In this edition: Campaign cash pledges a-go-go, a bad poll for Anonymous Independent Candidate, and the reparations fight no Democrat wanted.
I'm back from vacation and grateful the colleagues who filled in last week, but I'm glad I didn't have to watch Richard E. Grant lose the Oscar. This is The Trailer.
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Tonight, I was so glad to talk to Beth, a small-dollar donor from Kentucky who chipped in $5. Beth told me all about why she and her son are in this fight, and I couldn’t be more grateful. We’re gonna build a country that lives up to its best values, and her grassroots donation is going to help make that happen. Thank you so much, Beth, and keep fighting!
On Monday night, after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced that she would swear off high-dollar fundraising for her presidential campaign, her campaign tweeted a video that demonstrated why. The senator called a Kentucky-based donor named Beth Kamradt, who shook off her surprise — “Oh, my God, you actually called!” — to talk about her work on behalf of the homeless.
“That's why we're in this fight,” Warren said.
You could be cynical about this. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had blown her away, on both first-day donation totals and on the total number of donors. For a few hours, instead of discussing how Sanders had raised $10 million faster than any presidential candidate in history, Washington was talking about Warren raising a new, higher standard for campaign money. And Sanders had already told supporters that he wasn't holding big fundraisers.
Warren's call to Kamradt built on that; the hard-to-miss message was that the senator would be talking to ordinary people while some, unnamed, rival candidates kibitzed with the very rich. The night of Warren's phone call, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was being grilled on Fox News about an upcoming fundraiser hosted by Sally Susman, an executive at Pfizer.
The 2020 Democrats are in an unusual place right now; to get to a mega-costly general election, they need to win over primary voters who have grown angrier and angrier about money in politics. No party has really had to wrestle with that contradiction. In 2007, Barack Obama matched Hillary Clinton's fundraising totals with help from wealthy bankers, to no apparent backlash. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy tapped just five megadonors to build his challenge to Lyndon Johnson, something that did not damage to his image as an insurgent.
But today's Democrats, operating in the wreckage of the 2016 primaries, are considering at least half a dozen campaign money pledges — and most candidates have agreed to them, happily. A July 2016 poll, taken when Donald Trump was hammering Hillary Clinton as the tool of special interests, found that 78 percent of voters thought it was at least “somewhat” important to know how candidates were funding their campaigns. Here are the various ways Democrats are doing so, in ascending order of how much money it could cost them.
No self-funding. The easiest pledge for most candidates to take is the one that has the least obvious appeal to voters. Warren, the first senator to enter the race, used her first high-profile interview to denounce self-funded campaigns. “We are going to link arms and we're going to [use] grass-roots funding,” she told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. “No to the billionaires, whether they are self-funding or whether they're funding PACs.”
Warren, whose net worth is estimated at somewhere between $3.7 million and $10 million, has never self-funded any campaign, and would quickly go bankrupt if she tried to fund this one. That's true for most of the Democrats running for president. And even the DNC's debate rules, which require candidates to prove “grass-roots” support with at least 65,000 donors, are slanted against self-funding. (Candidates can skip that rule if they're consistently polling in the single digits, which the wealthiest candidates aren't doing right now.)
But self-funders usually argue that the money gives them independence. While he held traditional donor events and raised millions from supporters, President Trump told plenty of audiences that he was self-funding his campaign. In that same 2016 AP poll, 39 percent of voters said that they were more likely to support candidates who self-funded; just 7 percent said they were less likely.
Pledge takers: Every current or potential candidate except Mike Bloomberg, who's one of the wealthiest people in the world, and John Delaney, who has said he'll dip into his own wealth, estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to keep his campaign running.
No fossil fuel money. Look no further for an example of a pledge that doesn't cost much but is expensive when a Democrat seems to be breaking it. In 2016, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders swore off fossil fuel industry money, and the 2020 Democrats have done the same.
The question: How do you define “fossil fuel money”? Clinton received millions from lobbyists who had done at least some work for the industry, a point that Greenpeace used against her — a campaign that led to a rare outburst from the candidate, after one activist confronted her along a rope line.
“I have money from people who work for fossil fuel companies,” she said. “I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me.”
As far as the candidates are concerned, pledging no “fossil fuel” money means rejecting the industry's PACs. But green groups tend to call any donation from anyone affiliated with the industry a “fossil fuel” donation; Beto O'Rourke was shamed in 2018 and removed from a clean campaign list because he had several donors from the industry. That wasn't a sin in Texas before, but it is for Democrats now, one that draws no distinction between executives and custodians.
