In this edition: The 2020 story lines you don't need to believe, the start of a dramatic Netroots convention, and a setback for Republican women in North Carolina.
I think the Philadelphia Action News theme should be the national anthem, and this is The Trailer.
The end of the second fundraising quarter, the launch of the president's reelection campaign and the shuffle in Democratic primary polls since last month's debate have kicked off a new phase in the 2020 election. From time to time, this newsletter likes to run through the story lines and narratives shaping the race; at this early stage, neither the race for the Democratic nomination nor the race for Congress is being shaped by daily events. Here is what’s on engaged voters’ minds, and what we know about it.
Trump won, so voters think anyone can win. This is turning out to be partially true. It's an insight (or maybe a wish) that comes up again and again among Democratic voters: The last election scrambled their sense of reality, and it doesn't make sense anymore to believe that an “unelectable” candidate exists. Steve Wormuth, a 35-year-old carpenter who came to see Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speak in Des Moines, said that his “credit was in the gutter” after an unexpectedly massive medical bill and that he fully supported the idea of a national health-care system.
“At this point, if you’re trying to say that saying one thing is going to turn people off, then look at Trump,” he said. “He says one thing after another and it doesn’t seem to affect him. He’s kind of turned politics on his head, and if the right can do that, why can’t the left do it, too?”
There's a high-level worry from Democrats about the ideas drifting from the Democratic debates, and from town hall meetings, like replacing private insurance with Medicare or allowing undocumented immigrants to get public benefits. It has not yet sunk in among early-state voters; at this stage, voters see some individual candidates as left wing but are not nervous about individual issues.
Cindy Fitzgerald, a 62-year-old union organizer who came to see former vice president Joe Biden speak in Marshalltown, said she had ruled out Sanders in part because Republicans “would just call him a communist” and win the election by attacking his left-wing ideas.
“The free college stuff is why I can’t go for Bernie,” said Fitzgerald. “I like [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren, but she’s on that free college stuff too, and that’s a problem. And reparations? I don’t know where you even start with that. Those would be tough to run on.”
Biden can win back white voters who rejected Hillary Clinton. Maybe, if polling stays as strong for him as it has been. The snapshot numbers available to us suggest that Biden is in a stronger position with the voters who swung the Midwest: white voters who lack college degrees. The twist is that, at the moment, every Democrat does a bit better than Clinton did.
In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Biden trailed Trump by 19 points among white voters without college degrees, a serious improvement from the 37-point margin by which Clinton lost those voters. But every Democrat ran stronger than Clinton with those voters: Sanders trailed by 31 points, Warren by 30 points and Sen. Kamala Harris by 28 points. An improvement of six, eight or nine points for Clinton with these voters would have won her the Midwest. But why does the same poll show Sanders, Harris and Warren functionally tied with Trump? They lead him among “moderate” voters by about the same margin Clinton did, 12 points; Biden's lead stretches to 28 points.
Democratic infighting is weakening them ahead of 2020. Not yet. You might not know it from the time Democrats spend putting out fires; this was at least the fifth week when House Democrats found themselves arguing again about a member of the “squad” of left-wing women elected last year. Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) thanked reporters for asking her about "substantive" topics and chided a reporter who asked about her criticism of the squad.
“I said what I'm going to say, with all due respect,” Pelosi said. “Maybe you didn't hear what I said.”
Right now, there's no sign that the coverage of intra-Democratic arguments has weakened the party. At this point two years ago, Democrats enjoyed a nine-point average lead in the battle for the House, then controlled by Republicans. Today, the same aggregation of polls puts them up by 8.8 points — functionally, no change at all. And the finance numbers rolling in over the past week found freshman Democrats holding onto the advantages they had at the end of 2018, with no notable dips in support. Republicans are not all on the same page about the party's launch of “WinRed,” a universal fundraising window modeled after the Democrats' “ActBlue,” and they have not seen a burst in fundraising.
Republicans have a 2020 Senate primary problem. No, or at least not one that matches up with the hype. It's true that two men the national party strongly dislikes, two men who lost statewide races that looked impossible to lose, are now running for Senate. Kansas's Kris Kobach entered his state's race as the Republican front-runner; Roy Moore declared a second bid for an Alabama Senate seat despite the party beseeching him to retire.
