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The Trailer: How the pandemic is affecting a primary challenge in Ohio

In this edition: A pandemic primary in Ohio, outrage at New York's election board, and what it's like to vote when you barely can go outside.

It's probably good that the whole “talk like Bane” fad ended before everyone got a mask, and this is The Trailer.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Morgan Harper's congressional campaign office is a museum of the pre-pandemic world. “How many doors have you knocked?” reads a blackboard, not updated since the start of social distancing. Campaign signs, intended to be planted at polling sites, gather dust in a corner. A computer screen, tracking progress toward a goal of 300,000 voter contacts, is frozen at 167,594.

“We would have sometimes like almost 100 people at community events,” said Harper, 36, grabbing her earpiece for a block of call time. “People were meeting folks that lived down the street, maybe people that they had never talked to before. They all shared this idea that government could really work for us and really respond to grass-roots organizing. And now, of course, we can't do that.”

Harper, an attorney and activist who had never run for office, is one of a handful of left-wing challengers working to unseat incumbent Democrats in safely blue districts this year. She expected to be the underdog against Rep. Joyce Beatty, a longtime Columbus legislator who had not faced a primary since first winning the seat. 

She did not expect — who could have? — to run a campaign under conditions that rendered most traditional campaigning impossible. Today's primary in Ohio, held after a six-week delay, is the first test of how campaigning works at a time when voting means applying for a piece of mail and canvassing means making phone calls. And it's a test of whether those conditions help or hurt incumbents, who, unlike challengers, can offer voters help right away.

“We put down our campaign to focus on covid-19 awareness,” Beatty said in an interview, as she stood at a distance from the board of elections site where voters could drop off absentee ballots. “I felt as a real leader, as someone who serves as the congresswoman for the 3rd Congressional District, it was important for me to do what I've always done. That is to use my experience, and my hard work, to give back to others.” 

The Columbus-area race, unfolding across a solidly Democratic district, was one of the first to be directly affected by the pandemic. The primary had been set for March 17, the same day as contests in Arizona, Florida and Illinois. Harper and Beatty were gearing up their get-out-the-vote operations the night before, when suddenly, Gov. Mike DeWine postponed all in-person voting. It took days for the new date to be set, and more days for campaigns to refocus on informing Ohioans that they needed to vote by mail.

That threw Harper and Beatty into limbo, while not diminishing the meaning of their contest. Beatty had the full support of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has fought back against intraparty primary challenges and wanted to dispatch this one quickly. Harper was backed by Justice Democrats, the left-wing campaign corps that recruited and helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. (Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Harper began running before Justice Democrats got involved in the race.)

Harper, a Stanford Law graduate who worked at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, raised $750,000 for her campaign — more than double what Ocasio-Cortez raised before her 2018 win. Some left-wing politicians and organizations stayed out of the race — Beatty did not have a conservative voting record — but others embraced the argument that a deep blue district should be represented by a dynamic populist, not a congresswoman who is fairly unknown outside the district. 

“This is an area where, over the past 40 years, nobody's really addressed what could make people's lives better,” Harper said as she rode through the district to help collect absentee ballots. A staffer went door to door to pluck them out of the mailbox; the campaign didn't want to risk controversy over the candidate handling ballots. “What I found really resonated for people was that I was not a politician and that I rejected corporate money.”

For months, the race played out across now-familiar lines — a young political organizer arguing that it was time for change, while the incumbent pitched voters on her experience and clout. Beatty spent more than $2 million on the primary, more than her last three races combined, reintroducing herself to voters with TV ads. Both candidates were black, complicating — though not stopping — the CBC's characterization of left-wing primaries as political meddling designed to reduce black influence in Congress. 

Heading into the primary, Justice Democrat Jessica Cisneros had come unexpectedly close to defeating Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas; on March 17, when Illinois went ahead with its primary, Justice Democrats-backed activist Marie Newman unseated Rep. Daniel Lipinski. (Both voted with Republicans far more frequently than Beatty.) While Bernie Sanders's campaign faltered, candidates who supported Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal were making up ground. 

The pandemic made that tougher. College students, Harper pointed out, had been sent home, a possible loss of thousands of votes. In-person debates were finished. Both campaigns pivoted to mail outreach, with Beatty sending out 40,000 absentee ballot applications and Harper sending out her own, competing application to 30,000 voters, hand-delivering 4,000 more. But Beatty was in Congress, voting on relief bills, and Harper wasn't. 

“Coronavirus really had a major impact on this race in ways that help incumbency, especially with the complicated mail-in ballot process and when students at one of the largest campuses in the country were sent home,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats. “Like AOC has said, for one of us to get in, one hundred have to try.”