Pledge takers: All of them, but Warren and Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who may enter the race, have specifically signed a pledge backed by the Sunrise Movement and other green groups.
No corporate PAC money. This pledge caught fire in 2018, with dozens of successful House and Senate Democratic candidates telling voters they'd reject “corporate PACs,” a pithy two-word phrase that contained so much that voters disliked. It was a relatively easy pledge to take, too; End Citizens United, a group that backed Democrats who took that pledge, estimated that swearing off the money cost candidates around 10 percent of what they might have otherwise raised.
“In many cases, they can make this money up with a boost in grass-roots donors,” said ECU's Adam Bozzi. “In other cases, it's worth the trust you build with voters.”
Taking this pledge hurts the 2020 candidates only marginally, and it doesn't stop them taking money from special-interest PACs so long as they're not directly tied to corporate interests.
Pledge takers: All of them.
No super PAC. Invented after the Supreme Court's rules in the Citizens United and SpeechNow cases, super PACs became sources of endless money for the Democrats' 2012 and 2016 nominees, and for the party's candidates in House and Senate races in every election of this decade. But most 2020 Democrats are, like Sanders, swearing off. After 2018, when candidates who loudly denounced super PACs did well with small-dollar donors, Democrats have decided that the downsides of supportive outside organizations are greater than their advantages.
That has put some Democrats in a tricky position. Several, such as Gillibrand and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have made it known that they do not want super PACs set up on their behalf. But they are legally prohibited from telling organizers of those PACs what they can and can't do, leading to a slightly Kafka-esque situation in which candidates, through the media, urge their wealthiest supporters to cool it.
“It's really frustrating to me,” Booker told reporters after his first 2020 campaign event in Mason City, Iowa. “I don't think super PACs should be in this campaign for anybody, including Donald Trump.”
No high-dollar donor events or special treatment. That's the Warren pledge, which closely resembles how Sanders ran in 2020, with a twist — no perks whatsoever for higher-dollar donors.
Depending on how it's implemented, this could be the most far-reaching of any campaign money pledge. Some of Sanders's gripes about the DNC's handling of the 2016 primary dated back to a 2015 joint fundraising agreement that allowed candidates to partner with the party and collect larger individual donations. Only one candidate, Hillary Clinton, was in a position to take that deal.
“Who are the wealthy people Bernie was going to bring to a fundraiser?” Sanders's 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver asked rhetorically when the deal was revealed in 2017.
Pledge takers: Warren, though Sanders is abiding by the same basic rule.
No wealthy donors. This may be the final frontier of campaign pledges, and so far, nobody has taken it. But on the left, especially after the “no corporate PAC” pledge took hold, some activists and writers began asking whether the wealthy still had too much influence.
“It’s easy to imagine lawmakers getting swayed by a pool of donors from a big bank or fracking company who give them $2,000 donations,” Zaid Jilani wrote in a 2018 piece for The Intercept, focusing on Democrats who were raking it in from employees of unpopular industries. “It’s less easy to imagine that if the politicians build a donor base of people throwing in relatively small amounts, that they’d fall under pernicious influence.”
For 2020, individuals can give $2,800 per candidate for a primary limits for 2020 are $2,800 and the same amount again for the general.
In every election cycle, individual donors end up becoming toxic for one reason or another; the best recent example was the late 2017 scramble by Democrats to give away donations from Harvey Weinstein. And there's no situation where a candidate wants to be talking about an individual donor; in that Fox interview, Gillibrand called Susman “a dear friend who I've known for years and years, who believes in my platform,” doing nothing to disarm the attacks on her “pharma” support.
Pledge takers: Nobody. But we've got 11 months and a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, so who knows?
And what comes after the primary? The next, harder question for Democrats is whether they would disarm the campaign finance system that's ready to work for the nominee, which includes a network of super PACs, a cash-starved DNC that is constantly arguing over donor purity rules, and large donors who will want Trump defeated.
No candidate, so far, has said that they'd blow up that system while facing an incumbent Republican who has no problem whatsoever with high-dollar fundraisers. But for Democrats who remember Clinton suffering from the associations with her 2016 donor operation, the idea of the high ground, on an issue that a supermajority of voters say they care about, is tantalizing.
