In this edition: A guide to Senate elections, an(other) organization forms to help Bernie Sanders win delegates, and the president declares war on a TV ad.
If you find any curse words in this newsletter, consider them “audio glitches.” This is The Trailer.
When the president arrived in Arizona today, he brought a special guest: Sen. Martha McSally. When Georgians turn on their TVs, they see a new ad from appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler, asking them to trust that she's using her wealth to help the state heal. The race for the Senate, which has been in play in every election since at least 2012, is finally starting to take shape.
There's not much disagreement about the map. Together, Democratic and Republican super PACs have reserved $137 million in ad time across the country, more than twice as much as Joe Biden spent to win the Democrats' presidential nomination. Most of that money has been thrown into Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina. Some of it has been reserved to boost Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, or to put Michigan's Senate seat in play for the first time in years.
Six months out, we have an increasingly clear idea of what's in play, what's unlikely to come on the board, and what could suddenly decide control of the upper house if the presidential election breaks for one party. Here's an eight-part guide on what to watch.
Extremely flippable. In Alabama, Sen. Doug Jones is in the position that Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts found himself in eight years ago — he won a special election under extraordinary conditions and now must run 25 points or so ahead of his party's presidential nominee to survive. He defeated a deeply flawed candidate, Roy Moore, to get to the Senate, but the other party is determined to pick a credible nominee this time, with a runoff coming up between former attorney general and senator Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. (Moore's defeat in the March 3 primary went mostly unnoticed.)
Republicans talk about the Alabama race as a done deal, even if Sessions, who has been repeatedly mocked by the president, escapes the runoff. Democrats don't talk much about Alabama at all, pointedly leaving it out of their first ad reservations. Jones told Politico that he doubted national Democrats would “leave us out,” and he will have a cash lead over his Republican opponent, but he needs to persuade hundreds of thousands of Trump voters to split their ballots.
Clearly competitive. The party committees have tipped their hands: The most immediately competitive races in the country will unfold in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana and North Carolina. That's where nearly all the ad reservations are, and that's where each party has a strong recruit facing a less-than-invincible incumbent.
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan is the only incumbent Democrat on this list, and he has been narrowly outraised by John James, a veteran and businessman who lost by single digits when he sought the state's other Senate seat two years ago. Five of the other six senators on this list have been out-fundraised by Democrats; the exception is Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who has outpaced Theresa Greenfield, a businesswoman who might have won a House race in 2018 had her campaign manager not falsified ballot petition signatures.
The five other targeted Republicans have better-known opponents, who keep piling up cash. In Arizona, astronaut and gun-control activist Mark Kelly cleared the primary field and easily outraised McSally, who was appointed to the seat after losing a 2018 race. In Maine, state House Speaker Sara Gideon has largely gotten past a minor financial scandal and heavily outraised Sen. Susan Collins. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock gave in to party pressure and filed to run shortly before the pandemic; his popularity has surged, and he's in a tight race with Sen. Steve Daines. In North Carolina, Republicans viewed former state senator Cal Cunningham as a weak Democratic recruit, someone the party tapped after better-known Democrats passed. He nonetheless dispatched a left-wing primary challenge and outraised Sen. Thom Tillis.
Colorado also looks tough for Republicans, with Democrats making massive gains throughout the state since Sen. Cory Gardner narrowly won his 2014 race. Former governor John Hickenlooper, who leads Gardner in polls and fundraising, has to get past left-leaning former legislator Andrew Romanoff first; if he does, Democrats think his personal popularity and the presence of President Trump on the ballot will close off Gardner's path.
On the bubble. The races shaping up in Alaska, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas are not competitive now, but if the national mood changes, each state has a credible challenger. In Minnesota, Republicans recruited former radio talk host and congressman Jason Lewis to challenge Sen. Tina Smith but have left him out of their early ad buys. (This race is a good test of whether Republicans seriously compete for Minnesota, a state Trump lost narrowly in 2016 and has become mildly obsessed with.) In the other states, Democrats have gotten behind unusual candidates who aren't well known statewide, but don't have many traditional ties to their party.
Kansas is the only open seat here, and while the state has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since the Great Depression, even Republicans have been nervous about former secretary of state Kris Kobach grabbing their nomination in the August primary. Last year's on-again, off-again effort to pull Mike Pompeo out of the State Department to run for this seat was rooted in worry that Kobach, who bungled a 2018 run for governor, would be vulnerable against a decent Democratic recruit. Democrats have rallied behind Barbara Bollier, a state senator who left the GOP two years ago.
