In this edition: Special elections in California and Wisconsin, a primary in Nebraska and new pandemic polling.

I personally believe that every election is special, and this is The Trailer.

Voters in northwest Wisconsin and California's high desert will elect new members of Congress today, with Republicans favored to win both races — even though Democrats won the California district in 2018, and even as the president's approval rating falters. Both races could deliver a booster shot to nervous Republicans. Both can tell us how the parties are adjusting to a pandemic that has made traditional campaigning impossible. 

“We've been keeping up with Democrats like we've never seen before,” said Mike Garcia, the Republican nominee in California's 25th Congressional District, in an online interview yesterday. “They're almost kind of writing off the election off at this point. This is the first domino in getting the House back.” 

Democrats have not written off the race, and were optimistic about the final days of ballot returns, which cut into the GOP's advantage. Still, neither of these races has captured national attention like the special elections that the parties poured resources into in 2017 and 2018. Neither attracted much interest from national political figures, either, who were locked down within days of the March 3 primary that set up today's California runoff. The summer 2017 election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District absorbed $55 million of spending, from the candidates to the parties to outside PACs. In California, Garcia and Democratic nominee Christy Smith spent less than a tenth of that, according to mid-April filings; the two candidates in the Wisconsin race have spent less than $2 million.

Yet the districts perfectly represent some of the places where the rest of this election will be fought, from suburbs that have only recently moved toward Democrats, to rural areas that have raced away from the party. In both races, the parties trying to hold the seats nominated candidates with winning electoral records, and the parties out of power nominated outsiders with compelling stories. The margins will matter, as Democrats see whether they've ebbed in places such as Palmdale and Santa Clarita, and Republicans see whether they've continued to make gains in the kinds of small Wisconsin towns that delivered big for Trump.

In California, the election was forced by the resignation of Katie Hill, one of the youngest women ever elected to Congress, seen by Democrats as a rising star. Hill had never run for office before 2018, then triumphed by nearly nine points over then-Rep. Steve Knight, as Smith narrowly won a seat in the California state assembly. One year later, operatives began publishing nude photos of the married congresswoman and a junior campaign staffer, and Hill quickly resigned, throwing her support behind Smith.

By that point, Garcia had been running for the better part of a year. He and Smith both earned spots in the May 12 runoff, pushing past Knight, who had launched an unsuccessful comeback attempt, and Cenk Uygur, the host of the left-wing video news network the Young Turks. Even with the Democratic presidential primary driving turnout, and even as Democratic registration outpaced Republican registration in the district, Democratic candidates won barely more than 50 percent of the combined March 3 vote. And that was after Republicans snapped photos of a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee meeting, which found the party's own polling capturing a very close race, a contrast with their public confidence.

The campaign that followed looked nothing like the 2018 race, when Hill benefited from the eagerness of Los Angeles Democrats to drive 30 minutes up the road and volunteer for her campaign. By Election Day, Smith claimed around 4,500 active volunteers, focused on making long-distance voter contacts and on getting people to turn in absentee ballots. Garcia claimed between 400 and 600 volunteers, entirely from the district, all tasked with the same thing. Yet registered Republican voters returned their ballots at a higher rate than registered Democrats, coming into the final weekend with a eight-point lead, stronger than they'd run in 2018.

“It’s a challenge,” Smith admitted to Slate's Jeremy Stahl last week, saying the lack of in-person organizing had hurt Democrats. “As a candidate, you like that contact with voters, and generating of interest in town halls, and especially knocking on people’s doors.”

Garcia faced the same limitations but worked to make the race a choice between a political insider and a veteran who wanted to serve again. Republicans' negative messaging focused on two aspects of Smith's biography — she had served on the Newhall, Calif., school board when it issued layoff notices to teachers, and she led emergency preparedness committee in Sacramento but did not attend a hearing on covid-19. Smith had dealt with the first charge in her 2018 legislative race, pointing out that the teachers were rehired, and worked to drown out the other charge by focusing on her real-time work to bring relief to the district.

