In this edition: Klobuchar on the trail, Joe Biden on trial, and the latest in the daily Democratic civil wars.
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HORNICK, Iowa — Amy Klobuchar wanted to know everything about the flood that had breached the levees around this town of 219 people. She asked Hornick's 47-year-old mayor, Scott Mitchell, about the evacuation. She described how flood plain towns in her state had rebuilt. She marveled at how Mitchell's 13-year-old daughter, Becca, had helped her father without thinking of herself.
“You got his shoes and not yours?” Klobuchar asked Becca Mitchell. “What did you lose? It must be hard.”
As Klobuchar walked away, Becca overheard her father get asked why a presidential candidate from Minnesota had come to their town.
“She's a senator?” said Becca. “You just called her 'Amy'! I didn't know she was a senator!”
Klobuchar's unfussy, neighborly approach to retail politics, which has powered her to three landslide victories in a swing state, is being adapted to early-voting primary states. She doesn't pull in the crowds like fellow senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren; she doesn't aim for the rafters with her stump speech, like former congressman Beto O'Rourke or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Voters in Iowa this weekend met a presidential candidate who's running like she's already their senator.
Here's what it looks like.
“K-L-O-B-U-C-H-A-R.” There are half a dozen Democrats running for president who fill VFW halls or city squares or public parks. Klobuchar is not one of those Democrats. Her audiences are rapt and curious but small. Her Friday night visit to Council Bluffs, which took place in the same venue and time of day as Warren's first visit to the city, attracted 75 people. Warren had pulled in several hundred people, with her crowd spilling into the parking lot.
This, according to Klobuchar, was something she could work with. In Council Bluffs, when a reporter said that the senator was at 3 percent in a CNN poll of Iowa, Klobuchar noted that another poll had her at 6 percent, and, well, it was March.
“You have two candidates out front and the rest of us pretty bunched together,” she said, referring to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. “Having met with Jimmy Carter, watching how Bill Clinton won, I think Iowans are pretty open to candidates and like to listen to smart new ideas. They also want to meet somebody who can win.”
Carter's upset 1976 victory began with a win (technically, a second-place finish to “uncommitted”) in the first Iowa caucuses; Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, repeatedly written off, was rescued by a strong second place in New Hampshire after a weak showing in Iowa. But Iowa is a do-or-die state for Klobuchar. She's been seen as a prospective presidential candidate for years — her memoir hit shelves in 2015 — and she has quietly made trip after trip to Midwestern Democratic dinners.
Klobuchar has cultivated a sort of anti-star power, as if it would be wrong for a crowd to start venerating her. She made seven campaign stops in Iowa from Friday through Saturday; she delivered political remarks at only three of them. In the small city of Stanton, she offered most of an hour to locals describing what they needed to bring broadband to northwest Iowa. In Hornick, she patiently waited for local TV networks to finish interviewing the mayor, then was asked by Siouxland reporters how to spell her name.
“I'm here to look at damage from the flood,” she explained.
“I took the lead.” Klobuchar, alone among the Democratic senators running for president, has not sponsored “Medicare-for-all” legislation. She has not endorsed the legalization of marijuana. She has not endorsed free tuition at all public colleges. She does not demean the colleagues who have endorsed all that; she just argues that she knows how to pass bills. The goal of universal coverage can be met by starting to expand the Affordable Care Act once there's a good, bipartisan deal to let the government negotiate drug prices, she says.
Klobuchar frequently calls herself a “progressive” before explaining how she came early to an issue or built a coalition when no one else could. She jokes about the conversations it took to get Republican co-sponsors for her bills. In Council Bluffs, she spent some time recalling how Ted Stevens, the late senator from Alaska, was talked into backing legislation that tackled swimming pool safety: “He said, 'Well, I used to be a lifeguard, and we don’t have a lot of pools in Alaska, so I’ll help you.' "
In Sioux City, she smiled through a lengthy question about opioids, bristling a bit when asked whether she would support a new bipartisan bill to tackle the problem.
