In this edition: Democratic pledge fatigue, the Kavanaugh wars return in Wisconsin, and the DCCC gets tough.

I wonder if the Democrats' decision to hold a debate in Florida gives Wayne Messam an unfair advantage, and this is The Trailer.

DURHAM, N.H. — Wherever Beto O’Rourke went in New Hampshire, he got versions of the same question: When would he agree not to take money from the fossil fuel industry?

He got it in Keene, telling activists that he couldn’t sign a short “fossil fuel pledge” that didn’t have “facts on it.” He got it in Durham, where he turned the question around to emphasize how he was turning down all money from PACs.

Neither answer was of much use to the New Hampshire Youth Movement, which had been meticulously showing up at events and recording the candidates’ answers to this and other sticky questions.

“We’re trying to create content that will go viral,” said Sam Tardiff, 22, an organizer with the NHYM. “You can be beholden to big donor money just like you can be beholden to PAC money.”

But to Tardiff’s surprise, O’Rourke’s punt on the fossil fuel pledge did not get much of a reaction. While eight Democratic candidates have signed the fossil fuel pledge, several have blanched at a promise to turn down donations of more than $200 from people who work in that industry. As the candidate field expands, there are signs that the left's remarkable progress from 2016, which has reshaped the party's positions on everything from health insurance to border security, is starting to meet resistance.

The fossil fuel pledge, a project of the environmental group Oil Change U.S., is one example. O'Rourke has a unique and checkered history with the pledge, signing it during his 2018 Senate campaign, while his Republican opponent Ted Cruz accused him of trying to kill the industry with tax hikes. After the campaign, as O'Rourke began to consider a run for president, the investigative news site Sludge found that he'd taken scores of donations of more than $200 from people employed in the industry, leading him to be removed from their list of pledge takers.

“While it's great to turn down PAC money, fossil fuel executives are playing a long game with their donations,” said David Turnbull, a spokesman for Oil Change U.S. “So it's great to see candidates express support for the Green New Deal and the Paris accords, but they need to be clear that they will also ramp down fossil fuel production in a just way.”

But other candidates have said that the demand to turn down any amount of money from employees of the industry made no sense. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, one of the few Democratic candidates who has not discouraged a super PAC created to help him, told The Trailer this month that candidates who reject super PACs out of hand “are not as committed to defeating climate change as I am.” (Inslee has committed his own campaign to the fossil fuel pledge.) Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper told The Trailer in an interview that candidates who didn't take the pledge, like him, were just as interested as anyone in fighting climate change; ensuring compliance would involve a lot of paperwork for the amount of money, he said. 

“To say you’re not going to take money from executives of industries? We’re not going to go there,” Hickenlooper said. “We’ve demonstrated pretty clearly that we’re not in anybody’s hip pocket. In Colorado, we’re the ones who got the oil and gas industry to address fugitive carbon emissions. We got them to pay more than people ever dreamed they would.”

Hickenlooper, who has faced down environmental activists for years over their opposition to fracking, was never a likely contender to take this pledge. But the grumbling about demands to turn down big money is getting louder, after candidates who thought they had met the standard — no corporate PAC money — have taken heat simply for attracting individual donors, whose giving is limited to $2,700 in a primary campaign. The pledge does not make a distinction between lower-level employees and executives. 

“The importance of money is really whether it compromises you on our issues,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is hosting most of the Democratic field in New York next week for the annual meeting of his National Action Network. “But you could raise all your money online, and it could be tilted toward a class dynamic. Online donors do not necessarily make up a diversified body of people. So, are they watering down their positions because they know the dynamics that get money online?”

In recent weeks, a few Democrats have also shot warning flares about the sorts of issues becoming litmus tests in party forums. Questions about reparations for the descendants of slaves, which were brought into the debate by the hosts of the popular radio show the Breakfast Club, strike Democrats as the kind of material Republicans would weaponize in a general election. They saw something similar happen in 2018, as O'Rourke was asked a question about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

“While the Twitterverse seems to scream at any candidate who is not absolutist, voters at town halls and coffee houses in primary states are focused on substantive solutions to problems as they focus on electability,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress. “Voters seem focused on bold and practical solutions — not one to the exclusion of the other.”

Democrats have begun to push back or reframe the reparations question, as Cory Booker (N.J.) did during a CNN town hall Wednesday. “Can I tell you why I'm frustrated and disappointed by this reparations conversation? It's because it's being reduced to just a box to check on a presidential list when this is so much more of a serious conversation,” Booker said, to applause. “So, do I support legislation that is race conscious about balancing the economic scales? Not only do I support it, but I have legislation that actually does it.”

For some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), his positions are litmus tests for the rest of the field — and other candidates come up short. From the 2016 meetings over the Democratic Party's platform to his rollouts of Medicare-for-all and minimum-wage legislation, Sanders has gotten most of the Democratic field on board with his issues, if not the exact details.  

