In this edition: Why every Democrat running for president wants to be in Virginia, a preview of Iowa's biggest political weekend, and the meanest gubernatorial debate we've seen all year.
If anyone from Philadelphia is reading this newsletter, please, pretend you didn't see my Nationals hat. This is The Trailer.
On Sunday afternoon, a few dozen Democrats who’d been working to elect Dan Helmer to Virginia’s House of Delegates crowded into their Fairfax Station office to welcome a special guest. It was Sen. Kamala Harris of California, pausing her presidential campaign to endorse an “extraordinary” man who was a few hundred votes away from transforming America.
“This is going to give us so much closer to where we know we can be as a country,” Harris said. “When we win this seat, we turn the whole deal.”
A few miles away, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was stumping with Prince William County Democrats, and a few days later Helmer himself would campaign with Jill Biden, the wife of former vice president Joe Biden. Virginia, where Republicans hold both houses of the legislature by a single vote in each, has emerged as a favorite pit stop for 2020 Democrats — and of donors eager to reverse the last decade’s Democratic losses.
“We believe Virginia is the bellwether,” said Nicole Boucher, vice president of Way to Win, a donor collective that has committed $4.2 million to this year’s Virginia campaigns. “If you’re not investing in on-the-ground campaigning, then you’re not committing to the cause.”
Virginia, one of just four states that elects its legislature in the year before presidential elections and whose election is Tuesday, has enticed Democrats for two simple reasons: They think they can win, and there's no downside to campaigning there. No 2020 Democratic candidate has campaigned alongside the party's nominees in Kentucky, Louisiana or Mississippi. In those red states, the gubernatorial contenders have cast themselves as pragmatists who ignore national politics.
When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a rally in Kentucky this summer, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andy Beshear was elsewhere. Yesterday, in the only televised debate between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and Republican nominee Eddie Rispone, the governor chastised his opponent for talking about Democrats in Washington.
“You're talking about some generic Democrat that's in your head,” Edwards said. “You're not talking about me. I am squarely in the middle of the of the political spectrum, and you know that. You know that!”
There's no need for that caution in Virginia, where no Republican has won a statewide election since 2009. A slew of Democratic presidential candidates have campaigned, or are about to campaign, in the commonwealth: Harris, Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke and Andrew Yang. Most of them have recorded short get-out-the-vote clips, ranging from Yang telling Democrats to “vote, vote, vote” to Booker rattling off the names of delegates he has campaigned with.
Behind the scenes, Democratic candidates have been deploying resources to the state, which could help them, too, since Virginia is a Super Tuesday primary state. Warren's campaign had its first Virginia organizing events in September, and she used an October town hall in Norfolk to urge Democrats to support the party's legislature candidates. Democratic activists were watching, and several who showed up at Sunday's events said they were paying extra attention to candidates who had stumped in Virginia.
“It's a big issue for me — did they show up to help us in Virginia?” said Adam Siegel, 57, after Harris wrapped up her remarks in Fairfax Station. “When I saw Senator Warren at [George Mason University] in March, she didn't talk about the state elections, so it's good that she did that in Norfolk. You'll notice Senator Harris spent the majority of her time talking about the Virginia election.”
Republicans have not received the same star-studded drop-ins, or the same investments — a reversal of fortune since the start of this year. In February, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was enmeshed in a scandal over racist yearbook photos. Over the course of a week, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted that he'd once worn blackface in a sketch, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) — who some Democrats, such as Biden, had suggested should take over for Northam — was accused of sexual assault.
None of the three Democrats resigned, but the scandals crippled party organizing and fundraising. Former governor Terry McAuliffe rushed into the field to make up for their absence, making at least 122 campaign appearances for the party. Then, over time, Northam's popularity recovered.
“I have spoken to thousands and thousands of voters,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “I have not been asked a single question about what happened in February.”
While Northam is not campaigning alongside Democrats, he has not become an issue in the campaign, though Fairfax's accusations have. Amanda Litman, founder of the liberal candidate recruitment group Run for Something, said the long-term result of the scandal might be a larger group of Democratic candidates.
“It pushed more women and candidates of color to get in and feel more confident,” Litman said. “We've seen a record number of women running, in part because they looked at the men at the top of the ticket and said, 'Okay, clearly, this is not enough.' "
Virginia Republicans, at their lowest ebb of power in decades, did not get a long-term boost from the scandal — or from Northam's mangled defense of an abortion rights bill, which preceded the scandal. In race after race, the party has been out-fundraised by Democrats, sometimes by two-to-one margins, even before accounting for the seven-figure investments from Way to Win or Moms Demand Action, a gun control group. Early voting turnout has been up in key districts, like the seat of Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, and Democrats are unusually bullish on all of it.
