In this edition: The campaign for black voters begins, Nevada starts turning out, Joe Biden endorses a “big city rapper,” and Democrats rediscover the power of panic.
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GREENVILLE, S.C. — The chanting began moments after Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) arrived at Friday's get-out-the-vote rally at a black church: “The next president! The next president! The next president!”
One day earlier, in Orangeburg, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) plunged into a crowd of hundreds at Betty Henderson's annual Democratic Party cookout for a full hour of selfies, hugs and hundreds of black voters telling him to run for president.
“Don't let that handsome man leave without taking a picture with me!” said Henderson, a longtime local party leader.
The race for the first Southern primary, which has become a competition for black voters, is well underway, and it's like nothing South Carolina Democrats have ever seen. For the first time, multiple black candidates with long political résumés are looking seriously at running for president. For the first time, black voters know that a candidate who looks like them can win the White House, because Barack Obama pulled it off.
“Back when I was co-chair for the [Obama] campaign here, people were afraid that white folk weren't going to vote for him,” said Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator who has been helping Deval Patrick, who was the first African American governor of Massachusetts, introduce himself to South Carolina Democrats. “They thought that someone might shoot him, because this was a generation that saw leaders die. And there are ways to assuage those fears, if you run a strong campaign.”
None of the Democratic Party's black hopefuls is running a campaign yet, although Booker, Harris and Patrick have now made trips to South Carolina and former attorney general Eric Holder will be in Charleston early next month. In conversations at this week's campaign events, black voters did not worry that any of the black candidates they were hearing from could win; they worried about too many of them piling into the campaign.
“I'm looking at Cory and Kamala and I'm thinking: Which one of you guys is going to run? Because both of you can’t,” said Joyce Myrick Brooks, 66, who met Booker in Orangeburg. “The more of you run, you’re going to split the vote. Don’t make me choose.”
The power of the black vote has only grown since Obama's nomination, especially in the South, and especially in Democratic primaries. After decades of white conservatives migrating from their ancestral party to the GOP, the Democratic base across the South is mostly black. In 2008, 55 percent of South Carolina primary voters were black; that jumped to 61 percent in 2016.
That year, the South Carolina primary essentially put the Democratic nomination out of reach for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as Hillary Clinton won 86 percent of the state's black voters, the start of a landslide that locked up the South and its delegates for her campaign. If the current order holds, South Carolina is the first of the primary states that reflects what the party is becoming, rather than forcing candidates to compete solely for liberal white voters and independents.
Heading into next year, no Democrat has the same institutional support as Clinton; Joe Biden has long-lasting friendships in the state but is unlikely to repeat Clinton's feat of endorsements from most South Carolina Democrats. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has offered staffers to candidates in the state this year. Sanders, who appeared in Columbia on Saturday, has spent two years building ties to black Democrats and brought out thousands of people for his familiar message that “Medicare-for-all” was a winning issue in every state.
“So, there are progressives in South Carolina!” Sanders said at the start of his speech. “I was told that nobody would come out to a meeting like this.”
But the difference with the crowds Harris and Booker drew was hard to miss. The California and New Jersey senators were surrounded by local candidates and party leaders, most of them black; Sanders was flanked by young, white activists holding “Medicare for Y'all” signs. Sanders's visit even caused a minor stir, when Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith said he would be skipping the rally and did not agree with the senator on health care.
The party's newest stars had already adopted much of Sanders's platform. Both Booker and Harris had co-sponsored Sanders's Medicare-for-all bill, the price of entry for liberal voters. While Smith had skipped the Our Revolution-sponsored rally, his running mate, Mandy Powers Norrell, stopped by the group's Friday night meeting to ask for support.
Lawrence Moore, Our Revolution's co-chair in South Carolina, said the group's work has helped shift politics. But on Sanders he said: “We really don't know if Senator Sanders is going to run. People are going to have to decide who best serves their needs.”
