In this edition: The 2020 Democrats struggle to define themselves, anti-Trump conservatives commence their kvetching, and North Carolina Republicans try to legislate an election that they could win.
I wish every high-stakes congressional negotiation played out in front of TV cameras, and this is The Trailer.
The forces that take away candidates’ control of their own narratives are stronger than ever — a reality that some in the Democrats’ presidential farm team are already running into, hard. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California discovered that in the past week, as criticism from the media was amplified by their opponents across the left and right.
For Warren, it was an editorial in the Boston Globe urging her to shelve any plans she might have made for 2020, warning that she'd become too “divisive.” Rolling Stone, HuffPost and the Daily Beast all ran coverage. The Sacramento Bee asked Harris to explain how a longtime aide had remained in her office even after settling a six-figure harassment claim. This splashed across conservative media, with coverage asking whether Harris had dealt herself out of the #MeToo movement.
It wasn’t the worst week for either — but it was a clear demonstration of how skeptics in their party’s liberal base or critics on the right can jump on pieces of reporting or opposition research to shape narratives around candidates.
Republicans running for the 2016 nomination didn’t face the same challenges, instead benefiting from the growing distrust that the party’s base holds toward the media. That's not a factor on the left. According to Pew Research, just 38 percent of Republicans believe that media criticism of politicians “keeps them from doing things they shouldn’t,” while 82 percent of Democrats think that. The president's attacks on “fake news,” usually defined as any coverage critical of him and his administration, have had the effect of making rank-and-file Democrats even more trusting of what they see in the media.
Democratic candidates have acted accordingly, responding to bad press by trying, and sometimes failing, to answer it. Warren's decision to take a DNA test and publicize the results was seen as a response to the president's mockery of her claim to Native American heritage — and to her camp’s view that the media is responsive to Trump. The DNA test was approached as a binary choice: whether to do it and absorb damage in 2018, or whether to be peppered with questions about it by the media throughout 2019 whenever Trump raised it. The result: Six weeks of criticism from Democrats who believe that she blew it, and not all of them saying so because they prefer another candidate.
The model held up for any Democrat trying to short-circuit a negative story is Barack Obama's handling of questions about his birth certificate; first, by releasing a short-form version in 2008, then by releasing a long-form one in 2011. But in both circumstances, Obama was already the presumptive nominee of his party, and the scandal itself was based on a conspiracy theory spread by, among others, the current U.S. president. The Democrats now trying to navigate around bad story lines don't have that advantage; they can be piled on by not just the other party but by the many supporters of other candidates. This has already happened to Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.) as he's taken calls about a run for president and been welcomed by left-wing commentary about his refusal to commit to Medicare-for-all or a ban on energy-industry donors.
In 2015, led by the opposition research group America Rising, Republicans took full advantage of Democratic infighting — and their trust in the mainstream media — by finding and promoting story lines about how Hillary Clinton had betrayed her party's left-wing base. She never escaped that dynamic, and a super PAC set up to help her out, “Correct the Record,” mostly backfired, with her opponents on the right and left assuming that any pushback on scandals was politically motivated. (The PAC closed after the 2016 election.)
Some on the left doubt that any Democrat is as vulnerable to negative coverage as Clinton. Eric Boehlert, a media critic formerly at the left-wing watchdog Media Matters, said that Clinton had suffered from an impression that both parties had nominated “flawed” candidates and that one of them, Donald Trump, could not possibly win.
“Fox News and conservative media had been working to define Hillary Clinton for 20 years, and that's just not the case for any candidate who's looking at 2020,” Boehlert said.
For the past year, the Republican National Committee assigned three analysts to research the more than 30 Democrats seen as potential presidential candidates. After the midterms, they added eight more analysts, with a mission to pore over the records of top Democrats, file requests for public information and then figure out how to get the information in the right hands.
In the current media climate, that could mean anything from cable news to conservative Twitter to left-leaning media such as the Intercept or the Young Turks. RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens pointed to Joe Biden’s long-ago advocacy for tougher drug laws and sentencing as the sort of information already collected by Republicans that could resonate in liberal outlets.
“The criminal justice stuff would never have been a vulnerability in the past,” Ahrens said. “Those positions are unpalatable to a Democratic primary electorate now.”
Alone in the Democratic lineup, one candidate already has a base that ignores or discounts negative coverage: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont.