In Texas, Democrats will pick either veteran MJ Hegar or state Sen. Royce West in a summer runoff, then face Sen. John Cornyn, who has few of the vulnerabilities that made Ted Cruz's 2018 race so close. In Alaska, which Democrats narrowly lost six years ago, the party is supporting Al Gross, a doctor running as an independent, though first-term Sen. Dan Sullivan may be vulnerable only in a wave.
Georgia. It gets its own category here because its ballot line takes some explaining. Georgia will hold two elections in November, a reelection race for Sen. David Purdue and an all-party primary for the seat currently held by Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
The best-known Democrats have piled into the first race, with 2017 congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico and Columbus Mayor Tess Tomlinson all competing in the June 9 primary. The second race is messier, as Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat over Rep. Douglas A. Collins, has spent her brief political career embroiled in a scandal over stock trades.
That was an immense help to Collins, who has watched Republican defenses of Loeffler melt away as Democrats signal that they'd rather run against her than him. Their problem: Their candidate in this race have no electoral experience at all. While the Rev. Raphael Warnock jumped into the race with the endorsement of Stacey Abrams, he was hurt immediately by his wife's accusation that he ran over her foot with his car. (He denies it, and no charges were filed.) Polling has found Democrats split between Warnock and Matt Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, with some risk that neither make it to the January 2021 runoff.
Stretches for challengers. There are very different races underway in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico and South Carolina, with one common thread: Were the election held today, it's probable that none of these seats would change hands.
In New Mexico, the only race here with no incumbent, Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján quickly put away a more left-wing challenger, and the best-known Republican candidate is a local TV personality. In New Hampshire, where Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) has never won by more than single digits, the decision of Gov. Chris Sununu to run for reelection instead of the Senate dampened Republican enthusiasm. (The GOP primary is a contest between two veterans with no experience in elected office, one of whom has poured $3.2 million of personal wealth into the campaign.)
The contests in Mississippi and South Carolina have Democrats trying something they have, surprisingly never done before in a regular election: running African American candidates, Mike Espy and Jaime Harrison, with serious political résumés. Harrison has out-fundraised Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, whose reputation and political base have been transformed since his 2014 race — a senator best known for pushing immigration overhaul is now a loyal ally of the president. But Espy lost a 2018 special election under better, lower-turnout conditions than he's likely to get this year, and Harrison has consistently trailed Graham in polls.
In Kentucky, 2018 congressional candidate Amy McGrath has outraised Mitch McConnell, who has actually never run for reelection as a majority leader before. But McGrath failed to scare more liberal opponents out of the race, while McConnell has been reintroducing himself as an effective and powerful legislator who has helped a popular-in-Kentucky president succeed.
Formerly blue, forever red. Four seats that Democrats held for ages were won by Republicans in that midterm, in Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota and West Virginia. They quickly fell off the watch list, with Democrats essentially writing them off and betting that their current electoral coalition is stronger elsewhere. Just as Spain isn't trying to take back the Philippines, Democrats have abandoned their claim to South Dakota. Sens. Bill Cassidy, Ben Sasse, Mike Rounds and Shelley Moore Capito won by double digits in 2014 and are more secure now.
Most of the Democrats seeking the nomination for these races have raised less than $100,000. The exception, West Virginia's Paula Jean Swearingen, is best known for losing an uphill primary challenge to Sen. Joe Manchin III two years ago. Her competition in the primary is former state senator Richard Ojeda, who raised $2.8 million for an unsuccessful congressional bid, then briefly ran for president. He has raised less than $40,000 for this race.
Safe, for now. Democratic incumbents are up for reelection in Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia; Republicans are defending seats in Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming. All of these states are safe for the party's respective presidential nominees, and none have the makings of competitive Senate races.
The only excitement on any of these ballots is in Massachusetts, where Rep. Joe Kennedy is challenging Sen. Edward J. Markey in a September primary. The winner of that primary will face a token Republican challenge, potentially from Shiva Ayyadurai, who ran as an independent in 2018 against Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (Ayyadurai's 2018 slogan, “Only a real Indian can defeat the fake Indian,” is less applicable to Kennedy or Markey.)
