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The Trailer: Putting the 2020 Democrats into tiers

In this edition: Democratic candidates enter the tier-garden, Sherrod Brown talks GM and 2020,  Gov. Phil Murphy talks gerrymandering, and primaries, primaries, everywhere.

I struggle to remember a time when Washington wasn't always preparing for a shutdown, and this is The Trailer.

Most people agree that the 2020 Democratic presidential field will be enormous, with more than 30 candidates at least considering bids. In coverage so far, some candidates earn the designation “top tier,” usually based on the strength of early polling. Most candidates get plunked into a “second tier” or “lower tier.”

Here's what no one can agree on: What tiers do the candidates fit into? How many tiers are there? Are there even “tiers” at all, or should we be talking about “lanes” or, as a strategist for one possible candidate put it, “runways”?

Over the past weeks, this simple Rorshach question has been posed to a number of politicians, strategists and writers, none of whom had the same answer. There's a general sense that former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would enter the race with maximal buzz and that many campaign staffers are biding their time until these “boldfaced names” make their decisions.

But after the 2016 primary, when Republican strategists talked confidently about who was best positioned to consolidate support and beat Donald Trump, no one's so confident that they know how the Democratic race will sort out. In the last race, former Florida governor Jeb Bush's advisers talked confidently about dominating the “establishment lane,” while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) argued that a pileup in that lane would allow him to pull ahead by conquering the “libertarian lane.”

It's hard to overemphasize how certain many Republicans were about this framing. The primary was often seen as a series of undercard bouts that would eventually produce candidates from each party faction. That wasn't entirely wrong, as after March 2020, the primary boiled down to the conservative-backed Cruz, the "establishment"-backed Kasich and Trump. But the whole theory of the Republican contest was scrambled by reality.

True to form, Democrats are getting an early start on their own scramble. Here are the most popular ways that observers broke down the Democratic field, one month before it's expected to start filling in.

Old White Guys/Everybody Else. Several people, including a senator who will not be named, proposed some version of this rubric. Three male candidates looking at 2020 have already celebrated their 70th birthdays: Biden, Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders. They represent markedly different agendas, but many early-state Democrats have already said that older candidates will struggle once the race is underway and they're stacked up against young, fresh faces.

There's disagreement about whether Warren, who will turn 70 next summer, should be in the tier, as she's been in electoral politics since only 2012. The sticky question was about how much of the nervousness about older candidates had to do with their records; the traumatic memory here is how much Hillary Clinton suffered from her decades-old positions on criminal justice reform and gay rights.

Bernie Lane/Progressive Lane/Establishment Lane. This one came chiefly from supporters of the 2016 runner-up, who argued that his massive network and fundraising list distinguished him from any other contender on the left, including Warren. The jury is out on this. In early polling of Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders is polling far below his final 2016 vote; his numbers are closer to the combined support, at this point four years ago, for a pack of potential left challengers to Clinton.

In Congress/Not in Congress. Jim Kessler of the moderate Third Way think tank pitched this distinction, which nearly splits the 2020 field in half.  In the first post-midterm Iowa poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register and CNN, 10 of the 20 tested candidates were serving in Congress; that poll did not even include Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who may announce a campaign soon.

The question about this breakdown is whether Democrats care as much as Republicans about “outsider” status. In 2016, Senate Republicans who argued that they'd been in the fight against the Obama administration got little credit from voters, who preferred the deal Trump offered: Just blow everything up. 

Change/Normalcy. Several Democrats who doubt that Joe Biden can maintain his support described a two-tier choice like this, with Biden — and to a lesser extent, Obama administration veteran Julian Castro — at least implicitly offering voters the chance to wind the clock back to 2016. Every other Democrat, they said, would be free to run as a “change” agent, free to criticize previous Democratic presidents, unencumbered by the Clinton or Obama legacies.

First/Second/Third/Fourth. Virgil Texas, the co-host of Chapo Trap House, split up the prospective candidates by their strength in polling and résumés. In the first tier were Sanders, Biden, O'Rourke and Warren; in the second were Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). In the third was “everyone with a state-level position who nobody's heard of or will probably care about.” In the fourth: “all the cranks,” a list that could include everyone from Andrew Yang, who's running to raise the profile of universal basic income, to Vermin Supreme, who runs in every New Hampshire primary to advocate for free ponies.

