In this edition: The left is already writing the 2020 Democratic platform, the North Carolina election makes everybody nervous, and Little Rock adds to the circle of black Democratic power in the South.
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The Democrats’ presidential field shrunk this week, as former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick ruled out a run for the White House. In a statement, he cited the potential strain on his family and the negativity that defined modern campaigning.
“Knowing that the cruelty of our elections process would ultimately splash back on people whom [my wife] Diane and I love, but who hadn’t signed up for the journey, was more than I could ask,” Patrick said.
People with knowledge of Patrick’s thinking say a cancer scare for his wife marked the end of his pre-campaign. But to many on the left, Patrick’s decision felt like their first coup of the invisible primary. HuffPost had written at length on Patrick’s relationship to a predatory lender. Patrick’s post-gubernatorial work at Bain Capital had repeatedly crept into coverage of his ambitions; a September quote from Patrick, about how the 2017 tax cut was “directionally correct,” got pilloried.
With no front-runner for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, the left is setting the terms of debate, and having a surprisingly easy time of it.
With one peaceful protest inside the office of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the environmental left nudged the party toward a discussion of a “Green New Deal.” Immigrant rights activists have pushed every Democratic aspirant toward their position: a clean Dream Act with no border wall. Public shaming of the donor culture has led most first-tier Democratic candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), to forswear “corporate PAC” money.
Meanwhile, there is little of the hand-wringing about the party’s direction, or its electability, that preceded Democratic contests in 2004, 2008 and 2016. In each of those races, at least one Democrat explored a bid for president on the theory that the party needed to tack to the center and win back conservative white voters — Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh and Jim Webb. The far right of the invisible Democratic primary field is now defined by Mike Bloomberg, a former Republican whose views on gun rights and climate are actually to the left of Barack Obama’s in 2008.
This has not happened by accident. Starting in 2014, the left began to build up institutions that, they hoped, would shape the 2016 primary and then influence a Democratic president in 2017. The Green New Deal, for example, grew out of years of talks between left-wing environmental groups such as the Sunrise Movement and the People’s Climate Movement that pursued direct action — i.e., protests — instead of closed-door meetings with influencers.
“This has been all about creating a holistic approach to climate change,” said Paul Getsos, the PCM’s national director. “Where we’ve ended up is with a demand for a bold legislative package working through the House, one that reflects the needs of all the stakeholders, from enviros to the labor movement to immigrant workers.”
Direct action also reshaped the Democratic Party’s positions on gay rights, bank regulation and immigration — and at times when the internal opposition on those views was stronger.
“To be honest, the left has more direct action ability than we do,” said Matt Bennett, the senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. “There aren’t a lot of groups orientated around that in our space. But our experience with presidential campaigns is that they’re malleable in the early days before they harden their positions on issues.”
What got the Democrats to this point? Three things.
The midterms happened. In 2013, Republican elites worried that the party was demographically unable to win another national election and quivered when House and Senate conservatives forced a government shutdown over Obamacare. The party’s 2014 wins effectively neutralized the “change or die” wing of the party; the Democrats’ 2018 wins also restored their confidence that they could win without dramatically rethinking their strategy or their electoral map.
Republicans in Michigan and Minnesota hammered those states’ Democratic gubernatorial nominees for favoring “single-payer” health care and wanting to stop cooperating with immigration enforcement, whether they held those positions or not. But Democrats romped home in those elections, as well as in Colorado’s race for governor, where Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) was hammered for supporting “Medicare-for-all” and rallying with Bernie Sanders.
“Voters are smart,” Polis said in an interview. “They wanted candidates who would shake things up and save them money on health care.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez happened. Left-wing candidates won only a small number of primaries in 2018, but they’ve adopted an inside-outside political strategy that, so far, has been a complete success in driving the party’s debates. Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and other incoming left-wing members of Congress have happily attacked some of the norms that play out during the lame duck; most recently, Pressley boycotted part of the usually sleepy Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics conference, skipping a speech from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to hold a health-care rally outside.
