In this edition: The battle for the suburbs continues in California, 2020 Democrats team up to solve a labor dispute, and how voter roll purges could reshape the election.

Reporting to you from an ordinary, blue-collar wine cave, this is The Trailer.

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Mike Garcia had good news for the Republicans who'd huddled around the Wolf Creek Brewery's heat lamps. The “blue wave,” which had washed over Southern California in 2018, was receding. The 2020 election would be “the equivalent to our Gettysburg,” halting and reversing the Democratic Party's gains, starting with his race in the 25th Congressional District.

“I'm doing this because what I'm seeing happening at the national level is starting to look like California,” said Garcia, a former Navy combat pilot. “There's no bigger fight right now than to make sure that our nation does not turn into what our state has turned into.”

As the House moves toward the first presidential impeachment in 21 years, Republicans are predicting a backlash that will wipe out Democrats in swing districts. Four of those districts are in Southern California, and the 25th will vote first. The resignation of Katie Hill, a Democrat who stepped down over allegations of sexual misconduct and a stream of “revenge porn,” created a March special election that Republicans see as winnable. 

It's looking less like a referendum on impeachment than a free-for-all. Garcia is running, as is Republican Steve Knight, who lost to Hill in 2018. 

But two big-name Democrats are also running, and that's one more than the party wanted. Within days of Hill's resignation, local leaders got behind moderate state legislator Christy Smith. Then Cenk Uygur, a left-wing commentator from Los Angeles, jumped into the race, saying he wanted to prove that “purple” districts are craving Bernie Sanders-style populism.

“Nancy Pelosi has just handpicked Christy and declared that she is the leading candidate, even though there is nothing to back that up,” Uygur told supporters at a Sunday night house party in Santa Clarita. “If we win this election, it'll light the country on fire.”

Last year, similar fights played out across California, with the party nervously helping center-left candidates navigate the top-two primary system. Seven California districts flipped from red to blue in the midterms, five of them in Los Angeles or Orange County, all of them won by Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election. One, the 49th District in Orange County and San Diego, is seen as safely Democratic. Republicans are playing for the rest, staying close to the president and his agenda and arguing that voters who rejected their ticket last year will be alienated by how Democrats actually governed. 

In the three competitive districts around Orange County, Republicans have approximately the same plan: portraying freshman Democrats as intractable liberals, with the impeachment vote proving just how partisan they are. One of the races is a pure rematch, with former GOP state legislator Young Kim challenging Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros in the 39th District, with a similar argument to 2018: Republican policies work for voters, “regardless of what they feel about our president as a person.” The party is abandoning none of its 2018 agenda, pointing to other factors, such as “ballot harvesting” that let Democratic organizers boost their turnout, as the reasons they lost.

“Voters did kind of take out their displeasure with the president on people they thought were going to be a proxies for him, which meant our Republican candidates,” said Randall Avila, the executive director of the Orange County GOP, singling out former congressman Dana Rohrabacher as an incumbent whom voters grew tired of. “But we're back. The president will be on the ballot. Our candidates are running on their own records of success as elected officials.”

But with Hill's departure, there's no Democratic candidate in her district who Republicans can tie to Washington, and the 25th District will vote before the rest of the state does. The special election to replace Hill will take place on March 3, 2020, the same day as the Democratic presidential primary and every other congressional primary. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she will be sworn in quickly. If not, the top two finishers will head to a May 12 runoff.

Democrats, who rallied quickly behind Smith, saw a chance at winning outright in March; their voters would be turning out for a presidential primary and Republicans wouldn't, in a district that had backed Hillary Clinton by seven points and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom by two points. (Hill won by nine points.) 

Smith, who supports the impeachment effort, locked up endorsements from Pelosi to the county Democratic Party to Hill herself. She pitched herself as a community leader in touch with the district, exactly like the Democrats who won last year. In an interview, she described an electorate that, like she, was comfortable with a public option but not Medicare-for-all and concerned more with job opportunities than ideology. She had once registered as a Republican, too, and decided that the party lost its way, just as her district's voters had.

“I think they want to see true dedication to public service and clarity of purpose,” Smith said of voters. “They pride themselves on safe communities and great public schools and local government that functions, and working well together. Even as we've made what, for most communities, was hard transition from purely Republican leadership to Democratic leadership, I think what Katie and I provided was transition, in a way where that change wasn't so daunting.”

