In this edition: What we learned from the third fundraising quarter, why the Medicare-for-all debate can be so confusing, and new attack ads in the Deep South.

I wonder what would happen if I wore Phillies gear in Washington right now, but I am not brave enough to try it. This is The Trailer.

Every four years, the third fundraising quarter gives us a presidential primary gut check. We learn who has tapped out their biggest donors, who has succeeded in creating an online donor base, and which candidates are living up, or down, to their hype. 

This quarter offered mixed news for both parties. Most of the Democrats running competitive presidential bids actually raised more than they had three months ago, breaking the old pattern from the days before massive online donations. Republicans, who say that the impeachment push fired up their base, have only a few days of the quarter to reflect that. They're raising less than many Democrats they want to beat, but they're in the hunt. And the left-wing Democrats who changed their party in 2018 have seen everything from breakout fundraising for new challengers to flops that will please the party leaders, who want as little disruption as possible on the way to 2020.

Trump led the field … but Democrats, combined, continued to outraise him. The president who once eschewed big fundraising events has continued to break records. As his campaign announced weeks ago, the reelection effort and its joint fundraising with the Republican National Committee combined for $125 million; the president's own campaign raised $97.8 million of that. The money has funded an ambitious grass-roots campaign operation, and increasingly it has been going to TV and digital ads designed to attract Trump-friendly (but infrequent) donors and to bash Joe Biden.

But for the second consecutive quarter, Democrats actually managed to raise more. Combined, the 17 candidates who are not self-funding their campaigns raised $119.3 million over the quarter. Tom Steyer, the self-funder, raised $2 million and put in more than $47 million of his own money. Even as the DNC continues to struggle to raise money, the party and its candidates are competitive with the incumbent president, a departure from what was happening at this point in 2003 and 2011, the last off-years when a president was seeking reelection.

Obviously, only one Democrat is going to get this nomination; maybe two of these Democrats will end up on the ticket, as happened in 2004 and 2008. Not everyone who threw a check to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is likely to become an excited Joe Biden donor, and vice versa. But the long legacy of 2016 is a growing number of Democrats ready to chip in small amounts to various candidates. That conditioning, which started after 2016, really matters; there are hundreds of thousands of liberals happily giving online when they see something they like. Sanders's campaign has made the most of it, as it's the only one that got more donors in the quarter than Trump's. Put together, the Democrats lapped the president with small donors.

Not many people are donating to the president's primary challengers. That might not be a surprise. After all, what kind of future in Republican politics awaits someone who donates to an anti-Trump campaign? But the combined fundraising haul for William Weld, Mark Sanford and Joe Walsh, three Republicans all with more than 20 years of political experience, was $647,000. If the three of them were running as a Democratic candidate, they'd be running 16th in the cash race, ahead of Tim Ryan (who raised $425,731) and Joe Sestak (who raised $374,000).

Joe Biden has a war chest problem. The former vice president has been flat in polling for the past few weeks, with little sign that the president's attacks on him have stuck. Why are Democrats increasingly worried about him? Because of his fundraising — fourth overall for the quarter ($15.7 million) with less cash on hand than four of his rivals. Sanders had $33.7 million left to spend; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had $25.7 million; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg had $23.4 million; and Sen. Kamala D. Harris had $10.5 million.

Biden had just $9 million in the bank, less than anyone who has led in the polls at this point in the recent history of Democratic primaries. Having sworn off “super PACs” — a collective Democratic decision that has limited big-money impact on the race — Biden has no independent air cover as the president attacks him. And he does not have the cushion that Hillary Clinton used in 2008 and 2016 to build robust post-Iowa operations for unexpectedly long primaries.

Embattled House Democrats are stacking up cash. There are 31 Democrats in the House whose districts were won in 2016 by Trump. Thirty of those Democrats are seeking reelection. Twenty-two of them support the impeachment inquiry. It's those 22 who have been under particular pressure from Republicans, who argue that they cannot run in 2020 saying they tried to find common ground.

But those 22 Democrats are seriously raking it in. Together they've raised more than $16 million, in districts that range from suburbs trending away from the president ($712,000 for New Jersey's Mikie Sherrill) to largely rural districts that trended away from Democrats in 2016 ($463,631 for Iowa's Abby Finkenauer). None of them got out-fundraised by Republican challengers, though some came close — possible opponents for Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico and Rep. Max Rose of New York raised more than half a million dollars each.

Liberal Democratic challengers are doing well in safe seats — not swing seats. Left-wing groups such as Justice Democrats started this cycle with a big but strategic goal: Replace as many incumbents as possible in deep blue districts. They've largely filled out that slate, and their star candidates had strong quarters. Ohio's Morgan Harper raised $323,000, besting Rep. Joyce Beatty, who raised $247,323. (Beatty, like every incumbent under fire, leads the challenger in cash on hand.) Texas's Jessica Cisneros raised $310,000, while Rep. Henry Cuellar raised $376,000. Insurgent candidates don't expect to outraise incumbents — New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was lapped by Joe Crowley, on the way to beating him. But so far, they're competitive. 

