In this edition: The “electability” ruse, the first 2020 super PAC controversy, and a Democratic brawl over AIPAC.
I can't believe that 12 years of “Bloomberg for president” speculation is over already, and this is The Trailer.
After multiple trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley did what few Democrats seem to be doing this year: He decided not to run for president. In interviews today, Merkley explained that he thought he might make “the biggest impact” on the country by staying in the Senate and — just as importantly — that President Trump was probably on the road to defeat.
“I think we have an excellent field, and any one of these candidates could beat Trump,” Merkley said. “I think the Trump administration has been so incompetent, so corrupt, so divisive, that any Democrat has a good shot at beating him. And I’m not even sure he’s going to be the Republican nominee.”
That’s becoming a common refrain, even for panic-prone Democrats. It’s been 27 years since an incumbent president lost reelection. It’s been two and a half years since this president defied expectations, and some polls, to pick the lock on the electoral college.
Yet one reason that so many Democrats are still piling into the 2020 race is that they, and their base, look at Trump as a weak candidate whose first win was a fluke. The “electability” question, purportedly the top voting issue for Democrats in 2019, is not leading them to settle for a candidate with unique anti-Trump appeal. While pollsters frequently ask voters whether they prefer a candidate who “agrees with them on the issues” or one who's electable, the nascent 2020 Democratic electorate does not really see that as a choice.
Polling on the president himself has given Democrats an unfamiliar jolt of confidence. On Sunday, an NBC-WSJ poll found just 41 percent of voters ready to reelect the president while 48 percent wanted to support a Democratic candidate. On Tuesday, a Quinnipiac poll put the president's support at 38 percent, while just 39 percent said the president “cares about average Americans.” Those are toxic numbers, coming after 26 months of growth in the job market and after several weeks of Republicans trying, without success, to batter the Democratic brand by highlighting the demands of the party's far left.
Certainly, some Democrats are making electability arguments to nudge candidates in or out of the race. Supporters of Joe Biden, who has not made up his mind on a 2020 bid, typically point to head-to-head polls with the president, or the Obama- Biden ticket's electoral success on the Midwest, to say that he could break the Trump coalition more easily than any other Democrat.
“He speaks to the electorate that any Democrat needs to win,” said Harold Schaitberger, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Schaitberger urged Biden to run in 2015 and suggests that the union will back the former vice president if he runs now. “I understand that Hillary Clinton got nearly 4 million more votes than Trump in 2016, but a lot of that was in California and New York. A Democrat needs to win the Midwest.”
But in 2018, Democrats had a rollicking election across the Midwest. In the three pivotal states won by Trump — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Democrats won every statewide office for the first time in decades, with center-left and diverse candidates. Simply winning those states in 2020 while losing none of the states that backed Hillary Clinton would make Trump a one-term president. Even in his op-ed closing the door on a presidential bid, Michael Bloomberg suggested that Trump was beatable so long as “the primary process did not drag the party to an extreme.”
In conversations with voters, the question isn't whether Trump is beatable; it's what combination of base-motivation and outreach to former Democrats would push them over the top. At a recent town hall in Nevada, voters who came to see Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said that she looked more electable than other Democrats.
“She represents someone who can win, and I really want someone who can win because I’m really disliking what I’m seeing,” said Don Brackbill, 55, who was visiting from Phoenix. “I think her ethnicity, and the fact that she’s a woman, is a great contrast to the fellow we have in the office. For lack of a better way of saying it, I think seeing her across on the debate stage will make him pee his pants, and I’m okay with that.”
After 2016, Democrats don't listen as much to traditional “electability” arguments. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who made his first campaign tour over the weekend, is not seen as the most “electable” candidate by many elite Democrats. A central premise of Howard Schultz's potential independent campaign is that Sanders, if he secures the nomination, would not be able to win a general election.
But Sanders portrays himself as a candidate with broad-based support who could make even red states such as the Dakotas and Mississippi competitive, and his adherents agree with him. (Trump won Mississippi by 18 points, South Dakota by 30 and North Dakota by 36.) At his launch event in Brooklyn, voter after voter said that Sanders would have won in 2016 had he been the Democratic nominee; “hindsight is 2020" remains one of the most popular T-shirt slogans for his supporters.
