In this edition: A special election on the North Carolina coast, Tim Ryan and the young not-Bidens, and why everyone is wrong about impeachment.

I'm deciding to decide when to maybe release a video about the decision I have or haven't made, and this is The Trailer.

MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — The members of the Crystal Coast Republican Men's Club pushed two tables together, then three tables, then four, then five. It was not easy to fit 15 of the 17 candidates for the local congressional nomination into one space.

“Somebody named 'Walter Jones' has been representing this seat for most of the past 50 years,” said David M. Fowler, the mayor of nearby Cape Cartaret. “It was always going to be an interesting race. It was always going to draw in a lot of people.”

The race to replace Jones, who followed his father into politics and died in February at age 76, will also close one chapter in the Republican PartyA seat that had belonged to one of the GOP's true iconoclasts — an Army National Guard veteran who became an opponent of foreign wars and deficit-busting tax cuts — is up for grabs, and none of the 17 Republicans seeking to replace Jones is looking to pick up his fights with the party or with President Trump.  

Ahead of the April 30 primary, which will send two candidates to a July runoff and September election, no Republicans in the race were critical of Trump's foreign policy. All of them described their job, if they got to Congress, as helping the president enact his agenda. Democrats, who didn't even bother to contest the seat in 2018, were asking whether Jones's old voters were ready to see what each party had become and take a hard second look.

The late congressman was the first Republican to represent most of North Carolina's rural coastline. Like many of his voters in the 3rd Congressional District, Jones had been a conservative Democrat, then switched parties. He first drew national attention when he responded to France's decision to oppose the Iraq War by getting the House cafeteria to serve “freedom fries” instead of “french fries.” Then he turned against the war, returning from military funerals to put images of the fallen outside his congressional office.

Many Republicans turned on Jones, but not enough to beat him. He blocked a wave of primary challenges, before coming within six points of defeat in 2014 and winning just 43 percent of the vote in his final primary, last year. The congressman explained that he had opposed defense spending increases, tax cuts and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act because they were not being paid for; his opponents said that he was betraying Trump. 

“The people of eastern North Carolina truly deserve better,” Phil Law, Jones's strongest challenger said last year in a speech to Pasquotank County Republicans. “Our president, who is literally sacrificing his life, his fortunes, his family — he deserves better.”

Law, a 37-year-old systems analyst and Marine Corps veteran, said he wanted to be as responsive to constituents as Jones had been; he just wanted to support the president's agenda, too, in communities that had given the president 60.5 percent of the vote.

“The congressman had deep connections with the people, and his office gave truly great constituent service,” Law said. “But this is a district that strongly supports the president. I was running against 50 years of name recognition; a lot of people had voted for 'Walter Jones' for their whole lives, and they got comfortable with that.”

Last Thursday, when Law and 14 other Republicans hobnobbed with voters at the waterside Southern Salt restaurant, the reasons the race had become so crowded were obvious. Six Republicans in the race, unlike Law, had won elections and powered the party's takeover of eastern North Carolina. Three women, with no electoral experience, had charged into the race with hopes of changing the image of a party derided for its mostly white, mostly male image. All of them, like Law, were arguing that a conservative district needed a pro-Trump warrior in Congress. 

“I'm a businessman, like Trump,” said Kevin Rouse, a construction executive whose TV ads show him shooting clay targets labeled “anti-gun,” “govt health care,” and “green new deal.” “He needs someone to support him because, let’s face it, he’s the only one doing anything up there.”

Over more than two hours, no Republican candidate had a negative word for Jones. They had plenty of negative words for Congress, arguing that their party had squandered control of the House of Representatives by failing to deliver on Trump's priorities. Several lit into Republicans for failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act when they had the votes; at the forum, that anger was funneled into attacks on state Rep. Greg Murphy, the only candidate who had supported a plan to take the ACA's Medicaid expansion funds and expand coverage. (The state has not expanded Medicaid.)

“We do not need Medicaid expansion in North Carolina,” said Michelle Nix, a former vice chair of the state GOP, before smiling down at Murphy and handing him the microphone. 

