In this edition: Biden's offer to the left, good news for Republicans from California, and a good poll for the president that's also a bad poll for the president.
You only get one chance to name a “-gate” after a politician, so you've got to make it count. This is The Trailer.
The Democratic primary had been over for weeks when Varshini Prakash, the 26-year-old president of the Sunrise Movement, first got the offer. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden had agreed to create “unity task forces,” one of them focused entirely on climate change. Would Prakash, who helped popularize the Green New Deal, want to join?
She had to think about it.
“We sort of conferred with movement leaders, and with [New York Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's team,” Prakash said in an interview. “We wanted to move in lockstep. And in more recent interviews and conversations, I'd seen Biden step up the way that he talks about the climate crisis.”
Prakash and Ocasio-Cortez both decided to join the climate group, one of six announced Tuesday. At the exact moment that the Trump campaign is launching new ads that portray Biden as a dangerous left-winger, the Democrat's campaign was putting prominent left-wing activists into new roles, with a one-month mandate to meet and help shape his policies. Biden, who had ignored many activists' litmus tests and won anyway, had decided to invite some into the tent. The conventional wisdom of presidential politics, that candidates move toward the base in the primary and move away in the general, had been torn up over a marathon of Zoom calls.
“What has to happen is coming up with policies that people can get excited about, and believe in,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders's campaign manager, who helped hammer out the working groups and their invitees. “This is not a knock on him, but Joe Biden did not win the nomination with a robust policy platform. There was a sense of comfort and security about him, as someone who sat in that seat next to Barack Obama. So he's got of room now to flesh out his agenda.”
For the second time, Sanders has lost a presidential primary but retained a role in shaping the platform of a party he declines to join. In 2016, that meant campaigning through June to get an influential bloc of delegates at the national convention. This year, it has led to a tentative delegate deal with Biden — party rules will strip Sanders of some delegates without one — and an elevated role for left-wing activists who did not support him.
If Prakash was skeptical, some activists were downright scornful. In his first column for the socialist magazine Jacobin, former Sanders adviser David Sirota mocked the task force rollout as “an SNL skit,” pure performance by a candidate whose real preferences were revealed over decades of votes. Biden could endorse the message bills already introduced by left-wing members of Congress, on everything from housing guarantees to Medicare-for-all. Instead, as Sirota saw it, he had set up some committees.
“They are a mix of party dinosaurs, corporate zombies and some terrific progressive voices,” Sirota wrote of the group members, “and we are asked to earnestly evaluate and applaud the complexion of the task forces, as if they are a genuine endeavor. As if they are something truly real.”
The task forces do give Biden's allies more clout; each has five members picked by Biden and three picked by Sanders. The climate task force exists alongside groups on criminal justice restructuring, immigration, health care, education and the economy. Some of those mandates overlap, and the absence of a foreign policy group was the first thing both sides disagreed on.
Yet just as the 2016 platform committee included some Clinton allies who agreed partially with Sanders, the new task forces often give majorities to people who had disagreed with Biden. Five members of the health-care group support Medicare-for-all: the bill's House author, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.); Medicare-for-all caucus member Rep. Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.); SEIU President Mary Kay Henry; and former gubernatorial candidates Don Berwick and Abdul El-Sayed. A sixth member, Sherry Glied, supports an Australia-style universal Medicaid system. Advocacy for Biden's own primary position — that Medicare-for-all would be too expensive and undermine the gains of the Obama years — is shunted to the margins.
“There’s one argument that if you’re not going to get the whole enchilada, you should just keep pushing from the outside,” said El-Sayed, who lost the Democratic primary for governor in Michigan in 2018 to now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “But the argument that’s persuasive to me is that personnel is policy. And we need progressives at the table pushing on the decisions that are being made. Because you can and should do both.”
Membership on any pre-election committee does not, of course, mean a role in the next administration. Chris Christie found that out the hard way in 2016, managing a transition team for the Trump campaign only to have it taken away after the election. For much of the Democratic primary, climate hawks pointed to Biden's donors from the energy industry to argue that he could not deliver on a real green agenda, and for the past few weeks, critics have denounced the role of former treasury secretary Larry Summers, who is blamed on the left for curtailing the 2009 stimulus bill and hobbling the Obama presidency. (Summers, in the loop of Biden advisers, was not added to any group.)
