In this edition: Five lessons from debate season, Bernie Sanders and his discontents, and the Kavanaugh conundrum for Tennessee (and West Virginia) Democrats.

Why are you so paranoid? Don’t be so paranoid. This is The Trailer.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The final debate between Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and former governor Phil Bredesen started friendly enough, with the Senate Democratic candidate explaining why he “wanted to take [his] time” before weighing in on the Supreme Court battle. Then Blackburn got the microphone and laid into Bredesen for donating to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and heading to New York to raise money with Michael Bloomberg.

“Maybe he talked about being a running mate in 2020,” Blackburn said.

“That was possibly the shortest civil debate we’ve had a long time,” Bredesen said.

Bredesen last ran for office in 2006; politics is a bit less “civil” now, and this year's debates are following suit. So far, they've been more substantive than a lot of the faceoffs we saw in 2016. They've revealed some of the ideological tension that Democrats thought they got past in their primaries. They've revealed a Republican Party that is building a slightly different case for reelection than the one President Trump is making in his near-daily rallies.

The president has faded into the background. Seriously. In 2016, races for the House and Senate were frequently thrown by what Clinton and Trump had said that week. Plenty of debates began with candidates being asked to react, with as much squirming as possible, to the latest gaffe or allegation.

Both moderators and candidates have been less focused on the president this time. In Knoxville, Blackburn name-checked Hillary Clinton no less than 23 times, asking voters to envision how much the country would have suffered if the election had tipped the other way.

“If Hillary Clinton were president, we'd be cutting military funding, cutting the troops, putting the cash on pallets, sending it to people who don’t wish us well,” said Blackburn. The message was that the president had prevented a disaster, but the particulars of his foreign policy didn't get discussed.

In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) never used the president's name in his first debate with Gov. Rick Scott (R). In a debate this week for New Jersey's 11th District, which was never in play until the Trump presidency, neither Democrat Mikie Sherrill nor Republican Jay Webber mentioned Trump, even though Webber was the rare candidate in a blue-trending district who had gotten the president's endorsement. The Republican, instead, tried to tie his Democratic opponent to unnamed radicals.

“Mikie runs with people who want to abolish ICE,” he said, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “Mikie runs with people who want open borders.”

Nobody 100 percent agrees with Trump on immigration. Democrats generally believe that their best stretch of 2018 came during the controversy over “zero-tolerance” border-control policies, when images of children separated from their immigrant parents dominated the news. When that issue has come up in debates, Republicans have quickly distanced themselves from the president and pivoted to attacking Democrats. 

In Wisconsin, in her first debate with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), Republican nominee Leah Vukmir decried the policy, then accused Baldwin of doing “nothing” to fix the underlying problem. In Tennessee, Blackburn said that “no one wants to see families separated” and described her own 2014 visit to the border “to bring attention the problems with DACA” by suggesting that the Obama administration's policies of allowing legal status to some immigrants brought to America as children had spurred a child migrant crisis.

“What the Democrats have tried to do is abolish ICE,” Blackburn said.

Bredesen stuck to the topic, saying zero tolerance “amounted to child abuse” and would “be studied in the future as an inappropriate period in our history.”

Republicans want to be the Medicare Party. It's not just the president and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan promising that Republicans won't touch Medicare. In every debate that pits a Republican against a Democratic backer of expanded Medicare, Republicans have warned that Democrats would essentially rip health care away from the elderly. At his debate with challenger Jared Golden, Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) literally displayed his mother's Medicare card to dramatize what was at risk if Democrats expanded the program.

“He’s a young radical who has a socialist agenda,” Poliquin said of Golden.

In the Wisconsin debate, Vukmir repeatedly claimed that the Democrat would end Medicare and even the VA system if the Senate's Medicare-for-all bill passed. At one point, she suggested that Baldwin, the only swing-state Democratic senator who signed on to that legislation, had not even read the bill. (Baldwin said she supported “a debate” on Medicare-for-all.) When Baldwin pointed out that Vukmir had once suggested cuts to Medicare and Social Security, the Republican insisted that she was lying; Vukmir had previously said that entitlement reform should be “on the table.”

The debt days are over. For years, as the national debt grew under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it was a surefire debate topic, one that could get candidates out of their safe spaces. In the 2016 presidential debates, there were no fewer than four questions about debt.

