PANORA, Iowa — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was in New York, finishing a speech to nearly 26,000 people. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) was on TV, carrying on an unexpected feud with the Democrats' last nominee for president. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was getting a standing ovation from rural Democrats, an hour west of Des Moines, before sharing a story about a man she'd met in New Hampshire.
“He goes up to me, and he whispers: 'Don't say anything, but I voted for Donald Trump,' “ Klobuchar recalled. “So I go: 'Don't worry, I won't say anything.' And he goes: 'I'm not going to do it again!' “
Seventy put-upon rural Democrats laughed and burst into applause. “I don't want to overemphasize this,” Klobuchar said. “You know a lot of those Trump voters aren't going to change. But there are a segment of them, nearly 10 percent of them, who voted for Barack Obama, then voted for Donald Trump. There are a bunch of them in this state. There are a bunch of counties in this state that voted for Obama, then for Trump. We don't want to leave those counties behind.”
Klobuchar, who struggled for attention in the Democratic primary, says this week's debate helped her catch on at exactly the right time. Her town halls are crowded, with staffers running to get more chairs to pack breweries or event centers. She leads the field in local endorsements, especially state legislators, “with more to come,” she says. She kicked off her bus tour with the support of Andy McKean, a Republican state legislator who bolted his party six months ago and who pronounced Klobuchar the kind of Democrat who could unite America again.
“If you want to peak in this race,” she said after a stop in Waterloo, “you want to peak now, instead of six months before [the caucuses].”
A few other candidates still draw larger crowds, but Klobuchar is going for a particular kind of caucus-goer: the loyal Democrat who wants to win back those mysterious Trump voters. In interviews around the events, Klobuchar-curious voters tended to list her alongside South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.); and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as the candidates who could have the longest reach, because they were not seen as too left-wing. Craig Hinderaker, a 71-year-old farmer who saw Klobuchar in Panora (population 1,069), said he'd committed to her months earlier after becoming convinced that she had centrist appeal and real campaign skills.
“Biden was my top choice, but he's been dropping,” Hinderaker said. “Just too many errors.”
Klobuchar, who began running TV and digital ads in Iowa only this month, had methodically introduced herself to the state as the electable, relatable neighbor who Republicans had already learned to love. On the campaign's official bingo cards, there are squares for “bio diesel plant” and “breakfast pizza,” as well as the more evasive “bridge that crosses over the river of our divide.” Her stump speeches and town hall answers are peppered with references to Republican colleagues — “Lindsey Graham, who took up my bill with John McCain,” or “James Lankford, a very conservative senator from Oklahoma” — who have helped her pass bills. Without mentioning Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), she describes the sort of Democrats she says wouldn't win in 2020.
“People don't really want the loudest voice in the room,” Klobuchar said in Mason City. “They want a tough voice in the room, which I think I showed I could do in the debate. They want someone that's going to tell them the truth — look them in the eye and tell them the truth — and not make promises that they can't keep. They want someone who understands that there's a difference between a plan and a pipe dream, and that not everything can be free.”
The message, and its candidate, are not at this point dominant in Iowa. Warren and Sanders continue to get the largest crowds in the 18-candidate field, followed by Buttigieg, and “Medicare-for-all” remains popular with likely caucusgoers. Klobuchar has not yet qualified for November's debate, hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC, either; candidates need to poll at 3 percent or higher in at least four DNC-approved polls or 5 percent in two polls of early states. She has hit that mark in one national poll.
But Democratic voters, unlike the president's supporters, worry about the ideas that might lose them votes and consume media that feeds that worry. Politically engaged Republicans have “Fox and Friends,” a morning show where the president can do no wrong; Democrats have “Morning Joe,” hosted by a former Republican congressman, with a rotation of anti-Trump and anti-left-wing panelists, and “Real Time with Bill Maher,” whose host frequently warns Democrats that they'll lose if they nominate a left-wing candidate. (Maher hosted Klobuchar last week.)
