In this edition: Unions face a tough 2020 choice, Democrats bail on Fox, and Kentucky gets redder.

I also manage to travel to Iowa and New Hampshire without running for president, and this is The Trailer.

As Joe Biden inches ever closer to a presidential bid, one of the loudest voices in his corner belongs to Harold Schaitberger.

The mustachioed president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a job he has held since the turn of the century, urged Biden to run in 2016 and has all but promised an endorsement in 2020. When the IAFF meets in Washington next week, it won't hold a candidate forum; it will feature a speech from Biden.

“I would say he has a very good shot of getting our endorsement,” Schaitberger said in an interview this week. “He's got a 40-year track record on the issues that mean the most to our members and their families.”

The IAFF's enthusiastic support for Biden stands out for a simple reason: No other labor union sounds so ready to wade into the presidential race. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton locked up the support of the country's biggest unions earlier than any non-incumbent candidate in Democratic Party history. This year, most labor leaders are telling candidates to expect a drawn-out process, with no coronations and plenty of demands.

“The question you face every year is whether you chase the race or whether you shape the race,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers. “In my judgment, the process we had in 2016 was the right one for that year. This year, there are so many viable candidates, and we want the most participation from members that we've ever had before we make an endorsement.” 

For the AFT, which passed a resolution about its 2020 endorsement last month, that means a stepped-up effort to encourage members to run for delegate slots and talk to candidates themselves. For the Service Employees International Union, that has meant telling candidates who contact the national union that they should build ties with local affiliates. For the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America, the largest union that backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016, it means that the senator from Vermont will really have to compete to get the endorsement again. 

Even after Thursday's news that Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) won't run for president, labor organizers say that the number of credible Democratic candidates will make it hard for most unions to coalesce early. In 2015, Clinton locked up major unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) months before the Iowa caucuses; leaders of the federation's unions say, politely, that no candidate could pull that off now. One reason for Brown's decision, after all, was that he saw more Democrats adopting his positions on labor and workers.

“We're looking at a massive field of candidates each clamoring to prove that they're the best advocate for working people. So, we're heading into this cycle with high expectations,” said Julie Greene, the mobilization director of the AFL-CIO. “If you want to talk about building a fairer economy, you need to talk about your plan to build stronger unions. How are you going to make it easier for Americans to get a union card? If you aren't putting unionism front and center, don't expect to get very far with our members.”

The jockeying for labor endorsements could start in earnest next week, when the AFL-CIO's executive council meets in New Orleans, and where 2020 endorsement plans will be discussed. But this cycle, no union will be making peace with a front-runner's positions. That was what they had to do in 2015, when Clinton initially advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

“This is a time to urge union members to be active in the campaign of their choosing,” said Larry Cohen, a past president of CWA who supports Sanders for president. “Collectively, they can press the Democratic Party to make a priority out of collective bargaining and organizing. They can make this about whether governance in this country has anything to do with working people.”

Sanders, so far, has done the most to elevate labor unions. On Saturday, before he took the stage at his first presidential campaign speech in Brooklyn, he handed a microphone to Scott Slawson, president of Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

As 13,000 people cheered, the Pennsylvania labor leader talked about the strike he was leading against a company that wanted to set up a two-tier wage system. It didn't make it into much coverage of the rally, but it was a reflection of what Sanders had spent the years since 2016 doing — using his visibility to elevate labor struggles and hinting that other Democrats should climb aboard. Like Biden, Sanders had become known for holding a political event and carving out time to visit a nearby labor hall or picket line.

Other Democratic candidates seem ready to do the same thing. One labor organizer pointed out that at least five Democrats, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), lent their support to a series of successful teachers' strikes in California this year. At several stops in Iowa this year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was thanked by members of the Teamsters union who had a very specific reason to support her — she'd taken their meetings and endorsed a plan to fund truckers' pensions. Labor unions, more than most pressure groups, come to Democrats with the power to get out the vote. Their happy problem this year, as the SEIU has found with its “fight for $15" minimum wage campaign, is that most serious Democratic candidates agree with them.

“As SEIU members evaluate the presidential candidates, we will be looking for their robust plan on how to unrig our economy so that black, white and brown working families — not just corporations and billionaires — can thrive,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. “Their plans must include ensuring everyone has the chance to join a union, no matter where they work.”

At the start of the Trump presidency, the White House sent signals that it might offer labor a better deal than the Democrats, especially if it pushed through an infrastructure bill. That bill has gone nowhere, and the midterms suggested that many union members who refused to back Clinton for president were coming back to the Democrats. In 2016, Clinton won union households in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin by an average of just three points — the weakest performance for a Democrat in modern history.

