In this edition: Democrats have some ideas, the non-Bidens avoid talking about him, and a few elections end in predictable but important fashion.
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Stacey Abrams speaks at the Center for American Progress conference on Wednesday. Kevin LamarqueReuters
On Wednesday morning, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee from Georgia kicked off the Center for American Progress’s annual “ideas” conference by decrying the antiabortion bills moving through states such as hers. Conservatives, Stacey Abrams said, were choosing to “reject the voices of the people they were elected to represent,” passing legislation that most voters opposed.
“There is a solution,” Abrams told a crowd of reporters, activists and donors. “It is not every Democrat running for president.”
The unprecedented size of the Democrats’ presidential field has been a running joke for weeks. Joe Biden riffs on the “400” other Democrats running; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock tells crowds that they’ve got “37” choices. The actual number is even up for argument, as some news outlets cap the field at 23 candidates, while some consider Mike Gravel’s freewheeling “patio campaign” to be the 24th.
But Democrats in Washington and on the campaign trail know that they’re not getting their agenda enacted until, at the earliest, 2021. Essential spending bills, covering the government’s funding and emergency disaster relief, can become law. But for now, major pieces of legislation passed by the House are functionally “message” bills, not taken up by the Senate but useful for Democrats to talk about in their districts.
“These bills are alive and well with the public,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the conference.
Facing down 20 more months of gridlock, the Democratic House and the presidential contest have become political test kitchens. The daily work and news cycles in Washington — this week, that meant a debate about impeachment — is increasingly disconnected from the focus of state Democrats and the 2020 candidates.
The 2020 election will obviously be about the president, but Democrats don’t want a repeat of 2016 — a fight over the daily gaffe or character flaw. Their goal is to sketch out a safe and popular agenda that Democrats could enact if they replaced him. And the Democrats not actually running for president could help with that.
Three of the Democrats invited to the conference — Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu — had explored White House bids before deciding against them. Abrams, who has ruled out a U.S. Senate bid but left the door open to a presidential run, asked the crowd not to focus too much on the 2020 horse race and consider what it could do to build a bench of candidates in the states.
“When we have candidates who look like our communities, we have communities that see themselves and engage,” Abrams said. “It is a virtuous cycle. The more we engage, the more the people engage, and the more people engage, the more progress is made. We are not an authoritarian regime just yet. We have time between 2019 and 2020.”
The CAP conference, which takes place in Washington every May, was designed this year to exclude presidential candidates and focus on what other Democrats were doing. The president loomed over every presentation, but where previous conferences dealt with resistance, this year’s looked at what could be done when Trump was gone. Governors used their time to argue that the administration had made their lives harder. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the administration seemed to be punishing her state by not keeping it in the loop on border enforcement.
“We must stand up and show by example that we can respond and protect ourselves from a federal government that is unwilling to do its job,” said Lujan Grisham.
Garcetti, who made several trips to early primary states before deciding not to run, described how cities were moving ahead on infrastructure and climate policy while the administration flailed.
“While you were here, our president walked away from the table,” Garcetti told the audience. “He walked away from this country’s crumbling communities, and he walked away from the American people.”
That was a departure for Garcetti. He had begun the Trump presidency by welcoming the president’s interest in infrastructure spending, even participating in the “infrastructure weeks” that, over time, had become a kind of joke about the administration’s inaction. Now that the president had heightened the visibility of the issue, Democrats could take it over, offering a drama-free agenda in 2020.
Landrieu saw similar potential in racial diversity, telling the crowd that the president had put Democrats in a stronger position to argue for racial justice. Instead of bristling when the president talked about immigration or kneeling NFL players, Democrats could exploit the president’s low popularity.
“Looking to 2020 and beyond, it’s time to force the conversation on race in America,” said Landrieu. “There are many people, maybe people in this room, that have advocated that we should reject discussions about racial identity and tough discussions about race. I strongly disagree with that. I think that could not be more wrong. With Donald Trump in the White House, there can’t be a better time to discuss this.”
Landrieu and Garcetti had definitively rejected White House bids, partly because the Joe Biden campaign seemed to crowd out center-left candidates with similar messages. Merkley, who had made some moves toward a left-wing candidacy, told reporters that his decision was final but that he wanted to make sure the presidential race didn’t founder on trivial issues.
“I have mixed feelings about it, because I felt there are three mega issues that we face,” said Merkley. The issues, he explained, were money in politics, gerrymandering and the Senate’s role as a killing floor for liberal ideas. “If you’re not addressing those three issues, you have no understanding of what’s going on in America.”