Uygur had a different theory of the election. He charged in one month ago, days after Smith, and immediately raised $300,000. His premise: “Corporate Democrats” were losers and donations from corporate interests were “bribes,” while he took honest money from small donors. 

Democrats, already backing Smith, saw him not just as a weak candidate who did not live in the district, but a menace to their strategy — the kind of problem they'd solved in 2018. They tore into Uygur over his commentary, from his days as a Republican-leaning blogger (“There must be orgasm by the fifth date”) to his mad-as-hell commentary for his The Young Turks network (“Bulldozer is my plan for Jerusalem”).

The candidate apologized for the sexist blog posts but saw the rest as an attempt to destroy him personally, ripping lines out of context, because the party couldn't defend Smith. 

“They're going to fight me tooth and nail. I told you that from Day 1,” Uygur said in Santa Clarita. “It ain't over. They're going to keep on fighting. They're going to keep on trying to smear me.”

Smith and Uygur tried to disqualify each other, and most elected Democrats sided with Smith. “He is a con man and a grifter,” Smith said. “A lot of the young activists I have mentored are more left than I am … but what this guy does on his show, and in his running here, is co-opt that movement. He takes it from them, and he really makes it about something it's not. There's nothing grass-roots about coming into a community and ousting a woman who's been doing the job for years because you want to raise your national platform.”

Uygur, meanwhile, portrayed Smith as a “corporate” candidate who would never change Washington, focusing on the donations she got as a state legislator and suggesting that a $1,500 contribution from United Health Care explains why she won't support Medicare-for-all. At the house party, Uygur's supporters, some of whom had campaigned for Hill, echoed his theory of the race: Any strong Democrat could win, so why choose the one who was appealing to moderates?

“She's okay with not pushing for Medicare-for-all,” said Ruben Arroyo, 42. “It's kind of an open field, and she's not left enough as a candidate in this in this race. I want someone who's as left as possible, you know? To really push when they get to Washington.”

In 2018, Republicans hoped that infighting would hobble Democrats in swing races; Hill, too, had to fend off a more left-wing challenger. But they expected Smith to be the leading Democratic candidate and were divided, themselves, on how to challenge her. Garcia, a favorite of national Republicans even before Hill's resignation, was positioning himself as a staunch conservative, and his supporters blamed the party's 2018 defeat not on Trump but on wobbly candidates. Chief among them: Knight, the incumbent who got drubbed by Hill.

“He's a good man, Steve Knight, but he's weak on illegal immigration,” said Victoria Redstall, a 45-year-old actress and Republican activist. “He does not support the president, and he's not a good campaigner. He's not got the fire in his belly that Mike Garcia has.”

Knight, who jumped into the race after Hill's resignation, thought that some in the party were misreading the past election and the changes that made the district competitive. If he returned to Congress, he said, he'd support immigration restructuring, as he had before, and would even criticize the president for diverting military funding toward construction of a border wall. Knight supported a “security fence,” but it wasn't necessary, he said, to flout Congress and alienate voters.

“I have a 98.9 percent voting record with President Trump, so you can't say I'm not going along with the president on policy,” Knight said. “But I am critical of the president when he does stuff I disagree with. Yes, I was critical when he said John McCain wasn't a hero. Yes, I was critical when he said he grabbed women inappropriately, but he has reversed that since.” Asked what he meant by that, Knight explained that Trump had apologized for his comments about women.

For some Republican voters, even light criticism of the president is too much. As Garcia made the rounds at his meet-and-greet, his supporters said Democrats were creating all the conditions for a Republican comeback. They just needed to hold strong, as Democrats fight among themselves.

“The district itself is about a third Democrat, about a third Republican, a third independent,” said John Smith, a 72-year-old travel agent. “When you look at the makeup of all that, I believe a strong candidate in the Trump camp is going to win it.”

This newsletter originally misreported the age of Victoria Redstall. She is 45.

READING LIST

“Inside Pete Buttigieg’s years-long, and often clumsy, quest to understand the black experience,” by Robert Samuels

The learning process that's still underway for the 37-year-old candidate.

“You don't know Bernie,” by Ruby Cramer

An incredibly deep dive into the new Sanders campaign, where the candidate is a bit player and his struggling voters are the stars.

“Joe Biden is a ‘healthy, vigorous’ 77-year-old, his doctor declares,” by Matt Viser and Cleve R. Wootson Jr

Folks, here's the deal.

“Tom Steyer rolls out a risky new argument: His hedge fund past makes him the Democrat to beat Trump,” by Seema Mehta

Turning a business record, which Democrats are skeptical of, into a message.

