In this edition: The Democrats' bet on Mississippi, the party's problems in a rising star's district, the Southern ad wars and the big week ahead for Bernie Sanders.
I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees and came back with The Trailer.
NEW ALBANY, Miss. – One way of looking at this state's surprisingly competitive Senate race between Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy is to follow two campaign buses, cutting very different paths across Mississippi.
In the final days before Tuesday's special election, Hyde-Smith was riding inside a bus decorated by a larger-than-life photo of herself with President Trump. (Social media posts referred to it as "the MAGA wagon.") When she emerged, the senator delivered short speeches about how she's backed the president "100 percent of the time" and how she helped him confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
"We're in a very good position with President Donald J. Trump," Hyde-Smith told supporters during a Saturday visit to a farm owned by a Republican state legislator. "I want to be that senator that you are very proud to support, that can carry those conservative values, that can continue to get things done on the agenda of President Trump."
Many miles away, at shopping centers and absentee voting sites, the Black Voters Matter campaign bus, adorned with images of black men and women raising their fists, was unloading activists with arms full of literature about Hyde-Smith and Espy. Legally unable to coordinate with a candidate, they simply reminded voters of what the candidates stood for and what they said. The effect is that Republicans have one campaign operation for Senate, while Democrats have two.
One flier focused on Hyde-Smith's tin-eared comment about how she'd do anything for one of her supporters, which has come to define the race: "One of the candidates wants a front row seat to a public hanging." As activists passed out fliers at a mall in Jackson's suburbs, a number of black voters brought up the "hanging" comment right away.
"There's got to be consequences for talk like that," said Myra Harris, 33.
But modern Mississippi Democrats face an arithmetic problem.
In this racially polarized state, Republicans regularly win around 90 percent of the white vote, while Democrats win 90 percent or more of the black vote. In a typical election, white voters outnumber black voters by a two-to-one margin. Efforts to close that gap have been hamstrung by the state's voting laws, which eliminate the franchise for people convicted of violent and some nonviolent crimes. Black voters make up 36 percent of the state's electorate and 61 percent of the permanently disenfranchised population, according to Mississippi Today.
So Hyde-Smith's party has the numbers, if it can tune them in to a post-Thanksgiving election. Espy's campaign is working to convert a small pool of moderate voters, while it and multiple third-party groups try to fire up black voters. To win, Espy would need to combine historic turnout among African Americans with perhaps 30 percent of the white vote — easier to achieve if some white conservatives sit the election out.
How hard is that to pull off? No Democrat has won a Senate race here since 1982.
"Like any candidate, Mike Espy would like the campaign to be about the issues and about policy," said Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the 35-year-old mayor of Jackson and a rising star in the Democratic party. "But any time you have a black man running for a position that someone who looks like him has not held since Reconstruction, then race is present, and those types of comments [from Hyde-Smith] bring that more into focus."
Democrats can credibly argue that they've recovered from their pre-Trump lows. Four years ago, when Sen. Thad Cochran (R) sought his final term — his early retirement forced this special election — the party ran a former congressman from northeast Mississippi and won just 37.4 percent of the vote. One year later, an unknown truck driver unexpectedly won their nomination for governor, effectively ceding the election.
This year, Democrats have succeeded in driving up turnout, something they credit both to Espy and to the constellation of turnout groups, from Black Voters Matter to Mississippi Votes to the NAACP, working harder and earlier than before; the NAACP, for example, knocked on 100,000 doors after identifying black voters who had skipped non-presidential elections.
On Nov. 6, Espy won 55,918 votes in Jackson's Hinds County; in 2014, Democratic Senate nominee Travis Childers had won just 28,792 votes there. In the 17 counties that cover the Mississippi Delta, Espy ran 50 to 100 percent stronger than Childers.
In a lower-turnout midterm, Espy's numbers would have been enough for victory. But Republican turnout spiked, too, with the question turning to which party would be able to maximize its vote in a unique Nov. 27 election.
Democrats argue that since the first round, Hyde-Smith has tripped into controversies that will help them fire up their base and point to the president's two Monday rallies as evidence that Hyde-Smith was slipping. The "hanging" comment has dominated, but as they've canvassed, organizers have highlighted a photo of Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate hat at Jefferson Davis's old home in Biloxi and a story about the young future senator attending a private high school created after public high schools were integrated.
