In this edition: Mississippi's lessons for 2020, the counties to watch tonight, the Democrats try to blow a winning issue (again), and a Cuomo-less presidential primary.
I thought about writing this newsletter as one single sentence in a tribute to William Faulkner, but I got a good deal on some periods and semicolons. This is The Trailer.
TUPELO, Miss. — Republican voters here got one last reminder of the stakes in the Senate runoff: a “voter alert” flier with President Trump on both sides. On one, he urges them to support “more jobs, more safety, and more opportunity” and on the other, he says their vote is “for which party controls Congress” — not just for a candidate.
That candidate, incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, isn’t named in the mailer at all. And her exclusion wasn't unusual: In his Election Day robo-call to Democratic voters, Barack Obama didn't mention Democrat Mike Espy's name. “My name may not be on the ballot, but our future is,” Obama said in the call.
Republicans, who have outspent Democrats on the air and won every statewide federal election in Mississippi since 1982, are mostly confident that they'll hold off Espy today. The strange, short runoff campaign is hard to compare to any that might unfold in 2019 or 2020, with a stumbling and unsteady Republican facing a Democrat who left politics 24 years ago under a cloud.
But both parties are watching the state for lessons that could inform their strategies for the next few years — in Mississippi, in Senate races and in the race for the White House. For a start, Democrats say, the Republican scramble to help Hyde-Smith revealed that Espy's work to register and turn out black voters was working, with implications across the South. Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi all hold statewide constitutional elections in 2019.
“We haven't had credible Democratic candidates in a decade,” said Michael Rejebian, a Democratic strategist working on Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's 2019 bid for governor. “The Espy campaign is doing a lot of the ground work for our campaign, getting people out to vote in places that have been underrepresented in the polls. We're looking at hiring some of Espy's people as soon as the runoff is over.”
Hood is a very different candidate from Espy, with conservative views on abortion and criminal justice, and — probably relevant in a race for governor — four statewide election wins. But the biggest wins for southern Democrats in this decade have come only when Republicans nominate terribly flawed candidates, like Louisiana's David Vitter (a failed nominee for governor in 2015) and Alabama's Roy Moore. The Mississippi race is a more balanced experiment, and here's what it has taught strategists:
Democrats are figuring out how to turn out their nonwhite base without Barack Obama. That robo-call is the sum of the former president's involvement in the state, but this is the first election that has seen Democrats successfully turn out black votes without him. The last time Mississippi Democrats seriously competed for the state's Senate seats, it was in 2008, when Obama led the ballot and Democrat Ronnie Musgrove lost his own race by 10 points.
In Mississippi and elsewhere, Democrats are building small, scrappy, lower-profile networks that have been effective at turning out nonwhite voters. Black turnout surged in the Nov. 6 election here, just as black and Latino turnout jumped in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Texas relative to 2014. In Florida, the only diverse swing state where Democrats fell short, the reason was lower turnout in Miami-Dade County as well as Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott's early messaging to the Puerto Rican voters who'd just moved to the state.
This has implications for the 2020 map. Democrats now see their best Senate opportunities in Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Colorado and North Carolina — the latter two states having rejected Democratic senators in 2014. In Georgia, the only one of those states where exit polls are available for both years, nonwhite voters made up 36 percent of the electorate in 2014 and 40 percent of it in 2018. Democrats hope to combine those trends with a campaign to exploit Republican weaknesses.
“Cory Gardner has spent the past few years cozying up to the Republican donor class and cementing himself as a D.C. insider,” said JB Poersch, the president of the Democrats' Senate Majority PAC, previewing his party's expected lines of attack. “Thom Tillis . . . hasn’t succeeded on behalf of North Carolina in the U.S. Senate.”
Republicans are still casting for a boogeyman. It's been more than two years since Hillary Clinton exited electoral politics, but Republicans have yet to find another figure who so negatively motivates their base. One of the highest-rotation Republican spots on TV focuses on Espy's brief tenure as Bill Clinton's secretary of agriculture, which ended when he was accused of improperly receiving gifts. (He was indicted on those charges in 1997 and found not guilty one year later.) “Another corrupt Clinton crony,” says a narrator, as pictures of Hillary Clinton and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) flash on-screen.
