WAUKESHA, Wis. — On Monday evening, in the storage basement of the county GOP's suburban office, two dozen Republicans learned about the drudgery it would take to reelect President Trump. They would need to register voters, as many of them as possible — something many of the people in the room had never done before. If they didn't realize the urgency of that task, the Trump Victory campaign had charts for them, number-by-number studies of how the Democrats, before 2016, had won Wisconsin.
“This is the single most important way you can help the president get reelected,” said Elliott Echols, the national field director of the Republican National Committee. “We can't just relax. We have to register our friends and neighbors.”
Both parties are starting to build their 2020 electorate earlier than ever, with their minds on statewide races in both 2016 and 2018 that were won by less than a percentage point: Trump’s victory, then the victory of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Republicans, cash rich and confident of their pricey data operation, are working to identify every potential Trump voter and turn idle fans of the president into people who'll cast a ballot. Monday's training was part of the RNC's “week of action,” the latest in an effort to turn Trump supporters into voter turnout machines.
Democrats, traumatized by their 2016 experience, are trying to make up ground with constant canvassing, registration and voter contact — the work they didn't see Hillary Clinton's campaign doing in that election. The election itself is more than 15 months away, and in Wisconsin, voters can register right up until the polls closed. But both parties are on the ground now, grinding away, terrified of ceding an advantage with old, slow tactics.
“A traditional field program can be like turning on a faucet,” said Ben Wikler, who became chairman of Wisconsin's Democratic Party last month. “You're spending money, and you're reaching voters, but when the election is over, you turn the faucet off. Our program is more like planting a tree. The earlier you planted it, the bigger it grows.”
Wisconsin, as both Wikler and Republicans emphasized, may be the “tipping point” state in 2020. The president won it narrowly, helped by lower Democratic enthusiasm and the effects of voter ID laws in Milwaukee; since then, he had shored up some skeptics in the city’s conservative suburbs. Without its 10 electoral votes, Trump's path to a second term would narrow dramatically, and polling has shown him slightly stronger here than in the other key 2016 states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Republicans point out that they've got a head start and a big cash advantage in voter mobilization — and Democrats agree. The RNC's long-term data investment, beginning after its surprisingly lopsided 2012 defeat, put at least $300 million into the construction of a voter data file that includes nearly everyone who might vote for the party. It's constantly updated, with voters appearing on a 100-point scale to rate their enthusiasm. The next step was training as many activists as possible in the tactics that could mobilize or convert voters, with a goal of 2 million trained volunteers by Election Day.
“We threw out our old approach of just throwing paid staff into a state and having them beat up the volunteers until we got our numbers,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the RNC and the Trump campaign. “What we do now is take the staff, bring them into a state and train locals as staff, to take ownership within their communities and their neighborhoods. So it's a neighborhood team model.”
The “week of action” — similar events are being held to train at least 6,000 volunteers in the 14 states expected to be competitive in 2020 — was part of that model and that long-term campaign. In Waukesha, it amounted to a short training, slightly less than one hour, designed to turn one of the most tedious tasks in politics into something fresh. Flanked by a cardboard stand-up of the president and a screen full of voter registration tips — not far from a pile of merchandise from Scott Walker's brief 2016 presidential campaign — the RNC's team explained that signing up voters was one part of the three-step victory plan. The second part was persuasion (“They will vote, we want them to vote for us,” read one slide), and the finale was turnout (“supporters who might not vote if we don’t tell them how and why").
Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, was the strategy's success story. Trainers explained that the 44th president's 2008 campaign had registered 2.2 million voters and that the 2012 campaign had registered 1.8 million; in some states, that was more than the margin of victory. If Republicans do that sort of work in Wisconsin, they argue, they could carry the state. Simply win as many voters as they did in 2016, and the state was at risk; Trump pulled 1,405,284 votes, two thousand fewer than Mitt Romney four years earlier. But turnout in the 2018 midterms was far higher, for both parties, than that of 2014, and neither party stopped working afterward.
