In this edition: Democrats in Detroit call Trump a racist, Joe Biden gets ready for a debate fight, and polling that has the former vice president in the lead.
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DETROIT — Donald Trump did not attend the 110th annual convention of the NAACP. He’d missed the 109th, 108th and 107th conventions, too. The only Republican who showed at Wednesday’s presidential forum was Bill Weld, whose primary challenge to Trump lands somewhere between “long shot” and “quixotic” and who understood the crowd’s mood right away.
“Donald Trump is a raging racist,” Weld said, to loud applause. “Okay? He's a complete and thoroughgoing racist. He made that choice, a choice a long time ago, when he was engaged in the housing business in New York with his father.”
Two-and-half years into his presidency, one week after he began attacking a “squad” of young left-wing Democrats of color as anti-American radicals who needed to “go back” to where they came from, Trump has made his opponents increasingly bold in how they talk about race. Prodded by activists, emboldened by the president’s unpopularity, Democrats have been dropping the cautious approach of past elections and running more confidently on billion-dollar education investments, shrinking the prison population, and exploring whether the descendants of slaves could be paid reparations.
“We have finally hit a juncture where people are open to talk around issues in a much more progressive way, a much more inclusive way, after spending so many years moving off kilter to the right,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in an interview.
The NAACP’s forum kicked off three days of conversations between Democrats and historically influential African American organizations. Several of the nine Democrats who spoke in Detroit headed next to Indianapolis, where the National Urban League was meeting. In both settings, Democrats lambasted the president as a racist, linking everything from the Justice Department declining to investigate police-involved shootings to immigrant raids to the president's personal animus. The "racism" accusation, controversial when levied against previous presidents, became almost rote.
“It is easy to call Donald Trump a racist now,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in Indianapolis. "You get no great badge of courage for that. The question is what were you doing to address structural inequality and institutional racism throughout your life? Don’t just tell us what you’re going to do. Tell us what you’ve already done."
In Detroit, Democrats talked about the president this way in a room that had supported a resolution in favor of impeaching him; that language was introduced by Rep. Al Green of Texas a week after most House Democrats voted against his effort to impeach Trump. Accusing the president of racism may have been more politically safe. A new Fox News poll, which asked voters about the president's tweets attacking the “squad,” found that 63 percent of all voters disagreed with the tweets and 57 percent believed that the president “does not respect racial minorities.”
Those tweets had kicked off speculation that the president was baiting Democrats, hoping to associate them with new members of Congress who wanted to break up Immigration and Customs Enforcement and boycott Israel. There was not much worry about this in Detroit, where Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who had won the city's congressional district in a 2018 upset, got a standing ovation.
Democrats, who blame their 2016 defeat in Michigan on depressed turnout among black voters as much as on the president's support from white voters, emphasized that they were starting earlier to talk to that part of their base. A 20-city party “day of action,” shortly before the conference, included knocking on doors in Detroit. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who pushed for the early organizing strategy in 2018 and ahead of 2020, rejected the idea that Trump was winning support by talking so much about the “squad” and about illegal immigration.
“I know that when I meet with Michigan farmers, one of the top issues they want to talk about is the fact they can't get skilled farmworkers to work in their fields,” Stabenow said. “They want real immigration reform. We all want strong borders, but I think that the majority of people also understand that cruelty to children at the border does not somehow make us stronger.”
But Democrats did not always talk like this in swing states, or even when facing the NAACP. In 2007, the last time most of the Democratic presidential field attended the conference, the focus was more on civil rights history, economic opportunity and the specific failures of President George W. Bush than on ambitious policies for black America. This year, even the candidates pegged as “moderate,” or as better positioned to win white voters without college degrees, arrived with a plan to end “mass incarceration.” Joe Biden, who has taken fire from his rivals for the passage of anti-crime bills in the 1990s, used his time onstage to briefly defend his record, then explain how he could unwind decades of “tough on crime” laws. He released a new, more liberal criminal justice plan Tuesday, before he spoke to the NAACP.
“We have now a systemic issue and too many African Americans in jail right now, so I think we should shift the whole focus from what we were doing in terms of incarceration to rehabilitation,” he said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who began her remarks to the conference by noting that she was the first candidate to call for Trump's impeachment, used the rest of her time to talk about racial restitution.
“I have called for legalizing marijuana; that's one way we can deal with that problem all the way through the criminal justice system,” Warren told reporters after her speech. “And when people want to come back to their communities, they've served their time, yet under today's system they are cut off from housing and jobs. That pushes them right back into fewer options and crime.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who has become a frequent guest at NAACP gatherings, won loud applause for the message she'd been delivering to friendly Democratic audiences — a condemnation of the president.