"People became even more engaged and made even more of a commitment to go back to the polls," said Cassandra Welchlin, the co-founder of the Mississippi Black Women's Roundtable, which was holding phone banks to contact 95,000 lower-propensity black voters before the election. "Her comments created an awakening, an awareness that we need to elect people who care about all of us, and not just one group of people."
The final federal election of 2018 has largely become an argument over what would make Mississippi proud. Republicans warn that a loss for Hyde-Smith would hurt the president's agenda while elevating a Democrat who was chased out of Bill Clinton's Cabinet by scandal. Democrats warn that electing Hyde-Smith would humiliate a state that has 150-odd years of reputation issues to deal with already, pointing to companies that have pulled back campaign contributions. On Sunday, Major League Baseball joined that group.
Espy has asked voters to consider how their state would look if they elected an embarrassing senator. At one stop this weekend, Espy proudly recalled how a Republican voter said he could become a senator in the mold of Thad Cochran, or of John Stennis, the state's last Democratic senator and a longtime segregationist. He also emphasizes that this election is for only the final portion of a longer term, not a six-year contract.
"Give me two years," Espy says in his closing ad.
The president won 57.9 percent of the vote here in 2016; to get those two years, Espy needs Republican protest voters to sink Hyde-Smith, with their eyes on taking the seat back in 2020.
That will mean motivating some of the GOP's most conservative voters, who twice backed Chris McDaniel for this seat, in a 2014 primary against Cochran and in the Nov. 6 election. While McDaniel won just 16.5 percent of the vote this month, some Republicans have struggled to bring his voters back, even after McDaniel himself endorsed Hyde-Smith. At a stop in New Albany, Hyde-Smith stopped to thank Jim Gann, who'd led McDaniel's campaign in the county.
"It took a few days, if not weeks, to get my emotions out of the way and look at the two candidates," Gann admitted. "I decided to vote red because Mike Espy will vote to block the president."
Georgia secretary of state. It's the great irony of this post-election season. Democrats think tactics by former Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp —now governor-elect — threaten the very fabric of democracy. Republicans think the Democrats' complaining threatens the fabric of democracy. Yet neither side is investing in the runoff for Kemp's job as if the country is at stake.
In his only TV ad, Republican Brad Raffensperger warns that Democrat John Barrow will "refuse to maintain accurate voter rolls, making voter fraud easier than ever." His own promise: to "keep illegal immigrants out of the voting booth." That's in line with how President Trump describes the threats to election integrity, though federal prosecutors have found just a handful of noncitizens casting ballots. Barrow's ad portrays him as a moderate, without getting into what the secretary of state does: "I'll respect your tax dollars and work across party lines." No one, in other words, is making the argument Stacey Abrams has been making: that the people who run elections need to make it easier to vote.
Mississippi Senate. On TV, this race has become a bench-clearing brawl between the Democratic and Republican campaigns and their super PACs, with Republican PACs targeting Mike Espy for the scandal that forced his resignation as secretary of agriculture 24 years ago.
The more surprising campaign is happening on the radio, especially on black news and music stations, where conservative groups have been hammering Espy. In one spot from Black Americans for the President's Agenda. two black women discuss how Republican policies have led to "lower welfare dependency and the lowest black unemployment in history." (This is the group that drew controversy for an Arkansas ad that warned of Democrats bringing back lynching, an accusation denounced by Republicans and not repeated in this spot.)
Another spot, from Stars and Stripes PAC — which was initially founded to support Ben Carson's presidential bid — attacks Espy for sending a child to private school while opposing school vouchers. "Democrats cry racism, but Republicans are making life better for blacks," a narrator says. Asked about that ad, on Friday, Espy said it had offended him and his family deeply; he had suffered discrimination when attending an integrated school.
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Before House Democrats return to vote on their candidate for speaker, it's worth looking at an anomaly in the party's good year: the numbers in Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan's successful reelection bid. Ryan, a Democrat who won a third of party votes in his 2016 leadership challenge to Nancy Pelosi, put up his weakest numbers since the GOP wave year of 2010 — and his worst numbers ever in a district gerrymandered by Republicans to be safe for him.
Ryan's 13th District, which stretches from the Pennsylvania border to the city of Akron, has been central in his story of how the Democratic Party should recover from 2016. It includes Youngstown, a diverse and strongly Democratic city that became ground zero for media looking to understand why so many rust belt Democrats bolted their party two years ago. In 2012, Barack Obama won 62.9 percent of the vote in the district, and four years later, Hillary Clinton eked it out with 51.1 percent.
