In this edition: Socialism and CPAC, a Democratic debacle in Connecticut, and some long-overdue elections in North Carolina.

If hamburgers are outlawed, only outlaws will have hamburgers, and this is The Trailer.

A specter is haunting the Conservative Political Action Conference: the specter of socialism.

At the nation's largest annual gathering of conservatives, speaker after speaker warned that the nation was one election away from a socialist takeover. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow asked conservatives to “put socialism on trial.” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) pined for a day “when we can celebrate capitalism.”

And Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, sketched out how Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of Democratic Socialists of America, could become the focus of a successful 2020 campaign, if the GOP was smart about it.

“We can't take her for granted,” McDaniel said. “We can't think that the American people understand what socialism is. We have to go out and educate people. We need to talk about Venezuela.”

CPAC, which has evolved from a boisterous showcase for conservative debate into an event largely about supporting the Trump administration, outlined a 2020 strategy in which swing voters were just one or two conversations away from their own MAGA hats. They just needed to hear all the good that the administration was doing, then think about the alternative: the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

“We serve with some of these new members, and they're not Democrats; they're socialists,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at a Wednesday “boot camp” for conservative activists. “This election is not going to be about Republican or Democrat. It's going to be about socialism and the free market.”

Fox News personalities talked up the Trump administration’s wins: low unemployment numbers, the move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Elected Republicans talked up repealed regulations, the introduction of less-regulated health plans and a foreign policy that they saw as humiliating American enemies. 

“Why is the caliphate destroyed? Because Trump let the military do its job,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Why is Iran on the run? Because Trump knows a bad deal when he sees one.”

The focus on socialism at CPAC wasn't surprising. A key applause line in Trump's State of the Union address, promising that America would “never be a socialist country,” was spliced into Republican messaging almost instantly.

But for a longtime observer of CPAC, that vow, or warning, was a reflection of a longtime worry. Ten years ago, from the stage of CPAC, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint called Barack Obama “the world's best salesman of socialism”; Mike Pence, then a congressman from Indiana, accused Democrats of embracing “European-style socialism”; and Rush Limbaugh denounced “this collectivism socialism stuff.”

That was right after the closing weeks of an election that found the Republican ticket condemning Obama's “socialism,” which, they argued, was revealed when he told a voter that he wanted to “spread the wealth around.” By the summer before the 2010 midterms, at least one poll found a majority of voters agreeing with the concept: Barack Obama was a socialist.

Since then, Republicans have won total control of government — and then lost the House. The Democratic Party has moved left on taxes and health care with no obvious electoral harm, while electing more self-identified socialists than any time since the beginning of World War I. As CPAC gathered, Bernie Sanders was polling higher than any other declared candidate for the Democratic nomination.

Had Republicans cried wolf? Jason Pye, a vice president at FreedomWorks, said that accusing Democrats or even liberal Republicans of “socialism” had sometimes been a joke and that it wasn't any longer.

“Socialism in the Democratic Party has grown and grown to the point where this is very real,” Pye said. “Obamacare itself was not a socialist program; it was a government-managed solution that wasn’t really a solution, at the end of the day. But it was a gradual step toward single payer.”

The fate of the Affordable Care Act, still facing lawsuits in federal courts, was barely discussed in CPAC's first two days. The threat posed by Democrats was instead framed as a complete, quasi-fascist erasure of American freedom.

“They want to take your pickup truck. They want to take away your hamburger,” said former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka. “This is what Stalin dreamed about but never achieved.” 

Gorka was referring to the Green New Deal — specifically, to a fact sheet released alongside Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution, which suggested that there was no way to ban “farting cows or air travel” in the 10-year frame they were working in. One big thing missing from CPAC was a discussion of how the new democratic socialists actually define their agenda, envisioning a welfare state closer to Canada than to Venezuela. But campaign rhetoric isn’t supposed to be nice.

AD WATCH

Pennsylvania state Senate. There's an April 2 election coming for a Republican-leaning seat near Pittsburgh, in exactly the sort of territory where Democrats made their midterm gains. The party's nominee, Pam Iovino, ran for the congressional nomination that went to Rep. Conor Lamb (D); her current campaign follows the same themes, highlighting her life in the military.

