The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Why the latest breaking news doesn't seem to be a game-changer for the midterms

In this edition: The two campaigns, the panic in California, the battling polls of Michigan.

There was more planned for this edition, but a shattered laptop is moving some of that to the next one. No one said the road was kind. This is The Trailer.

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — In Washington and New York, the question this week is whether breaking news events, such as the migrant caravan from Central America and the bomb threats directed at high-profile Democrats, will reshape the election. But elsewhere, to the surprise of strategists and despite assertions by the president and his political team that the caravan is a game-changer, it’s not.

One week after the president first tweeted about the caravan, images from Mexico have not appeared in any swing race campaign ads — not even to replace the usual B-roll of people climbing the border fence. (In past cycles, campaigns have been quicker to jump on similar stories: In 2006, news that British law enforcement had stopped terrorists from bringing liquid explosives onto a plane prompted an immediate response ad from Harold Ford, then the Democratic candidate for Senate in Tennessee.) Newspapers and local television stations outside Washington, which covered the president's reaction to the caravan, have not followed the caravan itself as breathlessly as national and conservative media.

Democratic strategists acknowledged that the first images of the migrant caravan made them worry. But neither side has seen movement in polling this week, nor has either side seen voters elevating “immigration” as their top issue. In an interview here at a campaign stop for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Walker Stapleton, former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge said the bomb threats were a nonpartisan issue and minimized the impact of the caravan.

“I suspect there are some legitimate people in there who could apply for asylum,” Ridge said. “I suspect there are some immigrants in there who want to come to this country like every other immigrant does, because they want opportunity. And there are probably some people in there who are antagonists.”

What the media are covering instead is an election that has settled into a groove, with Democrats focusing relentlessly on health care and Republicans trying out a number of themes — the caravan, the Brett M. Kavanaugh nomination, the “civility” debate, even an out-of-the-blue tax cut resolution — to undercut the Democrats. One party is consistent and holds the lead in most key House and gubernatorial races; the other party is frantic, edging ahead in some Senate races and trying to shift the dynamics in the rest. While the Republican position has improved in some races, the party and its PACs are now using late money from large donors to go on the air in districts that were not seen as competitive this summer.

It's as if Democrats have spent six months selling Coca-Cola Classic, while Republicans have launched marketing campaigns for Pepsi, then Crystal Pepsi, then Dr Pepper, then Health-Ade Kombucha, and finally, Slim Jims. Think about Newt Gingrich, who stays in touch with Republican candidates and regularly appears on Fox News. Two months ago, he suggested that the story of an immigrant arrested for the killing of an Iowa woman could shake up the election: “If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble.” One month later, Gingrich said the “rallying cry” of the election would be “Remember Kavanaugh.” And now, he's betting the election on the caravan.

The Republican position has undoubtedly improved since this summer, but that's not because of compelling issues. What excites Republicans and worries Democrats is an uptick in the president's approval rating, something that correlates to a year of bright economic news and rising consumer confidence. The Republicans' strongest on-air messaging is not about breaking news; it's about whether electing Democrats would slow the economy. That issue wasn't in play for Republicans during their Trump-era electoral disasters in Pennsylvania's old 18th District and in Virginia's race for governor

This year's Democratic campaigns resemble the ones that worked in those races — largely focused on health care and quality of life, rarely diverting from that to respond to Republican attacks. Democrats no longer invoke President Trump outside states and districts where he's deeply unpopular. Republicans look at the 2016 campaign and see a president who beat the odds; Democrats look at that campaign and see a nominee who chased Trump down rabbit holes instead of running on an economic message robust enough to withstand surprise twists.

There are 12 days left until the midterms. It was 11 days before the 2016 election when then-FBI Director James B. Comey announced a last-minute probe of emails related to the investigation of Hillary Clinton. Individual scandals or twists could affect the hundreds of key races being decided next month. But on the national level, Democrats see more impact from the president's approval rating than in any late-breaking story; Republicans, scrambling to counteract the Democrats' health-care attacks, are not acting like the outrage of the day is enough to shift the election.


Minnesota 03. Expect to see more like this: Democrat Dean Phillips asking “what will it take to heal our country?” and suggesting that the answer is electing him. Phillips, like a lot of Democrats, has run as an outsider with an open door, attempting to limit  any accusations of radical politics.

North Carolina 13. The NRCC’s push into what was a safe red district highlights Democrat Kathy Manning’s generous donations to Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi: “Politicians help Kathy Manning, but their liberal agenda hurts us.” It’s a twist on what Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) has been doing, alleging (not entirely correctly) that Manning’s wealth came from government contracts.

California 10. Most Democratic ads at this point look like this from Josh Harder; sunny images of the candidate talking to supporters and promising to be different. Rep. Jeff Denham has not been one of the Republicans skipping constituent work, but the Republican strategy has been to portray Harder as a carpetbagger.

Yes on B: Means of Production, the socialist video producers behind ads for a number of left-wing candidates this year, make the case for Los Angeles voters to create a public bank. This ad’s designed for social media, for both financial reasons and because of the theory that voters who could support this aren’t watching live TV.


