In this edition: On the ground in Iowa, Sen. Michael Bennet says Iowans sound like Colorodans, and Vilsack and Pompeo say they won't run for Senate.
If there’s one thing I learned from covering the Nationals for four years, it’s that picking winners months in advance isn’t a great idea, and this is The Trailer.
During the hour or so that Kamala Harris, Julián Castro and John Hickenlooper spent at a soup dinner at an Ames, Iowa, church Saturday night, a storm struck. A steady, icy snow coated cars and wrought instant slippery havoc on the sidewalks around Iowa State University. But Harris was scheduled for another event shortly thereafter in Des Moines, about a half-hour south, so she (and those following her) had to hurry down Interstate 35 through what had become a blizzard.
I nearly induced instantaneous carpal tunnel syndrome with a death grip on the steering wheel, one that only grew tighter as I passed car after car — and a few overconfident pickup trucks, too — spun out by the side of the road. Only with luck did I make it in time to sneak quietly through the doors of Harris’s event just as she was taking the stage.
This white-knuckled slip-and-slide is, in some ways, a perfect description of my first month and a half on the politics beat. I don’t think I’m alone in the feeling that publicly engaging with politics these days is much like driving through an Iowa blizzard. The process punishes recklessness with social media spinouts. Slippery spots can hide in plain sight, sending those new to the roads and those experienced with them sliding in directions they never expected. But those aspects of life on a politics beat haven’t surprised me. Neither has the weather. Other aspects, however, have not been what I thought they would be.
In Iowa, presidential politics just mix with everyday life — or interrupt it. What has surprised me in my early days on the campaign trail is that a lot of these early moments are, for lack of a better word, real. Mistakes happen. People ask strange questions. Some people don’t want to be bothered, like the man I met at one of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) events who usually votes Republican but just happened to end up at the wrong coffee shop for his lunch break. I saw Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the line for the bathroom after getting off my first flight to Iowa, which was actually a flight to Omaha — a recommendation made by my colleagues that initially had me wondering whether they were trying to haze me.
As it turned out, Omaha is just across the river from Council Bluffs, where I attended my first event. Warren made her case for the presidency as others bowled away their Friday nights in the next room. Later in that trip, she lost her voice and was left rasping to a crowded room at the end of a long day. I asked her staff what they use as the official, inside-politics solution.
“A lot of tea with honey,” they reported. What else can they do?
A few weeks later, I watched Gillibrand introduce herself to a table of unsuspecting college students at a Des Moines coffee shop. After she asked them about what issues they cared about most, one of them turned to me and whispered, “Wait, what is she running for?” I told her.
“Whoa!” she said.
As Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) began to address a couple dozen Iowans in a basement at a house party Friday night, one of his hosts hurried down the stairs to ask whether anyone had called 911. Apparently, a phone in the house had dialed the number over and over, so the police showed up. A woman thought it was hers but was too polite to walk in front of Bennet as he was speaking, and by the time she got to the stairs the police had already left. The woman grabbed a few snacks off the covered pool table instead.
Voters listen to candidates differently from the way reporters do. I can see why people who cover these events regularly start to get cynical or at least start to tune out the message. After hearing it four times, even I could probably repeat Harris’s stump speech by the end of that day. But what I didn’t realize until I got here — and should have, and hope to remember — is that everyone in the crowd is hearing those speeches (and most importantly, those jokes) for the first time. I’ve probably heard Harris say Americans need to base policy on “science fact, not science fiction” about 15 times. But the elderly man in front of me in Ames still chuckled when he heard it Saturday night and elbowed his wife, who did the same.
Voters aren’t talking about the same things as Politics Twitter. At four events Saturday, no voters asked Harris about her initial, “modern-day lynching” response to Jussie Smollett’s alleged attack — just reporters. Her answers to those questions anchored entire segments of cable news coverage this week. When I asked voters about Gillibrand’s much-discussed position switches on immigration and gun control, many of them suggested she should be allowed room to grow.
Iowa voters haven’t made up their minds. I knew I would have to correct for voter bias at these events. I follow Democratic events that draw Democratic voters. Naturally, those voters will be supportive of policies, of critiques of President Trump, of all the usual talking points. They roar when candidates stump for universal background checks and other gun control measures, or when candidates say they “won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet” — and almost all of them say they “won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet.” They cheer when candidates denounce the wall or criticize recent tax cuts for the wealthy. They applaud the mention of universal health care.
But most of the voters to whom I’ve spoken are not attending events because they love the candidate hosting them. They attend these events with a critical eye, having done their research, hoping to hear clear answers to the “what will you do” question and waiting to find the right person to support. Many of them say they would attend events for any Republicans who decided to jump in, too.
Campaigning is hard. For all the recent analysis of what candidates order and how they order it, I’m not sure how anyone has time to eat. Harris and her team, for example, hurried from one event to the other through four events and a sit-down interview that took them from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. — and would have included a two-hour drive to the next stop afterward had the weather not forced them to shelter in place. She is on the younger side of this field. I don’t know how any candidates stay upright. To be honest, it’s not always easy for reporters to stay upright either, and Iowa restaurants don’t stay open as late as they do in Washington.
