In this edition: Two phenoms try to kick-start things in Iowa, Democrats debate gay (and religious) rights, and Louisiana tells us plenty about Democrats and rural voters.
Every Louisiana election should last as long as possible, and this is The Trailer.
DES MOINES — Near the end of her stump speech, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asks Iowa Democrats to remember one of the best moments of their lives: the cold January night when they started Barack Obama's march toward the presidency. She was there, too, going door-to-door for Obama, canvassing for Democrats who didn't usually show up and caucus. And a conversation with one elderly black woman had stuck with her.
“She looked at me with a straight face and no expression,” Harris recalled at a Saturday afternoon block party in a heavily black part of Des Moines. “And she said: 'They're not going to let him win.' And I stepped back in my mind, and I looked at what I was looking at. Which was, over the course of at least 85 years, all the indignities, all the injustices, that she has experienced and witnessed. At that age of life, she wasn't about to go through experiencing another disappointment or indignity. And so I decided: Well, I am not leaving.”
The story ends with that elderly Democrat caucusing for Obama. Harris, who has built a formidable Iowa operation despite a tumble in local and national polls, urges the crowd to consider how it would feel to pull another upset and make more history — in so many words, not to choose a candidate they find less inspiring because they're scared.
Harris's hurdle is that there are so many candidates with the same pitch. Five other Democrats — South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, business executive Andrew Yang and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke — have built credible Iowa ground games and raised enough money to compete through February.
All are well liked by potential Democratic caucusgoers; most get name-checked when voters rattle off their “lists,” their mental rundowns of who they've decided to take seriously. (Polling has found Democrats to be more skeptical than Republicans of candidates without experience in elected office, which has hurt Yang.) And all are circling the state with trapeze nets, waiting for voters to see some flaws in former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and jump.
“I'm really frustrated that age has not been more of an issue in this campaign,” said Sarah Small, 28, who came to Harris's event wearing the T-shirt the candidate began selling after confronting Biden on busing. “The top three people in the polls are all, as you know, septuagenarians. And I think it needs to be a conversation about that. Health needs to be a conversation. Bernie Sanders is having a heart attack on the campaign trail. What's going to happen if he's elected and dealing with a national security crisis?”
Sanders's health scare, which canceled any early October plans for the candidate to come to Iowa, is one of very few story lines that has broken through to Iowa Democrats. (The campaign sent surrogates to campaign in the state this month, and Sanders appeared at a Sunday labor forum in Altoona via video.) But the middle-of-the-pack Democrats, who've watched attacks on Biden, Warren and Sanders backfire against the candidates who made them, prefer to talk in circles about the candidates in the lead. At a Saturday night rally at a Des Moines high school, Buttigieg emphasized how young he'd be if he “retired” from the presidency — if he won next year and served two terms, he'd leave at age 47. Afterward, he told reporters that he was not making a point about the three candidates in their 70s.
“Different people are different,” Buttigieg said. “What this election is about is vision, and I've got a vision that's different than all of my competitors.”
For the past two months, in an average of polls, the Warren-Biden-Sanders troika has been bunched up in the lead. In the Des Moines Register's Iowa polls, viewed by campaigns and voters as the state's gold standard, those three have been out front for the entire year; only last year, during a spurt of interest in what he would do after his Senate bid, did Beto O'Rourke crack double digits.
“Still, the six candidates running behind the Biden-Warren-Sanders trio — polling well above zero, but often left out of the party's conversation — have raised more, and built more than many candidates at similar positions ahead of the caucuses. In the third fundraising quarter, Buttigieg raised $19.1 million, Harris raised $11.6 million and Yang raised $10 million — that is more than Joe Biden raised, in total, for the 2008 bid that ended with him becoming vice president. Booker, Klobuchar and O'Rourke all raised more from July through September than they raised the previous three months — $6 million, $4.8 million and $4.5 million, respectively. Buttigieg has opened 22 Iowa field offices, while O'Rourke has opened 11, Klobuchar has opened 10, Harris has opened nine, and Yang has opened two. Booker, with just one office, has held onto a large organizing staff.
Buttigieg and Harris stand apart in one important way: They made early splashes in Iowa, breaking out of the pack before falling back again. Their split-screen rallies Saturday (Harris wrapped up about two hours before Buttigieg started a few suburbs away) captured their position, neither surging nor falling, with voters who could be heard discussing whether someone else would win the nomination.