Michigan Governor (EPIC-MRA, 600 Likely Voters)
Gretchen Whitmer (D) - 46%
Bill Schuette (R) - 41%

Michigan Governor (MRG, 600 Likely Voters)
Gretchen Whitmer (D) - 50%
Bill Schuette (R) - 36%

You rarely see two public polls diverge as widely as these, and Republicans have pointed to the downballot numbers — including a mere seven-point lead for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) – to suggest that the media is missing a Midwest comeback. Democrats believe that the first poll made a basic sampling error, as it assumes that self-identified Democratic voters lead self-identified Republicans by just four points. In the Democratic nightmare years of 2014 and 2016, the party's voter lead, respectively, was 10 points and nine points, and Democrats have been encouraged by a higher ballot returns in Detroit, suggesting that the patterns that sunk Hillary Clinton aren't repeating. Follow the money: National Republicans have not invested at all in the Senate race. 

New York 22 (Siena, 501 Likely Voters)
Anthony Brindisi (D) - 46%
Claudia Tenney (R) - 45%

This race is one of the year's true "candidate quality" tests; Democrats recruited Brindisi early, cleared the field for him and have spent more than a year attacking Tenney as too right-wing for a swing district, even though President Trump has been popular here. He's still popular —voters approve of him by a 10-point margin, up from a seven-point margin this summer. But Brindisi remains more personally popular than Tenney and, like every House Democrat, has tried to make the race about his opponent's health-care votes.

South Dakota Governor (Mason-Dixon, 500 Likely Voters)
Kristi Noem (R) - 45%
Billie Sutton (D) - 45%

Republicans have always seen Sutton, a former rodeo star who entered politics after he was partially paralyzed, as the strongest candidate Democrats could have nominated. Noem's attempts to link him to unpopular Democrats have had limited value; Sutton is not particularly identified with his party, and he has tried to make the race about Noem's votes against the ACA versus his support for expanding Medicaid. 

Virginia 10 (Washington Post/Schar School, 430 Likely Voters)
Jennifer Wexton (D) - 56%
Barbara Comstock (R) - 43%

A good rule of thumb: If you're releasing internal polls that show you tied, you're losing. Comstock's campaign has responded to months of terrifying public polls by pointing to internal data that shows her in the hunt. But Democrats have been calling this race "over" since the primary, and have veered between bemusement and bafflement.


As mentioned above, an equipment failure has delayed some Trailer content meant for today. The Post’s Matt Viser filed a dispatch from Southern California.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — In 2010, Democrats were in the White House and defending 48 districts that John McCain had won in 2008. In 2014, they were defending nine seats in areas Mitt Romney had carried two years earlier.

In both cases, they lost about two-thirds of those races.

That is why, in theory, things should look bad for Republicans trying to defend the 25 seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. It's worse in seats where the incumbent isn't running: Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report calculated that since 1992, the president’s party has gone 0-for-23 in defending open House seats that the president failed to carry two years earlier. (There are eight such seats this year; the others involve incumbents running for reelection.)

Democrats see an opportunity. On a tour of some of these districts over the past few days, one theme emerged: The candidates seemed to be trying to talk to the middle more than their party's base.

“My dad’s been a lifelong Republican who didn’t vote for a Democrat until he voted for me in the June primary,” said Katie Hill, a Democrat challenging Rep. Steve Knight in a district that includes the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Knight has also distanced himself from President Trump, going so far as to break with the president on Space Force.

“I was frustrated with the 2016 election,” Harley Rouda, a Democrat running against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in conservative Orange County, Calif., said the other day at his campaign headquarters. “It wasn’t just about Donald Trump. To me it felt as if both parties were putting party first, country second.”

“Every month we’re able to achieve a new low in partisan bickering,” he added. “Unfortunately too many people vote simply because there’s a D or R next to somebody’s name. We need all voters to do more investigation and stop allowing viewpoint to be driven by extremists.”

The attempts to reach a middle is somewhat of a necessity for most of these candidates.

“Our district is a third Democrat, a third Republican, a third independent,” said Gil Cisneros, who is running against Republican Young Kim in an open seat long held by Republicans. “We can’t just motivate the Democratic base because you’re not going to get enough votes. It’s got to be about reaching out to independents and reaching out to Republicans. I know that, my opponent knows that.”

Kim has also made appeals to the middle, saying on her campaign website that she'll “break the gridlock that has plagued our government” — though she doesn't point out that her party controls the White House as well as both chambers of Congress.

But a major question is whether the quiet middle will make any difference in two weeks — or beyond.

“This divided nation is not sustainable, and it’s never going to get us to progress we care about,” Hill said. 


Michael Avenatti. He tells Time magazine that Trump needs to be challenged in 2020 by a white man and faces a criminal complaint from GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa over his intervention in the hearings on Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, which he calls an early Christmas gift.

Cory Booker. He debuts his “baby bonds” wealth creation plan in a Vox interview.

Tulsi Gabbard. She made another Iowa swing this week, with Sioux City reporters matter-of-factly describing her as a “potential candidate for president.”


Florida felon voting rights: Who got theirs back under Scott? By Lulu Ramadan, Mike Stucka, Wayne Washington

A detailed look at Rick Scott’s use of a unique power given to Florida governors: deciding which felons can and can’t vote again. In Scott’s eight years, the number of black felons with restored voting rights plunged noticeably.

In key House districts sought by Democrats, fear of defeat becomes fuel, by Matt Viser

Democrats are feeling that familiar last-minute nausea, but this time, many of them are trying to harness those feelings to get their supporters out to vote.


... 12 days until the midterms