The protest movements that had reshaped the party after 2016 were not present at this year’s conference; the message advanced all day was that the Democrats who came out of the midterms were shaping an agenda that could win. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who joined a panel about climate change policy, said the conservative backlash to the Green New Deal had demonstrated what the left needed to be ready for when it tried to shift the party or the national discussion.
“They did the right thing; they barged into the room and said, ‘You’ve got to deal with this,’” Schatz said of Green New Deal supporters. “And then Fox News did what Fox News does, which is demagogue things. But I think one of the lessons from that is, if you’re worried that whatever proposal you have will be demagogued, you are right. That’s also freeing, in the sense that there’s no sense doing a half measure because they’ll characterize it as a socialist takeover and a total transformation of the American system of government and the private sector.”
“Obama without Obama-ism: 2020 Democrats embrace the ex-president but not his policies,” by Annie Linskey
Something often missed when the current Democratic field describes its ideal agenda: Barack Obama ran on most of it already and was stymied by forces that will still exist in 2021.
“Canceled fund-raiser prompts question: Can a Democrat oppose abortion?” by Jonathan Martin
The chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee scrapped a planned fundraiser for one of the only antiabortion members of her party in Congress, finding the limits of the party’s tolerance.
“Inside the 2020 Democrats’ survival strategies,” by Natasha Korecki and David Siders
Candidates polling in single digits all have must-win or must-place states in mind for the primaries. Few of them plan to quit after Iowa.
“An Iowa town hall shows promise for Beto O’Rourke, as well as challenges ahead,” by Jenna Johnson
After a few weeks of bad polls, the Texan had a good night. Did it matter?
“The Green New Deal is fracturing a critical base for Democrats: unions,” by Umair Irfan
The left’s major project for 2020 had a rollout mostly defined by conservative opposition. That’s one reason it’s not united the Democratic coalition so far.
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DEMS IN DISARRAY
There are times when the presidential primary is shaken up by events or surprises or new candidates. This is not one of those times. With the field seeming to be set for now, nearly two dozen Democrats are trailing Joe Biden in early states. The former vice president leads the field by single digits in Iowa and double digits everywhere else.
Just as important: One month before the party’s first debates, the attacks on Biden have been few and far between. When asked, Sens. Bernie Sanders I-Vt. and Elizabeth Warren D-Mass. have contrasted their records from key Democratic battles — whether to invade Iraq, whether to make it harder to declare personal bankruptcy — with Biden’s. But only when asked.
At appearances last weekend across Iowa, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg were asked to respond to new economic and education plans from Sanders and Warren; they were not asked to respond to any new ideas from Biden.
Buttigieg, who repeatedly attacked the Trump administration and national security adviser John Bolton for “saber-rattling” with Iran, demurred on a question about Biden’s vote for the Iraq War.
“I’m not going to weigh in on any of my competitors,” Buttigieg said. “What I will say is that I was opposed to the Iraq War. You might say it was easy for me to say, because I was a student, not a senator.”
While polls have shown Biden ahead in Iowa, and a supermajority of Democrats believing he has the best chance to win the 2020 election, candidates have made no real adjustments to their campaigns. In appearances around Des Moines, Buttigieg continued arguing that the president was a result of long-running political trends, not an aberration — a contrast with the arguments made by a certain former vice president.
At a gathering of a Democratic book club in Des Moines, Buttigieg suggested that the party needed a young candidates, pointing out that George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were born in the same year.
“One of the things that surprised me on the road is that the idea of generational change is really animating a lot of people my parents’ age,” Buttigieg. “And while I think anybody of any age can certainly win, I think there are some virtues to having a personal stake in what that future is going to look like.”
Buttigieg’s audiences tended to agree with that sentiment. “I think Biden could win, but I think Pete or Beto could, too, because Democrats tend to do better when we nominate younger people,” said Pete Duncan, 32, who saw Buttigieg at the book club.
Voters critical of Biden suggested his support was shallow. “He started up here, but he’s going to go down, and down, and down,” said Ed Fallon, an activist and journalist. Fallon’s organization, Bold Iowa, had been asking candidates to make climate their top priority. Biden, he pointed out, had praised America’s energy independence, which Fallon saw as an endorsement of drilling for oil. Biden, like Obama, touted the new energy exploration approved from 2009 to 2017, while restricting drilling and fracking offshore and on public lands.