Two years later, across those three states, voters from union households backed Democratic candidates for governor by 16 points. Even in states where Democrats lost, such as Missouri, labor celebrated big wins for its members, like a ballot measure that overturned “right to work” legislation. And the Supreme Court's decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which created a First Amendment right for public employees not to pay union dues, took a talking point that had fallen flat for many union voters in 2016 and made it very real.

That sequence of events — the Democrats' 2016 disaster, followed by a successful labor mobilization in 2018 — has grown labor's clout inside the Democratic Party. In 2018, the National Union of Healthcare Workers held a debate for California gubernatorial candidates, followed up immediately by a member vote on who the union should endorse. According to Sal Rosselli, the union's president, there are plans for a similar September 2019 forum, where presidential candidates could explain why they deserved the endorsement, and then the rank and file could weigh in. 

“We think more unions should do this,” Rosselli said. “It's a great way to get the candidates talking about our issues, right in front of our membership.”

But few unions have such a transparent process. Schaitberger's confidence about a Biden endorsement is based on his read of the 16-member IAFF executive council, which he believes is ready to support the former vice president. The SEIU, by contrast, makes an endorsement if and only if a majority of its 25 local presidents weigh in; the AFL-CIO endorses only if two-thirds of its affiliates have done so. And the AFT's new endorsement process is designed to maximize how much candidates hear from the union's members, even if that means no endorsement until the primaries are effectively over.

“When it's time to come together, we'll come together,” said Weingarten. “That could be after Super Tuesday; that could be after the Democratic national convention.”

 (I'm a member of the Baltimore-Washington News Guild, which affiliates with the CWA.)

POLL WATCH

"Do you think Donald Trump was aware of people associated with his campaign trying to mislead government investigators?” (Monmouth, 802 voters)

Was aware — 59%
Was not aware — 27%

Every survey of the ongoing probe into the Trump campaign finds approximately the same data. A majority of voters believe that the president acted badly, perhaps illegally. A smaller majority of voters do not believe he should be removed from office. What jumps out of Monmouth's survey is that last week's Michael Cohen hearings did not change the margin in favor of thinking Trump was misleading investigators — it simply doubled the number of people who said they weren't sure.

IN THE STATES

Kentucky. Republicans conquered yet more ancestrally Democratic turf Tuesday, winning a state legislative race in a part of rural Kentucky that strongly backed the president in 2016.

Philip Wheeler, a Republican attorney making his first run for office, narrowly won the race to replace a Democratic state senator from eastern Kentucky. Darrell Pugh, a Democrat who tried to focus the race on unpopular Gov. Matt Bevin (R), ran as a conservative; that didn't stop Wheeler from branding him a “Pelosi-Clinton Democrat.” 

The result: Wheeler won with 52.3 percent of the vote, in a district where Donald Trump had won more 82 percent of the vote. It was the fourth Republican win in a Democrat-held state legislative seat this year and the third in a district that had been carried by Trump.

Democrats, unbowed, believe that they have a strong chance of unseating Bevin in November. But if they do, it may be with a governing coalition that looks like nothing in Kentucky's history — rural areas sticking with the GOP while the suburbs of Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati grow bluer.

DEBATE SEASON

Until this week, the Democratic National Committee was in talks with Fox News about hosting one of the 12 televised debates planned for its presidential primary. Then came Jane Mayer's blockbuster story about Fox News's support for the 2016 Trump campaign. The shrapnel cut right through the DNC/Fox negotiations, and the network will not host a debate after all.

Last month, The Trailer talked to the network's Washington managing editor Bill Sammon and heard a friendly argument for why the No. 1 network in cable could introduce Democrats to an unfamiliar audience. So far, criticism of the DNC has echoed Sammon: Democrats have been accused of protecting their candidates from a skeptical audience and hard questions, both of which would toughen them up for 2020.

“Being president involves making unpalatable decisions and confronting tough customers on a daily basis,” wrote Politico's Jack Shafer. “It means learning how to tell voters what they don’t want to hear and convince them they should like it. So any politician who can’t hold his own against a journalist from the other team should be disqualified from running.”

That's a popular argument that ignores two important facts. The first is that some 2020 Democrats have been sitting for skeptical interviews. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have both sat down with Chris Wallace, generally acknowledged as the toughest and fairest Fox News interviewer; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has defended her tax proposals on business-friendly CNBC.

The second fact is that Republicans spent part of their last campaign working to protect their presidential candidates from debate questions they didn't like, and they did so proudly. In 2013, after being reelected as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus said that the parade of 2012 primary debates had hurt Republican candidates. “I've got to protect this party and our nominees,” he explained.

