In this edition: New Jersey as the midterm crucible, big turnout (almost) everywhere, a clear poll lead for Democrats, and how do you solve a problem like Menendez?
It's election time, and The Trailer will be coming out every day through Thursday. As wild as this year has been, the final hours of the election feel like the end of a normal presidential election — not as reality-warping as some weeks, but hotter than the usual midterm. Diddy and Rihanna endorsed Andrew Gillum; Georgia's secretary of state accused Democrats of online tampering while Democrats said they were raising questions about election security.
Today, President Trump campaigned in Georgia and Tennessee while former president Barack Obama campaigned in Indiana and Illinois. Tomorrow, the president heads to Ohio, Indiana and Missouri, where he'll close out the campaign in Rush Limbaugh's hometown — with Rush Limbaugh.
The question for Republicans: How much do the states and districts that matter look like the rally crowds? The answer is in today's polls, and in a crucial state. I am going to write about New Jersey without any Springsteen jokes, and this is The Trailer.
FRENCHTOWN, N.J. — Tom Malinowski, the Democrat trying to flip New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District on Tuesday, couldn’t believe how Republicans were closing their campaign.
“They could have run on the economy, but that’s not what they chose,” Malinowski told 30 voters gathered at a downtown restaurant. “They chose fear. They chose crackpot conspiracies about poor folks who are 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border, people who won’t reach it for two months if they reach it at all.”
Malinowski, a former undersecretary of state making his first run for office, suggested that it might have been more politically “safe” to ignore the last week’s news and focus his campaign on health care. But in the suburban races that could decide Tuesday’s election — places where the economy is doing well — a throbbing sense of angst about the country and the president might have added to a Democratic advantage that began with worry about health care and social issues.
For all the attention on the president’s final campaign swing and his work to re-energize his base, none of it has fixed Republican problems in places where that base is outnumbered and where the party needs independents or truant Democrats to win. The final pre-election polls show Republicans trailing in the generic ballot by seven to eight points. That’s not just the largest partisan disadvantage in any midterm this century; it’s unheard of for a party presiding over full employment to enter an election so far behind.
Nowhere is the Republican dilemma more visible than in New Jersey, where Republicans believe that three of their five House seats are competitive; one, the coastal 2nd District, is already lost. Republicans also trail in public polling of the U.S. Senate race, despite spending close to $40 million in attack ads that hammered Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) over a corruption scandal that ended with a high-profile mistrial.
Democrats are nervous about the Senate race, leading the Senate Majority PAC to spend close to $10 million in ads attacking Republican nominee Bob Hugin for his financial support of the Trump campaign. Hugin has embraced the panicky ad barrage, telling an audience at a rally on Saturday that Menendez is now “bought and paid for by [Senate Democratic Leader] Chuck Schumer.”
But since transforming from a donor to a candidate, Hugin has not embraced Trump. In his own closing TV spot, the veteran and former pharmaceutical executive looks into the camera and promises to “stand up to Trump” because “Marines never back down.”
In an interview after a Republican rally in Morristown, Hugin responded to questions about the caravan and the president’s opposition to “birthright citizenship” by saying that “the president’s sword cuts two different ways,” then naming some issues he’d fight him on.
“I’m a fisherman. I don’t like offshore drilling off the coast of New Jersey,” Hugin said. “The president’s important, but this race is about Bob Menendez versus Bob Hugin.”
Menendez, by contrast, uses his campaign appearances to tear into the president and warn what would happen if his party continues to control Congress. At a weekend stop with around 30 Atlantic County Democrats, at a diner in Pleasantville, Menendez began to count off the pressure points — “civil rights, women’s rights, health care” — when the activists began to add theirs.
“Gerrymandering,” said one.
“Voting rights!” said another.
“Gerrymandering, all of that — people of color being able to cast a vote,” Menendez said.
The president, who lost New Jersey by 14 points in 2016, was always going to have problems in a diverse, suburban state. According to census data, 22 percent of New Jersey residents were born outside the United States; 45 percent of them are nonwhite. In last year’s gubernatorial election here, Republicans carried the white vote by eight points but lost nonwhite voters by 68 points, leading to a 14-point defeat, identical to the Trump margin — after a campaign that ended with the GOP warning of a potential immigrant crime wave.
