In this edition: The other Democrats come to Iowa, the race for Chicago's mayor heats up, the Democrats get a debate schedule, and the lame-duck legislatures set the table for 2020.

This will be the last Trailer of 2018; Congress may not be done with the year yet, but voters are. We'll be back in action once the traditional pagan ritual in Times Square inaugurates the new year.

DES MOINES — On Thursday morning, as the Democratic National Committee announced new rules to maximize the number of presidential candidates allowed into the party's primary debates, three Democrats were demonstrating why. Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.); Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.); and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., arrived in Iowa ahead of a liberal group’s fundraising dinner — none of them polling above 1 percent, all of them very serious about running in 2020. And they're not at all worried about the competition.

“I don’t feel like I have to get in early to get ahead,” Swalwell said in an interview at Scenic Route, a cafe that’s become a magnet for Democratic operatives in Des Moines. “I see a pathway for a next-generation candidate who has experience in government but not so much that they’re jaded.”

Months before the primaries get underway, Democrats are making peace with the likelihood of an enormous field and embracing the lack of an obvious front-runner. While former vice president Joe Biden has led in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, he has not locked up early party endorsements, as Hillary Clinton did in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. (Like Clinton at this point in the 2016 cycle, Biden has not yet announced anything.) Just a handful of Democrats, like former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, have suggested that they’ll stay out of the race if he runs — and that's out of personal friendship, not political fear.

“It’s a wide open field right now, with people coming from every direction,” Merkley said. “There’s an attitude in Iowa of looking forward to having two or three dozen people descend on the state.”

The relatively slow start to this race has created a large class of dreamers, ambitious Democrats who can see themselves walking the same path as Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama. One party operative here, who had not settled on a candidate but had talked to several, divided the field between "guys who've been here" and "guys who haven't." Progress Iowa, the group gathering Swalwell, Buttigieg, Merkley and businessman Andrew Yang in Des Moines tonight, has gotten used to the "star" candidates skipping events; that, according to the candidates who are actually coming, has created a brief opportunity to shape the race.

As The Post's Matt Viser reported this week, Iowa Democrats have welcomed the parade to their state. The 2016 experience is fresh and bitter in activists' minds, from the early crush of support for Clinton — 60 members of Congress had endorsed her by this point four years ago — to a general election that saw some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stay home or back a third party. The perception of a Clinton coronation, and of a conspiracy to stop Sanders, stuck with the party long past the primary, even influencing the DNC's decision to open up the debates.

"Even if it’s coming on the back end of a calamity for our party, the fact that there’s no juggernaut, or no single program to get behind, is a very good thing," Buttigieg said. "It's really a fertile time for new people and new ideas to emerge."

Despite that, Iowa Democrats say the scramble for local political talent is happening more slowly than they anticipated. Operatives have had months of conversations with candidates and their representatives, and hires began more than a year ago, starting with Maryland Rep. John Delaney's early presidential announcement and his decision to focus on early states before anyone else even considered it. 

Candidates don't see donors as locked in yet, either.

"I've already talked to some major Democratic donors who've signaled that they're going to donate to 10 or 12 people," Buttigieg said. "In the staff primary, people need to pick one candidate; in the finance primary, they very much don't."

The early polling strength of Biden and Sanders has created an opening that dozens of other candidates fit into: the chance to be new. Instead of nostalgia for the Obama years, they could start with voters by arguing that no Democrat had gotten this stuff right yet.

In interviews, the candidates addressing Progress Iowa's Thursday night gala repeatedly emphasized that they had been vocal, early, on an issue that the party should have embraced in 2016. Merkley cited a renewable energy plan; Swalwell cited student loan forgiveness. 

"I'm not hearing candidates talk about solving problems in bold ways," Swalwell said. "My friends in the Bay Area don't even engage with government because they don't think it can solve problems anymore. The great leaders of our time — President Roosevelt, President Johnson — they proved that it could."

Merkley, who was elected to the Senate in 2008 as a critic of the judicial filibuster, said he wanted Democrats to consider bold governing ideas like the end of the filibuster for legislation. There was no appetite, he said, for yet another president who united the country during his campaign then alienated it by failing to deliver on big ideas.

"Part of the cynicism out there is that people can vote for a president and a Congress to pursue aggressive action, but you've got a minority that blocks it from getting to a final vote," Merkley said.

While Merkley endorsed Sanders for president in 2016, he said Sanders was not a factor in his 2020 plans; even if the senator from Vermont announced another run, Merkley might jump in. None of the lesser-known candidates were put off by polling, as there were simply too many case studies of candidates lagging in name recognition and catching fire once their campaign was in place.

"I don’t think polling tells you very much right now," Buttigieg said. "Even polling three days out from the caucus doesn’t tell you much." This isn't wrong; the perpetual drama in Iowa is a year of candidates like Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz being asked why they haven't surged yet, right before they do.

Biden's political speeches before the midterms tore into the Trump administration while harking back to a period when Washington and the Senate could achieve big things. In the weeks before the real scrum begins, the lesser-known candidates are asking Iowans to think about this: If the big names in the party were equipped to beat Trump, why hadn't they stopped him before?