“We have a predator living in the White House,” she said. “It is the nature of predators, their instinct, to prey on those they perceive to be vulnerable, to prey on those their perceive to be weak, to prey on those who are in need of help, often desperate for help.”
Republicans, who have not cracked 10 percent of the black vote in decades, often make the effort to speak to the NAACP. Mitt Romney, an unwelcome guest who was trying to unseat the first black president, withstood some boos at his 2012 appearance. George W. Bush, who skipped the conference most years, stopped by in 2006; two years later, he was commended by the NAACP for signing a criminal justice reform bill, one co-sponsored by Biden.
This year, the current president's unacceptability to black voters was taken as a given; there was no praise for his signature on the First Step Act, which Booker moved through the Senate. In an interview, and onstage, Johnson ridiculed the president's common pitch to black voters — the low unemployment rate — saying that black unemployment would be viewed as unacceptably high if the same rate was shared by all Americans.
With the White House lacking any representation, the recriminations were left to Democrats. Pete Buttigieg, who has repeatedly acknowledged that he has work to do to win black voters, faced questions about the handling of a police-involved shooting in his city of South Bend, Ind.
“I'm not staking my candidacy on the idea that we've resolved systemic racism in my city,” Buttigieg said. “No mayor, no city, no community, will succeed unless we put the resources and attention nationally into dealing with this issue.”
"Virginia Democrats outraise Republicans ahead of critical elections,” by Laura Vozzella
Six months after a Democratic scandal that dominated national news, nobody's resigned, and their party is back in a strong position to take power.
“Why Trump swallowed a budget deal that bleeds red ink,” by Nancy Cook and Burgess Everett
The story behind the end of tea party-era spending cuts, something that has not damaged Republicans' standing with their base.
The agonies of a committee chair who won his seat after an impeachment backlash and is being urged to back impeachment in a new and very different world.
A deep and newsy look into the past few years, as Warren turned herself into a Democratic power player.
The state of things after the Mueller hearing.
DEARBORN, Mich. — Plenty of campaign spin comes with an expiration date. That was very true for one of the original premises of Joe Biden's campaign: that he would focus his fire on the president and rise above the Democratic fray.
“Barack said it best: You don't want to form a circular firing squad,” Biden told CNN this month. “There are a lot of good people running,” Biden said at a stop in New Hampshire. The early analysis was that Biden, the only Democratic candidate whom nearly every primary voter had cast a ballot for (as vice president), did not need to descend into the mosh pit and that taking on Trump would actually help separate him from the field.
This theory left out two crucial inputs: the political strength of Biden's top rivals and Biden's pride in his 50-year political record. And that pride is the thing to watch now, heading into the second debate. At a Wednesday morning stop in a diverse suburb of Detroit, Biden was asked what he thought of Cory Booker calling him the “architect of mass incarceration.” He sighed deeply, then unloaded.
“Cory knows that's not true,” Biden said. “You know the significant portion of the incarceration that occurred before the crime bill was written, number one. Number two, if you look at the mayor's record in Newark . . . his police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men. We took action against them, the Justice Department took action against them, held the police department accountable. He objected to federal interference. If he wants to go back and talk about records, I'm happy to do that."
Biden's campaign followed that Dearborn stop with a memo about Booker's Newark years. It was, by far, the most negative statement Bidenworld had released about another Democrat. Previously, Biden allies had preferred to portray his rivals as hypocrites or glory hogs; before the first debate, they circulated old quotes of every candidate praising Biden when he was vice president. The message: Democrats knew Joe, and if they were attacking him, they were lying.
That approach did not work. In Detroit, at the NAACP convention, Biden suggested that his critics were disrespecting the wisdom of Barack Obama: “I don’t think he would have picked me if these accusations about me being wrong on civil rights were correct.” In Dearborn, asked why some polls found Democrats viewing Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris as “stronger” leaders than he, Biden immediately harked back to the debate.
“I was probably overly polite in the way I didn't respond to an attack,” he said. He sarcastically paraphrased part of Harris's attack on his busing record. " ‘You're not a racist.’ Which is a nice thing to say. It was really reassuring.”
Later, at a fundraiser in Detroit, Biden said that he was “not going to be as polite” in the second debate next week and continued to attack Harris.
“This is the same person who asked me to come to California and nominate her in her convention,” Biden said. (Biden spoke at the 2016 California convention, urged by Harris, but did not endorse her until several months later.) Referring to both Harris and Booker, he dared them to “argue about the past” with him.
“I've got a past I’m proud of,” he said. “They've got a past that’s not quite so good.”
Biden's defense of his record is aggressive on any issue — gun control, the financial crisis, the Iraq War. But nothing has set him off quite like the charge that he has been bad for black voters. In his farewell speech to the Senate, before taking on the vice presidency, Biden described “getting started because of civil rights” and being honored to work with the first black president. At the NAACP forum, he began by talking about his lifetime membership in the group and described taking on civil rights law when “my city was in flames” from race riots. In Biden's view, attacks on his record simply lack credibility; the support he gets from black voters proves it.