Debt held by the public has grown by $2 trillion since that election, but the question isn't pushing candidates like it used to. In most debates, Democrats have quoted Ryan to warn that Republicans will use the debt as a reason to cut entitlement spending; Republicans, like Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), have generally said that faster growth will shore up entitlements.

One of the few debates that went in another direction: the Utah showdown between Republican Mitt Romney and the Democratic nominee, Jenny Wilson. Polling has shown Romney running away with the race, and in the debate, he suggested means-testing entitlements to “save those programs for future generations,” just as he had as a candidate for president. Wilson hit back by asking how he could be a deficit hawk if he supported the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; Romney had few more specifics about spending.

“The best way is to cut back on excessive spending that is old and unnecessary,” he said.

It's the opioids, stupid. The sleeper issue of 2016 is still playing out in 2018, to no party's obvious benefit. Opioid legislation passed both houses of Congress just before early voting began; just as they are in TV ads, incumbent Republicans and Democrats are reminding voters of what they delivered. 

No challenger is letting them end the conversation there. In Wisconsin, Vukmir said that nothing Baldwin had done on opioids made up for lack of early action after a whistleblower reported abuse at a VA hospital. In gubernatorial debates, challengers are suggesting that the party in power (Republicans, in most races) let the problem fester, then panicked. The sharpest exchange came in Ohio, where two-term Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, suggested that the problem was being tackled but that the state might need a full-time “opioid czar” to push harder.

“News flash: We've had an opioid czar in Ohio for the past eight years and his name is Mike DeWine,” Richard Cordray said. “When you see him, tell him he’s doing a horrible job.”

AD WATCH

California Governor. The pro-Republican PAC Restore Our Values throws the entire culture war at Democratic nominee Gavin Newsom, who ran San Francisco for seven years before becoming lieutenant governor. “In Gavin Newsom's San Francisco, kids can't drink juice through plastic straws, but drug users can shoot poison through free plastic syringes,” a narrator intones. That is the most subtle part of the ad: It ends with the narrator asking, “Are you on crack?” The irony of Newsom's career is that he was the conservative candidate for mayor when he won his first term. The irony of the ad is that the straw ban came years after he left city hall.

Michigan Governor. The Republican Governors Association has twice gotten a tracker to quiz Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer about the liberal issue of the day; first, by asking whether she would abolish ICE and then by asking if she could support single-payer health care. Both times, both the question and the answer were as clear as mud, but both became attacks; ergo, the new 15-second spot accusing Whitmer of backing a “government takeover” of health care that would “make private insurance illegal.”  

Whitmer is a tough target for such an attack, as her primary with Abdul El-Sayed, a doctor backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), got national attention. El-Sayed wanted universal health care in Michigan; Whitmer did not. The tracker exchange cited by the RGA doesn't really clarify her position, either; asked whether she'd support single-payer “if that was a bill,” Whitmer says, “I’d love for the feds to do the right thing and get there, and I think that they will and hope they will, at some point.” Is that enough to hang Sanders's bill around her neck? Republicans will try, and Sanders himself will rally with Whitmer next week.

Minnesota 08. The Congressional Leadership Fund's first volley here focused on Democratic nominee Joe Radinovich's character, saying he'd committed "18 crimes” by adding his driving infractions to a youthful marijuana-related arrest. The new ad hits 2018's recurring theme of accusing Medicare-for-all supporters of wanting to rip health care away from senior citizens: “Joe Radinovich would end Medicare as we know it, and stick our kids and grandkids with crushing debt.” Unlike some Democrats hit with that charge, Radinovich really does favor Medicare-for-all; the bill, however, would not cut existing benefits.

Missouri Senate. Two days ago, Republican nominee Josh Hawley hinted that a “candid camera” video of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) was on its way. That video made it into his new ad; it's a clip of McCaskill telling voters in the vote-rich St. Louis area that she can “give up a few votes in the Bootheel” if they turn out. That was a reference to southeastern Missouri, where McCaskill ran relatively strong in 2006 and 2012 but is expected to lose this time. 

North Dakota Senate. Since her no vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, Heidi Heitkamp has ramped up a tactic that had not been working well since the summer; portraying herself as a fed-up centrist who votes her own way. “Too many Democrats don't appreciate our commitment to faith and self-reliance or recognize that we know how to handle guns safely,” she says in her new spot, one that many North Dakotans will see next to Republican spots that morph her into Hillary Clinton.