“For swing-district Democrats, impeachment is a question mark. For swing-district Republicans, it isn’t,” by Philip Bump

The raw politics of a historic vote.

“A black woman faces prison because of a Jim Crow-era plan to ‘protect white voters,’ ” by Sam Levine

The very active legacy of laws that pour on penalties for former felons.

DEBATE SEASON

LOS ANGELES — Democrats averted a disaster Tuesday, and 150 workers got a new contract, after a standoff between Loyola Marymount University’s food contractor and Unite Here Local 11 ended with a new contract.

“This agreement is an important reminder of our values as a Democratic Party,” Perez said at a news conference at Unite Here Local 11's Los Angeles offices. “Every single Democrat running for president understands that when the labor movement succeeds, the middle class succeeds.” 

It was actually the second labor dispute that Democrats had to deal with en route to Thursday’s debate. The party originally planned its sixth primary debate at UCLA but pulled out after AFSCME warned that the school was using “intimidation tactics to keep workers from protesting over outsourcing and income inequality.” 

That led to the backup debate at Loyola Marymount, a few miles away, and another crisis: The school contracted its food system to Sodexo, and workers were going to picket the debate unless the company agreed to higher wages and more job and health-care security. 

Last week, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), all seven of the Democrats who’d qualified for the debate said they’d walk unless workers got a contract. Perez, a former secretary of labor, helped broker the deal: a 25 percent wage increase and a 50 percent cut in health-care costs.

At Tuesday's news conference, workers and union leaders singled out Perez and Warren for praise. 

“They stood up and they heard our cry,” said food worker and labor organizer Angela Fisher.

Warren, wearing a red jacket to match the union's colors, was introduced as the “hero” of the fight.

“The workers of Unite Here get in the fight, and they win,” Warren said. 

The resolution rescued what may be the last debate with no logistical complications until February. The seventh debate, scheduled for Jan. 14 in Iowa, will probably overlap with an impeachment trial that will tie up the senators seeking the party’s nomination.

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

The latest on the impeachment proceedings

AD WATCH

Pete Buttigieg, “Primer Día Sin Trump.” The candidate’s first Spanish-language TV ad, marketed in Nevada, gets around two disadvantages: His stage-setting Nov. 1 speech was delivered in Iowa, and in English. Instead of clipping the best parts of that speech, as he’s done in other spots, Buttigieg just translates it, starting with the hook he’s settled on at town halls and other events: “I want you to picture the first day after the presidency of Donald Trump.”

Joe Biden, “Soul of America.” The former vice president’s consistent ad strategy continues with a spot developed from his August speech in Burlington, Iowa. “If we give Donald Trump four more years, this will not be the country envisioned by Washington,” Biden says, as footage from Civil Rights-era battles and images of the founders play behind him. It even includes footage of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, though not any images of Biden with him. 

Michael Bennet, “Opposite of Trump.” Another 60-second spot, like Biden's, Bennet's avoids some of the criticism he has delivered of other Democrats to focus entirely on the president. “I have a plan to cover everyone in three years without bankrupting the system,” he says, moving away from the contrast he's made with more left-wing candidates.

POLL WATCH

2020 election (Suffolk, 1,000 registered voters)

Donald Trump: 44%
Joe Biden: 41%
Third-party candidate: 11%

Donald Trump: 44%
Bernie Sanders: 39%
Third-party candidate: 13%

Donald Trump: 45%
Elizabeth Warren: 37%
Third-party candidate: 12%

Donald Trump: 43%
Mike Bloomberg: 34%
Third-party candidate: 15%

Donald Trump: 43%
Pete Buttigieg: 33%
Third-party candidate: 15%

Nearly every national poll does trial heats of the presidential election by asking about the Republican and Democratic candidates. Suffolk throws a curveball, asking about a hypothetical, unnamed third option. The result is Democratic nightmare fuel; no other poll has found every Democratic candidate trailing the president nationally. But the real-world odds of powerful third-party challengers have been fading all year. Bloomberg, courted for years to run outside the parties, opted to become a Democrat, while Howard Schultz passed on a bid, and the Green and Libertarian parties have moved on from their best-known politicians. (Neither Jill Stein nor Gary Johnson will run again.)

IN THE STATES

Democrats in two 2020 swing states are bracing after more than 500,000 names were swept off the voting rolls, despite years of evidence that mass purges can hurt qualified voters.