But many on the left agreed with Shakir: Biden simply did not come to the nomination with an entrenched circle of advisers or a do-or-die policy agenda. The candidate often referred to himself as a “bridge” between a Trump cleanup effort and the Democratic Party's future, to be determined later. One of the Sanders picks for the economy group was Stephanie Kelton, an advocate of “modern monetary theory,” which posits that government spending and deficits don't matter to a country that controls its own currency. Summers had called that “voodoo."
Sanders’s 2016 team felt, he said, “that the Clinton folks operated with a bit of a grudge, a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, and were not always excited to negotiate with Bernie's team,” Shakir said, and there was tension. “That was not present whatsoever between us and the Biden campaign."
Republicans reacted to all of it with amazement. The Republican National Committee called Biden a “bannerman for the socialist agenda,” thanks to the role he found for Ocasio-Cortez. After dispatching her wing of the party, complicating a Republican plan to use her against down-ballot Democrats, Biden had given Ocasio-Cortez an official campaign role.
Biden did so at a time when he led the president in an average of polls and ran behind recent Democratic nominees only with young voters and some nonwhite voters: the people these issue groups are designed to bring back in, some of whom voted for third parties in 2016. Howie Hawkins, the favorite to win the Green Party's presidential nomination, said that the Biden campaign was a natural outgrowth of what happened to the “Green New Deal” itself — from a specific effort to remake the economy and end the use of fossil fuels to a pleasant-sounding brand name.
“Look at the Sanders campaign and all the effort they put into getting changes to the Democratic platform in 2016,” Hawkins said, arguing that leftists would not actually get anything from Biden.
Activists did worry about being co-opted, then ignored, if they took this deal. But it was the best one they were being offered. The same day that Prakash's name appeared on the working group list, she published an essay on Medium that ran through her concerns, from Biden's donors to whether the candidate had taken a sexual misconduct allegation seriously enough. She was not “confident” that Biden would act on her advice. What she knew was that a group that once chanted “no middle ground” on climate, a rebuke of an anonymous Biden adviser's 2019 comments, would be in an even weaker position if Biden lost.
“When we say we have 10 years to completely transform our society and economy to stop climate change, we mean it,” Prakash wrote. “We cannot afford another four years of Donald Trump pushing us backward.”
“As pandemic upends the country, Trump and Biden seek to make Obama central to their campaigns,” by David Nakamura and Matt Viser
The 44th president takes, but may not want, a starring role.
“Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Biden?” by David Dayen
Untangling the Biden campaign's olive branches.
“As Biden veep search ramps up, Harris and Klobuchar get a close look,” by Sean Sullivan, Annie Linskey and Michael Scherer
Two 2020 rivals get mentioned more and more where it counts.
“Why this Democrat won't go home,” by Edward Isaac-Dovere
Is Eliot Engel in two places at once? (No.)
The aftermath of a special election.
“Not even the people ranting about ‘Obamagate’ know what it is,” by Jeremy Stahl
An explainer of something no one can quite explain.
Republicans won both of this week's special congressional elections, holding onto a safe seat in Wisconsin and flipping a seat for the first time in 22 years in California — perhaps the best single Tuesday for the party since 2016. While we will need to wait, and wait (and wait) for the final numbers from California's 25th District, we've got a clear picture from Wisconsin and results from a fairly event-free Nebraska primary.
California mattered most. With perhaps thousands of ballots left to count, Republican Mike Garcia easily defeated Democrat Christy Smith, who conceded less than 24 hours after the polls closed. Democrats had flipped the seat in 2018, when Katie Hill dominated Los Angeles County while only narrowly losing the smaller and more conservative part of the district in Ventura County — and while Smith won a state Assembly seat that overlapped much of the district. With more than 143,000 votes counted, Garcia carried Ventura County by 18 points and Los Angeles County by 11 points.
Turnout was relatively high for a special election held under extraordinary conditions — higher than the sleepy 2014 midterms. In March, when the primary appeared on the same ballot as the Democrats' presidential contest, a total of 158,849 votes were cast. Smith won 57,423 of them, while Garcia won 40,311 and secured the second slot in the runoff.