Democrats ruefully expect those politics to work in some races. In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D.) has urged the president to “use every tool at his disposal” to stop the caravan, though experience suggests it will end with a few hundred or thousand migrants asking for asylum. In Indiana, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) has said that he’d fight the “radical left” if it tries to abolish or scale down ICE.
Both of those states, pivotal to control of the Senate, went for Trump by 19 points. The House battlefield is less lopsided, and across it the president’s political moves have rattled voters who might otherwise have come back to the Republican Party.
In New Jersey, the angst touches on immigration policy, health care and the 2017 tax cut — which capped the local deduction on state income taxes. Democrats admitted that they had to negotiate with themselves about supporting Menendez but that Trump gave them reasons to get there.
“There’s a lot of discussion about 2016, and how people wasted their votes on third parties because they weren’t happy,” Amna Ahmed, an 18-year-old Rutgers student who organized a house party this past weekend for Andy Kim, the Democrat running against Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.). “We don’t want that to happen again.”
There was no such angst about House candidates such as Kim, Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill, the nominee in the 11th District. All have massively outraised their Republican opponents, all have service records (the State Department for the first two, the Navy for Sherrill), and all have hammered Republicans over the tax bill, health care and the Trump administration.
In the Menendez-free races, Republicans admit that Trump has made their job harder.
“The Democrats this year are counting on you to keep quiet,” Jay Webber, the Republican legislator running against Sherrill, said at a weekend rally. “They’re counting on you not to post that stuff on Facebook because you don’t want to deal with the blowback. You don’t want to deal with all the negative comments. You don’t want to deal with the negative opinions people might have because you support the president of the United States.”
The president’s approval rating, in the 30s statewide, is higher in these competitive districts. But internal polls find more voters strongly disapproving of the president than strongly approving, sometimes by double-digit margins. Democrats have been tying those sentiments to policy, not to Trump himself. Kim, in particular, has pummeled MacArthur again and again for writing the amendment that allowed a vote on the GOP’s Affordable Care Act repeal bill. Part of MacArthur’s defense is that the bill did not pass.
“It’s a bunch of nonsense,” MacArthur said in a short interview on the trail. “These things never became law, and they never, ever would have touched people getting insurance from their employer, or people getting it from the VA, or anyone getting it from Tri-Care. And yet they’re trying to target those people [who depend on that] and make them afraid. It’s a despicable campaign.”
When the president himself does enter the conversation, as Malinowski found, it’s been a problem for Republicans. He, Kim and Sherrill all independently suggested that a Democratic Congress would have questions for Trump about the decision to send the military to the border this month.
And Malinowski went further, saying that Republicans would have to answer for the “crackpot conspiracy theories,” saying that they were leading to violence and that Republicans refused to stop it. Republicans reject any link between their party's rhetoric and real-world violence.
“One week ago, a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and gunned down 11 innocent people, because he believed that crap,” he said. “If this were an act of Islamic terrorism, and we knew a suicide bomber had radicalized by a particular narrative coming from the lips of politicians, and those politicians continued with that narrative even after the attack occurred, they’d be excommunicated from American politics. And we have a chance, on November 6, to say something about it.”
It's officially a record year for midterm voting, with at least 34,440,873 votes cast so far, 25 percent more than were cast at this point in the 2014 election. Two states, Nevada and Texas, have already cast more votes than they did, in total, in the last midterm. For two years, Democrats have been saying that a high-turnout midterm would favor them, and now they get a chance to prove it. And in high-turnout states, people who watch these numbers closely see Democratic advantages.
Steve Schale, the Florida Democrat and former Obama campaign adviser, saw a 2016 Democratic advantage in the early vote wiped away on Election Day; he saw the party struggle in 2014, only to make it close on Election Day. This year, he thinks Democrats Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum probably won the early vote and “will start Tuesday ahead of their opponents,” powered in part by an advantage in Duval County (Jacksonville), where the party has been getting stronger but where no Democrat in a close race has won since Jimmy Carter's 1976 election as president.
In Nevada, where Jon Ralston has been making correct calls on close statewide races all decade, he sees a statewide Democratic advantage in turnout holding and delivering every major office to Democrats. In Arizona, which had looked like a bright spot for Republican early voting last week, Democrats trail by eight points in returned ballots, which they take as a reason to cheer; that's the closest they've been in the early vote in any midterm this century.