Billionaires/Non-billionaires. Early polling has found almost negligible support for the Democrats who could most easily self-fund their campaigns: Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz. Steyer is positioning himself as a liberal who can enter politics with no debts, while Bloomberg and Schultz are expected to use their wealth to argue for a Democratic shift to the center, one that no interest groups can stop. No one interviewed this week expected these candidates to have the same wide-open path to a nomination; Democrats, they said, simply don't resent political experience.

2006 Coalition/2018 Coalition. No one could agree on what to call this breakdown, but it encapsulated how many Democrats looked at the different theories of how to put together an electoral college majority. The first group, made up of Biden, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and other white men, contained candidates who seemed able to excite the coalition that flipped the House in 2006 — strong support in cities and appeal to ancestral Democrats who would abandon the party in 2010. The second, led by non-white-male candidates such as Booker and Harris, seemed better positioned to build on the Trump-era party coalition of suburbanites, college-educated white voters and all nonwhite voters. 

Is this serious? Sort of, insofar as many Democrats really do want to sort their candidates into camps. Is this a parlor game? Well, sure: And I welcome any more nominations for the “lanes” or “runways” or any other ways to view the Democratic primary. Email them to


Days after winning a third term, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said, for the first time, that he might consider running for president. He's been on a busy media tour ever since, sitting for profiles in the New Yorker and podcasts with the Intercept and appearing on all manner of TV shows to sketch out where a worker-focused Democratic Party could go in 2020. For the past three weeks, he's also been speaking out and lobbying against General Motors’ decision to move thousands of jobs from the Midwest to Mexico — something he had opposed for months through back channels.

On Tuesday, The Trailer caught up with Brown to talk 2020 and to go deep on the GM saga, which in his view is one aspect of the party's move away from the free-trade policies that the party made peace with for years. 

“I just don’t see a bunch of free-traders, whether they’re in the suburbs or whether they’re in Orange County,” Brown said.

Washington Post: You and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sent a letter to GM last week encouraging them to stay here and create jobs. Have you heard back?

Sherrod Brown: Not yet. Rob and I met last night for about 10 minutes to talk about it. We’re trying everything. Everything we can think of. [GM] has not said what they’re going to do. They say there’s only 1,000 unemployed autoworkers; I don’t know where [GM CEO Mary Barra] gets that number. They had laid off 3,000 people before this. They’re offering jobs in Fort Wayne and jobs in Arlington, Texas, but it’s not like you can just move for a job offering $50,000, $60,000 a year — that, after you sell your house in Youngstown, after it’s already lost value.

WP: Did the 2017 tax cut make it likelier that GM would do this?

SB: I guess I’d answer it this way: The president sat in a room with me and 10 senators, before the tax bill, and said that everybody would get a $4,000 raise and all the jobs would be coming back. Clearly, the tax bill didn’t do anything that was promised. It’s more what could have been. I offered two bills to the president: One was the Working Families Tax Credit, which would have expanded the [earned income tax credit]. That wouldn’t have affected [GM’s decision] so much. The Patriot Corporation Act, which says if you pay good wages and offer good benefits and do your production here, you get a lower tax rate. If you don’t — if your workers depend on Medicaid, the EITC, and housing vouchers — you pay a corporate freeloader free.

WP: So, only a big company would pay.

SB:  Yeah. It can’t be some family diner. It’s got to be a big company; the CEOs are making a gazillion dollars. If we had taken that approach on tax reform, it absolutely would have made a difference, because GM wouldn’t be rewarded for taking jobs offshore. They wouldn’t have gotten a desirable tax rate based on that.

WP: But when you talked to the president he said he was back on board?

SB: He said he was, three times in that call. In fact, he also said: My Republican friends may not like this, but I don’t care. We’ve just seen no action from him. I need him speaking out to get something done. I’ll get Democratic votes on a bill like this, but Republicans are not likely to move on any backtracking of that corporate tax bill, because that’s what they came here for. Trump says he’s different, and Trump says he cares about these industries, so let him prove it. He wasn’t really aware of the provisions that gave GM [a tax break] for moving jobs. He asked, where did that come from? I said, Mr. President, it’s part of your tax bill. He said: Oh.

WP: So, having been through this before, what's the process by which Trump agrees to something and then publicly backs away? 

SB: The problem seems to be that he doesn’t have a deep understanding of these issues, or the knowledge, and briefing, and background information that should accrue to someone who’s president of the United States. It’s pretty easy to convince him to be for something, because he has little pushback. I’ve seen him in these meetings. He goes around the table, and he kind of wants to agree with everybody. Then he goes and meets with advisers, and there’s a good deal of cacophony in the White House; [it] looks like a retreat for Wall Street executives, so much of their final decisions come down to that. That’s why we haven’t even got NAFTA 2.0, or NAFTA 1.6, or whatever it is.

