In this edition: The House's moderate Democrats look at 2020, Florida re-re-re-considers felon voting, and abortion kind of, sort of, enters the presidential debate.
I think the beauty of democracy reveals itself when angry constituents yell into microphones, and this is The Trailer.
NEW YORK — Max Rose, the new Democratic congressman from Staten Island, was just 10 minutes into his first town hall when he got the anti-Semitism question. Daniel Weishoff, a Republican lawyer, asked if the Democratic Party had “become a forum for anti-Semitism" and left-wing extremism.
“I have to make a confession: I’m not a socialist,” Rose said, pacing up and down the aisle of a church packed with constituents. “I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m the person who you all elected, and there are members of the Democratic Party who have said things I vehemently oppose. I was the first member of the Democratic Party to come out and criticize someone who, I believed, had made an anti-Semitic comment.”
There was a brief and loud round of applause; Rose did not need to mention that he was talking about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The congressman, who ran nine points ahead of Hillary Clinton to win the swingy 11th Congressional District, did so as a moderate with a military record who would not take orders from his party. Rose, who is Jewish, told the audience that he had joined Democrats in condemning “acts of hate, acts of divisiveness, no matter where they came from” but that he would criticize his peers when they deserved it.
“The Democratic Party is a big tent, isn’t it?” he asked, rhetorically. “They’ve kept it interesting for me.”
It was a nice way to describe a problem that dozens of House Democrats are confronting every time they head home. Rose, one of the 41 Democrats who flipped Republican-held seats last year, is near the top of the GOP’s list of 2020 targets. The president’s party has signaled that it will run against the Democrats’ left, represented less by its White House hopefuls than by stars like Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). This week, the first real congressional recess of the year, is seeing the first test of that strategy, as new Democrats with strong local images get asked about those other Democrats — the ones constantly on their TV screens.
At this stage in any congressional cycle, the party committees like to dream big. The Republicans’ target list includes not just the 31 Democrats whose districts backed the president in 2016, but also Democrats whose districts voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. After watching dozens of competent Republicans fail to separate themselves from Trump, they are betting that vulnerable Democrats will not be able to distance themselves from the party’s energized left.
The essential epithet, borrowed from the president, is “socialist” — a press memo from the National Republican Congressional Committee last week used the phrase “socialist Democrats” no less than 21 times. And Republicans have gotten unexpected air cover from former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, who has roamed the country threatening to run a centrist campaign for president because of the "mainstreaming of socialism" inside the Democratic Party.
The evidence from some of the new Democrats’ town hall meetings is that the message has broken through, with a caveat — new members from swing districts are happy to separate themselves from the party’s left. At a Sunday town hall meeting in Virginia’s 10th District, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, one of the Democrats who flipped a seat in 2018, got questions on “anti-Semitism,” why more Democrats did not applaud the president during his State of the Union address, why Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had not resigned over revelations that he wore blackface and had a picture of a Klansman outfit in his medical school yearbook, and even why she hung a transgender flag outside of her office instead of a flag raising awareness of American prisoners of war.
“I chose to hang the transgender flag because that’s a community that’s been under attack,” Wexton said. The man who asked the question and had been recording her answer, packed up and left in a huff.
The hot-button questions did not dominate Wexton’s town hall; the only obviously organized groups that attended represented the health-care and disability rights group Little Lobbyists and the gun-safety group Moms Demand Action, both of which she had supported in the past. The diverse and highly educated 10th District has trended strongly Democratic since it was drawn, and Wexton is not seen as one of the most vulnerable new Democrats.
Even so, the Republican plan of attack against Wexton has been to blur any differences between her and the high-profile left-wing members who dominated the last month of news about the House. An NRCC digital ad running in the district asks if Wexton would impeach the president — not because he is popular in Northern Virginia, but because Republicans see a chance to define the low-key congresswoman before she can define herself.
“I represent the interests of my constituents,” Wexton said after the town hall. “I know that we hear a lot in the press about certain other people in our class, but each of us has our own agenda and our own constituents that we’re out here representing.”
Rose, whose constituents have voted Republican in recent elections, is in a trickier spot. He was one of the first new Democrats to draw a credible Republican opponent — Nicole Malliotakis, a member of the state assembly who lopsidedly lost a 2017 run for New York mayor but carried Staten Island.
