In this edition: The hill for Democratic primary challengers gets steeper, the Libertarian Party picks a nominee, and a national argument breaks out about masks and golf.

Unlike the Democratic or Republican national conventions, you know where this newsletter's going to be. This is The Trailer.

Mckayla Wilkes never thought a run for Congress would be easy. At 29 years old, she decided to take on Steny H. Hoyer, the House majority leader and longest-serving Democrat in the House. She had a compelling story, deep roots in Maryland's 5th Congressional District, a set of far-reaching policies and a plan: outwork an incumbent who hadn't been challenged in years.

“We’re going to beat him on the ground,” Wilkes said last year in an interview with the Young Turks. “We’re going to beat him with the power of the people.”

The pandemic ripped a hole in that plan, trapping Wilkes in her home and making a door-to-door campaign impossible. “I've been in the house so long,” she said in an interview, “I don't even know where my car keys are.” One week before the June 2 primary, Wilkes remains an underdog; candidates like her, working to persuade Democratic voters to replace their leaders, are confronting a pandemic that has kept them off the trail — while the crisis has allowed those leaders to consolidate support. 

“The pandemic has created a situation where to campaign against the incumbent, you need a story to tell about the incumbent’s poor leadership during the pandemic,” said Waleed Shahid, the spokesman for Justice Democrats, which is backing five challengers in upcoming primaries or runoffs. “You cannot get a single news story in this climate that is not about the pandemic. You've seen incumbent executives soaring in public opinion, because they have a megaphone to give info to their constituents. That goes a long way.”

Justice Democrats, founded after the 2016 election to replace “corporate Democrats,” has focused in this cycle on a few primary challenges where incumbents look vulnerable and Republicans have little chance to win. It started the year auspiciously, with first-time candidate Jessica Cisneros falling just short of unseating Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and activist Marie Newman unseating Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois on her second try. What didn't exist for Bernie Sanders in 2016 seemed to be building for young, liberal challengers: a broad network of donors and strategists ready to dismantle incumbents.

The coronavirus pandemic made that harder, and so has a factor that wasn't there a few years ago: widespread Democratic satisfaction with major party figures. According to public polling, including the latest Economist/YouGov tracker, a supermajority of Democratic voters are behind their nominee and top congressional leaders. In the new poll, 81 percent of Democratic primary voters had “very” or “somewhat” favorable views of Joe Biden, while 77 percent of Democratic primary voters had that view of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

That hasn't prevented a debate about the party and its response to the pandemic, with voices on the left accusing Democrats of passing a quick giveaway to corporate interests instead of a stimulus that would have given most people a basic income through the duration of the crisis. And liberal challengers are still expressing concerns about the party's presumptive nominee, with some candidates suggesting that Joe Biden is not telling the truth about a former staffer who accused him of assault, a charge he has denied. 

But polling has found a supermajority of Democrats taking Biden's side, more since media investigations cast doubt on Tara Reade's story. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found just 10 percent of Democrats taking Reade's word over Biden's. Criticism of the party and the ticket, which can be overwhelming on social media, isn't reflective of most Democrats who vote in primaries. (In an interview with The Trailer, Wilkes said Reade's “claims were legitimate” and that it was also “legitimate to look into her claims.”)

The funding for primary challenges has not dried up. According to her last pre-primary FEC filing, Wilkes raised bit less than $90,000 from April 1 to May 13, more than the $81,000 she'd raised from the start of January through the end of March. Hoyer, by contrast, raised less than $38,000 in the final filing period, when the campaign canceled a fundraising picnic, down from $520,000 in the first three months of 2020. The small-donor model that has powered her primary challenge resisted the first months of the pandemic better than Hoyer's local or high-dollar donors.

It has been tougher to convince voters that Democrats, as they're currently being led, are doing so poorly that they must be replaced. In New York's 16th District, where school principal Jamal Bowman is challenging Rep. Eliot L. Engel, he's broken through not with any particular criticism of Engel's votes but with a story about Engel remaining in his Washington-area home during the pandemic. In her own district, Pelosi has benefited from frequent fights with the president, overwhelming any intraparty criticism of how she has approached the pandemic.