At the same time, Smith worked to nationalize the race and tie Garcia to Trump. The Republican had given her material, browbeating Knight for having been occasionally critical of the president and telling interviewers that he would support Trump. In late March, when Garcia spoke with The Trailer, he said Trump had navigated “uncharted waters for any administration” and done a “good job,” and then turned the conversation back to Smith. And Garcia benefited from voters' disappointment in Hill, who surprised everyone by using unspent PAC money to run an ad encouraging her supporters to turn out, even though she's grown unpopular in the district. (The ad was filmed in Washington.)

Democrats struggled to turn the race into a referendum on President Trump. Their own polling, which modeled a Republican-leaning runoff electorate, found Trump's approval approximately even in the district in February, as his Senate impeachment trial wound down. Two months later, Trump was 10 points underwater in the district but Garcia's position hadn't budged — he was still in a single-digit race with Smith. And the race made national news only when Smith gaffed in an interview with the liberal group Indivisible, making fun of Garcia's frequent references to his military service by sarcastically asking: “Did you know he's a pilot?” 

The president's own intervention in the race made Democrats much happier. He'd tweeted about the “pilot” gaffe, but weighed in at greater length after Democrats got the city of Lancaster to open a ballot drop-off location. The president tweeted that the votes from that site should “not count,” even though the city's Republican mayor, who'd endorsed Garcia, had signed off on it. That gave Democrats their closing message: “Mike Garcia sides with Donald Trump 100%.” 

That pitch could backfire if Garcia wins, giving the president something he has lacked recently — an election win in which he played a notable role. But both sides are cautious about predicting when the race could be called. Garcia said in a Monday interview with the American Conservative Union that he'd have to win by a big margin to “account for any funny business coming out of the left,” citing the new Lancaster polling place, and Democrats began closing the ballot-return gap in the race's final days. That's not unusual for California, where Democrats tend to do best with last-minute voters. But a Republican win would test Democrats' confidence in their new theory of politics, breaking a 20-year streak of gains in California's suburbs and revealing how some of those areas might not be on board with the party yet.

There's less uncertainty in Wisconsin, where state Sen. Tom Tiffany has been the clear favorite to replace former congressman Sean P. Duffy in the state's largest and most rural district. (Duffy retired early, citing health concerns with his youngest child, and later joined a lobbying firm.) Democrats nominated Tricia Zunker, a school board member in the district's biggest city, to fight for a seat they lost in the 2010 wave and had largely stopped competing in. Duffy's 2018 challenger has raised less than $125,000 for her race; Zunker has raised close to $500,000.

But Democrats, who used last month's statewide Supreme Court race to test their absentee ballot outreach program, are expecting a loss and watching mostly for the margin. The district, redrawn by Republicans nine years ago to shore up Duffy, has moved steadily to the right. Barack Obama carried it by eight points in his 2008 bid and lost it by three points in 2012. Hillary Clinton lost it by 21 points, and while no Democrat has fared that badly since, none has been able to carry it again. In that Supreme Court race, which Justice-elect Jill Karofsky won easily, she lost the 7th Congressional District by six points.

Zunker has run a do-no-harm campaign, with ads promising that she'll focus on “health care and jobs” while Tiffany would undo the Affordable Care Act. (Zunker's ads are among the first to tie that directly to covid-19, warning that people with preexisting conditions are “most at risk.”) Tiffany's ads pitch him as the candidate who can “stand with President Trump to get people back to work,” and earlier ads had argued that the president “needs proven reinforcements in Congress.” 

Heading into Tuesday, northwest Wisconsin looked like the Republican future, a rural area that has abandoned its old affection for Democrats. The California race looked like the Republican past: affordable exurbs where voters have left the party thanks to Trump. But Republicans could come out of both districts with wins, six months before they have to try to do it all over again, with the president himself on the ballot.

Reading list

“Trump’s bid to shield his tax returns and finances, broad claims of presidential immunity head to Supreme Court,” by Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow

Five years after then-candidate Trump said he'd release his tax returns, the issue goes before the court.

