In this edition: Kavanaugh slogs, Democrats win the primaries, Kathy Griffin re-emerges in attack ads, Mike Bloomberg misses Charlie Rose.
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I am not Randy Bryce's brother, and this is The Trailer.
The real Brett Kavanaugh question facing Senate Republicans is this: Do they really need this nominee, given that he hasn't fired up their base for the midterms?
Let's consider how most people thought this was going to play out in the midterms. On June 27, when Anthony Kennedy retired, the overwhelming consensus was that Republicans finally had an issue to rally around for November.
This wasn't fantasy. Plenty of #NeverTrump Republicans stuck with Donald Trump in 2016 because he offered their only shot at saving the Supreme Court from Hillary Clinton. The 2016 exit poll found a 15-point Trump lead among voters who considered SCOTUS their top issue. Another open court seat was a chance to reboot the midterms, to bring the band back together — with a generational conservative majority as a bonus.
It hasn't played out that way. From Kennedy's retirement till today, the Democrats' lead in the RealClearPolitics average of congressional polls has inched up from 6.1 points to 8.3 points. It's harder to get a read on Senate races, but none has seen a dramatic shift since June 27; the lead in Missouri has toggled back and forth, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has stayed ahead in his reelection bid, and the polls in Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia have stayed consistent — some close, some hard to pull into play.
Of the $3.2 million spent by the conservative Judicial Crisis Network to boost Kavanaugh, half landed in those last three states, to no observable effect.
"It's been interesting to get the letters and the cards and the phone calls," said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) on CNN this past weekend. "It's not been as overwhelming as you might think."
This doesn't diverge much from the polling, which found the country split on whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed -- and that was before this week's news. Both Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, and Merrick Garland, who was nominated by President Barack Obama, polled much higher than Kavanaugh. Garland was sold, by Democrats, as a reasonable moderate, and Gorsuch was sold, by Republicans, as a one-to-one replacement for the conservative Antonin Scalia. Rallies organized by antiabortion groups on Kavanaugh's behalf have been lackluster; one Denver rally was memorably canceled due to lack of interest.
"The reality, and Senator Doug Jones attested to this, is that the energy among the grass roots, for even red state senators to vote against Kavanaugh, has been much stronger than the energy to vote for him," Vanita Gupta, president of the liberal Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Monday.
All that was happening before accusations surfaced that could peter out, could sink this nomination or could haunt a confirmed Justice Kavanaugh for the rest of his life. None of it is the election booster shot Republicans expected. Why?
Kavanaugh's supporters built an uninspiring political case for him. Trump's ability to turn subtext into text helped him plenty in 2016. When he faced social conservatives, he promised a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, flat out, no mystery.
The pro-Kavanaugh campaign, by contrast, has blurred the argument. The JCN's initial slogan for this fight, before Kavanaugh was picked, was #AnotherGreatJustice. Since Trump's announcement of his pick, its ad campaign has focused not on anything Kavanuagh has done, or might do, but on what a nice guy he was. In the most attention-getting ad, starring a former Kavanaugh clerk who happened to be a registered Democrat, we learned Kavanaugh was a "brilliant jurist" who would "follow precedent" and "treat everyone equal under the law."
None of that's bad — but also none of it is red meat. It clashed with the Democratic messaging, which was that Kavanaugh would provide a fifth vote to unravel abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have generally responded to that messaging by portraying it as shrill and laughable — not a powerful rebuttal.
Social conservatives wanted an antiabortion female nominee, not Kavanaugh. If you spent time on conservative social media in July, you assumed the president was going to stick it to the left and pick Amy Coney Barrett for Kennedy's seat. Barrett, a longtime Notre Dame law professor, became famous on the right during her 2017 confirmation hearing for a lower court, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Barrett that "the dogma lives loudly within you, and that's of concern." Right away, conservatives spun that back on Democrats, accusing them of applying a religious test to the Catholic nominee.
Barrett was added to the presidential shortlist on SCOTUS picks, and the idea of putting an antiabortion woman on a court that could undo Roe was thrilling to the right. But it didn't happen, and conservatives are still confused about why.
"The GOP is in this position because it tried to punt on a fight its base wanted with Amy Barrett, again," Iowa radio talker Steve Deace tweeted yesterday. "Just like it punted on immigration, Obamacare and Planned Parenthood Just like it punts on pretty much anything its base wants."
The reality is that Republicans did not see the 46-year-old Barrett as easily confirmable in a GOP Senate with a two-vote majority. But that gets to Deace's point: The top-level strategy on court fights is not as aggressive as what the base wants. The Democratic base, meanwhile, is getting much of what it wants — a relentless attack on Kavanaugh. The most realistic way to turn this into a motivating Republican issue, ironically, would come if Kavanaugh dropped out and yet another court seat hung on the results of an election.
The 2018 primary season is over, so what did we learn from it? I'd break it down three ways.
- Across the country, Democrats voted in greater numbers than Republicans.
- In some states, Democrats set turnout records; in almost every state, they broke their 2014 numbers.
