In this edition: 2020 Democrats get a free ride, the ACLU puts $10 million on voting rights, uncorroborated allegations become a hot new trend and undercover videos reveal that candidates are secretly behaving like politicians.
I'm just laying out the charges so that voters know who they're voting for, and this is The Trailer.
On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released the results of a DNA test and a video explaining why her family back in Oklahoma believes they have Native American roots. That made national news. On Friday, she'll debate the Republican challenging her in Massachusetts. That will be an afterthought.
There's a reason: Republicans expect Warren to win by a landslide. Geoff Diehl, her Republican opponent, has raised $2.4 million; Warren has raised $33.3 million. The super PACs hovering over a dozen swing races haven't touched Massachusetts at all.
“Political donors don’t invest in landslides and lost causes,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist who worked for Warren's vanquished 2012 opponent, Scott Brown. "It’s unfortunate that her reelection has not become more competitive, but that’s the reality."
Warren is one of four senators up for reelection seen as potential or all-but-certain candidates for the Democrats' 2020 presidential nomination; the others are Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In the past, the president's party has typically tried to make reelection difficult for anyone who might soon run against him, or anyone who might become a star.
That strategy powered a brusque self-funder to challenge then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1990. Ten years later, it helped Rick Lazio raise $39 million to challenge Hillary Clinton. This year, the four Republican challengers to the Democrats' potential presidential candidates have raised less than one-tenth as much as that, $3,858,354 — combined.
This wasn't inevitable. In early 2017, Republican mega-donor Robert Mercer put six figures into a super PAC that ran some early anti-Warren ads in Massachusetts. America Rising, which Reed ran until that year, began tracking Warren and putting out opposition research; it still does so, and this week it blasted out coverage of Warren's DNA test to a national media list.
“The super PAC dark money's been in this race since long before any declared Republican candidate,” Warren said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “I'm going to be campaigning every day, whether they come after me or not.”
For the most part, they stopped coming after her, and they never really came after Gillibrand, Klobuchar or Sanders. Gillibrand raised $19.6 million for her reelection bid, and challenger Chele Farley, in a fundraiser for New York's GOP, collected just $1.2 million. They will debate for the first and only time Sunday, in Saratoga Springs, far from New York's media hub, after Farley asked for five debates across the state.
“It's incredible how much she ignores her state,” Farley said of Gillibrand in an interview, shortly before the senator headed to New Hampshire with that state's Democratic candidate for governor.
What explains this? The Republican challengers were blunt: Their party had a lot of opportunities across the country to gain Senate seats, and it was hard to convince donors that deep blue states were winnable. Even Massachusetts's Republican governor, Charlie Baker, who's cruising to reelection, said in a debate that he wasn't sure whether he'd vote for Diehl, though he later backtracked and said he would. While Diehl has brought in some boldfaced Republican names for fundraisers (former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine), he said he was compelled to run a “frugal” campaign.
“I think Hillary Clinton showed us that having a lot of money is not enough to make people like you,” Diehl said. “I've been getting on CNN, on Fox. I've been making the rounds.”
Plenty of long-shot candidates, however, have built campaign war chests and national profiles by challenging politicians despised by their party's base. That's been happening all year with Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.), who has raised $60.7 million in his underdog race with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. That's happened in a number of House races, like the one in California's 22nd District, where Democrat Andrew Janz has raised $7.2 million to challenge Rep. Devin Nunes (R), who is not seen as particularly vulnerable but has become a high-profile defender of the president.
Why has no Beat Gillibrand or Beat Warren or Beat Sanders campaign gotten the same lift? One reason is that, in general, small-dollar Republican donors have given less to down-ballot candidates this cycle than small-dollar Democrats have. Another is that some of the small-dollar donations have been rerouted to campaigns that aren't particularly relevant right now — $100 million, for example, to the Trump reelection campaign. In Massachusetts, Diehl has also raised less money than an independent conservative candidate, Shiva Ayyadurai, who has run a more Trump-like campaign than Diehl with the slogan “only a real Indian can beat a fake Indian.” And none of the four Democrats is an odds-on favorite for the nomination, leading Republican money and interest to diffuse.
