In this edition: An interview with Justin Amash, a look at election results in three very different states, and a rundown of Joe Biden's difficult week.
The Delaware Gridiron video archive is as exciting as you'd expect it to be, and this is The Trailer.
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan is not the Libertarian Party's candidate for president. Not yet. The 40-year-old congressman, who left the Republican Party last year, entered third-party politics just weeks before the LP is set to nominate its presidential ticket at a convention in Austin, and the candidates who were already in the race have blasted him as an “interloper.”
Amash was making Libertarians a familiar offer: Welcome him in, give him the party’s nomination, and he can blow up the two-party system. In interviews this week, Amash has rejected the idea that he'd siphon anti-Trump votes away from Joe Biden, arguing instead that he could stitch together 270 electoral votes.
“I’m in a position, given my age, where I think I have a little more capability, frankly, with social media and with this kind of stuff than these other two candidates,” Amash told Politico’s Tim Alberta. “I think this presents an advantage for me over the next few months.”
Step one on that path: a charm offensive with Libertarian activists, urging a party that struggles to crack 3 percent of the vote that the country is finally ready for them. “Nobody should get the nomination just because they have higher name ID than other people,” Amash said in an interview with The Trailer this week. He would earn the nomination with conversations and reason, and then he’d apply these tactics to 130 million or so Americans.
Reached at home in western Michigan, Amash talked about that plan and his approach to government, which was idiosyncratic in the GOP and viewed skeptically by Libertarians. He addressed the sexual assault allegation against Biden by saying his campaign was focused on the issues. “Everyone deserves due process,” Amash said, “whether it's Joe Biden or Donald Trump.”
In a week when the Republican president was panicking about bad internal poll numbers and Democrats were wrestling with headlines focused on the allegation, Amash argued what Libertarian candidates have been pitching since 1976: that this was the year for voters to ditch the Democrats and Republicans. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
THE TRAILER: You said a few weeks ago that you were considering a presidential run, and then you did it. Can you describe the process that led you here?
JUSTIN AMASH: I've spent a lot of time thinking about it over the past couple of months, starting in mid-February. I had to assess whether this was a winnable race. That's important to me. I'm not running for messaging, or to score some points, or anything like that. I believe you run to win. And I had to adjust to this environment. We're at home with a pandemic situation, so are we able to campaign in a way that would allow me to win? And I came to the conclusion that, yes, it was possible to do that.
TT: You've talked about frustration with the two main parties and the “partisan death spiral.” But somebody could point to the 2016 election and say: Hey, that was the opening for a third party. Hillary Clinton was far more disliked than Joe Biden, and Donald Trump was more disliked than he is now. And Libertarians couldn't crack 5 percent. What's the case now?
JA: I'm not sure that I disagree with the idea that 2016 was a good environment for a Libertarian Party candidate. It's hard to know whether this environment is better or worse. I do know that we have two candidates who won't address the systemic problems we have, the partisan nature of politics that is destroying our constitutional system. And I'm not saying that partisanship will go away if any particular person is elected. Of course not. But right now, we let the partisanship drive everything, and it manifests itself in the way the legislative process works so that now you only have a few leaders who control everything and they negotiate directly with the White House. And that is not going to change whether you have Donald Trump or Joe Biden as president.
TT: Speaking of 2016, you said at the time that you could not vote for Trump or Clinton. Who did you vote for?
JA: I wrote in [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul. Those were different times. [Paul, who attacked Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, has become a loyal presidential ally.]
TT: You opposed the Paycheck Protection Program, but you've also said that there should be some sort of universal cash distribution during the pandemic. Can you unpack your thinking on this?
JA: The PPP, if constructed properly, could be beneficial to a lot of businesses and maybe a lot of employees, but it's not constructed properly at all. For example, enhanced unemployment benefits work against the PPP's effort to have employers rehire employees. [Some business owners have complained that benefits are more generous than the workers’ pre-pandemic wages.] So you have things working against each other in the bill, and you also have hundreds of billions of dollars of corporate welfare that is accessible through the Federal Reserve under the direction of [Treasury] Secretary [Steve] Mnuchin. That legislation is convoluted and complex. What would have been much better for the American people, and should have at least been the starting point, would have been to get money to the people directly as fast as possible. And I was sounding the alarm on that pretty early in the process. The checks would have gone out faster, and those checks should have been universal. Would there be some checks that go to the wrong people? Of course, but the level of waste there is small compared to the level of waste under the current system.