“Let me make it very painfully clear to everybody in this room I am against Medicaid expansion,” said Murphy, a doctor, who explained that he wanted the law shredded even as he tried to bring its benefits to the state. “It was the greatest fault of our Republican government that we did not repeal Obamacare.” 

Every candidate pledged to pick up Jones's work for the district, which included making sure that Washington did not close local military bases and did not skimp on infrastructure. When asked where they differed with Trump — something Jones had relished doing — the Republicans working to replace him usually said that the president could go further in tackling immigration and the national debt. 

“While I think a wall or a physical barricade is very important, I think we need to equally pursue the whole issue of people claiming asylum to manipulate the system,” said Paul Beaumont, a county commissioner and Navy veteran.

“I'd have liked to see the president veto some of those spending bills,” said Gary Ceres, a university employee who is running as “the working-class” candidate.

No candidate had done anything to break out of the pack, with similar messages and some overlapping experience. Even Celeste Cairns, a Club for Growth-backed candidate who skipped the forum, was running ads in favor of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — a position that didn't differentiate her from the field. Several of her rivals had begun presenting themselves as the candidates best equipped to battle socialism and specifically to fight Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

In her first TV ad, Nix talked more about the New York freshman than any other issue. “She has the media, she has the followers, but bless her heart, she has some terrible ideas,” she said into camera.

But she didn't have that lane to herself; Beaumont's literature described him, literally, as “the anti-AOC,” attacking the Green New Deal by saying that “the 'green' I'm defending is better jobs and more money going to our Carolina families and less to socialists!” At the forum, both candidates worked to include hits on the congresswoman in their rationale for running.

“AOC is a threat who symbolizes the larger threat posed by the left,” Beaumont said.

Democrats, who have struggled to win rural seats even as they've regained some strength post-2016, have watched all of this with nervous bemusement. They have a less crowded primary of their own, with six candidates running; the front-runner in early fundraising has been Richard “Otter” Bew, a 29-year Marine veteran and former legislative assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In an interview at Fat Fella's BBQ in Newport, with a photograph of Jones himself nearby, Bew said that he'd run a general election campaign based on continuing the late congressman's strong constituent service, while protecting the coast from the threats posed by climate change. He laughed at the idea of Republicans trying to run against Ocasio-Cortez in North Carolina.

“They're so enamored with her, and I don't know what to tell them,” he said. “They're scared of a freshman congresswoman from New York?”

The Bew candidacy resembles the ones that delivered most strongly for Democrats in 2018 — the moderate, time-for-change pitch of Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.). But where Lamb quickly broke from national Democrats by saying he'd oppose Nancy Pelosi's bid for House speaker, Bew is the first Democratic candidate for Congress since Pelosi's comeback. Asked whether he'd support the Green New Deal, Bew said he liked some of its priorities. “To the extent that it prioritizes economic development opportunities and work in renewable energy, I'm on board with that,” he said. Asked whether he would call himself a “democratic socialist,” Bew said the question was preposterous.

“If that's the tack they have to take, then I'm going to win this election,” he said. “I've spent my entire adult life operating under oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That doesn't allow for changing the form of government.”

In 2018, Republicans hung on to every district that voted as strongly for Trump as North Carolina's 3rd did. The party's troubles in the state's 9th District, which is holding its own special election after fraud charges derailed the local candidate, have not really spilled over to the coast. But one of the few real areas of disagreement at the candidate forum was whether the Democrats would really compete this time. Law, who argued that his campaign against Jones had bolstered his name ID, said the party would need it to hold on.

“There is a strong Democrat waiting at the end of this tunnel,” Law said.

No other candidate agreed. Phil Shepherd, one of the legislators in the race, told Republican voters at the forum that they were not choosing a nominee for a close contest; they were choosing the Republican who most identified with their values and had the record to act on them.

“The Democrats aren't going to take this seat,” said Shepherd. “No matter what happens.”

READING LIST

"In South Bend, Pete Buttigieg sees a template for improving America,” by Amy B Wang

The debate over Mayor Pete's tenure in a struggling city continues; where critics saw heartless gentrification, fans saw ideas (“smart streets,” a factory turned into a tech center) that worked.