“I was the lead on an opioid bill along with three other senators, including [Rhode Island Sen.] Sheldon Whitehouse — the original opioid bill, that saw this as the hazard it was, four years ago,” Klobuchar said. “Everyone was patting us on our heads, and telling Sheldon and me, 'Oh, how nice, you're working on this.' And then they realized how bad it was.” (Indeed, multiple Klobuchar bills on the opioid crisis have become law, while generating few national headlines for her.)
There is not much flash when Klobuchar describes her Senate record; the audience is encouraged to listen between the notes. Early-state voters are going to hear from close to two dozen candidates with plans; the subtext of nearly everything Klobuchar says is that she actually executed plans because she didn't obsess over the optics or credit, unlike a certain person in the White House.
“I'm the first presidential candidate to put out a big infrastructure plan, $1 trillion,” Klobuchar said in Sioux City. “The president said that he would, and he didn't deliver.”
“I can win.” More than any of the senators running for president, Klobuchar puts “electability” — the concept that voters say they hate, then prioritize in public polls — at the center of her pitch. Every audience learns that she was voted “the most effective Democratic senator” in a study from Vanderbilt University. Most audiences also get a rundown of her win record in Minnesota, in detail, with everything but a handout map.
“If you haven't noticed, by just looking across the border, I can win,” Klobuchar told voters in Sioux City. In 2018, Klobuchar said, she “did the same thing I do all the time,” going “not just where it's comfortable, but where it's uncomfortable,” to help Democrats sweep the state.
“I won back 40 Trump counties, okay?” she said to applause. “For the third time I won every single congressional district in our state, including Michele Bachmann's old district. Most important to those of us that want a progressive agenda and want to get things done, we won not just my race, [appointed Sen.] Tina Smith won her race, the governor won his race, we went up and down the entire ticket, and we flipped the House.” (Left unsaid: Minnesota Democrats gained two suburban seats in the House of Representatives, while narrowly losing two rural seats that they'd held for years.)
Among the other Democrats running for president, only Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York says more about how she won voters who rejected other candidates from her party and how she changed minds. The key difference between the two senators is that Gillibrand has a narrative of personal evolution, moving left on big issues; Klobuchar describes a career with goals and wins and no real ideological baggage. She closed her trip with the longest (and arguably best-received) presentation of the four presidential candidates at a Heartland Forum, describing her goal of breaking up corporate agricultural consolidation by saying that the Midwest had led on that issue until the companies moved them aside.
“Many, many years ago, there was a movement that started here in Iowa — and Minnesota — called the Granger movement,” she said. “Farmers felt that they weren't getting the right price for their goods, because you had monopoly railroad companies, and you had monopolists in iron ore. And this movement started where? In Iowa! In Minnesota! People said: 'We want to see a change in our laws.' We see the same thing today.”
Other candidates describe the same struggle between laborers and corporations in dramatic terms; Klobuchar describes a tradition that she wants to pick up and take to the presidency. No voters asked about the stories of how Klobuchar treated her Senate staff, stories that hamstrung the start of her race. Their questions focused more on whether she could restore the kinder, more familiar country they lost in 2016 — one where politicians did not have to be celebrities.
There were signs this weekend that the ad hoc nature of the Texan's 2018 run — one of the reasons he garnered so much coverage — is being replaced by a more buttoned-down presidential campaign. There may be no other way for him to do it.
"In Iowa, Democrats make pitch to rural voters," by Annie Linskey and Cleve R. Wootson, Jr.
It didn't get all the headlines this week, but many leading Democrats rolled out infrastructure and agriculture plans, and four of them discussed them in person in the first caucus state; Bernie Sanders, who did not make the trip himself, rolled out plans in an op-ed.
"Latino outreach or Google Translate?" by Jesús Rodríguez
Honestly, just read it. (Sinceramente, solo léelo.)