That makes the first negative ad from D. Raja, the Republican nominee, an interesting preview of how 2019 and 2020 could shake out. In “Vision,” Raja is seen talking to workers on shop floors, a contrast with a Democrat who “wants to stop our growth by teaming up with extremists who want billions of dollars in energy taxes.” Images of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) flash on-screen; their link to Iovino isn't explained, nor are the energy taxes, but Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are taking their spots in the Mount Rushmore of attack ads.

2020. In digital ads, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has begun highlighting a decision that has haunted her for more than a year: her call for Al Franken to leave the Senate over accusations of sexual misconduct. A Facebook ad now in circulation asks readers to “stand up to sexism” and donate to her campaign.

“When I called on Al Franken to resign, I paid a price,” the ad reads, illustrated by a photo of Gillibrand at this year's Women's March. “I made a lot of establishment Democratic donors angry, and they started withholding support and launching sexist attacks. I will tell you: There were eight credible and corroborated allegations against Al Franken, and we all had the same facts. I don’t regret speaking out. My values aren’t for sale and they never will be.”

POLL WATCH

New Hampshire Democratic primary (UNH, 240 likely Democratic voters)

Bernie Sanders — 26%
Joe Biden — 22%
Kamala Harris — 10%
Elizabeth Warren — 7%
Beto O’Rourke — 5%
Amy Klobuchar — 4%
Cory Booker — 3%
Pete Buttigieg — 1%
Tulsi Gabbard — 1%
Mike Bloomberg — 1%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1%
Sherrod Brown — 1%


This is the rare state pollster that’s been in the field multiple times, enough to find a few trends. The hardest trend to miss: Warren, who has dealt with monthly blowups over her old claim of Native American heritage, is polling at her lowest level ever, with 13 percent of Democrats ruling out voting for her, for now. Booker, too, has polled higher in the past. Support for the theoretical Biden candidacy and the now-real Sanders candidacy have remained steady; support for Kamala Harris has surged.

The x-factor hasn’t changed: We don’t know how voters will interpret “electability” once the entire field is set. By a 10-point margin, voters consider Biden the most electable candidate; just 5 percent say that of Harris and 3 percent say it of Warren.

IN THE STATES

Republicans were shut out in the week's two highest-profile elections, with Democrats in big cities continuing to move left and win. But Republicans also had their best electoral result since the midterms. A quick recap:

New York City. The left and the Working Families Party gained further ground Tuesday when Jumaane Williams, a city councilman who narrowly lost a 2018 race for lieutenant governor, blew away 16 other candidates to become the city's next public advocate.

“Most people thought he was going to damage his career by challenging the state Democratic Party,” said Maurice Mitchell, the leader of the WFP, which has supported Williams in his rise through city politics. 

Williams, who won the New York Times endorsement in both his 2018 and 2019 runs, ran an unapologetically left-wing campaign. He called for divesting the city's pension funds from fossil fuels, making it easier to obtain police disciplinary records, and creating more affordable housing; after initially lobbying for Amazon to come to New York, he turned against the state's funding deal and celebrated when the company pulled out.

Chicago. The next mayor of America's third-largest city will be a black woman. Two very different candidates made it through Tuesday's primary: Toni Preckwinkle, a 71-year-old Cook County commissioner who ran her first race in 1983; and Lori Lightfoot, a 56-year-old former federal prosecutor making her first run for office.

Both ran as the candidates who would break from eight years of Rahm Emanuel, whose powerful national profile obscured the vitriol many Democrats felt for him in Chicago. And both swept away candidates who were seen, at one point or another, as stars who were lined up for the job — former White House chief of staff Bill Daley and State Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

Down the ballot, democratic socialists also had a breakthrough night. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a socialist alderman, easily held off a challenge, and four more socialists either won outright or advanced to the April 2 runoffs, when Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will face off.

Connecticut. Last year's razor-thin victory for Gov. Ned Lamont locked Republicans out of power here, with Democrats expanding their majority in the state legislature. On Tuesday, Republicans reversed some of the damage, flipping a state House seat and a state Senate seat after Lamont had pulled the Democratic incumbents into his administration. 