California 25. Environmental groups simply don't get that much attention for their campaign spending; there hasn't been an election where their issues are at the top of voters' minds. But they always go for broke on the air, as in this League of Conversation Voters spot that imagines a nightmarish dystopia of green smog, the inevitable result (it claims) if Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) stays in office.
Florida Senate. Gov. Rick Scott (R) did not get the boost from Hurricane Michael that other governors have gotten from hurricane cleanup; voters approved of his performance, but polling barely moved in his race against Sen. Bill Nelson (D). One of Scott's final ads looks to remind voters of what he did, suggesting that the camaraderie that follows a disaster is what could be done in Washington. “We can bring America together.”
Iowa 04. Republicans wondered whether Rep. Steve King (R) was taking reelection for granted, and it appears that he was: His only TV spot in this race is the same one he used in 2014. The clue comes when King says that “most of you agree our country is slipping away,” which is not a sentiment you hear much from Republicans with Donald Trump in the White House.
New Jersey Senate. A lot of the attention to this state's ad war, understandably, has been on the negative ads that never let voters forget what Sen. Bob Menendez (D) had been accused of. Just as important has been Republican Bob Hugin's work to portray himself as a “different kind of Republican,” a message put bluntly in his final ad. “I often hear: Will you stand up to President Trump?” Hugin says. “The answer is yes.”
Washington 08. Republican Dino Rossi's final ad is part of the “enough with the mobs” content you've seen from Republicans in closing weeks, though it focuses on him, not file footage. “Don't you think we have enough people yelling at each other already without adding another one to the mix?” he asks. There's no direct reference to his opponent, Kim Schreier, a doctor who has not been a particularly abrasive campaigner.
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Generic Ballot (ABC/Washington Post, 1,041 Likely Voters)
Democrats - 52%
Republicans - 44%
In 2010, the final pre-election edition of this poll gave Republicans a four-point lead. In 2006, it gave Democrats a six-point lead; it gave Republicans the same advantage in 2014. Republicans want to talk about two factors here; first, that the Democratic advantage was bigger in September, and second, that a lead of this size spread evenly across the country does not guarantee a Democratic win. (Lots of "vote sinks" in the cities, and lots of Republican-drawn maps that favor their party.) But at this point, a Republican victory in the House would be a historic upset.
Iowa Governor (Iowa Poll, 801 Likely Voters)
Fred Hubbell (D) - 46%
Kim Reynolds (R) - 44%
Jake Porter (L) - 2%
Democrats worried that they'd lost some momentum in this race in early October, with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) leading the effort to energize conservative voters after the explosive Kavanaugh hearings. They feel more confident today, not just because of this poll, but because of an early vote advantage larger than any they've had since 2012. As of Sunday, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 35,192 in ballots cast so far.
New Mexico 02 (Albuquerque Journal, 413 Likely Voters)
Yvette Herrell (R) - 46%
Xochitl Torres Small (D) - 45%
Herrell, who's been out-fundraised by a better than two-to-one margin, is depending on two factors to push this race over the line. One: She's sharing the ballot with Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who trails statewide but is leading in this district. Two: Republicans, who consider Torres Small to be one of the Democrats' better recruits, have spent a month attacking her (incorrectly) as a left-winger. If there's a district where the president's late focus on immigration could hurt his party, it's this one.
New York Governor (Siena, 641 Likely Voters)
Andrew Cuomo (D) - 49%
Marc Malinaro (R) - 36%
Four years ago, Cuomo led the final Siena poll by 21 points and won by 14. He's in no real danger of defeat, but the aftermath of one of the country's highest-profile liberal primary challenges is some scatter among third-party candidates. (Side note: Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins has now run five statewide campaigns and three in Syracuse, and 80 percent of voters say they have not heard of him.)
DEMS IN DISARRAY
None of what's above should tell you that Democrats are 100 percent, cross-their-hearts convinced they'll reelect Bob Menendez in New Jersey on Tuesday.
The Senate Majority PAC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee jumped into the race last month, as we know, because one tracking poll showed Menendez just two points ahead of Hugin. Democrats say Menendez remains ahead, now by a bigger margin.