2020 general election (Wason Center, 1,001 likely voters)
Democrat — 48%
Trump — 37%
Trump — 34%
Democrat — 32%
Independent — 16%
This is the first independent poll to repeat the results of Howard Schultz's own polling: Most of the voters willing to consider an independent candidate in 2020 would otherwise back a Democrat. Here, for every one Trump voter who might back an independent, there are five Democratic voters. No polling has found that an independent would be in the position to actually win the presidency, and Schultz's near-disastrous round of opening media coverage has made him one of the least-popular political figures in the country. One more caveat from The Post's poll guru Scott Clement: "Voters are strategic, and those who strongly dislike Trump are likely to support the most viable candidate who is not Trump."
Do you approve of the immigration emergency declaration? (Quinnipiac, 1,222 Texas voters)
Approve — 39%
Disapprove — 60%
Neither senator from Texas has come out against the emergency declaration, but the only poll of the issue in their state puts support underwater and support for a border wall split at 48-48. Just one age group supports the declaration — voters over 65. One number circulating around Democrats today: A whopping 31 percent of Texas voters have no opinion of Sen. John Cornyn (R), who is up for reelection next year and whom the party would like Beto O'Rourke to challenge. Name recognition in fast-growing states often works like this, as hundreds of thousands of new voters move in ahead of each cycle, and the incumbents who lose — think of Florida's Bill Nelson — can be slow to appreciate how little the recent arrivals know about them.
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It's Election Day, again, with millions of voters in two megacities picking leaders with very different amounts of power.
Chicago. Polls close at 7 p.m. local time in the race for mayor and city council; it's the first mayoral election here in 40 years with no incumbent or obvious front-runner. Polling and fundraising have sorted out three clear front-runners on the 14-way ballot: former commerce secretary Bill Daley, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and State Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
Every serious candidate is a Democrat; the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune has endorsed Daley. But the top two finishers will head to an April 2 runoff, unless one of them clears 50 percent of the vote. The record low for turnout, up to now, came when just 456,765 Chicagoans bothered to vote in the final reelection bid of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley (the brother of this year's candidate) 12 years ago.
New York. The city will pick its next public advocate, an ill-defined but high-profile role that's a bit like a local attorney general who can introduce legislation. Seventeen candidates are on the ballot, and a simple plurality is enough to win, but there are no candidates listed as Republicans or Democrats; they had to gather signatures for their own, new ballot lines.
Jumaane Williams, a city councilman who easily won the city in the 2018 primary for lieutenant governor, entered the race as a favorite; state legislator Mike Blake and former city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, both seen as rising stars who are inevitably going to seek higher office, are seen as in the hunt, too. A win for Eric Ulrich, the Common Sense candidate, would give Republicans their first foothold in the city since 2013; Ulrich has also said he'd use the platform to seek the mayor's office. Polls close at 9 p.m. local time.
And in North Carolina . . . We still don't have a date for the election in North Carolina's 9th District — that's pending another election board meeting — but we know that Mark Harris won't be running. The pastor whose narrow victory led to a three-month probe into ballot fraud pulled out of the race and endorsed Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing. Thanks to a new law passed in the 2018 lame-duck session, the parties will hold primaries for a fresh election, and Democrat Dan McCready is so far running unopposed.
Joe Biden. The former VP said his family wants him to run, and New Hampshire-based reporter Paul Steinhauser has Biden sources talking about potential hires in the state. Biden heads to Omaha this week, which will technically, briefly, put him in Iowa. (That's where the city's airport is.) He's also scheduled to headline a March 16 party fundraiser in Delaware, where he's reengaged with local Democrats since leaving the White House.
Kamala Harris. An Iowa voter asked her to release the transcript of a closed-door talk at the 2018 AIPAC conference, and Harris obliged. Drawing the most negative attention from Israel's critics: a riff in which Harris links the solidarity of the Civil Rights movement to the solidarity America has with Israel.
Pete Buttigieg. He heads back to Iowa on March 4, moving around traditionally blue eastern Iowa after a trip through the Des Moines suburbs drew larger than expected crowds.
Bernie Sanders. After a Saturday rally in Brooklyn, he heads to Selma, Ala., for the annual Civil Rights memorials in that city; he moves from there to Chicago.
Sherrod Brown. He heads to Selma, too, on Sunday.
Wayne Messam. The mayor of Miramar, Fla., who has drawn some news coverage for even considering a run for the White House, says he'll make up his mind about it by the end of March.
They won't admit it outright, but a lot of Democrats are scratching their heads about it. How did reparations for descendants of slaves, an issue that has been hotly debated for years and never gotten legislative momentum, crash into the 2020 storyline?