“With social program fights, some Republicans fear being seen as the party of the 1 percent,“ by Robert Costa and Mike DeBonis
The president's party continues to reel from the administration's move to sue the Affordable Care Act out of existence with no popular (or even finished) replacement on offer.
STORM LAKE, Iowa — When former Nevada legislator Lucy Flores published a story about how Joe Biden planted an “awkward kiss” on the back of her head in 2014, Democrats sounded disturbed — but not quite shocked. Videos and photos of the former vice president putting his hands on women's shoulders or whispering in their ears had circulated for years, with conservative media especially focused on it.
In a Sunday morning statement, Biden said he had offered “countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort” in his career and never thought he’d acted inappropriately. “We have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention,” he said. “And I will.”
But more surprising than the story, or Biden's reaction, was how quickly several presidential candidates spoke up for Flores. At press gaggles Friday and Saturday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she believed Flores, as did Julián Castro. On Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who had once beseeched an audience member to “focus on the bloody issues” instead of asking about Bill Clinton's sex scandals — said that he had “no reason not to believe Lucy” and that the story revealed “that we need to fundamentally change the nature of this country.” (Flores endorsed Sanders's 2016 campaign but is neutral in this one.)
This may have been a watershed moment — the first time in this campaign that some 2020 contenders have been comfortable criticizing the former vice president, and by extension arguing for a break from the Obama administration.
The Obama-Biden legacy is one of the least-examined factors in the Democratic primary, mostly because it's assumed that Democrats will not question it. In polls of Democrats, the 44th president's favorable rating is in the high 90s.
But across the backdrop of the Biden-Flores story, some Democrats spent the weekend sketching out ways that they'd win back voters who were alienated by the Obama-Biden administration, implicitly pointing out ways in which they see the most popular living Democratic president as having stumbled. At Saturday's Heartland forum, after being prodded by HuffPost reporter Zach Carter, Warren suggested that the next Democrat to take office needed to build and sustain an organization, or they would stumble just as the Obama Democrats had.
“We will build the kind of grass-roots movement that come 2021 will really make the changes we need,” Warren said. “We must make those big structural changes when we win, to make sure that no one like Donald Trump ever wins again.”
Some Democrats in the audience pointed to specific ways in which the Obama administration squandered the promise and broad public support it started with in ways that hurt the party.
“One of the things that frustrated people was that Obama talked about reforming contract farming and making sure that farmers aren’t just completely annihilated,” said J.D. Scholten, the party's unsuccessful 2018 candidate against Rep. Steve King, who has become a sort of rural guru for visiting candidates. “That didn’t end up happening. The administration didn’t solve these issues. That, and the absence of campaigning in rural areas, led to the result in 2016.”
Still, criticizing Biden's behavior came easier to Democrats than making a systemic critique of the administration he was part of. Castro, the only Obama veteran in the race, pushed back against a question that asked whether the administration’s failures led to the decline of American life expectancy.
“You’re saying: What went wrong because the life expectancy of the country went down the last year of the administration?” Castro asked. “I would reject the premise of the question, that somehow the Obama administration alone was responsible for that trend.”
But when he considered how to change that, Castro began talking about “Medicare-for-all” — a policy that goes further than anything Obama advocated in office and further than anything Biden has said in his months considering one more bid for the White House. Every aspect of the Biden pitch, from his personal appeal to the wisdom of Democrats running on nostalgia for the Obama years, is being tested.
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Does the information available from the Mueller report clear Donald Trump? (NBC/WSJ, 505 adults)
No — 40%
Unsure — 31%
Yes — 29%
One week ago, dramatic music and slightly less dramatic chyrons announced the end of the two-year probe into the Trump 2016 campaign and Russian intervention in that election. The most popular takeaway — that the Trump presidency got a reprieve and a reboot — has not really been showing up in polls. This completes a loop of major national polls that find support for the president basically flat — here, it has dipped a few points — and views of the investigation itself locked into partisan views of the administration.