“The big money challenge awaiting Joe Biden in the 2020 race,” by Shane Goldmacher

The former vice president, never much of a fundraiser before 2008, is probably going to be the only candidate following the pre-Sanders path: Lots and lots of fundraisers, with a call out to bundlers.

“Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says he’s seriously considering a primary challenge to Trump,” by Erin Cox

A report from New Hampshire with a man who is not (quite) running.

“Democrats Consider: Is A White, Straight Man The Safe Bet Against Trump?” by Danielle Kurtzleben

They're going to find out, aren't they?

ON THE TRAIL

MT. PLEASANT, Iowa — Jerry's Restaurant was the final stop for Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) on Good Friday, on his first visit to the state since becoming the 18th Democratic candidate for president. Just 15 Iowa Democrats were waiting for him. But Jeff Fager, the chair of the Henry County Democrats, informed the audience that they were talking to a star.

“There's something that no one could say about Tim Ryan, and that's that he lacks courage,” Fager said. “Anyone who is willing to test the democratic process or just determining House leadership by taking on Nancy Pelosi does not lack courage.”

Ryan’s national profile comes from that unsuccessful 2016 challenge of Pelosi, when he argued that his party had lost touch with working-class voters. In Mt. Pleasant, he skipped over the criticism to talk about Youngstown, the iconic center of his congressional district, and how the decline of manufacturing turned him into an evangelist for clean energy and electric cars.

“I saw the old economy dying, and I knew it was going to be tough to turn that around,” Ryan said. “If we come together, we can drive this new agenda. We don't need a superstar. I don't think we need a savior. We need a grinder, and I'm a grinder. I have been my whole life, and I'm going to work my rear end off.”

Ryan, 44, began visiting early primary states shortly after the 2016 election, when many better-known Democrats were skipping them. That has put him somewhere between 0 and 1 percent in public polls, and he’s not alone there — two other House Democrats, Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), launched presidential bids this month without much immediate evidence that voters wanted them to.

As millions of Democrats wait to see how former vice president Joe Biden will announce his own candidacy for president, Ryan et. al. have rushed into the gap, introducing themselves as young, fresh faces with stories to tell and none of the older candidates’ baggage. All of them, simply by being born after 1970, assuage the Democrats who worry that a candidate such as Biden (or Bernie Sanders) is simply too old to win.

“The situation is so much more critical than it was in 2016,” said Mary Elgar, 65, who caucused for Hillary Clinton that year. “It’s vital that we get a younger candidate. The contrast Obama offered in 2008 was so vital.”

Other than emphasizing their youth, no member of the House trio has a bad word to say about the older candidates. Asked whether he was comfortable with a president taking office after turning 75 years old, Ryan laughed and said he was focused entirely on his own policies, which, if you asked him, were more dynamic than anybody else’s.

“The key is not the age; the key is the ideas,” Ryan said. “We need new ideas, and I feel like I’ve got one of the freshest campaigns out there. We’re talking about social and emotional learning. We’re talking about healing veterans with yoga and meditation and acupuncture. We’re talking about electric vehicles, and solar, and AI, which I’ve been doing in Youngstown for a long time.”

On the trail, Ryan talked about all of it. Eastern Ohio is at the center of his pitch; the long version of his stump speech starts with the destruction of the steel industry in Youngstown and continues with the closing of GM’s plant in nearby Lordstown, 40 years later. Ohio was let down by everybody, then, he says, betrayed by Trump. 

“My daughter calls me, crying, and she says, 'My friend has been crying all day in school,' ” Ryan said in a well-received speech this month to the building trades. “Her dad’s getting transferred. General Motors is closing down. I’m telling you, this economy hasn’t worked for working people in 40 years.”

Ryan didn’t invent that rhetoric; in many ways, it’s what Biden says when he rolls into labor halls. It was not far from what Hillary Clinton said as a candidate for president in 2008. Ryan had endorsed her well ahead of the 2016 election, before she even announced. Why would a Ryan candidacy sell this rhetoric when other Democrats couldn’t? His answer is Youngstown.