A critique of the media is in Sanders’s political DNA. At speeches, he regularly recalls how the media did not take him seriously; in his new book “Where We Go From Here,” he recounts, in detail, how he thinks the “mainstream media” treated him and his ideas unfairly. In a riff that he still makes in some speeches, Sanders jokes that if he made the most brilliant speech of his career then tripped over a banana, no one would hear about anything but the pratfall.
Sanders’s media criticism bears little resemblance to the one made by most Republicans. To them, the media cannot be trusted because its representatives hold conservatives in contempt. To Sanders, the media covers “trivia” and ignores life-or-death issues because it is focused on what sells. Every other potential candidate pays attention and sees a voter base that cares about what is being said about them.
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For the first time, some Republicans are beginning to discuss the midterm elections as if they lost them. On Tuesday, two events on different sides of Washington were full of hard thinking for the party — one where Republicans envisioned a party that could compete where it had lost in 2018, one where the idea of burning down the party was beginning to seem attractive.
At Politico's annual “Women Rule” summit, two members of the party's shrinking female membership in the House in large part blamed the president for alienating potential voters. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), who was narrowly defeated last month, said President Trump "obviously" did not understand how his behavior alienated women; Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who is hoping to use an enhanced recruiting role with the party to elect female candidates, urged him to “tweet less.” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who has generally echoed the president in playing down 2018's losses, said the party needed to dig into data and see why Democrats won.
“We have to look at why we're losing with women,” McDaniel said.
Meanwhile, at the full-day “Starting Over” conference, organized by the center-right Niskanen Center, the mood was grimmer. Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) kicked off the event by describing how he'd defied partisan trends in a blue state and governed pragmatically — while recalling how his father, a congressman, had called for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.
No other elected Republican appeared onstage. In hallways and over a series of panels, the older-skewing crowd of conservatives discussed a future in which the Trump-led party could not possibly win another election and did not deserve to.
“No one has repealed the demographic trends happening in this country,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who urged Republicans to revisit the pro-immigration “autopsy report” that the RNC put together after its 2012 defeats.
A panel about the electoral future of the “center-right” imagined two scenarios. In one, advanced by strategist Mike Murphy, the party would lose and voters would eventually return to it when they grew frustrated with a left-wing Democratic Party. In another, from PR strategist Juleanna Glover, the center-right would invest in a third party that, if Democrats nominated an unpopular left-wing candidate in 2020, could win the presidency. The GOP itself was probably unsalvageable, she said.
“When you do reclaim it, it's going to be such a shrunken party that I don't know what it will be worth,” Glover said. “I have no hope that it'll be something anyone with a college or master's degree would want to be part of.”
Even that was too much for some in the audience. Jonathan Chait, a liberal columnist for New York magazine, suggested to the panel that the conservative movement could survive only if the current Republican Party were “burned to the ground” and replaced with one that, like the conservative parties of Europe, trusted the science on climate change and favored some kind of universal health care.
That was one opinion. More popular was an idea that didn't involve the Republican Party changing: that Democrats needed to moderate to become a safe haven for voters alienated by Trump, something that could happen if Mike Bloomberg ran for the Democratic nomination.
“It would be great for America if they nominate him,” Murphy said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's analysis of the 2018 midterms is finished, and here's the gist: Their winning candidates defined themselves positively for swing voters who weren't all that inclined to vote for Democrats.
According to polling conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, shared first with The Washington Post, voters in 45 battleground districts backed Donald Trump for president by two points; on average, they ended up favoring Democrats by six points. Voters viewed the average Democratic candidate more favorably than the average Republican candidate by 16 points.
“We were able to overperform the national environment in districts where the president was relatively popular,” said Dan Sena, the DCCC's executive director. “If you look at the persuadable voters, and fact that president is net positive, it’s a huge testament to these candidates.”
According to the survey, Democrats grabbed control of the midterms more than 18 months ago, during the fight over whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
By far, the No. 1 issue cited for voters' support of Democrats was health care; 44 percent of them said that they wanted their vote to “lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs.” Among voters who decided whom to support in the final week of the campaign, 53 percent said they were opposing Republicans because they might “increase the cost of health care.” Just a fraction of voters said that they were voting to stop the president; most cited an issue they wanted action on.
That coalition was not on board with everything Democrats might do. By a 33-point margin, “persuadable” voters who had not backed Democrats in 2016 said they wanted to see the new Congress “work with Trump,” not against him.
