In this edition: The battle of the billionaires, the single-payer slip-up, and primary season in Kentucky.

I'm tired of all the divisiveness in newsletters these days, and this is The Trailer.

DOVER, N.H. — Mike Bloomberg spent Tuesday looking like any other Democrat who might run for his party's presidential nomination. He filled a lecture hall for a speech about climate change, praising “fellow Democrats” for embracing a “Green New Deal.” He walked the floor of the nation's oldest remaining pin manufacturer. He sang the praises of New Hampshire pizza. 

For the better part of a decade, the billionaire media mogul and three-term mayor of New York had rattled Democrats, polling and exploring — and never making — an independent presidential bid. In the 48 hours since former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz floated his own independent bid, Bloomberg had adopted a new role: a defender of the two-party system, urging a billionaire not to throw an election to President Trump.

“I've met Howard a few times. He was very gracious, as I remember. I had dinner at his house,” Bloomberg told reporters here. “I do think that running as an independent would really help Donald Trump, and you have no chance of winning as an independent because of the electoral college's requirement that you have to have a majority, rather than a plurality.”

Schultz, whose net worth is estimated at $3.4 billion, is on the flashy media tour — NPR! Morning Joe! The View! Goop! — that Bloomberg repeatedly turned down. The former mayor, with an estimated net worth of $47.5 billion, flirted with presidential bids in 2008 and 2016, deciding each time that it was either impossible to break a system slanted toward two parties or that creating a wide path for a worse candidate was “a risk I will not take.”

Bloomberg is a long-shot candidate for the Democratic nomination, searching for the voters who believe that a centrist who could largely self-fund his campaign would be their best challenger in 2020. Schultz's flirtation with a run has infuriated rank-and-file Democrats; it has also instilled strange new respect for Bloomberg's decision to tough it out in the primary.

“One of them is being productive and the other is not,” said Ray Buckley, New Hampshire's Democratic Party chairman. “I know a lot of people who are skipping Starbucks right now.”

After clarifying that he, personally, was a “Dunkin' Donuts guy,” Buckley said Schultz's stated reasons for leaving the party left him cold. In his media blitz so far, Schultz has warned that the party moved too far to the left, that it has made “un-American” attacks on wealth and health insurers, and that it has become too focused on “revenge” to govern.

“People who take these sorts of positions are saying they took a poll, and they don't see a path to winning” in a primary, said Buckley.

Bloomberg, who has been in the low single digits in early polls, says there is a path for him. In his public stops across New Hampshire, he said he could “easily decide” to step away from politics and focus on his charity but that “the president of the United States has the most impact on the country and the world.” He would run, he said, if he became convinced he could win. 

Moving through their separate lanes, Schultz and Bloomberg are picking some of the same fights. 

Early Tuesday, Schultz ambled into a fight with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has proposed a small surtax on wealth over $50 million. Schultz called it “ridiculous,” and Warren responded by tweeting that “what's 'ridiculous' is billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else.”

In Nashua, I asked Bloomberg what he thought of the “wealth tax” proposal, and he unloaded.

“It probably is unconstitutional,” he said, explaining that he favored a more progressive income tax. “We shouldn't be ashamed of our system. If you want to look at a system that's not capitalistic, just take a look at was perhaps the wealthiest country in the world, and today people are starving to death. It's called Venezuela.”

Warren responded to him, too: “Billionaires like Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg want to keep a rigged system in place that benefits only them and their buddies.”

Still, Schultz's decision to bolt the Democratic Party has left more room for Bloomberg to make his argument. On the trail, he talks up his socially liberal record in New York — “no one would take a picture with me after the smoking ban passed” — and argues that Democrats have good ideas that need to be cost effective.

“I’m a little bit tired of listening to things that are pie in the sky, that we’re never going to pass and never going to afford,” he said at his speech in Goffstown. “The first pillar of any Green New Deal should be a plan for major and comprehensive investment to create jobs and increase economic growth in coal regions and in other areas where the economy is tied to fossil fuels.”