At Buttigieg's rally, where around 700 people huddled for warmth outside Roosevelt High School, Mike Alowitz and Scott McCormick compared the candidates they'd ruled out (Marianne Williamson, Tulsi Gabbard) with their shortlist of who could win. McCormack assumed that Warren was the likeliest winner but wanted to keep Buttigieg in the mix because he found him so compelling.
“He's straightforward,” said McCormick, 75, who had caucused for Sanders in 2016 and attended one of Buttigieg's first Iowa house parties in 2019. “He's not straight, but he's straightforward.”
“He was the first candidate to move in my tier, from 'no' to 'maybe,' “ said Alowitz, 42. “I'd just prefer some D.C. experience. You need to know how to work the system.”
Buttigieg's rallies, with optimistic stump speeches and questions that usually fit in his wheelhouse (How will you respond to personal attacks? Should we eliminate the electoral college?), showcase his made-for-TV ability to concisely answer questions. As he and Harris urge voters to look past the “front-runners,” the Buttigieg strategy involves asking voters again and again to imagine their candidate dismantling Trump with logic.
“What we're seeing is a fast-unfolding process that betrays the core strength of America, which is that we're a country that had been perceived as a country that could be counted on, to our allies and our adversaries,” Buttigieg said when asked, even before the president ordered a full troop withdrawal, by reporters about the Trump administration standing down in Syria. “When that happens, there is a terrible price to be paid. And it makes America less safe. By the way, we're also seeing ISIS fighters freed, so this is also undermining our own interests.”
Harris's “electability' approach is more direct, calling out “the donkey in the room” and saying she may have slipped out of the headlines because, once again, a nonwhite candidate is being underrated. Her Saturday event, which featured free barbecue and a DJ playing “Cupid Shuffle,” drew out a few hundred voters, including dozens of African Americans — a contrast with Buttigieg. And she talks much more about her record than Buttigieg, describing “the Dark Ages” of anti-crime hysteria when she was elected San Francisco's district attorney (critics said she should be “locking people up” if she wanted to win again) and her six years as California's attorney general (“When I took on the five big banks of the United States, people said to me, calmly, your career will be over.”)
But both candidates are asked to respond to events that aren't shaped by Democratic candidates — much less the candidates looking for a foothold while polling at single digits. Like Buttigieg, Harris was prompted to talk about the president's moves in Syria. Her answer ended in a similar place, but took a longer journey there.
“It is, yet again, another display of Donald Trump's inability to understand the role and the responsibilities of commander in chief, which includes standing with our allies, which includes standing with our friends, which includes standing with those who have stood with us when we have been in time of need,” Harris said. “And the result of what he has done is, predictably, that Kurds, we are seeing, are being open to slaughter. Also, there is, predictably, what is happening, which is an abandonment to some extent of what they have otherwise been doing, in terms of overseeing ISIS detainees and their families. And this is, yet again, another display of Donald Trump's unilateral actions, based on unknown motivations, but clearly not being motivated by America's national security and our interests in terms of maintaining our security through the relationships that we have around the globe.”
On Sunday, both candidates would address labor organizers, joined by Joe Biden, but not by Warren. And both Buttigieg and Harris would be back in Iowa on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the debate is over — both of them putting the state at the center of their primary strategy, both of them with three or four candidates to climb past first.
“Despite attacks and to the surprise of some, Biden’s firewall is holding — for now,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
Why South Carolina voters aren't budging.
“Tom Steyer thinks his ranch can save the planet,” by Michael Grunwald
Looking into the big ideas of the primary's big spender.
The delicate Democratic balance versus the daily dose of chaos.
On the Alabama campaign trail with the Democrat least eager for an impeachment trial.
Democrats, always ready to worry about something new, worry about a joke landing too well.
“What, exactly, is Tulsi Gabbard up to?” by Lisa Lerer
The mysteries of the final candidate to make next week's Democratic debate.
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
- Protecting whistleblower’s identity is ‘our primary interest,’ Schiff says
- Trump’s envoy to testify that ‘no quid pro quo’ came from Trump
- How two Soviet-born emigres made it into elite Trump circles — and the center of the impeachment storm
- What to expect: This week's depositions and deadlines
Louisiana's all-party primary Saturday saw the highest voter turnout for a state legislative election since 2003, when Democrats still dominated the state. Yesterday's election put an end to that dominance, as the rural surge toward Republicans that has happened in state after state finally came to southwest and northeast Louisiana, flipping a number of state House and Senate seats. Gov. John Bel Edwards, one of just two Democratic governors in the South, was forced into a November runoff — despite winning more first-round votes than any Democratic candidate for governor in 36 years.