In an interview, Malliotakis repeatedly called Rose a “Park Slope liberal” who had won only because a nasty 2018 primary weakened the Republican incumbent. (Rose was raised in that part of Brooklyn, but when his 2018 opponent brought it up, the Democrat said he would have moved to Staten Island sooner, had he not been serving in Afghanistan.) Sure, he criticized Omar, said Malliotakis — but he voted with her more often than not, and he didn’t call for her to be bounced from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I’m running against Max and the entire crop of new progressives who have come into the Congress who are trying to move the country toward socialism,” she said. “I thought it was great when he denounced Ilhan Omar, but I was disappointed later that day when he called her a friend with whom he shares values. I think the people of this district deserve to know what values he's referring to.”
Over 90 minutes in a Staten Island church, Rose didn’t distance himself from the Democratic Party. He excoriated the president for leaving the Paris climate accords; he pledged to protect the Affordable Care Act; he stood his ground against a constituent angry that he had opposed a Republican amendment to the Democrats’ omnibus voting rights bill, which would have prevented undocumented immigrants from voting in any election, federal or local. (They already are banned.)
“A lot of people are afraid to actually vote to drain the swamp, so they decided to play games,” Rose said.
But Rose also jumped at the chance to distance himself from the party’s far left. He defended his vote for a different Republican amendment, to the Democrats’ popular background checks bill, which required gun sellers to notify ICE, the immigraiton enforcement agency, if undocumented immigrants tried to make a purchase, by saying that "if someone is buying a weapon who shouldn’t be, authorities should be notified." That did not change his opposition to some of ICE's tactics, he said.
And Rose — like Wexton — was dismissive toward the Green New Deal, a climate-change measure proposed by Ocasio-Cortez. Wexton called it an “aspirational” document that didn’t have enough details for her; Rose, just miles from Ocasio-Cortez’s district, said that he wanted to “transition responsibly to a carbon-free economy" and that the major left-wing project of 2019 did not work for him.
“The Green New Deal in so many ways takes a socialist economic agenda, and puts it under the veil of environmentalism,” he said. “That’s not who I am. That’s never who I was. That’s why I’m not a signatory to the Green New Deal — but, give me a plan to tackle climate change, and I’ll be the first one to sign on.”
To get to Congress, Rose had dispatched a number of more left-wing challengers; he’d done so the same day that Ocasio-Cortez ousted the fourth-ranking member of the House Democrats' leadership. Groups that backed Ocasio-Cortez, like Justice Democrats, have stated their plans to beat more “corporate Democrats” in primaries. Ocasio-Cortez herself had excoriated Democrats who backed the ICE amendment, and progressive groups lined them up for primary challenges.
In 2018, many Republicans struggled to put distance between themselves and Trump; creating even a little space, it seemed, alienated their base and put them on a Fox News watchlist. Rose and other Democrats are finding something completely different when they differentiate themselves from the party's left.
“I don’t have a worry in the world about them,” Rose said. “They can yell and kick and scream all they want. They can even come and primary me. We'll beat ‘em, and we'll send them right back to where they came from.”
North Carolina's 3rd District. There are 17 Republicans running for the seat left vacant by the death of Walter Jones, a war critic and spending hawk who regularly voted against President Trump's priorities — including the 2017 tax cut. None of these Republicans are trying to emulate Jones. Eric Rouse, a conservative county commissioner, is on the air with a new addition to the popular genre of ads in which politicians shoot the things they want to stop in Washington.
"Trump needs allies to help shoot down this socialist, radical agenda," Rouse says, firing bullets at clay targets decorated with various left-wing agenda items. "Threatening to take our guns. Government-run health care. And their radical Green New Deal."
It's the first mention of the Green New Deal in a TV ad this year. Democrats, keenly aware that the president won the district by 23 points in 2016, are holding their own primary between more centrist candidates. This race already looks like a test of whether, now that Nancy Pelosi has regained the speaker's gavel, Republican candidates can credibly run against "Washington" again.
Should the president have vetoed the resolution to overturn his declaration of a national emergency? (CNN/SSRS, 1,003 respondents)
No - 55%
Yes - 35%
The headline from this poll is a boost in the president's overall favorability numbers — still underwater, but with negatives down to 52 percent. The story, however, is in the crosstab, where for the umpteenth time the president has taken an immigration stance opposed by most of the country that is detracting from the goodwill generated by the growing economy. Like the shutdown, the emergency declaration has (perhaps temporarily) allowed Democrats to forge ahead without any internal debate on immigration; it's enough for them to attack the White House.