- Where Republicans had competitive primaries, their turnout jumped, too — but usually by smaller amounts.
It's hard to compare the total vote between the parties, for the simple reason that not every state releases a vote total if a party is not holding a competitive primary. In New York, for example, nearly 1.5 million Democrats cast votes for governor; Republicans, with no primary, recorded no votes for that office whatsoever.
So here's the total primary vote in the 44 states that recorded totals for both parties:
That's a big turnaround from 2014, when Democrats saw sleepy turnout around the country and ignored the meaning of those numbers until it was too late. Here's the rundown for the 40 states that had both party primaries that year:
Democrats probably outvoted Republicans by 2 million ballots this year after trailing by 2 million ballots in 2014. In most states, Democrats simply ran far ahead of their 2014 numbers. In five states — Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire — they ran behind Republicans in 2014 and ahead of them this year.
For example, Michigan had a sleepy 2014 primary, with neither party's nominee for governor or U.S. Senate truly in doubt. In 2018, both parties had competitive gubernatorial primaries. Democratic turnout doubled from 513,263 to 1,126,208; Republican turnout rose a bit more than 50 percent, from 617,720 to 985,249. In three Midwestern states — Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota — Democratic turnout tripled.
What are the Republican highlights? In two states — Arkansas and Rhode Island — Democratic turnout actually fell slightly from 2014, while Republican turnout rose. Republican turnout fell in seven states: Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska and New Hampshire.
If you're thinking this doesn't guarantee anything in November, you're right. Primary voting rules differ from state to state; there are independents who showed up for Democrats this summer who might cast a Republican vote in the midterms. There are Republicans who stayed home because there was no real danger of, say, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) losing a primary to, er, nobody.
But these turnout numbers are the best guides we have to the November election. In 2016, Democrats thought little of it when Republicans romped past their turnout numbers in traditionally blue states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. They figured Democrats who switched their registration in Ohio, for example, would vote for Trump in the primary then come back home. It didn't happen.
Republicans didn't see the sort of turnout boost Trump brought during his 2016 bid, either. Democrats once again outvoted Republicans in Michigan's Macomb County —a place Trump pushed Republican turnout higher than Democratic turnout in the 2016 primary, and a place he carried after Barack Obama won it twice.
SCOTUS: It's a campaign, isn't it? The left and right heavy hitters are both going on cable today, with the Judicial Crisis Network up to defend Brett Kavanaugh's character and Demand Justice up to compare him to Donald Trump. The latter ad marks the first use, in this cycle, of the Trump "Access Hollywood" tape.
WI01: Public and private polling still has Randy Bryce within single digits of flipping House Speaker Paul Ryan's seat. Hence these two ads from the Congressional Leadership Fund — one that repeatedly reminds you Bryce has been arrested "nine times," one that gives the camera to Bryce's brother to accuse the candidate of hating cops. (The "nine times" stuff gets under Bryce's skin, as it conflates his two arrests for civil disobedience with seven arrests for DUI and petty crime.)
VA07: Nothing epitomizes the CLF's approach to this cycle like its campaign to save Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.). Democrats are convinced Republicans lit an exploding cigar when they accidentally obtained Democrat Abigail Spanberger's personnel file, showing that the former CIA operative had once taught English at a Virginia school that would later be tied to terrorism. But the CLF is now on its second "terror high" ad, going with the argument that Spanberger has "dark secrets" that were buried in the personnel file.
AZ01: Rep. Tom O'Halleran (Ariz.) is one of just 12 Democrats representing a seat Trump won; Wendy Rogers is trying to pry him out of that seat by portraying him as an enabler of left-wing radicals. All of the favorites make an appearance, from George Soros to Kathy Griffin.
FL16: The DCCC is up in this reach of a race, which became more attractive to them after the son of incumbent Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) lost a special legislative election within his dad's district this winter. Buchanan himself is the issue, attacked for perhaps the cycle's flashiest post-tax-cut spending by a candidate — his purchase of a yacht.
CASen: Kevin de Leon, who has struggled to raise money in his challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is taking 2018's path most traveled — a 3-minute bio video, shareable online but not seen on TV. It makes use of Feinstein's tough anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric from the early 1990s, when she lost one close race and won two others. "The illegal immigrants who come here and commit felonies ― that’s not what this nation is," Feinstein says in the spot.
AZSen (CNN/SSRS, 761 LVs)
Kyrsten Sinema (D) - 50%
Martha McSally (R) - 43%
Neither party completely buys this poll: Democrats seem to be over-sampled, and the president's approval rating, at 39 percent here, has been higher in every other recent poll of Arizona.
NM01 (ABQJournal, 410 RVs)
Deb Haaland (D) - 49%
Janice Arnold-Jones (R) - 41%
Haaland, the state's former Democratic Party chair, represents a leftward shift in what's now a safe blue seat; she's for abolishing ICE, and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), who's running for governor, is not. But Arnold-Jones has just $42,912 in the bank, and Republicans have not invested in the race.