It's simple: Louisiana holds a “jungle primary,” in which every party's candidates compete, and a runoff, in which the top two finishers face off if no one got 50 percent of the vote. From 2015 to 2019, statewide primary turnout jumped from 1,114,336 votes to 1,343,478 votes. Edwards won 626,000 votes, which in other years would have been enough for a first-round victory. But Republicans Eddie Rispone and Ralph Abraham got a combined 685,433 votes; four years ago, the credible Republican candidates running against Edwards got a combined 637,938 votes.
The president immediately took credit for the turnout, tweeting incorrectly that Edwards had been polling at 66 percent until a “Keep America Great” rally in Lake Charles, La., this week. (Polling had put Edwards in the high 40s, with a few outliers putting him above 50 percent.) But the higher GOP activation was clear a week ago, when early voting ended; for only the second time in Louisiana history, self-identified Republicans had made up more than 40 percent of the early vote.
Republicans had two missions, paid for by normal party operations and by a conservative PAC run by Attorney General Jeff Landry and Sen. Bill Cassidy. One: Drive up the GOP vote in rural Louisiana to finally flip state legislative districts that had been won by Trump but held for ages by Democrats. Two: Force Edwards into a runoff, a position no incumbent Democrat has been able to win from in 17 years. (In 2002, Sen. Mary Landrieu narrowly beat a Republican challenger, in a state that up to that point had never elected a Republican to the Senate.)
The GOP succeeded at both tasks. There will be a runoff, and whoever wins it will face a Republican supermajority in the state Senate and a potential supermajority in the state House. Edwards ran far ahead of his ticket — no other Democrat on the statewide ballot cleared 40 percent — but as election analyst Ryan Matsumoto pointed out, Edwards trailed his 2015 numbers in all but two parishes, Orleans and Jefferson. That's the city of New Orleans and its suburbs, respectively, and those suburbs used to be far more conservative.
If there's a surprise, it is that Edwards, an antiabortion moderate who signed a restrictive “heartbeat” abortion bill, did so much better with suburban voters while gaining so little with rural whites. The Democrat actually won Calcasieu Parish, where the president campaigned Friday. But while he won the 2015 two-party vote there by 17 points, he lost it by 12 points to Rispone and Abraham yesterday. In 2015, Edwards cleared 40 percent of the vote in the parishes of southwest Louisiana; on Saturday, he fell below 30 percent in most of them, often running in third place behind the Republicans.
Democratic consultants, in a lab, could not come up with a candidate as perfect for rural voters as Edwards — a U.S. Military Academy graduate and veteran who signed legislation making it a hate crime to attack a police officer. And that candidate is following the same electoral path as every other Democrat: strengthening in urban and suburban areas and losing traction elsewhere.
Donald Trump, “Facts.” The president's well-funded reelection campaign keeps adding to a buy that Joe Biden's campaign has accurately called out for furthering falsehoods. In the latest spot, the campaign uses a 2018 clip of Biden talking about pressure on Ukraine's former president — pressure that helped get him to fire a prosecutor opposed by international observers — to insist that Democrats are covering up Biden's corruption. “Donald Trump won, but Democrats want to overturn the election,” says a narrator, repeating the red-meat theme of these ads: Any attacks on the president are sour grapes and probably false.
Pete Buttigieg, “Recruit.” The South Bend., Ind., mayor continues to portray himself as the sensible get-stuff-done candidate, a contrast with more ambitious or dreamy candidates who shall not be named. "Climate change is too important for us to allow it to keep being a divisive and partisan issue," he says. "Instead of beating up some Americans over this issue, I want to recruit them as part of a new clean-energy economy." Who's beating them up? The unspoken bullies are people who attack climate "deniers." The policy, and even how it's described, mirrors the rhetoric around the "Green New Deal."
Tom Steyer, “Real economic power.” The billionaire investor has run more Iowa ads than anyone, continuing to tell his life story in 30-second chunks. The latest of his spots (he has rolled out two this week) describes his founding of a “nonprofit community bank” that funded start-ups for “women and people of color.” His point: “The difference between words and action matter.”