“I think the president coming from Youngstown, Ohio; having the blue collar, lunch-bucket brand, going after these guys and then going after these communities that are hurting, makes a lot of difference,” said Ryan. “It has to be framed, like: What we’re doing, we’re doing on behalf of the worker. I thought the biggest mistake we made in 2009 was not dragging the CEOs in front of the country, and saying: 'Look what these guys did to you! They did it to you!' ” 

Meditation and acupuncture don’t fit as neatly into that story, but they’re some of Ryan’s favorite topics. His eastern Iowa swing included a stop in Fairfield, home to the Maharishi School of Management, where at the most crowded event of the weekend — around 40 people at a house party — he took questions on mandatory vaccination (he’s for it), anxiety (he believes meditation can relieve it), and how he’d take on Trump.

“He has no rural agenda for you other than to run around and say, 'Hey, I’m a blue-collar billionaire,' whatever that means,” Ryan said. “It’s a huge opportunity for Democrats to actually go and campaign in rural areas. We haven’t done that in a while. We just lost a big election in Ohio; we got killed in rural counties.”

Ryan ended his trip with a stop by a sort of job fair put on by the Polk County Youth Democrats, near Des Moines. When he spoke, a couple dozen young students, and other campaigns' volunteers, listened and applauded; afterward, several said they appreciated Ryan's promise to help elect whichever candidate won the nomination. Asked how he would vault over the better-known candidates, who were drawing more than 1,000 people when they hit Des Moines, Ryan was cheerful.

“You outwork 'em,” he said. “We started out yesterday with around 15 people. This morning we got closer to 50 people. It’s hard work. I don’t know anything different than that. I’ve been working my whole life.”

POLL WATCH

Who's your preferred 2020 Democratic candidate? (UNH, 241 likely Democratic voters)

Bernie Sanders — 30% ( 4)
Joe Biden — 18% (-4)
Pete Buttigieg — 15% ( 14)
Elizabeth Warren — 5% (-2)
Kamala Harris — 4% (-6)
Cory Booker — 3% ( 0)
Beto O'Rourke — 3% (-2)
Amy Klobuchar — 2% (-2)
Andrew Yang — 2% ( 2)
Tim Ryan — 2% ( 2)
Wayne Messam — 1% ( 1)
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1% ( 0)
Tulsi Gabbard — 1% ( 0)
Eric Swalwell — 1% ( 0)

First, a note on those parenthetical numbers: Now that there is semiregular polling from early states, write-ups of polls that have been in the field before will reflect how their results have changed.

Second, a note on this poll: Political professionals really don't like it, as it often shows big swings in support that can be as easily explained by small sample size as by the dynamics of the race. In this case, a burst of media attention (since evaporated) around obscure Florida Mayor Wayne Messam seems to have given him more support than candidates such as John Hickenlooper who have actually staffed up in New Hampshire.

Should Democrats nominate a man or woman in 2020? (Monmouth, 330 Democratic voters)

Does not matter — 77%
Nominate a man — 12%
Nominate a woman — 7%
Depends on the candidate — 3%

One of the truest and least respected cliches in journalism is this: “The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.' " On the trail, it is easy to find Democrats, male and female, who worry that a female nominee would lose to Trump because the data set they're working from (one election) delivered that result. When pushed by a pollster, 84 percent of Democrats say that the question doesn't matter or that the party would be better off with a female nominee. That doesn't solve the problem for female candidates — by a small margin, Democrats see men as more electable — but it is a smaller hurdle than it appears from campaign chatter.

EVERYBODY IS WRONG

Over the weekend, Elizabeth Warren announced that she wanted the House to begin impeachment hearings over the findings in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe. On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her conference that the Democratic majority would focus on investigations, not impeachment. The Democrats’ nervousness about pursuing impeachment could be explained by polling, which finds most voters against it, and by analysis such as the kind Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered in CNN’s Monday night town hall.

