In this edition: Very special candidates, money in all the right places, must-win races that Democrats aren't winning, and a way-too-early 2020 assessment.

I'm not making any decisions until the midterms are over, and this is The Trailer.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the Ohio State Buckeyes ran onto their field to face Minnesota's Golden Gophers, Danny O'Connor was busy shaking hands at a tailgate party next to the stadium.

“You're the guy running for Congress, right?” asked Shawn Keller, a community banker who'd just moved into the district. “Who's the guy you're running against?”

O'Connor, who narrowly lost an August special election to Rep. Troy Balderson (R), had never really stopped running against him. While dozens of other districts are seen as more likely Democratic pickups, and Republican PACs have largely moved on, O'Connor built off the national attention on his race, pulling in $2 million since the polls closed Aug. 7 in a district that was drawn to favor Republicans.

“The fundraising gap [with Balderson] has actually widened since then,” O'Connor said. “The electorate's different now, too, because people are back on campus. We saw college precincts, in the special, where turnout was 5 percent of what it had been in 2016, and that's going to change dramatically.”

There are plenty of races like O'Connor's right now, where party strategists don't see an opening but their donors do. At least 60 House Democratic candidates raised $1 million in the third quarter, the last full quarter before the midterms. The biggest individual hauls came for House and Senate candidates with relatively slim chances of victory, like California's Andrew Janz (who raised $4.3 million for his challenge of Rep. Devin Nunes) and Texas's Beto O'Rourke (who brought in $38.1 million for the race against Sen. Ted Cruz). A party that has mastered the art of panic has worried, out loud, about donors going to the wrong places.

But the candidates and local parties disagree. They think that contesting long-shot races, if done correctly, is going to help them on the margins. In Ohio, Democrats believe that the months O'Connor spent organizing around Columbus's suburbs and central Ohio sped up the work they were going to do for their statewide ticket. Hundreds of volunteers for O'Connor were trained and stayed in the field. For Ohio's Future, a union-funded group working to turn out Democrats in the most populous counties, the O'Connor race overlapped with the period they were knocking on doors to persuade voters on issues such as health care.

“The doors we knocked in the special overlapped in a major way with the doors we're knocking again now,” said FOF spokesman Daniel Van Hoogstraten, as he accompanied a canvasser on a Saturday walk through Columbus's suburbs. 

Republicans organized that summer, too, and they did win the election. The Congressional Leadership Fund, which opened a get-out-the-vote office in the district, never closed it. Republicans in central and eastern Ohio said that they saw a surge of interest during the special, with some voters coming out to cast ballots, inspired by President Trump's campaign visit to the district but unaware that they didn't live inside its lines.

“People wanted to vote for Troy,” said Doug Wills, who has run the Tuscarawas County Republican Party in eastern Ohio since 1994. “We heard that all over the region.”

It's exceedingly rare for a candidate who loses a special election to come back and win the same race in November. The last case of it happening, Mark Neumann's narrow 1994 victory in Wisconsin, is still studied because it was so uncommon. According to the Cook Political Report, just three of the seats contested in special elections this cycle remain competitive. All of them — Ohio's 12th District, Georgia's 6th District and Montana's statewide congressional district — lean toward Republicans.

“We are closely monitoring all three races, and all three are currently in a position to win,” said Courtney Alexander, the CLF's communications director.

But these sorts of races create fires for the party in power to put out. In Georgia, Lucy McBath raised $962,000 in the third quarter, far less than Jon Ossoff had raised in the 2017 special but more than any other Democrat had raised in the district in this century. In Montana, Kathleen Williams raised $2.1 million in the quarter, enough to fund a credible campaign. The Republican incumbents have yet to release their fundraising and cash-on-hand totals; people familiar with the polling in each race say that Republicans lead by double digits in Georgia but that the other races are within single digits. 

The long-shot campaigns don't appear to be draining resources from closer races. Every incumbent Democratic senator up in 2018 has run far ahead of his or her 2012 numbers. The challengers are also raking in more; Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has raised at least $15 million for a Senate race where the last Democrat topped out below $7 million. At the same time, Hiral Tipirneni, the Democrat who lost a close special election in the state's conservative 8th District, raised $916,000 in the third quarter, cementing her fundraising lead over Rep. Debbie Lesko (R).

After 2016, Democratic donors are more ready than ever to give money but less trusting than ever of the national party's strategy. The result is that they're contesting nearly everything, while party PACs focus on more winnable races. And so far, that arrangement has kept Republicans under pressure.

