In this edition: The districts that weren't on anyone's map . . . the 2020 cattle call in Austin . . . the preexisting condition roll call . . . the nonexistent third party movement.

I'm on the road again, and this is The Trailer.

TAYLOR, Tex. — On Saturday morning, MJ Hegar stood in front of her fellow Democrats, one thousand miles from Washington, with some inside-the-Beltway news. The Cook Political Report had moved her race for Congress from “safe Republican” to “lean Republican,” the next-best thing to a toss-up.

“This is a seat we can absolutely flip,” said Hegar, whose viral ad about her military service and legal victory over discrimination helped her raise more than $1.5 million — more than incumbent Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.). “The resources we've been able to gather have built an infrastructure here, and it's going to benefit people up and down the ballot.”

If Democrats ride the blue wave that they've dreamed about, it's going to wash over towns such as Taylor. Thirty minutes outside Austin, it has been growing thanks to long-distance commuters and to people who wanted to start businesses and quieter lives — people who did not necessarily vote Republican like longtime residents.

Now, with five weeks before the midterms — just three before early voting starts in Texas — Democrats are asking how much their map could stretch. The party is increasingly confident about seizing most of the suburban districts that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. This week, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's PAC pulled out of Rep. Mike Coffman's (R-Colo.) district near Denver and Rep. Mike Bishop's (R-Mich.) district between Lansing and Detroit; the National Republican Congressional Committee dropped out of Rep. Conor Lamb's (D-Pa.) Pittsburgh-area seat and Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder’s in the Kansas City suburbs. In all cases, it was in expectation of a Democratic win or the more urgent need to infuse GOP money elsewhere.

It has been at least 10 years — before the rise of super PACs — since Republicans were forced into “triage” mode like this. Democrats, while unsure of exactly how the drama around Brett M. Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination will play out,  expect it to weaken the president's support in the suburbs.

“It’s like they have a strategy to get their support from suburban women down into the teens,” said Alixandria Lapp, the president of House Majority PAC, which works to elect Democrats.

The question's whether that would affect the next tier of House districts, places where the president won decisively in 2016 but where Republican support has ebbed. In 2016, the 31st, Hegar’s district, backed Trump by 12.7 points, the weakest result for any GOP nominee in the district's history. Republicans are sweating at least two Austin-area districts — the 31st, which runs from the suburbs to Ford Hood, and the 21st District, which starts in the city and stretches into the wine country to the south and west.

Both parties think that Republicans are in the lead in both districts, but that the races have gotten closer. One reason is that the Democrats in both races have largely separated themselves from their party, focusing more on their biography, their lack of political experience and their youth.

Joe Kopser, the nominee in the 21st, is a veteran who grew up Republican and has pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. Like Hegar, he's outraised his opponent. At a Saturday forum at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, both Kopser and Hegar said that they were telling voters that the Republicans for whom they'd voted for  years simply hadn't delivered on local needs — broadband, health care, infrastructure.

“I'm trying to replace a guy who got to Congress in 1986,” said Kopser, who is challenging Republican Chip Roy in a seat left open by retirement of Republican Lamar Smith. He referred to the equally veteran senator from Iowa: “Did you see Chuck Grassley ask Mark Zuckerberg about the Internet? This is very scary stuff. My whole issue is about how we need a new generation in there.”

Democrats have felt optimism like this before. At this point two years ago, some Democrats were speculating that Donald Trump would lead Republicans into a historic defeat, one that could put the House and Senate into play. The party did make gains that year, but was damaged in the final weeks by the FBI probe of Clinton's campaign — and before that, it was underestimating Trump's appeal to some lower-income white Democrats.

What they did not have in 2018, and what they do have now, were Democrats raising enough money to be competitive in places where the party PACs might not want to spend. At another Saturday stop  closer to Austin, Hegar rallied with Rep. James Clyburn (D-S. C)., the third-ranking House Democrat, who does not have Pelosi's high negatives with swing voters. Clyburn planned to spend October in plenty more tough districts, on a map that he insisted was tilting toward Democrats again.

“Look at Conor Lamb,” Clyburn said. “Look at all this newfound energy that's bubbled up.”