“If for the next year, year-and-a-half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump and Trump, Trump, Trump, and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller, and we're not talking about health care, we're not talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, we're not talking about combating climate change, we're not talking about sexism and racism and homophobia, and all of the issues that concern ordinary Americans, what I worry about is that works to Trump's advantage,” Sanders said.

Democrats such as Pelosi have warned that any impeachment effort that does not get Republican support would come off as a partisan snipe hunt, doomed to failure. In Washington’s collective memory, the 1998-1999 effort to remove Clinton from office was a disaster that backfired on Republicans. And in three dramatic ways, that was true.

One: Republicans lost five House seats in the 1998 midterm election, the first setback for the party that did not control the presidency in 64 years. Two: Those losses exacerbated the weaknesses that Newt Gingrich had inside his conference, leading to his resignation and temporary exile from politics. Three: Hillary Clinton experienced a burst of sympathy and popularity that set her up for a successful Senate bid two years later.

But the long-term damage to Republicans was less clear, and the medium-term damage to Democrats was devastating. Impeachment marked the end of a six-year run of probes into Clinton's behavior. None of them drove Clinton from office, but the ordeal dragged his party down and probably cost Democrats the 2000 election.

It's true that Clinton's job approval ratings remained high during impeachment, but his personal ratings did not. In an April 1999 poll conducted by Pew Research, an incredible 74 percent of voters said they were “tired of all the problems associated with the Clinton administration.” Voters who agreed with the sentiment were overwhelmingly likely to support George W. Bush, who at that point was not well known, over Al Gore. Even 64 percent of Democrats said that they were tired of Clinton’s scandals. 

That factor dogged Gore throughout 1999 and into 2000. A September 1999 poll from The Washington Post found that 55 percent of independents were simply “tired” of Clinton and that their fatigue transferred over to Gore. It defined Bush's successful campaign, and he needed it — throughout 2000, even as the economy began to slow down, voters mostly felt that the country was in good shape. When accepting the Republican nomination, Bush acknowledged that the country was going through prosperous times but said Clinton and Gore had squandered them, with personal character at the root of the problem.

“To lead this nation to a responsibility era, that president himself must be responsible,” Bush said. “So when I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God.”

Gore, of course, lost the presidency while narrowly winning the popular vote. The Clintons remained dominant in Democratic politics for another 16 years; Bill Clinton's position in the party allowed him to make the post-facto argument that Gore lost by not running more clearly on the administration's wins. That led Democrats to the muddle of April 2019: A situation in which most voters oppose the president, slightly more voters oppose “impeachment,” and they have talked themselves into the idea that Trump would be strengthened if impeachment failed in the House or removal failed in the Senate.

The polling speaks for itself, but the legacy of the last impeachment is much more complicated than Washington lets itself remember.

MONEY WATCH

Tomorrow afternoon, Democrats will descend on Houston for a long-planned She the People forum, designed to put women of color at the center. One of the sponsors of that forum, Way to Win, is using the occasion to issue a call to Democratic donors, urging them to use their access not to ask candidates if they're electable but to grill them on policy.

“We want to see candidates adopt bold policies,” said Way to Win's president, Tory Gavito. “We want them to follow movement leaders who represent the multiracial base of the Democratic Party.”

Way to Win, created after the 2016 election, is a network of more than 200 donors who want the Democrats to focus more on racial and social justice. Its 2020 playbook, shared with The Trailer ahead of the Wednesday forum, argues that candidates can win with campaigns “categorized by the signals of success we’ve seen in campaigns over the course of the last several cycles.”

The network spent more than $22 million ahead of the 2018 cycle, with some big investments in campaigns — Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor's race, Andrew Gillum in the Florida one — that fell short. With Biden set to enter the presidential race Thursday, the Way to Win playbook reads like an early preemption of the idea that Democrats need to nudge more liberal candidates aside and go for what seems “electable.”

The playbook contains 30 basic questions, with one that splinters into sub-questions on policy, to determine whether candidates back Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal. The yes/no policy section may be the easy part. Among the other questions:

“Does this person’s political presence contribute to a more reflective America — regarding race, ethnicity, gender, and class?”

“Can the candidate identify the structural causes of economic inequality and racism?”