"There's a lot of people in the field who've been doing this for a while," Swalwell said. "They've either been in the majority in the Senate, or they've run before. We need to turn a page forward, not a page backward.”

POLL WATCH

Chicago Mayor (ALG Research, 600 Likely Voters)

Toni Preckwinkle (D) - 21 percent
Susana Mendoza (D) - 16 percent
Bill Daley (D) - 9 percent
Willie Wilson (D) - 8 percent
Garry McCarthy (D)- 7 percent
Dorothy Brown (D) - 6 percent
Paul Vallas (D) - 6 percent 
Amara Enyia (D) - 5 percent
Gery Chico (D) - 3 percent

No, there's no typo here: Republicans aren't contesting the election for mayor of the Midwest's biggest city, and have not for years, even though the race is nonpartisan. (Democratic Party affiliation is added to the names above because we know which party the candidates support.) The election is on Feb. 26 and will be followed by a runoff unless, as seems unlikely, one candidate cracks 50 percent of the vote. If there's a surprise here, it's the weak support for Bill Daley, a scion of the city's legendary political family who has made several runs for office, then quit when support seemed to be lacking.

That could leave a contest between Preckwinkle, who considered challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015, and Mendoza, who has been portrayed as a natural Emanuel successor but fought hard against that image. In 2015, left-wing opposition to Emanuel coalesced behind the surprisingly strong campaign of Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who is now headed to Congress; something to watch here is whether the left can cohere behind someone else. (So far it doesn't seem to be happening to Enyia, who gained national attention after an endorsement from Chance the Rapper.)

Kentucky Governor (Mason-Dixon, 625 Registered Voters)

Andy Beshear (D) - 48 percent
Matt Bevin (R) - 40 percent

Rocky Adkins (D) - 42 percent
Matt Bevin (R) - 41 percent

Matt Bevin (R) - 47 percent
Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) - 46 percent

In this decade, only Florida has disappointed Democrats with as much aplomb as Kentucky. The party began the 2014 race for U.S. Senate, the 2015 race for governor and the 2018 race for the 6th Congressional District with polls that showed a clear path to victory. It lost all of those races as rural and increasingly Republican voters turned out bigger than expected.

What could be different in 2019? Gov. Matt Bevin, who won the office in one of those red wave upsets, has been consistently unpopular, increasingly so since the capture of the state legislature in 2016 allowed him to pursue pension reform, Medicaid work requirements and other conservative policies that lack strong Kentucky constituencies. Beshear, the son of the state's last Democratic governor and its attorney general since 2016, has positioned himself against that agenda; this is also a state where the long-shot GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and by doing so scrap Medicaid expansion, has put one of the party's weakest issues in the forefront.

Still: Republicans saw bad polls in every major Kentucky race this decade; not since 2011, when Beshear's father won a second term, have they failed to run ahead of those numbers.

AD WATCH

Chicago Mayor. Speaking of Bill Daley, he's finally on the air ahead of the Feb. 26 election, with an ad urging Chicagoans to "get real" and focusing entirely on the need to "get guns off our streets" and cut property taxes. Daley is the only white, male candidate in the race's top tier; notably, he's pictured talking exclusively to people who are not white men.

Immigration. People for the American Way is continuing to make under-the-radar digital buys in swing states with lots of Latino voters. Its newest, in English and Spanish, tells the story of Jakelin Caal, the 7-year-old migrant girl who died in a processing center.

DEBATE SEASON

It's official: the Democratic National Committee will sponsor 12 presidential primary debates, three more than it did in the 2016 cycle — and twice as many as it had planned to that year. Six will be held in 2019, starting in June and starting outside the first four primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina). To handle what could be the largest candidate lineup in history, the party will draw lots for debates; if it is unable to fit every credible candidate on one stage, it will split the debate in two.

"It’s conceivable that we could have a double-digit field of candidates," said DNC Chairman Tom Perez in a Thursday morning call with reporters. "To compete by random assignment for those first debates is the best way to not play favorites. We've also been discussing the possible contingency of having debates on consecutive nights."

The only candidates with anything to lose from the debate plan were the many lower-profile Democrats who start the race with single-digit poll numbers; the DNC will factor in "grass-roots fundraising," not just polling, in its debate berths, something that could put insurgent candidates on the level. In conversations Thursday, Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.); Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.); and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, none of whom have cracked 1 percent in polls, said they considered the rules to be fair.

But the laws of the universe demand Democrats to be in some amount of disarray; if not, Republicans want to put them there. America Rising celebrated the debate announcement, calling it "a fantastic early Christmas present" of "the enormous field of Democrat candidates attacking one other and racing to the left night after night." Worth noting: The Republican National Committee signed off on exactly as many debates, 12, in the 2016 primaries.

