In this edition: Democrats rediscover Iowa, people start voting in the midterms, House candidates ignore Kavanaugh, and red districts turn pink not blue.

I'm just here to talk about ethanol, and this is The Trailer.

DES MOINES — After Saturday night, when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) captivated an audience of candidates and donors at the Iowa Democratic Party's Fall Gala, no one doubted that the 49-year-old senator was likely to run for president.

But for local candidates and plugged-in operatives, that had been obvious for weeks — ever since Booker began lending staffers to the Democrats running for agriculture commissioner and secretary of state.

The “invisible primary,” a term for the contest that takes place before candidates officially declare their presidential candidacy, has been especially invisible this year. It's only coming into view now, delayed by the need for Democrats to rebuild in so many other states. In Iowa, the 2020 hopefuls are riding the jet stream of candidates for down-ballot offices, the sort of races that Democrats feel they ignored over the past decade. 

“There's not a lot of people in Iowa talking about 2020 right now,” said Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “Everybody's focused on 2018 to the point where, if I bring up 2020, people get angry at me. If folks looking at 2020 call me and they want to come in, I say: 'Great, we need your help right now.' "

In interviews this weekend, Iowa Democrats said that their 2020 race was wide open and not reality a priority until a November election that could reverse four years of punishing defeats. The candidates making the flashiest moves were, to put it kindly, not the ones who get the most national buzz.

Booker, who has loaned four staffers to Iowa Democrats this year, is by far the best known of the candidates investing here. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who declared his candidacy in July 2017, has visited all 99 counties, dispatched staffers and held events with the candidates trying to shrink the Republican majorities in Iowa's House and Senate. Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have also offered help; Merkley, candidates said, had been especially interested in their races, calling to check in and offer support.

“I'll be honest, it's a weird thing for me,” said Jennifer Konfrst, a candidate for a state House seat in the Des Moines suburbs. “Everybody who's running for president who's called me has just asked if they could help send canvassers.”

All of this, Democrats say, is happening more slowly  than in previous midterm years. The invisible primary of 2014 was a fluke, with some Democrats dropping into the state to help candidates but eventual nominee Hillary Clinton staying away. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who would fight Clinton to a draw, did no real organizing in the state in 2014;  former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley sent two dozen staffers to competitive states, most of them to Iowa and New Hampshire.

The 2006 contests felt different, with multiple presidential hopefuls running through Iowa and investing in staffers in what would be the party's last great year. What changed, Democrats said, was the hollowing out of their party. In 2006, Democrats controlled the governor's mansion, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was the party's popular elder statesman. Going into 2018's early voting, which begins Monday, Democrats hold just one of Iowa's six federal offices and two of its seven constitutional offices (attorney general and treasurer) and are the minority party in both houses of the legislature.

Democrats are just as weak in two dozen other states. Iowans, as a result, didn't see local political staffers settle in to work for 2020 candidates. For example, when one gubernatorial candidate's campaign imploded after a sexual harassment scandal, they watched with surprise as most of his top aides scattered around the country to other races.

Iowans also won't see most of the best-known presidential candidates in person until after the midterms.  Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has made low-profile political trips here before, agreed to speak at a Polk County Democrats event, then pulled out. Sanders came to sell books and to campaign for his former statewide campaign manager; he has not left any of his other 2016 talent in the state. Joe Biden has pointedly declined to travel to Iowa, as have Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) — though Harris is planning a trip for the end of the month. In conversations with Iowa Democrats, those six names came up, without prompting, as the candidates people wanted to see.

There is not much of a scramble by those candidates, or the ones actually visiting Iowa, for local political talent.  Iowa Democrats expect that talent to emerge next month, saying that the top staff for the statewide campaigns of Tim Gannon (agriculture secretary), Rob Sand (state auditor) and Deidre DeJear (secretary of state) would, win or lose, be hearing from presidential candidates.

That will be coming days (or hours) after the midterms, and Iowa Democrats say that the people who plunged in early got, at best, some small advantages that could be overcome once the bigger names start landing in Des Moines.


Oh, yeah, the midterms are already underway — didn't anybody tell you? The University of Florida's Michael McDonald, who tracks turnout across the country, has begun compiling the total number of ballots cast in the midterms. As of Sunday morning, 181,220 voters were done with the 2018 election.

By far, the state with the biggest proportion of voters who have come and gone is Minnesota, with 42,552 ballots cast — 2.1 percent as many as were cast in the 2014 general election. We don't know who those ballots favor, but we know that around one-third of the votes have been cast since Minnesota Democrats, through an attorney, said there was not enough evidence to suggest that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) had abused an ex-girlfriend. Early voting is also up in Virginia, on track to pass the total early vote in 2014, which would continue what we saw in the 2016 and 2017 elections.

