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The Trailer: The mail voting debate gets more confounding

In this edition: The increasingly incoherent mail-voting debate, the results from Oregon's primaries and a surprise electoral breakthrough for conspiracy theories.

The newsletter will be taking Memorial Day weekend off and returning next week. We're confident that no news will happen until then and that no curse has been unlocked by saying so, and this is The Trailer.

On Tuesday, as he celebrated the arrival of two new Republican colleagues, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was asked whether he really had a problem with mail-in voting. Rep. Mike Garcia of California had won an election that relied heavily on mail-in ballots, and so had Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin. So, what was the problem?

“We don’t have a problem if someone votes by mail,” McCarthy said. “The problem we have is if you try to federalize the election.”

One day later, President Trump attacked Democrats in Nevada and Michigan for expanding vote-by-mail. In one tweet, he threatened to “hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path,” and in another he threatened the same if Nevada sent out “illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario.”

Since the start of the pandemic, vote-by-mail has been expanded in multiple states. The debate over that expansion has grown increasingly surreal and politically contradictory. As they ramp up their own absentee ballot programs, aimed at their base, state and national Republican committees have sued to stop states from making vote-by-mail easier, conducted polling to suggest that voters want limits on the process, and highlighted stories about the difficulty of quickly implementing all-mail elections.

“The media argues [that the president] has ‘no evidence’ of mail-in ballot problems,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted Thursday. “Oh really? Look what just happened in [South Carolina], where Dems sued to force a rushed transition to mail with no safeguards. Their ballots magically appeared in Baltimore.”

The South Carolina story didn't involve any sort of election fraud. SeaChange Print Innovations, a Minnesota-based company that printed ballots for 13 of South Carolina's 46 counties, had failed to mail 20 of those ballots to one county. The problem was not that voters' ballots were misplaced but that the voters never got them in the first place. So far, in primaries held under ramped-up absentee voting, most problems have grown around the distribution of ballots, not the legitimacy of ballots being cast.

With the Republican-run Senate rejecting Democrats' vote-by-mail funding proposals — and vehemently ruling out their ambitious election reform plans — the biggest election problem facing states is the cost and timing of mass ballot production. The political controversies have had more muted effects, because most of the states that previously threw up hurdles for absentee ballot voters have been quietly taking them down.

Before the pandemic, 34 states and the District of Columbia allowed voters to request absentee ballots for any reason. Since stay-at-home orders began, most of the remaining states have relaxed those requirements; only Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas still force most voters to prove that they face conditions preventing an in-person vote. In those states, voters over 65 don't need excuses to obtain mail ballots, but other voters do.

Republicans control every level of government in all but one of those states, Louisiana, where a Democratic governor found a mass vote-by-mail expansion faltering once rank-and-file Republicans opposed it. At the start of the pandemic, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, proposed that voters could cite fear of infection as a reason to obtain a ballot. The GOP-controlled legislature shut that down, limiting new requests to voters who could prove they had valid medical conditions putting them at risk. 

That led to an ongoing lawsuit against the state, similar to one underway in Texas, which made the same judgment that “fear” was not a legitimate excuse for under-65 voters. And as Democrats fought in vain to change this legislatively, Republicans played the “fraud' card, warning this week that the state's elections “could be rigged forever” if a Democratic proposal succeeded. (It was quickly throttled in committee.)

These new voting wars have played out even as Republicans, who enjoy a massive fundraising advantage over Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee, have stepped up their efforts to get their voters to request absentee ballots. A piece of mail for South Carolina Republicans, shared on Twitter by the Daily Beast's Sam Stein, begins with a declaration — “I will NEVER support universal vote-by-mail” — and then explains how recipients can request and mail back their ballots. (“Sometimes conservatives have legitimate reasons to vote absentee.”) 

On Tuesday, new Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin emphasized that the biggest problem his state had faced in its May 12 special election was not fraud, but the logistical difficulty of getting absentee ballots to voters in a largely rural district.

“There were people who were not able to vote as a result of that mail-in system not working,” Tiffany said.

A Thursday memo from the RNC, warning of “the voting problems if Democrats get their way,” contained four horror stories, but two had nothing to do with vote-by-mail — Stacey Abrams warning that a census undercount of noncitizens could affect redistricting, and an election fraud conviction in Philadelphia over ballot boxes being stuffed at traditional polling places. 

The party's own polling, partially released this month on its ProtectTheVote microsite, also went further than the debate over absentee ballots has, asking voters whether they'd cast in-person ballots “if the coronavirus pandemic is still prevalent in November and your state does not expand universal vote by mail.” Eighty-eight percent of respondents said yes, though the party is not trying to undo all of the changes to voting since March.

“We are not proactively going after states for making changes,” said RNC spokesman Steve Guest. “Democrats are suing states to force them to violate the laws that are on the books, and we are stepping in to defend those state laws.”

