In this edition: Why this isn't the year of the Independent, why early voting is up again in Texas, why West Virginia Republicans are talking about impeachment, and why a new revelation could dramatically change Florida's race for governor.

I've been told I have an independent streak, and this is The Trailer.

SANTA FE, N.M. – “We’ve done a lot of Hemp Fests,” said Gary Johnson, as he walked into the cluster of tents and booths that had temporarily taken over a city park.

For the next hour, the Libertarian candidate for Senate sipped off-market health drinks, extolled the medical virtues of the marijuana plant and talked to voters who were sick of supporting Republicans and Democrats. He’d traveled to Native American reservations and to comic conventions, arguing that 2018 was a year for political disruption.

“What the Libertarian Party desperately needs is a win,” Johnson said. “This could be the penetration of the two-party system, which is really exciting.”

Two years ago, Johnson won 4.5 million votes, more than any third-party candidate for president in 20 years and more than any Libertarian in history. He rebranded the party, temporarily, as a safe harbor between the increasingly extreme major parties; he benefited from the sky-high unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

This year, Johnson is the strongest third-party or independent candidate for any major office — which is to say, he’s polling in the teens. The movement to blow up the two-party system looks weaker today than it has in years.

Independent Greg Orman, a Kansan who nearly won a Senate seat in 2014, is a single-digit straggler in the state’s gubernatorial election. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, the only independent state executive, announced last week that he was abandoning his campaign and endorsing a Democrat. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), having rebuffed activists who want him to start a “People’s party,” is spending the election’s final days campaigning for Democrats; so is Mike Bloomberg, long seen as a potential independent presidential candidate and now officially a Democrat.

It’s not that Democrats and Republicans have become more popular since the election. The latest NBC-WSJ poll found both parties with a net negative rating. But Democrats held a nine-point lead on the general election ballot. Polling consistently shows that voters like the idea of a third major party; this year, there’s little evidence of them actually choosing one.

Unite America, the best-funded organization trying to break the two-party system right now, is running a 2018 strategy that basically concedes that point. It grew out of failed attempts to put an independent presidential candidate on the ballot in 50 states, a project that basically succeeded in 2012 only to find no serious candidate willing to take the ballot line. 

Now the group is working to elect a few state representatives and state senators in places where they could control the balance of power. Unite America has identified 21 states where the current margin between parties is close enough that independents, theoretically, could break a party’s majority and become the swing vote. The group has some evidence that this can work, after state legislators in Alaska and Colorado, elected as members of the major parties, left the team to cut deals as independents.

But Unite America has endorsed just 22 state legislative candidates, and its ambitions were hurt when Walker gave up on reelection. With the exception of Steve Poizner, a former Republican who left the party and is in November’s runoff for California insurance commissioner, none of Unite America’s statewide independent candidates have become factors in their campaigns, except to be called spoilers.

Their struggles suggest that 2016 created more problems for third parties than they solved. The last boom time for party alternatives was the 1990s, when Democrats and Republicans blurred some of their differences on fiscal policy; in his 2000 campaign for president, Ralph Nader dismissed Al Gore and George W. Bush as “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

The parties have diverged since then, a shift that has accelerated since 2016, with Republicans settling into a role as socially conservative economic nationalists and Democrats becoming economic populists with mostly liberal social views. 

That has left some independents sounding confused about their own elections. In Kansas, for example, Republicans nominated Kris Kobach, one of the country’s leading voices on immigration restrictions; Democrats nominated a center-left state legislator, Laura Kelly. Orman has described Kobach as “extreme and incompetent and corrupt” — and also accused Democrats of “scare tactics” by suggesting that Kobach was a threat to Kansas. Was Kobach extreme, or were the major-party candidates the same? Orman’s campaign never settled on an answer.

Johnson’s campaign in New Mexico has been hurt by the same externalities. He jumped into the race just eight weeks ago, substituting for a Libertarian nominee who had not been gaining traction. Right away, he vaulted ahead of Republican nominee Mick Rich, who had raised less than $1 million and been ignored by the national party. Johnson had been elected governor twice before and won 9.3 percent of the vote in 2016 in New Mexico; it was enough for Democrats to reevaluate their position.

They determined that Johnson wasn’t going to change the race for governor. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who’s seeking a second term, said the president’s unpopularity in the state had voters looking for “guardrails” in the next Congress; even though Johnson had run against Trump, Heinrich had a record of opposing him. Democrats like Heinrich and gubernatorial nominee Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham had outflanked Libertarians on a signature issue, marijuana legalization; they also did not have the baggage that Hillary Clinton brought to the 2016 race.