Schumer, obviously, is going to be a relevant Democratic figure (and villain) so long as he leads the party in the Senate. But the flop of anti-Nancy Pelosi ads in House races and the persistence of anti-Clinton ads here and in states such as West Virginia, suggest that Republicans have not identified a new national Democratic figure who angers their voters. The 2020 primaries could start solving that, but recall that Democrats actually gained a House seat in Mississippi in 2008, then lost two in 2010. To truly get the other side riled, a politician needs to obtain power, and Democrats haven't done that yet.
Democrats are the “health care” party, for now. Espy's positive messaging in Mississippi has been partially about his work across the aisle, but more of it has been about health care. Mississippi is one of just 13 states that has not expanded Medicaid in any form; both Espy and Hood talk about the rest of the Affordable Care Act by saying that Republicans threaten rural hospitals when they refuse to defend or expand the ACA.
The 2018 midterms revealed that Republicans don't yet have a potent answer for voters worried about losing health care, or paying too much for health care, in a post-ACA environment. That's going to color the next two years of elections, starting with that trio of governors' races. While Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) expanded Medicaid, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has lobbied for work requirements and other Medicaid cutbacks that have driven his popularity below 40 percent despite a roaring economy.
Republicans have merged their identity with Trump. The Trump-only flier, the “MAGA” bus tour for Hyde-Smith; none of that's surprising in a state that backed Trump by 17 points in 2018, and it probably remains a good strategy here. But it's still remarkable to watch up close. Hyde-Smith, who was dinged by Espy for referring to talking points during their only pre-election debate, has made the race almost entirely about her support for “President Donald J. Trump.” He's the main voice in her TV ads; he was the answer to almost every debate question.
“We cannot let a liberal come in and roll back all the good things that we have been doing with President Donald J. Trump,” she said when asked about, of all things, campaign finance reform.
The president is already running for reelection, and there was never going to be a way for Republicans to detach from his brand in 2020. In Mississippi, right now, it may work. But the midterms gave both parties a map on which the president is weaker than he was in 2016, when he won the electoral college by getting pluralities of the vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The suburbs of Atlanta, Phoenix, and Tampa — and Jackson, Miss. — voted for Democrats, breaking decades of tradition that had built the old GOP.
Republicans don't need to worry about those trends to win Mississippi, or to mount a comeback and beat Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) next year. Democrats see, in those trends, a way to win the presidency and the Senate — and make a lot of red-state races closer.
If you're watching Mississippi results and the race is in any way close, it'll become clear not long after polls close. (That's 7 p.m. Central Time.) There's only one scenario in which Democrat Mike Espy narrowly wins: He needs extremely high black voter turnout, lagging turnout with white voters, and an overperformance in Jackson's suburbs, similar to what Democrats have begun to achieve in the suburbs of cities such as Birmingham, Huntsville and Nashville.
Here's what to keep an eye on:
Hinds County. The state's most populous county, containing Jackson and its immediate suburbs, casts around 9 percent of the total vote, which is one reason Democrats struggle. (By contrast, Phoenix's Maricopa County casts around 59 percent of all ballots in Arizona elections.) On Nov. 6, Espy and a fringe Democratic candidate got a combined 73 percent of the vote here, good enough for a 35,000-vote margin. If Espy's not winning here by 50 points, he has probably lost already.
Harrison County. This is Biloxi, and a major stronghold of Republican votes in the state, which is why the president stumped there Monday night; on Nov. 6, Hyde-Smith and GOP firebrand Chris McDaniel combined for around 62.3 percent and 31,785 total votes. Anything higher than that would point to a clear Republican win.
Rankin County. The eastern suburbs of Jackson are even redder than the Biloxi area; the combined Hyde-Smith/McDaniel vote here three weeks ago was 37,839, about three-quarters of the total vote.
Jones County. Chris McDaniel's home base, centered in the city of Laurel, turned out big for him Nov. 6: He got 11,014 votes, with Hyde-Smith running in third place with 4,840. Here's where to see if disgruntled Republicans who never warmed to Hyde-Smith will come out after the president asked them to.