MNSen (Star Tribune/MPR News, 800 LVs)
Tina Smith (D) - 44%
Karin Housley (R) - 37%
This surprise election, prompted by the resignation of Al Franken, continues to look tantalizing to Republicans. The problem: They're on offense in so many races that a bank shot in Minnesota is not attracting much money. (No super PAC has entered the race, and Smith has more than doubled Housley's fundraising.) Democrats don't rule out a late intervention — President Trump is enthralled with the idea of flipping Minnesota — but they also see polls that have them easily winning the race for governor as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) slides to a third term. Who would the ticket-splitters be?
WISen (Marquette, 614 LVs)
Tammy Baldwin (D) - 53%
Leah Vukmir (R) - 42%
Last month, the same poll found Baldwin up by two points, closer than either party believed the race to be. This margin's a bit wider, but Wisconsin looks grim for Republicans, after a primary that Vukmir finished with less than $500,000 in the bank. Baldwin, with no opposition, had $6.7 million left to spend. Yes, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) got outspent in 2016, but he had a friendly top of the ticket and $20.5 million in funds.
TXSen (Quinnipiac, 807 LVs)
Ted Cruz (R) - 54%
Beto O'Rourke (D) - 45%
The same poll last month had Cruz up six, so there's not a lot of movement here. Republicans who've been ribbing reporters for the many, many flattering O'Rourke profiles will have another argument to make.
Generic ballot (Public Opinion Strategies, 800 RVs)
Bloomberg's Joshua Green obtained RNC-funded polling on the midterms, pointing to two big problems for the party. The first, and most unique: A majority of Republican voters simply "don’t believe that Democrats will win the House," because they were told that the media and pollsters blew it in 2016. The second, and harder to handle: most voters believe that the GOP would cut Medicare "in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.” That's a return to pre-Trump opinion of the GOP's economic agenda.
Mike Bloomberg. The New York Times' Alex Burns chased the mayor to Seattle and grilled him on the issues roiling the Democratic Party's base. He is, to put it mildly, not where his new party is; he defends his city's late and unlamented "stop and frisk" policy, and he wrestles at length whether #MeToo railroaded Charlie Rose, who was accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women. (The longtime host's interview show filmed in Bloomberg's New York office where, full disclosure, I worked in 2014.)
Joe Biden. Through a statement, the veep's office says he supports a delay in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing process, part of a "non-partisan effort to get to the truth, wherever it leads." On Twitter, this invited questions about his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings — something Biden has now made several apologies for.
John Hickenlooper. The Colorado governor's 2020 ambitions got a little more official with the creation of his Giddy Up PAC.
Terry McAuliffe. The former Virginia governor tells the AP, in Iowa, that he'd have to "make some decisions" after the midterms about whether he'll run for president. No potential candidate is so closely associated with the Clintons.
"Real Resistance," by Ryan Grim in The Intercept
The left-wing news site made a decision, months ago, to cover 2018 with some skin in the game — it was going to root for insurgent candidates and cover the foibles of bad Democrats. (The Intercept wrote only slight less about Delaware's Democratic Senate primary than Tolstoy wrote about World War I.) Grim's lengthy profile of the PA11 race, which neither national party sees as competitive, benefits from that decision. There's no horse race reason to cover the district, so Grim spends time with the scores of local, usually Lancaster-based, activists who care more about organizing than the horse race.
"Spoiler Alert," by Lee Drutman, William A. Galston and Tod Lindberg
Three political scientists explain why the third party breakthrough is always a day away.
"Voters are Ready for a Green New Deal. Are Democrats?" by Eric Levitz in New York
The whole "Green New Deal" concept, once associated with Jill Stein, has been creeping into Democratic rhetoric. Levitz suggests that it could be popular, though anyone who recalls the 2009 stimulus battle remembers how quickly the concept of "green jobs" can backfire if voters don't see the work materialize.
One of our goals in this newsletter will be to introduce the PACs and pressure groups, dark money and otherwise, that materialize ahead of elections.
Today's star: Me Too Ohio.
FOCUS: Defeating Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
BUDGET: Not known. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer says, it is "difficult or impossible" to figure out how much Me Too Ohio is spending on, so far, a website and 60-second video. All we know it that it was put together by Majority Strategies, a firm hired by Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), Brown's challenger.
PLAN: On paper, it's "committed to ensuring courageous Ohioans are able to tell their stories of domestic violence and perpetrators in power are held accountable for violence and harassment." In reality, it has one target — the three-term senator, whose 1986 divorce ended with an accusation that he had shoved his ex-wife against a wall and been verbally abusive to her.
EFFECTIVENESS: Not great. Brown, who is now friends with his ex-wife, has dealt with the story in every tough reelection campaign. This year, as in 2012 and 1992, he has distributed a statement from his ex-wife, condemning those who have "gone after my family to score cheap political points." The 60-second video also includes a quote from Chelsea Handler, who has denounced the campaign and asked Renacci not to "use me in attack ads against candidates I support."
... three days until the special election in Texas's 19th state senate district
... three days until early voting starts in Minnesota
... 48 days until the midterm elections
... 69 days until Mississippi's U.S. Senate runoff