“In 2016, Gary had a combination of actual libertarian votes and also disaffected Bernie Sanders voters who never came back to the fold,” Heinrich said. “You’d go to a trailhead and you’d see a Bernie sticker next to a Gary sticker. That doesn’t seem to be happening this time. I think the Democratic Party in New Mexico is far more united than we were back then.”

But at the national level, Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano was confident that something was going to change. Eventually.

“The two-party system is what produced Trump in the first place,” he said. “When there’s decreased trust in politicians, people look to outsider demagogues. That’s only going to escalate; we’ll see it in the 2020 Democratic primary.”

Johnson, his mood brightened by days of conversations with people sick of the parties, said that “thousands” of third-party candidates could be inspired to run if he did well. But he had been just as hopeful two years ago.

TURNOUT WATCH

The hype around Texas's Senate race got out of control months ago, but on the first day of early voting, it paid off. According to Texas's secretary of state, 474,938 voters went to the polls yesterday; 689,613 voters total have already cast ballots.

Turnout was up in every county, red and blue, though the most eye-popping numbers came in the state's largest urban centers. In Dallas County and Travis County (home to Austin), both of which contain parts of competitive House races, turnout for the first day of early voting was close to the numbers from 2016. 

Texas Republicans have learned to temper their nervousness about this; Democrats have learned to temper their enthusiasm. In 2016, the rising turnout in the state's biggest counties did preview a good year for Democrats, but not that good, as they lost statewide. In March, Democrats outpaced Republicans in early voting ahead of the primary. By Election Day, however, Republicans had outvoted Democrats despite having no competitive statewide primaries.

AD WATCH

Arizona Governor. Why has this race fallen off the map? The main reason has been a full-barreled assault from Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and the Republican Governors Association, which has spent the two months since the primary blistering David Garcia over his opposition to ICE and his vision for more social services paid for by higher taxes. An innocuous-enough clip of Garcia acknowledging that he'd consider tax hikes becomes grist for the winning message: “Garcia wants to give taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants, and he'll raise our taxes to pay for it.”

Arizona Senate. Women Vote, the campaign ad arm of Emily's List, goes after Rep. Martha McSally (R) for what Democrats long thought would be her weakness with Latino voters — pulling her support for the House's popular “dreamer” bill after becoming a candidate for Senate.

Colorado 03. The rise of democratic socialism has energized a few Republican campaigns this cycle, but Republican Rep. Scott Tipton's attack on Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush stands out for what it uses against her: a longtime subscription to the magazine “In These Times.” A narrator warns that Mitsch Bush “helped fund a leading socialist magazine,” before queuing up the now-standard attacks on Medicare-for-all as a plan that would double taxes and ban private insurance. “In These Times” was, indeed, founded by socialists, though it took the word off its promotional material 20 years ago.

Georgia Governor. Hey, it's an ad that doesn't portray the other side as a den of child-trafficking drug dealers! Outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who is leaving with high approval ratings, says that GOP nominee Brian Kemp will “create jobs by investing in education and a skilled workforce” and “keep Georgia safe.” That's it.

Michigan 11. Lena Epstein, who was Trump's Michigan chair before she was the GOP nominee here, packages some Trumpian messaging in a comedic skit. A teenager (never seen) who's living with his parents defends himself by saying that Democratic candidate Haley Stevens moved home with her family to run for Congress. Less convincingly, he says Stevens says that “illegal immigrants need jobs” before American citizens and that “government can run our health care.” It's the umpteenth case of two popular Republican strategies — turning any criticism of immigrant enforcement into support for “open borders” and accusing Democrats who do not favor Medicare-for-all of favoring Medicare-for-all.

Mississippi Senate. The first ad from Democrat Mike Espy is striking for just how much it resembles the messaging that worked last year for Doug Jones in Alabama. Espy, who'd be the first directly elected black senator from Mississippi, addresses that indirectly by saying a win for him would change the state's image: “I'll work to correct the stereotypes and attract companies and jobs to Mississippi. I'll give our young people a greater sense of respect for themselves and others.” Espy isn't running against Roy Moore, but any path to victory, like Jones's, depends on black voters turning out at historic rates.

West Virginia Senate. Democrats have largely sworn off an impeachment of President Trump if they win the House, but Republicans believe the threat of impeachment, which voters don't really understand, can motivate their base. Cut to: This constitutionally problematic spot from Patrick Morrisey, which suggests he will “protect President Trump and that “Voting for Joe Manchin gives Democrats impeachment power.” Impeachment, of course, is a power reserved for the House of Representatives; the Senate is empowered to remove the president from office. 