“Are they operationalizing a strategy that builds long-term power by supporting in-state and national movement and community groups?”

“Are they advocating or shifting resources in a legally compliant manner with independent political organizations and community organizations?”

The goal of every question: to encourage donors to use their access and determine whether Democrats would run to fire up the party's base or whether they'd be overly cautious. The goal, said network member Susan Pritzker, was to shake wealthy Democrats out of any complacency they might have left.

“There aren’t that many donors who will have an opportunity to use the playbook with candidates, face to face,” Pritzker said. “This is a way to bring our values into our decision-making about who we should support; it’s a way to make sure it’s not just about electability and polls.”

IN THE STATES

Texas. MJ Hegar, a veteran who raised more than $5 million for a near-miss House campaign last year, will run against Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), in the Democrats' first small recruiting coup in a while.

“He calls himself Big John, but he shrinks out of the way while Mitch McConnell gets in the way of anything actually getting done in our government,” Hegar said in a video with echoes of the ad that turned her into one of the midterms' viral stars. (The Trailer covered her 2018 campaign.)

Cornyn's campaign was ready (Hegar had been hinting at a run for some time), launching a Google ad that emphasized the out-of-state support Hegar got in 2018 and saying in a news release that the Democrat would bring about “government health care.” (Unlike some swing-seat Democrats, she supported Medicare-for-all.) Texas Republicans were more nervous, a few months ago, about Beto O'Rourke being talked into the race; Democrats were more nervous about one of the two Democrats who flipped seats in Texas, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, leaving a tough seat to run a long-shot Senate race.

DEBATE SEASON

The 11-day strike by employees of New England's Stop & Shop chain is over, with the UFCW declaring partial victory after rolling back a new contract's proposed cuts to pay and health care. During those 11 days, the Stop & Shop picket line became a high-profile stop for Democratic presidential candidates, a few of whom showed up to deliver speeches, solidarity and, in the case of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), doughnuts.

No two candidates took the same approach. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) visited one picket line, in Somerville, Mass., and tweeted out a photo; no big speech, no big moment. That contrasted with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg's appearance, which included a speech and a news conference (where he was mostly asked about impeachment).

“This largest private-sector labor action in three years is sending a message that is going to ripple out far beyond New England,” Buttigieg said. “And the message is that companies have to do right by their workers, especially profitable companies indulging in stock buybacks that then expect workers to bear the burden of rising health-care costs.”

At a higher-profile appearance, Joe Biden (who is set to join the race Thursday) gave a shorter, more nostalgic speech, reminiscing about a time when “people would bust their neck, people would go out and make their living, people would play by the rules.”

“People have done everything they’re supposed to do, and people are entitled to be treated with respect and decency and fairness,” Biden said. It was like a lot of the former vice president's speeches to labor unions: evocative and unspecific but boosterish.

Warren, who was first to the picket lines in her home state, was also the clearest with her message. “Understand: People on the picket line are not just fighting for their families. They’re fighting for all our families,” she said. “They’re fighting for basic fairness and equality in this country.”

We know that Biden, who has spoken at three big labor events in the past month, is likely to make a fourth event — a rally with Teamsters — his first big campaign stop. But Biden's rivals have refused to cede any turf with labor, and many, especially Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who supported the Stop & Shop strike in a statement, have been building ties while Biden was more distant from politics. Less than 48 hours before his expected launch, the only labor union that seems locked in for Biden is the International Association of Fire Fighters.

2020

Joe Biden. He has put together at least one, probably two, campaign launch videos that will be released on Thursday; he is expected to campaign in Pittsburgh on Monday, with the Teamsters Local 249. 

Elizabeth Warren. She introduced a plan to both forgive most student debt and make public college (both two- and four-year) free, at an estimated cost of $1.25 trillion, paid for by her wealth tax.

Larry Hogan. He started his much-anticipated Tuesday speech at New Hampshire’s Politics and Eggs gathering by announcing that he would not be announcing anything. He did say he might challenge the president in the GOP primary, if convinced it was “not a suicide mission.”