Kathy Bowman, 70, who saw Klobuchar speak in Davenport on Friday, quoted the New York Times columnist David Brooks to make a case for the senator from Minnesota. Brooks had just argued for anti-Trump conservatives to vote for any Democrat, while worrying that Warren would present a choice between “a bad option and a suicidal one.” Democrats, Brooks wrote, could still pick someone less offensive to Republicans and win big.
“I agree with that,” she said. “And I think that a more moderate voice, like Amy or Pete, would be stronger contenders for winning. And they would be more effective at governing.”
Klobuchar has embraced that theory of politics. The bigger the presidential candidate's appeal, the bigger the coattails; the bigger the coattails, the more likely that Democrats could “take back the Senate,” she says. At media gaggles between bus stops, she scoffed at only two questions — one asking her to weigh in on the argument between Gabbard and Hillary Clinton and another asking why she had won a second term by 35 points but a third term by only 24 points.
“That's a lot!” she said, laughing at the audacity of the question. “I always have won by huge margins. Mostly I think what's important is that I won 42 of the counties that Donald Trump won.”
Every Democrat argues that he or she can win back Trump voters; Klobuchar is the only candidate with receipts. While Sanders and Warren argue that they could change the electorate through organizing — Sanders, in particular, has focused on registering working-class nonvoters — Klobuchar says the people who voted in 2018 are ready for the right Democrat.
“I think that they are going be voting at record levels, like they did in the midterms,” she said. “Look at the midterms. Look at how we were able to win them. We won them with an increased turnout. We also won them with candidates who fit their districts. Sometimes they were liberals. Sometimes they were people like [Des Moines-area moderate Rep.] Cindy Axne.”
On the debate stage, and after, Klobuchar has cut through the electability argument by describing most left-wing candidates as unrealistic and a little dishonest. Warren's rise in the state came after she proposed a “wealth tax” that paid for almost every one of her agenda items, from universal child care to forgiveness of most student loan debt. Klobuchar, and plenty of other Democrats, have zeroed in on the item the wealth tax does not pay for — Medicare-for-all — to portray the senator from Massachusetts as slippery.
In doing so, Klobuchar is cashing in on a bet she made two years ago, when she refused to join many 2020 contenders (and even her then-fellow senator from Minnesota, Al Franken) and endorse Medicare-for-all. The campaign sees a strong contrast to be made with Pete Buttigieg, the other beneficiary of the debates, who had repeatedly endorsed the “Medicare-for-all” term and the end-goal of “single-payer” health care but now campaigns for “Medicare-for-all who want it.” Klobuchar points out that unlike him, she had to take an actual stand against activists pressuring her to sign on to the bill.
“When you're in the Senate, you can't pussyfoot around these issues,” Klobuchar said. “Our first call is to do no harm, but we also have to make things better. And what's the best way to do that? Well, it's the public option, and it's taking on pharma. So that's what I've talked about from the beginning. I have not wavered from that. There was a lot of pressure to put your name on that [Medicare-for-all] bill, and I'm the only one on that stage from within the Senate who is not on it.”
Asked whether the end goal of the public option should be single-payer — the eventual replacement of most private insurance with one government provider — Klobuchar was pragmatic. “Can people change their minds over time?” she asked. “You can always make adjustments.” It was a theoretical question, and she was more interested in what she could do with executive powers or with a Democratic Senate.
At each stop, with crowds ranging from 70 to 200 people, Klobuchar tended to get questions about what she liked to emphasize. What could she get done? Every question was an opportunity to get back to her record, which evoked a calmer, better Washington where no one got credit unless they did real work.
“As you look at all these candidates, a lot of them have made promises now that they're running for president,” Klobuchar said in Panora. "Look at who is the candidate on that stage who chose to get on the Agriculture Committee, and is proud to serve on the Agriculture Committee. That would be me.”
When the speech was over, Klobuchar stayed for photos, as the campaign invited Panorans to visit her green-wrapped campaign bus. Some of the gawkers took photos. One guest left a rhubarb pie. After all, no other 2020 Democrat had been nice enough to visit Panora.
