In this edition: A Texas judge blows up the 2020 race, Tom Perez scraps with Democrats who don't want a new data operation, and an Iowa poll gives us a little clarity on the next primary.

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If upheld by higher courts, Judge Reed O'Connor's decision in Texas v. Azar would do what a Republican-controlled presidency, the House and the Senate couldn't: dismantle the Affordable Care Act. 

So why are Democrats so much happier to talk about this ruling than Republicans?

Here's why: Barring a dramatic change, such as one or more liberals on the Supreme Court being replaced by the president, they don't think O'Connor's decision will survive in higher courts. While it works its way over, the decision refocuses voters on an issue that, according to public and private polling, breaks overwhelmingly for Democrats.

“Democrats, as we did in 2018 rather successfully, are going to make health care a major, probably the major, issue in the upcoming campaigns and as we act in Congress,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a Sunday interview on “Meet the Press.” That's a universal sentiment among Democrats. Republicans, who in 2018 struggled to explain what they'd offer on health care if they kept control of Congress, have had similar trouble responding to this court case.

There are really two wings of the Republican Party, and they approached the lawsuit in completely different ways. The governing wing of the party, including every Republican running for reelection in 2018, made peace with the most popular aspects of the ACA after the summer of 2017. Republicans who had once run against the ACA's expansion of Medicaid, such as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, reversed themselves on the trail. 

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who helped bring the lawsuit and will join the Senate next year, told voters that he would protect its “preexisting” provisions. In a Friday tweet responding to the O'Connor decision, Hawley said only that the court had “declared the individual mandate unconstitutional.” Even in victory, with a court striking down the entire ACA, Hawley spoke as if it had nixed only one unpopular provision.

Not every Republican attorney general joined the lawsuit; one who did lost his reelection (Wisconsin's Brad Schimel), and another (West Virginia's Patrick Morrisey) lost a bid for Senate. While O'Connor argued that Republicans effectively killed the ACA by passing their tax bill, at least one Republican who backed that bill has disagreed.

“There’s no reason why the individual mandate provision can’t be struck down, and keep all the good provisions of the Affordable Care Act,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Sunday on CNN's “State of the Union.”

Contrast that with how Republicans without skin in the game, sometimes referred to as the “entertainment wing” of the party, did this weekend. They declared total victory in a cause with a limited constituency: damaging Barack Obama's legacy. “The law is dead,” crowed Hugh Hewitt, referring to a law that the Trump administration continues to implement. “Obama's legacy would at last be wiped clean,” wrote the actor and on again/off again Twitter wag James Woods. “It would be as if he never existed.”

But Obama did exist; tens of millions of people now receive coverage that was not available before the ACA was implemented. Republicans knew this would complicate efforts to repeal or strike down the ACA, which is why they worked to do that before it went into effect. For years, they warned that a constituency that was happy with the law would prevent it from being unwound. That was the case Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) made shortly after arriving in the Senate, warning that the Jan. 1, 2014, phase-in of the entire law would be politically irreversible.

“If we get to January 1, this thing is here forever,” Cruz said in August 2013, at a meeting of the Kingwood, Tex., Tea Party. “On January 1, subsidies kick in. [Obama] knows that in modern times no major entitlement has ever gone into effect and been unwound. Never been done.”

Cruz was right; the law got voters acclimated to a muscular government that provided more subsidies, benefits and coverage. Nothing that Republicans did or said in 2017 changed that, and their attempt to replace the law with a more complicated, less comprehensive set of regulations — remember “high-risk pools?” — was politically disastrous. By the midterms, outgoing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had abandoned his old dream of trying to restructure Medicare and was promising that Republicans would protect the health-care system from Democrats who wanted to bankrupt it with new clients.

“The GOP always starts with a policy instead of starting with the people,” said pollster/strategist Frank Luntz. “They say: States should make the decisions so you have more choice. Okay, but to the average ear, getting more choice means you have a decision. You have forms. You have paperwork. They should have said you'd have options, meaning the status quo was okay if you wanted to keep it.” 

At the same time, the legal threat to the ACA has radicalized Democrats, growing their internal constituency for a massive expansion of health insurance through Medicaid and Medicare, which have faced no legal opposition in 50 years. “Nearly a decade of constant and cynical assault on what was supposed to be a compromise bill has pushed the Democratic Party left on health care policy,” Vox's Ezra Klein wrote shortly after O'Connor's decision. "[It] persuaded Democrats everywhere that trying to compromise or placate Republicans is foolish.”

What will this look like in the next campaign? Debates about how to shore up the ACA will happen in a Congress full of presidential aspirants; all of them support one or both Houses intervening to overturn the O'Connor ruling, which incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed Friday. Most of them — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) — have endorsed either existing “Medicare-for-all” legislation or said they'd favor a similar alternative.