“It was clear four years ago that Hillary would be the front-runner,” Reed said. “We had a four-year head start to do FOIAs [records requests], to invest in tracking, to make those early hits that seeded the ground for negative narratives. None of these senators are obvious front-runners, so it's really apples to oranges.”
The effect of these weak challenges is that the (potential) 2020 Democrats have been freed up to build national operations. As The Post's Matt Viser reported Sunday, Warren has already diverted some resources into a national war room, based in her Boston reelection headquarters, to help Democrats across the country.
Gillibrand has run a lower-profile national operation; Sanders, whose Republican opponent has raised just $93,000 and was put on the ballot after another candidate pulled out, is about to stump across nine states, including Iowa and South Carolina. Klobuchar, who has focused the most of these four on her reelection campaign, is heading for a landslide victory that could help pull more Democrats into office, and reelect appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.).
More than 2.2 million ballots have been cast in the midterm elections, according to the trackers at the United States Election Project, and four states have blown past the early vote trends they saw four years ago.
The MVP of early voting so far is Georgia where, as of Wednesday evening, 296,610 votes had already been cast. That's nearly triple the early vote by this point in 2014, and this electorate is so far skewing less white than in any previous election. Of the 88,077 voters who have cast a ballot this year but not in 2014, 76.5 percent are nonwhite.
Florida voters are also beating their 2014 pace, but the party advantage is less clear. Democratic strategist Steve Schale's analysis of the ballots clears things up — Democrats are beating the expectations in a few swing counties, such as Sarasota, while the Republican base in southwest Florida is fully engaged and turning out ahead of the usual pace.
Georgia Governor. From the start of this race, Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams has run as both the candidate of national progressive groups and as a churchgoing pragmatist. Ads in her primary campaign showed her making food for the needy; her new spot shows her saying grace with her family, then describing how she stopped a “massive tax hike."
Minnesota 01. Republicans’ outside spending in this race has focused intensely on a pair of tweets that Democrat Dan Feehan, an Army veteran, wrote about former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s protests. Previous ads diluted their impact by showing the tweet, with the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick. This National Republican Congressional Committee ad is high-concentrate. It links Feehan’s work for the Center for a New American Security to George Soros, who has donated to CNAS and, according to the NRCC, “left-wing mobs paid to riot in our streets.” That’s a common sleight of hand in ads attacking the “angry left”— Soros has given to some groups that engage in civil disobedience, but not to any Antifa presence.
Pennsylvania 10. The pro-Trump America First Action, which has been playing exclusively in red states and districts, is now on the air in a district that backed the president by 9 points. It's the sort of animated ad that often bombs with focus groups, portraying Democratic nominee George Scott as a cutout liberal who, for some reason, is seen falling with a parachute. Scott's roots in the district are not as deep as Republican Rep. Scott Perry's, but Scott is a retired lieutenant colonel, and hitting military veterans for only recently relocating to districts can be risky.
West Virginia Senate. If any West Virginia voters didn't know that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) grew up with Alabama football coach Nick Saban, they do now — and they know that NBA legend Jerry West and longtime Mountaineers basketball coach Bob Huggins also support Manchin. Some celebrity endorsements can blur into the background or get attacked as a rescue mission by the elites. That'll be harder to do with these particular celebrities.
Wisconsin Senate/Governor. Future45, another pro-Trump super PAC, is beginning to run ads that tie every Democrat to the protests of the Brett M. Kavanaugh nomination and the “rise of socialism.” It's striking because last week's conversation about Democrats as an “angry mob” has only subtly leaked into campaigns so far; images of anarchists smashing windows, prominent in ads last year, remain more prominent than footage from the court fight, where protesters were loud but nonviolent.