POLL WATCH

California 48 (Monmouth, 372 Likely Voters)
Dana Rohrabacher (R) – 50%
Harley Rouda (D) – 48%

Two dynamics have played out here since a late summer poll that showed Rohrabacher narrowly behind. One: The percentage of people who "strongly" approve of the president has spiked by 10 points. Two: Republicans PACs have run a series of ads accusing Rouda, a first-time candidate, of "shady" practices at his business.

Minnesota Attorney General (Star Tribune/MPR, 800 Likely Voters)
Doug Wardlow (R) – 43%
Keith Ellison (D) – 36%

The months-long scandal that changed this race, the abuse accusation by an ex-girlfriend of Ellison, had cooled off in recent weeks. A conservative media quest for Ellison's divorce records backfired when they revealed that Ellison had never abused his ex-wife. Nonetheless, while most voters are still unaware of Wardlow, an anti-Ellison vote has put him in the lead, and his campaign has refocused on the scandals that dogged Ellison for years, like his brief association with the Nation of Islam. Democrats believe that Ellison can win if Wardlow's conservative views became better known, but the ex-girlfriend story dramatically slowed down the Democrat's fundraising.

Mississippi Senate (NBC News/Marist, 511 Likely Voters)
Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) – 38%
Mike Espy (D) – 29%
Chris McDaniel (R) – 15%

The early retirement of Thad Cochran created a one-of-a-kind special election here; if appointed Sen. Hyde-Smith does not clear 50 percent of the vote in two weeks, she will head into a runoff three weeks later. President Trump endorsed Hyde-Smith in August; that, plus an aggressive ad campaign, has pushed her into a clear lead, as 2014’s insurgent candidate Chris McDaniel fades. Espy would lead McDaniel in a runoff, while Hyde-Smith would start with a 14-point lead over Espy. McDaniel has shown no interest in quitting this race, but Republicans would love to avoid that runoff.

Montana Senate (MTU/MSU, 2000 Registered Voters)
Jon Tester (D) - 46%
Matt Rosendale (R) - 43%

Believe it or not, this is a decent showing for Tester, a senator who has only ever won close races and often been tied in October. At this point in the 2012 cycle, this same pollster showed Tester losing his first reelection bid;  he won by four points. But this is close enough to explain why the Trump administration and Republicans keep sending resources to Rosendale; NRSC chairman Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) headed there personally this week.

West Virginia Senate (Gray Television, 650 Likely Voters)
Joe Manchin (D) - 52%
Patrick Morrisey (R) - 36%

Republicans believe this race is closer than the poll suggests, but it's the first public survey we've seen since Manchin cast the sole Democratic vote in favor of confirming Brett M. Kavanaugh. Manchin's approval rating from Democrats is unusually low for an incumbent, just 68 percent. He makes up for it with the support of 30 percent of Republicans and a huge lead among independents.

ON THE TRAIL

LAS CRUCES, N.M. – The White House's political strategists have not been subtle about it: They believe that footage of migrants fleeing central America, seeking new homes and jobs up north, are political dynamite.

But in parts of the Southwest, the story's a little more complicated.

At a Sunday night event in this city, less than an hour from the border with Mexico, Democratic congressional candidate Xochitl Torres Small fielded a question about the caravan from a supporter who looked nervous to be even discussing it. Torres Small said the problem was with people making a “political point” out of the story.

“When it comes to people who are coming here claiming credible fear, who are being terrorized in their countries, we can find a humane process for dealing with that, one that reflects our values and doesn’t tear families apart," said Torres Small, whose mother immigrated to the United States from Mexico.

While New Mexico's 2nd district backed President Trump by 10 points, immigration has not arisen as an issue in the race. In an interview, Torres Small suggested that the White House’s proposal to send the military to the border made no sense to the people who lived near it. They wanted border security funding; they didn't want a panic.

“What I’m seeing here is people who are frustrated with politicians who cast blame, instead of solving problems,” Torres Small said.

Images of immigrants climbing fences had been featured in negative ads for weeks; they were already part of the cocktail served to swing voters, especially in districts far from the border. The immigration issue that Republicans had focused on most was the threat of crime coming to America through porous borders or weak law enforcement. The caravan story was different: While the White House emphasized the risk of criminals using it to enter the United States, coverage has frequently told the stories of people escaping violence with their children or undocumented immigrants who had been deported seeking ways back to the United States.