POLL WATCH

Wisconsin Governor (NBC News/Marist, 571 Likely Voters
Tony Evers (D) - 53%
Scott Walker (R) - 43%

This differs dramatically with the state's legendary Marquette poll, which shows Walker up one, and with internal polling, which has shown a close race. But it's consistent with Marist polling that has shown Walker deep underwater. NBC explains why: random dialing versus Marquette's use of a voter list. The question in this state, since Republicans began losing special elections at the start of the year, is simply whether the Democrats who slept on the 2014 midterm and 2016 general election have re-engaged — that would give us this electorate. 

Michigan Senate (Mitchell, 654 Likely Voters
Debbie Stabenow (D) - 51%
John James (R) - 42%

This pollster, which teamed up with Fox 2 Detroit last cycle, is now teamed up with Michigan's Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed James. And it's the only pollster to find James, a 37-year-old African American  businessman and veteran who has never run for office before, within single digits of Stabenow. This is a race that Republicans wish they could put on the board, though, as James is a favorite of the White House, Fox News and the National Republican Senatorial Committee and out-raised Stabenow in the third quarter. He'll also be campaigning with Donald Trump Jr. and Kid Rock next week. (James responded to a tweet making fun of Trump as a man who "mooched off his daddy" by acting as if the comment was about him; he, like Trump, had gone to work at a family business.)

Minnesota Senate (NBC News/Marist,  637 Likely Voters)
Tina Smith (D) - 54%
Karin Housley (R) - 38%

Republicans, bearish on all of the Midwest's Senate races, have been intrigued by the chance of unseating Smith after her appointment to replace Al Franken. But there are states where the Kavanaugh fight might have helped Republicans, and Minnesota is not one of them. Republicans have whispered that Housley had a good fundraising quarter, but the national party committees have spent less time in the state than President Trump has, personally.

Ohio Governor (Suffolk, 500 Likely Voters)
Richard Cordray (D) - 46%
Mike DeWine (R) - 40%

Democrats could hardly ask for a friendlier set of numbers; Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has never been in trouble, but Suffolk finds a Democratic lift would wipe out Republican control of statewide constitutional offices. Other polls have shown a closer race, and more polls have shown DeWine in the lead. A possible omen for Democrats: Issue One, a ballot measure that would prevent prison time for people caught using or possessing opioids, is up by just 4 points. The rule of thumb: A ballot measure under 50 percent in October does not pass in November. And Republicans have universally campaigned against that measure.

Texas Senate (Quinnipiac, 730 Likely Voters
Ted Cruz (R) - 54%
Beto O'Rourke (D) - 45%

To date, the only poll that's shown Cruz behind O'Rourke was an online survey that neither campaign trusted. Beyond the hype – there has been plenty of that – Cruz responded to O'Rourke's early moves by going on the air with ads pounding him on cultural and quality of life issues, from crime to NFL protesters protesting during the playing of the national anthem. Cruz not only has higher favorable ratings than O'Rourke; he leads O'Rourke by 44 points among voters who want a candidate who "shares my values." Liberals have found O'Rourke inspiring precisely because he's not tacking it in to appeal to conservatives. But there are a lot of conservative voters in Texas; Cruz's own polls have found him running ahead of Donald Trump's 2016 numbers outside of the big cities and suburbs.

ON THE TRAIL

ALCOA, Tenn. — Last week, after Phil Bredesen announced that he would have supported Brett M. Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, the members of Indivisible East Tennessee decided to conduct a poll on the Democratic Senate nominee. Who was in, and who was out? Who in the liberal activist group was willing to support Bredesen even after he, unlike most Democrats, said allegations of past sexual harassment did not disqualify the nominee?

Thirteen members said they wouldn't. Thirty said they were suddenly undecided about the race. But the other 402 members said they were still with Bredesen.

The new, suburban movement to elect Democrats, the one that grew up in the shadow of the 2016 election, has rarely been tested like it was last week. In Tennessee and West Virginia, party organizers worry that the decisions by Bredesen and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to support Kavanaugh had sapped voter enthusiasm. They hoped it was temporary, though, as first reported by Politico, 22 people who had said they would volunteer for Bredesen had told the campaign they were out. 

That was 22 people out of several thousand. The angst in Indivisible East Tennessee was deeper. But over coffee  Thursday morning, several members said they had just needed a few days to process the news.