“Sanders returns to the trail with a major rally: ‘To put it bluntly, I am back,’ “ by Sean Sullivan and Chelsea Janes
He set out to gather his supporters for a show of force, and he did it in a big way.
“Trump campaign floods web with ads, raking in cash as Democrats struggle,” by Matthew Rosenberg and Kevin Roose
The perpetual Democratic question: Do strategists think the campaigns are blowing their ad buys, or do they want ad buys that pay consultants a bit more?
"Inside Joe Biden’s brawling efforts to reform Ukraine — which won him successes and enemies," by Matt Viser and Paul Sonne
The complicated backstory that led to the president's boomerang attack.
“Can any of these people beat Trump?” by Tim Alberta
Michael Bennet watches the fourth debate and doesn't love it.
Matt Bevin, who'll get a presidential rally on his behalf next month, is running a lot like the president.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
It started, like all great Democratic arguments, on a podcast. Talking freely with David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign manager who went on to work for Uber, Hillary Clinton groused about how 2016 Green Party nominee Jill Stein affected that election, calling her a “Russian asset.” She worried about history repeating itself.
“I'm not making any predictions, but I think they've got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said. “She's the favorite of the Russians.”
That was immediately taken as a reference to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who Clinton did not name but who quickly tweeted a condemnation of the 2016 nominee. That kicked off the most sustained national attention for Gabbard's campaign since a tough July debate performance in which she attacked Sen. Kamala D. Harris's criminal justice record. The California Democrat didn't have an effective response onstage, but afterward, spokesman Ian Sams suggested that reporters read an MSNBC story investigating how, as he quoted the article, “the Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat.”
At the time, coverage treated that story as sour grapes. The Clinton attack on Gabbard was handled differently, with Gabbard heading immediately onto Fox News to decry the 2016 nominee and allege that Clinton was frustrated because “warmongers” such as Clinton could not "control" a 38-year-old veteran.
“They are basically sending this message out to every veteran in this country, every service member, every American, anyone watching at home who is fighting for peace and who is calling for an end to these regime change wars,” Gabbard said. “They are saying that you are also a Russian asset, that you are also a traitor to this country. That’s really what’s happening here.”
Why is Clinton's direct attack making a bigger splash than one from an active Democratic candidate? It's not complicated. Clinton made the attack herself, not through an intermediary. And Clinton looms large, even in quasi-retirement, for the voters and media consumers who have been most interested in Gabbard: those who think a permanent government of hawkish elites is threatened by anyone who criticizes it. Clinton is a foil for that, and Harris isn't.
“Unfortunately, due to the heavy influence of the foreign policy establishment in Washington that for decades has crossed both political parties, you see the lot of the same faces and a lot of the same people providing the same kinds of neocon or neo lib advice to Democrat and Republican leaders,” Gabbard told supporters Saturday in West Branch, Iowa. “And you see the influence of the military-industrial complex. You see how people like myself and others are treated when we speak out and call for an end to these counterproductive regime change wars like the one I served in in Iraq, like the one in Libya, like the one ongoing in Syria. You see how we are smeared, how we are called names."
Gabbard had been talking like this for a while, even using a moment on the debate stage to say that the hosts, CNN and the New York Times, had run “despicable” attacks on her, saying it was probably because the mainstream media was “championing and cheerleading” “regime-change wars.” Clinton's intervention both unnerved and thrilled Democrats.
Those who liked it had worried for a while about Gabbard, for the reasons first reported by MSNBC. Like Ron Paul, a 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential candidate who was never accused of being in league with Russia, Gabbard has been a superstar of Russian media such as the English-language network RT. Strategists at some other campaigns had been worried not about a Gabbard surge — she had been mired in the low single digits and has a small, ad hoc Iowa organization — but by Gabbard being egged on to attack the party through alternative media.
Whether she runs as a third-party candidate (something she ruled out again Saturday) or as a protest candidate who would take her campaign to the convention, Gabbard's critics worried that she could use media appearances to discourage liberal turnout. And that was what left Democrats unnerved.
