In this edition: Kamala Harris on the trail, Beto O'Rourke causing trouble, and a many-way race for mayor of Chicago.
I'm taking a week off from the newsletter, leaving it in the very capable hands of my Washington Post colleagues. That gives me seven days to come up with an actual joke, and this is The Trailer.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The lasting image of Sen. Kamala Harris's first campaign trip through South Carolina was not one of her crowds (the largest of any candidate in the race), or the crush of selfie-seekers that had to be nudged back behind a rope line, or the barbecue plate that she kept getting asked about (pulled pork, collard greens, corn bread).
No, the lasting image was the rainbow sequin jacket she bought at Styled by Naida, a boutique on Columbia's Lady Street, whose owner had come up from poverty. A member of the press corps had spotted the jacket as the senator talked with customers. It was as frivolous as these photo ops get, and it sparked a conservative media backlash, but Harris asked reporters to see the meaning of the visit.
"This is the classic story of women in America achieving economic success," Harris said after visiting a few more woman-owned shops. "These are incredible stories of women who were in foster care, who understood what it meant at a very early age to struggle, but who also had dreams about what they could be."
Harris, who is narrowly polling ahead of every other declared Democratic presidential candidate, is running a campaign as the ambassador of another, kinder America. Early polls may not tell us much, but she has, out of necessity, skipped past the house-parties-and-roundtables part of the campaign and moved to large rallies that channel the spirit of the first Women's March. In speeches, her first applause line is usually "we are better than this," an exhausted, hopeful declaration that the Trump administration will be a historical blip.
She doesn't get into the weeds about mass political mobilizations or how bills could move through the Senate. She does not talk about endorsements, although she got three high-profile ones this week. Instead, she describes a tolerant and aspirational country where "we have more in common than what separates us." The South Carolina trip was Harris's first real campaign swing; here's what it looked like.
"Let's speak that truth." On the stump, Harris uses that phrase more than any other. It usually sets up discussion of policies that every Democrat supports as suppressed or whispered secrets; the implication is that obvious, moral facts are being suppressed by the Trump administration.
"Let's speak truth that in our country today, this economy is not working for working people," she said at a town hall in Columbia, where around 1,200 voters showed up. "When we realize and know that almost half of families in America today cannot afford a $400 unexpected emergency, let's speak that truth."
Like most Democrats in the field, Harris does not mention the president by name unless she's asked to. She does not wade into the controversy of the day; in neither of her big South Carolina town halls did she talk about the president's emergency declaration, which she told reporters, separately, needed to be undone by courts.
"There are a lot of people — our neighbors, our friends, our family, our co-workers — who rightly are feeling a great sense of distrust in their government," she said in Columbia. "And we've got to deal with that."
The Democratic primary so far has showcased two basic arguments. One of them, as advanced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is that the political system has been rigged for years and must be dismantled and reoriented. The other, advanced by Harris (and Sen. Cory Booker), is that America always eventually does the right thing and just needs the right people pushing it that way. Harris, the first of these candidates to get a cable news town hall to herself, is often the first candidate voters hear saying this in person.
"Smart on crime." The people showing up to hear Harris are generally aware of her story and her ideas; many say they first really connected with her during some of the Senate hearings where she grilled Trump nominees. But for most voters, she is able to introduce the rest of her record for the first time.
The best example of that is criminal justice and policing, the focus of Harris's career up to 2016 and the focus of her first really rough coverage. At her first events, the pushback on her record — one that included leading a truancy initiative that punished parents and defeating an incumbent district attorney she criticized over San Francisco's lack of convictions — was limited to one protest, in North Charleston, by a trio of activists. More than 2,000 people, inside her events, heard her describe the "progressive prosecutor" who's portrayed in her memoir.
"Listen, I just think that we have got to recognize that there are a lot of failures in the design of our criminal justice system, and they can be repaired, and we would actually be smarter with taxpayer dollars to understand this essential point," Harris said in Columbia. "Prevention is smarter than reaction. Putting money in public education is smarter than putting money in mass incarceration."
