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The Trailer: The state of the workers' primary

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In this edition: Democrats on the picket lines, a debate about debating, and a new Senate battle to watch in Michigan.

I'm heading to Iowa, where at least 19 Democrats expect to have their breakout moment this weekend, and this is The Trailer.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrives at this weekend's Iowa Hall of Fame Celebration, he'll be leading a "worker's march" of McDonald's employees. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) returns to Iowa this weekend, it'll be with a campaign staff that just formed a union. When Joe Biden made his first campaign trip to Texas, it was for an American Federation of Teachers event where he pronounced himself "a union guy," with a plan to raise teacher pay.

Labor unions made it clear, months ago, that they wanted the many Democrats running for president to fight harder for their endorsements than they had in the past. So far, many Democrats are playing ball, both by accepting invitations to join workers on picket lines and by naming the corporations they want to shame into paying higher wages.

“There's clearly more desire from the public to see a re-energized labor movement,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who decided against a run for president this year but urged other Democrats to focus on the “dignity of work” as they ran for president. “I'm glad to see Democrats make a full-throated defense of the movement; it’s clear that a majority of workers in this country would join unions if they had a chance to.”

The battle for labor support in the 2020 primary is more crowded than ever; the candidates allying with unions do not expect political rewards for months, if ever. While two unions have made endorsements already, with the International Association of Fire Fighters backing Joe Biden and the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council endorsing Mayor Bill de Blasio, unions typically don't endorse until much later in the primary season, and no race has ever given the labor movement so many options.

That's turned many labor events into candidate cattle calls; nearly half of the Democrats who attended last weekend's California Democratic convention, for example, stopped at a small Service Employees International Union (SEIU) breakfast a few blocks from the convention center. It's also heightened the profile of something some Democrats planned anyway: in-person solidarity with unions and low-wage workers.

“New Democrats of the Clinton era and beyond believed Democrats needed to hold labor at arm's length,” said Jeff Hauser, a former AFL-CIO spokesman who now leads the Revolving Door Project, a watchdog group. Sanders's and Warren's “avid and active embrace of labor reflects a growing swath of the Democratic Party becoming ever more clear that Democrats should stand with unions, no less fully than the Republican Party stands for employers. There are enormous governing implications if an unabashedly pro-union figure becomes president for the first time since LBJ, or maybe even FDR.”

Democratic engagement with labor is up overall, but if there is a “workers primary,” Sanders is in the lead. The senator has repeatedly used his campaign list to drive turnout and awareness of labor organizing, doing so for at least two dozen different labor drives, including Delta, Uber, UCLA, Disney, and — just on Thursday — Vox Media.

“We have staff whose job it is to be in touch with labor and stay aware of movements going around the country,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders's campaign manager. “Literally, in the first conversation I had with the senator about joining the campaign, he talked about using this platform to put up videos of striking workers, and people suffering from climate change, and people who couldn't afford their prescriptions.”

Sanders is not the first candidate to focus on workers, and remove his own voice, from some campaign material; Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sometimes did the same.

But in a historically crowded primary, where much of what candidates do falls out of the news cycle within hours, Sanders is working to build a record of labor solidarity that the campaign can point to when voters tune in later in the year. The senator confronted Walmart executives at this year's shareholders meeting; he had only three minutes to speak Wednesday and got a swift dismissal from a Walmart executive for his idea — an employee proposal to give workers a bigger role in the company. But the appearance was covered live on cable business channels, and videos of both the meeting and a small Sanders rally outside of it was shared tens of thousands of times.

“I don't want to thump our chest on everything, but you do see other campaigns modeling some decisions over what the Sanders campaign has done,” Shakir said.

Other Democrats had been working with labor before this campaign, though with a lower profile. Warren has put forward a plan that would give workers more say with their employers, and she’s used her social media to promote labor actions in California, Pennsylvania and New York. She was also the first Democrat to appear with striking workers at New England's Stop & Shop chain; Sanders, who was not in that part of the country when the strike broke out, announced solidarity from afar, while Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg joined the protests.

The McDonald's campaign, a major focus of the SEIU's work, has attracted even more Democrats. De Blasio, former housing secretary Julián Castro, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have also joined actions by McDonald's workers; all six attendees of the SEIU's forum last month in Las Vegas met with workers at events facilitated by the union.

None of this is expected to pay off soon. In 2015, no major union made any endorsement at all until August, when the Machinists backed Hillary Clinton. This year’s ultra-early endorsement of Biden from IAFF was seen as a move to give him credibility with white, male working-class voters; many of the solidarity actions underway since have put Democrats together with the nonwhite and female laborers who make up most of the “working class.”