Two months later, Smith barely ran ahead of her primary vote, while Garcia, so far, has more than doubled his vote from March. The remaining ballots could shrink the gap — Democrats were happy with their turnout in the final 72 hours — but so far, Smith is running behind the combined vote for her and the other, less-known Democrats in March. Garcia is already 10,000 votes ahead of the combined Republican vote from the primary.
That's a clean win for Garcia, who expected to be running against Hill and made the best of a very lucky break. Democrats are still optimistic about winning back the seat in November, entirely because of higher turnout. In 2018, voters cast 245,022 votes in the district; in 2016, they cast 261,161 votes.
In Wisconsin's race, turnout hit 191,549, which was high for a special election but well short of even midterm turnout, which hit 322,787 last cycle. Democrats set their bar low, hoping to cut the margin in the state's largest and most Trump-friendly district to less than 20 points. They pulled that off: Rep.-elect Tom Tiffany held on to 57 percent of the Republican midterm vote, while Democrat Tricia Zunker got 66 percent of the party's midterm vote. Tiffany's 14-point win was the lowest in the district since 2012, the first election fought on the current map.
In both cases, Republicans pulled out the stops — and in victory, they were happy to talk about it. The combined Trump campaign and RNC effort in the special elections totaled around $2 million, most of it on get-out-the-vote efforts that had supporters from around the country calling voters about turning in their absentee ballots.
There was no major party intervention in Nebraska, where the unsuccessful 2018 nominee easily won the primary to face Republican Rep. Don Bacon, and where Sen. Ben Sasse brushed aside a primary challenger who focused on his (increasingly muted) criticism of the president. Sasse won 75 percent of all votes in a relatively high-turnout primary, making him the biggest vote-getter in Nebraska's Republican primary history. Kara Eastman won at least 62 percent of the vote in her race, in which at least 65,415 Nebraskans voted; 18 of the district's precincts remained unfinished with their counts by Thursday. It was a marked improvement on both the margin and the turnout from two years ago, when just 39,352 Democrats voted in the primary between Eastman and a moderate former congressman.
But Republican turnout was higher, despite the presence of a presidential contest on the top of the ballot. In the first primary where all votes were cast after the end of Bernie Sanders's campaign, the senator from Vermont got 20,981 votes to 119,138 for Biden. Sanders fell below the 15 percent delegate threshold statewide and in all of the state's three districts, grabbing 14 percent and 11 percent in the Republican-friendly 1st and 3rd and just under 15 percent in the 2nd, for a delegate shutout.
Donald Trump, “Un error mortal.” This Spanish-language spot almost precisely mirrors “Missing,” an ad the campaign began running this week that argues Joe Biden put China in the position to do damage to America. The English-language ad accused Biden of “a deadly mistake,” translated literally here. But what stands out is that an indictment of Biden for calling a travel ban “hysterical xenophobia” makes the cut.
Which characteristics apply to this candidate? (CNN/SSRS, 1,001 registered voters)
Cares about people like you
Joe Biden: 54%
Donald Trump: 42%
Is honest and trustworthy
Joe Biden: 53%
Donald Trump: 38%
Can manage the government effectively
Joe Biden: 52%
Donald Trump: 45%
Will unite the country
Joe Biden: 55%
Donald Trump: 38%
Can be trusted in a crisis
Joe Biden: 51%
Donald Trump: 45%
Has the stamina and sharpness to be president
Donald Trump: 49%
Joe Biden: 46%
This month's CNN poll was by and large good for the president, showing improvement over April and some marginal decline for Joe Biden. (The Democratic nominee remained in the lead nationally, but trailed in a subset of “battleground states.”) But less than six months out from the election, there has not been much progress in attacking the premises of Biden's campaign: that he's a trusted old hand who will “unite the country.”
The president leads by just three points on the question of “stamina,” a subject he has repeatedly tried to exploit, from the “Sleepy Joe” nickname to ads that incorporate footage of Biden looking confused. For comparison, in late September 2016, a McClatchy-Marist poll taken after Hillary Clinton's bout with pneumonia found Trump up 14 points on the stamina question. The president still holds a lead on economic management, which reveals a weakness in the Biden pitch: During a recession, he has not convinced voters that he could return to the prosperity of the final Obama years. But the president is weaker than most incumbents have been on key questions of competence.