When the presidential campaign truly begins, there will be a debate over universal health care on the Democratic side and a muddle on the Republican side. Even the most Trump-loyal Republicans, having watched the president undermine the House GOP's ACA repeal push, don't see him pitching and explaining a popular plan to expand insurance. And Democrats are excited about attacking “activist judges” who want to undermine the ACA. In 2016, Republicans waved the banners of Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges to tell their base that the courts were attacking their values. In 2020, Democrats plan to make this decision infamous, and ask voters whether they want their health care to be decided by some judge they've never heard of.

One group, Demand Justice, was founded to push Democrats to be more aggressive about opposing conservative judicial nominees. Its executive director, Brian Fallon, said defending the ACA is good for their party.

“We just so happen to have a decades-long problem of the asymmetry between how much conservatives treat the courts as a voting issue compared to how little progressives do,” Fallon said. “So why, fresh on the heels of the Kavanaugh fight that finally sowed some seeds of progressive activism around the courts, would we punt on an opportunity to once again show progressives how important it is to oppose what Trump is doing to the courts?”

POLL WATCH

Iowa Democratic Caucuses (Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll, 455 Likely Caucusgoers)

Joe Biden — 32%
Bernie Sanders — 19%
Beto O'Rourke — 11%
Elizabeth Warren — 8%
Kamala Harris — 5%
Cory Booker — 4%
Mike Bloomberg — 3%
Amy Klobuchar — 3%
John Delaney — 1%
Julián Castro — 1%
John Hickenlooper — 1%
Sherrod Brown — 1%

This newsletter has a firm policy of ignoring any national presidential primary polls. No offense to the pollsters, but there is no “national primary.” The day that Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, national polling found him around 15 points behind Hillary Clinton.

Kudos, then, to CNN for partnering with the Des Moines Register and polling the Democrats who matter in 2020.  We now have an Iowa front-runner, Joe Biden, though he starts in a weaker position than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. In January 2015, the Des Moines Register poll put Clinton at 56 percent support in Iowa; the next 13 months were one long war of attrition, as Bernie Sanders eventually consolidated the rest of Democratic voters, energized some independents and fought Clinton to a virtual tie in the caucuses.

Biden's support is less obviously flimsy than Clinton's; he is not just the top first choice among caucusgoers but the top second choice of 18 percent of them, ahead of any other contender. A sub-question about whether voters want a “seasoned hand” in 2020 is gift-wrapped for Biden; by 13 points, Democrats prefer that option over a “newcomer.” That raises the question of whether any other candidate is truly a “newcomer” here; the Democrats on this list with the least electoral experience are Delaney and Warren, who won their first races six years ago.

If anyone comes out weak in this poll, it's Warren and, to a lesser extent, Sanders. The senator from Massachusetts, who polled at 16 percent in the January 2015 survey, is now getting half of that. The bloc of left-leaning senators, including Warren, Sanders, Booker, Harris and Brown, combines for 37 percent of the first-choice vote. That's stronger than the left was at this point in any Democratic caucus, perhaps ever. But it's less than Sanders ended up with in 2016. 

2020

Yemen, Part II. The Senate's 56-to-41 vote to end military support for the Saudis' war in Yemen was a triumph for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who teamed up with libertarian-leaning Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to deliver something that absolutely did not have the votes at the start of 2018. It came after a year of lobbying and negotiations and several false starts. It ended with Sanders pacing the Senate floor managing a bill that for the first time used the Vietnam-era War Powers Act to rebuke the president.

The decision by House Republicans to deny a companion bill in the House means that Sanders, and his allies, will take another swing at the issue next year. While activists railed at moderate Democrats who let Republicans quash the kill, keep in mind: That effort succeeded because the pro-administration language was tucked into the must-pass farm bill. There's already work underway to get a clean vote on the resolution in a House where Democrats and a rump of libertarian-leaning Republicans are ready to pass it.

What does it mean for 2020 politics? Every Democrat talked about as a contender supports the Sanders effort; few have had (or wanted) an opportunity to sketch out their foreign policy views. The 2020 contest may begin with a more robust debate about this than 2016 ever had.

The potential candidates:

Cory Booker. The New Jersey senator tweeted his support of a “Green New Deal,” the catchall term being used by the Sunrise Movement and other activists for a comprehensive jobs plan that would transition the United States away from fossil fuels.

Sherrod Brown. He held a Facebook town hall Sunday, as the senator from Ohio continues to use White House speculation to promote his "dignity of work" agenda, a constellation of small but potent jobs-focused reforms.

Eric Holder. The former attorney general's first reaction to the O'Connor ruling against the ACA: “It is time to move to some version of Medicare-for-all.”