In interviews with voters around these events, there was next to zero awareness of the criticism Harris had faced. Convincing rank-and-file Democrats that Harris committed unforgivable sins in the DA’s office will take real work and time, and a credible communicator. There is no rival campaign currently doing so right now; that might fall to the Trump campaign, or an opposition group such as America Rising, which has experience getting intraparty issues in front of voters. But it would have to do so with Democratic voters who are increasingly skeptical of negative coverage when it hits their candidates.
But right now, the voters nervous about her record are overwhelmed by members of Harris's Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, filling the front rows of events in their signature pink and green — black women thrilled almost beyond the telling to see a black woman doing so well. Even the usual snark about what a campaign is doing right, like a miscommunication that left some key Iowa Democrats at home when they could have been at the CNN town hall, is going unsaid.
"I intend to win." The "electability" question, which has surfaced earlier than usual in this primary, would seem from the outside to be tougher for Harris. It's implicit in Sen. Amy Klobuchar's (Minn.) campaign so far, and it was explicit in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (N.Y.) talk about her own record of winning rural voters. Several Democrats have won races in tough states and districts; Harris has won every election in either Democrat-friendly San Francisco or greater California.
But there have not been many electability questions for Harris. Asked by one tearful woman how she could beat Trump, Harris gave a somewhat long-winded recitation of her campaign platform, from "public education to ... the criminal justice system to climate change," then explained that she knew how to face down opponents.
"I believe this is a moment in time that we need fighters on the stage who know how to fight," she said. "I do. And who also have a proven desire to lead. And to lead understanding that the sign of true leadership is about leading on behalf of the needs of others and not self-interest. It's going to be about running a smart campaign and working hard, and that, I have learned, as most of us have, is a good way to win."
This was mostly boilerplate; any Democrat could say it. One unmissable aspect of Harris's rhetoric is that, like Barack Obama in his early days as a candidate, she can use roughly 50 percent more words than necessary to make a point. But she's operating in a Democratic Party whose last electoral disaster, in 2016, came after it was seen to be tacking to the center without giving reluctant white voters a reason to come out and support it. Of the candidates now in the field, only Klobuchar hints that some centrist voters need to be won back; Harris and her voters see a new majority being built.
"I think we were too centrist last time," Charles Nicholson, 62, who was still shopping for a candidate. "I think Hillary at least would have been better off with a progressive running mate. We need to get people excited."
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For the past six weeks, The Trailer has been on the scene for the first campaign appearances by every newly declared Democratic presidential candidate. They ranged from Pete Buttigieg's news conference in Washington, to Julián Castro's tour of Puerto Rico recovery sites, to the aforementioned Kamala Harris trip to a boutique on Lady Street.
If any theme has emerged, it's that the Democratic electorate showing up to meet its candidates is far less ideological and skeptical than the one that lives on social media. Some days, the gulf between the discussion on Twitter and the discussion at campaign events is a mile wide.
For example: The first question asked of any Democratic presidential candidate this year was the one Elizabeth Warren got at her maiden voyage to Council Bluffs, Iowa: "What is it that you think the Democratic Party needs in this journey toward 2020, and what you are bringing to it?"
The most recent question that The Trailer was on the ground for, in Columbia, was about Democrats' most ambitious spending plans. "I believe you said you support Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal," asked Ron Anderson, 50, at the end of Harris's town hall. "Simultaneously, we have a $22 trillion national debt and a $1.2 trillion dollar deficit. How do you square that circle?"
Warren has received just two questions from voters about the controversy around her past claim of Native American heritage. Gillibrand has received just one about her role in encouraging Al Franken to resign from the Senate. Harris has received no questions about her criminal justice record; Booker has received none about his vote against (nonbinding) legislative language to crack down on the pharmaceutical industry. No candidate has gotten a question about the details of the now two-year-old Russia collusion probe, though some have gotten questions about whether Trump may be too scandalized to remain in office.
What can change after the first seven weeks of a primary? Everything. No one has criticized a rival Democrat by name, relatively few have mentioned the president, and there have been more skeptical questions about whether they can really pay for a big "progressive" agenda than whether they pass the litmus test of progressive groups. All of this really should be factored in when there's speculation about how issues are playing on the trail; so far, the candidates are not being whipsawed by events like the media is.