In Georgia, the state wiped 309,000 names from its rolls, focusing on those who had not voted in 2016 or 2018 and those who had registered a change of address with the state but not responded to mail asking whether they lived in their current listed homes. In Wisconsin, a judge sided with conservative plaintiffs asking for a similar purge and ordered that 234,000 registrations be struck.

Georgia Republicans control every branch of state government, after narrowly winning gubernatorial and secretary of state races last year. Wisconsin is a little different: Democrats control every statewide office, and the local election commission is bipartisan. But the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued and found a sympathetic judge, who ruled that voters who did not return cards asking them to confirm their voting addresses had to be removed from the rolls.

The data behind mass purges has been consistently cited for flaws; the Electronic Registration Information Center, whose “Movers Report” is the basis of efforts to determine whether voters have left their addresses, has incorrectly identified thousands of registrations. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern points out, a majority of voters who receive cards simply throw them out, unaware that they lose their voting rights unless they mail them back to the state.

Wisconsin Democrats have responded by calling for help with organizing voters; the state’s same-day voter registration laws allows even people who’ve been removed from the rolls to get back on, if they can prove their residence.

“Knowing that Republicans and Republican-allied groups are trying to knock voters off the rolls just lights a fire under us,” state Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler told NPR. “This is an organizing initiative that started the moment the initial ruling came out from the Ozaukee County judge.”

In Georgia, Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, has filed to stop the purge.

Democrats in both states had already been working ahead on voter registration. These developments add a special burden, because the purges have affected their voters more than Republicans. And in the cities where Democrats need to run up numbers, any complication on Election Day adds to the time it takes to wind their voters through busy precincts. 

2020

Andrew Yang. He released a short, revised health-care plan, after previously saying he supported “Medicare-for-all” while criticizing the House and Senate Medicare-for-all legislation. “Swiftly reformatting 18 percent of our economy and eliminating private insurance for millions of Americans is not a realistic strategy, so we need to provide a new way forward on healthcare for all Americans,” he said in a statement accompanying a plan that leaves the current system largely in place instead of creating a new government insurance plan.

Elizabeth Warren. She put out a plan to fight “global financial corruption,” the latest of several strategies to claw back money from abroad with tougher enforcement.

Joe Biden. He picked up his second major labor endorsement, from the 100,000-member National Association of Government Employees. In December 2015, the same union backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Notably, while some unions have thrown more of their endorsement decision-making to rank-and-file, NAGE’s was decided by its 47-member board, a process that generally has been less friendly to left-wing candidates but better at picking candidates quickly.

Bernie Sanders. His campaign purchased peteswinecave.com to take advantage of the online mockery of a ritzy Buttigieg fundraiser in Northern California. The site redirects to Sanders's campaign site.

Tom Steyer. He delivered an economic policy speech in Des Moines as part of a swing through Iowa, arguing that his rivals were ill-equipped to challenge a president while the economy was growing. “I have a lot of respect for the four leading Democratic candidates in this race,” he said. “None of them, not Vice President Biden, not Senator Warren, not Senator Sanders, not Mayor Pete, have built or run a successful, international business.”

Michael Bennet. He's begun a $700,000 fundraising drive to put a new ad on the air in New Hampshire, where he has increasingly focused his campaigning and resources.

Cory Booker. He successfully added language to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent federal employers from asking about job applicants' criminal history.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has been aggressive about endorsements in key 2020 races, waded into Texas this week by supporting M.J. Hegar, a 2018 House candidate who was urged to get in after running a competitive race.

National interventions had drawn criticism before, most loudly in Colorado. But in that race, the party leaders got behind a former governor, John Hickenlooper, with a strong lead in polls. Hegar isn't in the same position, raising more than $2 million — quadruple her nearest rival — but not pulling away in a field that includes a former congressman (Chris Bell), a Houston city councilor (Amanda Edwards), a Dallas-based state senator (Royce West), an ally of Beto O'Rourke (Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez), and a left-wing challenger whose shoestring 2018 campaign got 23 percent of the vote (Sema Hernandez).

On Monday, they unloaded on Hegar. Ramirez's campaign said that national Democrats had “decided to ignore several more qualified and experienced candidates of color, who have done the work to transform the politics of our state, in favor of a former Republican.” West's campaign told the Texas Tribune that the party was “trying to lock African Americans out of the process.” (West and Edwards are both black.)

COUNTDOWN

... two days until the sixth Democratic debate (tbd)
... 48 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 56 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 67 days until the Nevada caucuses