In Utah's 4th district — also red-tinted, though less diverse — the migrant story wasn't being seized on by campaigns. Ben McAdams, the Democratic nominee who (like Torres Small) is tied in public polls, said Republicans who expected the caravan to benefit them politically were underestimating voters. He's running against Rep. Mia Love (R), whose parents had fled Haiti under the threat of death and who had broken with the state's congressional delegation to oppose this year's hardline immigration bill and to support a fix for immigrants brought to the United States as children. Love has not pounced on the caravan story.

“We want to protect our borders. At the same time, I think many Utahns understand that many immigrants make us stronger,” McAdams said. “This is a state that was founded by refugees who were fleeing dangerous conditions and religious persecution. Fear tactics don’t work as well here.”

McAdams was also critical of Trump’s proposal to cut foreign aid to the countries the migrants were fleeing, suggesting that it would end up making the crisis worse.

“We want to make it safe for people to live in their countries,” McAdams said. “What we’ve heard from the president is not good policy."

So far, the migrant caravan story has been less tricky for Democrats than this summer's discussion of whether ICE should be shrunk down or abolished completely — or the White House-led debate on crime, after an immigrant from Mexico was arrested for the murder of Iowan Mollie Tibbetts. The issue of people fleeing war-torn countries, with their children, does not inflame the same passions and comes with a risk of political overreach.

While it's now conventional wisdom that the immigration issue won the presidency for Trump, exit polls found the salience of that issue fading a bit over the course of the decade. The Trump-backed border wall, for example, has never enjoyed majority support. According to the 2012 exit poll, just 28 percent of voters said "most illegal immigrants working in U.S. should be deported." In the 2016 exit poll, that fell to 25 percent. Most voters who cited immigration as their top issue backed Trump, but in the key Midwestern swing states, those voters made up less than 15 percent of the electorate.

We know that Republicans are more happy to discuss the caravan than Democrats, hoping that it will lead to an immigration debate on their terms. We know that in 2014, a similar situation on the border was politically damaging to the Obama administration.

What we haven't seen is a story of migrants flowing north after 22 months of a tough-on-immigration Trump administration. In some districts, Democrats are comfortable asking whether this puts the administration's strategy in doubt and whether fears about the caravan are overblown.

2020

Bernie Sanders. His cross-country tour for Democrats continues today in Arizona and tomorrow in Colorado, with rumors of last-week stops in New Hampshire. Polling shows Sanders in no trouble in his own reelection bid next month.

Elizabeth Warren. She's now finished two of three planned debates ahead of her own election next month; in the last, she criticized ICE and got hit back by the agency's Boston director.

WAIT, WHAT?

If you thought the season of would-be viral ads was over, you were too optimistic. Today's comes from Cory Hoffman, a Democrat running in Ohio's 67th state legislative district, which voted 2-to-1 Republican since it was redrawn in 2011. Hoffman's plan to reverse that: a two-minute long tribute/insult to “Ghostbusters,” complete with always-risky footage of the candidate himself, dancing.

READING LIST

"In Florida’s burgeoning suburbs, white voters siding with Republicans try to keep a surge of young and minority voters at bay," by Tim Craig and Aaron Williams

This is a deeply reported and data-heavy dive into the new Florida, which is substantially different from the Florida of just two years ago, with implications falling on race relations and politics.

"Records show FBI agents gave Andrew Gillum tickets to ‘Hamilton’ in 2016," by Lawrence Mower

This is the story that will rewrite Florida's election for the next 24 hours, until Gillum and Ron DeSantis meet again on a debate stage. Short version: Gillum had not told the embarrassing truth about how he obtained tickets to see "Hamilton" two years ago. The ticket came from an FBI agent, who handed it to a friend of Gillum whose subsequent role in a corruption investigation poses mortal danger to Gillum's campaign.

"The 2018 midterms are 2016 all over again," by Brian Beutler

The best recent distillation of liberal frustration that the president can drive the news cycle even if and when reporters know he's misleading.

"What the 2018 early vote can tell us (and what it can't)," by Tom Bonier

TargetSmart's data has been used recently to suggest a huge Republican turnout advantage in early voting. The reality is more complicated, says TargetSmart's Tom Bonier — the lessons learned in early vote numbers, in general, are complicated.

COUNTDOWN

... one day until New Jersey's only Senate debate
... nine days until West Virginia's only Senate debate
... 14 days until the midterms