Harper has pitched herself as the candidate who understands the community, a child who started her life in foster care and came back to become an organizer. She and her key campaign staff volunteered for Meals on Wheels delivery and other community events that needed in-person (albeit masked and gloved) assistance. The pandemic, she argued, showed just how achievable her ideas were, not that Ohioans needed to muddle through with their current leadership.

“The critique of many people, including my opponent, is that some of these ideas are pipe dreams,” Harper said in an interview. “Really? We just greenlit billions of dollars to corporations. Why don’t we get to see some of that investment in our people?”

Beatty, 70, has derided that argument, pointing out that Harper had not voted in many Ohio elections — “I don't know a progressive person who's really about the people who doesn't vote” — and suggesting that she couldn't deliver on her agenda if she got to Washington. (Harper voted in local elections in November 2019.)

“I don't know someone who would come out and make promises that she can't keep,” Beatty said. “Many of those individuals have served in the Senate and the House for many years. So why don't we have all of this free stuff now? Here's the thing. I'm not going to play a game of who can out-left one another. It's about who can really stand up for the people and get things done.” 

In the race's final days, Beatty largely stayed at home, observing health guidelines, while her campaign looked for ways for her to connect virtually with voters — reading children's books on live streams seemed to work well. On Sunday, Beatty gathered gospel singers and CBC members for a special Facebook Live event, with the constant message that Columbus would be deprived if it replaced an experienced representative with a freshman.

“It would be a big loss for your district if she was not there,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, the chairman of the CBC, on the live stream. “When you start talking about Congress, where seniority and effectiveness really matter, she is the one.” 

Election Day itself began quietly and soaked with rain. As soon as it could, Harper's team began helping voters who could not deliver their absentee ballots to the county elections office, which years ago had been moved from downtown to the suburbs. Harper rode along, and spotted Beatty, who had gathered with her team — masked, six feet apart — under a tent, where voters could see them. They were far from the building itself, farther from the masked officials handling the ballots. 

“The office used to be really conveniently located,” Harper said, staying inside the car a few yards from Beatty. “There's definitely not one bus that gets you up here.” That meant it was even harder for some Ohioans to vote. Harper rode back to her office to call voters with all the time she had left. 

Reading list

“Ohio holds congressional, presidential primary Tuesday after postponing voting due to coronavirus,” by David Weigel and Felicia Sonmez

Six weeks later, Ohioans get to vote.

“The Biden trap,” by Rebecca Traister

A look at how any Democratic running mate may have to fend off hypocrisy charges.

“Trump allies highlight new claims regarding allegations against Biden,” by Matt Viser

A once-reluctant GOP finds an angle: Why can't the standards Democrats applied to Brett M. Kavanaugh be applied to the Democratic nominee?

“Oppo dumps and behind-the-scenes lobbying: Biden’s VP search heats up,” by David Siders, Alex Thompson and Laura Barrón-López

The wrangling for a shot as Biden's Biden.

On the trail

COLUMBUS — In the final hours of this much-delayed primary, voters drove up to the Franklin County elections board and checked, one more time, whether they could vote. The state had sent them postcards, informing them that they had needed to apply for absentee ballots and then fill them in. But that was not how things usually worked, and some had ignored that piece of mail. 

“I got the postcard in the mail, but I really didn't understand it,” said Bertha Edwards, 56, as she walked out of the suburban offices. “I thought it was another one of those advertising things. I'm pretty sure I shredded it. But then I saw on Channel 10 news that I was supposed to get an absentee ballot.” 

Edwards would be able to vote, only because she fit one of the conditions the state was using to allow people to file last-minute provisional ballots: She had a disability. In conversations outside the county's sole polling place, other voters said they had only just gotten their ballots, or waited too long to apply.

“We kind of got our signals crossed,” said Bob Weida, 45, who came to vote Monday with his wife but was turned away. “When we showed up to our ordinary polling place in March, we were told June. And then it changed to April. We thought we could show up in person, but apparently the deadline was earlier.”

Weida was not wrong. The governor had initially asked for a longer primary delay; the secretary of state had initially discussed sending every eligible voter a ballot, not an application for one. Instead, the state ambled toward today’s mail-vote primary, which left some voters out in the cold. 

Those who had not submitted an application before Saturday and who showed up at an election office asking to vote were sent home. Those who had the ballots, but worried that snail mail would prevent them from being counted, had to make a special trip. 

 “It took, like, two weeks to get my absentee ballot,” said Hannah Bickers, 26, who voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the presidential primary. “I finally got it two days ago, but that meant I needed to drive it in.” 

Ohio’s primary has not inspired the same level of panic or litigation that Wisconsin’s vote did three weeks ago. The main reason is obvious: Wisconsin Republicans refused to delay the vote and insisted that in-person voting, at a greatly reduced number of sites, could be safe. 