The same can't be said for challengers in races that Democrats are nervous about winning. In Colorado, John Hickenlooper raised $2.1 million over the quarter; his closest competitor in the primary, Andrew Romanoff, raised about one-quarter of that. That happens to be one of the states Democrats must win if they're to control the Senate in 2021, and there's not a ton of donor interest, yet, in a competitive primary.

It's the same story in other competitive Senate races. In Maine, where national Democrats have already endorsed legislator Sara Gideon as their challenger to Sen. Susan Collins, Gideon raised $3.2 million over the quarter. That wasn't just better than Collins — it was 30 times more than Betsy Sweet, her leading liberal challenger, who raised just $102,000. In Iowa, where Democrats have anointed real estate company president Theresa Greenfield, she raised $1.1 million, actually putting her ahead of Sen. Joni Ernst. Attorney Kimberley Graham, who's running as a Medicare-for-all supporter, raised a paltry $23,116. That's not good for Republicans, who are trying to bloody up Democrats by intervening in their primaries and have actually bought ads on Graham's behalf. (They portray her as “too liberal for Iowa,” a common tactic to raise the name recognition of a weak candidate.) 

Republicans are trailing in some key Senate races, with three exceptions. The Republican path to holding or expanding their Senate majority is simple: hold every seat and try to flip Alabama, Michigan and Minnesota. Just one of those states yielded good news, as Michigan's John James, who raised $12.4 million for his 2018 Senate run, raised $3.1 million for the quarter to $2.5 million for Sen. Gary Peters. In 2018, James remained outspent by Sen. Debbie Stabenow; at the moment, Peters has $6.3 million on hand to $3.9 million for the Republican.

But in Alabama and Minnesota, Sen. Doug Jones and Sen. Tina Smith continued to outpace Republican challengers. In Arizona, Kentucky, Iowa and Maine, Democrats bested Republican incumbents in fundraising. The president's party isn't dominating the Senate dollar chase like Democrats did two years ago, when no incumbent Democrat — not even the four who lost — trailed in off-year fundraising.

The better news for Republicans came in Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina (three states the party expects to be competitive and one it doesn't), where incumbents kept their advantages. But in Colorado, the combined Democratic field outpaced Sen. Cory Gardner (he raised more than Hickenlooper, but less than all Democrats) and in North Carolina, where Sen. Thom Tillis faces a conservative primary challenge, he only narrowly outraised Democrat Cal Cunningham. 

Republicans remain well positioned to hold the Senate. Several seats that they picked up in 2014 have yet to attract strong Democratic challengers. No Democrats running in Alaska, Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota raised more than six figures. But so far, between House and Senate races, Democrats are showing more desire to spread their money around, and Republicans are focused more on the race for president. That could change as impeachment heats up, but it's not what might have been expected when the crowded Democratic primary began.

READING LIST

“How Bernie Sanders scored a coup and won the backing of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar,” by Sean Sullivan and Chelsea Janes

The backstory of a big endorsement, which involves a Las Vegas hospital bed.

“The night of the mad moderates,” by Osita Nwanevu

This wasn't the first debate where centrist Democrats got rowdy, but it was the loudest.

“Democrats donated more than $700 million in 2019 through ActBlue, officials say,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee

The continuing liberal gold rush, up and down ballot.

“Beto O'Rourke 2020 has been worse than useless,” by Eric Levitz

There's a lot of left-wing and liberal anger about how the Texan's campaign has gone, and this column boils it down.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

Since Tuesday night's debate, when Pete Buttigieg made his most forceful case yet against Medicare-for-all, the mayor's many left-wing critics have been asking what happened. Not onstage — before that.

Buttigieg, who has been rising in national Democratic politics since 2017, had repeatedly suggested that he supported “Medicare-for-all,” in some form or another. In February 2018, he responded to the left-wing People's Summit's Twitter account with a “pledge” of sorts: “I, Pete Buttigieg, politician, do henceforth and forth with declare, most affirmatively and indubitably, unto the ages, that I do favor Medicare-for-all, as I do favor any measure that would help get all Americans covered.”

This February, shortly after he announced an exploratory committee, Buttigieg tweeted a photo of a restaurant bill that someone had scrawled “Medicare-for-all” onto, with another message of his own: “On it.” And not long after, during the battery of TV interviews that helped turn him into a top-tier candidate, Buttigieg told a skeptical “Morning Joe” panel that one single government insurance plan was really the midpoint between “government-run health care” and the laissez-faire conservative plan.