Still, while the president's jeremiads go further than most Republicans are willing to, raising questions about universal vote-by-mail has slowed the momentum for Democrats' preferred fix to the problem of holding safe elections during a pandemic. On Thursday, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a Republican, announced the formation of “VoteSafe,” a group that included both Michigan's Democratic current secretary of state (whom Trump had picked a fight with) and Georgia's Republican secretary of state (who Trump decidedly hadn't). There was no talk of “universal” voting systems, just of “expanding absentee ballot options” with as little blue-on-red violence as possible.

“This is not a partisan issue,” the former governors said, “and not a time to play politics.” 

Reading list

“Trump uses official travel to gain campaign edge in swing states as he seeks to move past pandemic,” by David Nakamura

Why visits to vital factories keep happening in places with electoral college heft.

“Trump tries on MAGA 2.0 for a pandemic era,” by Anita Kumar

How “the best days are yet to come” became “the great American comeback.”

“Bernie Sanders, seeking peace with Joe Biden, asks his own delegates to turn down the volume,” by Sean Sullivan

From “the establishment can't defeat us” to a delegate decorum pledge.

“Trump's China dilemma: how to punish Beijing without hurting the US economy and his own reelection chances,” by Vivian Salam and Lauren Fox

How to threaten a global power without hurting the things voters might decide on.

“Trump’s phony claims about ‘illegal’ voting in Michigan and Nevada,” by Salvador Rizzo

Debunking false claims about absentees.

“Joe Biden’s VP search is turning into an open audition,” by Gabriel Debenedetti

The unusually public battle for a No. 2 job.

In the states

Oregon and Idaho mail-ballot primaries went without a hitch Tuesday, with Republicans picking a rural state senator to hold a safely red House seat, Democrats dispatching some left-wing primary challenges, and an adherent of the QAnon conspiracy winning a U.S. Senate nomination — a breakthrough for a fringe movement which, we'll explain later in the newsletter, is more complicated than it looks.

The race that will most quickly affect Congress was in Oregon's 2nd District, where the retirement of Rep. Greg Walden had set up a scrum between every faction of the GOP. Former state senator Cliff Bentz came out on top, despite being heavily outspent and watching conservative endorsers head to other candidates. Bentz, who ran as a Trump ally with strong local roots, held on to his base, while the more conservative Jason Atkinson and Jimmy Crumpacker split the vote and 2018 gubernatorial nominee Knute Buehler faltered outside the Bend area. Buehler never overcame his awkward transition from moderate statewide candidate to MAGA congressional candidate, despite outspending Bentz by a nearly three-to-one margin.

The state's four Democratic House members sailed through their primaries, despite some high-profile support for challengers. Heidi Briones, a universal basic income supporter endorsed by Andrew Yang, got just 7 percent of the vote against Rep. Suzanne Bonamici; Albert Lee, a former college dean endorsed by a number of Portland left-wing groups, got just 17 percent of the vote against Rep. Earl Blumenauer. The strongest challenge in the state, from Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba, fell flat, too: Rep. Kurt Schrader, a leader of the Blue Dog Democrats and thorn in progressives' side, won by 48 points.

But it's the primary for secretary of state, still too close to call, that could have the biggest impact on Democrats. It's the only statewide office Republicans control in Oregon, and incumbent Bev Clarno is retiring. Liberals divided their votes between state Sen. Shemia Fagan and Jamie McLeod Skinner, the Democrat who ran in the 2nd District two years ago; state Sen. Mark Hass appealed more to moderates. Hass led Tuesday night, but late-returned ballots, still being counted, broke for Fagan and put her in the lead, narrowly, on Wednesday evening. Oregon has no lieutenant governor, making the secretary of state next in line for the job.

The relatively slow count will also affect the state's presidential primary; Joe Biden won it handily, but as more ballots have come in, Bernie Sanders has easily cleared the 15 percent delegate threshold. With 81 percent of ballots counted, Sanders has won 21 percent of the vote, including 26 percent in Portland's Multnomah County. Four years ago, when Sanders won the primary, his lead and delegate haul grew as more votes came in; as things stand he's won at least 15 of the state's 61 delegates, the best he's done in any primary since ending his campaign. And it could happen with relatively high turnout. Already, 569,213 ballots have been counted for a presidential primary where all but one candidate has dropped out. In 2016, 641,595 ballots were cast in the contested race between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

In Idaho, where Tuesday was the final deadline to request absentee ballots, results won't be counted and released until June 2. And in Massachusetts, where two special state Senate elections wrapped up Tuesday, Democrats gained both of them from Republicans, giving them 90 percent of all seats in the state's upper house.