“I think also that we're seeing now a more diverse array of voters showing up at the polls, motivated certainly by the election of Donald Trump, but also by how out of touch the Virginia General Assembly has been in their actions under Republican leadership,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, in a Tuesday call with reporters.
Republicans, trying to hold onto what they have, have gotten fewer reinforcements. President Trump will campaign in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi ahead of next month's elections, but not in Virginia, a decision his campaign said was based on the lack of a race for governor. Instead, Vice President Pence is slated to campaign in the state on Saturday in the Tidewater region, which has not shown the same Republican slippage as Northern Virginia.
“Virginians are deciding that radical socialists have no place in the state legislature,” said Austin Chambers, the Republican State Legislative Committee's director, in a statement about the Pence visit.
Republicans are in strong positions in the three states Trump is visiting, but Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi don't look like the places where the 2020 presidential election will be decided. Virginia does — hence the Democratic focus, and hence their confidence.
McAuliffe, who was blocked by Republicans from expanding Medicaid during his four-year term as governor, pointed out that a number of suburban Republicans are running on expansion as a way to win back suburban voters. More telling, he argued, was the negative tone in some closing Republican ads, hitting Democrats over the abortion bill, the Fairfax scandal and the specter of “socialism.”
That shows their desperation, he said, and the emotions generated by the Trump presidency will help Democrats. “This is a base motivation election, not a persuasion election,” McAuliffe said. “We lose in the off-off-year when people don't know there's an election, but everybody knows what's happening with Trump. I saw that Mike Pence was coming to Virginia Beach, and I said, 'Thank you! I’ll pay for Air Force 2’s gas.' "
“Inside epic battles for school board seats in Northern Virginia,” by Debbie Truong
One blue wave that's trickling further down the ballot.
The ongoing legacy of a scandal and a Democrat who refused to resign over it.
“Extended impeachment sparks concerns about disruptions to Democratic presidential primary,” by Michael Scherer and Mike DeBonis
The growing possibility of a trial that locks five Democratic candidates in Washington.
“The surprise voting bloc Bernie is banking on to win the nomination,” by Laura Barrón-López and Holly Otterbein
The barrio vote and the senator from Vermont.
“It’s not easy to spot disinformation on Twitter. Here’s what we learned from eight political ‘’ campaigns,” by Franziska Keller, David Schoch, Sebastian Stier, and JungHwan Yang
Inside the world of online smears.
“First Obama, then Trump, now they say Warren will crush stocks,” by Sarah Ponczek and Vildana Hajric
Myth-busting about a perennial Wall Street worry.
“Harris campaign, Biden allies take steps to combat money woes,” by Matt Viser and Michelle Ye Hee Lee
How two campaigns on different trajectories are grappling with existential problems.
ON THE TRAIL
Just don't call it “the JJ.” More than 10,000 Iowa Democrats will gather tomorrow in Des Moines for the real caucus kickoff: the Liberty and Justice Celebration. The event used to be called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, or “the JJ,” until the brief and successful campaign to get local Democratic groups to remove the third and seventh presidents' names from their annual galas. (Jefferson's slave-owning and Jackson's brutality toward Native Americans became politically untenable for a racially diverse party.)
Party regulars call the new event “the LJ.” And the president who really looms over the day is Barack Obama.
By universal agreement, Obama's 2007 speech at the event started his Iowa ascent, after a few rough months and bad polls. Obama finally delivered the speech that would carry him, in one form or another, through the primaries. There was plenty of policy, and there was, running through the address, an argument that captured the Democratic mood: It was time to move on from the Clinton era.
“When I am this party’s nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; or that I supported Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders that we don’t like,” Obama said, jabbing both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who'd supported the war. “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don’t want to pit Red America against Blue America, I want to be the president of the United States of America.”
We know a little bit about what Democrats will say at the HyVee Events Center, which when fully loaded can pack in 16,000 people. We also know that every Democrat has it harder than Obama did, even if turnout is bigger (it was 9,000 that year), and even if they outshine him in the pre-show ritual of candidate marches into the arena. As Iowa Public Television's Andrew Batt pointed out, the 2007 event took place just 54 days before the caucuses, under an old calendar where voting began on January 3. This weekend's event is unfolding a full 94 days before the caucuses, making any momentum harder to sustain.