TT: I ask about that because I could find a Libertarian delegate, or maybe one of your opponents, who says: Look, the government shouldn't be redistributing wealth in the first place. So, why is this in harmony with your belief system?
JA: I do think it's a form of redistribution. The government is going to be involved in a crisis. There was a lot of desire by hundreds of millions of Americans to have the government involved in this. There is no way the government was going to stay out. And the crisis was furthered by government action. You had big government instructing people to not go to work and instructing people in certain businesses to close their doors. Is it utopian to have this system? No, but in a crisis, there is no perfect way to address it. So the best thing you can do is try to reduce the shock.
TT: Every time someone first elected as a Republican has sought the Libertarian nomination, he's won it. But there's always some resistance to him inside the party. The Libertarian platform, for example says that the government shouldn't be involved in abortion and that it's a personal choice. You disagree with that, right?
JA: I'm pro-life, and people in the party understand that. They know where I'm coming from. And within the party, there's a lot of division on that issue. It's not clear-cut. My suspicion is that the party's actually become more pro-life over the years. But there is common ground, I think, on this particular issue. Libertarians do agree that there shouldn't be federal funding of abortion or abortion providers. And as far as legislation coming through Congress is concerned, that's probably as far as anything we'll ever get.
TT: It's more likely to come through the courts. Say you're president, and you're sitting down with judicial nominees. What is the conversation you guys have about Roe and the right to privacy?
JA: I think we can agree, and even progressive law professors can agree, that Roe v. Wade has problems as a Supreme Court opinion. So, that's not really a big debate in the legal community. For me, when it comes to judicial nominations and appointments, the question's about whether they uphold the text of the Constitution. I was supportive of Justice [Neil] Gorsuch. I was supportive of his nomination and appointment. And I would be supportive of justices like that.
TT: The Libertarian platform also says that we should — I'm going to read the text, so I'm not gotcha-ing you — “phase out the current government-sponsored Social Security system and transition to a private voluntary system.” Do you agree with that?
JA: If the question is, do I agree with reforming Social Security, the answer is yes. I don't know whether it has to be replaced or reformed or in some other way. I've long advocated for the idea that Social Security and Medicare, as they are currently operating, will not function into the distant future, and that you have to begin to change the system. You change the system by addressing the people who are youngest right now, and having them transition to a different system, whereas people who are older — just so that we're totally clear on this, people at or near retirement — you wouldn't change the system for them. I want to be careful about the word “phasing” or the phrase “phasing out.” I don't want some abrupt change for people who are currently retired or near retirement. The phase-in would affect our youngest people, in their 20s and 30s.
TT: What do you think when you see people protesting stay-at-home orders, in close quarters, in state capitols? Do you agree with the protests?
JA: I don't disagree with the right to protest. Everyone has the right to protest. And no governor can shut down protests. It's a First Amendment protected right. I think that just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean you should do it in a particular way. So to the extent that anyone is out and about ignoring social distancing guidelines and taking big risks, I think that's a mistake. If you do it in a way that pushes people away from your cause, that can be problematic. I think there are millions of people in the state of Michigan who agree with the protesters, at least in spirit. I also agree that the governor has overreached in her approach, and I'm glad that she's taken some steps back.
TT: Was the president right or wrong to halt the legal immigration process during the pandemic? Keeping in mind here that guest workers are still allowed in the country.
JA: That's not a particularly fruitful approach. Most of the spread is already happening in communities here in America, so I don't know what's gained from it. If you were going to have lockdowns, it made the most sense to lock down very early. I understand it's hard for anyone, any president, to know what is the right time to do that and how things might spiral out of control. But I'm not sure that this particular population presents a significant increase in risk to the United States in terms of spreading the virus.
