9th Congressional District slightly to the right — Biden still carried it by double digits — but McNerney didn’t discuss the map in his statement, as some other Democrats have when making their exits. 

Within minutes of McNerney’s news, Rep. Josh Harder (D) launched his own reelection bid in the new 9th District, slightly bluer than both the seat he won in 2018 and 2020 and the new 13th Congressional District he’d initially planned to run in.

“[One hundred and fifty] years ago my great-great-grandpa settled in Manteca to start a peach farm and raise his family,” Harder said. “Today, I’m excited to announce I’ll be running for reelection in CA-9, that very same community.”

Langevin, the first quadriplegic member of Congress, shared his plans in a column for the Providence Journal, and also left out any mention of new maps. The state's special commission on reapportionment advanced new lines last week, barely tweaking the 2nd Congressional District, which backed Biden by 13 points in 2020 after delivering a narrower, seven-point win to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Republicans didn't bother targeting Langevin in most of his races; the only Republican running here on Tuesday was former state representative Robert Lancia, who lost to Langevin by 17 points in 2020. Rhode Island hasn't had a House or Senate vacancy since 2010, when Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) retired, but Democrats seen as potential candidates spent Tuesday praising Langevin without hinting at their own plans.

Ad watch

Chambers for Louisiana, “37 Seconds.” After narrowly losing a runoff spot in last year's election for Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, Gary Chambers stayed politically active. At the end of 2021, he announced a Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate against Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R), and this is his first digital buy, dramatizing his support for marijuana legalization by smoking a blunt. “Most of the people police are arresting aren't dealers,” says Chambers, “but rather, people with small amounts of pot, just like me.”

Jim Lamon for Senate, “Line in the Sand.” The solar energy entrepreneur from Arizona, who ran ad invoking the “Let's go Brandon” chant to kick off 2022, is back with an ad portraying his commitment to border security and conservative values by showing him drawing a literal line in the literal sand. “We stop the politicians here or we lose America forever,” Lamon says. Like more Republican campaign ads lately — and like Lamon's last one — it goes after Biden by name, only briefly picturing Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who's on the ballot this year, in a lineup of the politicians the candidate wants to stop. “They lie. Waste our money. Rig our elections.”

Dave McCormick for U.S. Senate, “Fighting.” Officially running for Senate after a few weeks of ads from his exploratory committee, McCormick appears here the way Republican strategists started talking about him in November — as a new Glenn Youngkin. The Virginia Republican's first spots introduced him by talking about the jobs he'd worked as a teenager and the basketball scholarship he'd earned, and this spot continues a run of ads abut McCormick's life by returning him to a high school gym, where he wrestled. “I fought for freedom in Iraq,” he says, clad in zip-up sweater vest and talking to athletes, “and capitalism, not socialism.”

Jobs for Our Future PAC, “Not for Sale.” Businessman Jeff Bartos was the GOP's 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania, part of a ticket that lost by 17 points. That didn't help him launch his U.S. Senate campaign this year, but this ad from a pro-Bartos PAC portrays him as the most credible candidate who isn't an “out-of-state” newcomer — an epithet used to describe Mehmet Oz, who's moved from New Jersey to run this year, and Dave McCormick, who moved back to the commonwealth from Connecticut. “He helped save over a thousand Pennsylvania small businesses in all 67 counties during liberal lockdowns,” a narrator says; there's no further detail about how Bartos did that, but it raises questions about what Oz and McCormick were up to.

Honor Pennsylvania, “Wrong for Pennsylvania.” A pro-McCormick, anti-Oz PAC hits the physician and TV star from an unusual angle — as an “owner” of the Asplundh Tree Expert Co. The tree pruning company, co-founded by Oz's wife's grandfather, isn't run by Oz, but his connection — he and Lisa gave $50,000 to Asplundh's PAC — is the basis for the ad to link the Senate candidate to Asplundh's 2017 guilty plea in an investigation of whether it employed undocumented immigrants.