Why did those voters reject Republicans? According to the poll, Democratic challengers simply blew Republicans off the map with positive messaging. By a 24-point margin, battleground district voters said they saw more positive ads about Democrats than about Republicans. That comports with what some Republicans have begun to say in the midterm's aftermath, that the surge of funds into GOP super PACs largely financed repetitive negative advertising that never dealt with the weaknesses of Republican candidates and never sold voters on a positive reason to keep Republicans in control, even though the economy was growing.
“It was the validation of how important the Democratic messaging was,” Sena said. “You can see how much more of the positive messaging broke through than how much of the GOP's negative messaging broke through. We knew the entire time that these candidates had the ability to get and stay positive. The Republicans jettisoned their positive messaging, and I'm still surprised that they did so.”
2020 Democratic presidential nomination (MoveOn straw poll via NBC News)
Don't know: 28.8 percent
Beto O’Rourke: 15.6 percent
Joe Biden: 14.9 percent
Bernie Sanders: 13.1 percent
Kamala Harris: 10 percent
Elizabeth Warren: 6.4 percent
Sherrod Brown: 2.9 percent
Amy Klobuchar: 2.8 percent
Michael Bloomberg: 2.7 percent
Cory Booker: 2.6 percent
MoveOn, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year and has grown to millions of members, asked them to vote in an early straw poll of potential candidates for president. It was never going to decide who got MoveOn's official endorsement, something that requires a supermajority of the vote.
But it revealed how little this particular pool of voters is fixated on ideology right now. In December 2014, MoveOn members voted to support a “Draft Warren” effort, eventually spending more than $1 million on an unsuccessful attempt to get the senator to run for presidency. In January 2016, 78 percent of MoveOn members voted to give the group's endorsement to the Sanders primary campaign.
Yes, North Carolina, again. Republicans are no closer to a resolution in the contested race for North Carolina's 9th District, but they have come up with a solution for one nagging issue: What to do about Mark Harris, the Republican who appeared to have won the seat on the basis of an absentee ballot suppression scheme?
Under current law, if the state calls for a new election in a contested race, it must be run with the candidates who appeared in the previous election. In the 9th District, that would mean that a special election sometime in early 2019 would pit Harris against Dan McCready, the Democrat who nearly won. Democrats have remained 100 percent behind McCready, but Harris, who narrowly ousted Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) to become the nominee, was never popular within the party. That was even before a scandal that might have made him toxic.
The solution? Republicans, who for just 20 more days have a veto-proof legislative supermajority, are proposing a bill that would change election law and require a primary in the event of a new election. While McCready had a fringe primary challenger of his own, he would be in a strong position to take his party's nomination again.
As first reported by Daniel Marans, the Democratic National Committee is setting new rules that require employees of the party to remain neutral ahead of the 2020 primary. "Employees are prohibited from providing DNC services to any Presidential campaign other than through that process or unless explicitly authorized by the CEO or her designee," the party's chief executive, Seema Nanda, wrote in a Monday memo.
This is the umpteenth time since 2016 that the party has codified something that rankled the losing side of the past presidential primary. The DNC's bylaws have long required neutrality in primaries, up to the point when the party has officially picked its nominee. But the hack and release of internal emails, which revealed some staffers viewing Bernie Sanders with contempt toward the end of the primary, has haunted Democrats ever since.
Worth noting: There is a large faction of Democrats who are sick and tired of these sorts of concessions. Last month, the Congressional Black Caucus cast a nonbinding “no confidence” vote against DNC Chairman Tom Perez, stemming from anger at the party's elimination of the power of “superdelegates” to vote on the first ballot of a presidential nomination. Even in victory, the DNC has struggled to catch up with the RNC in fundraising.
"Emmer, NRCC Start to Rebuild for 2020,” by Ally Mutnick and Kyle Trygstad
A look inside the thinking of the Republican who wants to win back the House and whose first big idea is “regionalizing” his committee. One revelation here: Emmer may be the first Republican in leadership who says that the 11th-hour campaign focus on immigration hurt the party.
A clinical look at where the Democrats' left flank can build power, inspired by the strategy that has worked well for conservatives since 2010.
A rebuttal to the idea that something is wrong with democracy if we can't call a winner within a day of polls closing. (To be fair, most other countries seem to pull that off with a federalized election system.)
... 161 days until Kentucky's primaries
... 238 days until Mississippi's primaries
... 331 days until Louisiana's primaries