Republicans have no such issues in their safe states, with Rep. Liz Cheney opting not to challenge former congresswoman Cynthia M. Lummis for Wyoming's open seat. Tennessee is messier, with 16 Republicans fighting over their nomination and none of them particularly well-known. Democrats haven't invested much to take advantage of that. James Mackler, an attorney and veteran who ended his 2018 Senate campaign to make way for the better-known Phil Bredesen, is the favorite, but Bredesen's lopsided defeat soured Democrats on the state.
No contest. There is, technically, a Senate election in Arkansas, but don't expect either party to invest much in it. Just 12 years after Republicans did not bother running a candidate against-then Sen. Mark Pryor, Democrats do not have a challenger to Republican Sen. Tom Cotton. They tried, with nonprofit executive Josh Mahoney initially putting together a long-shot candidacy. But Mahoney quit the race hours after the filing deadline, an ongoing source of bitterness for Democrats, who had no legal mechanism for replacing him. Cotton now faces a Libertarian candidate and a left-leaning independent and is so secure that he has used campaign funds to run pro-Trump ads in swing states.
“Unexpected outcome in Wisconsin: Tens of thousands of ballots that arrived after Election Day were counted, thanks to court decisions,” by Amy Gardner, Dan Simmons, and Robert Barnes
The law of unintended consequences can survive any courtroom.
A look at how a state that runs on retail politics is adjusting.
“Americans widely oppose reopening most businesses, despite easing of restrictions in some states, Post-U. Md. poll finds,” by Dan Balz and Emily Guskin
The stay-at-homers are winning.
“The bizarro tale of a phantom super PAC — and our sleuthing to find it,” by Zach Montellaro
A bright future in scams.
“Biden staffers approve union contract,” by Sean Sullivan
A campaign first for a candidate who has been running for decades.
Dems in disarray
The Once Again PAC may be the first political project based on a meme. Founded this week by veterans of Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign, Once Again took its name from a video of Sanders informing supporters that he was “once again asking” for donations. The captioned version of that video took on a life of its own, with fans pasting their own messages over it — most popularly, “I am once again asking you to go cry about it,” deployed when someone on social media was complaining about Sanders.
The new PAC's mission, according to co-founder Winnie Wong, is to maximize the number of delegates Sanders can win in the remaining Democratic primaries. “Bernie’s still on the ballot,” Wong said in an interview. “We want to make sure people have the franchise, and we should use it.” The budget was small, just enough to pay for a Web developer and some ads, until the primaries end in June.
Until this year, nothing like Once Again PAC's plan had ever been tried. But this is now the third campaign organization working to get votes for Sanders in the remaining contests, following Our Revolution (which Sanders founded in 2016) and the Really Online Lefty League (which he didn't). And it got started just days after the launch of A Future to Believe In, a super PAC formed by other Sanders campaign veterans with the aim of turning out reluctant left-wing voters in November.
Six months before the general election, and with intra-Democratic primaries on the calendar through September, a decent amount of talent from the Sanders orbit is focused on advancing his agenda without a candidate. Biden has not committed to Medicare-for-all or marijuana legalization; Sanders supporters argue that unless the Democratic Party does so, or takes some steps toward doing so, it will lose votes and momentum.
“This is not about one single politician,” said former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, a co-chair of the Sanders campaign, a former head of Our Revolution and an adviser to Once Again. “This is about a movement. The progressive vision that we have does not start or stop with one primary.”
(Sanders opposed super PACs in both of his presidential runs, though the idea of a super PAC to advance left-wing goals isn't new; in 2014, activist and academic Larry Lessig created a well-funded super PAC to elect candidates who'd change the law that allows these organizations to exist.)
Since ending his candidacy, Sanders has picked up delegates in every subsequent primary: Alaska, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Ohio and Kansas. Some of his support was baked in, with votes cast before his suspension. But it has proved easy for Sanders to cross the 15 percent delegate threshold, and the Biden campaign has offered to give Sanders delegates even in states that canceled their primaries.
Once Again, like these other efforts, is operating on the premise that Biden will be the nominee. That clashes with some arguments by Sanders supporters, including the New York Times's Elizabeth Bruenig and the New Republic's Alex Pareene, that there are enough questions about Biden's behavior and electability to call for a new nominee. Asked whether Once Again wanted to replace Biden, Turner said no, and so did Wong. At first.