WP: When Trump was a Republican candidate, a lot of people in the party criticized the very idea of a president weighing in and calling out companies, or actually levying tariffs or taxes to induce their behavior. Do you think that's actually a workable model for the presidency?

SB: Well, he calls him out, and then he rewards them. He’ll call them out, and I’m sitting here with Mary Barra, and I say: Hey, we talked to the White House. She flinches a little, then again, she leaves the office and thinks about all the things the White House has done for her with the tax bill, trying to lower environmental standards for them. There were mixed feelings among the auto companies considering all they’ve done. It’s the worst of both words: He calls them out, but then he gives them things. They don't like being called out, but their compensation keeps going up, so they can flinch all the way to the bank.

WP: But do you think there's merit, if it's done differently, in saying: “Look, we're going to stand up for this industry by imposing tariffs”?

SB: If what [we] say doesn’t have a backup of action, it’s empty words that blow away like autumn leaves. I am more and more impatient that he’s not done [tariffs] right. Look at where we started, with China capturing more and more of the world’s steelmaking capacity and aluminum smelting capacity. We’ve got to stop that, and tariffs are a temporary tool to do that. They’re not a long-term, permanent policy. When you use these tariffs, you need to work with your allies, not against them.

WP: Do you see a risk of Democrats nominating a candidate in 2020 who goes back to the old policies on free trade, who moves away from this?

SB: No. I think the party’s unified on trade, mostly. Anytime you advance a big new trade policy, there’s discussion and disagreement. But there will be very few votes in the House and Senate for NAFTA 1.6. I don’t think they’ve convinced anybody that this has strong enough labor enforcements, let alone rules of origin, violence against workers, and all the other provisions we’ve been consistent and strong talking to [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer about. [Trump] didn’t deliver on those.

WP: You've said that you want to talk about the dignity of work and see if anyone with presidential ambitions is willing to grab onto that message. What have you seen so far?

SB: Well, Marco Rubio wrote a piece in the Atlantic called the dignity of work. Did you see that? I spoke to 100 Cleveland businesses yesterday — I do this every 18 months or so — and they believe, too, that the dignity of work is bipartisan. You don’t leave workers out. It’s people who live in part on tips. It’s people who swipe badges, and punch clocks, and take care of kids. I think Democrats are understanding that not just in the heartland, but around the country. I don’t think many people think Washington respects them and their work.

WP: You told the Intercept that Bernie Sanders might have struggled to win in 2016: “I think it was a difficult race for Bernie if he had been the nominee.” Can you expand on that? Why might he have lost?

SB:  Because campaigns are nasty and tough. Trump had a way of emasculating everybody he got close to. It would have been nasty. It would have been tough for any Democrat. I think he could have made Bernie a creature of Washington, because he’s been here so long, just as [2018 GOP Senate nominee Jim] Renacci tried to do to me.

WP: Speaking of that: Let’s agree that Renacci ran a really negative, rough campaign against you. He wasn't a very strong candidate; he didn't raise a lot of money. How transferrable is what worked in a race like that to a race against Donald Trump?

SB: I don’t know what I’m going to do in 2020, start with that. I am going to talk about the dignity of work. I’m likely going to visit some of those states, and talk about that message, and then we’ll see. Of any of the people running, I’ve been tested by Republican attacks. With Trump coming into the state half a dozen times, Pence coming into the state half a dozen times, start with that. Renacci was very much a Trump acolyte, the same sort of slash-and-burn tactics. Six years ago I had more money spent against me than any incumbent senator in history, though that record has been broken several times since. Six years earlier I defeated a pretty well-regarded Republican incumbent. I’ve had Republicans attack me. The state’s getting more conservative. Rural America is getting more conservative.

WP: Renacci's closing campaign was almost entirely about your divorce records. [Renacci and a super PAC attacked Brown over divorce records in which his ex-wife said he had bullied her; she has since endorsed Brown's Senate bids.] You won. Did you come away thinking that issue is settled in a national campaign?

SB: I don’t know. They’ll use everything. I mean, Trump makes stuff up. It doesn’t really matter what’s true.

WP: Let's skip many steps ahead: If you became president, a Republican governor would fill your seat. What would you say to a Democratic voter who worries about that?

