“I don't think he's a very good mayor,” said Gravel, a former senator from Alaska who, with much less fanfare, is running for president. He thought even less of other candidates. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) was an “empty shirt.” Climate-focused Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was running on “the safest issue any Democrat can run on.” Beto O'Rourke “jumped on tables like he had Saint Vitus' dance.” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who represented a district not far from Gravel's adopted home, was a total mystery: “If he'd gotten anything done in Congress, wouldn't I have heard about it?”
Gravel, who celebrated his 89th birthday last weekend, is not typically included in the count of Democratic White House hopefuls. There's a reason: He initially said he was not really running for president. He was running to get into the party's televised debates, like he had in 2007, when he emerged from decades of obscurity to hector the Democratic field about the risks of nuclear war. And he was doing so this time at the behest of some perspicacious, teenage left-wing activists, whose stated goal was to not to win but to shift the party to the left.
That has been enough to get Gravel halfway to the 65,000 donors needed to qualify for a slot in the debates, a stronger position than at least a half-dozen candidates who say they're actually running. The Gravel project epitomizes what the primary has become before it can be winnowed down: a contest with a clear leader in the polls (former vice president Joe Biden), a left-wing challenger (Sen. Bernie Sanders), a few candidates with the money and staff to seriously compete, and a whole lot of candidates who are not being taken seriously. A former senator who is not campaigning in any early-voting states — who has outsourced his Twitter account to teenagers — fits right in.
“Normally, you don't respond to ridicule,” Gravel said in an interview at his suburban Bay Area home. “I do. My whole effort for the last 25 years has been to create direct democracy and a legislature of the people. That's what floats my boat. So when [campaign manager] David Oks came to me and asked if I'd do this, I said, fine; you're going to do everything. William McKinley had a 'front porch' campaign, so I've got a patio campaign, so to speak.”
The former senator, who is finishing a book in between distracting campaign interviews, has happily outsourced the rest of the work to Oks and Henry Williams, two teenagers who heard about him on the left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House. Gravel walks with a cane, slowed by a 30-year case of neuropathy that has numbed all feeling in his feet. He rarely travels; his last big trip was in 2013 at the invitation of the Iranian government. He talks to his campaign managers “two or three times a day,” and on Wednesday, he paused an interview because a photographer, embedded with the kids in New York, needed him to Skype in for a photo shoot.
Gravel's celebrity dates back to his 2008 run for president, which began with a news conference about direct democracy (all legislation would be put up for week-long national votes, passed by simple majorities) and ended with a bid for the Libertarian Party nomination. “Thank God I didn't get it!” Gravel joked about his third-party bid; his defeat at a convention in Denver was his last campaign appearance.
His Democratic campaign that year made a bigger impact and went viral after the release of a wordless video in which he dropped a rock into a pond and partly for his lacerating debate appearances, in which he confronted both Barack Obama and Joe Biden. All of it introduced younger Americans to a figure from forgotten history, a crusading senator who read into the Congressional Record the Pentagon Papers, leaked documents about American involvement in Vietnam.
"I was known as a freshman,” Gravel said. “I was known for the Pentagon Papers, for getting the Alaska pipeline done. You name the issues, and I took a stand. I had my reasoning, maybe good, maybe bad. But that's what leadership is all about. You don't just hide in the weeds playing it safe.”
Eleven years later, Gravel has mixed feelings about the 2008 campaign. He intended to create a national wave for his citizen legislation plan, but he ended up talking about everything else: closing down America's military bases abroad, getting off fossil fuels within 10 years, passing universal health care. It's that agenda that attracted the kids, who contacted him and suggested he run again to change the party; their first video for his 2020 campaign, which reenacts the “rock” moment, portrays him as a prophet who got every big issue right.
The new debate rules passed by the Democratic National Committee seemed perfect for this kind of candidacy. The first two debates, in June and July, will include up to 20 candidates. Anyone who attracts at least 65,000 donors or gets 1 percent (or more) in three credible polls is in the mix; if more than 20 candidates qualify, the party will break the tie by looking at who exceeded the standards by the biggest number.