That was never considered in Ohio. Instead, voters adjusted to a more complicated form of voting. The complication kept some of them from trying. As of Friday, 1.7 million absentee ballots had been requested, down dramatically from 2016, when more than 3.2 million votes were cast across the Republican and Democratic primaries. 

Early voting, which concluded last month before social distancing began, could bump that up slightly. The conditions had also changed dramatically from 2016, when both parties had contested primaries; most of Ohio’s voting took place after Sanders ended his campaign.

The remnants of Sanders’s campaign were trying to make the most of it. Our Revolution, the group he founded after the 2016 primary, was contacting its tens of thousands of Ohio members and urging them to help Sanders maximize his popular vote and delegate haul.

“We’re explaining to people that you can’t just randomly walk up to vote like you used to,” Diane Morgan, a Cleveland-based organizing coordinator, said Monday. “I'm just making sure that people have the correct information. One of the things that we found is that people are really grateful.”

On Monday, as voters dropped off ballots in Franklin County, many said they were more interested in the civic duty than a particular race. Nick Andromalis, who supported the president, said he had come to vote only on ballot measures. He couldn’t vote for Democrats, but he was disappointed with President Trump's handling of the pandemic.

“If I were his campaign manager, I’d hook him up to electrodes and shock him when he said something stupid,” Andromalis said. “In the last few weeks, I think he’s been dropping the ball.”

The stakes seemed low to most voters. What was more interesting was whether the state could pull the election off, and whether the next election would be handled fairly.

“If this was November, I'd be throwing a fit,” said Weida, “because it'd be the end of the world.” 

Ad watch

Priorities USA, “First.” The Democratic super PAC has been running harsh messages about the president's handling of the pandemic for weeks, even facing a cease-and-desist notice. Priorities has plowed ahead anyway, and its new spot for swing states dryly notes that Trump has made “America lead the world in coronavirus cases” while “downplaying the threat.” The ad itself may matter less than the premise: Democrats will continue tying pandemic deaths and economic damage to the president, who is planning to run as the leader who could help recovery.

Poll watch

Do you think the president will be reelected? (Siena, 508 New York voters)

Yes: 45% (-6) 
No: 48% (+11)

The top lines of Siena's new poll aren't too surprising for deep blue New York. Biden leads Trump massively; Biden is viewed favorably, and Trump isn't; Cuomo easily surpasses every other state or national politician in popularity. What's more interesting is the way New York voters, who have consistently opposed Trump, convinced themselves that he might lose in 2020. In February, after all but one Republican senator voted to acquit the president, New Yorkers expected Trump to win again by a 33-point margin.

Should immigration be halted during the pandemic? (Washington Post, 1,001 adults)

Yes: 65%
No: 34%

One of the issues for president is that some of the policies he's most comfortable with, like restricting immigration, are unpopular outside his base. That makes this result especially notable, with a supermajority of Republicans and independents comfortable with the idea of pausing legal immigration so long as the country is locked down. (Democrats are split on the idea, 49 to 49.) The intricacies of the order, which allow guest workers into the country but freeze the process of applying for citizenship, may be less popular, but the broad-stroke policy starts out ahead.

Does this phrase describe this candidate? (Suffolk, 1,000 registered voters)

Cares about people like me
Joe Biden: 57%
Donald Trump: 39%

Honest and trustworthy
Joe Biden: 47%
Donald Trump: 31%

Knows how to get things done
Donald Trump: 51%
Joe Biden: 48%

This poll, which made waves when it found a post-impeachment Trump leading Biden, now finds the president 10 points back in a trial heat. (The race gets closer if voters get to pick a third-party candidate.) The reasons are in these candidate quality questions: Trump trails Biden by 16 points on honesty, a metric that the president fought Hillary Clinton to a tie on four years ago, and by 18 points on caring about regular people, a metric Clinton had won more narrowly.

Dems in disarray

On Monday afternoon, Joe Biden won 274 delegates without really trying. How? New York's board of elections met and wiped every defunct campaign off the June 23 primary ballot. An election that Bernie Sanders lobbied to save, in the state of his birth, was canceled on the grounds that Sanders was not technically running for president anymore.

“Our campaign was suspended, not ended, because people in every state should have the right to express their preference,” Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said in a statement. “No one asked New York to cancel the election. The DNC didn’t request it. The Biden campaign didn’t request it. And our campaign communicated that we wanted to remain on the ballot.”

Those pleas were ignored by a board that was largely appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and that got the power to remove candidates in a budget he signed last month. The hearing, which was live-streamed, took place in a different reality from the one Sanders and his supporters thought they lived in. To them, the primary was a fair, free chance to maximize left-wing power at the Democratic National Convention. To the board, the primary was a “beauty contest” not worth the time of voters or county clerks.