Obama had another advantage, since in 2007 the field was limited to six candidates, giving each of them up to 20 minutes to speak. A whopping 14 candidates have qualified for this year's event, which is scheduled to run for four hours, and which habitually starts late, giving each candidate a bit less time. And a random draw put the candidates polling strongest in Iowa near the front: Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren, in that order, with Andrew Yang coming between Biden and Warren. Then come Kamala Harris, Tom Steyer, and Bernie Sanders, who have wildly divergent levels of grass-roots support. Sanders, as he's generally done at “cattle call” events this year, will hold a separate event nearby for supporters. His campaign decided months ago that it's a waste of time to dispatch volunteers to an event to chant and wave signs.
Among the questions Democrats will be asking: Can Biden, who has struggled to excite Iowa audiences, deliver in this forum? Will Buttigieg, who stood out at the end-of-summer Polk County Democratic Steak Fry, outdo himself? Will Warren, who has mostly shined at big party events, do so again? Will anyone, as Obama did, manage to make some negative arguments without alienating the audience? (Tulsi Gabbard, who did not qualify for the dinner because she has no Iowa offices, won't get to try.)
Problem solvers on patrol. The non\partisan group No Labels is holding a Sunday summit in New Hampshire, similar to what it did ahead of the 2016 primary four years ago. That year, the Problem Solver Convention attracted an array of candidates, including the eventual Democratic and Republican victors in New Hampshire: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. This year, the list of stars is decidedly skimpy: Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, and John Delaney for the Democrats, and Bill Weld representing Republicans.
“An invitation was extended to every active candidate,” No Labels spokeswoman Megan Shannon said. “We are not accepting video appearances by presidential candidates.”
Around 2.000 people have RSVP'd for the event, more than in the past cycle. But the past cycle was mixed for No Labels. Six of that year's presidential candidates signed a Problem Solver Promise, which included a pledge to secure Social Security and Medicare through the year 2090 and to balance the federal budget by 2030. Among the signatories was Trump, who as president has signed bills that dramatically grew the deficit.
The thumbs-up for Trump was controversial even at the time. “I think that you are watering down and dumbing down your ‘problem-solver’ label when you bestow it on someone like Donald Trump,” former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley warned back then. “When Donald Trump says things like, 'All Mexicans are rapists and murderers,' that’s not being a leader. That’s not solving problems.”
None of the candidates attending this year are in strong positions in New Hampshire, though two of them, Delaney and Gabbard, joined the No Labels'-backed Problem Solvers caucus in Congress. No Labels's own polling, in September, found Gabbard at 6 percent in the state. And there will be no “problem solver” pledge this year.
“No Labels recognized Donald Trump in 2016 — along with six presidential candidates from both parties — for making a 'problem solver promise' to work with congressional leaders in both parties on one of four goals in No Labels’s National Strategic Agenda,” No Labels's Ryan Clancy said. “He didn’t keep the promise. End of story.”
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
Donald Trump, “Changing Washington.” This new national spot, which ran during the World Series, highlights the operation that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Obliterating ISIS,” the narrator says. “Their caliphate destroyed. Their terrorist leader dead.” It's an update to the message that dominates every Trump spot, though the president sometimes diverges from it: Democrats are the only thing keeping him, and the country, from uninterrupted winning.
Tate Reeves, “Jim Hood on Donald Trump.” Mississippi's lieutenant governor is closing out his campaign for a promotion by encouraging voters to stick with their partisan preferences; if they do so, there's no way a Republican can lose the state. This spot focuses on the decision of Attorney General Jim Hood, the Democrats' nominee, not to join some lawsuits against the Obama administration, tying that to the idea that he sides with the anti-Trump resistance. “Liberals are impeaching Trump,” a narrator says, as images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont appear onscreen. "Do you stand with the president and Tate Reeves? Or with the liberals and Jim Hood?"
Matt Bevin, “Choose.” Kentucky's governor, like Reeves, will campaign with the president in the next few days. Like Reeves, Bevin is tying his Democratic challenger, the state's attorney general, to the impeachment effort. "[Andy] Beshear opposes President Trump,” the ad warns. “His top supporters want to impeach our president.” That's a way to get around Beshear's own quiet response to impeachment, which has been to say that he can't take a position unless he's seeing all the evidence, and he isn't.
Eddie Rispone, “Mismanaged.” Louisiana's GOP nominee for governor has tied himself to the president as part of a campaign that has hammered Gov. John Bel Edwards over “sanctuary cities” (there are none in the state right now) and Medicaid expansion. The latter is the focus of Rispone's latest 15-second spot, reminding voters that Medicaid expansion (which Edwards had the power to do, and did, by executive action) accidentally covered some people above the poverty threshold, and warning that “illegal immigrants” were getting welfare from it.