With 29 days left to qualify, that leaves Gravel with a chance of making the debates, perhaps by knocking out a candidate who is taken more seriously by the party. If so, a debate slot would go to a Democrat who is deeply dismissive of his party's leadership. Obama, Gravel said, was a “failure” with a “limp-fish handshake." Gravel did not vote for the last Democratic president; in 2016, he cast a ballot for Jill Stein, the Green Party's candidate. He could not imagine voting for Biden, whom he served alongside for eight years in the Senate.
“He's a very nice man, but that's not a reason to make somebody president,” Gravel said. “When I knew him, he was among the group of Democrats that I'd call imperialists. He likes to talk about being a friend of the working man when in fact he's supported legislation that has been anathema to working people's interests.”
Just three in the field have impressed Gravel. He had admired and agreed with many of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) ideas, thought Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was right on economics and was deeply impressed by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), a veteran who is running as a critic of foreign military intervention and “regime change wars.”
“If Bernie's the nominee, I'd like to see him pick her as his running mate,” Gravel said. (He is often more comfortable describing how other candidates win than describing how he could.) “I don't see anybody other than Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie, to a degree, taking on the military industrial complex. That's the biggest issue we have. You can't do anything domestically because they're sucking up all the money.”
Gravel's admiration for Gabbard was as intense as his derision of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Much of what his campaign puts out, Gravel said, was written by the teenagers; that included all of his tweets. (Gravel has sometimes asked them to dial back their language.) But Gravel took credit for an eyebrow-raising statement attacking Buttigieg, dismissing the mayor as “a chance for gay boys and men to see a bit of themselves in the trigger finger behind the rancid American war machine.” What set Gravel off was Buttigieg's statement that the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who shared hundreds of thousands of classified government documents with WikiLeaks in 2010, should not have been commuted.
“She did more for democracy than any general I've seen in the last 20 years,” Gravel said. “What did Buttigieg do in the military? He never talks about it, so he must not have done much.”
None of these are sentiments that Democrats want to see on their debate stage. The primary has verged on genteel, with the sharpest attacks coming when Biden's rivals suggested he had voted the wrong way on NAFTA and the Iraq War. Gravel holds some beliefs that could alienate voters; he has speculated that the 9/11 terrorist attacks might have been an “inside job,” worthy of a new investigation.
“I don't know who the insiders are,” Gravel said. (Pressed on this by Vice News, Gravel's campaign team said that the media needed to focus more on “the movement” than an individual candidate.)
The party could require candidates to pledge their loyalty to the eventual ticket, an idea that Gravel scoffs at.
“The issue may arise that they want me to sign this pledge, that I'll support whatever mad dog gets nominated,” Gravel said. “Who would do that?”
If he doesn't make the debates, Gravel will just keep talking. In 2007, after Democrats raised the standards for their own debates and cut out Gravel (and then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a fellow antiwar liberal), Gravel held events where he commented sardonically on everything the candidates were saying that he thought was wrong. Streaming technology has advanced dramatically since then, and Gravel, who earned less than 0.2 percent of the vote in his 2008 campaign, may have a bigger following now. Missing the stage might be devastating for one of the mayors, governors or senators hunting for the nomination. For Gravel, it would mean another chance to tell his party what it's doing wrong, all without leaving his patio.
“When it's over, we're going to give the rest of the campaign money to charity,” Gravel said. “We're not going to spend it all. The kids were talking about using it to get clean water to people in Flint, which sounds like a good idea to me.”
"Abortion ban reaction: Democrats erupt, Republicans stay quiet as both sides see an impact in the 2020 election,” by Michael Scherer and Felicia Sonmez
For a long time, Democrats told themselves that a real threat to legal abortion would lead to a serious backlash against Republicans. They may get to find out whether they were right.
" ‘He’s white, male and gay’: Buttigieg hits obstacles with black voters,” by Daniel Strauss and Elena Schneider
How the phenom's campaign is handling his near-zero support from a major party constituency.
The vice president has taken on the task of reassuring old-line Republicans that they're still safe in the party, without contradicting the president.