The PACs, on the Democratic side, have stayed completely out of Texas, where O'Rourke has been consistently trailing in private and public polling by the high single digits. But both sides, even when they talk down his chance to win, speculate that his appeal and well-funded campaign structure in the state's suburbs could help Democrats push over the line in districts around Houston, Dallas and Austin. There was no strong statewide party infrastructure before; there's now a well-funded grass-roots campaign across the state. Even as they mock the glowing media profiles of O'Rourke and say that the money should be spent elsewhere, Republicans aren't laughing that off.

AD WATCH

California 08. There's one race in California that Republicans literally cannot lose, where Rep. Paul Cook and former state legislator Tim Donnelly are locked in a runoff. Trump has endorsed Cook; Donnelly is trying to outflank him as the true right-winger in the race, a visionary who supported a border wall before it was cool. “If you like an establishment politician who's lazy and never shows up, the incumbent's your man,” Donnelly says. “If you think special rights for transgenders and illegal aliens ought to be the highest priority, vote for your incumbent.”

Colorado Governor. Republicans continue to believe that the path to beating Rep. Jared Polis (D) runs through his support for the House's Medicare-for-all bill and for a state-based single-payer system. The latest ad contrasts that with Walker Stapleton's work to “reject government health care,” which is political ad-speak for opposing the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion — an issue that has been dragging down Stapleton.

Montana Senate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is up with an ad that urges Sen. Jon Tester to oppose the Senate's Medicare-for-all bill — which he has never supported.  While there are plenty such ads attacking first-time candidates, Tester's a special case — he is one of just two Democratic senators who had voted for the ACA then won reelection in 2012 while President Barack Obama was losing their states. (Missouri's Claire McCaskill is the other.) We've never seen this version of the “government-run health care” attack deployed against Democrats who were once accused of supporting that very same thing by backing “Obamacare.”

New Hampshire Governor. The campaign for Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is the kind that's working for most blue state, East Coast Republican governors: just remind voters of how good the economy is. “New Hampshire is back and better than ever,” he says. No New Hampshire governor has lost a bid for a second term since 2004, when the economy was not nearly so hot.

New Mexico 02. The Republican attempt to become the Medicare party continues with this spot, which might be the platonic ideal of the old joke, “get your government hands off my Medicare.” Footage of worried seniors plays under a warning that Democrat Xochitl Torres Small would replace Medicare, which is government-run, single-payer health insurance,  with “a new government-run system.” It's  been established that Torres Small does not support the House's Medicare-for-all bill; that debate played out in local media when a previous NRCC ad portrayed a future where private health insurance was outlawed.

Ohio Governor. The closing campaign issue for Republicans here isn't Eric Holder or mobs or Brett M. Kavanaugh. It's Issue One, a criminal justice restructuring initiative that would dramatically reduce penalties for drug offenses. The new spot for GOP nominee Mike DeWine lines up police officers who warn that Ohio would have the “most lenient drug laws in America” if the issue, which Democratic nominee Richard Cordray supports, passes.

Virginia 05. The Republican Jewish Coalition's victory fund has focused on beating two Democrats in swing seats — Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania and Leslie Cockburn in this Charlottesville- and Danville-based district. In the RJC's new spot, a fancy meal is set for Cockburn, to dramatize how she “chooses to eat with despots and dictators” such as Saddam Hussein's sons. That's a bit of jujitsu; Cockburn herself has often spoke of how her work as a journalist took her to dictatorships and war zones, where she interviewed ruthless dictators.

POLL WATCH

Generic Ballot (Washington Post, 752 Likely Voters)
Democrats - 55%
Republicans - 42%

Two weeks since the Kavanaugh vote, Republicans say that they've climbed in internal polling of deep red states and districts; Democrats, meanwhile, have grown their lead everywhere else. For perspective: Two years ago this week, the Post poll had Hillary Clinton up by 4 points with likely voters. Twelve days later, James Comey released his letter to Congress, announcing a last-minute probe of more of Hillary Clinton's emails.

2020 Democratic nomination ( CNN/SSRS, 464 Democrats)
Joe Biden - 33%
Bernie Sanders - 13%
Kamala Harris - 9%
Elizabeth Warren - 8%
Cory Booker - 5%
John Kerry - 5%
Mike Bloomberg - 4%
Beto O'Rourke - 4%
Eric Holder - 3%
Eric Garcetti - 2%
Michael Avenatti - 1%
Kirsten Gillibrand - 1%
Amy Klobuchar - 1%
Deval Patrick - 1%

Already? Yes, already. At this point, any national poll of Democrats is essentially a name recognition quiz, and as reporters and campaigns will never tire of telling you, there is no national primary. (On the day that Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton led the "national" polls by 21 points.)

So what's interesting here?