AD WATCH

California 49: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is the latest incumbent to deflect Democratic health-care attacks by insisting that he wants to keep insurance protections for people with preexisting conditions, discussing his daughter's battle with leukemia. "I'm taking on both parties and fighting for those with preexisting conditions," he says. Rohrabacher has repeatedly voted to repeal Obamacare, which protected  coverage of preexisting conditions.

California 50: It's not quite October, but Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has launched the sort of ad we usually see in an election's final days. In it, Hunter accuses Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar of “working to infiltrate Congress”  in a “well-orchestrated plan” by the Muslim Brotherhood. Campa-Najjar's grandfather was a participant in the “Black September” hostage-taking and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

Democrats, while outraged at attempts to link the candidate to this, expected it to become a problem. An ad accusing the Democrat of being a "Homeland"-esque sleeper agent demonstrates how Hunter is scrambling, with polls showing him up by single digits in the wake of his indictment over misuse of campaign funds. (The ad also uses images of Hunter in military fatigues, with no disclaimer about how the U.S. military is neutral in the race.)

Florida 18: Another day, another Democratic ad about preexisting conditions: This one featuring Lauren Baer, who's seen as the underdog against first-term Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) talking to a mother fretting about her epileptic daughter.

Nevada Senate: Republican Sen. Dean Heller uses a 2016 clip of Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) calling herself a “Hillary Clinton person” to link her to the Democratic presidential nominee. (While Clinton has remained unpopular in private life, she did carry Nevada.)

New Mexico Governor: Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who ran and lost a U.S. Senate race by a landslide 10 years ago, is running stronger in his bid for governor with a campaign largely focused on calling Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) “corrupt.” The latest spot comes with a twist — it quotes a left-wing challenger, who lost the summer primary to Lujan Grisham by 40 points, to argue that even Democrats consider her six-figure salary from a consulting firm to be disqualifying.

Texas 23: Here's the oddity about this border district: Most voters are Mexican American, and they're choosing this year between black incumbent Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) and Filipino American Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones. The NRCC's new ad attacks Jones by claiming that she goes by “Gina Jones” in Washington; the evidence is a name plate at an unspecified event she's seen speaking at. It also correctly says that Jones supports another round of BRAC, which could lead to base closings; the wrinkle is that she said so at a debate in the district, while the ad says she told it to supporters in Washington.

POLL WATCH

Maryland Governor (Mason-Dixon, 625 Registered Voters)
Larry Hogan (R) - 52%
Ben Jealous (D) - 37%

Democrats were pleased with Jealous's performance at a debate this week, but not-so-secretly expect Hogan to win. Yes, even though polling in 2014 showed him losing by about this big a margin, before he won. Republicans are playing for two results — a Hogan win big enough to cut into Democratic legislative majorities, and big enough to take back the Baltimore County executive job. Hogan leads by 32 points in the county. (In a nightmare year, if a centrist spoiler splits the vote in Montgomery, Democrats could lose control in two of the state's three largest counties.)

2020 GOP presidential nomination in Utah (Dan Jones and Associates, 809 Likely Voters)
Trump does not deserve a second term - 57%
Trump deserves a second term - 38%

After 2016 — a perfect storm, when Democrats thought they could snatch Utah's electoral votes in a three-way race — the party's unlikely to compete hard for this state again. What intrigues them about this poll is the president's rock-bottom re-elect number, 31 percent, in the Salt Lake City-based 4th district. Republican Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) won it in 2014, held it in 2016, and is now the only vulnerable member of the delegation.

ON THE TRAIL

FREDERICKSBURG, Tex. — On Saturday night, as 58,000 people filled the Austin riverfront to hear Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.) duet with Willie Nelson, 300 conservative voters gathered to eat barbecue and talk about winning in 2018. The Fredericksburg Tea Party, founded nine years ago, had booked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to headline its fundraiser, and gotten Chip Roy, the local congressional candidate, to join him for meet-and-greets and speeches.

Like a lot of grass-roots conservative events in 2018, the mood was more frustrated than nervous; the view of the coming midterms was more hopeful than not. At one moment, people would describe how the talk of Democratic gains was hype; at another, they'd express some worry that like-minded voters were less motivated this year.

