In this edition: Women who don't want to settle for Biden, the House battleground in Texas, and the Democrats' rural voter comeback plan.
I'm ready for the debate about whether Pittsburgh counts as real America or not, and this is The Trailer.
HOUSTON — The final question at Wednesday’s “She the People” forum was the one no one wanted to think about. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) was dominating the day, getting applause simply for saying “and I’ve got a plan” — a sign that the senator's identity as a Democratic candidate with real, workable ideas was sinking in. But, well, you know, could she win?
“A lot of women of color say that after the experience of 2016, we don’t have confidence that the electorate will elect a woman president,” said MSNBC host Joy Reid. “There’s a fear that they might need to flee to the safety of a white, male candidate.”
The crowd engaged in some good-natured booing, and Warren rolled up the sleeves on her green jacket.
“Are we not going to fight because we’re afraid?” she asked. “Are we going to show up for people that we didn’t actually believe in, because we were afraid to do anything else? That’s not who we are.” She pointed out at the audience, which had begun to cheer again. “We’ve got a room full of people here who weren’t given anything.”
Warren’s answer helped her win the day; less than 24 hours later, former vice president Joe Biden formally entered the Democratic primary. Unlike other candidates, whose launch videos had been upbeat and run through their policies, Biden’s focused entirely on the existential threat of a second Trump term, saying that “if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
Warren, who polls in the high single digits across early primary states, is a long way from earning a face-off with Biden. But Wednesday’s forum emphasized just how much frustration exists among the growing base of the Democratic Party — female, nonwhite, and young — about being told that they will reelect President Trump if they don't settle for a candidate who mollifies white, male voters.
“We can’t get stuck in 2016, because that’s exactly how we’ll end up repeating it,” said Bianca Avery, a 37-year-old teacher from Dallas who had backed Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 primary. “We get too caught up on electability; we get caught up on the ‘normal’ candidate, the white, cisgender male that’s been around. Maybe they’ll roll out their platforms and impress us, but we can’t get caught up in those identity politics.”
The first She the People forum was organized around that sentiment. The organization’s founder, a charismatic Bay Area activist named Aimee Allison, had spent much of the 2018 campaign telling Democrats that they could win by centering black women; they would lose if they took them for granted. It was time to stop chasing conservative white men and look at the gains — a Senate seat in Arizona, a House seat in Georgia, a governor’s mansion in Michigan — made by dynamic women.
“Our hope is to advance a national conversation to distinguish which candidates stand with and for women of color and our communities,” Allison said at the start of Wednesday’s forum. “The candidate that does that best, and most consistently, will win the nomination and the White House.”
Biden's supporters — but not the candidate — have made a different argument: that he can beat Trump by winning back white voters who abandoned the party in 2014 and 2018. Public and private polls show Biden defeating Trump in the three states that decided the past election: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Polling has suggested that Sanders, the only other candidate with wide name recognition, would also defeat Trump in these states; polling that names lesser-known candidates is less reliable.
Biden has, this year, addressed criticisms of past actions that had angered black women. He reintroduced himself as a well-meaning white man who made mistakes but understands why they upset people. Biden has bemoaned that he did not better handle sexual harassment accusations against Clarence Thomas when he was nominated for the Supreme Court, and he has partially apologized for provisions of the 1994 crime bill.
“I haven't always been right,” Biden said at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech. “I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried.”
Allison’s analysis, that Democrats do better when they fire up women of color, was bolstered by their Midwest and Southwest wins in 2018. It hasn’t won over all the Democrats rattled by Trump’s unexpected win. In 2015, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) argued that suburban women would break toward Hillary Clinton, excited at the thought of electing the first female president, and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell famously suggested that “for every vote we lose in western Pennsylvania we'll gain a vote in the Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh suburbs.”
Today, Casey endorsed Biden, and tonight he will join Rendell at the first Biden 2020 fundraiser. On Monday, Biden will campaign in western Pennsylvania — albeit, in Pittsburgh.
While Biden was prepping for that, most of his top-tier rivals were talking at the She the People forum. Most of the candidates were ready with statistics about just how much worse women of color had done in the modern economy, from a larger wage gap with white men to an infant mortality rate triple that of white women.