In that context, Booker and Harris came to the state with distinctly different pitches. Booker touched on the issues facing South Carolina Democrats, especially the state's refusal to expand Medicaid, and took a whack at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for suggesting that Republicans would tack in health care and Social Security spending if they won in November. But he won the crowd as he dug in on an issue that some white candidates struggle to discuss — the criminal justice system.
“We got our rights because we marched for them and fought for them and struggled for them,” Booker said in Orangeburg, a center for protests and action during the civil rights movement. “Since 1980 alone, our federal prison population has grown 800 percent. We've seen how the criminal justice system treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.”
Harris, a former district attorney and state attorney general, took a softer approach in a series of speeches from Greenville to Columbia. She described Trump-era America as a nation in crisis where people had “much more in common than what separates us.” After mentioning that her own parents met “when they were active in the civil rights movement,” Harris said that the activists organizing against the Trump administration would have their own movement to look back on. While Booker talked up Medicare-for-all, Harris discussed her idea of a refundable tax credit that would essentially offer a universal basic income.
“Yeah, the unemployment numbers might be okay, but the truth in our country is that wages have remained flat for so long and not kept up for the cost of living,” Harris said. “We know the average American is one $500 medical emergency away from bankruptcy. Instead of a tax bill that helps the top 1 percent, let's give that money to the working people of America.”
It didn't get discussed onstage, but Harris had another advantage with some South Carolina voters. At a smaller event in Greenville, where Harris spoke to two rooms of Democratic phone-bankers, she was repeatedly approached by women thanking her for her questions during the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings. Bridgette Watson, 33, fought back tears as she described to Harris what, as a survivor of sexual assault, the senator's resilience had meant to her.
That was not a new experience, Harris said. "I'll come walking through the airport and people who might have otherwise said 'Hello' are instead telling me their story," she told reporters after the Greenville visit. "And some aren't telling their story; they're crying. They're communicating a thousand words without explicitly saying anything.”
Several other Democratic women are expected to jump into the Democratic primary after the midterms. But none had quite the same experience, or identity, as Harris.
Republicans have grown more bullish about reelecting Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, the only member of their caucus facing voters this year in a state carried by Hillary Clinton. But the first day of early voting suggested a race very much in play. After one day of early voting — one! — turnout is already at 17.2 percent of the total 2014 early vote.
The vote that is coming in seems to favor Democrats. In a surprise, Democrats held a 15-point turnout advantage in both Clark and Washoe counties. The first number was expected, as Democrats need to maximize their numbers in Clark, where two-thirds of Nevadans live. The second wasn't; Washoe, which Heller has represented in some form or another since 1995, is supposed to cut the Democratic advantage.
In a speech six months ago, Heller suggested that he could hold off Rep. Jacky Rosen if Republicans cut deeply into the Democrats' voter registration advantage. "We now have less than 60,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans," he said. "If we can get that number below 50,000, I can’t lose.”
Democrats ended the registration period with a 74,923-voter advantage over Republicans. That was down from the 88,818-voter advantage they held at the same point before the 2016 election, but it was up from the 62,036-voter advantage they had before the 2014 midterms, and it was right in Heller's self-identified danger zone.
Still, Heller, who campaigned with President Trump in Elko on Saturday, has been tied or narrowly ahead in polling.
California 25. Republicans have struggled to put away any of the five Southern California districts that came onto the map in 2016, after Hillary Clinton carried them. This spot from the Congressional Leadership Fund demonstrates why, attacking Democrat Katie Hill with a generic message that she'll raise taxes and support the state's unpopular gas tax increase. That's less material than Republicans had to work with in 2016, when Rep. Steve Knight (R) kept his Democratic opponent on the mat by attacking his recent move into the district.
Florida Senate. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has continued to focus on direct-to-camera spots; his latest makes a rare, for this race, reference to the president, who is narrowly unpopular in Florida. “When President Trump asks for something that's good for him and bad for Florida, I know what I'll do. I'll say no. We all know what Rick Scott will do.” The undercurrent here: Scott, like most purple-state candidates, has not really tied his general election campaign to Trump, and Democrats know that there are voters who back the avowedly liberal Andrew Gillum for governor but don't realize the difference between Scott and Nelson.