Kay Ivey for Governor, “Most Conservative Governor.” Alabama's governor is seeking a second full term this year and facing six primary opponents, including the son of another Republican who held her job. Ivey's responded by reintroducing herself as a “Trump-tough” Republican who's been fighting Washington — and President Biden specifically — in every way she can. “We do not teach hate to our kids. We do not pay people to quit work. And we do not use tax dollars to kill our babies,” Ivey says. The first reference is to an Ivey-signed ban on “critical race theory,” which every Republican governor who's had the issue put in front of them has signed and is starting to run on.

Poll watch

Political ideology survey (Gallup, 12,416 adults)

Republicans
Liberal: 4% (no change since 2011)
Moderate: 22% (-1)
Conservative: 74% (+3)

Democrats
Liberal: 50% (+11 since 2011)
Moderate: 37% (-1)
Conservative: 12% (-9)

Independents
Liberal: 20% (no change since 2011)
Moderate: 48% (+7)
Conservative: 30% (-5)

Gallup's annual political surveys are released in two pieces — one that deals with party identification, and another that deals with ideology. The first part showed a dramatic shift from Democratic to Republican identification, from a nine-point GOP disadvantage at the start of 2021 to a five-point advantage by the end of it. That's starker than what we've seen in states with party registration, but the direction's easy to see, with new voters and ex-Democrats boosting Republicans in places like Florida. The ideological survey shows what's happened over the long run. The Democratic Party has moved left and lost support from the less-liberal voters who made it competitive in rural areas, from the New Deal era to the Obama years. Some of those conservatives have become Republicans, but more have rejected both major parties.

Democratic primary for New York governor (Siena, 403 registered Democratic voters)

Kathy Hochul: 46% (+10 since December)
Bill de Blasio: 12% (+6)
Jumaane Williams: 11% (+1)
Tom Suozzi: 6% (-)

Siena’s having strange luck with its poll releases. It dropped its December numbers right as Attorney General Letitia James (D) was quitting the race for governor, and it released this data the day that de Blasio announced he would not seek political office this year. The James decision helped Hochul, who was supported by 35 percent of self-identified “liberal” Democrats in December, and is backed by 49 percent of them now. Black voters are still skeptical of Hochul, supporting James over her in December, and supporting the theoretical de Blasio campaign in this poll by a 36-26 point margin. Williams, who narrowly lost the 2018 lieutenant governor primary to Hochul, is the only Black candidate in the race, with a 60 percent favorable rating among Black voters, and stands to gain the most from de Blasio's exit. Suozzi, who entered the race a week before James left it, has yet to find a constituency, and runs strongest — with 9 percent support — in the New York suburbs.

In the states

The seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission is racing to complete a new set of new state legislative maps, after the state Supreme Court threw out a Republican plan that would have given the party a lopsided advantage in Columbus. It's facing a Jan. 22 deadline for that, while the state legislature, on court orders, redraws a proposed congressional map that made just two of the state's 15 seats safe for Democrats. 

Democrats didn't expect a new map to improve their numbers dramatically, but the rejection of the GOP's legal theory — that because it had won more than three-quarters of statewide races since 2011, a supermajority map would reflect the will of the voters — had them wondering if new, Republican-leaning seats in northwest and northeast Ohio would be redrawn in a friendlier manner. A 2018 ballot measure, backed by Democrats, prevents a map that “favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents.”

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) released a potential congressional map on Sunday night, surprising Democrats — and happily surprising some Republicans — who were watching state legislators in Tallahassee draw maps that would have given the GOP a smaller advantage. 

Their last set of maps crafted 16 districts that were carried by Donald Trump in 2020, and 12 that were carried by Joe Biden. The DeSantis map would create just 10 Biden-carried districts, partially by reshaping two seats currently held by Black Democrats — the 5th Congressional District in Jacksonville, and the 10th Congressional District outside Orlando. 

“We have legal concerns with the congressional redistricting maps under consideration in the legislature,” explained DeSantis's general counsel Ryan Newman, in a statement accompanying the map. Republicans took that as a signal that the governor would veto the alternative maps; Democrats said the concerns were bunk, given that they'd be ready to oppose any plan that shrunk the state's non-White delegation.

“His map is actually illegal,” tweeted state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, on Monday. “I call BS on their ‘legal’ concerns.”