Chicago mayor (Telemundo Chicago/NBC 5)
Toni Preckwinkle - 14%
Bill Daley - 13%
Susana Mendoza - 12%
Lori Lightfoot - 10%
Gery Chico - 9%
Amara Enyia - 7%
Jerry Joyce - 4%
Willie Wilson - 4%
Garry McCarthy - 3%
Paul Vallas - 2%
Bob Fioretti - 1%
LaShawn Ford - 1%
Neal Sales-Griffin - 1%
The first round of Chicago's mayoral election is on Feb. 26, and for the first time in decades, there really is no front-runner. Amara Enyia has been endorsed (and partially funded) by Chance the Rapper and has probably attracted the most national attention; Gery Chico and Paul Vallas have probably run the most losing campaigns. But three candidates who had been seen as heavyweights — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza and former commerce secretary Bill Daley — have struggled to break out.
Daley, 70, has mostly surprised people by committing to this race after several false-start bids for higher office. Preckwinkle, whom critics of Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to see run in 2015, has been entangled in a donor's corruption scandal; so has Mendoza, whom rivals have cast as the "establishment" candidate.
To win this month, any of these candidates would need to secure more than 50 percent of the vote. It isn't going to happen, so the race is now a scramble for two slots in the April 2 runoff.
Virginia. What's the short-term damage to Democrats from the scandal that engulfed its statewide elected officials? We will know in just two days, when the 86th state legislative district holds a wintry special election to replace Jennifer Boysko, a Democrat who ascended to the state Senate last month.
To compete here, Republicans needed some miraculous luck. They got it, first with the blackface and sexual assault scandals, and then with the excavation of five-year-old Facebook posts written by Ibraheem Samirah, the 28-year-old dentist who won the Democratic nomination. Samirah, the son of Palestinian immigrants, attacked Israel's late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and compared sending remittances to Israel to donations to the Ku Klux Klan.
Samirah apologized for all of that, distancing himself from the thoughts of his "impassioned college days." But Republicans, who benefited from the national spotlight on Virginia Democrats, branded Samirah an "anti-Semite" and saw an opening for Gregg Nelson, their nominee. In an ordinary year, there would be no race here; Boysko flipped it in 2015 and won a second term in 2017 by 37 points. A Republican victory would represent one of the biggest swings in any special election in years.
North Carolina. The contest for the state's 9th Congressional District is crawling toward some kind of resolution, starting with a Monday hearing on the facts of November's election. The Post's Amy Gardner reports that the questions are clear, focused on whether a ballot scheme affected enough votes in Bladen County to flip the result in favor of Republican candidate Mark Harris. The solution is less clear: It will take a supermajority of the five-member board to decide whether the election was valid.
Unless four members out of a three-Democrat/two-Republican lineup are satisfied, the result could be thrown to the House of Representatives, which has indicated that it won't seat Harris if there are any questions about the election.
Julián Castro. He pledged to visit all 50 states during his primary campaign and would be the first candidate to do so; even the 2008 and 2016 Democratic campaigns, which spilled across the country, did not send the candidates to Alaska.
Tulsi Gabbard. She made her first campaign visits to New Hampshire and introduced legislation that would prevent the president from ditching the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Joe Biden. He told reporters in Munich that he will make a 2020 decision "in the near term," and delivered a speech condemning the Trump administration, promising it would be a historical blip: "We will be back. We will be back. Don’t have any doubt about that."
Amy Klobuchar. Her first campaign trip was one that's pretty familiar to Minnesotans — a short trip to western Wisconsin. Per CNN's Eric Bradner, she told reporters that she would continue to "go to places that maybe we didn't focus on enough in the last few years."
Beto O’Rourke. He accepted two invitations to Wisconsin, meeting with students in Milwaukee and Madison. (He has still not visited any of the first four voting states.)
Kirsten Gillibrand. She told LGBT activists in New Hampshire that she would support a third gender classification on government forms, making her the first presidential candidate to do so.
The Senate is gone for a week, and when it returns, Republicans plan to hold votes on two gut-check bills: the Green New Deal resolution and the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.
Neither will become law. The GND, of course, isn't even designed to become a law; it's a 14-page statement of goals. The Born-Alive bill will not get a vote in the House, which we know because Republicans tried and failed to introduce a version of it for several days after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a pediatric neurologist, described what happened in hospitals when non-viable infants were delivered and Republicans accused him of endorsing infanticide. Both votes are designed to, in the parlance of our time, "troll" Democrats into taking votes that can be shaped into missiles and shot back at them.