Arizona Senate. The last two weeks have been one, long, slow-motion Band-Aid peel for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), as opposition research and CNN have turned up short clips of her speeches to liberal groups in 2011, when she was first seeking a seat in Congress. At the time, Sinema was a legislator working against conservative bills, such as the SB1070 immigration measure; she told liberals in speeches outside the state that Arizona had become the “meth lab of democracy” and that they could stop their own states “from becoming Arizona.” The greatest hits are recapped in the new spot from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Florida Senate (St. Pete Polls, 1,974 Likely Voters)
Rick Scott (R) - 49%
Bill Nelson (D) - 47%
This is the first poll to show Scott leading this race in a month, but it hasn't caused the traditional gut-quake among Democrats. Why? By a 40-point margin, voters say they approved of Scott's work in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Since August, he's gained just two points in this poll's trial heat. Democrats knew that the coming of the hurricane would pause the race and give Scott a chance to impress voters who might have been ready to move on from him. But they were bracing for a bigger surge than this.
New Jersey Senate (Monmouth, 527 Likely Voters)
Bob Menendez (D) - 49%
Bob Hugin (R) - 40%
Among Democrats, Hugin's decision to run ads on unproved allegations about Menendez was seen as evidence that he could not break through after spending $24 million pounding the senator on the air. This poll, following a Quinnipiac poll that put Menendez up 7, seems to capture a race that simply won't budge — there are too many voters who strongly disapprove of President Trump and won't send a Republican to Washington this year. The most telling numbers here? Asked if "whatever Menendez did was worse than what most other politicians do" or "about the same as what most other politicians do," just 22 percent of New Jersey voters said it was worse, and 64 percent said it was about the same.
New York Senate (Quinnipiac, 852 Likely Voters)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D) - 58%
Chele Farley (R) - 33%
For all the reasons mentioned at the top of this newsletter, the Empire State has simply never been in play this year. But Gillibrand has done something that few Senate candidates would dare, unless they're in safe states. She's moved steadily to the left since 2012, when she won one of the biggest landslides in New York history, trouncing a Republican opponent by 46 points. Hillary Clinton, who held this seat before Gillibrand, took a different approach to her only reelection campaign, building a bipartisan record that came back to haunt her in the 2008 presidential primary. (Had Clinton opposed the invasion of Iraq, she probably would have been the party's presidential nominee that year.) Clinton proved that her appeal had grown while in office, but blew through most of her $51 million war chest to do it. Gillibrand, meanwhile, has become one of the Senate's most reliable liberals and is on track to win by a smaller margin. A win, she understands, is a win.
Tennessee Senate (SSRS, 800 Likely Voters)
Phil Bredesen (D) - 44%
Marsha Blackburn (R) - 43%
Two weeks ago, it was the polls showing Blackburn far ahead of Bredesen that kicked off a storyline about the Supreme Court fight dashing any Democratic hopes of Senate gains. Both campaigns in Tennessee insisted the race was closer than that; internal polling has never showed the gap between the candidates growing past single digits. This, the first public poll in a month to show a tie, is closer to what Tennesseans are seeing, with the Supreme Court drama fading (and early voting underway).
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Candid Camera. It's one of the biggest political stories in Missouri this week: Cornered by an undercover political operative, who was secretly filming her every word, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) restated her public positions on gun rights.
“We've got 60 votes for a number of measures that would help with gun safety, but [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell won't let 'em come to the floor,” McCaskill told an undercover cameraman working for Project Veritas Action, a 501(c) (4) organization that specializes in this sort of investigation. When the cameraman asked whether McCaskill would favor bans on “high-capacity mags” and “bump stocks,” the senator said she'd “voted for most of those things before.”
Indeed, she had — McCaskill was one of the few red state Democrats who backed Democratic gun safety measures introduced in 2013, after the massacre in Newtown, Conn.