“Can Cory Booker really turn his back on Silicon Valley?” by Tonya Riley
No other 2020 candidate may be sacrificing as much by choosing the party's new standards over a traditional fundraising base.
“How the media fell out of love with Beto O'Rourke,” by Peter Hamby
The narrative gives and the narrative takes away.
HELENA, Mont. — On Tuesday, a few hours after he became a candidate for president, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) strolled into Ten Mile Brewery, pursued by cameramen. The governor filled a beer glass, taking it from table to table to drink and chat with potential hometown supporters.
“We don’t get the media like this in Montana,” said Daniel Case, who worked at a nearby university.
“Well, not since the Unabomber,” said one of his colleagues, Ryan Hazen.
Bullock, who had been urged for months to challenge first-term Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), had opted instead to run for president. The local reception was warm, and the national media attention was like nothing a Senate candidate ever got. When a campaign staffer said “stills,” jargon to announce that photographers could move ahead to take photos, Bullock said, “Who?”
“You’ll get used to it,” said one photographer.
“Let’s hope so,” Bullock said.
It was a wildly different reception from the one Bill de Blasio got two days later. The mayor of New York City (population 8.6 million) was greeted by a New York Post cover that simply showed people laughing at the idea of his candidacy; the governor of Montana (population 1.1 million) was getting backslaps and serious questions about how Democrats could win again.
“Look, we lost a lot of rural voters over the years,” Bullock said in an interview after the brewery visit. “In the last decade, two-thirds of the counties in this country actually lost businesses, and a lot of folks in those areas ended up supporting Donald Trump. I don't think it's because they agreed with some of his statements or some of the things that he did. They wanted to know that somebody was listening to them.”
But Bullock and de Blasio have overlapping theories of how they get voters. Bullock, unlike de Blasio, can say that he won over tens of thousands of Trump voters. De Blasio can say he has instituted liberal policies — and proved that they worked. Both are making a populist case against big money and corporate power. Both support abortion rights. Both talk about wider access to the social safety net, Bullock with two iterations of Medicaid expansion and de Blasio with universal pre-K.
“As president, I will take on the wealthy. I will take on the big corporations,” de Blasio says in his launch video. “I will not rest until this government serves working people. As mayor of the largest city in America, I’ve done just that.”
Now that the field looks set, there’s a wider range of experience and diversity (both race and gender) in the 2020 primary. But there’s less ideological range than there was in the 2016 race, which topped out at five candidates. The gulf between Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders was larger than the one that exists between Sanders and any other candidate now, even as candidates who front their business experience — John Delaney, John Hickenlooper — take shots at the democratic socialism Sanders brought into the party.
In remarks during his launch, and in an interview, Bullock conceived of a presidency that sounded a lot like Barack Obama’s. Once in office, Bullock intended to mend relations with countries alienated in trade wars, “not as an apology per se, but for folks to recognize that there’s a reason that we’ve had these alliances.” His first executive order would be “to do what I did here, when it came to corporate spending or to corporations trying to even contract with the state” — in other words, to put limits on them.
Bullock on Thursday was en route to Iowa, where he would argue that his experience making change in a capitol controlled mostly by Republicans proved that he could enact his agenda. De Blasio on Thursday was en route to Iowa, where he would argue that he’d been able to do much of what he wanted for the country in one city, where Republicans have little to no power.
“I think I can do well in Iowa,” Bullock said. “The early states have been sort of the Harry Potter sorting hat; they serve a great function.”
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2020 presidential vote in Pennsylvania (Quinnipiac, 978 Pennsylvania voters)
Joe Biden — 53%
Donald Trump — 42%
Bernie Sanders — 50%
Donald Trump — 43%
Elizabeth Warren — 47%
Donald Trump — 44%
Pete Buttigieg — 45%
Donald Trump — 44%
Kamala Harris — 45%
Donald Trump — 45%
Donald Trump — 46%
Beto O'Rourke — 44%
Pennsylvania never fit into the popular theory of how the Democrats blew it in 2016. Hillary Clinton campaigned and spent real money there; the result was a narrow loss, which she blamed in part on the 11th-hour FBI probe of aide Huma Abedin's laptop. And in 2018, Democrats dominated the statewide vote and gained four House seats (thanks in part to newly drawn maps).