“It's the most important election of my lifetime,” said Anne Peay, 76. “Satan has a hold on us. We didn't see a true unleashing of this until the president was elected. I'm concerned that the average, conservative person is not fully awake to what is at risk.”

Republicans have not had to worry much about Fredericksburg, or the 21st District. But Roy, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), had won a narrow primary victory and entered a general election against Joe Kopser, a Democrat with more money in the bank. Jordan, who is likely to run for GOP leader after the election, was not just in town to build support; the House Freedom PAC he helps lead was investing to help keep Roy safe.

“Two years ago, the closer we got to the election the more I sensed that the president was going to win,” Jordan said. “This time I'm not sure. I think that people are fired up about the attacks on the president, but they're also disappointed that Congress didn't get done what we said we were going to do.”

The impact of O'Rourke's campaign was a subject of debate. Republicans are confident that he has not really broken through in deep red Texas. On the roads outside urban and suburban counties, the black-and-white Beto signs are scarce. Cruz's ads, which have pounded O'Rourke on guns and the national anthem, are defining him as yet another unrelatable liberal, with a familiar amount of hype.

“Frankly, I think the great untold story right now is that all of that energy outside of Texas — people telling people in Texas, 'You've got to like this Beto guy' — is having an inverse effect,” Roy said. “Those Beto signs they're spending all that money on are making people say, 'We've got to go out and fight for Ted.' "

2020

This edition is especially Texas-heavy. Rather than repeating “Texas Tribune Festival” again and again, the event will be referred to by its hashtag — Tribfest.

Michael Avenatti: The attorney's 2020 flirtation is, by now, old news, but at TribFest he clarified that he would not run if Vice President Pence replaced Trump before the election.

Pete Buttigieg:  The South Bend, Ind., mayor made the rounds at TribFest, and was the only politician interrupted with a shout of "2020" at a Friday happy hour for Texas Democrats.

Jeff Flake: He's en route to New Hampshire for “Politics and Eggs.” On Saturday, the Arizona Republican joined Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) onstage at New York's “global citizen festival” and joked that he was ready for any more confrontations in elevators, a reference to the showdown with a sexual abuse victim that preceded his call for an FBI investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh.

John Hickenlooper: The outgoing Colorado governor also worked TribFest, generating a relatively scant amount of attention given his resume (swing state governor) and not-secret 2020 ambitions. (He appeared at the same event as Buttigieg and got briefly trapped in a rhetorical cul-de-sac about how he and his ex-wife remain friendly.)

John Kerry: Still selling his memoir, still not ruling out a 2020 bid, he waded into midterm politics at TribFest. “We have the greatest course-correction moment we’ve had in years available to us in about 40 days,” he said on Thursday night.

Amy Klobuchar: Still basking — if that's the word — from the media attention that followed Kavanaugh's ham-handed interaction with her on Thursday. As of last night, the senator from Minnesota is a “Saturday Night Live” character.

Mitch Landrieu: The former mayor of New Orleans spoke to Texas Democrats on Friday, regaling them with stories about how mayors, unlike senators, have to put up with constituents and do what they ask.

Martin O'Malley: Since 2016, the former Maryland governor has more or less lived in tough swing districts. He spent this weekend in the Atlanta suburbs, where Democrats think, in a wave, they could flip the 6th and 7th Congressional Districts.

Beto O'Rourke: Yes, seriously: Some Democrats are talking up the three-term Texas congressman as a 2020 candidate even if he loses this year's Senate race. In Austin, he swore off any run for higher office in his first term if he won the race, which, if taken literally, would rule him out as a 2020 or 2024 candidate.  But he also held the largest rally of any 2018 candidate in the country — the mega-rally with Willie Nelson. (It may have been the biggest rally for any candidate since 2008.)

Deval Patrick: The former Massachusetts governor is doing almost everything he needs to do ahead of a presidential run, including brushing off questions about it while quietly talking to Democrats about how he'd do it. “I'm not running right now,” he said at TribFest, in a live interview with Politico's Jake Sherman.

Patrick otherwise used that interview to describe how a hypothetical Democratic candidate could respond to voter anger by proposing an alternative that was not necessarily left-wing. “I may be one of the few Democrats who thinks that on the business side, the tax bill was directionally correct, but incomplete,” he said, explaining that his party could be pro-business while cutting back loopholes.