One: Biden is not the sort of front-runner that scares away contenders. In the same poll, four years ago, fully 65 percent of Democrats said they wanted Hillary Clinton to be their nominee. Twelve years ago, just 28 percent of Democrats said that of Clinton, and that race was seen, correctly, as a contest where a fresh face could defeat a popular but flawed front-runner. Clinton was just turning 60 at the time. Biden turns 76 next month.

Two: Bernie Sanders, while broadly popular, and while drawing the biggest crowds of any figure in liberal or left-wing politics, has not carried his support from 2016 into polls of 2020, either nationally in the early states. Sanders turned 77 last month.

Three: Democratic voters are more intrigued by their large "first tier" candidate field than they've been in years. You hear the same thing in conversations with early state voters; they want to see, in person, the younger and lesser-known contenders.

Florida 27 (Mason-Dixon, 625 Likely Voters)
Maria Salazar - 44%
Donna Shalala - 42%

Republicans have been touting Salazar, a longtime Telemundo reporter, for months; Democrats have been pulling their hair out over Shalala for just as long.  They dispute the internals of this poll, which find the president to be only narrowly unpopular in a district he lost by 20 points. But they don't deny that Shalala, a 77-year-old party icon who does not speak Spanish, did too little to shore up her position. She began running Spanish language ads last week, linking Salazar to Trump.

Nevada Senate (NYT/Siena, 642 Likely Voters)
Dean Heller (R) - 47%
Jacky Rosen (D) - 45%

Heller, objectively speaking, was and is the most endangered Republican senator on the ballot this year. But his strategy for holding off Rosen was simple and so far potent: relentlessly pound her with negative ads that question her ethics and business record, while portraying himself as a centrist. But with the exception of 2014, Nevada Democrats have a habit of grinding out a vote larger than the polling indicates. Siena's obsessively detailed crosstabs tell the story here: If this year's electorate looks like the one that showed up in 2016, Rosen leads by 4.

2020

Michael Avenatti. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he warned that other Democrats couldn't win in 2020 and scoffed at their investments in Iowa. “They have 60 people in Iowa,” he said. “I don’t know what those 60 people are doing. Maybe they are building the Field of Dreams II in Iowa or something.”

Mike Bloomberg. Stumping in New Hampshire for “gun sense” candidates, the former New York mayor suggested he's focused on the midterms for 23 more days and will “see what happens down the road.”

Cory Booker. He's been on a tear for Democrats in swing states, spending Friday and Saturday in Ohio to launch canvasses. On Thursday, he heads to a Democratic fundraiser in South Carolina.

John Delaney. He made three more stops in New Hampshire this weekend, at canvass launches for state senate candidates.

Kamala Harris. We now have the dates for her early-state campaign swing: Friday in South Carolina, then Iowa on Oct. 22 and 23. 

Jay Inslee. The governor of Washington and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association was in Iowa again this weekend. To be fair: That's a legitimately close state this year, and Inslee's visits are less transparently about a possible presidential bid than those made by Chris Christie in 2014, when Republicans were heading for a blowout.

Deval Patrick. He swung through the Atlanta suburbs this weekend to campaign for Lucy McBath in Georgia's 6th District.

Bernie Sanders. He made some Sunday talk-show rounds and, true to form, refused to speculate on 2020 plans, though he did weigh in on the civility news cycle: "I am not a great fan of being rude or disrupting activities."

Elizabeth Warren. The Boston Globe looks at something that's been hard to miss if you spend time on Facebook — frequent ads for Warren, more often focusing on the bipartisan bills she's gotten passed than on the political issue of the moment.

READING LIST

"Elizabeth Warren builds expansive Democratic campaign effort ahead of likely 2020 bid,” by Matt Viser 

Warren is up by 25 points or more in her reelection bid; at the same time, she's used some of her time and resources to build a “war room” for Democrats outside her state.

“GOP claims of voter fraud threat fuel worries about ballot access in November,” by Amy Gardner

Last week's controversy in Georgia has kicked off panic about how Republican-run election systems might be purging legitimate voters from the rolls.

“Seed, pesticide, and banking monopolies — not immigrants — are destroying farm country. An Iowa insurgent hopes that message can dethrone Steve King,” by David Dayen

This is the sort of deep, policy-heavy profile of an individual campaign that rarely gets written anymore. Dayen boards the J.D. Scholten Winnebago, becoming the first national reporter to spend real time with the baseball pitcher-turned-candidate who has quietly out-campaigned Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) all year. King remains favored to win, even in a good Democratic environment, but Dayen digs into the ag issues that have left an opening for an anti-corporate populist.