Any opening for Bloomberg in a Democratic primary might be wider if voters begin to worry that more left-wing candidates could not defeat Trump. Schultz and his small pre-campaign team have said as much, with Steve Schmidt, a strategist who let the Republican Party, telling Politico that “the only person who would theoretically be able to stop Trump from a second term is a centrist candidacy of someone like Schultz,” should the Democrats pick a left-wing nominee. 

But the same post-shutdown political weakness that appeared to have moved Schultz toward challenging Trump is limiting some of the space for centrist candidates. The sparse polling in New Hampshire has shown every well-known Democrat defeating Trump and the president struggling to match his 46.5 percent showing from 2016. Polling has also shown Trump more vulnerable than most presidents to a primary challenge; if one were mounted against him, it could attract moderate voters who might otherwise pull a Democratic primary ballot.

The potential of a Schultz campaign has also changed the way some voters look at the eventual election. Warren is one of several Democrats who has begun to portray Schultz as yet another billionaire candidate, no matter what liberal positions he takes, conjuring the image of an election in which a Democratic billionaire (Bloomberg) challenges a Republican billionaire (Trump) with yet another billionaire (Schultz) presenting himself as the third flavor.

In Dover, Bloomberg was asked whether 2020 could become a contest of “plutocrats,” and he broke out laughing.

“There's 20 people running! The three of us are a minority,” he said. “They'll try to make an issue of everything. They want to win instead of saying what they would do and what they have accomplished. As mayor for 12 years, in New York City, I understand that.”

POLL WATCH

If the 2020 Democratic primary or caucus in your state were being held today, for whom would you vote? (Candidate names not read) (Washington Post/ABC News, 447 Democrats)

Joe Biden — 9%
Kamala Harris — 8%
Bernie Sanders — 4%
Donald Trump — 4%
Beto O'Rourke — 3% 
Michelle Obama — 2%
Elizabeth Warren — 2%
Cory Booker — 1%
Steve Bullock — 1%
Hillary Clinton — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1%
Nancy Pelosi — 1%
Oprah Winfrey — 1%

As this newsletter will point out at every opportunity, there is no national presidential primary, no one day when a party's voters get to pick a nominee. But this poll, which did not prompt voters with the names of any candidates, is a useful look at name recognition and enthusiasm. On their own, most Democratic voters do not name a favorite candidate for 2020; of the candidates who have not run before, Kamala Harris has the most instant enthusiasm. It's always a struggle to separate what captivates political junkies and what ordinary voters are thinking, and the evidence here is that ordinary voters have yet to plug in.

Who do you trust more, Trump or Pelosi? (Quinnipiac, 1,004 voters)

Nancy Pelosi — 49%
Donald Trump — 42%

When the midterms began to break against them, many Republicans argued that the president would get a gift out of losing the House: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a politician disliked by independents and Republicans, as his new foil. Here's some evidence that the arrangement isn't working for him, at least not yet. Other speakers have come into power with more support than the president, but Pelosi is the first in generations to grab the gavel back after losing it, which to many Republicans suggested that she'd have a harder, lower ceiling. 

Should a solution for DREAMers be tied to the border wall or dealt with separately? (Monmouth, 805 adults)

Tied — 9 %
Dealt with separately — 89%

There's a lot more in Monmouth's first national poll of the year, and most of the headlines have focused on the declining number of voters who view the president as a strong leader. This number stands out, though, as it asks voters about a compromise favored by business groups and the Koch political network. “Pairing these two priorities and avoiding other controversial and unnecessary provisions can earn bipartisan votes and be signed into law,” said Daniel Garza, the director of the Kochs' Latino-focused LIBRE Initiative, in a typical statement as the government was reopening.

 

2020

Marianne Williamson. The self-help guru launched her presidential bid in Los Angeles, then published a video about the mission of defeating the political establishment. "In order to override the real assaults on our democracy, we need to do more than fight," she said. "We need an uprising of citizen activism."

John Delaney. He will meet more voters in Iowa on Wednesday and Thursday, in bitter cold; he'll then head to North Carolina to speak to the state Democratic Party.