But as with other PVA stings, the undercover cameraman had baited numerous McCaskill staffers into explaining why the senator was not running on liberal positions in a red state. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley promoted the PVA video in a fundraising letter, telling donors that it had “exposed” the senator. “We cannot allow Senator McCaskill to stay in office after this,” Hawley wrote. “We need to make sure that every voter in Missouri sees the real Claire McCaskill.”
Now, McCaskill's campaign is trying to turn the video back on Hawley, asking him to probe whether the PVA violated Missouri's merchandising practices act by planting fake staffers to undermine her campaign. Hawley has refused, but what's striking is that he jumped on the video in the first place. Project Veritas Action is a spinoff of Project Veritas, a group that tried and failed to peddle false information to The Washington Post in 2017. Its modus operandi, of getting the trust of campaign staffers and trying to portray their campaigns as hypocritical, has appeared in races for Senate in Missouri and Tennessee; the Republican campaigns that benefited from this reacted but did not promote the videos.
Undercover video is hardly new to politics, but the tactics meant to obtain it have gotten nastier this year. In Nevada this week, Mike Stark, a longtime tracker for Democratic groups, was fired from American Bridge after allegedly pushing into a campaign event and grabbing a Republican campaign manager by the arm.
In Pennsylvania last week — in a far less violent situation — a tracker for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick's (R) reelection bid was fired after he impersonated a reporter for a local newspaper to get an interview with Democratic nominee Scott Wallace.
A few months earlier, an operative paid by for the National Republican Congressional Committee attended an informal meet-and-greet that Tedra Cobb, a Democrat running in Upstate New York, was holding for teenagers. According to Cobb and her campaign staff, the operative claimed that his phone was out of power, then rebuffed an offer to plug it in. All the while, he was taping the meeting, eventually delivering a clip of Cobb saying that she had been told not to talk about banning assault rifles, because it would hurt her campaign.
Had the Missouri tape found McCaskill making such an admission, it might have dynamited her campaign. It didn't — but her opponent, nonetheless, is rooting on an undercover operation that embarrassed some of her young staffers. Campaigns have grown more paranoid and protective of their candidates every two years, but this subterfuge isn't revealing much. It's just heightening the paranoia.
Republicans have largely given up on the Senate campaign of Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), but Renacci has tried to cut into Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s advantage with a sustained focus on Brown’s divorce from his first wife — specifically, an allegation in the divorce records that Brown once physically restrained her during an argument. Brown’s ex-wife has denounced Renacci and appeared in ads for the senator. But Wednesday, Renacci ran the ball even farther, telling the Cincinnati Inquirer that he’d “had multiple women contact me and say, ‘I was assaulted by Sherrod Brown.’”
That landed like a stink bomb in Ohio media. It wasn’t just that Renacci offered no evidence or contacts for the alleged stories about Brown; it was that less than 100 hours earlier, he was saying there were no other stories. In a reporter scrum after Sunday night’s debate with Brown, Renacci was asked whether he thought Brown had “multiple victims of domestic violence” in his past.
“No, I’m saying I’m standing up for all victims of domestic violence,” Renacci said then.
Brown’s campaign has denied the charges and denounced Renacci, but this, incredibly, is becoming a theme of the week — campaigns getting over their skis by making unproved allegations.
In Minnesota, a conservative news site led the charge to unseal divorce records of Rep. Keith Ellison (D), who's running for attorney general in the state. The theory: Something in Ellison’s past would lend credence to an ex-girlfriend’s claim that he had once tried to shove her off a bed. The reality: Ellison’s ex-wife never claimed to be abused, while Ellison said that his ex-wife had hit him during arguments and that he’d never struck back. (The headline at Alpha News, which pushed to unseal the records: “Ellison Claims He Was A Victim Of Domestic Abuse In Divorce File.”)