David Duhalde, the political director of the Sanders-founded group Our Revolution, said that the senator's supporters saw evidence that he was electable and that it simply wasn't covered ahead of the primaries. Polling, which stopped including Sanders after June 2016, showed him consistently ahead of Trump; Clinton also held leads, but sometimes Sanders led by more.
“There were polls taken before the 2016 election that did show Sanders beating Trump in a head-to-head contest,” said Duhalde. “But the even stronger part of the narrative for Sanders supporters is that Hillary Clinton — who did win the popular vote — couldn’t carry a handful of states in the Midwest. The Sanders economic message would have activated voters there. He would have been viewed as more authentically pro-fair-trade, which would have not just held on to some Trump voters but turned out union voters who skipped the election.”
There's a large and active class of Democrats who consider that argument specious. But they don't have a recent election to hang it on. Their most recent electoral map, from 2018, shows a clear path to the White House for any candidate who is not subsumed in an FBI investigation a week before the election. That’s led to a very new conversation about who can and can’t win.
Chelsea Janes contributed reporting
Vote for president in 2020 in Texas (University of Texas-Texas Tribune, 1,200 registered voters)
Donald Trump — 49%
Someone else — 51%
Another week, another poll that shows the president in an unusually weak position for a Republican in Texas. Five months after the midterms, the trends that closed the Senate and some other statewide races to single digits look to be intact.
Should Congress investigate the president's tax returns? (Quinnipiac, 1,120 voters)
Yes — 57%
No — 38%
A supermajority of voters has always said that the president should make his tax returns public — a promise he made in the 2016 campaign but moved on from, claiming that he was bound up in audits. The proportion of voters who believe that Congress should act if the president doesn't has jumped; just 51 percent wanted to see the returns in November, and 57 percent want to see them now.
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North Carolina. Mark your calendars: There will be a May 14 primary to set the nominees for a special election in the scandal-engulfed 9th Congressional District and a Sept. 10 general election.
Well … there might be a Sept. 10 general election. While Democrats are on track to renominate Dan McCready, who nearly won the seat outright in November, Republicans may have a messy multicandidate primary with no clear front-runner. If no candidate gets more than 30 percent of the vote in the primary, the Sept. 10 election will become the runoff and the election to fill the seat will be kicked into November.
Kentucky. Republicans have had a spectacular year in a very particular sort of special election — the ones created when Democrats retire in Trump-friendly seats. Today, they're trying to flip Kentucky's 31st House seat, which opened up when former state representative Ray Jones was elected as Pike County's judge-executive.
On paper, there's no way Democrats should be able to hold the seat. The ancestrally blue district has trended toward Republicans, hard, in federal elections; Mitt Romney won it by 49 points, and Donald Trump won it by 62 points. Republicans nominated attorney Philip Wheeler for the special, while Democrats picked Darrell Pugh, a businessman who has run a credible campaign.
The Jones victory last year proved that Democrats maintain strong local support. But another win here would make it four gains for Republicans in state elections this year.
Rhode Island. There's a special election today in the Bristol-based 68th House District, whose voters backed Hillary Clinton by 18 points and have shown no signs of breaking from the Democratic Party. Indeed, there's no way for Republicans to win — they didn't even nominate a candidate. Instead, Democratic nominee June Speakman is facing a libertarian and two independents who used to affiliate with her party, including Kenneth Marshall, who retired in 2018 after using campaign funds to pay for a vacation.
Joe Biden. He's the only potential 2020 candidate speaking at next week's International Association of Fire Fighters meeting Tuesday; the event's usual “candidate forum,” which drew half a dozen White House hopefuls in 2015, has been scrapped.
Elizabeth Warren. She joined Bernie Sanders to criticize a New York campaign to eliminate “fusion voting,” a unique practice of allowing candidates to run on the ballots of multiple parties.
Bernie Sanders. He's heading to Iowa and New Hampshire; each stop will take him to the largest venue in the respective city he's visiting. And he's signed a somewhat controversial “loyalty pledge,” produced by the DNC, to ensure that 2020 nominees work inside the party.