That attitude flashed again Thursday morning, after Booker's shot at Biden during the Urban League forum. Within an hour, Biden's campaign mocked the idea that the former vice president would have an “enthusiasm” problem by pointing to two polls that found Biden at 41 percent with black voters and Booker in the single digits.
Support in a primary and enthusiasm in a general election are not the same thing. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the black vote in every state where she competed with Bernie Sanders. Even in Michigan, the site of Sanders's greatest upset, Clinton won black voters by 40 points. But six months later, sagging black enthusiasm sunk Clinton's campaign in Milwaukee and Detroit. In both states, the black share of the electorate shrank compared with 2012; the tens of thousands of black voters who stayed home were more than the margin of Clinton's defeat.
Both Booker and Harris have argued that their candidacies could fire up nonwhite voters who might not be excited about the election. Biden is signaling that he won't let them make that argument without a rebuttal from him, one that will challenge their own credibility on criminal justice restructuring.
Tate Reeves for governor, “Coast.” So many ads in Republican primaries focus on the candidate's support for President Trump that anything about the candidates themselves can be a head-turner. Here, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the favorite to win next month's Republican gubernatorial primary in Mississippi, focuses entirely on his work to pass legislation that sent 75 percent of BP settlement funds from the Deepwater Horizon disaster to the Gulf Coast.
“Some politicians tried to steal our recovery dollars,” a narrator says. “But one leader stood tall: Tate Reeves. Reeves insisted that BP settlement money stay in coastal counties.”
Republican dominance in Mississippi is fairly new; 16 years ago, Democrats still had a lock on the state legislature. The Gulf Coast is one of the most reliably red parts of the state, but it has always rewarded politicians who bring back projects and disaster relief. In a low-key way, the ad is perfectly Trumpian; the president's signature on billions of dollars of spending and disaster relief is going to be part of his 2020 campaign.
Robert Foster for governor, “Values.” Foster, one of the underdogs in the Mississippi gubernatorial primary, has made more national news this year than Reeves, the front-runner and heir apparent. The reason: He refused to travel alone with a female reporter for Mississippi Today, “to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise” his marriage.
This was not a surefire winner of an issue, even in a conservative and deeply religious state. One solution: an ad in which Foster's wife Heather speaks straight to camera, describing her husband's stance against being alone with another woman as evidence of real rectitude.
“Robert's not trying to set a standard; he's just living by one,” she says. “For 14 years, I've stood beside Robert as he's lived out his faith and stood by his principles, even when it was unpopular.”
South Carolina primary (Monmouth, 405 likely voters)
Joe Biden — 39%
Kamala Harris — 12%
Bernie Sanders — 10%
Elizabeth Warren — 9%
Pete Buttigieg — 5%
Cory Booker — 2%
Tom Steyer — 2%
Michael Bennet — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1%
Beto O’Rourke — 1%
This is Monmouth's first South Carolina poll, but the Biden support level matches last week's CBS-YouGov poll exactly: 39 percent. Biden's at 51 percent with black voters, with no Democrat coming closer than Kamala Harris, at 12 percent. It's a closer race with white voters, with Biden at 24 percent and Warren at 21 percent. Compared with the state of things four years ago, when Bernie Sanders spent an unsuccessful year trying to win over black voters from Hillary Clinton, Biden's got far more competition; Clinton eventually won 86 percent of the black vote and 54 percent of white voters in the state.
One number that might matter more in the short run: Tom Steyer's 2 percent. That's the second result that he can use to qualify for the September debates, though he needs to notch 130,000 unique donations and two more 2 percent-or-better polls.
2020 election in Ohio (Quinnipiac, 1,431 voters)
Joe Biden — 50%
Donald Trump — 42%
Donald Trump — 46%
Bernie Sanders — 45%
Donald Trump — 46%
Elizabeth Warren — 45%
Donald Trump — 44%
Kamala Harris — 44%
Donald Trump — 44%
Pete Buttigieg — 44%
Donald Trump — 44%
Cory Booker — 43%
After a long, happy and lucrative existence as a swing state, Ohio has fallen off the Democrats' 2020 front line. Party organizations sketch out scenarios where they can win without it. Polling has found Democrats running better in Arizona and Georgia, fast-growing and increasingly diverse, than they do in Ohio. Even this poll, which has the president struggling to hold onto his voters against any Democrat and outright losing them to Biden, skews away from recent surveys. It finds an electorate where only 43 percent of voters approve of the president's performance.