New York 19. Not many prospective 2020 presidential candidates have appeared in TV spots, but Democrat Antonio Delgado called on Joe Biden for this one. “Antonio grew up in a working-class family like I did, so he knows what matters to working people,” Biden says. Republicans have worked for months to portray Delgado as a “big-city rapper,” and just as relentlessly the Democrat has portrayed himself holding conversations in small towns across the district, which he moved back to only shortly before running.
Nevada Senate. This ad epitomizes the strategy that kept Heller in the game after his botched Affordable Care Act positioning: a portrayal of Rosen as a do-nothing asking voters to endorse a cipher. “No bills to fix health care, no bills to improve education, no bills to do much of anything,” a narrator mutters as a phone rings at an empty desk. It's been a successful technique to attack the rare Democratic candidate with a brief political career; Rosen has served only one term in a Republican-run Congress.
Wisconsin Governor. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has started to pivot toward more positive spots, but the Republican Governors Association is keeping up the assault on Democrat Tony Evers over a criminal justice restructuring debate from the Democratic primary — cutting the state's prison population in half. “That's an extreme policy that could result in violent felons being released into our neighborhoods,” says an anonymous, worried mother. “Human traffickers. Rapists. Sex offenders.”
Wisconsin 01. Outside groups have hammered Democratic nominee Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, freeing up Republican Bryan Steil to run a soft-focus spot with more than the medical limit of football analogies. “We can't afford to drop the ball on issues that matter,” says Steil, as he runs a play with children sporting a version of Bryce's semi-iconic mustache.
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Trump approval rating (NBC/WSJ, 645 Likely Voters)
Strong Approval - 30%
Strong Disapproval - 43%
Nope, that's not the headline from this new poll — that would be either the nine-point Democratic lead with likely voters or Trump's best-ever numbers with registered voters, 47 percent of whom currently approve of the job he's doing. How can both things be true? As ever, the "approval" number to watch is the crosstab on "strong" views. Early this year, Trump was above 50 percent on "strong" disapproval. Since the summer, he's settled into the mid-40s, a number that explains why the bottom has not fallen out for Republicans, but why the president remains more of a problem than a boon to his party in swing seats. Some additional context: The final NBC/WSJ poll before the 2010 election found Republicans leading the generic ballot by six points and President Obama's approval rating at 45 percent.
Arkansas 02 (Hendrix College, 590 Likely Voters)
French Hill - 52%
Clarke Tucker - 40%
The story is simple in one of the only deep South districts that looked tantalizing to Democrats: Since the summer, the president's ratings have improved, and a plurality of voters in this Little Rock-based district support him. Trump won the district with 53 percent of the vote and enjoys 54 percent support now. It's polls like these that have given Republicans a relatively happy few weeks; there's not much evidence of what happened to Democrats in 2010, when even states and districts that had strongly backed Barack Obama soured on him.
Florida Senate (CNN/SSRC, 759 Likely Voters)
Bill Nelson (D) - 50%
Rick Scott (R) - 45%
This is the second poll we've seen showing the Florida race only marginally changed from last month despite good reviews for Gov. Scott's handling of the Hurricane Michael aftermath. A supermajority of likely voters, 64 percent, approve of his work on that; the numbers do not carry into the Senate race. The X factor, when it comes to Michael, is how a rare Category 5 in the relatively low population (and strongly conservative) Panhandle affects turnout and voter awareness and whether that's less than might have happened after a hurricane in South Florida.
Minnesota Governor (Mason-Dixon, 800 Likely Voters)
Tim Walz (D) - 46%
Jeff Johnson (R) - 39%
National Republicans have largely abandoned this race, which they had once expected former governor Tim Pawlenty to put in play, and which other polls have shown to be far out of reach. But Johnson has tried to make the race about Walz's support for universal Medicare and for bringing "sanctuary" immigration policies to Minnesota. Walz's favorable numbers have dipped since then, even though Johnson is not getting reinforcements.