SB: I don’t really think much about that. People have a lot of time on their hands think about that. That’s five steps away, five very large steps away.

WP: A lot of the senators talking about running have endorsed Medicare-for-all legislation. You haven't, so explain what your current position is.

SB: I want to get to universal coverage. That’s been my commitment to taxpayers. I joined the exchange [got insurance through the ACA] in 2013. I worked for years on the Medicare buy-in at 55. I worked for years, on [former top Senate Democrat] Harry Reid’s behest, as the lead negotiator, with a group of six of us. We got that without any significant increase to premiums. We had that in the bill, and then Joe Lieberman changed his vote. That’s the way to get to Medicare-for-all. However we get to universal coverage, we’ve got to get there. I’ve introduced a bill to do a pilot for police and fire. The average police and firefighter retired at 53, and instead of paying their health insurance, state governments are block-granting their money. That’s why we should do a Medicare buy-in for police and fire, something this Congress actually might consider.


Trump 2020. A new ad from the president's reelection campaign closely resembles the sort of “call to show your appreciation” spots that have become common among pro-Trump super PACs. In it, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale describes how much voters have to thank the president for, including “record low unemployment for minorities,” then urges them to call a number that will (though it's not explicit in the ad) sign them up with campaign donation asks.


Sherrod Brown. Two Ohio supporters of the senator, including Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, have launched the Committee to Draft Sherrod Brown for President 2020.

Tulsi Gabbard.  The congresswoman from Hawaii could decide on a presidential bid before Christmas, per Buzzfeed’s Alexis Levinson.

Kamala Harris. The office of the senator from California announced that she traveled to Afghanistan over the weekend with two Republican colleagues.

Beto O'Rourke. Not one but two draft campaigns are now underway: “Draft Beto” and “Draft Beto 2020.” The former is following the pattern of a few other successful draft efforts in raising money for a prospective campaign, with the promise to transfer all of it if/when O'Rourke becomes a candidate.


The busy lame-duck legislative sessions in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin have been a challenge to the idea that Democrats and Republicans wield power in the same way. When NBC's Chuck Todd told viewers that Republican efforts to restrict incoming governors were not unique and that “Democrats in fact have done this in the past to Republican governors in lame-duck sessions in other states,” he was roasted by liberal commentators. Only last week, when New Jersey Democrats moved to change the state's redistricting laws, did commentators have a fresh case of both parties trying to grab more power.

The twist: As he told The Trailer two weeks ago, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was vehemently opposed to his party's redistricting push. Democrats in Trenton gave up this week, and Murphy declared victory.

“I’m very gratified that it was withdrawn,” Murphy said in an interview. “I remain open-minded to anything that makes redistricting less political, more inclusive, more transparent. But this idea went backward in both form and substance. The way it was done was almost as bad as what was it in it. Jamming a bill through on Christmas Eve? That doesn’t happen in our state, at least.”

Murphy, whose administration is facing questions about whether enough was done to respond to a staffer's claim that she was sexual assaulted, said the Democrats' move in New Jersey could send a message to the powerful in other states.

“Listen, last week I’m sitting there looking at what this proposal was in New Jersey, and at the same time looking at the shenanigans in Wisconsin and Michigan,” Murphy said. "As Democrats, we should have the courage to run elections fair and square without rigging them.”


There's a draft in here. Just hours after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced that he'd retire in 2020, the Club for Growth endorsed a replacement who isn't actually running — at least, not yet. The Club for Growth's PAC called on Mark Green, a Tennessee state senator who will be sworn in to Congress next month, to run for the open seat and become “a tremendous addition to the Senate.” 

Green, who is best known nationally for questioning whether vaccinations can cause autism (they do not), is by no means the GOP establishment's favorite for a safe seat. But by coming out for him now, the PAC is signaling that Green would have outside money if he needed it and the blessing of a powerful conservative brand. Three months ago, the Latino Victory Fund did much the same thing, urging Rep. Ruben Gallego (R-Ariz.) to run in the 2020 election to complete the term of the late John McCain. And as noted above, there are multiple draft efforts underway for potential presidential candidates.

The low-key risk in all of these cases is that operatives who may never work for a campaign are using politicians' names to collect donors and build their contact list. The recent history of Senate draft efforts is more innocent. The most successful of them, in this decade, was probably the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's push to raise money for Elizabeth Warren when she was still deciding whether to run for Senate from Massachusetts in 2012. That was far from the only factor in Warren's decision, but it didn't hurt and ended up benefiting both camps; to this day, PCCC identifies itself as representing “the Warren wing” of the Democratic Party. 