TT: How should the 2020 elections be conducted? Do you agree with the states that are restricting absentee ballots?
JA: It's important that states, for security reasons, be able to determine how they hold elections and that we not have one government dictating to all 50 states how they're going to hold the elections. But I do think it is important for every state to make voting as accessible as possible. And if that means mail-in ballots during this kind of situation, then so be it. I just don't like the idea of having the federal government start to manage elections across the country, because then you make the system actually more vulnerable to outside attacks.
TT: You've been asked a few times about whether you may be a “spoiler,” and why you didn't send a message by running against the president in the Republican primary. Bill Weld, who was the Libertarian nominee for vice president four years ago, did just that and dropped out. What lesson did you take from Weld's experience?
JA: It was futile, and I recognized that a long time ago. The partisanship is so extraordinary right now that people aren't willing to break away from their leaders in their parties in the way that they might have decades ago. I never expected the Republican Party to peel away from Trump during this election, at least not over the past two years. There was a possibility early on if Republicans had spoken out, right when he was elected. He could have been rejected outright by this point. But once he basically coalesced with the establishment, once he essentially merged with Mitch McConnell, there was no chance of returning. And that's where we are.
“34 days of pandemic: Inside Trump’s desperate attempts to reopen America,” by Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Robert Costa and Lena H. Sun
A look at how worries about political perception might have worsened a crisis.
An inside story into how the Sanders campaign's biggest plan needs a do-over.
The rules for replacing a nominee.
“Fearing political peril, Republicans edge away from Trump on pandemic response,” by Catie Edmondson and Rebecca R. Ruiz
How down-ballot Republicans are navigating the damage.
Joe Biden easily won primaries in Ohio and Kansas this week, bringing the zombie stage of the Democratic race — the period when votes were cast while Bernie Sanders was still running — near a conclusion. And in Ohio’s 3rd District, a left-wing challenger lost in a rout to Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty, cheering leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, who had worked to protect the incumbent and humiliate the left. (Both Beatty and challenger Morgan Harper are black women, and while Justice Democrats have worked to recruit nonwhite candidates, the CBC has accused them of intervening to hurt incumbents who have built seniority.)
The presidential contest had lower stakes, pitting Biden against Sanders in a state where the Vermont socialist had triumphed four years ago (Kansas), and one where he’d never gotten traction (Ohio). Kansas, which like many states replaced its old caucus with a vote-by-mail primary, held a vote from March 30 to May 2, with ballots tallied by Sunday morning.
Biden won easily, with Sanders once again clearing the threshold for delegates to the national convention. The former vice president won 110,041 of 143,183 votes, to just 33,142 for Sanders. That still meant that Sanders surpassed his totals from 2016, when the lower-turnout caucuses were held and only 39,022 Democrats showed up.
While nearly 18,000 votes were cast for Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard or “uncommitted,” the ranked-choice ballot system meant that those votes were redistributed, fairly evenly, to Biden and Sanders. Biden did best in the 3rd Congressional District, consisting of the Kansas City suburbs that flipped to Democrats in 2018; Sanders did best in the 4th Congressional District, which covers Topeka and where he campaigned to help 2018 congressional nominee Jim Thompson.
Sanders did worse in Ohio, which accidentally held one of the longest primaries in history — early voting began in February, and absentee ballots were being delivered until this past Tuesday, April 28. Turnout fell dramatically from 2016, with just 860,347 ballots cast, down from more than 1.2 million in the 2016 primary. It was even lower than the primary in 2004, a comparable year when Ohio voted as the race was winding down and turnout also cracked 1.2 million. A combination of the primary's reduced importance and the new, unfamiliar absentee ballot system led to a smaller electorate.
Biden dominated in those conditions, winning 72 percent of the overall vote and at least two-thirds of the vote in every county. As we've seen in other Midwestern primaries, Sanders's support in areas with plenty of white, working-class voters disappeared between 2016 and 2020. He did best, with 31 percent of the vote, in Athens County, home to Ohio University. He hit 23 percent in Franklin County, home to Columbus and Ohio State University.