But Ryan has always run ahead of the ticket, and since the 2011 gerrymander, Republicans haven't really played for the district. This year's nominee, Chris DePizzo, raised just $83,596 to run a token campaign against Ryan. The congressman spent much of 2018 stumping for colleagues and candidates in swing districts and tapped an Iowa adviser as he speculated about running for president in 2020.
One result, this year, was that Ryan became the only Ohio Democrat who ran behind his 2016 numbers in a House race, falling from 67.7 percent to 60.8 percent. That was still a rout, but the Republican improvement was visible everywhere. In 2016, Ryan won Youngstown's Mahoning County with 73.6 percent of the vote. This year, he won it with just 63.2 percent. He took 57.7 percent of the vote in Trumbull County, down from 68.2 percent in 2016. He lost the district's portion of Stark County after easily winning it before. Ryan was most resilient in Summit Country, around Akron; there, he fell from 64.8 percent of the vote in 2016 to 63.1 percent this year.
Those patterns shouldn't surprise anyone who's watched the migration of Ohio Democrats since 2014, but they are challenging for Ryan's narrative: that, as he told Mother Jones, "I know what's happening, and I know how to fix it." Both Ryan and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) won reelection this year, but both did so while losing thousands of "Trump Democrats" who had supported them for years.
Cory Booker. The New Jersey senator told the Newark Star Ledger that will "consider" a run for president.
Sherrod Brown. The Ohio senator said on ABC's "This Week" that he's "seriously talking" to family, friends and allies.
Tulsi Gabbard. The Hawaii congresswoman, who'd be the only veteran in the 2020 field if she made an insurgent bid, got into a pre-Thanksgiving spat with the president by accusing him of becoming "Saudi Arabia's b----." She'll be among the speaker's at this coming week's Sanders Institute conference in Burlington.
John Kasich. The term-limited Republican governor of Ohio told "This Week" that he saw a path for a bipartisan ticket if Trump and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were the parties' nominees and that “all options are on the table for me,."
Amy Klobuchar. The senator from Minnesota talked about having a reputation as someone who “likes to get things done" but told "This Week" that she didn't have an announcement.
Bernie Sanders. His memoir of the past two years, "Where We Go From Here," arrives Tuesday; the senator from Vermont will cap off the day with a speech at George Washington University.
Tom Steyer. The billionaire used a Sunday appearance on "Meet the Press" to promote his upcoming town halls and suggest that he could back a theoretical presidential candidate who endorsed his five platform items, starting with universal health care.
There's still one uncalled race for Congress, which, believe it or not, is not unusual. California's forgiving absentee laws, which allow any votes postmarked on Election Day to be counted, mean there are around 1 million ballots left in the state as we head into December. The 36,035 that matter are in four counties: Fresno, Kerns, Kings and Tulare.
That's because they overlap with California's 21st District, which Democrats think they may still win, 19 days after the AP called Rep. David Valadao (R) the winner. Initially, Valadao held a 2,178-vote lead over Democrat TJ Cox. That lead has shrunk with every new batch of ballots, and after the last update, on Wednesday, Valadao led by just 447 votes. If Valadao loses the remaining ballots by the same margin that he lost the rest of the post-Election Day ballots, he'll fall behind.
The question: How many ballots are we talking about? The district contains only portions of those counties and historically doesn't cast too many votes. In 2016, just 132,408 votes, total, were cast in the 21st; in 2014, it was a paltry 79,377 votes. We're up to 108,979 votes already, so to be in scoring position, Democrats need the late ballots to push the district to presidential-level turnout. If they did, we'll know this week. If they didn't, this becomes the only California district carried by Hillary Clinton to be retained by the GOP.
Democrats go on record with a fear that's gripped them ever since the Florida and Georgia elections went sideways: What if there's no good way to excite the party's diverse base without giving Republicans fodder to rev up their white, rural base?
The Congressional Progressive Caucus cashed in political capital from 2018 by getting Nancy Pelosi to promise slots on the most powerful committees to its members, only to discover that many incoming progressives weren't interested in serving on the tax-writing or appropriations committees. This is a story to watch.
How much damage is the president doing to his party's brand with suburban voters? Republican pollsters are worried that he hasn't pushed his limits yet.
... two days until Mississippi's Senate runoff
... nine days until Georgia's secretary of state runoff