In 2018, 53 percent of Ohio voters told exit pollsters that they approved of how Trump was doing. That year, 55 percent of voters identified as white and without college degrees; they backed most of the GOP's statewide ticket by 23 points, and this poll has every Democrat running stronger. (Only Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio narrowed the gap with those voters, losing them by 10 points, where this poll has Biden losing by 11.)
How will economic conditions change if Trump is reelected? (Fox News, 1,004 registered voters)
Get worse — 39%
Get better — 33%
Stay the same — 26%
At the start of this week, Elizabeth Warren re-released some of her economic proposals with a new theme: She had predicted the financial crash ahead of 2008, and she was identifying some of the same structural problems in the economy ahead of 2020. The political reason for doing so was subtle but simple: Voters nervous about nominating a candidate they like, but who is not polling as well against Trump as some rivals, should consider how a recession would scramble the electoral map — just as it did in 2008 and 2010. Put another way: Without a strong economy to run on, couldn't Trump be beaten by anyone?
This poll finds the president at 46 percent approval and also finds the highest approval of the overall economy since the start of this century. But 36 percent of voters expect the economy to get worse if Democrats win in 2020 and 39 percent expect it to get worse if Trump wins. The level of Democratic worry about a coming recession is higher than the level of Republican confidence that it isn't. More good economic reports can change that; Democrats, like every out-of-power party, silently hope to see some bad reports soon.
Florida. Margaret Good, who flipped a Tampa-area state legislative district in one of 2018's first upsets, is running for the overlapping 16th Congressional District. It's an unusual Democratic target, having moved slightly to the right in the past 10 years — Barack Obama lost it by three points in 2008, then by eight in 2012, and watched Hillary Clinton lose it by 11 points in 2016. The twist is that Good won her race by defeating the son of Rep. Vern Buchanan (R), the incumbent she's now challenging. She raised more than $100,000 in the 24 hours after her announcement.
Texas. Wendy Davis, the former state senator who turned a filibuster of antiabortion legislation into a flailing 2014 gubernatorial campaign, is running for the state's 21st Congressional District. One of five districts carved out of Austin, part of a Republican map designed to limit the liberal city's clout, the 21st went only narrowly for freshman Rep. Chip Roy in 2018. Roy's challenger that year had a far more moderate profile than Davis, but Roy has established himself as one of the Republicans happiest to use parliamentary tactics to slow down spending bills, which Democrats hope to use against him. Davis, who did a run of media interviews after her campaign launch, said her 2014 run “shaped the future.” Whether that's a stretch, Texas Republicans have lost ground since 2014; Davis's old Senate seat, which was captured by Republicans that year, flipped back to the Democrats in 2018.
Virginia. Veteran and first-time candidate Rob Jones is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Rep. Jennifer Wexton, who won the state's 10th Congressional District by 12 points last year. He joins Jeff Dove, another veteran, though Jones's story — he lost both of his legs and began running marathons using prosthetics — is an unbeatable one. The trick for any Republican is competing in an area that has raced leftward in recent years, giving a one-point victory to Mitt Romney in 2012 and a 10-point win to Hillary Clinton four years later.
Joe Biden. At his Dearborn, Mich., stop, he defended House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reluctance to ask for impeachment proceedings to start. “I think what the speaker is doing now is setting up the circumstances where, under the law, the administration is required to respond to inquiries along the lines that they're asking for,” he said. “To the extent that they are stonewalled on that, it builds the case that the only route they have is to go is the impeachment route.”
Beto O'Rourke. He campaigned in Flint, Mich., on Wednesday, following the NAACP conference, and rolled out an education plan including a "$500 billion Permanent Fund for Equity and Excellence.”
Julián Castro. He officially hired 16 staffers, crediting the fresh donations and interest that followed his debate performance; they took roles with the national campaign and organizing roles in Nevada and South Carolina.
Kirsten Gillibrand. She has introduced a “climate change moonshot,” building on her support for the Green New Deal — which, of course, exists as an aspirational resolution, not a scored and costed piece of legislation. It describes in one place what Gillibrand has often said in speeches, that the environmental components of the GND can be passed individually with bipartisan support, or acted on by a president — for example, demanding climate protection in any trade deal.
Amy Klobuchar. She headed from Detroit back to Iowa, for campaign stops Thursday and Friday, largely with union members.
Bernie Sanders. His campaign has sparred with MSNBC over a Democratic guest's comment that the senator made her “skin crawl,” part of some ongoing complaints from Sanders-world about how a candidate polling in the teens or twenties is getting little positive coverage.
Tim Ryan. He's spending the weekend in upstate South Carolina, stumping for a local legislative candidate and holding meetings with Democrats.
. . . five days until the second Democratic debates in Detroit
. . . nine days until Democratic candidates speak at an AFSCME forum in Las Vegas
. . . 14 days until the start of the Iowa State Fair