Not much has changed since then; the president looks especially weak in the state. Four years ago, when Biden was flirting with a run for president, the same poll gave him an eight-point lead over Trump in Pennsylvania. Now, with a supermajority of voters approving of the economy, the president is well under 50 percent against any challenger. The Biden number is the headline; Warren's lead here is her first evidence in some time that she could put together a majority in Rust Belt states.
Who would do a better job protecting America's interests with China? (Fox News, 1,008 registered voters)
Joe Biden — 42%
Donald Trump — 38%
The Trump reelection campaign, and even some Democrats who oppose Biden, have suggested that the senator's free-trade votes would complicate his path through the Midwest. (Like nearly every senator at the time, Biden in the 1990s voted to bestow preferred trade status on China.) That message hasn't sunk in yet, though the campaign cares less about national support than how the issue plays in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
North Carolina. On Tuesday, Republicans picked state Sen. Dan Bishop as their nominee in the special election in the scandal-plagued 9th Congressional District. Democratic nominee Dan McCready, who piled up money as he faced no primary opposition, immediately attacked Bishop for sponsoring the “bathroom bill” that barred cities from allowing gender-neutral facilities, a decision that cost the state millions of dollars in business. Republicans immediately attacked McCready, who has cut a moderate image — he turned down a campaign donation from Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a frequent target of criticism by the right — as a potential supporter of “government-run health care” and a “socialist takeover of the entire economy.” (McCready has opposed Medicare-for-all.)
Montana. Wilmot Collins, the mayor of Helena now seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2020, said in an interview that he hadn't gotten much encouragement from the national party. “They told me they were looking at the governor,” said Collins, referring to the well-publicized and unsuccessful efforts to draft Steve Bullock into the race. “That was the conversation.” Collins, a veteran and Liberian immigrant whose mayoral run made national news, said he sought to be a senator in the model of the state's other senator, Democrat Jon Tester. Asked where President Trump had done right for the state, he pointed to the implementation of the Veterans Choice program at VA; asked where he disagreed, he said he would have opposed the emergency immigration declaration.
It didn't come with the flash or pomp of a debate, but eight of the 2020 candidates contributed to a new, free report from the Brennan Center about “mass incarceration.” Each essay goes further on a topic the candidates have begun to discuss on the trail: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wrote about prioritizing treatment over jail for drug abuse, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote about ending for-profit prisons, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote about ending a “two-tiered system of justice” that has seen corporate crime get lighter treatment than many petty offenses.
Kamala Harris. In New Hampshire, she said she'd sign an executive order prohibiting the sale of military-style weapons such as AR-15s; she also followed Elizabeth Warren in a refusal to participate in a Fox News-hosted town hall.
Elizabeth Warren. She campaigned in Northern Virginia on Thursday with a new plan: preventing any top Defense Department employee from becoming a contractor within four years of leaving a government job. (That would affect plenty of people in Northern Virginia.)
Pete Buttigieg. He's returning to Iowa on Friday and Saturday and visiting a book club that has been reading every candidate biography one by one.
Jay Inslee. He released his “Evergreen Economy Plan,” a multibillion-dollar, 10-year infrastructure plan to achieve net-zero climate pollution by 2045.
Cory Booker. He's spending Memorial Day weekend (and the two days before it) on a tear through Iowa, starting with a town hall moderated by MSNBC's Chris Hayes.
Kirsten Gillibrand. She's rallying in Georgia to protest the wave of antiabortion bills coming through red states.
Eric Swalwell. He's campaigning in Indiana and Iowa next week; he also sat with Vice News Tonight for a revealing segment about campaigning near the back of a 23-candidate field. “It's very intimidating to say you're running for president,” he says in an interview for the show.
Tim Ryan. He booked his debut Politics and Eggs appearance as a candidate for president and will be back in New Hampshire on June 11.
