The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: As Biden campaigns on infrastructure law, Democrats keep fighting about it

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In this edition: The infrastructure wars in a Democratic primary, a 2024 campaign memo from Bernie Sanders, and an interview with a Florida GOP candidate who's ready to get to Washington and start impeaching.

Reporting from places where you can still get caught in snowstorms, this is The Trailer.

BEND, Ore. — Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) wanted to talk about infrastructure. So did his Democratic primary opponent.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill [w]as led across the finish line by folks like me,” Schrader said at a Wednesday afternoon debate with attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner. 

That wasn’t enough, McLeod-Skinner said: Schrader had “worked to separate” the infrastructure package from President Biden's social spending plan, setting aside provisions that would “help to protect our climate” and lower prescription drug costs, all of it at the request of corporate donors.

“You’ve run so far to the right,” she said, “that running against you just means I’m a Democrat.”

The May 17 primary between Schrader and McLeod-Skinner has pitted national Democrats against local Democrats, with county parties rejecting the congressman in favor of a challenger who’s run, and lost, two races. It’s also become a fight about Democratic stumbles in the first year of Biden’s presidency — and how much they’ve hurt the party’s chances of holding on to Congress.

“I don’t think he can win,” McLeod-Skinner said in an interview here, before a meeting with a Democratic grass-roots group that backed her 2018 run for Congress and a 2020 bid for secretary of state. “He can’t hold the Democratic base, because with his votes, he’s essentially the Joe Manchin of Oregon. He can’t win Republicans, because they say we need change and Washington isn’t getting anything done.”

After months of negotiations last year, Biden and congressional Democratic leaders opted to move ahead with the infrastructure bill before they also had crossed the finish line on the social spending and climate plan (dubbed “Build Back Better”). It was seen by some liberals as risky decoupling, and weeks later, the social spending bill talks collapsed. 

Democrats have struggled to pick a midterm message since Manchin torpedoed that latter package and recently, they've leaned heavily into running on infrastructure. 

“The last fella who had this job kept talking about ‘Infrastructure Week’ for four years,” Biden told a New Hampshire audience on Tuesday, going into detail about provisions the state’s Democratic legislators got into the law. “We’ll have ‘Infrastructure Decade.’”

But the drawn-out battle over the infrastructure bill has left many Democrats disappointed, bitter and pointing fingers. And the Biden infrastructure tour, which came to Oregon on Thursday, has done nothing to reverse the party’s bad poll numbers.

Schrader’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment, directing them instead to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports his reelection and has sent organizers to the 5th Congressional District to help. The state’s new, Democratic-drawn map, designed to elect five members of their party and just one Republican, moved Schrader’s seat east, trading coastal Oregon for counties he’d never represented before. The DCCC’s position is that a Blue Dog Democrat with a moderate reputation is best equipped to win the new seat, which Biden carried by seven points.

“Congressman Schrader has been critical in advancing President Biden’s agenda, helping to pass the landmark infrastructure package that will invest in Oregon’s roads, bridges and clean energy projects, while creating good-paying jobs across the region,” said DCCC spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw. “We need a candidate who can win in November and keep delivering on these critical issues, and Congressman Schrader is the person for the job.”

Instead of lowering prescription drug prices with one bill, Democrats have legislation that may do so if Republicans let them get it through the Senate. Instead of getting credit for last year’s child tax credit, they’ve watched child poverty tick back up, because the legislation that would have extended it wasn’t allowed to pass.

That frustration has defined the race between Schrader and McLeod-Skinner, with the incumbent dramatically outspending the challenger, and business groups that wanted Build Back Better dead providing air cover. The advertising looks a lot like what Democrats could run in November, emphasizing not just what has passed, but promising that they’ll get to the good stuff later.

One piece of mail from Schrader’s campaign calls him the “leading voice working to pass President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which invests in stopping the effects of climate change” — though climate activists watched many of their priorities get moved into BBB, and sunk. A TV spot from Center Forward, which is partially funded by the pharmaceutical industry, says that Schrader has been “taking on drug companies to lower insulin costs and making sure Medicare can negotiate lower drug prices.”