Moore faces a much steeper path to the nomination than he did in 2017. Alone among the GOP's Senate candidates in Alabama, his unfavorable ratings vastly run past his favorable ratings; that was not true before his loss to Sen. Doug Jones. The state still has a runoff system, which would put Moore in a contest with another, less-damaged Republican; there is no real Republican nervousness about Moore's chances.
Kobach, by far the best-known candidate in Kansas's race, can win the nomination without a majority of votes — there's no runoff — but Democrats have their own primary in the state, with former U.S. attorney Barry Grissom facing one-term congressman Nancy Boyda. Kobach is weaker than some candidates the party could put up, but his fatal errors in his 2018 race for governor were mostly hubristic, problems with staffing and strategy that the national party would not allow in a Senate candidate; they bailed out Pat Roberts, whose retirement opened this seat, in 2014.
It's taken a few elections, but Democrats want it to sink in: There's no real agenda for the party if it doesn't hold the Senate.
More voters are registering as independents, and Republicans are holding on better amid the attrition.
Democrats and liberal activists are funding fights to overturn or head off measures that they worry could reduce the power of the youth vote.
" ‘Outright disrespectful’: Four House women struggle as Pelosi isolates them,” by Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis
The “squad” really wants to know why the House speaker keeps minimizing their input.
Peering inside the mind of a George W. Bush-appointed judge who seems skeptical about throwing out the Affordable Care Act.
“The two women vying to be America's top labor official,” by Stephen Greenhouse
An insider's look at the race to lead the AFL-CIO.
PHILADELPHIA — Four thousand or so liberal activists will spend the next three days here, gathering for the 14th annual Netroots Nation conference — the third with a presidential forum. In 2007, nearly every Democratic presidential candidate attended the conference in Chicago, staying for a debate and holding special sessions for attendees. In 2015, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley (but not Hillary Clinton) sat for Netroots interviews in Phoenix, only to be interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists who protested the lack of a focus on racial justice in the questions.
This year, just a handful of the 25 Democratic presidential candidates will make the trek to Philadelphia. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a frequent speaker at the conference, will join former HUD secretary Julián Castro, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) at the Saturday presidential forum — and that may be it. With Warren's exception, the highest-polling Democratic candidates will not be in Philadelphia. Joe Biden, whose campaign is headquartered in that city, will be in New Hampshire; so will South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Neither Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) nor Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will be attending, and the Sanders campaign says the candidate is off the trail completely this weekend, for unspecified reasons.
Sanders will have a surrogate, of sorts, at Netroots; former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, a co-chair of his campaign, will appear on a panel and join a solidarity protest with hospital workers. But the smaller footprint for presidential candidates is notable, and organizers say that Biden et. al. are making a mistake by skipping.
“Netroots attendees are the core activists of the party and will play a key role in determining who Democrats' 2020 nominee will be,” said Carolyn Fiddler, the spokeswoman for Daily Kos, the group blog that founded the conference. “Candidates not in attendance are missing the opportunity to speak directly to this ultra-engaged group of voters and engage core progressives the issues they care about most.”
Every Netroots comes with some drama; this year's is largely about Sanders. In 2015, he was visibly irritated when a protest disrupted his time onstage. Protests are endemic to the conference — activists have interrupted candidates for governor, White House representatives and even then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). And this year, the presidential forum will be moderated in part by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos and a public critic of Sanders.
The Sanders campaign, again, says there is a good reason the senator cannot come. But the professional activists who make up most of the Netroots audience have been cheering for Warren longer than Sanders; in 2014, a brief campaign to draft Warren as a presidential candidate debuted at the conference. Moulitsas said that Sanders was making a mistake.
“If he can stand against hostile Fox News hosts, I would hope he’d be able and willing to do the same with his ideological allies,” Moulitsas said of Sanders.
Biden's absence is less surprising, though he spoke at the event as vice president five years ago. (He skipped the 2007 conference.) Booker and Harris spoke at the 2018 conference in New Orleans. Organizers made a conscious effort to not invite everyone running for president. To attend, candidates needed to show some level of support in Daily Kos's biweekly straw poll; most candidates simply didn't have that support, and, per Fiddler, they were “politely” told they would not get time at the forum.
“Anything that helps cull the field is not a bad thing,” said Moulitsas.
The forum is just one part of a multiday conference. There is no real "liberal" answer to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference; Netroots comes close, but instead of stacking a long series of speeches and panels over several days, it features a few keynote sessions interspersed with dozens of small panels and breakout sessions. The better-funded organs of the left, like Emily's List, Planned Parenthood, and the American Federation of Teachers, sponsor the conference and host trainings and after-parties; Tom Steyer's NextGen typically sponsors an annual pub quiz. (Steyer himself, now a candidate for president, is skipping this year's conference to campaign in South Carolina.)