Priebus acted on that, helping the party to veto some moderators and eventually cutting bait on a planned NBC/Telemundo debate after a CNBC debate angered the candidates. “CNBC's moderators engaged in a series of 'gotcha' questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates,” Priebus wrote at the time. “What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates' policies and ideas.”

There's no fixing Humpty Dumpty here. In 2007, Democrats reacted to a racist Fox News segment about Barack Obama by cutting the network out of debates. In 2015, Republicans reacted to questions such as, "Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?” by canceling a debate. One commonality between those situations: Both ended with the party winning the presidential election.

2020

Eric Holder. He’s not running for president, but he used a Thursday speech to urge a future Democratic president (and Senate) to expand the courts, allowing them to appoint more nominees and undo what Republicans have achieved in the last few years.

Seth Moulton. He’s setting up trips to primary states and telling the Atlantic he’s “quietly confident” he could defeat the president.

John Hickenlooper. He is officially rolling out his presidential bid in Denver today; his remarks will pitch him as the candidate who has achieved things, saying that “being a pragmatist doesn’t mean saying ‘no’ to bold ideas; it means knowing how to make them happen.”

Sherrod Brown. He passed on a 2020 presidential bid, telling reporters that “the pull on me was always do my work here and fight for these issues” in the Senate.

Joe Biden. He’s on vacation, as speculation swirls that he will announce a 2020 decision by mid-April.

Bill de Blasio. He's heading to South Carolina for political meetings; he also broke from most Democrats who've commented on Ilhan Omar, by saying her comments about "allegiance" to foreign countries resembled anti-Semitism.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

What's left to say about the trials of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)? One of the surest ways to be wrong about politics is to assume that voters will care about a politician who does not represent them. Democrats chased pan after pan of fool's gold during the Obama years, highlighting the behavior of outrageous tea party candidates (or incumbents) whose antics did not really matter at the top of the ticket. Anyone predicting that Omar will matter to Florida voters — whose Democratic members of Congress have denounced her — can't really know that.

What will clearly matter in the long term was the reaction four Democratic presidential candidates had to Omar. In February, after Omar tweeted that support for Israel in Congress was “all about the Benjamins,” no 2020 candidate weighed in, though Bernie Sanders made a personal call to Omar that was later reported.

This time, after Omar told an audience that she didn't like “the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Sanders weighed in. 

“Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world,," he said in a Wednesday statement. “We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an evenhanded Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace.”

Sanders, who has won more votes than any Jewish presidential candidate in American history, was uniquely well positioned to defend Omar. He was joined by Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, all of whom made the same distinction: Omar wasn't necessarily talking about Jewish people.

“You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country,” Harris said. “I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism.”

In a presidential year, when a rogue member of Congress or candidate does matter, it's usually only when a presidential candidate responds to them. Sanders et. al. decided to use Omar's crisis to stake out the position that criticism of Israel, and even of the lobbying power on behalf of Israel, is not itself anti-Semitic. That comes after Sanders, Warren and Gillibrand voted against a bill containing language that would make it easier for states to punish businesses if they boycotted Israel or did not pledge not to boycott Israel.

Lots of Democratic “civil wars” are overrated; this one isn't. In conversations yesterday, Democratic critics of Omar said that they simply did not think her “allegiance” quote could be separated from an old and dangerous accusation that Jews had a “dual loyalty” to Israel. Asked when Omar had referred to Jews in that statement, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) said that the freshman from Minnesota might not have been aware of how “allegiance” talk sounds to people.

“This dual loyalty charge for Jews has led to mass murder, and that's why I think it's so important to combat it,” he said.

Democrats did not spend time in previous years debating over whether it was acceptable to boycott Israel or oppose some of its foreign and domestic policies, but that debate looks likelier and likelier.

READING LIST

"Biden’s tough talk on 1970s school desegregation plan could get new scrutiny in today’s Democratic Party,” by Matt Viser

The former vice president has left a long, breadcrumb trail of comments (and votes) that, as he mounts up for 2020, are ready to be scrutinized.

“Dem long shots crash 2020 debate stage,” by Elena Schneider

The new Democratic rules that limit the debates to candidates with more than 65,000 donors may crack the door open for Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson.

“What Kirsten Gillibrand Is Missing: New York Endorsements for 2020,” by Shane Goldmacher

The senator from New York has been talked about as a future presidential candidate for at least a decade; now that she is one, she has little in-state support.

COUNTDOWN

. . . two days until Beto O'Rourke appears at South by Southwest for a screening of a campaign documentary
. . . three days until CNN's next candidate town halls
. . . nine days until Joe Biden speaks to Delaware Democrats