De Blasio and Buttigieg hinted at more issues where a contrast with Biden could help them with Democrats. At a gaggle with reporters in Des Moines, de Blasio’s eyes widened when he was told that Biden had defended the 1994 crime bill, saying at a New Hampshire appearance this week that it had not “generated” mass incarceration — months after Biden had said he regretted parts of the law.
“It was certainly one of the contributors to mass incarceration,” said de Blasio. “There’s no question. Look, I think it would be really healthy if everyone who was involved would just come forward and say it was a mistake.”
Asked about the crime bill in Adel, Iowa, Buttigieg said that communities like South Bend had grappled with “layer after layer of racial inequality,” with the criminal justice system among them. “I think we’ve learned a lot of things the hard way,” he said. “With the benefit of hindsight, we can certainly say that the crime bill did not make a community like mine — a low-income, racially diverse community — that much better off.”
On Thursday morning, sitting for an interview with The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Buttigieg got more chances to contrast himself with Biden. He demurred.
“It sounds like you’re more interested in one of my competitors than the others,” Buttigieg said.
The special election for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District was never going to be close. Republicans nominated scandal-free state legislator Fred Keller to replace former congressman Tom Marino. Pennsylvania Democrats, who gained a state legislative seat in a special election just last month, did not pour resources into the race. Hillary Clinton won less than 30 percent of the vote in the mostly rural district, and Marino won his final, truncated term by 32 points. President Trump flew into the state to campaign with Keller; no 2020 Democrat stumped for their party’s nominee, Marc Friedenberg.
But Keller’s commanding win said plenty about the 2020 Republican strategy in the Rust Belt. Turnout was down overall — from 243,872 votes last year to 130,861 on Tuesday. Democratic turnout was down by more, falling by 50 percent, while Republicans limited their decline to 45 percent. That doesn’t look like the vote total we’ll see in a presidential year, but it emphasized Trump’s ability to drive out marginal votes in areas where he’s popular.
It didn’t say much about areas where the president is weak. Last year, even as they won both statewide offices on the ballot by landslides, the Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate lost every county lost this week by Friedenberg. Keller did best in rural Snyder County, pulling 78.4 percent of the vote. Last year, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. D-Pa. won by 13.1 points statewide but lost Snyder County by 33.6 points. Democrats can badly lose in much of rural Pennsylvania while winning the state, but their pattern of rural decline that began after 2008 has continued, even in a low-turnout special.
2020 Democratic primary in early states Monmouth, 334 Democrats
Joe Biden — 26%Bernie Sanders — 14%Kamala D. Harris — 14%Elizabeth Warren — 9%Pete Buttigieg — 6%Amy Klobuchar — 5%Beto O’Rourke — 3%Tulsi Gabbard — 2%Andrew Yang — 2%Marianne Williamson — 1%Michael F. Bennet — 1%Julián Castro — 1%John Delaney — 1%John Hickenlooper — 1%Tim Ryan — 1%
One of the understandable gripes with national primary polls is that there is no single “national” Democratic primary. In its latest look at the field, Monmouth broke down Democratic support in just the states voting by Super Tuesday, 10 months from now. In that smaller pool of voters, who are seeing the most from the candidates, the combined support for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders falls from 54 percent to 40 percent. It’s folly to read too much more from a poll like this, but it solves the mystery of the crowded field. The second tier of contenders do not see Biden and Sanders as powerful front-runners in the mold of Hillary Clinton in 2016. They see a way for Iowa and New Hampshire voters to take them seriously if they can only break through on “electability.”
The ideal age for a presidential candidate Pew Research, 5,675 Democrats
50s — 47%40s — 25%60s — 16%30s — 6%70s — 3%
Here’s the other reason the 21 candidates younger than Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders believe there’s some sort of path to the nomination. This is the latest in a series of polls that have located some Democratic wooziness about nominating a candidate in his 70s, a club Elizabeth Warren will join next month. Just as Sanders’s presence in the race has mitigated some concerns about Biden’s age, Warren, who would have been the oldest candidate in many presidential fields, benefits from the presence of the older candidates. And many Democrats see an advantage in running a younger candidate against the oldest-ever president.
IN THE STATES
There were no big surprises in Kentucky’s Tuesday primaries. Attorney General Andy Beshear, seen as a front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination for years, secured that nomination with 37.9 percent of the vote. He edged Rocky Adkins, the socially conservative leader of the Democrats in the state House, by just six points, with Adkins dominating in the eastern Kentucky counties that used to be a source of strength for the party.