"I think he lost a lot of volunteers and a lot of energy," said Sara Herron, 41.

"You know what he gained?" said Jackie Hill, 72. "He gained a lot of Republican votes."

"I hope he did," said Sue DuBois, 64. "I'm focusing more on local races now, but I'm still going to vote Democratic."

All of the Indivisible activists had been more interested in their local politics than they were in Bredesen's race. In August, Hill made her first run for office, for a seat on the Blount County Commission. No Democrat had won since 2006, but she did, in one of many examples of suburban Democrats making inroads in what had been reliably red suburbs.

That had been thrilling, while backing Bredesen felt like more of a necessity. They had noticed his prior swerves away from Democratic Party orthodoxy and learned to put up with them, in large part because they knew Republicans, and Republicans had no time for purity tests.

"They're doing the 80-20 rule," said Dorothy Kincaid, 72. "They get 80 percent of what they want? They're good. They look at the total picture. They put up with Trump's lifestyle. Now Trump is president and he got 'em two Supreme Court justices."

On Wednesday night, Bredesen had made the activists groan again, when debate moderators asked what letter grade he'd assign to retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) When Bredesen gave him an "A," Herron went home early from a debate watch party at the University of Tennessee.

She still planned to organize and vote and to discourage anyone outside Tennessee from ditching Bredesen. The poll of local Indivisible members, she said, was headed for the national Indivisible organizers, who like other leaders of liberal groups had said the Kavanaugh support was a dealbreaker.  That was the attitude, they said, that divided Democrats in 2016, and they had never forgiven the people who voted for third parties because they considered Clinton too flawed and centrist.

"Don't you mention Susan Sarandon's name in my presence," Hill said, referring to the liberal actor who was vocally anti-Clinton.

Kincaid, who was receiving hospice care as she battled pancreatic cancer, said that doctors had previously told her she might be dead by now. They'd gotten that wrong, and she expected to survive to Christmas, with plenty of time to vote. Even for Bredesen.

"Just call me Santa Claus," she said.

2020

Cory Booker. He'll head to Ohio on Friday and Saturday to rally Democrats and to South Carolina late next week.

Kamala Harris. She'll campaign in South Carolina on Oct. 19, at several to-be-determined party events in the Lowcountry and upstate.

Bernie Sanders. His nine-state tour is drawing some criticism; while Sanders will be in South Carolina on Oct. 20, Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith has said that he will not attend and that he does not support “the Bernie Sanders health-care plan.”

READING LIST

"Democrats are ignoring one key voting group: veterans,”  by Jasper Craven

The rarely reported downside of the Democrats' campaign to run veterans for office is that they've tried it before, and lost. Republicans, meanwhile, have a steady supply of money and resources for a campaign to activate and register veterans, then ask for their votes.

 

“Let’s talk about the odds of something happening,” by Philip Bump

You can't jump in and argue every time someone says, "But the polls were wrong in 2016.” Instead, you can read this.

WHAT I'M WATCHING

Sheldon Adelson's money. Per Politico, Sheldon Adelson is putting “tens of millions” of dollars into the semiofficial GOP super PACs for House and Senate races: the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Senate Leadership Fund. Coincidentally, earlier this week the CLF's Corry Bliss warned donors, in a memo, that a “green wave” of Democratic small-dollar donations threatened to blunt any advantage of the House protection campaign, which had grown $30 million larger than its initial $100 million budget.

What will the new money mean? In House races, the usual pre-election “triage” of a wave year had been smaller than before; only a few Republican districts have been abandoned by both the CLF and the National Republican Congressional Committee. And Adelson's August donation to the CLF, $30 million, did not prevent two more months of robust Democratic fundraising. The CLF argued that its most important buys were early, early investments in voter contact and a run of August ads that battered Democrats with negative messaging. We're heading into the final weeks, with many of the most competitive Democratic candidates having reserved the most valuable ad time.

Still, you'd rather have tens of millions dollars than not. Watch whether this moves into Senate races that seemed tantalizingly out of reach — Montana, where the president will campaign next week, or West Virginia, where both parties are monitoring the effect of the Kavanaugh vote,.

COUNTDOWN

... eight days until Elizabeth Warren's first debate with her Republican opponent
... 10 days until Kirsten Gillibrand's first debate with her Republican opponent
... 24 days until the final debate of 2018, the gubernatorial debate in Minnesota
... 26 days until the midterms