The latest reporting and analysis on the impeachment inquiry:
- Mulvaney continues to back away from quid pro quo, as top diplomat defends Giuliani’s role in Ukraine
- Trump’s season of weakness: A president who prizes strength enters key stretch in a fragile state
- The view from Staten Island: How this moment is playing out in New York's 11th Congressional District
- Key dates: What's coming this week
Which party would you like to see controlling Virginia's legislature? (Wason Center, 726 registered voters)
Democrats — 53%
Republicans — 37%
Virginia will elect a new legislature in just 16 days, and Democrats have an advantage, if not as decisive as the one they had two years ago. In November 2017, Virginia's elections became the vector for national liberal anger at the president, with surrogates and money flowing in to the commonwealth. (Not “state.” They'll know you're not from there if you say “state.”) There has been less national intervention this year, but polling has increasingly found Gov. Ralph Northam recovering from the blackface revelation that nearly ended his career and Republicans being dragged down by the president's unpopularity. A majority of Virginians believe they're headed in the right direction, and if Republicans lose two seats in the state House and one in the state Senate, they lose control completely.
2022 Maryland Senate race (Washington Post-University of Maryland, 819 registered voters)
Larry Hogan (R) — 50%
Chris Van Hollen (D) — 42%
The most popular governors in the country are Republicans in charge of deep blue states, with Hogan and Massachusetts's Charlie Baker at the head of the line. But no popular Republican governor of a blue state has been able to pull off a Senate win in decades; no Democratic governor of a red state has done it since 2000, when Nebraska's Ben Nelson won the first of two terms. (Nelson had previously lost a Senate bid.) But Hogan and Baker have both led speculative polls about how they'd fare as Senate candidates; Baker led Sen. Ed Markey in a 2020 contest and Hogan leads Van Hollen here. There may be pressure for a term-limited Hogan to consider running in 2022, when he'll be just 65 years old, but the list of governors who tried this red-blue tango recently — Tennessee's Phil Bredesen, Massachusetts's Bill Weld — is foreboding.
Bernie Sanders. He held the biggest campaign rally of the 2020 cycle so far, drawing nearly 26,000 people to the waterfront in Queens for a lengthy event with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other new endorsers, including filmmaker Michael Moore. His surrogates tackled different themes, from alleged ageism in coverage of Sanders to how he'd pulled them, personally, into politics.
“I want you all to take a look around and find someone you don't know,” said Sanders, a tack he has not taken in stump speeches. “My question now to you is are you willing to fight for that person who you don't even know as much as you're willing to fight for yourself?”
Elizabeth Warren. After weeks of pressure over her refusal to say whether “middle-class taxes” would be increased by Medicare-for-all, Warren said in Iowa that she would release “a plan that talks specifically about the costs of Medicare-for-all and specifically how we pay for it,” telling reporters afterward that she’d been “working on the details for a long time.”
Joe Biden. He held two New York fundraisers while Sanders rallied nearby, taking a swipe at the president's attempt to hold the G-7 meeting in “his failing country club so he can make money.” A few hours later, President Trump abandoned that plan.
Andrew Yang. He's being interviewed at The Washington Post on Monday and finally getting his New Hampshire “Politics and Eggs” breakfast this week, on Wednesday, as part of a three-day swing through the state.
Justin Amash. Now the only independent in the House, he again declined to rule out a run for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination in an interview with “Meet the Press” on NBC. “I'm running for Congress, but I keep things open and I wouldn't rule anything out,” he said.
John Delaney. He kicked off his “heartland start-up” tour over the weekend, en route to the latest Democratic dinner in Cedar Rapids, which will also be attended by Kamala Harris, Michael Bennet and Tulsi Gabbard.
Pete Buttigieg. He said on “Meet the Press” that he wanted to draw down America’s presence in Afghanistan but leave some options: “What was withdrawn from Syria is exactly the sort of thing that if we had it in Afghanistan, would prevent endless war of the scale that we're seeing now.”
... 12 days until the Iowa Liberty and Justice Celebration
... 16 days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 24 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 27 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 31 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 106 days until the Iowa caucuses