She demonstrates the failure of the corporate, institutional Democratic Party every day,” said Shahid Buttar, who is facing Pelosi in the November runoff. “If we see polling bumps for Democratic incumbents at the moment, I think that’s driven by the false impression that they're emphasizing public assistance. The reality is that they're emphasizing bailouts for lobbyists before rent and mortgage relief.”

In Maryland, Wilkes has no shortage of arguments against Hoyer. She endorses the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all; he doesn't. She would have required full funding for the post office and vote-by-mail in any stimulus plan; he didn't. 

Hoyer's campaign pointed to his work on battling the coronavirus, saying he has “been in constant contact with community leaders, small-business owners, 5th District public health officers, local faith leaders, and his local, state, and federal colleagues.”

Wilkes said that though some voters were nervous about throwing out a key party leader in a crisis, the campaign could deal with it.

“I have heard that, but not too frequently,” Wilkes said. “You know, a majority of people who come in contact with our campaign are eager for change. And a lot of people understand the urgency of this moment. Even folks who were very, very strong Hoyer supporters are, at this moment, looking for something other than just the normalcy of voting for whoever's been there for years.” 

Reading list

“Trump opts for a 2016 disruption strategy that Democrats say is ill-suited for a pandemic,” by Toluse Olorunnipa and Ashley Parker

What's a Trump campaign without Hillary Clinton? It's tbd.

“Is this the blueprint for Sanders and AOC to take over the Democratic Party? by Jonathan Chait

A critical review of a new Henry Wallace biography.

“The pandemic has already altered how tens of millions of Americans can cast their ballots this year,” by Elise Viebeck

Changes to how we'll vote, explained.

“Inside the influential evangelical group mobilizing to re-elect Trump,” by Lee Fang

Penetrating yet another conservative circle of power.

“In crucial Florida, some senior voters cast a skeptical eye toward Trump’s reelection,” by Jenna Johnson

The weakening of a pro-Trump demographic.

Turnout watch

The Democratic presidential primary in Hawaii wrapped up Saturday after nearly three months of voting — the longest-lasting contest this year and the last to include some votes from before Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) exited the race.

Turnout was low, with no evidence of the surge we'd seen in other states that abandoned caucuses to hold primaries. Democrats cast just 34,976 ballots, up from the 33,716 preference votes cast four years ago, when the primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton remained competitive. After all first-preference votes were cycled through, and ballots for other candidates reassigned, Biden won 63 percent of the vote, to 37 percent for Sanders.

Even when the primary's length is taken into account, it was an impressive total for Sanders, who has suspended campaigning but benefited from outside efforts to increase his delegate count. He won 39 percent of the vote in the 2nd Congressional District, which is being vacated by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; that's by far his best result since the primary competition ended. The senator walked out of Hawaii with eight of 24 available delegates, and Biden left the state just 450 delegates away from officially clinching the nomination.

Ad watch

President Trump, Joe Biden has destroyed millions of black American lives. The Trump campaign's response to Joe Biden's “you ain't black” gaffe was speedy, not least because it had been deploying ads designed to win black voters from the Democrat months ago; only the pandemic had halted them. This 30-second spot, the most traditional of a series of weekend Web videos, hits both Biden's record on the crime bill and the perpetual theme of whether Biden has lost his sharpness: He “might not remember” the crime bill's effects, a narrator says, “but we do.”

Joe Biden, “The President is Playing Golf.” A quick-turnaround attack for the holiday weekend, this Biden spot uses footage of the president's Saturday golf outing — on a course he owns — to portray him as cold and indifferent to the pandemic's effects. There's no subtlety here: A line representing the march of death from zero to 100,0000 is planted next to the video of Trump on the green. “The death toll is rising. The president is playing golf,” a narrator says, in case there was a chance that viewers didn't get it.

Judicial Crisis Network, “The Woman.” The conservative group, which focuses on electing Republicans to confirm like-minded judges, is running this spot to ask why Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, both on Biden's potential vice presidential shortlist, did not give Brett M. Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt they gave Biden. Interestingly, the ad does not name Tara Reade, the former Biden staffer who accused the candidate of a sexual assault in 1993, and who has since been found to have inflated parts of her biography.