“Those ideas that we talked about four years ago that seemed so very radical at that time — well, today, virtually all of those ideas are supported by a majority of the American people and have overwhelming support from Democrats and independents,” Sanders says in his stump speech. “They're ideas that Democratic candidates from school board to president are now supporting.”

But as they've campaigned, Democrats including Booker and fellow Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) have faced criticism from Sanders supporters for supporting incremental approaches to these policies, saying that their endorsement of a Medicare-for-all plan, for example, does not rule out the passage of bills that would expand Medicare while leaving private insurance intact. On Tuesday night, Sanders told MSNBC's Chris Hayes that he was not interested in incremental bills so long as any Democratic bill was blocked in the Senate anyway.

“You are not going to be able in the long run to have cost-effective universal health care unless you change the system, unless you get rid of the insurance companies, unless you stand up the greed of the drug companies and lower prescription drug costs,” Sanders said.

It had the feeling of a litmus test — but one no other Democrat looks ready to sign on to.

READING LIST

"House GOP leader McCarthy sought to deter Trump from pursuing destruction of Obamacare,” by Rachael Bade, Josh Dawsey and John Wagner 

An essential inside look into the confusion gripping Republicans: Why, in the triumphant wake of the Barr letter, did the White House decide to throw its weight behind a lawsuit to blow up the Affordable Care Act? A key detail: “Trump relayed to Senate Republicans that he had come up with a slogan — 'Republicans are the party of health care' — on the short ride over from the White House to the Capitol.”

“The human costs of Kamala Harris's war on truancy,” by Molly Redden

A policy that punished Bay Area parents if their children skipped school has come under scrutiny since Kamala Harris — who enforced the policy — became a candidate for president. So, what do the parents themselves say?

“A job-scarce town struggles with Arkansas’s first-in-nation Medicaid work rules,” by Amy Goldstein

The boldest health-care experiment of the Trump era is signing off on waivers that allow states to require that Medicaid recipients prove that they're working. The predictable result: nasty surprises when people who had been getting benefits learn that they lose them. The policy just lost in court, but it isn't going away.

POLL WATCH

Does the Mueller report exonerate Trump and his campaign of any collusion with Russia? (CNN/SSRS, 701 voters)

Yes — 43%
No — 56%

The early reports on Attorney General William Barr's summary of the Mueller investigation gave the president his best news coverage in months, perhaps years — a story of partial vindication and of Democratic opponents briefly back on their heels. For some conservatives, the rush was comparable to the one from election night in 2016.

But a few days in, there's not much evidence that the memo is moving voters. A supermajority of them still want to see the entire report, which Democrats support and which Republicans (with some exceptions) want to make conditional on a new probe of the FBI or the Clinton campaign. Most voters continue to believe that something happened between the Trump campaign and foreign operatives, who, if they did not actually collude, repeatedly rattled the Clinton campaign and voters with hacked emails. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans believe that the president was exonerated, but no other demographic thinks so.

Would you support replacing the Electoral College with direct popular vote? (Quinnipiac, 1,358 voters)

Support — 54%
Oppose — 39%

Democrats running for president have increasingly embraced the idea of scrapping the electoral college; Republicans, who have won two elections in this century while losing the popular vote, have portrayed this as the latest event in the party's radicalization. But seven years of Quinnipiac polls on the question have found majority support for ending the electoral college. Support peaked at 60 percent in 2012; that was when even Donald Trump, a private citizen who had opposed President Barack Obama's reelection, called the system a “disaster.”

Much like public opinion of the Barr memo, we're seeing views on something that is helpful to Trump track pretty closely with his approval ratings; at this point, support for the system that elected Trump in 2016 is strongest among Trump supporters and weak among everyone else.

 

Iowa Democratic caucuses (Focus on Rural America, 500 caucus-goers)

Joe Biden — 25%
Bernie Sanders — 17%
Kamala Harris — 9%
Elizabeth Warren — 8%
Cory Booker — 7%
Beto O’Rourke — 6%
Pete Buttigieg — 6%
Amy Klobuchar — 6%
John Delaney — 3%
Julian Castro — 1%
Jay Inslee — 1%
Tulsi Gabbard — 1%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1%
Eric Swalwell — 1%
Steve Bullock — 1%

This Democratic-aligned poll has conducted more trial heats in Iowa than anyone, and a few patterns have emerged. One: Biden’s support, which has fallen from 37 percent six months ago, has been eaten away as other candidates enter the race and become better known. Two: Sanders has risen by single digits despite the entry of other candidates who agree with him on some key issues, including Warren and Gabbard. Three: The lesser-known candidates who are younger than Biden and Sanders combine for 50 percent support, up from 34 percent six months ago and 43 percent three months ago. Strategists for the cluster of younger Democrats took note when an Iowa poll (conducted by CNN, the Des Moines Register and Mediacom) found more than a third of caucusgoers believing that the “time had passed” for Biden and Sanders; there is a long-term race to be the candidate who consolidates voters who consider the front-runners too old.