“There's some 400,000 registered voters in Waukesha,” Gorka said. “In 2016, the president got around 140,000 votes here. So it's an area where we can pump up those numbers.”
In the presentation, the potential Democratic threat was large but beatable. Carlton Huffman, the state party's grass-roots director, noted that even a weakened Democratic Party had help from outside groups and drew special attention to “everybody’s friend Tom Steyer,” the billionaire whose NextGen organization had registered tens of thousands of young voters in the midterms. It was good for Republicans, Huffman said, that Steyer had recently pivoted to run for president.
“Having this wingbat out there every 10 seconds talking about impeachment only helps us,” he said. (NextGen’s work is continuing as Steyer campaigns.)
Democrats concede that their campaign is not as centralized as the Republicans' and probably can't be. The party only recently built the “data trust,” accessible to any campaign that can pay for it, that Republicans built after 2012. The DNC is raising less money than the RNC. The party won't have a nominee until late next spring, at the absolute earliest.
So Wisconsin Democrats are trying to cultivate the post-2016 energy of liberals, which spawned women's marches and science marches and solidarity events with Muslims, into political organizing. In early 2017, the party's last chair kicked off around-the-year organizing, with volunteers canvassing and registering voters many months away from the elections. (The state has local and state Supreme Court elections in off years and on unusual days; Democrats handily won a 2018 court race and lost a 2019 one.)
In 2018, they won every statewide office, replacing Scott Walker with Gov. Tony Evers, in part because they turned out more than 90 percent of voters in their Madison stronghold and in part because they had been pulling out voters in red areas neglected by the 2016 campaign. Republican turnout spiked over 2014, the last midterm; Democratic turnout grew by more.
“If you look at the votes in the 19 reddest counties in Wisconsin, compare the Democratic vote in 2018 to the vote in 2014,” Wikler said. “Together, the expanded Democratic vote in those counties accounted for more than [Evers's] margin of victory. If we hadn't organized in the reddest places in Wisconsin, we would have lost the whole election.”
That organizing would come in stages, but part of it was constant interaction with voters, to make sure that they did not hear from Democrats only when the election was close. On Sunday afternoon in Madison, more than two dozen volunteers crowded into a coffee shop to canvass neighborhoods where some voters, loyal Democrats, had skipped a few recent elections. The “communist, socialist” voters of Wisconsin’s biggest liberal city, as Huffman called them, were not going to stay engaged if Democrats didn’t talk to them.
At the doors, Democrats weren't asked about an election — there weren't any coming up for months — but what they thought of their elected Democrats and what issues they cared about. At most doors, the answer was the same: Just get Trump out of office.
“Centrist Democrats worry that Medicare-for-all imperils control of the House,” by Sean Sullivan and Emily Davies
Most House Democrats have not endorsed Medicare-for-all legislation. They're nervous about any potential nominee who has.
“Republican FEC commissioners let Clinton campaign off the hook for super PAC coordination,” by Karl Evers-Hillstrom
Campaign finance laws can be a bit more like campaign finance “suggestions.”
“Who is Kamala Harris, really? Ask her sister Maya,” by Ben Terris
A profile of the woman who has shaped one of 2020's strongest insurgent candidacies.
“Moderation in the Trump era? Democrats, it’s futile,” by Walter Shapiro
When every Democrat is getting labeled a “socialist” anyway, what's the point of centrism?
Why even Democrats voting for Harris and Warren see them as less “likable.”
DEMS IN DISARRAY
Liberal frustration at House Democrats, who have moved slowly and deliberately in their investigations of the president, has powered at least two primary challenges against powerful, long-serving chairmen. The common thread: Both challengers say that the incumbents have fumbled their oversight responsibilities and may be setting the precedent that no presidential misbehavior can be punished.
On Monday, 30-year-old Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse announced a run against Rep. Richard Neal, who's represented a deep blue part of western Massachusetts since before Morse was born. In an interview, Morse argued that Neal was slow-walking the effort to obtain the president's tax returns, which have been concealed for four years despite an old campaign promise to release them.