Should Democrats continue to investigate whether Trump interfered with the investigation? (Washington Post/Schar School, 640 adults)
Yes — 49%
No — 48%
The only real movement we've seen on the Russia question is this — some voter uneasiness about Democrats continuing the investigation in Congress. At the same time, in the same poll, just 39 percent of voters believe that Democrats went “too far in accusing Trump of conspiring with Russians.” That throws some doubt on one of the most coordinated Republican responses to the investigation's end — the demand for Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to resign from the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. The idea that Mueller would end Trump's presidency has faded, but there's no evidence that the backlash to the investigation extends beyond supporters of the president.
Should Democrats focus on protecting the ACA or on passing Medicare For All? (Kaiser, 550 Democrats)
Medicare for All — 49%
Protecting ACA — 41%
Democrats have watched the “Medicare-for-All” question get different answers for every way it’s asked, with a version of the idea — a quick phase-in of single-payer health care that ends the private insurance industry — becoming narrowly unpopular. But among Democratic voters, the Kaiser poll has seen support for replacing the current health-care system rising steadily since the start of 2017. (The Sanders version of the law would roll every American into one government health insurance plan within four years, though private, supplementary insurance would continue to exist.)
This is the first time that a majority of self-identified Democrats have said they prefer to see their party focus on universal health care rather than tweaking the ACA. The only caveat is that the surveys were conducted before the Trump administration announced that it would fully join the legal effort to get a court to overturn the law, a decision that has arranged elected Democrats (and 2020 candidates) in defense of Obamacare.
For the first time this year, the Republican Party lost a seat in a special legislative election — though it didn’t lose to Democrats.
On Saturday, Louisiana voters filled three open seats in the legislature: a safely blue seat around Monroe (only Democrats made the runoff), the swingy 18th district outside of Baton Rouge, and the Republican-held 62nd district north of that city.
In the 62nd House district, independent candidate Roy Adams defeated Republican nominee Dennis Aucoin, denying the GOP control of that seat for the first time since 1991. Adams and three Democrats had, together, won a majority of the vote in the all-party primary. But total turnout actually increased in the runoff, from 5,060 to 5,464, and Adams nearly doubled his vote while Aucoin added only a few hundred.
In the 18th, Democrats held onto what they had, but that wasn't a sure thing when the election was called. President Trump had carried the district by 18 points, and the Republican Party's nominee, Tammi Fabre, ran as an ally of the president. In a piece of direct mail shared on Twitter, Fabre celebrated the end of the Mueller investigation with a photo of Trump and the message "TRUMP TOTALLY EXONERATED." That was her closing message before a 2-to-1 defeat.
Democrats were more celebratory than usual about the numbers last night, for a simple reason: Later this year, Gov. Jon Bel Edwards (D) will seek a second term, after his landslide over disgraced former senator David Vitter in 2015. Republicans saw that election as a fluke, but the fact that Democratic margins Saturday tracked closer to the 2015 vote than the 2016 vote could speak to Edwards's political appeal.
If you see a presidential candidate campaigning near you today, they're doing it wrong: They should be raising money.
Tonight marks the end of the first fundraising quarter, the first real contest of candidate strength. It was Barack Obama's monster 2007 haul that convinced Democrats that he was a real competitor to Hillary Clinton; it was Mitt Romney's $23.4 million cash pile that positioned him as the 2012 Republican front-runner, a role he never really relinquished.
As Shane Goldmacher and Jonathan Martin report, everything's different now. The grass-roots success of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and his subsequent role in defining what the Democrats should stand for has cast a pall over candidates who are seen as relying on donors who can max out or bundle checks. In ads running across Facebook today, even candidates who have not stopped holding high-dollar fundraisers are portraying themselves as scrappers who want to depend on you, the average American.