“The compromise position is a single-payer system, where you have private doctors, but a public payer,” Buttigieg said. “We've got to stop allowing the right to move the goal posts and characterize the center of the debate.”

Buttigieg is now one of the primary opponents of the House and Senate's Medicare-for-all legislation, which would replace all private health insurance with a tax-financed, expanded Medicare system. But Buttigieg has also been consistent: He has called single-payer the eventual goal of “Medicare-for-all who want it,” which would create a “glide path” to the system that advocates simply call “Medicare-for-all.”

How can both positions be true? Because “Medicare-for-all” is both a specific piece of legislation and a slogan. Because Medicare is popular, everyone in politics — from democratic socialists to Republicans trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act — have built their arguments around it. And because several different ideas would actually bring more people into the Medicare system, voters — even attentive voters — have been liberal in what they consider “Medicare-for-all.”

Advocates for the legislation have been stricter. Michael Lighty, who spent two decades advocating for Medicare-for-all with National Nurses United, said Buttigieg’s initial statements were encouraging. (National Nurses United runs the People’s Summit, which had that dialogue with Buttigieg.) They came at a time when all sorts of Democrats — even some who had never supported single-payer health care — were holding up the banner.

“We thought at the time that Mayor Pete was part of the effort, or at least the broad movement,” Lighty said. “We did take him as a supporter of Medicare-for-all.”

At that time, it seemed like nearly every top-tier Democrat was a supporter. The first Democrats to announce their candidacies for 2020 — Elizabeth Warren, Kamala D. Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg — had either co-sponsored the Sanders legislation or vocally endorsed the policy. And that was just a few months after Barack Obama lumped Medicare-for-all into the “good new ideas” coming from his party.

But over the course of the primary, the sheen fell off. One reason was a multimillion-dollar campaign by the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of insurance groups that ran its first ads against Medicare-for-all in January. Days later, Harris appeared in a CNN town hall where host Jake Tapper pressed her on the text of Medicare-for-all legislation, which would make private insurance illegal if it competed with (as opposed to supplemented) Medicare.

“Listen, the idea is that everyone gets access to medical care,” Harris said. “Who among us has not had that situation, where you got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, wait, I don’t know if your insurance company is going to cover this? Let’s eliminate that. Let’s move on.”

Harris was caught flat-footed; Republicans quickly noted she had, indeed, called for eliminating private insurance, leading to a next-day cleanup where her campaign said she was open to “multiple paths” to universal coverage. That was the first in a string of Democratic clarifications, which by the summer meant that most of Medicare-for-all’s co-sponsors in the presidential race did not actually support the full text of the bill.

Buttigieg’s statements came during that period of confusion. Neither he nor the others abandoned the term “Medicare-for-all,” but he began to redefine it, as a goal. In the future, Americans might enjoy universal Medicare. If they did, it would be because Democrats let everyone buy into the system, and Americans “voted with their feet” to drop their private plans and adopt Medicare.

“When it comes to Medicare-for-all, I believe in universal coverage,” he said in an April interview with New England’s WBUR. “I believe in getting to a Medicare-for-all destination, which is where I want us to go. I think whenever a politician says those words, we also have a responsibility to explain how we get there. I don't think it's as simple as just declaring that it will be so.”

By June, that meant that just three 2020 Democrats supported Sanders’s proposal as written: Sanders himself, Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. And that disturbed Medicare-for-all advocates, who don’t see a “glide path” as the same thing as their plan.

“It’s a false choice, because it preserves the multi-payer system that’s responsible for administrative waste,” said Lighty, who supports Sanders. “The bottom line is that the insurance companies don’t want to pay claims. If you do a ‘glide path’ you’ve still got that problem and you’ve got premiums people may or may not be able to afford.”

In the last few weeks, the private insurance debate has actually given way to a more confusing one: whether Medicare-for-all would raise “middle-class taxes.” The program’s advocates, like Sanders, point out that even conservative cost estimates find that a single-payer system costs less than a mixed private-public system. But in the new system, premiums and co-pays would be replaced by taxes. And since even the Medicare-for-all legislation does not specify how high taxes would go — there’s a separate “white paper” of possible payment methods — opponents have focused on the risk of higher tax bills.

Medicare-for-all advocates are baffled by the debate, which often ignores what patients would not be paying and emphasizes what they would. In every Democrat's health-care plan, insurance costs money. On one hand are Democrats who want, someday, to achieve universal health insurance that people would pay premiums for — partially subsidized by taxpayers, depending on need. On the other are Democrats who want, someday sooner, to achieve universal health insurance for which people would pay taxes. 