Eric Swalwell. The California congressman is returning to Iowa on Feb. 16.

Eric Garcetti. The Los Angeles mayor has announced a news conference for Wednesday evening; last week he told reporters to "stay tuned" about his presidential plans.

EVERYBODY IS WRONG

Medicare-for-all and its enemies. Even before CNN's town hall with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was over, a clip of one of her answers was rocketing around Twitter. The short version: Harris seemed to be calling for the end of private health insurance. Republicans began to ask if her presidential campaign was already cooked, and whether the heat could burn other Democrats.

Harris's exchange with CNN's Jake Tapper was instructive, because this conversation is going to happen again and again ahead of the first primaries, and many Democrats are unready for it. Harris, one of three presidential candidates who co-sponsored the 2017 Medicare for All Act, was asked whether “people out there who like their insurance” would be able to keep it. 

“Well, listen, the idea is that everyone gets access to medical care, and you don't have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require,” Harris said. “Who of us has not had that situation, where you've got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, well, I don't know if your insurance company is going to cover this? Let's eliminate all of that. Let's move on.”

Very quickly, that answer was boiled down to “let's eliminate all of that,” as in: Harris wanted to eliminate private insurance. That wasn't quite what she said, but it was what she co-sponsored in the House. The “M4A” bill, as introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would, over four years, phase every American into a national health insurance program, reducing private insurers to a supplementary role. Harris has not yet clarified what she meant.

Republicans, badly damaged by the 2017 campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act, have struggled to craft a powerful message against Medicare-for-all. One argument against it, that it was a "$32 trillion takeover” of health insurance, fell flat in the midterms. A much more promising line of attack is about the bill's implications for private insurance, and the necessity to raise taxes to replace insurance premiums. This month's Kaiser tracking poll found 56 percent of voters backing “Medicare-for-all” — but 60 percent of them opposing “higher taxes,” 60 percent opposing a “threat to the current Medicare program” and 58 percent against “eliminating private insurance companies.”

Wisconsin's 2018 Senate race, which never became competitive, offered a hint of where this debate could go. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) blew away Leah Vukmir, a Republican state legislator who never raised much money, suffered from a long primary and made unforced errors, such as calling a Democrat whose mother had struggled with drug addiction “Princess Painkiller.”

But Baldwin, the only senator who co-sponsored the Sanders bill and won reelection in a state Trump won in 2016, never argued for an end to most private insurance. In debates, when Vukmir accused Baldwin of backing a plan to destroy insurance that most people liked, Baldwin did not directly rebut her. Instead, she said that Medicare-for- all was “one of many options” worth debating.

Why did she do that? Because the “Medicare-for-all” brand is robust but amorphous, and even some Democratic voters are happy to hear the slogan without endorsing the entire Sanders bill. Voters like the idea of universal coverage; when it's on the ballot, they'll approve expanding programs such as Medicaid. The Obamacare wars also reoriented Democrats' thinking about health-care messaging — anything they do or say will get thrown back at them as “socialism” or a “government takeover” anyway.

But for Democrats who endured the final years of the Obama presidency, nothing did more political damage than the Affordable Care Act's changes to private plans, many of which were canceled. It would be surprising if the next Democrat asked about “eliminating” private insurance answers the way that Harris did. 

WHAT I'M WATCHING

Battleground Kentucky. Tuesday is the filing deadline for every statewide office in one of the last deep red states where Democrats still compete at the local level.

Kentucky hasn't gone for a Democrat for president since 1996; it backed the Trump ticket by 30 points. But Republicans are not overconfident about this year's elections, and Democrats are not conceding them. Four Democrats are facing off to challenge Gov. Matt Bevin, who has two primary challengers and almost faced a rematch with James Comer, whom he narrowly defeated in a 2015 primary.

“Kentucky deserves better than a governor who belittles everyone who disagrees with him,” Comer said this weekend, explaining that he did not want to enter a primary in which Bevin, who's independently wealthy, would outspend him. He was out, but he wasn't going to be sad if Bevin, who has two lesser-known challengers, were defeated.