The most likely outcome of this could be prosaic: Democrats and Republicans could just talk past each other. In comments this week, Democrats said they would not vote "present" on the Green New Deal, as they did on a similar effort to put them on record over Medicare-for-all. But they described the Green New Deal in aspirational terms, hinting that they'll use the vote to advertise long-term climate goals without getting deep into details of legislation.
"The underlying principles behind it are sound and important," Kamala Harris said Friday when The Trailer asked if she'd back the Green New Deal vote. "Climate change is truly an existential threat to our country. And if you look at it in terms of how it is affecting many areas, including right here in South Carolina, when we look at the offshore drilling that's taking place, all of these issues are connected and we need to have a sense of urgency. We need to be dealing with this because, let's be clear, this is a matter that ultimately will be about whether our children are going to be able to drink clean water and breathe clean air."
Republicans, too, are talking past the details of the GND. In speeches and hearings at the end of last week, Republicans described the proposal by sketching out a world where government regulators would prevent farmers from raising livestock, prevent vacationers from traveling outside the country, and even prevent the military from operating. That's not in the resolution; it's a false extrapolation from a FAQ that was released, then retracted.
"It’s going to be crucially important for us to recognize and understand when we outlaw plane travel, we outlaw gasoline, we outlaw cars, I think actually probably the entire U.S. military because of the Green New Deal, that we are able to explain to our constituents and to people all across this country what that really means," said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the chair of the House GOP conference, at a hearing with climate experts.
That's the debate that will probably unfold at the end of the month — not much of a debate, at all.
The newest hard question for the 2020 Democrats came gift-wrapped from Beto O'Rourke, who is still deciding whether to join the race or whether to run for Senate again. On Twitter, new Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) asked O'Rourke, "If you could snap your fingers and make El Paso’s border wall disappear, would you?"
Republicans had been tossing out this challenge for weeks, suggesting that Democrats who believed that more wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border is unnecessary must, logically, oppose all border fencing, even if they'd voted for it before. And O'Rourke welcomed the challenge.
"Absolutely, I'd take the wall down," he told MSNBC's Chris Hayes in an interview. "Here's what we know: After the Secure Fence Act, we have built 600 miles of wall and fencing along the border. What that has done has not, in any demonstrable way, made us safer."
This is not how most Democrats talk about the border. O'Rourke himself, in a post-election video stream, suggested that the president's border messaging might be effective to people outside of El Paso, because they don't see the reality of a city where bridges connect two countries.
True enough, the Democrats in those other 49 states have disagreed with him or dodged questions about his position. "I believe that there is a need, and always should be a need, for priority border security," Kamala Harris said Friday when asked about O'Rourke's comments. "Border security should always be a priority. The question is, where do we need to put the resources to make sure that our border is safe? And what the president is doing right now is irresponsible and a misuse of resources."
In other words, Harris evaded the question. On Sunday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was asked about O'Rourke in a CNN appearance and punted.
"I don't live in El Paso, and I take the congressman there at his word," he said. "You don't say, well, this congressman says take it down here, this congressman says build it up there. You really want to look more broadly than that."
There's a real debate among Democrats about how to discuss this, especially after two full months of presidential focus on the wall. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), who replaced O'Rourke in Congress, has repeatedly said that the national obsession with "border security" is a distraction that's wasting resources. But social scientists have shown, for years, that nervousness about immigration is higher when voters are further from the U.S-Mexico border — and the upper Midwest, where both parties expect 2020 to be fought, is as far as it gets. No 2020 Democrat is willing to discuss tearing down existing border fencing, unless O'Rourke gets into the race.
Bill Weld made history this week — really. When the former governor of Massachusetts said that he had rejoined the Republican Party to challenge President Trump, he set up the first such primary against a sitting Republican president since 1992, when Pat Buchanan ran against George W. Bush. His first speech, in Bedford, N.H., decried the Democrats' moves to the left but focused on the president as a threat to the republic.