Everywhere else, Sanders struggled to get out of the teens, and in the Appalachian areas that have been trending away from Democrats, thousands of voters picked candidates who had dropped out of the race. In Monroe County, for example, where fringe candidate Rocky de la Fuente won 6 percent of the vote four years ago, 20 percent of Democratic ballots were cast for inactive candidates. It wasn't a surprise. That county gave John F. Kerry 54 percent of the vote in the November 2004 election; 12 years later, it gave Donald Trump 71 percent of the vote. The Midwest primaries, now concluded, have been a study in Sanders's inability to convert Trump voters. In five of the state's congressional districts, Sanders fell below the 15 percent threshold and won no delegates.
Morgan Harper, the primary challenger in the 3rd Congressional District, did better than Sanders. He won just 14,736 votes across the district, while she won 20,301 votes, in keeping with a pattern we've seen this year — candidates backed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats are running far ahead of Sanders. But that result earned Harper just 32 percent of the vote, the weakest result in the three primaries we've seen this year between incumbents and Justice Democrat-backed challengers.
The Harper campaign argued that the transition from in-person voting to absentee voting hobbled its strategy, which had been to mobilize voters through events and canvasses. Among voters who sent ballots in the mail, Beatty won by 35,268 votes to 13,959 votes. Harper did better among voters who walked in their ballots, losing that group by 8,459 votes to 6,342 votes.
“Our grass-roots strategy of knocking doors, in-person events, etc., did not translate well into an all-mail in election,” said Harper strategist Brandon Sharpe. “The opposing strategy of chasing with mailers and a ton of TV ads served them well during the extended period.”
The CBC took a victory lap, with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the second-highest-ranking black Democrat in the House leadership, crowing about the defeat of “the social media mob.” That was one of two CBC wins last week: former Maryland congressman Kweisi Mfume easily held onto the Baltimore-area district left vacant by the death of Elijah E. Cummings.
The race in Maryland's 7th District did not get much attention, and was viewed as an easy Democratic hold. Indeed, it was: Mfume won 106,291 votes to just 37,579 for Kimberly Klacik, a Baltimore Republican who'd gained national attention for defending the president when he insulted the city. Turnout was down, but it did not help Klacik, whose vote added up to 26 percent of the total — up from the 21 percent Republicans won in the district in 2018, down from the 27 percent they won in the similarly low-turnout 2014 midterms.
Who should Joe Biden consider as a running mate? (CBS News/YouGov, 676 registered Democrats)
Elizabeth Warren: 71%
Kamala Harris: 59%
Stacey Abrams: 50%
Amy Klobuchar: 49%
Tammy Duckworth: 30%
Susan Rice: 29%
Gretchen Whitmer: 29%
Democrats do not get a vote on their nominee for vice president, but they can speculate about it and sign petitions and make names trend on Twitter. This look at Democratic opinion follows a Data for Progress poll (also through YouGov) that also found Warren, the female candidate who got the most votes in the primary, as the most popular VP pick for Biden among partisan Democrats. That might be her problem: Warren, who frequently led the president in polls, was nonetheless viewed as a candidate who'd struggle to win independents. If there is a surprise here, it is that the burst of pandemic-related coverage of Michigan Gov. Whitmer has not broken her into a higher tier.
In the states
The most competitive congressional election before November is just nine days away, and both parties in California's 25th District are trying to nationalize the race.
Mike Garcia, the veteran and first-time candidate running on the Republican line, got a tweet endorsement from the president Thursday. It was the second time the president had weighed in, but there was a new hook: a gaffe that Democratic legislator Christy Smith made during an Indivisible forum, in which she joked about how frequently Garcia used images of the kinds of military planes he used to fly in his ads. Smith was accused of making light of his service and apologized, and Garcia's Facebook ad about the Trump endorsement used another image of a military plane.
“I'll work closely with President Trump to bring lower taxes and more jobs to CA-25,” Garcia said in the text of that ad.