“Putin is well on his way to stealing the next election,” by Franklin Foer

Why Russian interference works.

“ ‘Believe Women’ was a slogan. ‘Believe All Women’ is a straw man,” by Monica Hesse

The case against “grammatical gaslighting.”

“During the pandemic, Republicans see a rare political opportunity in California,” by Mark Z. Barabak

 A local look at the day’s big race.

“Many governors win bipartisan support for handling of pandemic, but some Republicans face blowback over reopening efforts,” by Scott Clement and Dan Balz

 Why opinion of the stay-at-home response is starting to diverge.

On the trail

Today's special elections will send two people to Congress, eventually. In Nebraska, Democrats will pick their nominee for a House seat that they lost narrowly in 2016 and 2018, while Sen. Ben Sasse will face his first electoral test since becoming an occasional critic of the president.

In the state's Omaha-centered 2nd Congressional District, 2018 nominee Kara Eastman is facing off against Ann Ashford, the wife of former congressman Brad Ashford — the moderate Democrat whom Eastman defeated to win that nomination. Eastman had lost the general election only narrowly to Republican Rep. Don Bacon, despite widespread sentiment in her party that the race was a lost cause, a sore point for activists. This year, she has outpaced Ashford in fundraising, and two lesser-known challengers are sharing the ballot; Eastman had defeated Ashford's husband in a one-on-one race.

This race has not attracted the same national attention that the 2018 race did, but Eastman has been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and she has largely had the airwaves to herself. (Her spot, which goes after Bacon and makes no mention of the primary, is in “Ad Watch” below.)

Sasse's race has been less competitive, with the first-term senator facing a challenge from local Republican activist Matt Innis. Republicans have largely rallied behind the senator, with the Omaha-area GOP filing a complaint against Innis for failing to report less than $500 of digital spending in his FEC forms. And Innis has run more against Sasse's public comments about Trump than his voting record, which has been reliably supportive of the president.

“When my opponent made it clear he would never support President Trump in 2016 it bothered me,” Innis told a local news channel last month. “His words were used by Hillary Clinton’s campaign against President Trump. To this day my opponent will not say he will vote for President Trump. Given the alternative(s) to President Trump, I can’t see how any Nebraska Republican could support anyone but President Trump for reelection.”

Before the pandemic, Nebraska law allowed counties to allow all-mail voting if they chose to. That gave the state one of the less-troubled transitions we've seen so far from a traditional in-person election to one that adheres to stay-at-home rules. And it will give us the first real look at how Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) delegate hunt is going since his campaign ended, as early voting began right as Sanders suspended his campaign.

Ad watch

Ben Sasse, “Fighting for Things That Matter.” The first-term senator from Nebraska has a primary challenger but is favored to easily win the Republican nomination again today. While one of his ads in circulation notes that he has clashed with Trump, it cites only a tweet from the president calling him a “gym rat.” This shorter spot emphasizes that he's one of “the three most conservative senators” and that he voted for the president's Supreme Court nominees, as he jokes that Washington and Nebraska have one thing in common: the amount of feces he has to shovel.

Kara Eastman, “Kara Eastman for Congress.” The liberal Democrat's ad campaign ahead of today's primary has not litigated any of the left/center battles of 2018. Instead, it portrays her as a down-the-line Omaha Democrat. “It's wrong that Don Bacon and Donald Trump favor tax cuts for billionaires over helping the middle class,” Eastman says in the spot, referring to the Republican incumbent. There is no mention of Medicare-for-all, an issue Bacon and allies used to drive down Eastman's numbers in her 2018 run.

Joe Biden, “Timeline.” The latest in the digital back-and-forth between the party's nominees is an update of Biden's previous ad, running back footage of the president saying that China was “working very very hard” to contain the covid-19 epidemic. The campaign had suggested it would be more careful this time in singling out China's government for blame, not leaving any impression that it was echoing attacks on ordinary Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans.