Ad watch

Priorities for Iowa, “Randy Feenstra: A Better Choice.” A PAC formed to beat Rep. Steve King in next month's primary hands the microphone to Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative activist and longtime ally of the congressman. Just four years after the two of them campaigned for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Vander Plaats warns that King is no longer “effective” and “can't deliver for President Trump” and “can't advance our conservative values.” Feenstra, a conservative state senator who was first to jump in against King, gets a robust endorsement.

Eddie Mauro for Senate, “Theresa Greenfield is Not a Leader.” The self-funding Democrat in Iowa's Senate primary is closing out his campaign with twin messages: His experience as a businessman and coach makes him formidable in November, and the candidate backed by national Democrats will lose. In this spot, a narrator spills the whole oppo file on Greenfield, from layoffs to how she “kicked small businesses out” of a shopping complex to the “felonious election misconduct” her campaign manager engaged in two years ago when she ran for the House. Most Democrats saw Greenfield as the victim in that scandal, and one rival, Pete D'Allessandro, actually lent campaign staff to Greenfield in an unsuccessful effort to get new signatures. Mauro, who also ran in that primary, did not.

The Lincoln Project, “Meet Brad Parscale.” The never-Trump group has figured out what works: hyper-focused, satirical ads designed to attract the attention of President Trump and make him angry enough to comment or make a mistake. This digital spot elevates the money Brad Parscale has made as Trump's campaign manager, an issue that has been covered by the political press but not made the leap into Democratic ads. If that doesn't get a rise out of the president, that's what the insistence that Trump can't win without Parscale is for.

Poll watch

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of this candidate? (Quinnipiac, 1,323 voters)

Joe Biden
Favorable: 45% (+2) 
Unfavorable: 41% (-2)

Donald Trump
Favorable: 40% (-1) 
Unfavorable: 55% (+3)

The Trump campaign's advertising, in sync with Republican actions in the Senate, has been directed toward a single goal: Joe Biden's negatives and making swing voters think twice about him. Quinnipiac, one of Biden's better polls, finds little success so far. Just 56 percent of voters have an opinion of a former staffer's sexual misconduct claim against Biden, and they split 50-50 on whether they believe her or the former vice president. On most issues, Biden leads or ties the president.

That's a different challenge from the one Trump faced in 2016, when he had a rangier fundraising network and a divided party. Four years ago, in early June Quinnipiac found Hillary Clinton up just four points on Trump, and with a net negative favorable rating of 20 points. That was only a bit better than Trump's 25-point negative rating. Biden has recovered from a popularity dip during the primary, as Democratic voters have come home and even younger voters — who like him much less than senior citizens — break decisively for Biden. The president and his challenger have comparable favorable ratings with Latino voters, though the president's unfavorable rating is 16 points higher.

Money watch

This week's new FEC reports contained good news for Republicans and one bright spot for Democrats: the GOP groups tasked with electing members of Congress hitting fundraising highs as the Democratic National Committee, frequently lapped by its Republican counterpart, began to catch up.

Even as analysts began to give Democrats better odds of taking the Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised $12.2 million over the past month to $9 million for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The National Republican Congressional Committee, as this newsletter noted previously, inched ahead of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $11.4 million to $11.3 million. 

At the same time, over the first period when they could form a joint fundraising committee, Joe Biden and the DNC raised $60.5 million, just $1.2 million less than the president and the RNC. The Democrats' war chest is still dwarfed by Republicans, who have no debt.

Candidate tracker

President Trump took a few more steps toward traditional campaigning this week, with the aforementioned trip to Michigan and a plan to visit Baltimore's Fort McHenry on Memorial Day.

Joe Biden held his second “virtual rally,” aimed at Wisconsin, avoiding most of the technical glitches that befell his earlier Florida “rally,” and did a round of local news interviews in the state that came back repeatedly to whether the party's Milwaukee convention can happen.

“I plan on campaigning in Milwaukee,” Biden told WISN-12. “And I hope there is a convention in Milwaukee. It may not be as robust a convention. It may be a social distancing thing. It may be smaller. I don’t know. I can’t ordain what that’s going to be, but I plan to campaign in Milwaukee.”

Meanwhile, the women most frequently mentioned as potential running mates for Biden were making their own news. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in an interview with David Axelrod, said that she saw single-payer health care as the end goal of reform but that “people want to see improvements in our health-care system, and that means strengthening the Affordable Care Act,” remarks widely seen as softening her old criticism of Biden. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Mass.) touted a bipartisan skills-retraining bill that was instantly attacked from the left; on Thursday morning, the biggest newspaper in Grand Forks, N.D., urged Biden to pick her as VP.

On the trail

On Tuesday night, as Oregon's Republican voters made her their nominee for U.S. Senate, in a race national Republicans largely stayed out of, Jo Rae Perkins shared a special message for supporters. 