Lexicon

During an Indiana state Senate committee hearing on Jan. 5, Republican Sen. Scott Baldwin said impartiality is necessary when teaching about Nazism and fascism. (Video: Indiana General Assembly)

When you're assuring the media that you “unequivocally condemn Nazism,” something's gotten out of hand. That's how Indiana state Sen. Scott Baldwin started out the year, responding to outrage — and a lengthy Stephen Colbert riff — after a back-and-forth with a history teacher who said his lessons on Nazism informed students that the ideology was evil.

“I believe that we've gone too far that we take a position on those ‘isms,’” Baldwin said. “We just provide the facts. The kids formulate their own opinions.”

The “ism” comment got more national attention than the issue being debated: curriculum transparency. A bill introduced by Baldwin would have changed Indiana education in a few ways, including a requirement that all Indiana public schools put their curriculums and teaching material online, where any parents could see them, by mid-2023. After the public testimonies, Republicans were ready to tweak the bill, clarifying that schools would be required to post their curriculums, but that teachers weren't going to be required to publish their daily lesson plans. That version of the idea is likely to become law.

Curriculum transparency is one of many ideas that grew out of the (frequently public) conversation that conservative critics of the left in education had in 2020 and 2021. Two years ago this month, Matt Beienburg, the director of education policy at Phoenix's conservative Goldwater Institute, published a paper on “the spread of politically charged materials” in classrooms and suggested a straightforward answer for policymakers: “soliciting the disclosure of the learning materials used at each school — specifically, the posting on each school’s website of a list of materials used for each subject and grade.” Doing so, he suggested, could replace “curriculum wars” with something constructive.

“Curriculum transparency means that parents should not have to wait until a student comes home with objectionable content in their backpack, nor have to submit costly public records requests, to learn what their student can expect to encounter in class,” Beienburg said in an email when asked about coming up with the term. 

In January 2020, weeks before any states or districts closed down schools as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, the idea didn't spark much debate. That began to change after Donald Trump's defeat in November 2020, which ended conservative control of the Department of Education for at least four years, just as the administration was lacing up gloves to fight with left-wing academics. In May 2021, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released a paper, “Opening the Schoolhouse Door,” that cited Beienburg and asked whether “transparency” could map “a middle ground between those that are concerned about the increasing pervasiveness of political agendas in schools and concerns about preserving local control of schools.”

So far, that's how it looks. The idea of “curriculum transparency” isn't partisan — in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed a bipartisan bill last year that required “each local education provider” to publish their curriculums and some test score data online. It's been included in conservative education bills since the summer, but it's never been the most contested part of a bill. And conservatives have talked openly about the threat they think transparency would pose to the academic left — and, in elections, to Democrats.

In December, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher F. Rufo published a case for curriculum transparency, offering (with colleagues) some model legislation that supporters could pass in their states. In January, he tweeted a concise argument for its political effectiveness, much as he'd once talked about polarizing the term “critical race theory” and making it toxic.

“The strategy here is to use a nonthreatening, liberal value — 'transparency' — to force ideological actors to undergo public scrutiny. It's a rhetorically-advantageous position and, when enacted, will give parents a powerful check on bureaucratic power,” Rufo explained. “The Left will expect that, after passing so-called ‘CRT bans’ last year, we will overplay our hand. By moving to curriculum transparency, we will deflate that argument and bait the Left into opposing ‘transparency,’ which will raise the question: what are they trying to hide?”

At the end of the thread, after explaining that transparency could allow every parent to “become an investigative reporter,” Rufo published a direct-message exchange between himself and Randi Weingarten. The president of the American Federation of Teachers was a powerful figure in Democratic politics, and had responded to the anti-CRT campaigns of 2021 by saying, and reiterating, that critical race theory itself was not taught in elementary schools.

“Should parents have the right to know what's being taught to their children?” asked Rufo, linking to his Manhattan Institute research.

“Of course parents should know what the curriculum is,” said Weingarten.

Countdown

… 28 days until school board recall elections in San Francisco
… 42 days until the first 2022 primaries
… 294 days until the midterm elections

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