"I encourage those of you who are watching the current administration nervously but saying nothing to stand up and speak out when lines are crossed in dangerous ways," said Weld. "We cannot sit passively as our precious democracy slips quietly into darkness. Congress must do its duty, and as citizens we must do ours."
Weld was not the first, second or third choice of the remnants of the "Never Trump" movement. Former Ohio governor John Kasich had previously traveled to New Hampshire to say he was looking at whether a 2020 bid was realistic; former Arizona senator Jeff Flake traveled to the state to say that no, it wasn't. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who blew off questions about national politics until he won reelection last year, is being actively courted for a run now.
But Weld beat them all to the field and may demonstrate the difference between polling on whether Republicans want a challenge to Trump and whether they'd actually break from the president. More than 40 percent of Republicans told Monmouth this month that they were open to a challenger; close to 90 percent of Republicans also say that they support the president.
New Hampshire, luckily for Weld, is not like the rest of the country. Independent voters can and do cross over to vote in Republican primaries; in 2016, Kasich lost self-identified "moderate" voters to Trump by just five points while losing statewide by a 2-1 margin. In 2020, there'll be a Democratic primary pulling some of those same independents into its orbit, but the same was true in 2016.
The difference between Kasich and Weld, however, is that the former Massachusetts governor has never been happy in his party's mainstream. He's defiantly pro-choice and for marijuana legalization; he has close Democratic friends and praised Hillary Clinton in 2016 when she came under fire. The New Hampshire GOP responded to Weld's speech by branding him an "Obama- and Clinton-supporting 'Republican,'" dismissing him entirely. The sort of swing voters who liked Weld in the 1990s are the same who now back Republicans like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; they do not and can not add up to a Republican majority.
One of the left's most interesting projects in 2019 and 2020 is going to be repeating what worked in 2018 — directing money to smaller, lower-profile campaigns. It'll be trying to pull that off with yet another presidential campaign being described as the most important election of anyone's lifetime — and by extension, diverting most political money.
So the left-wing activists who organized small-donor campaigns for down-ballot races are working to do it again. Sean McElwee, the co-founder of Data for Progress and of the Give Smart campaign to arrange small-dollar surges in 2018, has been distributing numbers to show other left-leaning groups that the model worked. He included the Future Now Fund, a separate project designed entirely to elect state legislators, in a data plot to see if the donors helped low-profile candidates.
"After controlling for state, chamber, partisan control, and Hillary Clinton’s vote share, FNF and Give Smart candidates outperformed district fundamentals," McElwee wrote in a memo for supporters. "FNF candidates were 28 percent more likely to win than non-FNF candidates with similar district fundamentals, while Give Smart candidates were 35 percent more likely to secure their seats."
Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator who leads the Future Now Fund, said in a statement that activists had to quickly learn "what factors matter and use them to strategically target the most winnable races.” The national context might help them: The implosion of New York's tax credit deal for Amazon has raised the profile of the new left-wing Democrats who unseated the old Independent Democratic Caucus in the New York Senate.
The Amazon deal polled well. Its collapse was blamed, almost immediately, on those new legislators. But by the weekend, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio was giving credit to the legislators for exposing "what the concentration of power in the hands of huge corporations leaves in its wake." And stories like that are being circulated to raise money for liberal blocs in other states.
"The Climate Movement’s Decades-Long Path to the Green New Deal," by Matthew Miles Goodrich
A New York organizer for the Sunrise Movement describes, in great detail, how millennial climate activists gave up on the Obama-era strategy of building massive coalitions with incremental legislation in mind. The new strategy: massive organizing around revolutionary principles. (And some light-up signs.)
This is a good look at the potential rematches that could come in 2020, with a presidential election (and in North Carolina, a new map) altering some of the electoral calculus for candidates. Was 2018 the last, best chance for Democrat Dan Feehan to win a Trump-friendly Minnesota seat? With Trump on the ballot, would Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones have a better shot at one of the last "Hillary districts" held by a Republican.
"Lyndon LaRouche, 1922-2019," by Jesse Walker
A send-off for one of the oddest figures in American politics, who made no-hope presidential runs for decades and ended his career at the head of a shrinking cult.
... one day until Amy Klobuchar's CNN town hall
... five days until the National Governors Association meets in Washington
... 10 days until the start of CPAC