“Political tracker posed as Courier Times reporter at Scott Wallace event,” by Thomas Friestad

One of the year's under-the-radar stories has been the aggressiveness of trackers, especially on the Republican side. There's nothing new about the practice of paying young campaign staff to point cameras at politicians. But over the summer, one tracker in an Upstate New York race falsely claimed that his phone was off when it was recording a meeting; this story covers how a tracker posed as a local reporter to get face time with a Democratic candidate.

EVERYBODY IS WRONG

We're talking about 2020 already? That's fine. Joe Biden leads in the national trial heat? That makes sense.

But there's a good reason to wait until after the midterms to make any assessment of what Democratic primary voters are going to want. The assessment of Biden factors in something that creeps up every time a party narrowly loses the presidency — a sense that it can win again by peeling back the voters who decided the swing states. To quote Robert Costa and Ashley Parker's reporting from this week, “Those close to Trump say the Democrat who most worries the president and his team is former vice president Joe Biden, who they fear could cut into his working-class white support in such states as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.”

Both parties have been here before. At this point in 2014, before the midterms, Republicans were still hurting from their surprise 2012 defeat, which elite commentary blamed on the party's losses with nonwhite voters and women. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was seen as the candidate who could disrupt the Democrats' advantage with young voters; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was the candidate who could shed the party's toxic image on immigration.

And then Republicans won the midterms, freeing up conservative voters to pick their ideal candidate.

At this point in 2006, Democrats were having a slightly different conversation. There was valid, universal assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to be the front-runner, and a universal assumption that she would lose voters who had twice supported George W. Bush. A number of Democrats who'd won red states got presidential buzz, from then-Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana to future senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia to Phil Bredesen, then the popular governor of Tennessee. In a profile of Bredesen,  now running for Senate, Clay Risen speculated that his record “would allow him to attract swaths of economically challenged rural voters in places like Virginia and North Carolina, the very voters who commentators say should be prime Democratic constituents but who nevertheless repeatedly pull the lever for GOP candidates.”

And then Democrats won the midterms, freeing up liberal voters to pick their ideal candidate.

Right now, even as they get back to worrying about polls in red-state Senate races, Democrats are tied or ahead in six gubernatorial races that have one thing in common: They're in states that flipped from Obama to Trump. Democrats are heavily favored to win the races for governor in Michigan and Pennsylvania, narrowly favored to win in Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin, and have a puncher's chance of winning in Ohio. In four of those states — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — incumbent Democratic senators hold double-digit leads, and outside Republican groups have quietly left the field.

Some of those races could go south. If they don't, Democrats would wake up Nov. 7 having solved the problem that cost them the presidency, winning back the Midwest. And that would fundamentally change how Democratic base voters look at 2020. Suddenly, no one Democratic nominee would be seen as the best-placed to win the Midwest and Florida.

So, it's fine to wait on the 2020 speculation for another 24 days.

MEET A PAC

The PAC: American Values

PARTY: #NeverTrump Republican

FOCUS: Defeating Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to send a message about what sort of Republicans should no longer be welcome in the party.

BUDGET: It's going to spend at least $600,000 on TV and digital ads against both Republicans, who represent districts that solidly backed Trump in 2016 by 9.5 points (Nunes) and 27.4 points (King). It's helmed by Evan McMullin and Mindy Finn, two Republicans who ran as independent candidates for president and vice president in 2016 against Trump. 

PLAN: The TV spots, previewed for The Washington Post, make concise arguments that both congressmen have lost touch with their constituents.

“Instead of working for us, he spends his time on TV, leaking information and attacking law enforcement,” a narrator in the Nunes ad says.

The King spot swerves a little, using the language of positive ads (including some bouncy music) to share the nice things that racists have said about King.

“He's a hero, declares the neo-Nazi Stormfront website,” says the narrator. “God bless Steve King, says former KKK grand wizard David Duke.”

“People are looking at these elections as a blue wave versus a red wall, but we should be united around the values and interests of our country, placing them before our respective parties,” said Mike Ongstad, the PAC's communications director. “In the case of Steve King, Iowans of both parties should come together to reject his radical ideology and unabashed bigotry. In California, a similar cross-party coalition should defend truth and the rule of law by cutting Devin Nunes loose. Both of these men have lost touch with their districts, focusing instead on their corrosive personal projects”

EFFECTIVENESS: McMullin and Finn have tried this before; Stand Up Republic, their 501c (4) group, ran hundreds of thousands of dollars of negative ads against Roy Moore at the end of his failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. Those ads were more somber, portraying young girls and asking voters to remember them when they voted, and putting forward disgruntled Republicans who couldn't support Moore. 

COUNTDOWN

... one day until every third-quarter fundraising number is public
... 23 days until the midterms
... 30 days until the House and Senate return for a lame-duck session
... 81 days until the 119th Congress convenes