But no legislation to do so has passed, and Schrader opposed the party’s main vehicle for pricing reform, saying that he could get the votes for a better, “bipartisan” alternative. “I voted to make sure that the prescription drug plan that I helped develop could actually pass the Senate,” Schrader explained at the debate. That, his critics said, won’t help in November unless Republicans go along with it — a bet they aren’t taking.

“He's advertising on television like he did this for people,” said Monica Tomosy, 60, a Democratic voter who supports McLeod-Skinner. “He's not telling us that he blocked Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices for all drugs, which is what Biden promised when he was campaigning.”

Schrader has substantially outraised McLeod-Skinner, reporting $2.7 million in campaign funds at the start of April to just over $310,000 for the challenger. But the new map, by adding Bend and other parts of central Oregon to the district, includes McLeod-Skinner's home and the places where she's run strongest in the past. 

Despite Schrader's electability pitch, and his emphasis on what he brought back home, four of the five county Democratic parties in the new district, where 9 in 10 voters live, have endorsed McLeod-Skinner. In an interview with The Intercept, Clackamas County Democratic chair Jan Lee explained that the incumbent had “stopped coming to the quarterly meetings,” and other Democrats said they had questions Schrader needed to answer.

“He watered down that infrastructure bill,” said Jerry Freilich, a 75-year old ecologist. “Whatever the opposite of ‘progressive’ is, that's what he is.”

Still, McLeod-Skinner was a challenger in a district Democrats worried about losing. Schrader was an incumbent, who had voted for what became of the infrastructure bill. And that was what the party was selling to voters as it tried to get something else passed before November. 

On Thursday, Schrader was on hand for the president's visit to Portland, another leg of the infrastructure tour. McLeod-Skinner, who wasn't, said she'd have liked it if Biden made the speech in rural Oregon. 

“I want to thank the president for coming back to Oregon to celebrate a signature lifetime achievement – the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Schrader said, moments before Biden would take the stage to thank him. “This is huge. This is huge.”

Reading list

“Busing migrants, halting trade: Abbott bets future on divisive border plans,” by Arelis R. Hernández and Michael Scherer

The campaign strategy behind Texas's immigration disruption.

“Inside the new right, where Peter Thiel is placing his biggest bets,” by James Pogue

Democracies aren't cool. You know what's cool? A common-good constitutional monarchy.

“GOP turns to false insinuations of LGBTQ grooming against Democrats,” by Colby Itkowitz

Mallory McMorrow and the pushback against the everyone's-a-pedo campaign.

“GOP megadonor Steven Hotze charged after a bogus election fraud scheme led a former cop to threaten a repairman,” by Zach Despart

The aftermath of a conspiracy theory.

“Trump campaign must pay Omarosa Manigault Newman $1.3 million in legal fees,” by Timothy Bella

What's an NDA, anyway?

"New GOP group's ‘eight-figure’ midterm blitz," Lachlan Markay

New campaign finance quirk just dropped.

2024

The memo was meant for allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and it dealt mostly with questions about campaigning with him through the November election. But that wasn't the only election it talked about.

“In the event of an open 2024 Democratic presidential primary,” wrote Sanders's 2020 campaign manager Faiz Shakir, “Sen. Sanders has not ruled out another run for president, so we advise that you answer any questions about 2024 with that in mind.”

The “embrace the attacks” email, first obtained by The Post's Sean Sullivan, was the first hint since 2020 that Sanders could seek the White House a third time; he will turn 83 shortly before the 2024 election. Sanders had previously said that the odds were “slim” that he'd run again, and people in the senator's orbit have speculated about like-minded candidates who could carry the left's banner in another election, such as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

But there was more to the memo, which answered the sort of attacks that candidates who align with Sanders are likely to get this year. If a candidate is asked about “an avowed Democratic Socialist” supporting them:

Sen. Sanders is putting forward an extremely popular vision for the Democratic Party that will win back critical support that we have lost. In fact, Bernie wants to build power for the working class and take on the corporate socialism that our political system currently favors.

And if a candidate gets asked if Sanders will hurt them in a general election (a factor some Democrats fear):

Bernie is the most popular office holder in the country right now. He has strong support among young people, Latinos, and working class voters without a college degree — all voters Democrats will need in order to win in the fall. His endorsement and campaigning on behalf of Joe Biden helped the President defeat Donald Trump. I share his vision for a Democratic Party that stands up for the working class and against the corrupting influence of the political and corporate elite.