“I couldn’t weigh on whether Bernie has a chance to unsuspend — though, obviously, if Biden drops out before nomination, we’d have to take a closer look at it,” Wong said. “There's a strong consensus emerging among progressives that he is not a strong candidate right now.”
The Lincoln Project, “Mourning in America.” The anti-Trump conservative group dusts off an old playbook here, inverting Ronald Reagan's 1984 “Morning in America” ad, complete with the images of average American towns, to make the case that the president's covid-19 response is wrecking the country. The ad got some online buzz but truly took off after it ran on Fox News prime time, inspiring a presidential thread denouncing it and naming the conservative activists behind it.
President Trump, “American Comeback.” Running on cable and broadcast TV, this spot reframes the presidential reelection pitch in terms Trump himself has used: Keep him in office to “rebuild” the glory of a few months ago. It's notable in at least two ways. First, it appropriates comments from two CNN hosts about the effects of social distancing to make it sound like they are crediting the president's limitation on travel from China with saving millions of lives. (CNN has filed a cease-and-desist complaint.) Second, it uses footage of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who has taken pains not to criticize the White House as he asks for help, as evidence that Americans are uniting behind the president.
Has this leader or organization done a good job responding to covid-19? (Monmouth, 808 voters)
Your governor: 73% ( 1)
Health agencies: 63% (-3)
The public: 51% ( 13)
The media: 47% (-1)
President Trump: 42% (-4)
Congress: 38% (-3)
It's a consistent pattern in all public polling: Voters have discovered or rediscovered respect for their local leaders during the pandemic, while sticking mostly to their priors about the president and Congress. The biggest movement since last month has been on voter opinion of how they and their neighbors are handling the crisis: from a minority to a majority viewing it favorably.
What I’m watching
Masks, China and blowback. The news of the White House potentially wrapping up its coronavirus task force before the pandemic is over raises a political question: What might voters focus on if the economy is reopened, but the risk hasn’t gone away?
We’ve gotten a few clues this week. First, some conservative voters' resistance to restrictions enforced by state government has given a sudden, partisan dimension to the wearing of masks. Second, Republican candidates are increasingly turning the topic back to China, and how they would use congressional powers to get some sort of accountability from the country where the virus originated.
At several rallies against the restrictions, masked reporters have been hassled by protesters opposed to mask-wearing. At the Senate's first session since the start of the pandemic, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said he would wear a mask “where it makes sense,” which did not necessarily mean the Senate; Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky argued that he was immune to the virus after beating an infection in March, absolving him of the need to wear a mask. (It's not proved that people who contract the virus once can't get it again.)
The China issue, which the Trump campaign and Republican consultants have urged candidates to embrace, has taken off more quickly. In a debate last night, Tom Tiffany, the Republican in the special election for Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District, emphasized the need for the covid-19 response to include scrutiny of any Chinese role in covering it up, comments he made again in a print Q&A.
“The U.S. must hold the communist Chinese government accountable and no longer be complacent toward the country’s misdeeds that led to this,” Tiffany said.
And in a statement today, Alabama Senate candidate Jeff Sessions called for the “creation of a Select Committee of Congress to investigate the origins and coverup of the Wuhan Virus,” with “stern action” to follow.
As noted above, President Trump returned to the trail, sort of, with a short trip to Arizona. He also continued a series of interviews with a New York Post sit-down, in which he once again tried to stir up Democrats by suggesting that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was “responsible” for Joe Biden's nomination and dismissed the idea of statehood for the District of Columbia on the grounds that it would empower Democrats.
“Why don’t you just take two senators and put them in there?” Trump asked, facetiously. “No, it’s not gonna happen. And it how many House seats is it? Like four, three or four?” (The District's population is a bit over 700,000, which under current calculations would give it a single House seat.)
Joe Biden participated in a roundtable Monday but was otherwise less visible than Trump, as his campaign continued to ask, fruitlessly, for the Senate to release any personnel documents related to Tara Reade, the former staffer who has accused him of sexually assaulting her 27 years ago, an accusation he has denied. With a new joint fundraising agreement allowing the campaign to raise six figures from individual donors — so long as it's split with the DNC and state Democratic parties — Biden announced upcoming fundraisers with Hillary Clinton and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
… seven days until elections in Wisconsin's 7th District and California's 25th District, and the Nebraska primary
… 14 days until primaries in Idaho and Oregon
… 104 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 111 days until the Republican National Convention
… 181 days until the general election