The burden to prove themselves was heavy; candidates heard shouts from the crowd if they appeared to be offering platitudes. Sanders, who has worked since 2016 to win over black voters, was booed when he was asked about fighting white supremacy and suggested he could unite the country “around an agenda that speaks to all people.” Julián Castro was lightly heckled when he gave a meandering answer to a question about whether he would end federal prohibitions on Medicaid being used to pay for abortions; as he talked about health care, one attendee yelled “abortion IS health care!”
When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) began to criticize a foreign policy that aimed to remove any “bad person” at the head of a government, one heckler yelled “You’re a bad person.” And asked, “Why should women of color choose you?,” Beto O’Rourke paused for 15 seconds.
“It’s not something that I’m owed,” he said. “It’s not something that I expect. It’s something that I hope to earn on the campaign trail, by showing up and listening to the people that I want to serve.” He mentioned that he considered Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) a "mentor” and that he had talked to her backstage about her legislation to create a committee that would study whether to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves; only then did cries of “He ready!” break out.
The candidates who could be the first female president got a warmer reception. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), who has been loudly criticized on the left for her prosecutorial record in San Francisco, assured the crowd that she understood the need for change — and why change would help black women.
“We have to have the courage to recognize that there are a lot of folks who have been incarcerated who should not have been incarcerated,” she said.
Harris, like Warren, had another distinction that only some at the forum remembered. At various times, when Biden contemplated a 2016 presidential bid and when he mused about entering 2020 earlier, he and allies had speculated that Warren or Harris could become his running mate. To Biden’s supporters, it seemed like a way to satisfy women who were pining for a female president. To Biden’s critics, it emphasized all the reasons women of color, not older men, needed to drive the party.
“That idea is shallow and disrespectful, and unfortunately, it’s typical tokenism,” said Lucy Flores, a former Nevada legislator who has accused Biden of behaving inappropriately with her at a 2014 campaign event. “What this forum is telling the world is that we will no longer be your token. We, as women of color, are just as competent. We are just as talented. We are just as capable.”
Yes, you've heard about it his entrance by now, but this is the story you need.
The comprehensive rundown of heresies that Biden may have to deal with; the question is whether any Democrat will dare point them out, or whether the wet work will be left to Twitter.
Not since Henry Clay has there been a potential party nominee whose electoral career began so long before he sought the presidential nomination. And rarely in American history have public opinions on race and gender changed as quickly as they have from 1972 to now.
HOUSTON — The president's most recent State of the Union address is remembered for one line above all: his promise that America would "never become a socialist country." For some Houstonians, the speech's big moment came earlier, when the president said that "the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world."
Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, one of two Texas Democrats who won a Republican-held House seat last year, stood and applauded. When some of the House's newest stars introduced the Green New Deal, Fletcher came out against it. This week, after a Tex-Mex dinner in the 7th Congressional District, Fletcher said that she respected the "motivation" of the Green New Deal's supporters but that she represented the Texas energy corridor, and they didn't.
"We're coming up with new technologies," she said. "We're coming up with carbon capture technologies. We're talking about creative carbon sequestration. There's a lot of things that are happening here that are really good. And the best way to address climate change is to bring everybody to the table."
This is not how the Democratic Party's presidential candidates talk about climate change. That's the point. Fletcher, one of the 41 Democrats who flipped districts last year, is now part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's ambitious effort to expand in Texas. The party has dispatched eight staffers to an office in Austin, with the mission of holding what the party gained in 2018 and competing in five districts that drew unexpectedly close — one along the U.S.-Mexico border, four in suburbs that had voted reliably Republican until 2016.
“In 2018, Texas Democrats proved that they can win in competitive districts,” DCCC Chair Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) said in a statement this month.
The Republican plans to win back the House also start in Texas; Wesley Hunt, an African-American Army veteran and home builder who has never run for office before, jumped into the race against Fletcher this month with the support of some D.C.-based Republican strategists. Their operating theory is that wealthy parts of Houston really do want to be represented by a Republican in Congress and that the elections of 2016 and 2018, when statewide Democratic candidates carried or narrowly lost suburban seats, were flukes; one based on the president's relatively weak 2016 support from Republicans, one on the black swan Senate candidacy of Beto O'Rourke. The basic plan is to portray the Democrats who won, and the Democrats running in swing districts, as Trojan horses for the far left.