Pennsylvania 08 (NYT/Siena, 506 Likely Voters)
Matt Cartwright (D) - 52%
John Chrin (R) - 40%
The same dynamics that have played out in Ohio this year are visible in this northeast Pennsylvania district, which swung even more dramatically toward the president in 2012 — an area that backed Obama by 12 points backed Trump by 10. It also lacks the imbalance of Ohio's Senate race, where Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) has a 3 to 1 cash advantage; here, first-time candidate Chrin has raised or self-funded $2.1 million to compete with Cartwright's $2.2 million, in the first real race of the Democrat's career. But even an electorate that narrowly approves of the president is not persuaded to dump Cartwright. This district may become a long-term project for Republicans.
It's been well covered by now that Republicans in tough races are adopting some Democratic rhetoric to defend their positions on health care. In debates this week, that trend ramped up, with Republicans sometimes becoming emotional when denying that their health-care votes would have undone the protections in the Affordable Care Act.
In Nevada, Heller asked Rosen whether she really thought that he could do something as heartless as weaken rules that let people with preexisting conditions get full health coverage.
“I have two grandchildren with preexisting conditions,” Heller said. “I think it's ridiculous, congresswoman, that you think that I wouldn't be there for the health and safety of my own grandchildren.”
In Pennsylvania, Rep. Lou Barletta (R) appeared to choke up when asking Sen. Bob Casey (D) why he'd run an ad highlighting a mother whose twins had cancer, given that Barletta's grandchildren included a twin who is battling cancer.
“Could you tell me why you did that?” Barletta asked. “And why you won’t take the ad down?”
Neither Rosen nor Casey blinked; the issue has been integral to their campaigns and they have no interest in muddling it, especially since the Republican fixes fall short of what's in the ACA to protect people with preexisting conditions. After saying he was sorry if he caused Barletta's family any pain, Casey pointed out that the family in his ad had shared their story with him years ago.
“The reason I didn’t make the connection between that ad and your grandson was very simple: I was thinking about Stacie Ritter and her story and her daughters’ story about preexisting conditions,” Casey said.
Another rhetorical switcheroo has come when Republicans talk about campaign spending. In several debates, Republicans who badly lag in overall fundraising have claimed that Democratic incumbents are relying on tainted donations, adopting the Democrats' strategy of decrying big money.
“Senator Baldwin, you've received $26 million in special-interest money; $600,000 from groups and organizations that benefit from the Affordable Care Act," said Republican state legislator Leah Vukmir in her last debate with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
Baldwin has raised more than $27 million, but most of that, around $24 million, has come from small and large individual contributors; just $2 million has come from PACs. In two debates with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Rep. Jim Renacci (R) has taken the same approach, insisting that Brown's enormous fundraising lead relies on shady industries.
Renacci, in their last debate, seemed to get the number wrong but appeared to be referring to $500,000 Brown got from people working in the drug industry. “Five hundred million he's received from these lobbyists, the same lobbyists who are lobbying for prescription drugs,” Renacci said. Before that, he claimed that Brown was receiving most of his money from banks.
Joe Biden. He'll be in swing states nearly every day before the election, making swings across Florida on Monday and Tuesday and an Oct. 30 stop in Wisconsin.
Tulsi Gabbard. She's continuing to spread the word of a possible presidential bid, with Democrats in several early voting states talking about potential visits by the Hawaii congresswoman.
Eric Garcetti. He beamed into CNN on Sunday to confirm that, yes, he will look into a presidential bid after the midterms are over. The first clue: He was appearing from Minnesota, not Los Angeles.
Deval Patrick. He spent Saturday in North Carolina's 9th District, one of several red-tinted swing seats that he has slipped into while more high-profile candidates might make a stir.