In New Jersey, Republican Senate nominee Bob Hugin is now on the defensive after running an ad that misleadingly claims that the FBI found evidence of Sen. Bob Menendez (D) consorting with prostitutes. After a burst of coverage about the ad itself, coverage in New Jersey has focused on how reporters probed and debunked the allegations years ago — a change from the last six months, when Hugin had Menendez on the defensive over the facts of the FBI’s actual case against him, dealing with alleged favors to a donor.
Here’s the irony. Many Republicans believe that Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh were damaging him and on track to sink his nomination. Then, they say, attorney and potential 2020 presidential candidate Michael Avenatti plowed into the controversy with an affidavit that accused Kavanaugh of being present at parties where “gang rape” took place. Multiple Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), cited the Avenatti document as evidence that Kavanaugh was being smeared.
There is, even in 2018, such a thing as a backlash if an attack doesn’t seem credible. It took less than two weeks for some campaigns to forget that.
The American Civil Liberties Union will invest at least $10 million in ballot measures to expand voting rights in three swing states: Florida, Michigan and Nevada. Here's the breakdown of the money, which is being distributed to each state's official campaign for the ballot measures.
- $5.5 million for Florida's Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to most nonviolent felons
- $3.3 million for Michigan's Proposal 3, which would introduce automatic voter registration and early voting
- $1.2 million for Nevada's Question 5, which would introduce automatic voter registration.
A surge of new donations and memberships for the ACLU was one of the first tremors of the "resistance" after the 2016 election; the ACLU invested, just as quickly, in a campaign to get that Florida measure on the 2018 ballot. Doing so got the organization criticized by some on the right, who asked whether the ACLU has transformed into just another liberal cause under Faiz Shakir, its national political director.
“We’ve litigated against voter oppression schemes all over the country,” Shakir said in an interview. “When you look at voter ID, we’ve been litigating in court to make sure the principle of citizen representation is protected. I thought it was incumbent on us to go on offense, and look at the possibility of changing this landscape. All other rights depend on the right to vote.”
Eric Garcetti. The mayor of Los Angeles is in Minnesota on Saturday and Sunday, first, keynoting the party's pre-election fundraising dinner, then raising money for Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.).
Kamala Harris. Her schedule for the next week is set: Friday events in South Carolina, a Saturday rally in Wisconsin, then two days in Iowa with at least seven events from Des Moines to Waterloo.
John Hickenlooper. The governor of Colorado will be in Iowa on Friday to help Des Moines area Democratic candidate Cindy Axne.
Steve Bullock. He's heading back from Montana to Iowa on Oct. 27, rallying with state Attorney General Tom Miller. (Bullock was Montana's AG before becoming governor in 2012.)
A recent poll showed more Republicans in North Carolina believing in climate change and the damage it could cause to coastal communities. After Hurricane Florence hit, people there say repeat storms have chipped away at their skepticism, and more now believe the science.
"The biggest lie Trump tells is that he’s kept his promises,” by Matthew Yglesias
On the trail and in conservative media, the president and his allies have portrayed him as the most "honest” executive in recent memory, focusing on how he's defied the Republican donor class on trade, moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and torn up the Iran nuclear deal. As Yglesias notes, that narrative leaves out a number of popular, populist Trump positions that probably helped him win the Midwest, from a $1 trillion infrastructure package to a crackdown on big banks.
"What's not to like about Kate Brown?” by Nigel Jaquiss
The mystery of Oregon, where a Democratic governor presiding over solid economic growth is in danger of losing, is nicely laid out here. The biggest issue? In Portland, which provides Democrats with their statewide majorities, voter satisfaction with public services has dropped so quickly that the city stopped taking the survey.
Republicans are collecting every drop of schadenfreude they can from Pelosi's pre-midterm tour, which is taking her to districts that are seen as safely Democratic. Here, in a swing district Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) narrowly flipped in 2016, the incumbent makes it clear that she will not appear with Pelosi while she's in Orlando.
... one day until Elizabeth Warren's first Senate debate
... three days until Kirsten Gillibrand's first and last Senate debate
... 19 days until the midterms