“The socialist Democrats are delusional if they think they can win in Texas after spending nearly four months pushing insane ideas like the oil-and-gas-killing Green New Deal and kicking families off of their private health insurance," said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Texas, which has some of the earliest primaries in the country — less than 11 months away — may be a preview of what's to come. Most of the Democrats' 2018 gains were pulled off by candidates, like Fletcher, who pointedly did not take left-wing positions. Fletcher briefly got national attention after the DCCC released opposition research on Laura Moser, a supporter of Medicare-for-All and other more left-wing policies who was contrasting herself with the more moderate Fletcher.
Fletcher won the general election by five points; in Washington, Republicans largely blamed the floundering campaign of John Culberson, an incumbent who had never had to run a close race. But in that race, Culberson had portrayed Fletcher as a secret leftist, accusing her of supporting Medicare-for-all (she didn't) because she referred to "universal health care" in a debate.
"We knew that it wasn't true, and a lot of people instinctively could tell that it wasn't true," said Fletcher. "That may be the strategy they employ nationwide, but it's not the one I'd employ again here."
At this early date, every close campaign looks like it might resemble the one Fletcher won last year. In the nearby 22nd district, where former foreign service officer Sri Kulkarni is making a second run, local Republicans recently head a "rally against socialism" in the city square.
"That's the kind of tribalism that's tearing the country apart," said Kulkarni, who used a question about socialism to emphasize his desire for further tax reform. It reflected, he said, the party's unwillingness to adapt to a diverse and changing electorate. Rep. Pete Olsen (R-Tex.) won his first term in a district that gave 2008 presidential nominee John McCain 60 percent of the vote; in 2016, the district gave Donald Trump just 52 percent.
The sharp tone from national Republicans isn't necessarily shared by Hunt, who is challenging Fletcher. In an interview, he described himself as a frustrated constituent who saw Fletcher voting almost uniformly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; asked which votes he had opposed, he cited a Republican motion to require ICE to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tried to buy a gun.
"That didn't make a whole lot of sense to me," said Hunt. "If you run as a moderate then, by God, you'd better be a moderate."
Republicans and Democrats had found something else to disagree about: how the president would affect these races. Hunt said he supported the president, emphasizing that the election would be a choice "between President Trump's policies and Nancy Pelosi's policies." Asked where he broke with the president, Hunt said he wanted to cut spending; the president had not found much spending to veto.
But Democrats believe that the higher turnout of a presidential election year will give them more potential votes than Republicans, whether or not O'Rourke is on the ballot.
"If everybody in this district votes, I win," said Kulkarni. "Pete Olsen's got a ceiling, and I've got a floor."
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Democratic presidential primary (Monmouth, 103 nonwhite Democrats)
Bernie Sanders — 27%
Joe Biden — 25%
Kamala Harris — 11%
Beto O'Rourke — 5%
Cory Booker — 3%
Pete Buttigieg — 2%
Elizabeth Warren — 1%
Seth Moulton — 1%
Bill de Blasio — 1%
John Hickenlooper — 1%
This newsletter does not cover national primary polls for the horse race, and this result in Monmouth's crosstabs is from a sample too small for a campaign to base a strategy around it. What it does do is bolster an argument Sanders has been making, often in vain: that after the 2016 primaries and his years of campaigning for Democratic legislation, he's become better-known and better-liked among nonwhite voters. In Monmouth's survey, Biden has a statistically significant advantage over the Democratic field with white voters, but he's behind Sanders (within the margin of error) with nonwhites. It frustrates the Sanders campaign when events, such as a mostly white town hall in South Carolina or some heckles at the She the People summit, are interpreted as proof that nonwhite voters don't like him.
The most radical move by Joe Biden's presidential campaign so far is one that used to be standard for presidential candidates: a fundraiser. To no small amount of criticism, Biden is raising money tonight in Philadelphia, at the home of Comcast Executive President David Cohen. At the same time, CNBC's Brian Schwartz is reporting that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, one of the party's biggest fundraisers, is connecting Biden to his donors.