These sorts of protests get attention in two ways: straight news coverage and more bracing coverage from conservative media. The focus on Ocasio-Cortez’s politics by Fox News borders on the obsessive; it also elevates those politics, taking up more of the limited media time allotted to discuss what her party stands for. It is a mirror image, several years delayed, of how more liberal media covered the rise of the Republican Party’s right wing.
The left-wing media happened. The old liberal dream of an “answer to Fox News” never really materialized, but left-wing media is more robust than it has ever been at this point in a Democratic primary. The Intercept did not exist in 2016; it is now a clearinghouse for scorching coverage of Democratic donors and interest groups such as No Labels. There was no cable news presence at last week’s invitation-only Sanders Institute gathering in Vermont; instead, Sanders sat for policy-heavy talks with the Young Turks and the Intercept, then headed to Washington for a climate town hall broadcast by the Young Turks and NowThisNews.
In the few experiences that 2020 candidates have had with early-state voters, there’s been a notable shift in what voters ask about. At a Saturday meet-and-greet that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) held in New Hampshire, questions focused on whether there was too much militarism in politics; whether the campaign finance system could be replaced by public financing; whether more people, like Gabbard, would meet with America’s perceived foreign foes.
The party’s centrists are concerned about where the left-wing organizing and energy could lead. It’s clear that candidates will face questions on a series of issue litmus tests; Third Way’s Bennett said that the think tank was having conversations with local political leaders in early states to make sure that its moderating influence got heard, too.
“The people they talk to aren’t people at town halls; they’re influential people in these states, who will tell them what they’re looking for,” Bennett said.
A few hours after he said that, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib live-tweeted their mockery of the speakers at the Harvard conference, letting a national audience know that bankers and CEOs were not going to influence their party.
The last of the year's closely watched elections came Tuesday night in Georgia, where Republicans narrowly held on to two statewide offices: secretary of state and public service commissioner. Turnout was never expected to be high, especially not compared with the Nov. 6 election that pitted Democrat Stacey Abrams against Republican Brian Kemp.
But the falloff was dramatic. In November, Georgians cast 3,875,899 votes in the race for secretary of state. This week, it fell to 1,454,786. Incredibly, that was fewer total votes than were cast last month for either Kemp or Abrams. It was a more dramatic drop-off than the last closely watched runoff 10 years ago, when former senator Saxby Chambliss (R) secured his final term.
Even in defeat, Democrats held onto more support than they had in 2008. Chambliss had edged ahead in the first round by three points, then won the runoff by 15 points. Last month, Republican Brad Raffensperger led the race for secretary of state by 0.5 points; he won by four points. Democrat John Barrow, who had represented a wide stretch of rural Georgia before being ousted from Congress in 2014, hit around 50 percent of his November vote in that old district — he even won two counties, Burke and Washington, that had rejected Abrams.
What did him in was a collapse in Democratic voting in Atlanta's suburbs. In Cobb and Gwinnett counties, fast-growing and diverse places that Democrats have begun to win in federal elections, Abrams had won 346,864 votes. On Tuesday, Barrow won just 111,407 votes across those counties — fewer votes than Democrat Jim Martin had won there in the 2008 runoff. Had Barrow held onto just 50 percent of Abrams's vote, in just those two counties, he would have narrowly won the election. Had he held on to 50 percent across the Atlanta area, Republicans would have lost decisively.
Barrow, who had been one of the House's most conservative Democrats, was not able to outrun a vote deficit from Atlanta with his resilience in rural Georgia. Those numbers will be studied by Democrats — including Abrams herself — as they strategize for 2020.
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Lame duck. Republican leaders in the House are doing everything you might expect before they punt on funding for a wall on the Mexican border. The pro-Trump nonprofit America First Policies is running a series of national ads urging them to think again, and one ad features Michelle Root, whose daughter Sarah was killed by an undocumented immigrant.
"I want the American people to see what devastation illegal immigrants cause," Root says in the ad. "I want to see that wall built." There's no mention of Congress, but there is in a companion ad that urges Republicans to "call Congress" and tell it to "support our president."