Buttigieg’s case against Medicare-for-all was aimed at Warren, who, unlike Sanders, won’t answer the question about whether taxes will go up. She pivots, talking about the total cost for middle-class Americans every time, and pledging that she'll drive it down, even as more than 100 million health insurance plans would be replaced. The argument is less about the future of health insurance than about which candidate can explain this stuff in a way that doesn't hurt them — something the term “Medicare-for-all” was supposed to be doing.

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

The latest on the impeachment inquiry

AD WATCH

Eddie Rispone, “Pro.” The wealthy business executive who made it to next month’s runoff against Gov. John Bel Edwards pitched himself as Louisiana’s own President Trump: a successful guy who was tired of politicians. His first post-primary ads consist entirely of Trump delivering the message, “You’ve got to vote John Bel Edwards out.” Every race for governor this year is taking place in a deep red state where Hillary Clinton won less than 40 percent of the vote; the Louisiana race, in particular, has seen Republicans try to force a referendum on Trump.

John Bel Edwards, “This Election.” The Democrat is trying to do something no incumbent from his party has done: win a second term despite being forced into a runoff. His message is the same party-blurring one that he used all year, rephrased to target his GOP opponent. “We have a choice to make,” he says. “Let Eddie Rispone drag us back to the deficits and cuts to health care and education of Bobby Jindal, or continue moving forward and investing in our future?” Jindal, a once-rising star and former governor who left office with a shattered reputation and busted state budget, remains the focus of the Democrats' campaign; Republicans point out that he hasn't been on a ballot since 2011.

Tate Reeves, “Teachers.” Like Kentucky’s Matt Bevin, Mississippi’s lieutenant governor has struggled to win some independent voters because of a conservative policy priority: facing down teachers in a series of budget negotiations. Earlier this year, Reeves signed off on a smaller pay raise than teachers wanted. But it was a raise nonetheless, and Reeves promises here to keep rising wages “to the southern average,” with no tax hikes. “Most teachers don’t do it for the money, but we’ve got to pay them more,” Reeves says.

Jim Hood, “Can't Trust.” The new Reeves ad has been remixed by his Democratic opponent, who draws attention to the details of that pay raise deal. “Last-minute promises on education from a politician we can't trust,” a female narrator warns. "Tate Reeves has repeatedly killed teacher pay raises.”

POLL WATCH

Opinions of health-care reform (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1,205 registered voters)

Do you support a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare-for-all?

Yes — 51% (-2)
No — 47% ( 2)

Do you support a national health plan, a public option, to compete with private insurance?

Yes — 73% ( 4)
No — 24% (-4)

As Democrats continue to wrestle over Medicare-for-all, the policy’s opponents point to public polling to warn that, whatever the issue’s merits, it’s a political loser. Two years ago, in the aftermath of the GOP’s botched efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Medicare-for-all enjoyed a 12-point advantage in public support. After months of friendly fire from moderate Democrats, it remains popular, but less so, something opponents are taking as a cue for the die-hards to move on.

The wrinkle: Medicare-for-all is still popular, just less popular than the “public option.” Fully 71 percent of Democrats, and 51 percent of independents, support Medicare-for-all. The numbers on the public option are 85 percent and 74 percent, respectively. Democratic jitters about single-payer health care are still about the politics, and about alienating potential voters who disagree with them, more than the policy or the costs.

2020

Joe Biden. He held a post-debate media gaggle in Ohio, as he has done around previous debates, and attacked Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in starker terms that he'd used onstage. "Bernie doesn’t pay for half his plan," he said of Medicare-for-all. "Look, the last thing the Democrats should be doing is playing Trump’s game and trying to con the American people to think this is easy."

Bernie Sanders. He quickly fired back at Biden in a statement, calling it “sad” that he was “using the talking points of the insurance industry” to attack him. “Joe must know that we currently spend twice as much per capita on health care as the people of almost any other major country and that we pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.”

Kamala Harris. She introduced a new “justice for rural America” plan while in Iowa, with the centerpiece of new business tax credits; $10,000 for businesses “that hire in rural zones for each full time job they create, with a maximum tax credit of $250,000 per year.”

Elizabeth Warren. It went with just one mention at the debate, but Warren had joined Sanders in proposing big new restrictions on corporate donations to the Democratic National Convention.

Steve Bullock. He tweeted that an Emerson poll showing him at 4 percent in Iowa was big news for his campaign. Unfortunately for him, Emerson is not among the polls that meets the DNC's standards for inclusion in debates.

Michael Bennet. At an appearance in Iowa, he called the president a “treasonous MF,” by way of arguing that he could handle him in a general election.

Tulsi Gabbard. In a Fox News appearance, she continued her criticism of CNN and the New York Times.

Beto O'Rourke. He's holding a counter to the president's Dallas rally, his second “alternative programming” event of the kind.

COUNTDOWN

... 15 days until the Iowa Liberty and Justice Celebration
... 19 days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 27 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 30 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 34 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 109 days until the Iowa caucuses