That distinguishes Biden from the politics that every front-runner or top-tier Democrat embraced after 2016. Candidates are now regularly attacked by the party's left for holding fundraisers at all; Sen. Elizabeth Warren has simply stopped holding them. A number of Democrats, such as Sen. Kamala Harris, have been criticized for even meeting with donors who had backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Yesterday, at a media gaggle outside of the She the People forum, Beto O'Rouke reacted sheepishly when asked whether his upcoming fundraiser in New York was proof that he had lost grass-roots support.
“Ninety-nine percent of our contributions have come from online,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of them have come in at under two hundred dollars. So yes, I want people to be able to participate in whatever way they can.”
That's quite the contrast with Cuomo, who has raised more than $100 million for his three gubernatorial campaigns, with scores of donations of $10,000. (That's more than federal candidates are allowed to raise from individuals.) Biden may be creating a lane for himself that's in line with his introduction video: The election is about defeating the president by any means necessary, with no time for purity testing. The caveat: Many Democrats cut off big donor spigots because they believed the optics, of politicians being bought and sold, helped Trump make his general election argument.
In 2018, when North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp lost her bid for a second term in the Senate, the Dakotas turned red for the first time in decades. In 2010, the rural states sent just one Republican to Congress; after November, they sent six of them. Even as Democrats made gains elsewhere, they had lost their best shot at retaking the Senate.
Heitkamp and former senator from Indiana Joe Donnelly, another 2018 casualty, have since launched the One County Project as an effort to reverse Democrats’ losses in rural America.
“This isn’t just about 2020,” Heitkamp said in an interview. “It’s been a trending problem for Democrats and for rural America for a long time. There are people who will vote for Democrats again if given a reason to vote for Democrats.”
The project’s first product was a data analysis that showed Democrats gaining ground in the urban parts of red states, albeit not enough to win them, while they continued to lose ground in rural areas in blue states. The first idea for stopping that bleed, Heitkamp said, was to propose big ideas and exploit what she described as the Trump administration’s rural failures.
“I’d like to see a presidential candidate say that he or she will restore Congress’s role in setting tariffs,” Heitkamp said. “They can talk about how the administration is not limiting RFS waivers [exemptions from biofuel standards sought by oil refiners], which is hurting farmers.”
Democrats, Heitkamp said, also needed to respond sooner and more convincingly when Republicans accused them of threatening livelihoods. In her own race, Heitkamp had been hurt by the backlash to the Waters of the United States rule, even though she opposed it and it and had legislation to roll it back. She was badly hurt by ads emphasizing her votes against bans on “sanctuary cities” and was too slow, she thought, to engage on that issue.
“If I made a mistake in my race, it was that I didn’t spend enough time explaining what I’d done on border security,” she said. “In 2013, we passed comprehensive immigration reform with $40 billion for border security, and the House didn’t take it up, so voters did not know about it.”
Heitkamp’s immigration position put her at odds with the party’s left and its immigrant rights movement; some in the party, such as Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), have urged the party to say that the “border crisis” is a political myth. Heitkamp disagreed.
“We may not be telling people we’ll build some shiny wall, because it’s not effective,” she said. “But it sounded to people like a solution, and it sounded like only one party had a solution.” Democrats who did not see the political risk, she said, “need to spend time on the border and look at what’s happening.”
Activists on the Democratic Party's left are continuing to protest the DCCC's new rules that prevent contractors from working with the committee if they work with any candidates who are challenging party incumbents. On Wednesday, four representatives of Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, delivered more than 30,000 signatures from activists to the committee's chairman, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.).
The meeting lasted around 30 minutes and ended with the promise of another meeting.
“We had a frank and productive conversation,” said Richard Rodriguez, an Our Revolution board member. “We're very cautiously optimistic. Our message was that primaries are where young Democrats often get a chance to speak and to change the party; we used the example of Barack Obama challenging Bobby Rush, and how his career might have changed based on this policy.”
The DCCC did not characterize Bustos's response, but Rodriguez did: “She said she was there to listen, and she said that the policy is not a blacklist.”
. . . four days until Joe Biden begins his first real campaign swing
. . . five days until the year's first congressional primaries, for North Carolina's 3rd district