But Republicans, who have had the race tied in their own tracking, believe that voter disgust with Menendez could grind down the machinery he's counting on to win. The theory is this: If Menendez runs far behind the Democrats in this year's competitive House races, if the turnout in the deep blue parts of the state is lackluster, and if enough Democrats either blank the top of their ballots or vote for a third party, there is a path for Hugin.
Republicans, of course, can't peek under the hood of the Democrats' machine, but they have invested in their own. Hugin pointed out in an interview that he has enough volunteers to watch the polls in nearly all 6,346 New Jersey precincts; the campaign has more than 1,000 volunteers getting out of the vote overall.
Democrats plan to overwhelm that and point out that some of their competitive House races have seen triple or quadruple the number of volunteers claimed by Hugin's campaign. They're also adamant that the cities will turn out for Democrats, even though their local races are walkovers.
“There's a real sense of urgency in Newark,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the city's former mayor. “People want to speak out against what's happening, the things that they don't like, and the pain that they feel. I think you're going to see that reflected in lines at the polls in urban communities.”
At the same time, Democrats acknowledge that Menendez is struggling in the state's swing districts, running as much as 10 points behind the party's congressional candidates. Here's the rub: He can do that and still win. Hillary Clinton won an average of 47.2 percent of the vote in New Jersey's 3rd, 7th, and 11th districts; she won 55 percent of the vote statewide. A scenario in which Menendez loses by 15 points in the swing seats comports with one where he wins by the mid-to-high single digits statewide.
The biggest question left is whether the Democratic turnout operations in those districts also bring out voters for Menendez. And that's complicated. Across the state, the party's sample ballots include the unpopular senator. But swing-race Republicans are running with Hugin, while swing-race Democrats are not really running with Menendez.
“I've been laser-focused on this district," Andy Kim said. "I didn't watch [the Senate] debate. I came into this saying, what can I control? And I can't control what happens at the Senate level."
Kim, like the other swing race Democrats, has endorsed Menendez. Malinowski argued that the Republican focus on the Senate race was a distraction, especially in his race, where Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) repeatedly invoked Hugin during their debate.
“Lance has been clinging to Bob Hugin's coattails, which feels like a pathetic thing to do for someone who's been in office for 10 years,” Malinowski said. “You can't run on your own record, so you attach yourself to a Senate candidate who might lose anyway?”
In the 11th District, which Republicans see as the toughest of the three to hold, Jay Webber argued that Menendez could be an “anchor” dragging down Democrat Mikie Sherrill. But on Saturday, Sherrill made a point of arriving at Menendez's canvass launch in her district; in an interview, she attacked Hugin's record as a chief executive and said that “voters who are worried about getting drug prices down” couldn't support him.
Public polling has put Menendez ahead of Hugin by six to eight points. The difference between those numbers and some of the internals is simple: Public pollsters have found that most undecided voters are Democrats who are reluctant to cast a Republican vote, especially this year.
Mike Bloomberg. He's making a $5 million national buy for Democrats, starring . . . Mike Bloomberg.
Cory Booker. He's closing out the election in New Jersey, holding multiple daily events for the Democratic ticket, including Sen. Bob Menendez.
Kirsten Gillibrand. The final polls in her race put her on track to win reelection easily on Tuesday, perhaps with the most votes on the Democratic ticket. If so, it would mark the second time she did that.
Amy Klobuchar. She's rolling toward reelection and has moved six figures from her campaign funds to help other Democrats.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
As pollsters have trimmed the odds of Republicans holding onto the House, the party has argued for an unusual best-case scenario: an election that doesn't end for days, or weeks. Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund have speculated about an election night that's far from resolved by 11 p.m. Tuesday, when polls close on the West Coast, in states that can take weeks to tally close election results.
Any election can drag into a recount; it took nearly two weeks, for example, for Republicans to officially concede March's special election for a Pennsylvania House seat, won by Democrat Conor Lamb. But these are the races to watch if Tuesday is not decisive.
Alaska At Large. This is a place where thousands of rural voters cast ballots that take long after Election Day to get counted. It took eight days for Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) to beat then-Sen. Mark Begich in 2014; it took even longer, 15 days, for Begich to win the seat in 2008. Republicans are nervous enough about Rep. Don Young (R) that the CLF has suddenly invested money in get-out-the-vote calls; a race that Young wins by just a point or two wouldn't be called until mid-November.