Smith responded with a video compilation tying Garcia to Trump, whose 2016 defeat in the district encouraged Democrats to compete for, and win, the seat two years later. And Katie Hill, the congresswoman who won that race but resigned, ran her own ad urging Democrats to vote. (One issue that the race could clarify: whether Hill, who has been profiled by national media as a victim of “revenge porn,” is still able to sway votes in the district.)
Dems in disarray
Many Democrats began the week facing a dilemma, unsure of how to react to the allegation that Joe Biden had sexually assaulted a former staffer in 1993. They ended the week pointing to Biden's own words — and a separate allegation that quickly fell apart — to pronounce faith that the presumptive Democratic nominee has never engaged in sexual misconduct. By Sunday morning, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee was on the record defending Biden and dismissing Republican attacks.
“If Barack Obama had any indication that this was an issue, Barack Obama would not have had him as his vice president,” Tom Perez said on ABC News's “This Week,” referring to the 2008 vetting process. “Barack Obama trusted Joe Biden. I trust Joe Biden.”
The controversy began weeks ago, when Tara Reade, who worked for Biden's Senate office in late 1992 and early 1993, accused Biden of assaulting her somewhere in the Senate complex. Reade, who had previously claimed that Biden made her feel uncomfortable, first made this claim on a left-wing podcast last month. (Here the Fact Checker breaks down the details and what evidence has emerged.)
Biden's campaign denied the allegation in a mid-April statement, but the candidate himself did not address it directly until Friday, May 1. In a statement and an interview on MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” Biden denied the claim and said that he would welcome a search for Reade's personnel files, including a complaint that she claimed to have made before quitting. (Reade has said that she filed a complaint, but that it did not accuse Biden of assault.) Notably, while he did not challenge Reade's credibility in the “Morning Joe” interview, he did so in the statement.
“Responsible news organizations should examine and evaluate the full and growing record of inconsistencies in her story, which has changed repeatedly in both small and big ways,” Biden wrote.
Many Democrats who had been asked to respond to the allegation said they wanted Biden to address it. Doing so changed the story's impact on the campaign. First, Democrats have generally taken the Perez line when asked about the accusation: Biden has denied it. Second, Biden's reluctance to open his Senate papers, held at the University of Delaware, has led to a parallel argument over transparency: Biden has said no personnel records would appear in the papers, while reporters, starting with MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, have asked why there should not at least be a search for any mentions of Reade. (It's unclear how many of the files have been digitized.)
Third, a search for further accusations has been fruitless so far, and a story linked to Delaware Republican Christine O'Donnell was aired, then debunked, over the weekend. According to a report in Law and Crime, O'Donnell's niece said Biden had met her at the 2008 Delaware Gridiron dinner, a mostly off-the-record event, and had complimented her body after learning she was 14 years old. The report cited five people who said they had indeed been told of this by O'Donnell's niece, as well as O'Donnell, who claimed to have seen it happen. The problem: An organizer said Biden did not attend the 2008 dinner, and his campaign repeatedly tweeted out refutations of the new story Sunday, from reporters who had obtained Biden's calendars.
That allegation had nothing to do with Reade's claim, but as of Saturday afternoon, Biden was continuing to take questions about that, and denying any wrongdoing.
“Women have a right to be heard, and the press should rigorously investigate claims like these, and I’d always uphold those principles,” Biden told MSNBC's Al Sharpon. “But in the end, in every case the truth is what matters. And in this case the truth is these claims are false."
After several weeks in Washington, President Trump will make a trip to Arizona on Tuesday, visiting a Honeywell factory that is expanding and making N95 masks.
“We look forward to that,” Trump told reporters before the weekend. “And I’m going to, I hope, Ohio, very soon.”
Joe Biden has not made an in-person public appearance since the pandemic and stay-at-home orders began but did two interviews this week: the aforementioned “Morning Joe” sit-down, and the visit with MSNBC's Al Sharpton. On Monday afternoon, he'll join the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) for a forum on essential workers' rights and the pandemic.
… nine days until elections in Wisconsin's 7th District and California's 25th District, and the Nebraska primary
… 16 days until primaries in Idaho and Oregon
… 106 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 113 days until the Republican National Convention
… 183 days until the general election