This year, it's all funding a conference that will focus more on labor unions, protest movements and the new members of Congress than on the 2020 race. Three members of the House progressive “squad” will be there: Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who attended the 2017 conference as an activist and the 2018 conference as an icon, will not make it.) Sens. Sherrod Brown and Jeff Merkley, who decided not to run for president, will talk about the left's agenda. It will be, again, the biggest gathering of liberal activists in the country, but it's not lost on anyone that most of the 2020 field is skipping it.
“It boggles my mind that any candidate would willingly miss an opportunity to connect with that audience,” Moulitsas said. “It’s a one-day event. What else is happening that is so important that they couldn’t work around a single Saturday in Philadelphia?”
Mike Gravel, “Record.” The former Alaska senator's “patio campaign” may end this month; it's definitely over if he is cut from the second debates. But before he goes, Gravel is running the first negative ad against Joe Biden from any Democratic candidate. (The Club for Growth has run anti-Biden ads in Iowa.) Adapting material that has run in Facebook ads, it begins with images of FDR, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, accompanied by Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson. “Who do you want to lead our party next,” it asks, “following in the footsteps of giants.” What follows is 50 seconds of Biden's quotes about the Iraq War (“a march to peace and security"), abortion and the 1994 crime bill, followed by a request to donate to Gravel's campaign and get him into the party's debates.
Tom Steyer, “Money where his mouth is” and “Keeping the Promise.” The newest Democratic candidate for president is spending more than a million dollars to run ads in early states; one introduces him as a philanthropist turned political activist, and one warns that no other candidate can avoid the grip of big money.
“Our democracy has been purchased,” Steyer says in the second ad, over footage of an immigrant detention center, a Flint, Mich., water tower and a congressional hearings. "The candidates running for president have great ideas, but we can’t get anything done unless we make our democracy serve the people again." The first add runs through his post-2010 giving career; Steyer does not say he's a candidate for president in the ad, though his logo appears onscreen.
Eddie Rispone, “Trump supporter.” The first Republican candidate's ad in Louisiana's race for governor positions Rispone as the local answer to President Trump. “I think Louisiana needs to follow suit with what's going on with our president,” says Rispone, a first-time candidate. "We have to support him in every way we can and be outspoken about it.” No local issues are mentioned in the ad.
The Republican runoff in North Carolina's 3rd Congressional District was the first real test of a new project to elect more conservative women to the House. It was not a success. State legislator Greg Murphy handily defeated pediatrician Joan Perry, who said she was driven into politics after hearing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's description of what happens to an unviable fetus after delivery.
Spending and outside interest in the race surged between the April 30 primary and the July 9 runoff. But voter turnout declined. While 42,187 votes were cast in April, just 35,916 were cast in the Murphy-Perry race. Murphy, who won three of the district's five most populous counties in April, swept those counties in the runoff, with a 4-to-1 landslide in Pitt County that Perry could not overcome.
Murphy is the heavy favorite to join Congress after the special election in September, but he'll get a mixed welcome. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who cheered on female Republicans as their Winning for Women Action Fund spent nearly $1 million for Perry, said Wednesday that Perry had made a “tremendous improvement” from the first round and that “I look forward to seeing more women elected” as Republicans. And Perry did get more support than every female candidate had, combined, in April: from 8,890 votes to 14,472 votes.
Still, Murphy was able to hold his lead from the first round with the sort of campaign that simply works in 2019: portraying his opponent as disloyal to the president, for not fully supporting his actions to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Murphy will face Democrat Allen Thomas, who has been generally ignored by the national party, on Sept. 10.
Kentucky. Amy McGrath, the Marine fighter pilot turned congressional candidate turned Senate candidate, spent her second day on the trail cleaning up an answer to one of the state's top political reporters. First, she told the Louisville Courier-Journal's Phillip M. Bailey that she “probably would have voted” to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Within hours, she tweeted that she had misspoken: “Upon further reflection and further understanding of his record, I would have voted no.” As a House candidate, last year, McGrath had opposed Kavanaugh's nomination, a fact that both gobsmacked supporters and gleeful Republicans pointed out all day Wednesday.