Beshear’s victory speech included a fact that made national Democrats very happy: “We won more raw votes than Matt Bevin.” Indeed, while higher Democratic turnout in Kentucky is pretty typical — tens of thousands of conservative voters remain registered with the party — Beshear got more votes overall than Gov. Bevin, who put up just 52.4 percent of the vote against three protest candidates. That was even weaker than the state’s last Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, performed in his 2007 primary, when his party was similarly worried about the incumbent being able to hold the seat. They were right: Fletcher lost handily that year to Steve Beshear, the attorney general’s father.
Still, national Republicans saw Beshear as a more vulnerable Democratic nominee than Adkins, a scandal-free Appalachian politician who played bluegrass music in his TV ads. Look for them to invest downballot, too. Daniel Cameron, a former legal counsel to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, won the party’s nomination for Beshear’s job. That set up a November contest between former attorney general Greg Stumbo, a fixture of state Democratic politics, with Cameron, a young, black Republican who could rise fast in national GOP circles.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a 2020 presidential candidate, answers questions at The Washington Post on Thursday. Win McNamee Images
Pete Buttigieg. He sat down with The Post’s Robert Costa for a Thursday morning interview, taking his sharpest shots yet at the president for pondering pardons for war criminals while he himself got out of serving in Vietnam. “I don’t have a problem standing up to someone who was working on Season 7 of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan,” he said.
Bernie Sanders. He joined striking McDonald’s workers via a video connection for a Thursday protest, in an attempt to draw attention to one of labor’s major causes: organizing fast-food employees and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Other candidates have been allying with striking workers, but no candidate has done quite as much as Sanders.
Kirsten Gillibrand. She proposed a “family bill of rights” that would bundle her national child-care proposal something she’s introduced for years with new tax credits for adoption and regulations to expand access to IVF.
Amy Klobuchar. She opened a new campaign headquarters in Minneapolis and planned to celebrate her birthday this weekend with stops in Iowa.
Steve Bullock. He’s traveling to Iowa again after Memorial Day, his second trip to the state since his announcement.
Beto O’Rourke. He announced a full New Hampshire team, led by State Director Mike Ollen, who helped Sen. Maggie Hassan win her 2016 upset.
Cory Booker. He’s spending the Tuesday after Memorial Day in Nevada, his third trip to the early state where the fewest campaigns have really hired staff.
Wayne Messam. The Miramar, Fla., mayor returned to New Hampshire, recording an episode of WMUR’s “Conversation with the Candidate,” and saying that he could rise with “my fair share of exposure.” A caveat: Messam has campaigned in early states far less than most of the 2020 field. The New Hampshire trip was his first to the state since declaring his candidacy on March 30.
Howard Schultz. He has reportedly delayed an announcement on an independent presidential bid past this summer while recovering from a successful back surgery.
Justin Amash. He’s being lobbied by high-profile Libertarian Party activists to leave Congress and seek their nomination for president in 2020.
Bill Weld. He’ll spend Saturday night at the University of New Hampshire law school, discussing “civil liberties and the presidency.”
MEET A C
What is it? The War Veterans Fund C
What’s it do? Recruit and train veterans to run for the House in 2020, as Republicans.
Who runs it? In a way, the answer is Edward Crawford, a veteran of other GOP campaigns who’s coordinating the C’s effort. But Crawford defers to Rep. Dan Crenshaw R-Tex. and Rep. Michael Waltz R-Fla., House freshmen who will take point in recruiting candidates.
“We’re looking for candidates who served overseas and will serve again,” Crawford said in an interview. “They’re natural leaders, problem solvers, people we want to answer the next call.”
What’ll it spend? At the moment, it’s only planning to find the right candidates for the right races, focused on open seats and on seats held by Democrats. It is not going to recruit veterans to challenge incumbent members of Congress. “We don’t make money, we don’t have overhead, and all of our events are self-funded,” Crawford said.
What’s the plan? As a start, to find 10 to 15 candidates worth supporting in 2020.
WHAT I’M WATCHING
GOP purification primaries. It took all of 24 hours for Rep. Justin Amash R-Mich. to get a primary challenger: a state legislator who said he could be a more effective member of Congress, one who would not spar with the president. Sen. Thom Tillis R-N.C., who has voted with the White House’s position more often than Amash, already had a primary challenger — businessman Garland Tucker — but the Club for Growth released polling this week that suggested he’d be even more vulnerable if Rep. Mark Walker R-N.C. ran against him.
“Tillis’s image of 45% favorable and 30% unfavorable among primary voters would be problematic in a general election and is terrible in a primary,” pollster Byron Allen wrote in a memo first shared with Politico.
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