The Club for Growth, “Not Nothing.” For just $2,000, the conservative group is trying something different — directing any woman who might have a story of sexual misconduct by Joe Biden to a website where they could tell the story. The ad, which shows actresses wrestling with whether to report sexual misconduct, cuts to Reade's interview with Megyn Kelly, and then to a clip of Biden's interview on MSNBC that makes it look like he had trouble responding to the accusation, which he has denied. 

John James, “The Nickel Promise.” The Michigan Senate candidate has reintroduced himself as a philanthropically minded outsider, with no mention of his party affiliation. This spot is typical of the May ad blitz, highlighting James's military service and counting up the 5 percent of campaign funds he has distributed to charity. He has twinned that with messaging about Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, arguing that he could have done more, and did not, to make the country ready for a pandemic.

Gary Peters, “Safe.” This is what James is up against: Peters, who got on the air first, telling voters he took China seriously, early. “I've always been tough on the Chinese government, supporting the China travel ban, demanding the truth about the spread of covid-19,” Peters says. Republicans have pointed out that Peters did not rush to endorse the travel ban, which has been popular, but the ad emphasizes a populist position he took late last year, now adopted by some Republicans: bringing drug manufacturing from China to the United States, “so we won't be held hostage.” (Like James, Peters does not mention his party affiliation.)

Poll watch

2020 election in Minnesota (Mason-Dixon, 800 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 49%
Donald Trump: 44%

Four years ago, Minnesota was the state that broke most narrowly for Hillary Clinton — a 1.5-point margin, with nearly one in 12 voters backing a third-party candidates. It has remained competitive, and we see here why Trump remains an underdog with a shot. The president has a double-digit lead in northern Minnesota, with no change from 2016, when he led a Republican breakthrough in the region. Outside Minneapolis, St. Paul and their exurbs, there's no deterioration from Trump's support. But having won the Twin Cities' eastern suburbs by two points in 2016, he is trailing by four points now. 

On the trail

America's third-largest political party has its ticket, after Libertarian activists Jo Jorgensen and Spike Cohen were nominated as their candidates for president and vice president. You probably haven't heard of either. 

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who briefly ran for the Libertarian nomination, infrequently appeared in polls and had name recognition below 20 percent when he did. Jorgensen, the party's 1996 nominee for vice president, is its first nominee since 2004 to have never held elected office and its first female nominee.

She had serious competition. In the weekend convention, largely conducted online, Jorgensen won on the fourth ballot. That was after an effort to draft Amash, enticing the reluctant candidate back into the race with a show of support, failed; learning of the effort on Twitter, Amash wrote that “I’m honored and grateful, but I am not a candidate this year and will not accept the nomination.”

That left Jorgensen as one of the best-known contenders in a field that included another LP vice presidential nominee (Jim Gray) and a one-man political satire named Vermin Supreme. It was dominated, though, by party loyalists like Jorgensen and Cohen, whose platform included priorities such as legal plutonium for public use and “going back in time to kill Baby Woodrow Wilson, which ultimately makes killing Hitler unnecessary but we’re still going to do that too.”

Cohen was foisted upon Jorgensen by delegates, pushing past a less-satirical candidate in the convention vote for VP. Since joining the ticket, Cohen has reined himself in and Jorgensen has spoken for them, giving the same pitch that she gave 24 years ago: The party will loosen regulations and let the free market do its magic. 

In an interview with Reason, Jorgensen called the response to the coronavirus “the biggest assault on our liberties in our lifetime” and opposed the bipartisan spending bills passed to respond to the pandemic, saying it “would be better if Americans got to keep their money and let them decide which companies deserve money, not the government.”

That's similar to what Gary Johnson, the party's biggest vote-winner since it began contesting presidential elections, ran on in 2012 and 2016. It's not unlike the pitch Amash was making before his surprise exit from the race. 

But there's worry that Jorgensen, while unencumbered from any association with the big two parties, won't cut through the noise. Delegate and party strategist John Vaught LaBeaume, who joined the effort to draft Amash, said Monday that the party should begin opening up its nomination to everyone who registers with the party. The traditional convention process, he said, ended up sidelining the only candidate who might have capitalized on the attention the party got four years ago, when Johnson won nearly 4.5 million votes.