Will this candidate handle President Trump's attacks very well? (CBS News/YouGov battleground poll, 16,500 registered voters)
Elizabeth Warren — 65%
Bernie Sanders — 60%
Joe Biden — 50%
The latest CBS News look at the early states is largely good for Warren, who has gained in the ballot test since last month and who is more decisively seen as electable. Asked whether Warren would beat Trump, 56 percent of Democrats say she would — up from 39 percent in June. Even more telling of Warren's position is the confidence Democrats have about who could handle attacks from Trump. By a small margin, Democrats say that Trump's impeachment-prompting attacks on Biden's son, Hunter, have made them more sympathetic toward Biden, but by a 15-point margin they say Warren is readier to handle the president.
That's a sea change from six or even three months ago, when the conventional wisdom was that the president, who had goaded Warren into taking a DNA test, would pummel her out of contention by calling her “Pocahontas.” The president has continued to refer to the senator from Massachusetts with that nickname, which he appropriated from anti-Warren conservative media in Massachusetts. But it no longer shapes coverage about her.
IN THE STATES
Illinois. Republicans lost one of their early recruits in the race for the House when former lieutenant governor Evelyn Sanguinetti dropped out of the race for Illinois's 6th District. The suburban Chicago-area 6th, originally drawn to be safe for Republicans, backed Mitt Romney in 2012 by 8.2 points, supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 7 points, and elected Democratic Rep. Sean Casten last year by 7.2 points. But Sanguinetti was wildly out-fundraised by Casten and said while quitting the race that she did not want to suffer the “destruction” of a primary against conservative Jeanne Ives. The state has one of the country's earliest primaries, in March; the filing deadline to enter it is six weeks away.
Maine. Former state legislator Dale Crafts jumped into the Republican primary to challenge Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, one of the 2018 Democrats who flipped a Republican-trending seat; the rural 2nd District backed Barack Obama in 2012 by 8.6 points, then backed Trump by 10.3 points. Eric Brakey, a libertarian-leaning state senator, was already in the race; Crafts arrived with the support of former Republican governor Paul LePage and pledged to run as a partner with Trump.
Joe Biden. After an appearance at the United Food and Commercial Workers meeting in Altoona, Iowa, Biden said he would enforce new ethics standards if he became president.
“If I am your president, the next president, I'm going to build on the squeaky-clean, transparent environment that we had in the Obama-Biden White House,” he said. “And no one in my family or associated with me will be involved in any foreign operation whatsoever. Period. End of story.”
He joined four other Democrats at Sunday’s meeting in Altoona, Iowa, laying out a series of reforms to restore labor and voting rights policies that had been killed by executive action or courts, such as “pre-clearance” before states pass new voting laws.
Bernie Sanders. He scheduled a “Bernie's back” rally for Oct. 20, in New York City; he also conducted more interviews about his health and his campaign in the wake of his heart attack. In a talk with ABC News, he was more game than usual to draw a contrast with Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "[She] considers herself — if I got the quote correctly — to be a capitalist to her bones,” he said. “I don't. And the reason I am not is because I will not tolerate for one second the kind of greed and corruption and income and wealth inequality and so much suffering that is going on in this country today, which is unnecessary.”
Elizabeth Warren. She bought a Facebook ad falsely “reporting” that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was supporting Donald Trump, to raise attention to the platform’s willingness to run with ads that include untrue claims. When Facebook’s PR responded, she pushed back on Twitter: “It’s up to you whether you take money to promote lies.”
Tulsi Gabbard. In a Facebook Live video, she unloaded on the president and “warmongers” over the abandonment of the Kurds. “The Kurds are just another casualty of this regime change war which is supported by warmongering Republicans, Democrats and the corporate media,” she said. “The hypocrisy of warmongers like Nikki Haley, Senator Graham and others who have demanded that we continue our regime change war in Syria, who are now crying crocodile tears for the Kurds, is nauseating.”
Joe Sestak. He has begun his walk across New Hampshire, posting frequent updates on Twitter and leaving a stake in the ground (pounded in by a baseball bat) when he needs to temporarily stop and divert to talk to voters.
Steve Bullock. Before addressing the UFCW meeting, he chastised the media for asking candidates to respond to the president’s campaign ads. “I’m not even going to play that game,” he said. “Should we have criticism of hiring your own family members like Jared and Ivanka?”