Andrew Yang, “Not the First.” The insurgent candidate's first Iowa spot introduces himself as the parent of an autistic child, emphasizing his own health-care plan: "We need to move towards a Medicare-for-all system where every American has access to quality and affordable services." It's the latest mention of "Medicare-for-all” in a Democratic spot that does not mention the phase-in (an end to most private insurance over four years) of the legislative text.
2020 Pennsylvania primary (Franklin & Marshall, 226 Democratic voters)
Joe Biden 30% ( 2)
Elizabeth Warren 18% (-3)
Bernie Sanders 12% ( 0)
Pete Buttigieg 8% ( 2)
Tulsi Gabbard 2% ( 1)
Amy Klobuchar 2% ( 2)
Michael Bennet 2% ( 2)
Kamala Harris 1% (-7)
Cory Booker 1% (-1)
Andrew Yang 1% ( 1)
This is the second time the pollster has surveyed Pennsylvania, and the headlines have been largely about the general election; F&M found Trump deep underwater, with well over 50 percent of voters favoring the ongoing impeachment inquiry. The Democratic primary, meanwhile, has been static, with only a collapsing Harris showing real movement, and Biden staying steady in a state where the Trump campaign has not been running negative ads against him. There are more signs of presidential weakness in key states, but there's still affinity for Biden and overall panic about what other Democrat could win in 2020.
Battleground states on impeachment (New York Times Upshot/Siena College, 3766 voters)
Do you support removing the president from office?
Do you support the House's impeachment inquiry?
Pollsters have found this impeachment drive, unlike the 1998 effort to impeach Bill Clinton, commanding majority support or something close to it. Republicans have tried to turn the political conversation local, as swing seats and most swing states lean more toward the president than the country as a whole. This study, taking in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, found a clear pattern: In every state but Florida, the impeachment process got a clear majority, while actually removing the president got a clear majority disapproval everywhere. (Only a plurality of Florida voters, 49 percent, supported the inquiry.)
IN THE STATES
Florida. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition helped pass a 2018 constitutional amendment ending the state's stringent requirements for ex-felons to restore their voting rights. That victory was then partially snatched away by the Republican-controlled state legislature, which passed a bill requiring ex-felons to settle their court debt before registering to vote. That legislation has already lost once in court, but it remains in effect.
The FRRC is now amping up its effort to get former felons registered by launching a bus tour to highlight its ongoing project: a fund to pay off court fees for former felons, then get them the ballot. It will be led by the FRRC's director, Desmond Meade, himself a former felon who had planned to cast his first post-prison vote this year. (He won't only because he moved out of a location holding local elections.)
“There are 560,000 folks who have outstanding fees,” Meade said. “The bus tour is launched to let people know, in spite of the litigation, there’s a pathway. It's to let them know that we have a fund, with half a million dollars, that can pay off the fees. We're going to be chipping away at that 560,000 number as fast as we can.”
Louisiana. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone met in a debate for the first and only time in the gubernatorial runoff. Each candidate entered with a simple strategy. For Edwards, that meant portraying Rispone as a wealthy political fixer who had not thought his plans through; for Risponse, it meant portraying the governor as an incompetent “trial lawyer” who was keeping the state from enjoying the president's MAGA bounty.
One of the most tense parts of the debate came over an issue that could ricochet at any moment: The lawsuit was from a number of Republican attorneys general, backed by the White House, to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act. For nearly two minutes, Edwards pressured Risponse on Republican support for the lawsuit, while Rispone insisted that protections for people with preexisting conditions were settled.
“I think we've already passed the law,” Rispone said. “We do support preexisting conditions. That's already been passed. I'm not sure where you're going with that.”
Louisiana Republicans have passed a backstop plan on that aspect of the ACA, though the state's attorney general is among the Republicans trying to kill the entire law. But it's unclear how the backstop plan would function without the law in place, and the exchange demonstrated just how complicated the topic can get if Republicans actually win the lawsuit. (Democrats, Edwards included, expect the Supreme Court to rescue Obamacare if it's struck down by a lower court.)
New Mexico. Democrats got a break in their fight to retake the U.S. Senate when Secretary of State Maggie Tolouse Oliver ended her primary bid against Rep. Ben Ray Luján. She declared a sort of victory, pointing out how Lujan had moved left during the campaign.