“It’s emblematic of his style,” Morse said of Neal. “There’s a lack of urgency. There’s a lack of accountability. I feel like he’s more interested in preserving some relationship with the president than actually holding him accountable. He hasn’t fully used the power that he has; there are legislators in New York state who worked hard to make [Trump’s] tax returns available, and he hasn’t made use of that.”
(Neal has said that he is not taking advantage of the New York law out of worry that it would complicate efforts for Congress to obtain the returns.)
Meanwhile, in New York, former gubernatorial aide Lindsey Boylan has become the most credible challenger to Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York in many years. Boylan, a first-time candidate, raised more than $265,000 in the second quarter of 2019 — more than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised for her entire primary race against Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley.
“When we don’t hold someone accountable, just at a basic level, they’re emboldened to do more of what they’ve done,” Boylan told Politico this week. “We need a leader, not a follower.”
There is much more to the challengers' campaigns, which are part of the broader effort to move the party to the left in safely blue districts. The initial energy behind the campaigns is rooted in frustration: To these challengers, Democrats look to be too scared of negative polling on impeachment to use their investigative powers against Trump. Other irritations have been added to the mix, starting with Neal, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, being skittish about Medicare-for-all hearings and worrying that the term itself could hurt Democrats.
“Why enter government if you are working to preserve a system that is leading to the outcomes we have?” Morse said. “To have a congressman that accepts vast amounts of money from pharmaceutical companies and is against Medicare-for-all: How can he handle this crisis that's broken out all across our country? I want to go to Congress and not be beholden to anyone but the people here in the district.”
The backlash has also hit in Nancy Pelosi's district, where several challengers have piled in with criticism of her speakership. Shahid Buttar, a 45-year-old attorney and immigrant rights activist who's drawn the most attention so far, called her “complicit” with Trump, telling Jewish Currents that she betrayed constituents by letting the administration's immigrant detention policy proceed.
“I’m an advocate,” Buttar said. “I would frankly much rather do my job advocating, but I’ve grown used to our calls for justice falling on deaf ears, and I ran out of patience. So my outrage and my frustration ultimately eclipsed my sense of self-preservation.”
Unlike Crowley, who had never faced a challenge in his district, Pelosi, Nadler and Neal have all competed in primaries. Pelosi has repeatedly crushed even high-profile challengers, like antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan; Nadler, in 2008, clobbered a challenger who ran specifically against his refusal to impeach George W. Bush. (Nadler was then a member of the Judiciary Committee, but not its chairman.)
Eddie Rispone, “Eddie stands with President Trump.” There is no safer message in the Republican politics of 2019 than pledging to stand with the president. That message makes two-thirds of the first big ad buy for Rispone, a businessman turned Louisiana gubernatorial candidate, which begins with a shot of him on a pickup truck with a "TRUMP" sticker and ends with a shot of Rispone and his wife with the president. (Rispone gave a maximum $33,400 donation to the Republican National Committee and has given tens of thousands of dollars to other GOP candidates and state parties.)
“I support our president more than ever against these liberal lunatics running against him!” Rispone says.
There are just two policy positions mentioned in the spot: banning “sanctuary cities” and denying benefits to undocumented immigrants. Unlike some states where the “sanctuary city” issue has sparked up, Louisiana has one: New Orleans, an increasingly Democratic city in an increasingly redder state.
"Is this a good idea?” (Marist, 1,346 adults)
Medicare for “all that want it” — 70%
Legalizing marijuana — 63%
Green New Deal — 63%
Wealth tax — 62%
$15 minimum wage — 56%
Free public college tuition — 53%
Medicare-for-all replacing private insurance — 41%
Medicare for undocumented immigrants — 33%
Decriminalizing border crossings — 27%
This may be the most comprehensive poll so far on the issues animating Democrats in 2020. Each is phrased in a fairly neutral way; each has been debated at some level of the primary process. It's also the first neutral study we've seen of a fairly new idea, changing immigration laws to reduce illegal border crossing to a civil penalty. The results: Some ideas that were seen as hopelessly far left in 2016 are now popular, or more popular, while the bleeding-edge left-wing issues are incredibly unpopular. There is a reason Joe Biden walked back his answer, in the first debate, on whether undocumented immigrants should have access to a government health-care plan.