The campaigns of President Trump and Joe Biden mostly talked around each other this week, with the president attempting to bait Biden into an argument over the FBI probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. On Wednesday, acting director of national intelligence Ric Grenell — a Trump ally picked over less-loyal candidates for the temporary job — declassified a document that listed the names of Obama officials who had asked for the identity of an individual who told Russia's ambassador that the incoming Trump administration would reexamine some sanctions that President Barack Obama had placed on Russia.
Biden was on the list, which wasn't extraordinary: It was already known that he was looped in when the Obama team learned about Flynn. The Trump campaign's attack on Biden was largely based on an interview he'd given ABC News, when he said he didn't know about any Flynn investigation, then corrected himself: He did not know about the criminal case against Flynn, which came later. The Trump campaign, arguing that an outgoing Obama administration had set a trap for Flynn — and thereby Trump — had pointed to a document that didn't show this.
“None of these individuals could have known Flynn's identity beforehand,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said.
The president asked for further investigations, tweeting that he wanted Congress to call Barack Obama “to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA,” but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) shot that down. There will, however, be hearings about the investigation in June.
The president spent Thursday in Pennsylvania, while Biden held a roundtable with governors and will appear on MSNBC tonight.
What I’m watching
How many Mike Garcias are there? The Republican triumph in California's 25th District was a case of everything going right for a party: a strong recruit, a scandal bringing down the incumbent, a special election held in low-turnout conditions. But when The Trailer went to the district six months ago, and when Democrats threw money into the race, Katie Hill's party was not expecting to write off this district. If Republicans ran as decisively ahead of their 2018 margins as Garcia did Tuesday, they would win back the House, and easily.
The question is whether there are enough Mike Garcias, and enough Katie Hills, to pull that off. In the past 10 years, only four times have Republicans won a Democratic House seat in a special election. Three of those races were brought about by sex scandals: the 2020 Mike Garcia race, the 2011 race to replace Anthony Weiner in New York, and a 2010 race to replace former New York congressman Eric Massa. The fourth was a bizarre race in Hawaii where two Democrats challenged one Republican, allowing that candidate, Charles Djou, to win with just 39 percent of the vote. (Hawaii Democrats, who control every branch of the state's government, would later change election law to prevent another race like that.)
At the risk of understatement, this election was held under unusual conditions, too. Democrats and Republicans had an equal chance to convert their usual voters into absentee ballot voters, and Republicans did a better job. They had an opening to do so because Garcia, like many of the Democratic challengers of 2018, had an inspiring biography and a good-government message. In its own polling, the pro-Garcia Congressional Leadership Fund found that the number one thing voters knew about the candidate was that he'd been a fighter pilot, a fact that was central to Garcia's campaign — and something his opponent, Democrat Christy Smith, accidentally elevated by joking about how frequently he touted it.
After attacking former congressman Steve Knight for having been critical of the president, Garcia spent the two-month special election running a sharper version of the campaign that nearly beat Smith in her state Assembly race. He hit her on a recession-era school board decision to lay off teachers (who were rehired) and asked why she had not used her role in the legislature to attend a coronavirus preparedness hearing. Smith, in turn, ran as a community leader who was trying to help the district recover and hit Garcia on his praise of President Trump.
How much can Republicans repeat this strategy across the 2020 map? It may be difficult. The party has recruited a number of strong candidates who are campaigning more effectively, and present fresher images, than many of the 2018 midterm losers — Michelle Steel in Orange County, Wesley Hunt in Texas, Ashley Hinson in Iowa. Like Garcia, they're missing a key vulnerability that hurt Republicans, in that they were not around for some of the toxic votes cast by the last Republican majority. In 2018, Katie Hill could tie Steve Knight not just to an unpopular president, but to his voting record. In 2020, Smith had far less to work with.
Democrats, who had spent days pre-spinning the California loss, were pugnacious in defeat. By Thursday, they'd released polling of the district that modeled a November electorate instead of the conservative special election electorate, putting Smith up narrowly over Garcia, 48 to 46. Yet even that was a testament to the Republicans' campaign, as an identical DCCC poll in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District put Kara Eastman up one point on Don Bacon. Donald Trump had won the Nebraska district by two points, and he'd lost the California district by six.
… five days until primaries in Idaho and Oregon
… 40 days until New York's presidential and congressional primaries
… 95 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 102 days until the Republican National Convention
… 172 days until the general election