This week, early voting starts in six more states: Arizona, California, Indiana, Iowa, Montana and Ohio. Three of them (Arizona, Indiana, Montana) have close and closely watched Senate races; two (Iowa, Ohio) have close and closely watched races for governor. But the total turnout matters a bit less than where it's coming from. This week will be a test not just for the plethora of liberal groups that have grown up since 2016 to turn out Democrats; it will test the 18-month project of the Congressional Leadership Fund to drive turnout in contested House races, where Republicans might be less likely to show up for midterms.


Kansas 02. Republican nominee Steve Watkins, a veteran who has never run for office, has endured two brutal weeks of news stories about overstating his role in a growing business and his lifestyle as an adventurer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has summed it up in a negative ad,  which began running as President Trump flew to Topeka to rally with Watkins. (In interviews, Watkins has dismissed all of this as “fake news.")

Michigan Governor. Seriously, it can't be said enough: Nearly every candidate is running an ad this year explaining how he or she dealt with a health crisis and why he or she will protect people with preexisting health conditions. Now, it's Democrat Gretchen Whitmer's turn.

Nevada Governor. Democrat Steve Sisolak's advantage in this race is simple: He's a Clark County commissioner, and two-thirds of voters live in Clark County. That wasn't enough to push another commissioner, Rory Reid, to victory in the 2010 election. But Sisolak has figured out how to capitalize on the work of a local official, with an ad showing him fumbling around an ice rink to remind everyone of how commissioners brought an NHL franchise to Las Vegas. The goofiness of the ad also cuts against what Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the GOP nominee, has done in his ads: portray Sisolak as a slick, bulky tool of developers.

Oregon Governor. There is really no Republican candidate for governor in the country like Knute Buhler, whose new spot says he'll “lead with compassion” to end homelessness and take “ideas from both parties.” Republicans have not won a race for governor in this state since 1982, the longest drought for the GOP anywhere in America.

South Dakota Governor. Remember Hillary Clinton? She's the focus of Republican ads in this race, which is closer than Rep. Kristi Noem (R) would like it to be. The chief problem: the affable image of Democrat Billie Sutton, a state senator who rebuilt his life after a rodeo accident left him paralyzed. Noem's ads now warn that Sutton, who backed Clinton for president, would “expand Obamacare” and raise taxes in a state that rejected Clinton by 30 points. “He's more like Hillary Clinton than you think.” This is the one state with a longer party drought than Oregon — Democrats have not taken the governor's mansion since 1978.


Florida Senate (Mason-Dixon, 815 Likely Voters)
Bill Nelson (D) - 47%
Rick Scott (R) - 46%

Since mid-September, every poll in this state has shown Nelson inching ahead of Scott. This poll was in the field after a debate in which neither candidate embarrassed himself; it wrapped on the day of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing. Republicans say the final week of the confirmation fight energized their base, and while Florida Democrats surprised everyone by requesting more absentee ballots than Republicans, Republicans have so far returned more of them. 

Indiana Senate (Fox News, 675 Likely Voters)
"If Joe Donnelly votes against Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, would that make
you more likely or less likely to vote for him, or would it not make a difference to your vote for Senate?"
Less Likely - 32%
More Likely - 30%

The only true surprises on the Democratic side of the Kavanaugh vote came in Indiana and North Dakota, where two Democrats who backed Neil Gorsuch's 2017 nomination turned on the new nominee. Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have confidently predicted that the "no" vote will be a problem for those Democrats. But this Fox News poll, taken after Donnelly announced his vote, found relatively little risk for him. No two red states are alike; there are still pockets of liberals in Indiana, and the party came close to winning the governor's mansion in 2012 and 2016. 

Tennessee Senate (1,002 Registered Voters)
Marsha Blackburn (R) - 50%
Phil Bredesen (D) - 42%

Republicans have been waiting and waiting for this race to break, confident that voters in a now reliably conservative state don't want to elect a Democrat. This is the best result Blackburn's ever had and in line with how her party sees the election going. The only question: Did Bredesen's decision to say he would have voted for Kavanaugh change anything? That statement came out after this poll was complete and, in the crosstabs, a strong majority wanted Kavanaugh confirmed and a plurality said they were more likely to vote Republican if his nomination failed.

Texas 31 (NYT/Siena, 490 Likely Voters)
John Carter (R) - 53% 
MJ Hegar (D) - 38%

Democrats are contesting this seat for the first time ever, but the evidence that the district's voters want to elect a Democrat is thin. Part of Hegar's problem, despite one of the year's most successful viral ads (which translated into early TV spots), is low name ID. The other part: A majority of voters back the president and want to elect a Republican Congress. Democrats could take over the House without this seat, but whether they can compete in a district like this — one that got far less Republican in 2016, one with suburban voters moving in and keeping their voting patterns — would determine whether a close election can become a rout.