“A clutch of LP poobahs ran off Justin Amash, insisting a sitting Member of Congress be subjected to ‘debates’ where a bunch of unknowns taunted, calling him a fraud and a heretic,” LaBeaume said, characterizing the criticism Amash faced online. “Then, in the face of the twin 2020 perils of Donald Trump and the other party's base pushing ‘Democratic’ socialism, Libertarian convention delegates nominated a ticket of Some Lady/Some Guy Who Podcasts from his Basement 2020.” 

In the states

The Republican National Committee created a new front in the voting wars, suing to stop California from distributing absentee ballots to all registered voters. The suit itself says that the change will “violate eligible citizens' right to vote” by giving ballots to inactive voters who remain on the rolls, warning that any ballot cast illegally would infringe upon real voters's 14th Amendment rights.

This is actually the third Republican-backed suit against California's governor this year, following a successful case against a law that required presidential candidates to release their tax returns and a lawsuit to stop in-person “harvesting,” in which campaign volunteers collect voters' ballots. One possible goal of the lawsuit: get kicked up to higher circuits before flimsier cases make it there.

Meanwhile, in Florida, a U.S. District judge struck down the law Republicans passed after voters amended the state constitution and restored voting rights to nonviolent felons. The law had required those former felons to pay all fees associated with their cases before registering to vote; the court found that to be an unconstitutional poll tax.

Candidate tracker

Since the last edition of this newsletter, an entire gaffe news cycle took place: Joe Biden told radio host Charlamagne tha God that if he seriously needed more reasons not to vote for Trump, “you ain't black.” The interview took place late Thursday and ran on Friday morning. In the time it took for Biden to clean up the remarks, President Trump's campaign had organized a conference call to condemn it and put together a T-shirt with the #YouAintBlack hashtag.

“I shouldn't have been such a wiseguy,” Biden said in a call with U.S. Black Chambers. “I shouldn't have been so cavalier in responding to what I thought was a — anyway, it was — I don't take it for granted at all. And no one, no one should have to vote for any party based on their race or religion or background. There are African Americans who think that Trump is worth voting for. I don't think so, I'm prepared to put my record against his.”

The holiday weekend smothered the story, though #YouAintBlack has made it into the Trump campaign's lexicon for urging black voters to reject Biden. On Monday, both Trump and Biden commemorated Memorial Day; for Biden, it marked the first trip out of his home since March, and a partisan argument broke out, largely online, about his decision to wear a mask at a largely empty, open memorial site in Delaware. On Tuesday, Biden picked up the support of the AFL-CIO, which was not a surprise, but underscored how resistant labor unions still are to the president's appeals, after some initial interest in infrastructure spending petered out.

Veep watch

We don't know every Democrat being seriously considered for Joe Biden's ticket; we don't quite know the timing of his pick, though it'll come before the mid-August convention. In the meantime, this newsletter is going to keep track of Biden's moves and how the women who may be considered are spending their time.

Val Demings. The Florida congresswoman was the sole member of the “long list” to appear on Sunday talk shows, offering a hearty defense of the vice president's racial gaffe. “I think it's interesting that the president searched high and low to find African American members of the Senate and a former member of Congress to speak out on this issue,” she said. “It'd be nice to hear other Republicans, male or female, speak out on this issue.”

Elizabeth Warren. She released a Memorial Day video paying tribute to her three brothers, all of whom served in the military; her brother Don died of coronavirus complications last month.

Maggie Hassan. As first reported by John DiStaso, the senator from New Hampshire agreed to meet with Biden as part of the vice presidential selection process; the state's other senator, Jeanne Shaheen, declined a meeting.

Amy Klobuchar. She signed up as a special guest speaker for Nevada Democrats' upcoming convention.

Gretchen Whitmer. A dock company owner claimed that the Michigan governor's husband had requested to use a boat as Memorial Day weekend began, touting his marriage to Whitmer. While the governor had relaxed stay-at-home orders as the weekend began, she had discouraged people from traveling from downstate to the region where the dock is located. (In a Facebook post, the owner recalled telling the First Gentleman that he'd be moved to the back of the line, as a protest of Whitmer.) Whitmer said her husband's comment was a joke, which didn't quiet the criticism.

Countdown

… seven days until the primaries in Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and South Dakota
… 28 days until New York's presidential and congressional primaries
… 44 days until the Green Party meets to pick a presidential ticket
… 83 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 90 days until the Republican National Convention
… 160 days until the general election