Andrew Yang. He told reporters in Epping, N.H., that he’ll have another surprise on debate night; last time, it was a national contest for families to get their own $1,000 monthly basic income.
Amy Klobuchar. She got a sympathetic interview on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and a forum to reiterate why she didn’t think more left-wing candidates could win. “I want to win big, and if someone is looking to kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance in four years, then I’m not your candidate.”
DEMS IN DISARRAY
The CNN-hosted “Equality in America” town halls offered some bold color illustrations of how much Democrats have moved on LGBTQ rights. The first forum like it, 12 years ago, had the party's three front-runners explaining why they didn't support same-sex marriage.
“We should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word 'marriage,' which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given couples,” said Barack Obama, who wouldn't endorse marriage equality for five more years.
Thursday's forum was something completely different, with the same-sex marriage question completely settled. All nine Democrats who qualified and attended [Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) skipped, as he recuperated from his heart attack] had endorsed the Equality Act, which would codify LGBTQ protections that are protected by courts and executive decisions. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the most moderate of the candidates onstage, was pressured on her support for SESTA-FOSTA, the anti-sex-trafficking bill that passed by a landslide, to the horror of sex workers who have chosen that profession.
“Let's see how we can find some common ground going forward,” Klobuchar said, shortly before agreeing to add a third gender option to federal forms.
The forum was a major success for LGBTQ activists, and the discussion afterward has been largely about whether Democrats damaged themselves. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tied her support for same-sex marriage to a song about tolerance she'd learned in Sunday school, but she also joked about shutting down any voter who told her that he believed marriage was between “one man and one woman.”
“I'm going to say, 'Then just marry one woman. I'm cool with that,' " Warren said. She waited, then delivered the punchline: “Assuming you can find one.”
In the room, full of activists and members of the co-sponsoring Human Rights Campaign, the line killed; as The Post's Annie Linskey would report, it also rattled Democrats and conservatives who worried that Warren was too glib about a religious issue. But opposition to same-sex marriage has become a relatively fringe position in swing states.
According to a 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, a supermajority of voters in 2016's key states support same-sex marriage: 63 percent in Michigan, 64 percent in Pennsylvania and 66 percent in Wisconsin. In just two states, Alabama and Mississippi, did opposition to same-sex marriage outrun support for it.
By 2016, the issue was so politically neutered that exit pollsters did not ask about it. The Republicans' campaign presented Donald Trump as a pro-gay-rights candidate, soft-pedaling his pledge to appoint conservative judges who opposed marriage rights. By this year, 61 percent of Catholics and 66 percent of Protestants backed same-sex marriage rights. Just 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants, the largest conservative religious demographic, agreed with that position. But per the 2016 exit poll, just 16 percent of those voters backed Hillary Clinton for president; 20 percent had voted for Obama in 2012.
There was no clear general election downside to Warren's joke. But there probably was to Beto O'Rourke's game answer when asked whether religious institutions should lose tax-exempt status if they don't grant full LGBTQ equality. “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us,” O'Rourke said.
Polling on that idea doesn't demonstrate the political danger of this; the idea is so unorthodox that it's rarely polled. Six years ago, the center-left Third Way think tank asked voters whether churches that opposed same-sex marriage should be compelled to perform weddings, and just 28 percent of voters said they should. While Warren's joke put her on comfortable political turf, polling-wise, O'Rourke's put him on Republican turf and confused the only gay candidate in the race. During a Saturday speech to the Values Voter Summit in Washington, the president ignored Warren's joke but condemned O'Rourke for threatening to “use the IRS as a political weapon” against Christians.
“I'm not sure he understood the implications of what he was saying,” Pete Buttigieg said on CNN's “State of the Union” on Sunday morning. “I mean, that means going to war, not only with churches, but I would think with mosques and a lot of organizations that may not have the same view of various religious principles that I do, but also, because of the separation of church and state, are acknowledged as nonprofits in this country. So, if we want to talk about anti-discrimination law for a school or an organization, absolutely, they should not be able to discriminate.”
But O'Rourke, by Sunday, had already cleaned up the remark. “Anyone can believe what they want — but organizations that discriminate when they provide public services should not be tax-exempt,” he tweeted.
... two days until the fourth Democratic debate
... 19 days until the Iowa Democrats' Liberty and Justice dinner
... 23 days until the statewide and state legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 34 days until the runoff in Louisiana's race for governor
... 113 days until the Iowa caucuses