One answer is that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) got asked about it on the Breakfast Club, a radio show on which she's made several appearances, and used the question to advance her idea of a new tax credit. Another is that Astead W. Herndon, a New York Times reporter covering the race, posed the question to other Democrats, and they did not reject the idea of "reparations."
But this might be the most confusing issue of the young primary so far. In Democratic politics, the idea of reparations for slavery started with then-Rep. John Conyers's 1989 legislation to create a committee studying it. It has burbled up every few years since then, with no nationally ambitious Democrat endorsing it; it exploded again in 2014, when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an award-winning Atlantic essay making the case for reparations.
Even that essay ended with an argument for more, well, argument, as Coates suggested that the Conyers bill should get some kind of hearing. "No one can know what would come out of such a debate," he wrote. "Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced."
How did several leading 2020 Democrats get walked into a debate over whether they may or may not support something that is nebulous even for its supporters? One reason is that the Obama years made Democrats less cautious about big ideas; after eight years of being called "socialists" for market-centered health-care ideas, many asked why they shouldn't just go for ideas that involve more government intervention. Another is that Harris, twice, has been asked about a politically risky topic — before this, it was whether private insurance would still exist in a single-payer health-care system — and embraced the most liberal framing of that topic before explaining how her own ideas would differ. Democrats are rushing to adopt big ideas, even if those ideas mean completely different things to different people.
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which everyone ends up calling CPAC, starts tomorrow afternoon in the D.C. suburbs. Just like last year and the year before, the biggest media events will be speeches from the president and vice president; just like those years, the conference's official schedule is moving further toward the administration's own goals, with a widening eye on the 2020 reelection campaign.
Thus, there'll be sitdowns with the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee; victory tips from the NRSC and other campaign groups; and a plethora of panels attacking the new left – "Why Anti-Zionism is a Form of Anti-Semitism and a Threat to National Security," "Marketing Marxism: There's Nothing New about the Green New Deal" and the abortion-centered "Left for Dead: Are There No Limits to the Progressive War on Humanity?"
The more heterodox topics, mostly getting hashed out in breakout sessions, range from "Why Conservatives Should Support Tribal Sovereignty" to a Rick Santorum-led discussion on paid family leave. There are at least two planned panels on the "China menace," including one with a focus on "How China is Using 5G and AI to Take Over the World."
That's the norm for CPAC and the American Conservative Union, whose president, Matt Schlapp, is a veteran of George W. Bush's White House and frequent TV supporter of the president. Even after a midterm that stopped the momentum of conservative legislation for the next two years, the schedule is oriented more toward what's working than what's failed. Schlapp's first appearance at the conference, for example, will be an interview with former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who lost his bid for a third term but will discuss "war stories" in the "fight for freedom."
If you’re looking for the next litmus test for 2020 Democrats, look to the courts. Activists in Washington and in early states are beginning to organize around a concise but radical campaign concept: adding four seats to the Supreme Court to allow a new Democratic president to create a liberal majority, enshrining and advancing their goals.
The Pack the Courts campaign, which until recently was known as the 1.21.21 Project, is publishing papers about the risk of a conservative court undermining liberal goals and encouraging activists to get candidates on the record for court-packing.
“The Supreme Court will block the entire progressive agenda, and 2020 candidates are starting to realize that they need to explain what they’re going to do about that,” Aaron Belkin, the group's executive director, said in the announcement.
PTC's messaging is focused on “democracy” and on emphasizing decisions or looming decisions that could find the court dismantling popular legislation; its first public paper sketches out a scenario in which Washington, D.C., gets statehood and the court overturns it, effectively wiping out two senators and a voting member of Congress. Embracing the “court packing” frame, which for many people conjures a failed effort 81 years ago to add more liberals to the court, was meant to heighten the sense of emergency.
“We initially thought: Should we call this court expansion? Should we couch this in other terms? And we eventually thought, screw it, mask off,” said Sean McElwee, a left-wing pollster and co-founder of the group. “Abraham Lincoln added seats to the court to save the union, and I think we're working in that mold, to save the union from the increasingly radical Republican Party.”
"Why Democrats are not afraid of gun control anymore,” by Ronald Brownstein
The short answer is “polls,” but the long answer is a lot more interesting.
A looming question for the senator from Vermont is how front-runner status, which he's never had until now, will shape media coverage and decisions about what's news. This is a deep look at how he's grown frustrated for years about coverage that didn't convey his priorities or his issues.
. . . one day until CPAC