2020

Joe Biden. He had the strongest net favorable ratings of any Democrat tested in Quinnipiac University's latest poll — 53 percent of voters view him positively, compared with 33 percent who view him negatively. The only downside, as far as nervous Democrats see it: Plenty of polls showed Hillary Clinton just as or even more popular than this during the years between her time at the State Department and her reentry into politics. 

Sherrod Brown. His march through the political press continued with a perceptive Henry Gomez profile in BuzzFeed. Brown is also getting closer to potential "dignity of work" events in early primary states — none this year, but perhaps in January.

Amy Klobuchar. She sat down for an interview with the New Yorker, continuing to sketch out her potential advantages as a candidate by describing how she continues to win voters who have abandoned other Democrats: "You go not just where it’s comfortable but where it’s uncomfortable. And to me that means being there," in counties that went for Trump.

EVERYBODY IS WRONG

Imagine this scenario. It’s a few weeks before a tough election. A caravan of immigrants is heading toward the U.S.-Mexico border, ready to ask for asylum. Republicans seize on the issue, asking if Democrats can still deny that there’s a need for more border security, including a wall. Come Election Day, Republicans lose 40 seats. 

What's incredible about the latest political lurch toward a shutdown over border security is that it’s happening so soon after the issue utterly failed to boost Republicans in the midterms — an outcome that emboldened Democrats heading into 2020. With weeks of polling to sift through, Democrats now believe the border wall cost them marginally in some rural districts where they were never favored to win, while boosting them in the suburbs; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's executive director, Dan Sena, told us as much earlier this month.

Public polling has also found that the issue at the center of the shutdown fight, the border wall, remains narrowly unpopular. On Wednesday, the Quinnipiac University poll found 43 percent of voters backing a wall; just 34 percent backed a government shutdown if that was what it took to get it funded. Consistently, when the wall is offered as its own issue, and not as part of a comprehensive immigration package, it tanks.

Why does Congress keep ending up here? Simple: The base of the Republican Party, amplified on conservative media, has both endorsed the wall as a must-pass litmus test issue and insisted that a shutdown that ends with wall funding will be an incredible win for the president.

The second part of that is true, but not as some conservative talkers understand it. Early this year, the president briefly entertained a deal that would have secured $25 billion of border security funding, which he interpreted as money for the wall, in exchange for a Dream Act. Without rehashing the drama, we know two things: It could have passed, and it would have divided Democratic politicians from an activist base that rallied around a "Clean Dream Act" with no wall money. Trump had, and squandered, an opportunity to weaken his opponents and get what he wanted.

That's not an option anymore, but there's a large amount of conservative commentary that insists it is — or that the polls are wrong, and getting money for a wall would set the president up for 2020. There's a real risk of the president being talked into a series of confrontations, across 2019 and 2020, that shore up a base too small to reelect him. It's hard to find any Democrat worried about this.

WHAT I'M WATCHING

Democrats in three swing states have spent the month since the midterm elections fighting, and often losing, efforts by lame-duck Republican legislatures to pass new rules that would restrict the party that beat them. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has signed the lame-duck bills weeks before Democrat Tony Evers takes office; in North Carolina, Republicans expect they will be able to get new laws that alter voter ID and special election laws past Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, days before they lose their veto-proof majority.

The rest of the action is underway in Michigan, where Democrats believe they have the best chance of blocking lame-duck bills, some by bipartisan votes and some by appeals to the retiring governor, Rick Snyder (R). Thursday morning began with nearly 150 bills, passed by the strongly Republican state Senate, facing votes in the House.

“You’ve seen a groundswell of people standing up and protesting in the Capitol,” said Sam Singh, the outgoing Democratic leader in Michigan’s House. “You just saw the House adjourn because they couldn’t get the votes for some of these Senate bills. Many of the bills that they’ve already sent to the governor could get vetoed; many have constitutional problems and we’ll pursue those in court.”

At the end of the year, we'll have a final tally of how many of these post-election bills made it to a governor's desk. The ones Democrats want to stop most in Michigan are related to voting rights; one, which the party badly wants to kill, would amend the voter-passed automatic registration initiative so that to register on Election Day, voters would need to leave their polling place and head to a county clerk's office. When the dust settles, expect plenty of liberal strategizing on which of these lame-duck issues can become voting issues in 2020 — and targets for reversal in 2021.

READING LIST

"Ryan Zinke was a rising star in Washington. Then he joined the Trump administration," by Darryl Fears, Juliet Eilperin and Josh Dawsey

In another reality, outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might have just unseated Sen. Jon Tester. Instead, he’s facing five active federal investigations after an abrupt resignation.

Former Georgia candidate for governor indicted, by Joshua Sharpe and Greg Bluestein

I can think of no better way to end the 2018 election news cycle than with this story, of a wildly unsuccessful candidate who allegedly made a false statement to police to cover up how campaign servers were being used to mine cryptocurrency.
 

COUNTDOWN

... 68 days until Chicago's mayoral election
... 75 days until Tampa's mayoral election
... 135 days until San Antonio's and Dallas's mayoral elections
... 145 days until Jacksonville's mayoral election
... 410 days until the Iowa caucuses