“When I entered the race for U.S. Senate, I was the only candidate supporting Medicare-for-all, I was the only candidate rejecting corporate PAC money, and I was the only candidate calling for impeachment,” Oliver said in a statement. “Over the course of this campaign, that has changed.”
Lujan, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which coordinates Democratic House campaigns, in 2016 and 2018, had pummeled Oliver in fundraising. At the start of October, he had $1,610,235 in cash on hand to just $85,376 for his challenger. Oliver trailed even the GOP candidates in the state, neither of whom was seen as a strong contender by the national parties. As in Iowa and Maine, a self-styled “progressive” candidacy for Senate struggled against Democratic nervousness about holding onto, or winning, a key seat.
Kamala Harris. Her campaign is shrinking its staff and moving more resources to Iowa, as laid out in a memo that was first reported by Politico. It was the latest in a string of setbacks for Harris, who has struggled to find another breakout moment since the first Democratic debate. Her campaign tried to minimize the significance of the moves, pointing to other presidential campaigns that had cut back on staff and expenses on the way to winning Iowa or New Hampshire.
Joe Biden. His campaign took a swing at Sanders for telling CNBC that he did not have to come up with a full payment plan for Medicare-for-all. “If not now, then when?” asked Biden spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield. “When you’re running to take on the most dishonest president in American history, Senator Sanders and others who back Medicare-for-all have to preserve their credibility.”
Bernie Sanders. He scoffed at Biden's challenge, with campaign manager Faiz Shakir saying it epitomized why the former vice president was wrong about health-care policy. "Will Joe Biden tell the American people how many more of them he’s willing to allow to go bankrupt? How many more people would die because they don’t get to a doctor in time?" Shakir said. "We need to have the guts to stand up to corporate greed. That’s what this election is about."
Elizabeth Warren. During campaign stops in New Hampshire, she emphasized her problems with the state's voting requirements, which her state director is suing to change, saying it makes it prohibitively difficult for students to vote.
Julián Castro. He scored an endorsement from Rosa Clemente, the 2008 vice presidential nominee for the Green Party.
Steve Bullock. He paid $100 to get former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci to record an endorsement of his campaign through Cameo, a site where celebrities (or “celebrities”) will say whatever their customers ask. Referring to Bullock only as “Steve B,” Scaramucci says he “knows how to win,” hypothetically against a president that Scaramucci once worked for and occasionally denounces.
Tulsi Gabbard. She published an op-ed in the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, reiterating the argument she has made since Hillary Clinton's comments about her 13 days ago, in a discussion about whether she'd run as a third-party spoiler — that she is being smeared because she's trying to dismantle the neoliberal "regime change war” policy.
Mark Sanford. He is focusing his primary bid on New Hampshire, a bet on the state's independent voters and fiscal conservatives, as well as a recognition that his home state of South Carolina won't hold a Republican presidential primary unless anti-Trump conservatives win a lawsuit over it.
MEET A PAC
THE (SUPER) PAC: Unite Our Country
FOCUS: Giving Joe Biden air cover by running ads on his behalf. Its introduction video set the tone, using clips of Biden's speeches: “Folks, this is the United States of America. Stand up. Take it back.” They play over file footage and images of Biden on the trail, emphasizing just how impromptu this effort is. Biden's campaign did not release b-roll for super PACs to make use of, as it did not intend for a super PAC to exist until last week.
BUDGET: Unclear so far. While Biden's biggest donors have been vocal about their intention to support an outside group, UOC doesn't have to disclose donations for a few months. “Based on early feedback, we feel very optimistic about the resources we'll have,” said a spokeswoman, Amanda Loveday.
PLAN: To sell Joe Biden's candidacy without any coordination from Biden World itself. The PAC's strategists include Biden veterans such as Steve Schale, who worked to draft Biden as a 2016 candidate. They are preemptively saying they'll focus on a positive case for Biden and not go negative on his Democratic rivals, which is what other super PACs have ended up doing.
“We are here to talk about Joe Biden and defend him from the unprecedented attacks from Trump, not to attack other Democrats,” Loveday said. “We have a great field of Democrats. We just happen think that Joe Biden is the best candidate and the best chance we have to beat Donald Trump.”
EFFECTIVENESS: Very TBT. Biden's own ads haven't done much to move poll numbers. He doesn't have a name recognition problem, which is one thing that a super PAC investment can solve. What donors thought he was missing was consistent advertising and content that his own campaign didn't need to spend resources on.
... one day until Iowa's Liberty and Justice Celebration
... five days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 13 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 16 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 20 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 95 days until the Iowa caucuses