Bevin, who has presided over the first unified Republican government in Kentucky in modern history, is wildly unpopular. And even as the party was blown out in federal races, Democrats refreshed their bench of young politicians who could win statewide. They have held the attorney general’s office since 1948 and the secretary of state’s office since 2011; Attorney General Andy Beshear and former state auditor Adam Edelen, both in their 40s, have plunged into the race.

Democrats have also recruited candidates in every down-ballot race apart from agricultural commissioner. All of this is happening after two cycles, in 2014 and 2015, when polling showed them competitive in races for Senate and governor and when voters broke heavily against them. Kentucky Democrats told themselves that they faced declines because voters were angry at the Obama administration's environmental policies, and that this would dissipate in the Trump years; they're about to test the theory.

WAIT, WHAT?

After the president's Oval Office address on immigration and the shutdown, his 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale popped champagne. "@realDonaldTrump has reached his highest national approval rating since I started tracking,” he tweeted. “The @TheDemocrats have really made a mistake going with their gut over data.”

That analysis confused a lot of people, as public polling (which, to be fair, frequently differs slightly from private polling) showed support for the president's shutdown position falling. But a poll conducted for the Republican National Committee demonstrates how the data the president's party takes seriously diverges from the data everybody else looks at.

The poll, first reported by Politico, surveyed voters in 10 congressional districts won by the president with an average of 53.3 percent of the vote, then won by Democrats in 2018. In those districts, 49 percent of voters now approve of the president — suggesting a weaker overall position than in 2016 — while 61 percent support his “position on border security.”

In one section of the poll, respondents were read a four-paragraph argument for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It includes everything from expert support ("89 percent of Border Patrol agents said that a wall is necessary”) to charges of hypocrisy (“prior to President Trump being elected, most Democrats in Congress supported building a wall)." After that, support for “President Trump's border barrier” jumps from 27 to 33 percent and support for “standing with Speaker Pelosi” drops from 28 to 24 percent. 

Nearly three months after losing the House, the shared Republican approach to winning it back looks like focusing on the president's agenda in the places where he remains narrowly popular. There have been many comeback plans by parties that lost a midterm, but few looked like this.

RIGHT

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is filling out its staff ahead of the 2020 cycle, adding Betsy Ankney as its new political director after her stints reelecting Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in 2016 and fighting an uphill, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle to reelect Bruce Rauner as governor of Illinois.

“It’s an honor to join the fantastic team that Chairman Todd Young is putting together at the NRSC,” Ankney said in an email. “I look forward to working to defend our majority.”

No matter who signed up, this cycle was destined to be tougher for the NRSC than the 2018 cycle. In that year, 10 Democrats faced reelection in states won by President Trump. In 2020, just two Democrats face those conditions, Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Gary Peters (Mich.), and the GOP is coming off a wipeout in Michigan's midterms. (John James, a first-time GOP candidate who lost his 2018 Senate bid by single digits, is being looked at for a run against Peters.) Just two Republicans are up for reelection in states won by Hillary Clinton; both Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.) broke from the party over the border wall fight.

READING LIST

“As he weighs a challenge to Trump, Larry Hogan says he offers a ‘model’ of bipartisanship. That’s only partly true,” by Ovetta Wiggins and Arelis R. Hernández

An in-depth look at how Maryland’s governor, who ran as an anti-tax conservative, has become popular by adopting some Democratic ideas.

“Wall Street freaks out about 2020,” by Ben White

A worthy addition to a genre that White practically invented: Bankers and financiers, some anonymously and some more courageously, worrying about how they’d stop a populist Democrat from winning the presidency.

“Texas quietly informs counties that some of the 95,000 voters flagged for citizenship review don't belong on the list,” by Alex Ura

A Republican claim that thousands of noncitizens may have voted is being vetted and partially refuted, long after it became a national scandal.

COUNTDOWN

. . . one day until Sherrod Brown's “dignity of work” speech in Ohio
. . . three days until Kirsten Gillibrand's first visit to New Hampshire
. . . seven days until the State of the Union