Rep. Tim Ryan. He's heading back to New Hampshire to campaign for Rep. Ann Kuster (D), who both parties see as a shoo-in for reelection.
For a number of reasons, starting with some Democratic slippage in red state Senate races, this week brought some fresh Democratic angst about whether yet another election is going to slip away from the party in the final weeks.
David Leonhardt's speculation about what the president would do if both Houses of Congress stayed Republican captured a lot of the nervousness; the WJS-NBC poll, discussed above, provided reasons for more. Even as they lead the generic ballot by nine points, Democrats are viewed favorably by just 38 percent of voters, sharing that rating with Republicans.
It's not much fun to speculate about why Democrats panic, because panic is in their DNA. What's more interesting to consider is the potential aftermath of an election that goes against them. The bar is high; an election in which Democrats netted governor's mansions and statehouses, and around 20 House seats, would be interpreted as a disaster.
What would come after?
First, a leadership purge. Congressional Democrats, while not 100 percent confident of victory, have been operating under the assumption that they will win the House and their leadership will be in a strong position to take power. If hundreds of millions of anti-Nancy Pelosi ads couldn't stop the wave, why reject her?
If it does stop the wave? Some House Democrats have been open about the next step: Their leadership team should resign. The Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn triumvirate would have just presided over five lost elections, one of them in a nearly ideal environment. A midterm setback would also make it hard for the leadership of the DNC to continue, after two years of lagging the RNC in fundraising, even after finally completing a set of primary changes meant to bring supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) back to the party. There would be pressure to replace Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer, though there's more talk about that on Twitter than in the cloakroom.
Who would take over? In the House, there's no clear answer, which is one reason the fitful challenges to Pelosi have gone nowhere. But there would be a debate among Democrats over the strategy to craft a generic message, the Better Deal, but set candidates loose to run whatever worked in their districts. There was, in the end, a decision not to highlight the sort of immediate action plan that Democrats ran on in 2006, an agenda that included a minimum wage hike; there was never a discussion of a “Contract for America"-style rebrand, an idea seen by Democrats as something that interests the media and gets ignored by voters. There could, in other words, be the sort of ideological and strategic argument that the party has not seriously had at the congressional level since 2002, when Pelosi first won the leadership role.
Second, a backlash against the party's left. The oven has been preheated for that take for three weeks, since protesters occupied the Hart Senate offices, engaged in civil disobedience, and bird-dogged Republican senators with questions about why they could support a Supreme Court nominee accused of past sexual misconduct.
If the term “bird-dog” is unfamiliar, it's used in left-wing political organizing and refers to the simple art of following around politicians and asking them questions. The Kavanaugh hearings widened the gulf between official Democratic Party strategy and the strategy favored by left-wing organizers in groups like the Center for Popular Democracy and Ultraviolet. While elected Democrats embraced acts of civil disobedience against repealing the Affordable Care Act and the protests against “zero tolerance” immigration policies, they blanched at the Kavanaugh protests — nonviolent, but ineffective.
Since the start of 2017, Republicans have worked to tie Democrats to the “angry left,” with ads putting Democrats' faces next to images of anarchists smashing windows or waving banners. A Democratic defeat next month would embolden those in the party who want to create space between their electoral work and the roiling, growing movement for direct action. And Republicans would not make it easy for them; witness how comfortable they've become in blaming Democrats who call for peaceful protests for any disruptive or violent actions committed by the left.
Third, a second look at centrist presidential candidates. The circumstances of the Democrats' 2016 defeat — a popular-vote consolation prize for Hillary Clinton, and modest gains in both houses of Congress — prevented the sort of soul-searching that has typically come after Democratic losses. Unlike in 1988 or 2004, no organizations were formed to build up the party's centrist wing; unlike then, the discussion about the party's next presidential candidate has been entirely about figures on the left. "Bernie would have won" has been the answer to many Democratic questions.