“I knew I was taking a risk when I called on Al Franken to resign,” reads one ad, purchased by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's campaign. “But silence was not an option. Now I’m running for president to stand up for women, and I’m ready to share this vision on the debate stage. But the first public FEC filing is just days away, and Democratic megadonors are blacklisting me because I refused to stay silent.”
Spend any time on Facebook, and you'll see commercials that look nearly identical — Democrat after Democrat looking into a camera in a nondescript setting. Julián Castro is asking donors for at least $10, saying “my spot on [the debate] stage isn't guaranteed unless I reach 65,000 donors.” Jay Inslee's campaign says much the same thing: “Jay's ready to make climate change front and center on the debate stage, but to get there he needs your support.”
The campaigns do not need 65,000 donors by midnight tonight to make that debate — several Democrats, such as Joe Biden, are considering waiting until April or later to announce. But it's become the most common small-donor pitch, which was one of the party's expectations when it set that debate rule. The next two weeks are likely to focus almost as much on the number of individual donors to campaigns as on the total fundraising haul; you could see a situation where some campaigns put up more money, and get scorched by activists for the amount that came from established, deep-pocketed donors.
Very soon, campaigns are going to start setting expectations. After breaking the one-day fundraising record for the start of his campaign, Sanders went on a drive for 1 million individual donors by the end of the quarter. If the donations keep to Sanders's average — around $27 — he would be expected to lead the field with close to $30 million.
That wouldn't be a record for a candidate's first quarter, as Hillary Clinton raised close to $45 million in her first full fundraising period in 2015. But it would be the latest jolt for those Democrats who continue to look at Sanders more as a candidate with a high floor than a real front-runner.
The other candidates being closely watched? Warren, who has rolled over $10 million from her Senate campaign, is the only candidate who has refused to hold high-dollar fundraisers; she lost her finance director, Michael Pratt, over that decision. Beto O'Rourke broke Sanders's one-day record with a smaller number of donors; rival campaigns are watching to see whether he comes anywhere close to the Sanders total. Kamala Harris's camp has not offered details on her fundraising since her initial $1.5 million haul; of all the candidates, she is in the best place to defy expectations and to have a donor list that rivals pore over for evidence of fat-cat support.
Beto O'Rourke. His presidential campaign is officially a go, after a trio of launch events in El Paso, Houston and Austin, with more than 20,000 people total showing up.
Wayne Messam. The mayor of Miramar, Fla., officially launched his presidential bid Saturday, after getting some attention for creating an exploratory committee and for the latest in the must-do 2020 trend of biographical videos. His central issue, so far: canceling student debt. “I know, $1.5 trillion sounds like a daunting amount, but as the research shows, the benefits are significant and would benefit all Americans far more than the Trump tax cuts,” Messam said in the launch speech.
Bernie Sanders. He told CBS's “Face the Nation” that he will release his tax returns very soon, a month after making the same pledge. (In neither case did he define “soon.") “We have it all done and it's just a question of dotting the i's and crossing the t's.”
Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. They eschewed the Heartland forum (and got a little bit of local Iowa ribbing for it) but attended the Human Rights Campaign's gala dinner in California, using the setting to unload on the Trump administration's gay rights record.
Seth Moulton. He wrapped another trip to Iowa and told CNN's “State of the Union” that he would decide on a 2020 bid in “the next few weeks.” A preview of his argument: “This country is not perfect. We haven't gotten race right. We haven't gotten women's rights correct yet. We haven't gotten health care right. We haven't gotten education right. But, at our best, we're a country that believes that we might.”
Howard Schultz. It's been a while since the potential independent candidate was heckled at a public appearance, but it happened on Sunday at the nonpartisan Unrig Summit in Nashville; protesters (sarcastically) shouted “billionaires for president” as Schultz went onstage.
... hours until the end of the fundraising quarter
... 15 days until candidates must report what they raised in this quarter