Do you have a favorable opinion of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? (Siena, 700 New York voters)
Favorable - 31%
Unfavorable - 43%
Is it strange that there have been more polls of the New York congresswoman's support this year than polls of Democratic primaries in any early state? Yes, though in fairness, Ocasio-Cortez has gotten more media coverage than most of the Democratic field. The numbers that jumped out to New York tabloids concern whether voters see the congresswoman as a "hero" or "villain" in the collapse of the state's tax credit deal for Amazon; every demographic, from upstate to city voters, from white to Latino, sees her more as a villain.
Ocasio-Cortez does better on the general favorability question; Democrats, liberals, voters in union households, New York City voters, voters who make less than $50,000, Latinos, and black voters all view her favorably. That suggests that her support diverges from what pollsters found for Bernie Sanders in 2016, when "AOC" worked for his campaign; he ran most strongly upstate and among white voters.
Do Democrats have a better chance of winning in 2020 with Bernie Sanders or someone else? (CNN/SSRS, 456 Democrats)
Bernie Sanders - 33%
Someone else - 56%
There is no bigger perception gap in Democratic politics than the one between Sanders supporters and everyone else on the question of whether, in 2016, "Bernie would have won." To the senator's voters, the answer is obvious: He would have broken the Trump coalition in the Midwest and taken the White House, as pre-election polling suggested. To supporters of other candidates, that doesn't scan: The self-identified "democratic socialist," who was 75 on Election Day 2016, would have had his own struggles.
At the moment, most Democratic voters remain skeptical that Sanders is electable, and another question in this poll puts his net favorability with all voters at just three points — his weakest number since March 2016. Joe Biden's detractors are convinced that former vice president's numbers will fall if he gets into the race. Sanders supporters, who can cite older polls to call him the "most popular politician in America," can't see the same happening to their candidate. Since December, he has inched up from 14 to 20 percent in the national trial heat. But as this newsletter will always point out, there is no national primary.
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Florida. Four months ago, Florida voters amended their constitution to restore voting rights to felons who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes. Ever since, activists who passed the measure — which won by a landslide, across every congressional district — have been fretting about an end run from the Republican-led legislature.
Their worries have come true in a new House bill that would snatch voting rights back from Floridians if they have not paid every "financial obligation arising from a felony conviction." As Lawrence Mowrer reports, that is stricter in some ways than the old, pre-Amendment 4 system, which only required that felons pay what courts had ordered in criminal judgments, after which they could apply to get their rights restored . The new language would put felons on the hook for court fees or even drug tests; if they had not paid those bills, they could no longer vote.
The bill advanced through the relevant House committee Tuesday, though it would need to pass the House, and for companion legislation to pass the Senate, to become law before the next election. As written, though, the law would pull some ex-felons who have already registered, and voted, back off the rolls.
Bernie Sanders. He announced a round of top-level hires that included everyone from veterans of his 2016 bid (Claire Sandberg) to outside grassroots organizers (Winnie Wong, now a political adviser), to journalists who had written critically of his opponents (Briahna Joy Gray, David Sirota). The new hires mean that his top political staff is mostly female — the sort of change from 2016 that he previewed when he began talking about another run.
Beto O'Rourke. He's visiting every New Hampshire county from Tuesday through Thursday.
Pete Buttigieg. He is slowly making his way through the first four primary states, arriving in South Carolina on Saturday for a four-stop swing.
Andrew Yang. He told the Daily Beast that he opposes male circumcision; in unrelated news, he is spending the rest of this week in New Hampshire, focusing on visits to small towns.
Seth Moulton. He's spending the middle of the week in South Carolina; at an early afternoon news conference, he said he was looking for the "best way to serve this country," not ruling out a run for president.
Abortion questions. It's been seven short weeks since Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a pediatrician, told a radio interviewer what happens in cases "where there may be severe deformities [or] a fetus that’s nonviable.” That sparked an ongoing effort, mostly by Republicans, to criminalize late-term abortions and to ask Democrats a brutal question: Did they really believe that infants were not entitled to life?
That effort has stalled out in Congress, but we're beginning to see the question on the campaign trail. One small problem: Nobody really knows how to ask it. Yesterday, at Rep. Max Rose's town hall in New York, a constituent asked about "abortion survivors" legislation and what Rose favored "if a child survived an abortion." Rose quickly found a route around the question.