That's the gist: Some polling continues to show that Sanders is more popular than other Democrats. That's true, and it exposes the uncomfortable fact that no Democrat currently holding elected office is popular in most of the country. 

One poll cited in the memo puts Sanders's national favorable rating at 48 percent. Another puts it at 42 percent, with 40 percent of voters viewing Sanders negatively. That's higher than the ratings for Biden or Vice President Harris but it's lower than favorability for Trump or Mike Pence, who hold four-point net positive ratings.

By making the case for Sanders's electability, the memo offers a grim picture of the Democrats' 2024 options, Sanders included. 

Ad watch

Herbster for Nebraska, “The Truth.” Last week, long after he secured Donald Trump's endorsement, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster was accused by multiple women of having sexually assaulted them. Herbster has denied the allegations. He doesn't mention any of this outright in this 60-second ad. Instead, he disputes some attacks on his tax payments — “I've paid every penny I ever owed” — and hints more vaguely at attacks coming his way before the May 10 primary. “Just like the establishment attacked President Trump, now they're lying about me,” he says, as cows frolic behind him.

Lou Barletta for Governor, “Courage.” Other Republicans running for governor of Pennsylvania have more cash, but Barletta has an advantage: He endorsed Trump's 2016 campaign fairly early, and Trump endorsed his unsuccessful 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate. “Lou fought illegal immigration when no one else would,” a narrator says, adding that Barletta endorsed Trump because he has “courage.”

Nina Turner for Us, “Exposed.” Turner lost her 2021 campaign for a House seat in Cleveland for a number of reasons; one was her decision to go on the air long before early voting began. She's been more strategic in her second run against Rep. Shontel M. Brown (D-Ohio), dropping this spot as ballots were going to voters. It hits Brown over a 2021 Facebook post to say that she “opposed Biden's plan to give a living wage to working families” and, toward the end, points out that she's been taking credit for parts of an infrastructure bill that passed days after she got to Congress. But most of the ad recycles accusations of corruption that Turner deployed last year.

Booker for Kentucky, “The People of Kentucky Are My Family, and You Fight for Family.” Former Kentucky state representative Charles Booker is seeking the Democrats' U.S. Senate nomination next month after losing it in 2020. He has no serious competition this time, so this pre-primary ad reintroduces him with a fairly non-ideological message of “life, freedom and prosperity for all of us,” and a brief mention of who he's challenging — Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Club for Growth Action, “Weight.” North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (R) rode the popularity of a viral speech at a council meeting to the second-highest office in the state, where he's become a conservative star. The CFG, which has been pounding former governor Pat McCrory by accusing him of being unsupportive of Trump, taps Robinson here to say that Republicans like him can be proud of their past McCrory votes while voting against his U.S. Senate bid. He “put liberals in charge of textbooks and supported Democrat judges,” says Robinson, making the case for Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.).

Warnock for Georgia, “Not a Magician.” How do Democratic freshmen run for reelection when their voters want Congress to do more right now? Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) put out a pre-primary spot telling voters that he couldn't do everything he ran on because he's a mere father, senator and pastor, not a “magician” who can make anything happen. “In just a year in the Senate did I think I could fix Washington?” he says. “Of course not. But every day I focused on what I could do for our state.” One priority mentioned in the 30-second spot, Medicaid expansion, is still being blocked by Republicans in Atlanta.

Cranley/Fedor for Ohio Committee, “Two Mayors.” Right before the May 3 primary, former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley has run the first negative ad of the Democratic gubernatorial primary. It contrasts his city's growth over the past decade with the record for Dayton, where rival candidate Nan Whaley was mayor. “Dayton has continued to decline even more than [Gov.] Mike DeWine's Ohio, after decades of Republican ruin,” a narrator says.

Steve Irwin for Congress, Harmony. The race for a safe Democratic House seat in Pittsburgh has mostly pit state Rep. Summer Lee against Jerry Dickinson, a democratic socialist and a progressive. Irwin's campaign sells him as a “doer who'll get things done,” dramatizing this by having him play a discordant note on his accordion and then switching to a nice melody. It's a way to separate him from a more liberal field, where the winner of the primary is guaranteed to go to Washington.