In 187 years of existence, Little Rock had never elected an African-American mayor — until Tuesday night. Frank Scott Jr., a 34-year-old former aide to the state's last Democratic governor, will run Arkansas's capital city after a 16-point runoff victory. For the first time, the mayors in the biggest cities of each deep South state — Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, Little Rock and New Orleans — will be African American. All of them are under 50 years old, and two are women.
"We were written off as the third-place candidate in this race, but we prevailed," Scott said in a short interview after the race was called. "We knocked on over 30,000 doors. We made over 60,000 phone calls. We made sure every voice was heard."
Scott's campaign prevailed in a relatively low-turnout runoff, with voters casting just 38,904 ballots. But he was not the favorite until the first round of voting; the campaign that put him there shared plenty of DNA with the campaign that put Birmingham's Randall Woodfin in the mayor's office last year. Calvin Harris, whose firm Pine Street Strategies helped elect Woodfin, pivoted to the Little Rock race with a similar strategy: an outsider candidate with plenty of inside experience and a meaty policy platform for the city. Scott also ran on police reform, was opposed by the city's police union, and triumphed, in an example that his strategists want Washington to pay attention to.
"All the talk in Washington's about 2020," Harris said. "Well, I hope the 2020 Democratic hopefuls are taking stock of what's happening in the deep South. These are states that come early in the primaries, and they're states that Washington Democrats don't know.."
Only one potential presidential candidate, said Harris, had endorsed Scott: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Deval Patrick. The former Massachusetts governor will not seek the presidency in 2020, after reentering electoral politics this year with campaign help for Democrats in tight races and after veterans of the Obama campaigns introduced him around early states.
Michael Bloomberg. His Tuesday trip to Iowa made news about his company: If he ran, he told Radio Iowa, he would divest himself from the media behemoth. He also floated the idea of keeping the company and ending political coverage: "Quite honestly, I don’t want all the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me."
Sherrod Brown. The Ohio senator responded to a David Brooks column with a letter to the New York Times, with a pithy take on what the real issue with the economy was: "It’s wages, wages, wages. And respecting the dignity of work."
Bernie Sanders. His campaign apparatus spent close to $300,000 on chartered flights ahead of the midterms and bought some carbon offsets, too.
Tom Steyer. The billionaire has called on Democrats to block Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) from becoming the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, doing so after Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who has also not ruled out a 2020 run, said that a promotion like that for Manchin would be unacceptable.
Cory Booker. The New Jersey senator defended Manchin's fitness for the EPW job, putting him on the opposite side of groups like Friends of the Earth.
Elizabeth Warren. She will announce soon that she has more than $12 million left in the bank after her landslide reelection last month. That cash pile is meant to send a message: Warren, unlike some candidates who sought the presidency from the Senate, did not work to run up the score in the final weeks of her race. The Massachusetts senator spent almost no money on TV, even though ads would have spilled into New Hampshire.
The North Carolina aftermath. The debacle in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, where perhaps more than 1,000 ballots might have been destroyed by an operation designed to suppress Democratic voters, is being viewed cautiously by national Democrats.
That's not because they doubt that something went badly wrong there, or that they think Republican Mark Harris will be seated when the new House of Representatives opens in January. (Democrat Dan McCready on Thursday withdrew his concession.) In conversations this week, Democrats have unanimously — albeit anonymously — said Harris will never be a congressman; in a short conversation yesterday, DNC Chairman Tom Perez said that the ballot-blocking operation may have been a federal crime.
What worries Democrats is that Republicans will make lemonade out of the North Carolina lemon and ask whether the crimes alleged here — operatives taking absentee ballots and either filling them in themselves or discarding them — become the basis of a broader challenge to laws that allow easy voting.
Republican former governor Pat McCrory weighed in on the election this week by suggesting that absentee voting should be ended completely for anyone not currently serving out of state or overseas in the military. In a tweet, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist needled MSNBC host Chris Hayes, saying the Democratic mantra of "no voter fraud, no misuse of absentee ballots" was being debunked in North Carolina.