Tulsi Gabbard. She's meeting supporters in Philadelphia on Friday night, making her the first 2020 Democrat to hold an event in that swing state.
Jay Inslee. He kicked off his presidential bid with two climate events in Iowa.
Who: Act Now on Climate
What it is: The first — and so far, only — super PAC created to help a 2020 Democratic hopeful.
What it's doing: Running ads in Iowa that advertise Washington's Jay Inslee as a “governor who transformed his state into a clean energy leader.” This early buy makes Inslee just the second 2020 candidate with a presence on Iowa airwaves; John Delaney has been on them for more than a year.
Who runs it: Corey Platt, who was the political director for the Democratic Governors Association under Inslee during a cycle when a lot of money was spent in Iowa.
How much it's spending: So far $111,000 on Cedar Rapids and Des Moines TV, according to Advertising Analytics. It's the first Democratic super PAC to appear on Iowans' TVs this cycle.
Who's got a problem with it: Eventually, plenty of people may complain; most of the 2020 field has sworn off super PACs, and even Cory Booker, who has some supporters investing in a super PAC, has said he does not support that effort. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has largely gotten behind Elizabeth Warren's campaign, has urged Inslee to shut it down.
“Cory Booker and Jay Inslee have a unique opportunity to send an important signal to voters about the strength of their progressive values by publicly calling on their supporters to shut down these multimillion-dollar super PACs,” said the PCCC's spokeswoman, Marissa Barrow, after the super PAC's existence became public.
Primary season. The ongoing Democratic tsuris over criticism by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of Israel and its American political influence has led to the year's second House resolution condemning anti-Semitism. Democrats have rebuffed Republicans, who want language that condemns Omar specifically (and want her off the Foreign Affairs Committee); they are, for the second time, set to criticize anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish tropes more broadly.
All of this has stirred up talk about challenging Omar and other newly elected left-wing legislators, who have been some of the biggest stars of the House Democratic class. Jewish activist Stephen Fiske told the New York Times's Sheryl Stolberg for a story about the Democrats and the "Israel lobby" that Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) “are three people who, in my opinion, will not be around in several years.”
There is a lot of talk right now about unseating members of Congress; the shapes of the two major challenge discussions are very, very different. A quick primer:
AIPAC primaries. It's been 17 years since AIPAC played a big role in unseating any member of Congress, and it never really played in the races that nominated Omar, Tlaib or Ocasio-Cortez. Democrats think the most obvious target for a primary here is Tlaib, who eked out a victory in a Detroit-based district where most voters are black. (Tlaib won 31.2. percent of the vote, with 54.7 percent of the vote divided between black candidates.) Worth remembering: The last big primary victories for AIPAC, in Alabama and Georgia, came in majority-black districts.
Justice Democrat primaries. The liberal group that backed Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 has grown both more ambitious and more strategic since then; it is trying to identify safely Democratic districts in which the incumbents have cast conservative votes. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) was the first 2020 target; at least eight incumbent Democrats in New York are also on the radar, three of whom faced primary challenges in 2018.
When does any of this get tested? Not until March 2020, when Illinois and Texas hold the first congressional primaries. If money stacks up for challenges to Omar and Tlaib, the primaries wouldn't end until August of next year.
"How did black colleges raise a generation of activists?” by Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz
As Kamala Harris rises in the Democratic primary — she would be the first graduate of a historically black college or university (HBCU) to win the presidency — this is a fascinating look at the modern politics of HBCUs.
“Joe Biden's biggest political problem is Joe Biden,” by Zach Carter
There's not much clarity on when Biden will announce his 2020 plans, but the pile of stories about his heresies for modern Democrats keeps growing.
“A better way for Democrats to run on Medicare for All,” by Lisa Beutler
There's some worry that the broad concept of universal health care could be demonized before Democrats settle on a spokesman for it.
“The anger of Amy Klobuchar,” by Caitlin Flanagan
The debate about whether the senator's treatment of staff is being covered in a sexist manner will not end.
. . . four days until Democratic candidates address South by Southwest
. . . 70 days until the primary in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District