Candidates trailing far behind Biden have tried to distinguish themselves by digging in on labor fights; Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who represents Lordstown, has become a de facto spokesman for the UAW there, saying Wednesday that he would “continue to work with GM, potential new buyers and UAW” to save a Chevy plant that the president said he would save. If they were worried about appealing to the voters who stayed home or switched sides in 2016, Democrats could listen to consultants — or, they could get advice from workers.

“When I was looking at whether to run, I met with Culinary Local 226 in Nevada, and their slogan is: One job should be enough,” Brown said. “That encapsulates everything we should be talking about, doesn’t it?”


"In need of cash, Democratic presidential hopefuls turn to wealthy donors,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee

The rise of Joe Biden's campaign has cooled some of the early Democratic enthusiasm for turning down big donors.

“Bernie Sanders wants to change America. But he may have to change himself first,” by Anand Giridharadas

On the road with the revamped Sanders campaign, which has to wrestle with the candidate's own dislike of “personality” politics.

“Feud over abortion adds to questions about Joe Biden’s vulnerabilities,” by Matt Viser, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, and Jenna Johnson 

Democrats who want to beat Biden were waiting for evidence that his campaign was not road-ready yet; they think they found some of that evidence this week.

“Deceased strategist’s files detail Republican gerrymandering in North Carolina, advocates say,” by Michael Wines

There's plenty of news coming from the files obtained after the death of gerrymandering guru Thomas Hofeller.

“Dem videos to AJC show divided interpretations of the U.S.-Israel alliance,” by Ron Kampeas

Thirteen presidential candidates submitted short messages to an Israel policy conference, revealing plenty about their views.


The next brawl over the Democratic primary debates was going to start sooner or later; thanks to Jay Inslee, it started sooner. On Wednesday evening, the governor of Washington announced that the Democratic National Committee would not host a debate focused entirely on climate change. Even worse, the party might punish him if he kept pushing.

“They explained that if we participated in anyone else's climate debate, we will not be invited to future debates,” Inslee tweeted, referring to the DNC. “This is deeply disappointing. The DNC is silencing the voices of Democratic activists, many of our progressive partner organizations, and nearly half of the Democratic presidential field, who want to debate the existential crisis of our time.”

Inslee, whose near-singular focus on climate has distinguished him in what could be called the lower tier of the 2020 primary, got swift backup support. Rival candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) echoed his call for a “climate debate,” as did 2000 nominee and Nobel laureate Al Gore, who tweeted that the party should “give a platform to Dem candidates' ideas on the #1 issue, to contrast with this President's denial.” 

That was the polite stuff; for others, Inslee's tweet was the high sign to start bashing the DNC again, asking why it was hurting the party. The idea of a climate-centric debate, after all, was a reaction to anger at 2016 debate formats that spent candidates' time on questions less interesting to activists, like the national debt.

DNC Chairman “Tom Perez doesn't seem to care much about the climate crisis,” said the campaign manager for CREDO Action, a left-wing issues group.

“This is an outrage,” tweeted the Sunrise Movement. 

Sunrise, the dynamic green group that's already planning to host an alternative forum on climate near the second Democratic primary debates, is directly impacted by the DNC's move. The plan for that climate forum was to invite only candidates who had signed onto the Green New Deal and endorsed . . . a climate debate. The DNC's rules against rival debates does not cover “forums” or other events where candidates don't appear onstage at the same time, but activists wanted more.

DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said that simply endorsing a climate debate was not grounds for sanctions; still, the clear statement from the party committee complicates what had been one of the environmental movement's big political campaigns.

This is only the start of tension over the debates, six days before the candidates learn who was cut out and eight days before they discover what stage they're on. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who is unlikely to hit the donor threshold for the debate, is already sounding alarms about how a poll that would qualify him (a Washington Post-ABC News poll that does not prompt voters with candidate names) is not being counted; Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), who has said the polls should get him in the door, attacked the "gimmicks" being used to hit the donor threshold.

The disgruntlement won't stop next week. First, it remains likely that some candidates who would have been taken seriously in other years, like New York mayor Bill de Blasio, will not make the stage, while self-help author Marianne Williamson will. The next outrage, totally out of the candidates' hands, is who gets sorted into which debate; there is already some grumbling about a scenario in which either Warren or Sanders, both of whom have been criticizing former vice president Joe Biden, is shunted to another night. That, unlike the climate debate, is out of the DNC's control; NBC, the host of the first debates, will sort out the stages next week.


Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, who has been elbowing his way to the front of the “centrist” lane of the Democratic primary, is now running Facebook ads that ask supporters to put a critic of Medicare-for-all into the debates.

“Don't let Medicare-for-all go unchallenged at the DNC debates,” the ad reads. “Bernie's Medicare-for-all approach is the wrong solution for our health care crisis.”

Bennet, as readers of The Trailer know, has put his political and strategic disagreements with Bernie Sanders at the center of his 2020 pitch. Former congressman John Delaney of Maryland and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper have also promised to attack the feasibility of full Medicare-for-all (which would smother the private insurance industry) when they get the spotlight. And both Bennet and Hickenlooper are fundraising off the idea; Hickenlooper had previously bought ads about how he was booed at the California state Democratic convention.


2020 presidential race in Texas (Quinnipiac, 1,159 voters)

Joe Biden - 48%
Donald Trump - 44%

Donald Trump - 46%
Elizabeth Warren - 45%

Donald Trump - 46%
Pete Buttigieg - 44%

Donald Trump - 48%
Beto O'Rourke - 45%

Donald Trump - 47%
Bernie Sanders - 44%

Donald Trump - 46%
Julián Castro - 43%

Donald Trump - 47%
Kamala D. Harris - 43%

Both Democrats and Republicans have taken some time to adjust to the new reality in Texas. The Democrats' first attempt to turn the state blue, after 2012, was a debacle that made Republicans overconfident about their own future; the shrunken margins for GOP candidates in 2016 intrigued Democrats, who nonetheless were surprised when most statewide 2018 races were decided by less than 5 percent of the vote. And Quinnipiac's polling, if anything, slightly underrated Democratic strength last year. 

This poll contains some bad news for the president and for Texas's two presidential candidates; neither Beto O'Rourke nor Julián Castro is close to Biden in the Texas primary, meaning O'Rourke is not the strongest-polling Democrat in Texas. The Republican downside is that every Democrat makes the state competitive with a version of O'Rourke's 2018 coalition. In 2008, the last presidential year for which we have Texas exit polling, John McCain won 74 percent of white voters with college degrees. In this poll, every single Democrat holds Trump closer to 55 percent with that bloc, and it's the biggest single group of voters, by education.

2020 presidential race in Michigan (Detroit News, 600 likely voters)

Joe Biden - 53%
Donald Trump - 41%

Bernie Sanders - 53%
Donald Trump - 41%

Pete Buttigieg - 47%
​​​​​​Donald Trump - 41%

Elizabeth Warren - 47%
Donald Trump - 43%

Kamala D. Harris - 47%
Donald Trump - 44%

Michigan looms so large in the Trump mythos — his final 2016 campaign event was a witching hour rally in Grand Rapids — that it remains at the center of the president's 2020 reelection plans. The problem: Republicans were blown away in the state's midterms, and the president remains unpopular in the state, with a favorable rating below 40 percent. In 2016, as a candidate, Trump's low favorables were mitigated by voter dislike of Hillary Clinton; against any other Democrat, either popular (Biden) or as-yet-undefined (Buttigieg), he struggles to get out of the low 40s.

Worth remembering: Trump has never had majority support in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. He won each with a plurality of the vote, and in Michigan, 5.7 percent of voters who turned out picked a third party or write-in candidate. A scatter of votes away from the Democratic nominee still looks like Trump's best path to reelection; when this pollster asked how an independent presidential bid by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) would change their vote, Biden's margin shrunk by half.


Nina Grey, a former Unitarian minister, retired to South Carolina a few years ago. Her new home put her in closer contact with presidential candidates than she'd ever been before, and she took advantage of the opportunity. Like hundreds of other liberal activists, she trained as an ACLU “rights for all” voter, joining an effort to ask candidates about key issues. And on May 8, she got one of those issues in front of Joe Biden.

“Will you commit to getting rid of the Hyde Amendment, which hurts poor women and women of color?” Grey asked.

“Yes,” said Biden, who then began to talk about his “near-perfect” ACLU vote record.

“I'm glad you just said you would commit to abolishing the Hyde Amendment,” Grey added.

“Right now, it has to be,” Biden said. “It can't stay.”

For a month, that looked to be an official Biden stance on the Hyde Amendment, legislative language added to spending bills that prohibits the use of federal funds from paying for abortion. But this week, his campaign clarified that he had “misheard” the question; he still supported the amendment, which the 2016 Democratic platform opposes.