On its face, it's hard to argue that absentee balloting leads to fraud. Multiple states now conduct elections entirely by mail, and there have been no allegations of fraud or suppression in those places. In the days before the Nov. 6 election, Democrats argued that Republicans were suppressing votes with laws that required signatures on absentee ballots (or, in some places, at sign-in stations at the polls) to match signatures on record at DMVs.
The danger here is that they end up arguing that what happened in North Carolina should be prevented — and for reforms they don't support, making it harder to maximize absentee and early voting. What is alleged in North Carolina would be a crime, and a rare one. But the years-long battle over mostly nonexistent "voter fraud" has led to laws that ended up making it harder for Democrats to turn out votes — they don't want actual, provable election fraud to have the same effect.
There's little doubt that Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) lost his bid for a third term, a result that wiped out House Republicans across New England. Democrat Jared Golden's victory was initially certified Nov. 26; state Republicans have already been talking about whether Poliquin should mount a comeback in 2020.
But Poliquin is still in court, making an argument about the election's integrity that has confounded the state of Maine. Sometime next week, Trump-appointed Judge Lance Walker will rule on whether, as Poliquin's attorney argues, the intent of thousands of voters who participated in the state's first "instant runoff" election can never be truly known.
It sounds complicated, but it isn't. In Maine's instant runoff system, similar to the one used by Australia for its federal elections, ballots list every candidate for federal office and voters can rank them in order of who they most want to win. They can, if they choose, make just one choice and keep moving down the ballot. They can also vote for their first choice, second choice, and so on, knowing that their second and third choices, etc, will be counted until one candidate has a majority of the vote.
In Maine's race, voters had four options: Poliquin, Golden, and independent candidates Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar. On Election Day, Poliquin landed 2,632 votes ahead of Golden, but 23,013 voters picked either Bond or Hoar as their first choice. When the state added up the ballots of Bond/Hoar voters, 14,927 of them picked a major-party candidate as their second preference. Golden won these voters in a landslide, clinching his victory.
On the stand, Poliquin's legal team has argued that those voters may have been confused. They produced one expert, a political science professor who argued that voters had been "forced to make a guess about who will be left after the first round" — though the major-party candidates had spent millions of dollars, no minor-party candidate cracked single digits in polls, and one of the candidates (Bond) also opposed the Poliquin lawsuit.
Another argument from the Poliquin campaign is that neither candidate got a majority of the vote. Why? Because 8,086 of those Bond/Hoar voters didn't pick any candidate; if their undervotes are added to the total, Golden only won 49.1 percent of the total vote, to 48.1 percent for Poliquin. If that's the standard, than at no point did either major party nominee crack 50 percent support. Poliquin's camp wants the state to count only the first round of voting, in which he came out ahead.
Before the election was certified, Walker refused to take up Poliquin's case and stop the count. Democrats see the challenge as frivolous, but until it's over, outgoing Gov. Paul LePage (R) is not issuing the document that would let Golden take his seat. But LePage's time runs out Jan. 5, and unless a court forces its way into this, Democrats fully expect to welcome Golden to Congress by then.
"If [Republicans] had won, of course, there'd be no question about the constitutionality of it," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said today at her weekly news conference.
"Republican officials had early warnings of voting irregularities in North Carolina," by Amy Gardner and Beth Reinhard
After narrowly losing his 2018 primary, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) suspected that some election fraud had taken place.
"Beto O’Rourke Should Not Run for President," by Brando Marcetic
The most robust left-wing argument you'll read about whether the Texan's charisma is distracting Democratic voters from his record. "Politicians like Beto O’Rourke represent a step forward for states like Texas. Making them national standard-bearers is a step backward."
"America’s Two Political Parties Are Asymmetrical," by Adam Serwer
A farewell to the Michael Avenatti campaign which explains why there was less demand among Democrats for a pugilistic, media-savvy outsider than there was for Republicans in 2015.
... two days until Louisiana's runoffs
... two days until Cory Booker's post-election visit to New Hampshire
... seven days until Tom Steyer's next town hall, in California
... 14 days until the Progress Iowa confab in Des Moines
... 56 days until the next FEC filing deadlines