Beto O'Rourke. He's entering his final two weeks as a congressman, focusing on an El Paso-based district that was near the center of this year's immigration debate. Over the weekend, he urged more public pressure on the administration to close a “tent city” for immigrant detainees.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

The data wars. A Democratic battle over voter data broke into view this weekend, as a state party rebelled against DNC Chairman Tom Perez's support for a centralized source of voter information that the party itself would not control.

It seemed like an easy sell, at first. After Reince Priebus became RNC chairman in 2011, he launched the Data Trust, an independent entity that could collect and crunch voter information without the financial limits legally placed on party committees. Technically distinct from the party, it was available to Republicans, and only Republicans, and it helped the party leapfrog Democrats' data operation.

This year, Democrats began to consider creating the same quasi-independent entity and had investors interested in funding it. But state parties, which controlled their own data, blanched at the idea of handing it all over. Whoever ended up running it was likely to be a wonk without campaign experience, and the experience of 2016 made that hard to take. The last time state parties were told to grit their teeth and trust the data geeks, they watched Hillary Clinton lose the presidency.

“The DNC doesn’t even realize they are potentially slitting their own throats here,” Minnesota party chairman Ken Martin told the Wall Street Journal.

The drama is playing out in an eerily similar fashion to the GOP's, complete with the threat of wealthy investors creating their own data operation unless the party acts fast. The Democratic twist: It's taking them more than a year longer to go through the same contortions, in part because their state parties had more independence than the state Republicans ever did. And the party chairs are dishing, with several telling Politico's Alex Thompson that Perez has stiffened their resolve for another plan that would coordinate data without creating another independent, no-strings trust. 

Democrats plan to fight this out over meetings this week.

LEFT

The mutual contempt between Democratic activists and their party has been good for one group of activists: Democrats who want to organize with no meddling from the top. The National Democratic Training Committee, which raised and spent $4 million last year to drill potential candidates on campaign fundamentals, says it will spend more than $10 million to do so ahead of 2020, with at least 83 sessions open to prospective campaigners.

“It's free for any Democrat who wants to do it, even if two or three of them take the training and end up running against each other,” said Kelly Dietrich, the committee's founder. “It was nobody's job to train downballot candidates before we did this, and that made no sense to us.”

The cash surge came in large part because of the NDTC's work with Mothership Strategies, a fundraising operation that's viewed skeptically by some on the left. It was Mothership that pioneered the kind of system-shock emails, multiplying like gremlins as deadlines approached, that came in for mockery after some of 2017's special elections. The rattling of the tin cups sometimes works: The NDTC says it's now backed by more than 100,000 donors, giving an average of $11 each, all so that a candidate they probably will never meet gets an all-day training.

RIGHT

In a “Meet the Press” interview today, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) became the latest party operator to warn Democrats against launching too many investigations of the Trump administration.

“If I was giving advice to my friends in the House, most of the chairmen I would've served with when I was in the House, my advice would be: Legislate, don't investigate, if you want to be rewarded with the continued opportunity to be in control of the House of Representatives,” Blunt said.

That came just three days after the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server continued  in what will probably be the final meeting of the Republican-run House Oversight Committee. As Dana Milbank reported, Republicans called in two investigators who'd probed allegations of favor-seeking at the Clinton Foundation; they sat beside the president of conservative legal group Judicial Watch, which has continued to file lawsuits for information about Clinton's emails.

The ongoing investigation of the Clintons is both rote and extraordinary. Republicans have been asking for probes into Clintonian behavior for 25 years, but there's never been another candidate probed by Congress more than two years after ballots were cast. It has continued even as Democrats have moved on from the Clintons, and as the operatives who pushed for Hillary Clinton to run in 2016 are deep into their work for other candidates. This weekend's new Iowa poll found a plurality of Democrats viewing Clinton unfavorably and a supermajority of them urging her not to run again in 2020, something she shows no interest in doing. 

READING LIST

"How Brian Kemp turned warning of election system vulnerability against Democrats,” by Alan Judd

In the final 36 hours of Georgia's race for governor, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp accused Democrats of potentially committing election fraud by hacking into a state database. After a detailed investigation, there is no evidence for that — a move that may have swung the election or prevented a runoff.

“Anti-Trump conservatives want to reverse the GOP’s destruction. But they helped light the fuse,” by Carlos Lozada

An unsparing look at the new (and newish) looks at the changing Republican Party from conservatives who argue that it needs to be saved from the president.

“Trump push to deport Vietnam War refugees scalds California GOP,” by Jeremy B. White

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Trump administration announced that people who fled Vietnam before 1998 and did not go through the citizenship process would be vulnerable to deportation. California Republicans, who just a few years ago were trying to build a new beachhead with Asian voters, are furious.

COUNTDOWN

. . . one day until South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg announces his future political plans
. . . four days until Progress Iowa gathers three 2020-curious Democrats in Des Moines
. . . 23 days until Kamala Harris's memoir is released
. . . 27 days until Julián Castro announces whether he's running for president