"Somewhere today in New York City, a doctor is delivering very difficult information to a pregnant woman," Rose said. "That information is: Your own health, your life, is in danger as a consequence of your pregnancy. If you think I'm going to get in the middle of that discussion between her and her doctor, you're out of your damn mind."
Rose and the constituent were talking past each other, but Rose had described a position that most voters share: Abortion should be legal through the third trimester of pregnancy if, and only if, the mother's life is in danger.
The same day that exchange occurred, Beto O'Rourke got a specific question about third-trimester abortions, with the questioner trying to close any escape hatch. "There's really not a medical necessity," she said. "If there was an emergency, the doctors would just do a C-section."
O'Rourke responded by rephrasing the question, saying it was about abortion writ large. "That should be a decision a woman makes," he said. Pressed again, in Pennsylvania, he said that third-trimester abortion was "best left to a woman and her doctor."
What's missing here — and what conservatives have wanted for a long time — is a sustained round of questions about when abortion should or should not be legal. Failing that, it's easy for Democrats to divert the question to say they won't intervene in personal decisions.
Amendment-mania! On Monday night, Elizabeth Warren became the second declared Democratic candidate for president to call for the end of the electoral college.
"Get rid of the electoral college and everybody counts," Warren said on CNN. "I think everybody ought to have to come and ask for your vote."
The negative responses to this came in two forms. One was a defense of the electoral college as an institution, usually focused on the idea that it boosts the influence of rural voters. The second was the simple point that Warren was calling for a constitutional amendment, which would need to be ratified by two-thirds of the states and therefore probably couldn't happen.
One day later, it was time for another potential amendment — one that would cap the number of Supreme Court justices at nine. Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), a freshman conservative, announced that he would be introducing the amendment because "the Supreme Court must remain a fair and impartial branch of government not beholden to party."
That amendment would, of course, have to run the same state gauntlet as Warren's hypothetical amendment. Warren's statement emphasized just how hard it would be to end the electoral college; Green's, ironically, was a reminder that the Constitution says nothing about the number of Supreme Court justices. (It also doesn't cap the size of the House of Representatives.)
The Beto-lash. In every recent poll, Bernie Sanders is either leading or narrowly behind potential candidate Joe Biden in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire. Beto O'Rourke is far behind. But the news that journalist David Sirota would be joining the Sanders campaign as "senior communications advisor and speechwriter" reignited a fight that gripped Twitter in December.
The gist, as best explained by Edward-Isaac Dovere: Sirota had been advising Sanders informally for an unknown period of time, but at least several months. That overlaps with the period when Sirota had published tweets and Guardian pieces about the problematic records of other potential presidential candidates, including a viral story about O'Rourke's voting record and several widely shared attacks on Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker.
Sanders, as Dovere noted, has criticized negative campaigning, has said he will run no negative ads against Democratic opponents and has sent a letter to campaign surrogates discouraging them from making nasty attacks. It's worth nothing here that Sanders's own definition of negative campaigning allows for policy contrasts, as Hillary Clinton's team discovered when Sanders began attacking her paid speeches to Wall Street in 2016. While Sirota has been sarcastic or abrasive on social media, the content of his pieces about Sanders's rivals doesn't clash with the candidate's standards.
Sirota is no longer commenting about his work or the campaign, but the intramural feuding here could last for a while. Sanders himself does not make personal attacks, but he has benefited (most of the time) from a rowdy, active, and Extremely Online following that happily attacks other Democratic candidates.
"Into America’s Spiritual Void With Marianne Williamson," by Katherine Miller
The "spiritual guru" to celebrities and politicians has been campaigning in early states as much as any other Democrat. So who is she, really?
"The Politics of Beto and Amy O'Rourke's Marriage," by Ben Terris
The Texas candidate's wealthy, upwardly mobile family never became a political issue during his Senate race. It has since he began exploring a bid for president, with Republicans beginning to accuse O'Rourke of marrying into money. The story's a lot more interesting than that.
"Stacey Abrams for... governor? Senate? Veep? President?" by Rebecca Traister
The tug-of-war over one of the Democratic Party's most-liked (internally, at least) politicians is not over.
... eight days until Cory Booker gets his own CNN town hall
... 214 days until Democratic candidates are invited to participate in a LGBT forum, on Coming Out Day