The results otherwise point to the wisdom of Biden's late entry in the race and his incremental rollout of more moderate plans. Biden has yet to take a position that isn't shared by at least 56 percent of voters and a supermajority of Democrats; the exception was that whiff on immigration one month ago.
Joe Biden. He rolled out a more comprehensive version of the criminal justice reform plan he discussed this month in South Carolina, including the elimination of sentencing disparities and wiping clean the sentences of many nonviolent drug offenders. No one, for example, would be put in jail if merely caught using drugs.
Cory Booker. He quickly criticized the Biden “justice” plan: “Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right. The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
Kamala Harris. She introduced legislation, unlikely to pass in this Congress, that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge convictions of many offenders.
Elizabeth Warren. She will join striking workers at Reagan National Airport en route to Detroit.
Bernie Sanders. He reached a deal on wages with campaign volunteers who told The Washington Post that they were not getting $15 per hour.
Tulsi Gabbard. She told a conservative sports talk host that Kamala Harris did not have the “temperament” to be commander in chief.
Kirsten Gillibrand. At a forum sponsored by Mic, she defended her role in calling on former Sen. Al Franken to resign and asked why it was female senators who kept getting the blame for his resignation.
Bill de Blasio. In the wake of New York City’s brief blackout, he proposed turning the private energy company ConEd into a public utility; he also rolled out a “Working People’s Bill of Rights” to enshrine some workplace fairness rules.
Pete Buttigieg. His campaign swing through the Bay Area will include a conversation about "equity" with a price to get in.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
... is the blue states that could accidentally get Republican senators. As NBC's Mark Murray points out, the two left-most presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have a common problem. Both represent constituents who, in 2018, reelected moderate Republican governors. If elected president, both senators would be replaced by Republicans until special elections were held for the remainders of their terms. (Both terms would otherwise expire at the end of 2024.)
“Either situation could complicate the math for Democrats to win control of the Senate, which would be crucial if the party wants to enact many of the ambitious policies its presidential hopefuls are proposing,” Murray points out.
It's true, but as Murray writes, Democrats in one of these states (Massachusetts) have changed the law before. In 2004, when John Kerry was rolling toward the Democratic nomination but Mitt Romney was governor, the Democratic supermajority passed legislation removing the governor's power to appoint and scheduling special elections. Later, it amended that law to allow a Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, power to appoint a senator until the special election was held. Without that law, Democrats would have held only 59 Senate seats in 2009, preventing the Affordable Care Act from passing.
The bad news for Republicans is that in both states, Democrats still have the power to rewrite the laws. In Vermont, Democrats and Progressives (a third party in the state) hold 24 of 30 Senate seats and 102 of 150 House seats. The Massachusetts legislature is even bluer: Democrats have more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the General Court.
Democrats in both states could pass legislation next year that would alter the Senate replacement process, something handled very differently across the country. In Wyoming, for example, when a senator leaves office before his or her term ends, the governor must appoint a senator of the same party, from a list provided by that party; that's how the state's last Democratic governor ended up handing a seat to Sen. John Barrasso, who swiftly moved up the party's leadership ladder.
Could Democrats do this without any political cost? They didn't pay one in 2004, even as Kerry lost the election; the appointed-senator process did not really become an issue in the special election won by Republican Scott Brown after the death of Edward Kennedy. And doing so would put the moderate governors of both states in the hot seat: With their state's voters extremely likely to vote to send either Sanders or Warren to the White House, they'd risk alienating swing voters. (The risk would be larger for Vermont's Phil Scott, who's on the ballot in 2020.)
... one day until the NAACP forum in Detroit
... seven days until the Democratic debates in Detroit