Friends for Kathy Hochul, “Hard Work.” New York's governor started running ads just when her campaign faced a crisis — the resignation of her new lieutenant governor and running mate. Her rivals have picked running mates and featured them in advertising, but Hochul's first spot focuses just on her and a general election message: She's been “cracking down on illegal guns,” “investing in public schools” and “cutting taxes for middle-class families.” Some more-liberal victories since she took over for Andrew M. Cuomo aren't mentioned.

Poll watch

Arizona GOP Senate primary (OH Predictive Insights, April 4-5, 500 likely Republican voters in Arizona)

Unsure: 44% (-3 since January)
Mark Brnovich: 21% (-4)
Jim Lamon: 16% (+9)
Blake Masters: 9% (+3)
Michael McGuire: 6% (-5)
Justin Olson: 3% (+1)

The primary is 3½ months away, but Arizona's GOP battle looks a little like the one about to end in Ohio — one “new right” candidate supported by Peter Thiel (Masters); a big spender buying ad after ad (Lamon); and an established Republican elected official struggling to run on his record (Brnovich, who has been preemptively unendorsed by Donald Trump because he couldn't find a way to reverse the 2020 election). None is running away with this race, and Lamon has gained the most since January, the last time that national Republicans were urging Gov. Doug Ducey to run and clear the field. In Ohio, a Trump endorsement and late ad burst were enough to shake up another no-front-runner race. If that happened in a similar time frame in Arizona, the race might not get much clarity until the middle of July.

In the states

Tennessee. The state Republican Party removed three candidates from the ballot in the new 5th Congressional District, including Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokeswoman who'd been endorsed by Trump, and Robby Starbuck, an activist endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The cause: a party bylaw that requires candidates to have voted in three of the past four primaries. Ortagus had moved to the district last year, and Starbuck had relocated from another part of Tennessee, before the seat was redrawn from safely Democratic to safely Republican.

“I’m a bona fide Republican by their standards, and frankly, by any metric,” Ortagus said after the party handed down its decision. “I’m further disappointed that the party insiders at the Tennessee Republican Party do not seem to share my commitment to President Trump’s America First policies.”

Ortagus, far more than Starbuck, had faced criticism from Republicans who resented how she had jumped into the race. In February, she tanked an interview with a conservative radio host, who stumped her with basic questions about the new seat's infrastructure and history.

“What county is Chapel Hill in?” host Michael Patrick Leahy asked. 

“I don’t know,” said Ortagus. 

“Marshall County,” said Leahy. “It’s in your district.” 

Republicans in the legislature moved to strengthen residency requirements after the new maps were signed into law, and both Ortagus and Starbuck said they'd fight the decision to keep them off the ballot.

Q&A

If Anthony Sabatini gets to Congress, he'll have Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to thank. Sabatini, 33, was elected to Florida's House of Representatives four years ago, and established himself immediately as a knife-fighting MAGA conservative — calling his enemies inside the party “cucks,” campaigning to audit the “rigged” 2020 election, a false claim Trump has repeated, and tweeting a photo of an AR-15 and addressing it to “potential ‘protesters.’”

Sabatini made it clear months ago that he wanted to run for Congress, but initial maps from the GOP legislature didn't create a seat he could win around his central Florida district. That changed this month, when DeSantis introduced a map that transformed the Democratic-trending 7th Congressional District, where Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) is retiring, into a Republican seat. Sabatini talked to The Trailer before the first votes on the map, as part of a special session that has also taken on the special tax status of Disney — something else Sabatini supports. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

The Trailer: Why are you running? Why'd you look at the new map and say: Yes, I can win this?

Anthony Sabatini: I’m running for United States Congress to save America from woke communism, and the anti-American left. It’s a Republican seat now. It’s that simple. So, whoever wins the primary wins the race.

TT: Before this month, before Gov. DeSantis introduced this map, why were your colleagues hesitant to draw a safe seat in central Florida?

AS: There's just a lot of cowards in the legislature, and they're afraid of drawing any maps that might be considered controversial. Lots of spineless cowards, in the Republican Party.

TT: What are they afraid of?

AS: Media criticism.

TT: How do you decide to use the language you use — terms like “cuck,” for example. There are candidates who might want to use that word, but stop themselves.