Alabama and Trump. The moves by Alabama and other Republican-run states to ban abortion raise questions about one of the president's underrated political advantages, one that may be lost to him in 2020 — voters' perception that he's a more moderate kind of Republican.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump dispatched a number of Republicans who questioned his conservative credentials. In some early primary states, voters saw ads from an anti-Trump super PAC that played old footage of the candidate declaring himself “very pro-choice.”
That left an impression, and on Election Day, Trump lost “moderate” voters by only 12 points — an improvement on Mitt Romney's 15-point loss with those voters in 2012. At the same time, Trump matched Romney's 65-point win with self-identified conservative voters. It wasn't just that Hillary Clinton ran slightly to the left of Barack Obama's campaign; voters saw Trump as the most moderate Republican nominee in 28 years.
“He said during the campaign, 'Oh, of course I'm pro-choice, I'm from New York!' " William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts who's challenging Trump in the 2020 primary, said in an interview. “If and when it becomes clear to everybody that he's become [part of the] religious right on the abortion issue, that's going to hurt him a lot. Banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest? Give me a break.”
There is some evidence that it has. Since 2016, voters have steadily begun to view Trump as more conservative. That contributed to his popularity swoon in the suburbs and with female voters. It was something that Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign did try to emphasize, especially through surrogates and allies in groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood. But in that election, it found that social conservatives believed Trump when he said he'd appoint like-minded judges; moderates didn't engage on that issue.
“To conservatives who cared, I don't think Trump's plans on social issues were ever in question,” said Robby Mook, Clinton's 2016 campaign manager. “Regardless of what Trump's past statements had been, he blew every dog whistle he possibly could on the campaign to the religious right and antiabortion groups. Through means that are not clear to me, Trump secured the enthusiastic endorsement of evangelical leaders and foes of abortion rights quite early, despite his past positions and behavior. He took the unprecedented step of releasing a list of potential Supreme Court nominees during the election and clearly stated that the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society were providing names. Since then, he has delivered completely on the promise to make abortion illegal."
Clinton's campaign struggled to convince voters that Trump really would act on the conservative movement's goals; moderates and liberals cast third-party votes at a much higher rate than conservatives. If the abortion wars take center stage, the president will be able to argue that he delivered for his base; Democrats, terrified of what might happen in higher courts, believe that the base was never big enough to reelect him — certainly not if they can portray him credibly as the president who could end Roe.
It was a pretty standard fundraising invitation: Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who is facing the stiffest primary challenge of any Democrat, would be raising money with Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Donations started at $1,000, and sponsorships came in at $5,600.
The problem, for many liberals, was that Lipinski was antiabortion. He was being challenged by Marie Newman, a supporter of abortion rights, while the party was ostensibly trying to defend those rights.
“The day after Alabama voted to restrict a woman's right to choose, it's shocking the DCCC is fervently supporting a representative who is anti-choice, anti-birth control, and anti-health care for all,” Newman said in a Wednesday tweet.
The Lipinski-Newman primary, a rematch of a race the congressman narrowly won last year, has pitted abortion rights and left-wing groups against a DCCC that denies contracts to strategists who work with anti-incumbent campaigns.
“Dan Lipinski has single-handedly given bipartisan clout to the insanely hateful anti-choice movement,” the group Justice Democrats said in a statement.
The DCCC defended the fundraiser, saying that it had been clear about protecting incumbents and that Bustos could campaign for members she disagreed with.
“When Cheri ran to become Chair of the DCCC, she made a promise to stand behind all of our incumbents in their campaigns, from the Blue Dogs to the progressives,” DCCC spokesman Jared Smith said in an email. “She believes in keeping her word, and she believes in keeping our focus on defeating Republicans so we can continue growing the most diverse Majority in our nation’s history. She’s proud of her 100 percent pro-choice record and does not agree with Congressman Lipinski on this issue, but Cheri is also leading the fight to hold Republicans across the country accountable for their relentless attacks on the health and well-being of women and their families.”
. . . 29 days until the cutoff for the first Democratic debates
. . . 42 days until the first Democratic debates
. . . 46 days until the end of the second fundraising quarter