TURNOUT WATCH

South Carolina. On Tuesday, Republicans easily held onto the state's 6th state Senate district, which covers the traditionally conservative suburbs north of Greenville. Democrats, who had not contested the seat since it was drawn in 2011, showed some of the suburban strength that had powered their 2018 wins. But the margin can be better explained by apathy than by any real swing.

Republican Dwight Loftis, a longtime state legislator, won 55.6 percent of the vote to hold the seat over Tina Belge, a young Democrat making her first bid for office. Total turnout was paltry, at 7,979 votes — down from 37,288 votes when the seat was contested in 2016. And Loftis won fewer total votes — 4,439 — than were cast in the sleepy winter primary.

The result was a race as close as the 2018 gubernatorial election in the district and 20 points closer than the 2016 election there. It was nonetheless short of what Democrats were shooting for. They targeted more than 10,000 voters who had some history of backing Democrats and, had half of them turned out, the party would have won an upset. The hyper-charged Democratic turnout of 2017 in state races is not showing up this year; Republican turnout isn't lighting many fires, either.

AD WATCH

Wisconsin Supreme Court. The next election for a seat on the state's closely divided high court is Tuesday; Democrats' 2018 victory in a race for this office was a preview of their good year down the ballot. This year's campaign follows the same playbook, with the liberal Greater Wisconsin Action Fund attacking conservative candidate Brian Hagedorn as “unfit” to serve on the court. “Brian Hagedorn personally pocketed thousands from an anti-gay hate group,” the ad warns, an attack on the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom.

Republicans, who have been badly outspent in this race, are on the air via the Republican State Leadership Committee with an ad that could tell us more about the politics of 2019. Rather than defending Hagedorn as an impartial judge, the ad says that “extreme” groups are spreading “false attacks” against Hagedorn, “just as they did against Justice Kavanaugh.” The president is unpopular in Wisconsin, but this is the first example we've seen of the “remember Kavanaugh” card being used to rouse base voters in a special, off-year election. 

Pennsylvania state Senate. The legacy of last year's special House race, won by Rep. Conor Lamb (D), lives on in the Pittsburgh exurbs. The 37th state Senate district opened up last year when Guy Reschenthaler (R) won a newly drawn, Republican-leaning seat in Congress. Reschenthaler had run for, and lost, the party's nomination in the Lamb race; Pam Iovino, the Democratic recruit for Reschenthaler's open seat, had run and lost the Democratic nomination to Lamb. 

Democrats had held this seat until 2015, and Iovino has run a campaign based on her personal story as a Navy veteran who could bust through party lines. The Republican response has been to tie her to national party figures, starting with an ad that compared her to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and continuing with this spot, in which the faces of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo float across the screen. The message: Iovino might well support late-term abortion and the denial of care for unviable fetuses after they're delivered. “Radicals like Iovino even support taxpayer funded late-term abortions,” the ad says.

“The ads do not support my position,” Iovino has said. This election is also April 2.

IN THE STATES

New York. For the first time in more than a decade, the state government in Albany is negotiating a budget with only Democrats in the room; the party swept into control of the state Senate last year. That has made this year's first major legislative session a target for campaign reform activists, who have watched their ideas get shot down again and again. 

The issue to watch — the one that has become a small issue in the national Democratic primary — is public financing of elections. “New York could be on the road to #FairElections this week,” Elizabeth Warren tweeted Monday. “Hope this passes in the state budget.” That made her the first 2020 candidate to embrace New York's version of public financing, by far the most contested part of the package. Just three states — Arizona, Connecticut and Maine — offer “clean elections” plans such as this. New York, if it adopted the system, would more than double the amount of voters who live under public financing.

DEBATE SEASON

It's official: the Democratic presidential field will meet for their first debates in Miami on June 26 and 27, days ahead of the end of the second fundraising quarter. The hosts will be NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo — one outstanding question was whether that cluster of networks or CNN would get the first bite. 

The standards for entering these debates were rolled out in January, with contenders needing to score above 1 percent in three polls and/or get donations from more than 65,000 supporters by debate night. As of right now, those standards would let eight declared candidates onto the stage: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang. (Joe Biden, if he enters the race, would also meet the polling criteria.) Every other campaign has some kind of campaign going to push above the donor limit; when the field is set, the candidates in each prime-time debate are to be decided by lottery.

2020

There's a bit less action on the trail through this weekend, with campaigns racing toward the end of the first fundraising quarter. 