President Trump, “China's Puppet.” The president's China messaging is considerably less subtle than Biden's, and Biden's isn't very subtle. Here, as part of a cannonade of new ads in swing states and online, Biden is portrayed as a dummy being manipulated by Xi Jinping, waving a red foam finger that reads “China #1.” Hunter Biden is accused of taking $1 billion from a Chinese bank, while Biden is accused of wanting to give China preferred trade status, something he actually did support as a senator.

Poll watch

Approval of coronavirus handling in Wisconsin (Marquette, 811 registered voters)

Gov. Tony Evers
Approve: 64% (-12)
Disapprove: 32% ( 15)

President Donald Trump
Approve: 44% (-7)
Disapprove: 51% ( 6)

No one is very happy about life under pandemic restrictions. Marquette's rolling survey of the state has found voters growing more frustrated and nervous about the length of stay-at-home orders. Republicans have moved more negative more quickly than independents or Democrats, and the state's Democratic governor is back to being opposed by most GOP voters. But the president's approval on the pandemic response has slipped, too, and another poll question finds his deficit to Joe Biden in the state staying stable, at three points, as some more voters have joined the “undecided” campaign. 

Is the worst of the pandemic behind us? (CNN/SSRS, 1,112 voters)

Trump supporters
Worst is behind us: 70%
Worst still coming: 26%

Non-Trump supporters
Worst is behind us: 21%
Worst still coming: 76%

A month ago, when many states were only days into stay-at-home orders and some did not have them at all, Americans were generally in agreement that the pandemic's effects would get worse. Partisan sentiment has firmed up since then, with Republicans and other supporters of the president both approving of his performance so far and saying that the worst has probably passed. That could be a reflection of a sentiment the president has occasionally stoked, that his political opponents are worsening the pain of the crisis to do him damage in November.

Candidate tracker

Republicans have only fitfully embraced a new argument from President Trump: that Joe Biden was entangled in a scheme to hurt the president, shorthanded as “Obamagate.” Asked on Monday what crime he believes Barack Obama may have committed, the president struggled to explain it to The Post's Phil Rucker.

“It's been going on for a long time,” he said. “It's been going on from before I even got elected, and it's a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what's gone on, and if you look at now, all of this information that's being released, and from what I understand, that's only the beginning. Some terrible things happened and it should never be allowed to happen on our country again. And you'll be seeing what's going on over the next, over the coming weeks.”

The basics of the accusation, that Biden and Obama were part of an effort to entrap former national security adviser Michael Flynn, did not make it into that answer. But Biden was asked about this in a Tuesday morning interview with ABC News, initially saying he knew nothing “about moves to investigate” Flynn, before being reminded of his presence at a January 2017 meeting where the president was informed of a Flynn FBI probe.

“I thought you asked me whether or not I had anything to do with him being prosecuted. I’m sorry,” Biden said. “I was aware that there was — that there had asked for an investigation. But that’s all I know about it.”

Biden will appear on MSNBC tonight and join former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at a Web forum Thursday.

Dems in disarray

The Democratic National Committee began untangling two of the final problems in its nomination process today, as the rules and bylaws committee discussed how to give waivers to states with delayed primaries and how to hold a convention if a mass in-person meeting is impossible. That started with a resolution that officially moved the event into August, as the party had previously announced, while making clear that there could be further changes.

“This resolution was necessary to adapt and plan in order to ensure that every delegate is able to accomplish their official business without putting their own health at risk, whether that be participating in person or by other means to allow for social distancing,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said at the start of the meeting. Still, per Perez, the party wanted to hold an in-person convention in Milwaukee if possible. 

As this newsletter went out, other changes were still being debated, though there is broad confidence that the party will lift the automatic sanctions originally intended to make states wrap up their primaries before June 9. Six states have now pushed their primaries past that date, into late June or July: Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Joe Biden's home state of Delaware. As of now, New York's primary is still scheduled for June 23, though the state is in court trying to cancel it. Doing so would create another task for the DNC: how to assign delegates without a primary, something impossible according to party rules.

Countdown

… seven days until primaries in Idaho and Oregon
… 42 days until New York's presidential and congressional primaries
… 97 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 104 days until the Republican National Convention
… 174 days until the general election