It didn't put Republicans in control of the state, but it was a major reversal for Democrats. Two years ago, still rattled from its 2016 defeats, the party vastly overperformed in a run of special Connecticut elections. On Tuesday, Democratic turnout tumbled in places where the party had struggled before. Republicans flipped the East Haven-based 99th House District, which Democrats had won by just a handful of votes in 2016; they did the same in the 6th Senate District, around New Britain, where the most vote-rich Democratic areas didn't turn out.

Republicans celebrated the results as a breakthrough in a state where Democrats have presided over slow economic growth since 2011. “While Democrats continue to embrace the failed socialist ideal of a government spending its way to prosperity, Republicans [will] continue to flip seats in the deepest of blue states to protect freedom and capitalism,” the Republican State Leadership Committee said in a statement.

2020

Jay Inslee. The governor of Washington is holding a climate change event Friday that is widely expected to be his presidential campaign announcement, coming after he made national staff hires.

Julián Castro. On Tuesday he became the first 2020 candidate to visit Idaho, a relatively early voting state that will hold a primary next year instead of its traditional caucuses.

Sherrod Brown. He's making the final rounds on his Dignity of Work tour, spending Friday and Saturday in South Carolina; he has suggested that any presidential announcement would come in March.

Beto O'Rourke. Per the Dallas Morning News, he is telling supporters that he will not make another run for Senate in 2020 but will make another announcement, probably about the presidential race, in March.

John Delaney. He tapped John Davis, a veteran of former Iowa congressman Bruce Braley's office, to be his national campaign manager.

Eric Swalwell. He's heading to Iowa to campaign for Eric Giddens, the Democratic nominee in a state Senate race; he also told local media that he will leave his safe House seat, which he won by ousting a longtime incumbent Democrat, if he seeks the presidency.

WHAT I'M WATCHING

North Carolina's endless election year. We now know something about when this state will start to fill its two vacant House seats: April 30. That's when voters in the coastal 3rd Congressional District will vote in a primary to replace the late Walter Jones. Pending a meeting of the election board, it may also be when voters in the 9th Congressional District will pick a nominee for the seat left open by ongoing charges of electoral fraud.

Democrats are cautiously optimistic about the 9th District, where disgraced GOP nominee Mark Harris will not run again and 2018 nominee Dan McCready has continued to pile up money since the election board declined to certify the midterm result. McCready, who defeated a left-wing challenger in 2018, has no primary foe; a Republican primary seems inevitable after former governor Pat McCrory passed on the race, Harris endorsed county commissioner Stony Rushing, and six other Republicans made noises about running.

The early jockeying in the 3rd District, which President Trump carried by 24 points, is very different. Jones, who ended his career as an opponent of foreign military intervention and deficit spending, fended off a series of challenges by ambitious Republicans; Phil Law, who made two runs against Jones, is running, and two other also-rans are still looking at the race. Three state legislators are running, as is Michele Nix, a vice chair of the state party. Democrats are most intrigued by retired Marine Col. Richard Bew and former Greenville mayor Allen Thomas, both of whom they think would be able to break through voter stereotypes about the party.

READING LIST

"Group running robocalls impersonating Trump's campaign has already raised more than $100,000,” by Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott

The amazing story of an all-too-ordinary scam: Support American Leaders PAC, which appears to have been created to shake money out of Republicans who think that it's a real effort to reelect the president.

“Why the left can't stand the New York Times,” by Amber A'Lee Frost

As CPAC meets, this is an incisive look at the reasons conservatives' least favorite media outlet does the left wrong, too: "The media landscape is dominated by the liberal publications and their clickbait #resistance outrage, their Fukuyama worldview still preserved in jiggling aspic.”

COUNTDOWN

. . . two days until Bernie Sanders begins his homecoming tour
. . . nine days until 2020 candidates arrive at SXSW
. . . 33 days until elections in Chicago (mayor), Wisconsin (state Supreme Court), and Pennsylvania (state Senate)