Grey herself was disappointed but forgiving. In an interview, she said that she had learned of Biden's new answer Wednesday afternoon; she was frustrated that he still supported the amendment but could believe that he misheard her.

“We had been chatting a bit before I asked the question,” Grey said. “I had the feeling that he was a bit distracted when I asked the question, and I began to think it's possible he misunderstood it, or possible he misunderstood me.”

At the heart of the dispute: what political downside Biden faces for how he handled it. Polling has consistently found most voters to be comfortable with the Hyde Amendment and, more generally, the idea of preventing taxpayer money from paying for abortions. Not for the first time, Biden has a position in line with the polls and 20-something Democrats have another position. But the confusing way that he revealed his position has given Democrats less forgiving than Nina Grey an opening to attack Biden.


Michigan. Republicans hoped that John James would run for something in 2020; today, the party's 2018 U.S. Senate nominee opted for another go at that office. He made it official on Fox News, where he made frequent appearances in the final stretch of his 2018 race, helping him raise millions of dollars.

“We are heading in the wrong direction as a country and our leaders in Washington are failing to lead us toward a better and brighter future,” James added in a tweet. “I believe I can help lead Michigan toward that future we deserve, and that’s why I am running for U.S. Senate.”

Even after defeating James by 6.5 points in 2018, Democrats take the challenger seriously. He had no political experience in 2018 and proved to be an adept candidate, portraying himself as a frustrated veteran who simply wanted to fix Washington. And Republicans are bullish on him, arguing that Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who won his first term in 2014 by a landslide, has not defined himself.

But like most incumbents up for reelection in 2020, Peters starts with advantages. James's own description of his race gets at one of them: Unlike 2018, when he ran as a Trump ally in the primary and pivoted toward the center, he'll be tied closely to the president in 2020. The vice president and Donald Trump Jr. stumped for James in 2018, but the president only tweeted his support, something Democrats saw as a tell; James wasn't getting an 11th-hour appearance with the president because the president himself was not an asset at the time. The James 2.0 candidacy will be threading a "change" argument through a campaign to reelect a president who's not very popular in Michigan.

Peters, one of the lesser-known members of the Senate, is also a different opponent than 2018's Sen. Debbie Stabenow. In his one televised debate with Stabenow, James lit into the senator for spending a lifetime in politics and more than 30 years in Washington; Stabenow won her first race at age 28, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Peters, who arrived in Washington in 2009, has less “insider” time to attack; his campaign also emphasized today that he was a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, hinting at how it would respond to any Republican focus on James's military service.

New York. The primary campaign against Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) got another assist when Take Back the Court, a liberal pressure group, released a poll to show that voters wanted documents from Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh's career released from the National Archives. The group's polling, from YouGov, found 58 percent of all voters favoring release once the issue was explained to them; the call for this release is at the heart of Lindsey Boylan's challenge to Nadler.


Elizabeth Warren. She celebrated her campaign workers' decision to organize with IBEW, making it the fourth Democratic campaign to unionize. The others: Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro and Eric Swalwell.

Kamala D. Harris. She's ramping up her staff and organization in Iowa after facing some questions of whether she was doing enough to win the state; she had visited less frequently than competitors such as Sanders, Warren, and Sen. Cory Booker, albeit more than Joe Biden.

Kirsten Gillibrand. In a Wednesday night conference call, her campaign told supporters that it had reached 60,000 donations, just 5,000 short of the total needed to qualify for the first debates on both polling and fundraising.

Steve Bullock. The Montana governor expanded on his campaign finance reform program, proposing a new box on tax forms that would require groups to certify that they were not using foreign money on campaign activity and hitting them with heavy fines if the box went unchecked.

Tulsi Gabbard. She's campaigning in New York on Saturday before heading to Iowa for the 19-candidate party gala.

Cory Booker. He used an appearance at the DNC's all-day gathering of black leaders in Atlanta to attack the Hyde Amendment, calling it “particularly an assault on African American women.”

Tim Ryan. He tapped Peter Mellinger, formerly the organizing director for Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign, to run his own operations in the state.

Pete Buttigieg. He's giving his first major foreign policy address next week at Indiana University.

Julián Castro. He’s traveling to Michigan this weekend while most Democrats head to Iowa and will hold a town hall in Flint.

Eric Swalwell. He’s going on the air this weekend in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, joining Jay Inslee and John Delaney as the only candidates so far who’ve bought TV ads.


... five days until Virginia's state primaries.
... 19 days until some municipal elections in New York City.
... 61 days until Mississippi's state primaries.
... 128 days until Louisiana's state primaries.
... 156 days until the off-year elections.