Lafayette County. The home of the University of Mississippi, it tends to break for Republicans by double digits. But a strong student turnout for Espy held Hyde-Smith and McDaniel to a combined 53.9 percent of the vote, and organizing on campuses has stepped up in the past three weeks.
Washington County. The most populous part of the Delta gave Espy 8,157 votes Nov. 6; here's a place to watch to determine whether black voter turnout efforts were able to pull out an electorate as big or nearly as big as the usual midterm election pool.
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Mississippi Senate. If the race is in any way close, look for grumpy Democrats to ask why their party (which invested in the state months ago) did not pour in more money. The final pre-election numbers: $3.15 million on the air from Republican groups and $1.55 million from Democrats. One irony is that the Washington-based Senate Leadership Fund is going after Espy for being supported by “out-of-state liberals.”
Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire executive will be in Des Moines on Dec. 4 for a screening of his climate change film, “Paris to Pittsburgh.”
Andrew Cuomo. The New York governor told WNYC that he is ruling out a bid for president in 2020. In January, for the first time since he took office in 2011, Democrats will control both chambers of the state legislature, allowing them to revive dozens of liberal bills.
John Delaney. He'll be playing Tetris with The Washington Post at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Jeff Merkley. The U.S. senator talked to Oregon state legislators about changing state law to allow candidates to seek the presidency while running for their current office. New Jersey Democrats recently passed a similar law, seen as a boost to Sen. Cory Booker; as in New Jersey, Oregon Democrats control the governor’s mansion and the state legislature.
Elizabeth Warren. On Thursday, the senator from Massachusetts will head to American University to deliver remarks about "a foreign policy that works for all Americans.”
One of the stranger questions facing Democrats as they prepare to take over the House is this one: What will they do to fulfill their campaign promises on preexisting conditions?
Incoming Ways and Means chairman Richard Neal (Mass.) says one of his first priorities will be “enshrining” the ACA’s protections for people with preexisting conditions. A number of Democrats have agreed with that approach, especially when asked whether they owe it to voters. “We want to look at preexisting conditions, things of that nature, to make sure that people are protected,” said incoming Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings (Md.) on a recent episode of “Face the Nation.”
This is a strange way of viewing what happened on the health-care issue in November. To fulfill their promise, they don't have to do anything: Their key promise was to end any further changes to that part of the law. It was not to add anything to the particular parts of Obamacare that protected people who, in the past, would have been denied insurance. Democrats campaigned on everything from shoring up the ACA to building on it to expand Medicare or Medicaid. The preexisting condition part of this was settled: Elect Democrats, and Republicans would be unable to attack those rules through an attack on the law.
This aspect of the health-care debate also has an expiration date. Sometime soon, perhaps before the new House is seated, Judge Reed O’Connor will rule in the lawsuit brought by a majority of Republican attorneys general that argues that the entire ACA must be scrapped because the 2017 tax law reduced the health-care mandate to zero.
Republicans have whistled past this particular graveyard for months, hoping that O'Connor will find a rationale to undo the ACA, while insisting that something — it has never been clear what — would protect people whose coverage was scrapped. More likely, House Democrats will vote to join the defense and relish yet another chance to blame Republicans for health-care uncertainty while seeking an injunction until (as they expect) a higher court reverses O'Connor.
There are, certainly, some campaign promises that demand action after an election. This wasn't really one of them; it's set up for Democrats to keep highlighting their popular position.
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A quirk of the Democrats' midterm map was that they blew past expectations in two of the first four voting states, New Hampshire and Nevada, while flipping House seats in Iowa and South Carolina. One result of that is a burst of party confidence and a bit less pining for one perfect candidate to save Democrats from Trump.
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A Texan's plea that his state's rising talent stays around to build the party, instead of spending the next year at party dinners in Nashua and Indianola.
... seven days until the runoff for Georgia secretary of state
... 35 days until New York City can set a date for its public advocate election
... 63 days until the filing deadline for Kentucky state elections
... 94 days until the filing deadline for Mississippi state elections
... 235 days until the filing deadline in Louisiana