Soon enough, this newsletter will have a strange House election to discuss that is not in Maine's 2nd District. But we're not there yet. After a federal judge denied Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin's request for a new election, and after the congressman conceded that a recount would not reverse the final result, Poliquin is heading back to court in the hope that he can get the state's first “ranked choice” election overturned.

The prospects are not good. First, as was the case before, Poliquin's argument is that Maine voters, who have twice approved ranked-choice voting, were forced into a confusing process that discriminated against third-party voters. According to the congressman's legal team, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit should consider whether voters were denied the right to know the two candidates likely to get the most votes; whether ranked choice voting violates the Constitution's “due process” clause; and whether the system unconstitutionally scrapped the election's first round, which had Poliquin ahead. 

This argument was previously torn to shreds by a judge nominated by President Trump. There are no Trump appointees on the 1st Circuit, though just five of its 11 judges were nominated by Democratic presidents. 

If Poliquin gets the expedited decision he asked for, it's likely that he'll face yet another legal setback Friday. The only question then is whether Poliquin will attempt to take the case to the Supreme Court and whether Republican Gov. Paul LePage will continue to deny an election certificate for Democrat Jared Golden so long as, technically, Poliquin is challenging the election. 

None of that will matter after Jan. 2, when LePage is replaced by Janet Mills, the state's incoming Democratic governor. Maine's secretary of state has already signaled that he'll certify the election; Mills would take away the last impediment to that; and it's up to the House, which in 16 days will be run by Democrats, to decide any further challenge to the election.


Laura Barron-Lopez reports that the left-wing groups that brought down Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) in 2018 want to oust Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a close friend of Crowley's who swept into his colleague's old role as party conference chairman. Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run against Crowley, had signaled last month that it would back more primary challenges in safe Democratic seats. Jeffries became a top priority, reports Barron-Lopez, after Ocasio-Cortez learned “that a campaign donation to her from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was allegedly used in a whisper campaign against Lee before her narrow loss to Jeffries in the recent race for Democratic caucus chair.” Ocasio-Cortez called the Politico piece a “junk” article.

One important aspect of this story is the synergy between the new left's media and the new left's political institutions. The rumor that Crowley warned colleagues about Lee's support for Ocasio-Cortez — a donation made after Crowley's defeat — was first reported by the Intercept, which confirmed it with Lee.

On paper, Jeffries is exactly the sort of candidate that Justice Democrats goes after — a party leader who has support from charter school supporters and who does not swear off corporate PAC money. But there's considerable disagreement about who the left should go after and whether Jeffries checks every box. In his rise to the leadership, Jeffries joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus and stuck with them on nearly every litmus-test vote. Jeffries is African American and represents a mostly black district; that nixes one of the disadvantages Crowley had in 2018, And some of the early planning on the left has focused on Democrats who represent safe seats but break with the party on easy votes, such as Reps. Dan Lipinski (Ill.), Henry Cuellar (Tex.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.), all of whom will appear on primary ballots before Jeffries.

But any challenge to Jeffries, unless it looks unfunded and unserious, would prompt an ambitious Democrat to spend time shoring up his political base at home. The threat of primary challenges is simply part of the Democratic DNA now, with the objective of preventing any incumbent from tacking to the center. The most important development here might not be what Justice Democrats is doing; it may be the post-election dogpile on No Labels, which through its PAC provided the only real opposition to left-wing challenges in 2018. Since Nov. 6, email leaks and negative reporting have cost the group some of its Democratic allies, and the campaign to discredit No Labels is ongoing.


"Pete Buttigieg has his eyes on the prize,”  by Adam Wren

This profile ran just before Buttigieg's announcement and clarifies just how much the Indiana Democratic Party's 2018 losses factored into it: The election, Buttigieg said, “complicates any path for me in Indiana more than what was already the case.”

“Yanis Varoufakis’s Internationalist Odyssey,” by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

Everything you need to know about the effort to unite the global political left to fight the global nationalist movement.

“Republicans seek to expand Trump’s support for 2020, but will the president cooperate?” by Michael Scherer

The eternal GOP struggle to convince the president that he could get more votes by focusing on other issues.


... one day until Paul Ryan's farewell speech
... sixteen days until the new Congress is sworn in