Joe Biden. On Tuesday, he apologized again for his handling of the 1991 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, saying of Anita Hill that “to this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved.” Biden has repeatedly expressed those sentiments about Hill, who has said that he has yet to apologize to her personally. At the same time, Biden allies continue to scout for staff in early states.

Elizabeth Warren. She has introduced the Presidential Conflicts of Interest Act, which would require the president, the vice president and their family members to divest from all financial interests before taking office.

John Delaney. Ahead of his next early-state tour, he rolled out a plan to cut prescription drug prices via a "100 percent excise tax on the difference between the cost charged in the United States and the average cost in the developed world."

Kamala Harris. She's addressing the Human Rights Campaign's Saturday night dinner in her home state; in the do-or-die state of South Carolina, she announced the endorsements of three state legislators.

Amy Klobuchar. She's making at least three stops in Iowa from Friday through Saturday, including an appearance at the Heartland Forum in Storm Lake; en route, she unveiled a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Marianne Williamson. She's spending three days moving across South Carolina, having started with a community conversation on reparations for the descendants of slaves.

Howard Schultz. He'll close out the nonpartisan Unrig summit Sunday; no other presidential candidate is appearing at the three-day gathering of government reform activists.

Wayne Messam. The mayor of Miramar, Fla., will officially announce his bid for president Saturday, at the state's first historically black college.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

It's been a week since the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced a new condition for vendors, saying that the House Democrats' reelection group would “not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns, any consultant that works with an opponent of a sitting Member of the House Democratic Caucus.” 

The fallout is showing us just how many blows the DCCC is willing to withstand to solve an issue in which it sees itself as the aggrieved party — the effort by liberal and left-leaning groups to oust incumbent members of Congress. On Wednesday, the issue flared up in a meeting between DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose membership swelled after the 2018 elections.

“We made the point to Cheri that Nancy Pelosi, and [2015-2019 DCCC chair] Ben Ray Lujan never adopted such a heavy handed policy,” the CPC leaders said in a statement after the meeting. “Ben Ray Lujan in particular had a much kinder and more inclusive approach. This unprecedented grab of power is a slap in the face of Democratic voters across the nation. It’s something even Rahm Emanuel would not have done and is totally tone deaf to the grassroots activists across our nation.”

Bustos used the meeting to dispel some worries about the standards; fundraising vendors including ActBlue, per the DCCC, were not affected by the new language; the DCCC would not punish vendors who worked for insurgent candidates in open-seat primaries. In a statement, the DCCC said that the new policy backs up Bustos's pledge to protect members; this “follows through on that exact promise and will protect all Members of the Democratic Caucus.”

But the messy fight comes at a crucial time for Democrats — and 11 months before any primaries. It has been four months since Justice Democrats, which helped elect (and recruit) Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N, Y.), announced that it would be working to primary more Democrats in safe seats. It's been two months since a coalition led by Justice Democrats announced plans to primary Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.). So far, no candidate had jumped in, and some strategists working on potential primary challengers have said that the vendor rule is inspiring some second thoughts.

The fight among Democrats is not about swing districts. After 2018, when Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) were the only insurgent candidates who unseated incumbents, the Justice Democrats plan has focused on safe seats, to reshape the party without giving Republicans any openings.

“The primaries we’re seeing aren’t in swing districts,” said Suraj Patel, who lost a 2018 bid to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and is considering a rematch in 2020. “They’re in safe blue districts with out-of-touch incumbents, so they’re not putting the majority in jeopardy, they’re making the party better and more responsive. It’s hypocritical to talk about democracy reform and pass HR1 on the one hand and then purposefully stifle competition in the other.”

In their statement, the CPC's leaders said that the DCCC, in the interest of preserving the majority, will alienate future leaders. “If this policy remains in place it will mean that we will not allow new Ayanna Pressleys or AOCs to emerge,” they wrote. “The DCCC is acting as a monopoly by saying that anyone who does business with them can’t do business with any competition. It’s the classic antitrust violation and an unfair restraint on trade. Many progressives in Congress will fight until this rule is changed.”

Left unsaid: A major factor that helped insurgent candidates in 2018 was also snuffed out by the midterm elections. Until the Democrats' 41-seat pickup that year, insurgent left groups argued that the Washington business model was failing; the Washington consultant class was more interested in full employment than in winning, they argued.

Plenty of factors went into the party's 2018 surge — many driven by the grass roots, not Washington. But with Democrats in command of the House, it's gotten harder for insurgents to argue that the party is failing. Bustos is backed up by a House speaker whose support from grass-roots activists and members has grown since 2018.

“I support the chairwoman,” Pelosi said Thursday of Bustos.

Rachael Bade contributed reporting.

COUNTDOWN

. . . two days until four Democratic presidential candidates participate in a rural policy forum in Iowa
. . . four days until eight Democratic presidential candidates address the SEIU's “We the People” forum in Washington
. . . 90 days until the first Democratic presidential debates