Kamala Harris. In CNN's Monday night town hall, she expanded on a position she's taken on the trail: that the right to vote is “not something people should be stripped of needlessly” and that there needed to be a “conversation” about whether even violent criminals in prison can vote. Republicans jumped on the comments immediately, seeing the latest example of the senator endorsing a dream of the left without puzzling through the politics. In the same forum, she said she'd sign executive orders to combat illegal gun transfers if Congress did not act first.

Bernie Sanders. He said in his own CNN town hall that he believed Vermont's voting rights system, which allows prisoners to retain the franchise, should be the national standard, even if it meant murderers could vote from prison. For what may be the first time all year, that drew the attention of some of the most aggressive Republican messengers, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), both of whom piled on Sanders as if he was the Democratic nominee. (Cheney threw in an attack on Harris and confusingly suggested that Sanders would send ballots to al-Qaeda.)

Kirsten Gillibrand. She pledged not to use any material hacked from a rival campaign if she obtained it, making her the first presidential candidate to say so explicitly.

Mike Gravel. The 88-year-old former senator, who was pushed to become a candidate by a pair of left-wing teenagers, had suggested he was running just to get into the debates, not to win. He conducted a Twitter poll this week that found supporters wanting him to say he's really running for the prize, an answer that is more in line with DNC rules about who gets onstage.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

Just to be clear, here was how Bernie Sanders answered CNN's question on whether prisoners, even those convicted of murder, should retain the right to vote:

"I believe that people commit crimes, they paid the price. When they get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have the right to vote. But I do believe that even if they are in jail they're paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy."

Here was how Kamala Harris answered the same question, and a follow-up about whether, specifically, prisoners should have the right to vote.

"I have been long an advocate of making sure that the formerly incarcerated are not denied a right to vote, which is the case in so many states in our country, in some states permanently deprived of the right to vote. And these are policies that go back to Jim Crow. These are policies that go back to the heart of policies that have been about disenfranchisement, policies that continue until today, and we need to take it seriously . . . I think we should have that conversation."

And here was how Pete Buttigieg answered it.

"No. I do believe that when you are out, when you have served your sentence, then part of being restored to society is that you're part of the political life of this nation again. And one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote. As you know, some states and communities do it. Some don't. I think we'd be a better country if everybody did it. And frankly, I think the motivations for preventing that kind of re-enfranchisement in some cases have to do with one side of the aisle noticing that they politically benefit from that, and that's got some racial layers, too. So that's one of many reasons that I believe that re-enfranchisement upon release is important. But part of the punishment when you're convicted of a crime and you're incarcerated is you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom. And I think during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote."

After Monday night's town hall marathon, Republicans began pounding both Harris and Sanders over their answers, though Harris's answer was more evasive. This is not an issue that has been burning up microphones at Democratic town halls; it was largely pushed by voting rights activists and reporters at HuffPost's forum in Storm Lake, Iowa. The Republican counterattack is worth following in at least two ways.

One: This is really the first time Sanders himself has been attacked over a policy proposal in the way that a typical party front-runner gets attacked. Until now, Republicans have tended to use Sanders as a springboard for attacks on other Democrats; he introduces legislation, they attack those Democrats for co-sponsoring it. Here, Republicans have treated Sanders like an ostensible party nominee.

Two: This issue really moved faster than most Democrats were expecting. Just six months ago, Democrats led a coalition of activists to pass Florida's Amendment Four, which restored voting rights to felons who had not committed violent crimes. The messaging that won that vote referred to former felons as “returning citizens,” language that evoked prison as some sort of out-of-country exile, where of course people could not vote. But Monday's questions and answers showed a shift toward even more liberal views. After watching how fast the conversation was moving, one Democratic operative joked that “as I’ve always said, this primary is going to come down to reparations for currently incarcerated sex workers.”

COUNTDOWN

. . . two days until Joe Biden announces a presidential bid
. . . four days until several presidential candidates (but not Biden) address the SEIU in Las Vegas
. . . 26 days until Pete Buttigieg holds a Fox News town hall

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter misspelled Gary Ceres's name.