There’s a lot of optimism. But what I’ve realized is that being on the road, in the snow or rain or biting cold, nibbling on almonds you might have dropped on the floor of the rental car because you don’t have time to get anything else (you know, hypothetically) pays off in the form of a reality check. People smile at these events. They are hopeful and optimistic. They are critical without jumping to conclusions. And they, with the exception of a few longer-winded interrogators, listen more than they speak. In those ways, life on the Iowa campaign trail is much different from what I expected. Social media, it turns out, is not necessarily a great predictor of reality.
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Trump approval rating. Gallup released a rundown of President Trump's approval rating in all 50 states for 2018. Seventeen states give him approval ratings above 50 percent, five more than in 2017; those states count for 102 electoral votes. The states where his approval rating his less than 40 percent have 201 electoral votes.
His approval rating is between 41 and 49 percent in 13 states, almost all of them in the Midwest and South. They are Arizona (43% approval), Florida (43), Georgia (44), Indiana (48), Iowa (45), Louisiana (49), Michigan (42), Nebraska (49), North Carolina (45), Ohio (48), Pennsylvania (42), Texas (41), and Wisconsin (42) — all states Trump won in 2016.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) made a few Iowa stops this weekend as he mulls a run for the White House. Asked Friday about his timeline for a decision, Bennet refused to give one. Asked whether it would be months or weeks, he said, “certainly not months.”
Bennet was one of several undecided candidates traveling the state this weekend, along with former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. With a handful of others considering runs, the Democratic field could grow significantly, even if more high-profile names such as former vice president Joe Biden and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke decide not to enter. Among the 13 Democrats running are several of Bennet's Senate colleagues, many of whom benefit from greater national name recognition. In a crowd like that, what does Bennet — whose profile got a boost from an emotional late January floor speech in which he accused Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) of shedding “crocodile tears” during the government shutdown — believe could distinguish him enough to gain traction with early-state voters?
“I think I’ve got a background that’s different from other folks in the race. I’ve got different experiences,” said Bennet, who served as Denver’s superintendent of schools before being appointed to the Senate for his first term.
“A lot of people in Iowa are involved in education. I’ve spent a fair bit of time doing that, too. I’ve spent 10 years on the Agriculture Committee in the Senate. Everybody’s got something different they bring to the race, and the answer to the question ‘why you’ is not mine to answer. It’s for the voters to answer.”
Bennet drew former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to a house party outside Des Moines Friday night, getting a tacit vote of confidence from Iowa’s Democratic establishment that could help build his local credibility.
Vilsack didn't endorse Bennet, but did praise him: “Celebrity doesn’t matter. . . . We are fortunate that in this race we have an incredible array of talented, substantive people, and certainly among them is Senator Bennet.”
Bennet said he enjoyed hearing from Iowa voters. “What they’re thinking about doesn’t surprise me. A lot of what they’re thinking about is what I’m hearing in Colorado as well. That’s something I wanted to know,” he said.
Those voters might find themselves considering a field that includes two Coloradans, Bennet and Hickenlooper. Bennet described the two as friends and said that while he didn’t plan to see Hickenlooper during their overlapping Iowa swings, he has talked to him about his plans. Bennet served as chief of staff for then-Denver Mayor Hickenlooper before becoming superintendent of schools there. Might their parallel trajectories preclude either man from separating himself from the other, let alone from a loaded field?
“I don’t know who there’s enough room for. I’m not thinking about it that way,” Bennet said. “I’m just thinking about whether there’s an opportunity for me to do something useful here.”
We don't necessarily know who is running for a lot of the Senate seats that are up in 2020, but two people whose potential candidacies in their home states have been widely discussed said in the past few days that they are not in.
In Iowa, Democratic former governor and U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told the Des Moines Register that he wouldn't challenge Sen. Joni Ernst (R) in the next election.
“I'm confident there are going to be a lot of people stepping up that will have the commitment, the desire and the passion that it takes to win, and I just didn't think I had it,” Vilsack said. No other Democrat has yet entered the race against Ernst, who has said she'll run again and had a 57 percent approval rating in a recent Register poll.
And earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he has “ruled out” a run to replace retiring Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R), despite encouragement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Although Kansas is a red state, going for President Trump in 2016 by 20 points, voters last year elected a Democrat, Laura Kelly, as governor.
Larry Hogan. The Maryland governor is getting more vocal about a potential primary challenge to President Trump, telling The Post that a recent RNC resolution supporting Trump is “almost like a hostage situation.”
Bernie Sanders. He's kicking off his campaign next weekend with rallies in Brooklyn and Chicago, pointing to those places as where his activism began.
Elizabeth Warren. Warren, one of the Democratic presidential hopefuls who's said she's open to providing some type of reparations to African Americans, said Native Americans should be “part of the conversation” on reparations.
Sherrod Brown. The senator from Ohio told Las Vegas casino workers that, if he runs, he will be “the most pro-union candidate.”
Cory Booker. He also went to Las Vegas, where the crowd included his mother, who lives nearby.
John Hickenlooper. The former Colorado governor, in Iowa, batted away suggestions that he'd challenge Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020, saying he wasn't “cut out to be a senator.”
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. . . one day till Sen. Bernie Sanders's town hall on CNN
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