Arizona Senate. Another state where voters are increasingly going to the polls early, Arizona can take more than a week to finish counting votes; that happened in both 2012 and 2016, years when close races (for Senate, then for president) weren't hanging on the final ballots. A Senate race that gets within one or two percent of the vote would be hard to call on election night.
California 10, 25, 39, 45, 48. Yes, all of them. All are now considered toss-up races, in a state that takes ages to finish counting votes. In 2016, it took 12 days for the Associated Press to declare Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) the winner in a race he won by 6,956 votes. This year, it took even longer, 19 days, for Harley Rouda to clinch the second spot in the 48th District's top-two election. Parties generally know where late votes will come from, so they might be able to declare victory before the AP or the state does. But at least five districts could hang in the balance until mid-November.
Georgia Governor (and secretary of state). There are two factors in this state that frequently lead to overtime: a runoff system and a resilient Libertarian Party. If neither Republican Brian Kemp nor Democrat Stacey Abrams cracks 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, the election for governor won't end until Dec. 4. That race would become a nationally watched test of whether Abrams's historic candidacy and mobilization could be repeated in a situation that usually favors Republicans. And, yes, there's a Libertarian nominee in the unexpectedly close race to replace Kemp, which would (no offense) be a bit lower-profile.
Maine 02 (and Senate). Federal races here now take place under ranked-choice voting, a reform designed to fix the problem of third-party “spoilers” by letting voters specify their second or third or fourth (or so on) choices. If no one cracks 50 percent on Election Day, the counting goes on for a few days. This summer, it took three days for Democrats to resolve their primary for the state's swing House district; on Tuesday, that race could hang on the second choices of voters who prefer the independent candidates over Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) or Democrat Jared Golden. Some additional drama: If Poliquin wins a plurality Tuesday but loses when ranked-choice ballots are counted, he may challenge the system in court. It's possible, but less likely, that Sen. Angus King (I) will be forced into extra time, as Democrat Zak Ringelstein is running explicitly on how ranking him first won't elect Republican Eric Brakey; polling has shown King polling just over 50 percent.
Mississippi Senate. At the moment, Republicans are skeptical that Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), who was appointed to this seat in April, will crack 50 percent and avoid a Nov. 27 runoff with Democrat Mike Espy, a race that few Democrats think Espy could win. But that race, like Georgia's, would become a national draw, even if it didn't determine control of the Senate. Why? To be blunt, Mississippi's got an early Southern presidential primary, and a number of Democrats have flown down to help Espy while introducing themselves to potential 2020 voters.
Montana Senate/At Large. Here's a fun fact, unless you're Sen. Jon Tester (D): Tester has never been able to declare victory on election night. More than half of Montanans cast their votes by mail, and a close race usually isn't resolved until Wednesday or Thursday. This year's polling has shown Tester in better shape, and a close race for the state's sole House seat; Republicans think both races could be jump balls.
Washington 03 and 08. This is a vote-by-mail state where there's no call until the margin for a winner is bigger than the pile of uncounted ballots remaining. In 2010, it took two days for Sen. Patty Murray (D) to officially win reelection; in 2017, it took just as long for Democrats to learn that they'd won a state Senate seat that flipped control of the legislature in Olympia.
The House is in play in large part because of the Democrats' ad hoc small donor network -- and here is how it works.
All of the actual math in this piece is worth considering, but so is the recap of what pundits thought was shaping the 2017 race for governor of Virginia. At the time, it was seen as a pivotal race with clues about whether Democrats could compete in the Trump era. When it proved that they could, the lesson, a huge Democratic advantage over the final polls, was forgotten.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp's 11th-hour investigation of whether Democrats tried to hack the state's election website has been received skeptically in the state. The reason: Kemp previously announced an investigation of "an unsuccessful attempt to penetrate the Georgia Secretary of State’s firewall," which turned out to be routine use.
“The 2018 Race That Could Settle the Democrats’ Civil War,” by Charlie Mahtesian
We're going to be hearing a lot about Nebraska's 2nd District when this is all over. Either Democrats win it, and liberals declare it proof of their theory that running left can build enthusiasm that overwhelms Republicans; or they lose it, and it becomes the Democrats' answer to the 2010 Delaware Senate race, something to wave at liberals when they get too rowdy about primary challenges.
... two days until the midterms