“Where we go one, we go all,” Perkins said, repeating the slogan of the QAnon conspiracy theory. “I stand with President Trump; I stand with Q and the team.”

Less than a day later, the video was deleted, and Perkins had released a statement blaming “the fake news machine” for taking her out of context. “I was not endorsing Q/Anon, but rather stating that I appreciate the fact that there is still free speech in this country,” Perkins said. “To be very clear, I do not believe everything from Q/Anon and would never describe myself as a follower.”

Some of that was true. Over years as a Republican candidate and activist, Perkins has not endorsed every element of the labyrinthine and baseless QAnon theory. But in interviews and social media posts, she'd followed Q “drops” — online messages, allegedly from an intelligence source inside the deep state — and proudly talked about the red, white and blue Q emblem on her Corvette. Perkins, who spent less than $25,000 to win the nomination, is the highest-profile candidate to embrace any part of the theory. For Republicans, who are not seriously contesting the Senate seat in November, it's a surprise headache, but not one that came from nowhere.

Republicans have ignored Perkins, who first ran for Senate six years ago and won just 3 percent of the primary vote. She's far from the first candidate to distract their own party with unfounded theories. Ten years ago, an unemployed veteran named Alvin Greene won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in South Carolina and rejected calls to quit, even as his strange, incoherent statements made national news. (Republicans branded that year's Democratic candidate for governor, Vincent Shaheen, part of the “Greene-Shaheen machine.”) Two years later, when Tennessee Democrats failed to convince a strong candidate to run against Sen. Bob Corker, a man named Mark E. Clayton won their nomination; Democrats denounced his anti-gay rhetoric and fear of a “North American Union,” and wrote off the race. 

Perkins now faces a similar sort of ostracism, but she did not stumble into the nomination by accident. In a weak field, she picked up support from the state's Right to Life PAC, its biggest anti-tax organization and Pacific Northwest conservative radio host Lars Larson. At party forums, she presented herself as a passionate and frustrated conservative who wanted to stop Oregon's drift into socialism, a message perfectly within the party's new mainstream.

In other forums, she emphasized that she followed Q drops and stood with QAnon believers. Over several appearances on the Matrixxx/Grooove Hour, a QAnon Web show, she was welcomed as an “extremely Q-centric” politician who “understands all this stuff.” In one recent episode, she read the latest messages from “Q” alongside the hosts, adding her own theories about why a pandemic had come about and shut down ordinary commerce.

“They’re telling us to wear masks all the time; are they trying to suffocate us without us even knowing?” Perkins asked. “My brain goes off into crazy places.”

Perkins did not traffic in the most absurd aspects of QAnon, with lurid and specific conspiracy theories about people such as Bill Gates. But the theory's power comes from a belief that there is a “deep state” holding onto power through a series of lies — a monomyth that encompasses all sorts of skepticisms and paranoias. The common thread in Perkins's messages to fringe activists was that there were forces trying to control Americans' behavior, through mass murder if necessary. Perkins shared the popular QAnon theory of how this would end, with the president deciding to “flip the switch and say, ‘Go and do those arrests that we’ve all been waiting for.' ”

During her first appearance on the M/G show, in January, Perkins explained that she got involved in politics after “Hussein got elected,” referring to the 44th president by his middle name, and became more deeply involved after LaVoy Finicum, the spokesman for the militia that occupied a wildlife refuge in early 2016, was killed in a standoff with police, baselessly blaming it on the Oregon governor and President Barack Obama. Asked about climate change, Perkins argued that it was not man-made and that earthquakes can shift the globe and expose more places to extreme weather. 

“If we cut C02 down to the levels they want, the trees will die,” said Perkins in one episode, advancing a theory at odds with climate science. “We all die.” 

Those worries predated the coronavirus, but the virus fit easily into Perkins's theories and worldview. Earlier this month, in another M/G interview, she called the coronavirus a “fake virus,” agreeing with hosts who called it an overhyped flu. The president, she said, was “letting the deep state, Fauci, kind of hang themselves,” though she did not detail the comments she disagreed with. In a January interview, she confirmed that she opposed “mandatory vaccination,” and in the May interview, deep into the pandemic, she reiterated that.

“If you want to vaccinate, vaccinate,” Perkins said. “If you don’t, don’t. It’s your choice.”

In some elections that looked like this one, where a fringe candidate captured the party's nomination, the party has ignored it, distanced itself with an un-endorsement, or even sought out (usually ineffectively) a new candidate. Neither Republican leaders in Congress nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee has commented on Perkins. While the president himself once talked about putting Oregon on the electoral map again, he dropped that months ago, lowering the profile of the candidates he'll share the ballot with. Perkins is not the sort of candidate the party would have recruited to make the seat competitive. But in her fourth run for office, she didn't find much resistance.


… four days until the Libertarian Party picks a presidential nominee
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…165 days until the general election