Speaking of battlegrounds ... The Post and the Schar School at George Mason have a new poll of voters in battleground congressional districts coming out at 7 a.m.  Make sure you're signed up for news alerts to see what the survey found.


PERRY, Iowa — On the day that Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court, the headquarters of Cindy Axne's congressional campaign was bustling with volunteers. A coffee shop that opened up just to host a meet-and-greet got crowded, too, with people on every upholstered chair and sofa.

And at neither stop did voters say anything about Kavanaugh.

The confirmation battle, which captivated Washington for months and the country for weeks, may not be changing the conversation in most campaigns. Republicans believe that conservative voters, especially men and Republican-leaning independents, now view Democrats more negatively and are a bit more likely to vote. Democrats see some of that in their own polling.

But the electoral question is twofold: whether a “Kavanaugh effect” lasts and which races it affects. In Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers Des Moines’s suburbs and a swath of rural southwest Iowa, the court drama washed right through, angering voters but not moving them out of the positions they held weeks ago.

“It’s been a shot of adrenaline,” said Barb Schmidt, 69, as she collected walk sheets, with the names and addresses of likely Democratic voters, for the Des Moines suburbs.

Axne, a Democrat making her first run for office, said that her race was turning on health care and tax fairness, not on courts. Asked about the Democrats who wanted to use the House’s investigative power to probe the process that got Kavanaugh nominated and confirmed, Axne said that it had been “rushed” but that she wasn’t going to weigh in otherwise.

“There’s some concern that the temperament for Judge Kavanaugh is not the best for someone who wants to serve on the Supreme Court,” Axne said. “I’ve seen a heck of a lot of people fired up, but in general, we’ve seen that throughout this administration.”

At both Saturday events, Axne talked and heard more about health care and about the campaign itself. Multiple Democrats asked whether she could fight back harder against the negative ads that claimed she would raise taxes or that she favored a health-care bill that would cut Medicare. (Axne favors expanded Medicare, although she stops short of turning the program into universal coverage.)

“We’re trying to run a fact-based campaign,” Axne told voters in Perry, walking the crowd of two dozen Democrats through what she said was the harm Republican rule had done to Iowa — starting with the pricey, privatized version of Medicaid expansion. That, she said, was the issue of the race.


Joe Biden. He'll return to South Carolina, where he has taken a particular interest in Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith, on Saturday. 

Cory Booker. He won't leave Iowa until Tuesday, wrapping up early-voting events for gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell and for all of the state's federal candidates. On Saturday, he'll help Ohio Democrats launch a canvass.

John Delaney. He's in Arizona all day Monday — first for a canvass launch with Senate candidate Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) in Tempe, then for one with former congresswoman and current House candidate Ann Kirkpatrick in Tucson.

Kamala Harris. She spent Sunday in Ohio, rallying with Democrats in Columbus and getting a boost from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “I don’t make predictions about elections,” Brown said, "but this is not the last time you’ll see her campaigning here."

Eric Holder. At a campaign appearance in Georgia, the former attorney general joked that he “might see two presidents” in a photo of himself and Barack Obama.

Tim Ryan. He keynoted the Iowa Democrats' other big weekend celebration, the Harry Hopkins Dinner in Sioux City.

Bernie Sanders. He'll be making three late October stops with J.D. Scholten, the Democrat running against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in the deep red 4th Congressional District. Sanders says that turning out disaffected voters could put even the reddest areas in play; the senator from Vermont narrowly lost the district to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.

Elizabeth Warren. She's with gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia on Tuesday, which may well be her final political appearance outside Massachusetts before the midterms.

Kirsten Gillibrand. She's joining a "women get it done" phone bank in Atlanta on Monday afternoon, supporting Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.


"The worst job in American politics,” by Theodoric Meyer

Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-Ill.) is, by far, the most endangered Republican on a statewide ballot this year — no poll has shown him within single digits of Democrat J.B. Pritzker. So why does Pritzker, a billionaire who lost a bid for Congress years ago, want to govern a financial basket case of a state? 

As Sen. Jeff Flake stokes White House speculation, his political brand seems in tatters,” by Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Ronald J. Hansen

This is a good corrective to the coverage of Flake as a national political leader, a man who is now trailed by reporters when he speaks in New Hampshire — who, more to the point, has plenty of speaking invitations on his calendar.


... 30 days until the midterms
... 51 days until Mississippi's runoff (if no candidate in the special Senate election clears 50 percent)
... 58 days until Georgia's runoffs (if no candidate for governor cracks 50 percent)
... 1,493 days until the next election for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)