AS: Sure, and that's an old way of doing things. For people my age, calling someone a “cuck” is like calling them a wimp, or a pushover.

TT: What's your agenda if you get to the House?

AS: Break up Big Tech, an immigration moratorium/building the wall, and stop all new government spending and growth in government, which is the main contributor to inflation.  

TT: What do you mean by breaking up Big Tech?

AS: We should adjust our antitrust laws so that we’re able to break it up.

TT: You've said you support Donald Trump for speaker of the House. Can you say why? Is it about him leading a House majority, or about putting him in line for the presidency so he can take it back before 2024?

AS: I think the 2016 Donald Trump agenda is largely being abandoned by the establishment of the of the Republican legislature, by guys like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. I don't think they're going to act on the agenda that got them in power. By making him speaker, you increase the likelihood that the Republican Party will stay focused on it.

TT: Do you want to revisit the 2020 election in some way if you win?

AS: The single most important thing that can be done is putting security measures on mail-in voting and ballot boxes. We need a stronger federal law about checking for criminals on voter rolls and making sure that nobody's listed as a duplicate voter anywhere. [A Washington Post survey of attorneys general and large district attorney offices in six swing states turned up just 39 cases of people charged with illegal activity related to the 2020 election.] 

TT: What about early voting?

AS: It's worked well in the past, but I'm still principally against it. I think that there should be only one voting day. I mean, in France, it's one day, a Sunday. I don't believe in making Election Day a holiday. And I don't think that the government should mandate anything to incentivize people to vote. 

TT: Why do you support impeaching President Biden next year?

AS: You must impeach him, because he violated the Constitution. We take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and when somebody commits an impeachable offense, you go forward with impeachment. In this case, I think the purposeful mismanagement at the border shows that he violated the Take Care Clause of the U.S. Constitution, so, therefore, he should be impeached. I've spoken to some very well-respected constitutional legal scholars about this idea, and they agree.

The Trailer: Who else needs to be impeached?

AS: Obviously, Alejandro Mayorkas, since he's the head of [the Department of Homeland Security] and directly related to what's happening, I think there are definitely other officials that are deserving of impeachment. I think that there need to be investigations into all of them. Subpoena them, and if it turns out they violated the Constitution, impeach them.

TT: You want to prohibit gender-affirming care and surgery for minors. Can you talk about why?

AS: Once they turn 18, I really could care less what they do. It's not my business. But up the age of 18, I think that it's truly wrong to mislead these children and the thinking that their gender dysphoria is somehow something permanent.

TT: The people who disagree with say that transgender kids, who attempt and commit suicide at higher rates than other kids, would be put in danger by this. [LGBT teens were three times as likely as their straight peers to contemplate suicide, according to a 2019 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.]

AS: It's a classic logical fallacy that could be easily corrected by the media — which obviously chooses not to do it. They're mixing correlation and causation. Children who have gender dysphoria generally are more at risk of suicide. They're more at risk of mental distress and a lot of other mental afflictions. But the so-called affirming care doesn't fix that. So liberals just instead point to the fact that there is high suicide and despair — that's going to exist even when somebody ends up getting so-called affirming care. 

TT: Where else should the federal government be intervening? We're talking about some ideas that can pass in Florida, for example, but wouldn't pass in California.

AS: We have an important federal obligation to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act and make it illegal to discriminate against people based on their skin. All of the Supreme Court decisions that came out of the 1970s and came up with disparate impact and all of these other theories — they should be totally and completely out. That is the origin of the racialized system of law we have today, which has led to critical race theory. 

It's just evil. In Florida, we just passed a law that says private-sector businesses can be held liable if they teach any kind of critical race theory as part of their employee employment training, or teach any kind of race essentialism. I think that law should be federalized.

2022 Election Calendar

Countdown

… 12 days until primaries in Indiana and Ohio
… 19 days until primaries in Nebraska and West Virginia
… 26 days until primaries in Kentucky, Oregon, North Carolina and Pennsylvania
… 33 days until Texas runoffs and the special primary in Minnesota's 1st Congressional District
… 51 days until the special House primary in Alaska
… 68 days until the special election in Nebraska's 1st Congressional District
… 84 days until the special election in Texas's 34th Congressional District
… 195 days until the midterm elections

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