That trend might not survive a surprise Democratic defeat. If it happened, it would come after tens of millions of dollars attacking Democrats for Sanders's “Medicare-for-all” proposal, a bill that would start to look like an anchor around liberal senators. It would come after some Trump proposals on immigration, like the “zero tolerance” policy, did not create a lasting backlash or rise in nonwhite turnout. It would force a lot of liberal voters convinced that Trump could not win a second term that he was suddenly the favorite.
On Oct. 16, the left-wing think tank Data for Progress announced a new micro-targeted campaign: Give Smart. The idea was to identify a few state and local races where sudden cash infusions, the sorts that might get lost in a Senate campaign's FEC report, could put liberal candidates over the line.
"We looked over which were the most likely chambers to flip, and which were the most pivotal," said Data for Progress founder Sean McElwee. "We had no contact with any of the candidates."
As of Saturday, Give Smart had raised $480,000 for eight candidates, with plans of adding a few more to the list before ending the campaign this week. Candidates in state legislature races in Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and New York who were endorsed by the project woke up to find tens of thousands of dollars in new money, routed through the liberal donation portal ActBlue.
"I was surprised at how they freaked out at the money they were getting, because I assumed someone was doing this," McElwee said. "How are these candidates having trouble hitting their targets, when we know these districts are going to be decisive?"
McElwee, best known as the writer who popularized the #AbolishICE campaign, had not expected to fail. But the extent to which donors were ready to fund state legislative races, based on a little positive word of mouth, astounded him. There is no comparable campaign on the right; state Republican campaigns do not lack for funding, but nothing has sprung up like the army of mini-crowdfunding or election awareness campaigns on the left in this cycle. The late money flowing into downballot Democratic campaigns is a factor to watch next month.
Nevada is one of the big battlegrounds of the year, and Viser finds aggressive campaigns for voters on both sides for governor, Senate and congressional seats. The results in this early-primary state may determine how the parties approach 2020.
"A referendum on Trump or Pelosi?" by Amy Walter
If you don't quite believe the local reporters, believe the ad data: Democrats are mostly running on health care and Republicans are mostly running against Nancy Pelosi. "If Democrats win the House, Pelosi will be able to crow to her members — even those who said they’d vote against her — that she was the topic of more ads than Trump — and still won."
In a time when many voters dismiss any negative news as "fake," can a deep investigative dive still matter? Nobody knows, but this is a serious look at whether Hawley, elected state attorney general just 23 months ago, ran an ineffective office because he was angling for a Senate seat. As Democrats never tire of pointing out, Hawley's 2016 ads criticized politicians always looking to "climb the ladder" to better jobs; Hawley's worst stretch of this race came when Democrats accused him of going easy on disgraced former governor Eric Greitens.
"Bryce's personal failings vault Steil's candidacy," by the Janesville Gazette
Democrats have been punching above their weight in newspaper editorial endorsements, with the Houston Chronicle backing its first Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in years and the Arizona Republic doing so for the first time anyone can remember. The exception to the rule: This wrecking ball directed at Randy Bryce, which bemoans the millions of dollars spent attacking his past DUI and condemns him for spinning it. "His background more closely resembles the kind routinely encountered by probation officers, not 1st Congressional District voters. To attempt to twist his arrest record into a symbol of the everyday working man, as Bryce’s campaign has done, is perhaps one of the most cynical and offensive ploys we’ve ever witnessed."
Democrats in every state have used this past week's interviews with the Senate majority leader to reinforce their message: that a new Republican majority would look to cut Social Security and Medicare. Sen. Joe Manchin (D), who has run far ahead of his party's own numbers in West Virginia, is the focus of that campaign turn; down the ballot, even Republicans have been trying to run on defending Medicare.
"Which state legislatures might go blue this fall," by Kate Rabinowitz and Aaron Steckelberg
Take a look at which state legislatures are being hotly contested, with post-2020 Census redistricting at stake.
... five days until the anniversary of Henry Kissinger pronouncing "peace at hand" in Vietnam
... seven days until the anniversary of the Comey letter
... 16 days until the midterms