Elizabeth Warren: She will take a “hard look” at running for president after the midterms. One: She is so far ahead in her reelection bid that she is dropping the usual pre-vote caution about admitting this. Two: She's serious, and sees a possibility that Democratic voters will exit the midterms looking for a more return-to-normalcy candidate, not another populist.

READING LIST

"Partisan rage over Kavanaugh erupts into midterm campaigns,” by Amy Gardner and Mike DeBonis.

Lots of people pretend to know how the Kavanaugh hearings are moving voters. Here's how it sounds on the trail.

“Democrats find their answer to the Koch brothers,” by Elena Schneider

Democratic House candidates raised $36 million online in August. We'll know more about the financial picture for House challengers after the reporting deadlines tonight; that will do a lot to determine which long-shot districts Democrats will play in, and which opportunities Republicans see to pull out or mitigate the harm in another district.

EVERYBODY IS WRONG

If you want to sound like a savvy political observer — and who doesn't?— the hot take of the moment is that a third-party candidate will barrel into the 2020 presidential race, changing everything.

Two pundits with loud, premium cable-sponsored megaphones advanced that theory Friday night. On "Real Time With Bill Maher," former presidential adviser Steve Bannon suggested that 2020 would bring “Trump on the right” and “maybe a Kamala Harris or somebody on the left,” which would lead to “a Bloomberg, or a Romney, or somebody in the center.”

Simultaneously, at the Texas Tribune Festival, GOP strategist-turned-“The Circus” co-host Mark McKinnon was telling an audience of a few hundred donors that the 2020 election was ripe for disruption. Donald Trump was going to win his party's nomination; Democrats were likely to continue moving left of their 2016 position. A third-party ticket, perhaps composed of one Democrat and one Republican, could "blow this thing wide open."

Without reading their minds, necessarily, we know that Bannon and McKinnon have different motivations. Bannon wants a scenario where Trump is reelected; he has, coincidentally, spent a lot of time in Europe, where party splintering has helped put ramshackle right-wing populist coalitions in power. McKinnon, a co-founder of “No Labels,” has been talking like this for years, and wants a political climate where people are not constantly enraged at each other. (“The Circus,” despite its trappings, is probably the most nonpartisan political show there is.)

Both ideas are missing something important: a bloc of voters convinced that it doesn't make a difference which party wins. For obvious reasons, the president's power to pick judges is taking precedence in people's minds right now. Why would that fade for conservatives who have their gripes with Trump but see a generational opportunity to change the courts? Why would it fade for liberals, terrified of what could happen to that same opportunity?

More importantly, how do we define “liberals”? While voters have grown less and less likely to register as members of parties, they have hardened on the issues that the parties debate. That was why, at the start of this court fight, Democrats focused on the potential conservative judicial threat to abortion rights and health insurance rules. On both counts, the mainstream liberal position — that abortion should not be banned completely, and health insurers should be forced to offer cheap and reliable coverage — are wildly popular. 

Is it possible that Democrats could wind up with a left-wing nominee with positions opposed by most voters? It is, but the party's base seems uninterested in doing that. The issues animating the far, far left, such as abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and prisons, have not become candidate litmus tests. Depending on how Democrats talk about it, "Medicare for all" is a stance with majority popular support — something that would probably worry donors to a potential third party, but not something over which we've seen a centrist voter panic.

Look at this another way: In 2016, the first presidential election in the history of polling where both parties nominated candidates seen unfavorably by a majority of voters, there was a surge of interest in third parties. On Election Day, the Democratic and Republican nominees combined got 94 percent of the vote. Most of the ideal conditions for a third-party breakaway were present, minus one — voters saw a clear difference between what the parties would do in power. 

If the president's approval rating stays stuck around 40 percent, it's in his interest for donors to explore the potential of a centrist third party, and for a slashing, negative campaign that tries to disqualify any Democratic nominee. But the appetite for a third party grows when the parties are seen as too muddled together. Not when they are seen as extreme.

COUNTDOWN

... several hours until the final quarterly FEC  deadline of the cycle
... six days, allegedly, until the FBI wraps up the Kavanaugh probe
... 22 days until early voting starts in Texas
... 37 days until the midterms