Indiana. Former state legislator Christina Hale jumped into the race to replace Rep. Susan Brooks, who is retiring from her seat in Indianapolis's suburbs at the end of 2020. It's the only district in the state that has shifted toward Democrats in recent years; the Trump campaign carried it by 11.8 points, down from the 16.8 margin Mitt Romney won there in 2012, and despite a greater GOP margin statewide.
Joe Biden. He delivered the first major policy speech of his campaign, a foreign policy address in New York; in it, he pledged to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” echoing some of the language used on the left in arguing for the end of the 2001 law that has authorized military strikes across the region without additional consent from Congress.
Bernie Sanders. The senator from Vermont, who repeatedly invokes FDR's 1936 remarks that the very wealthy “are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred,” channeled that into a list of “anti-endorsements” — captains of finance who have said they would never vote for him.
Elizabeth Warren. Ahead of her speech to the League of United Latin American Citizens, she published her immigration plan, with echoes of the plans introduced previously by Julián Castro and Beto O'Rourke. In it, Warren promises to “end criminal prosecutions for simple administrative immigration violations,” prosecute Trump-era abuses on the border, increase humanitarian aid to Central America, create a new federal agency dedicated to assimilating immigrants and more.
Pete Buttigieg. Weeks after a police-involved shooting in South Bend raised questions about his campaign and his ability to connect to black voters, he introduced a “Douglass plan” to rebuild black America, offering everything from a 25 percent set-aside for minority-owned contractors with the government to more enterprise zones.
Mike Gravel. His campaign claims that the former senator from Alaska is just 7,000 donations away from hitting the 65,000 mark that would put him in contention for the July debates. One of the factors that helped in the final push: an appeal from Marianne Williamson to her followers, asking them to support Gravel.
Julián Castro. While in Milwaukee on Thursday, he'll meet with the local branch of the Working Families Party, courting it for an endorsement.
Tulsi Gabbard. She's joining a relatively small delegation of 2020 Democrats to LULAC, holding a series of events in Milwaukee on Thursday.
John Delaney. He's back in Iowa on Saturday and Sunday for a run of party events, including the birthday brunch for state Sen. Zach Wahls, which Wahls has turned into a party fundraiser.
John Hickenlooper. He's in Iowa, too, and also making a stop at the brunch; like most of the Democrats in eastern Iowa this week, he will stop at Progress Iowa's corn feed in Cedar Rapids.
Michael Bennet. He's spending five days in Iowa, starting Saturday at a party event in Waterloo and running through his AARP policy forum appearance on Monday.
Joe Sestak. He's campaigning around Iowa for the third week, ahead of an initial trip to New Hampshire.
Two weeks after Queens Democrats voted in a primary to select the borough's new district attorney, they still don't know the winner. Tiffany Cabán, a young public defender who was backed by a coalition of left-wing groups, appeared to have won the race on election night. But when absentee ballots were tabulated, Queens borough president Melinda Katz won them by a landside, pushing to a 20-vote lead that was whittled down to 16 votes at the start of an ongoing recount.
There is no way this will end without some broken hearts. Cabán's apparent victory in the low-turnout primary came after backing from the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; it looked to be the latest win for the party's well-organized insurgents. After a recount, which will last at least 10 days and may not change the margin, Cabán's campaign will move to count 114 ballots that were ruled invalid for what appears to be human error: Voters did not write the word “Democrat” on them. If the ballots go uncounted, the left will wonder if an election it had seemingly won was snatched away; if they are counted, the party's local leaders will cry foul about “invalid” votes.
The key local leader is Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), who took over the Queens Democratic Party after Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley. To him, the fracas over Cabán and Katz is the result of two things: an electorate split between several credible candidates and meddling by presidential candidates who should have known better.
“The national figures have no idea of what's on the ground,” Meeks said in a short interview. “This would not have been even a close race if in fact we were unified. It was six against one, if you look at the numbers. Melinda Katz is now ahead, but you've got to remember that Cabán won four assembly districts and Melinda won 14.”
Asked if a Cabán lost would stoke the kind of anger that has chased Democrats since their 2016 primary, Meeks put the blame on the party's left.
“When I see what some of the Bernie people are doing, I see they don't care about the Democratic Party,” Meeks said. “They like the disunity. So it's not about trying to bring us together; they don't care if the party falls apart or splits. I don't think we need to tear it down. We need to fix it.”
... five days until the cutoff for the second Democratic debates
... seven days until the dramatic CNN drawing for stage position in those debates
... 63 days until the third Democratic debate