“We should minimize the number of people on the ballot, minimize the election for the protection of everybody, but give the opportunity to vote in the actual elections for candidates,” said Democratic commissioner Andrew Spano. “Not have anyone on the ballot just for the purpose of issues at a convention.”

The Sanders campaign signaled its intention to fight this on multiple fronts. Larry Cohen, a DNC delegate, member of the party's rules committee, and board chairman of the pro-Sanders group Our Revolution, said he was “amazed” that the board nixed the primary. The party had spent countless hours setting up standards that made each primary count and bound delegates to the results of those primaries. One short meeting in New York, and it was gone.

“[This] totally violates DNC rules,” Cohen warned. “Many of us who do support the election of Joe Biden will nonetheless be forced to go to the credentials committee and challenge any delegation New York may send to the convention.”

At issue: Sanders's unusual effort to get a maximum share of delegates despite ending his campaign and endorsing Biden. Since leaving the race 20 days ago, citing the pandemic and Biden's insurmountable lead, Sanders has encouraged supporters to vote for him, with the goal of securing 25 percent of all available delegates. With that much influence at the convention, Sanders's supporters could challenge any DNC rule or platform plank.

Sanders was on track to pull it off. In the three primaries concluded since he quit the race — Alaska, Wisconsin and Wyoming, all of which conducted most voting before he quit — Sanders easily cleared the 15 percent threshold for delegates. And New York, the biggest delegate prize left on the calendar, was going to hold a primary under new rules that allowed voters to register with the party on short notice. It was a change that Sanders allies had fought hard to win, ousting center-right Democratic state senators in 2018, helping the party win control of the chamber, then lobbying for electoral change.

Then came the pandemic. Electoral changes were tucked into a must-pass budget bill, and one of those changes allowed the board of elections to cancel a primary if all but one candidate quit the race. Instead of asking ex-candidates to remove themselves from the ballot, the board would take care of it. And its first use of those powers was a gut punch to Sanders supporters, who had seen the presidential primary as one final chance to declare their solidarity with his agenda.

Defenders of the decision were hard to find Monday. Weaver warned that Cuomo had given Republicans “precedent” to mess with the timing of the November general election. (The precedent isn't really clear, as Trump is unlikely to suspend his campaign before then, and Republicans had already wiped Trump challengers off the ballot in nine primary states.) Voting rights advocates worried about the state's justification, that by depriving voters in 20 counties of an election, it was saving lives. (There will be elections held in the state's other 42 counties, as scheduled.)

New York's “decision to cancel its primary creates a false choice: asking voters to pick safety or participation in our democracy,” Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who is focusing on voting rights, tweeted Monday. “This is wrong. Elections officials can hold safe, accessible elections, where voters cast ballots by mail or safely in person.”

The state's decision could affect turnout in down-ballot races, which until Monday were scheduled to be held alongside the presidential primary for the first time. Left-wing challengers in House primaries condemned the decision, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a low-turnout June 2018 primary on her way to Congress, was asking the state to reverse its decision.

Ballots were certified & neither candidate asked for this,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “The decision should be overturned immediately.” 

Candidate tracker

President Trump returned to the coronavirus briefing routine, where he was asked whether a president who presided over more than 50,000 deaths should be reelected.

“Yes, we've lost a lot of people,” Trump said. “But if you look at what original projections were, 2.2 million, we're probably heading to 60,000, 70,000. One person is too many for this, and I think we've made a lot of really good decisions. The big decision was closing the border.”

The Trump campaign also accused Joe Biden of benefiting from a double standard when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct, pointing to the Democrats' comments about “believing women” to ask whether he was being protected from questions about a former staffer who accused him of assault. 

Biden's campaign has denied that allegation, as have former staffers, but Biden himself has not been asked about it on camera. He sat for interviews Monday with Michigan and Florida TV stations, in which the topic did not come up. He did attack Trump in the Florida interview for owing “apparently, millions of dollars to the bank of China,” his latest effort to blur an issue Trump intends to use against him.

Biden on Tuesday afternoon was joined on his virtual town hall by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who endorsed him. 

Meet a PAC

What it’s called: Future to Believe In PAC

Who’s behind it: Veterans of the Sanders campaign, including strategist and 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver, digital strategist Tim Tagaris, Latino outreach strategist Chuck Rocha and 2016 Sanders consultant/2020 Andrew Yang consultant Mark Longabaugh.

What it’ll do: Work to turn out the sort of liberal voters whom the Democrats might otherwise struggle to reach.

What it won’t do: Use Sanders’s email list, still the largest in Democratic politics. “The senator is not supportive of super PACs,” Weaver told Shane Goldmacher, who first reported on the PAC. “He is not supportive of this super PAC.” 


… 14 days until the special elections in Wisconsin's 7th District and California's 25th District
… 111 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 118 days until the Republican National Convention
… 188 days until the general election