In this edition: A deep red state gets purple, Bernie Sanders hits the trail, Joe Donnelly supports ICE, and Democrats find a reason to love Mitch McConnell.
I still think a Buckeye is a curious mascot, and this is The Trailer.
MILLERSBURG, Ohio — There was no hint of a blue wave at the Holmes County GOP’s pre-election pig roast. Republican activists and candidates agreed that conservatives had been energized by the Supreme Court fight. Democrats, they said, were running as the party that would slow down a good economy and take away private health insurance.
“They’ll roll back the tax cuts, grow the government and move us toward socialism,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs (R) in his dinner speech. “They want to impeach Kavanaugh. I don’t know what they’re going to impeach him for. He drank too much beer in college?”
But the politics in Ohio this year aren’t squaring with that rosy assessment. Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot who helped run a disaster relief organization, is in an unexpectedly competitive race with Gibbs, raising $2.5 million to the congressman’s $1 million. Gibbs has more cash on hand than Harbaugh, and handicappers expect him to win, but this election is shaping up to be closer than any since Gibbs first won, despite what he sees as two successful years of a Republican-run Washington.
“The economy’s not at the top of people’s lists, because it’s doing good,” Gibbs said in an interview. “If it was doing bad, it would be at the top of peoples’ lists.”
The Democratic recovery in the Midwest and the Rust Belt has turned into one of 2018’s defining trends, putting races in play even where President Trump broke through. Ohio may be the most dramatic example — a place where Democrats began to fret about never winning again and then, within months, were able to reboot.
As early voting began this week, both parties felt that the state’s U.S. Senate race had tilted dramatically toward Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown and that every statewide constitutional race — Ohio has six of them, from governor to auditor — was close. What’s happened in two years?
Republicans didn’t fully evolve into a Trump party. There’s some evidence that the major development of 2016, of longtime Democrats backing Trump for president, has continued into 2018; both parties had competitive primaries this year, and Republican turnout was higher in Obama-to-Trump counties. But the GOP’s top-of-the-ballot nominees are not natural fits for those voters, a problem that was obvious in the primary and never got resolved.
The candidate struggling most is Senate candidate Rep. Jim Renacci (R), who like Gibbs won his seat during the 2010 tea party wave. He started out at a disadvantage, swapping in to replace a Republican who’d dropped his campaign against Brown for personal reasons. But on the trail, he has sounded most natural as a business-friendly Republican and most strained as a populist. In a Sunday night debate with Brown, he suggested, as Mitt Romney once did, that health care was not much of a problem for poorer people.
“Medicaid, we need to make sure they are covered,” Renacci said. “The rich are going to be okay. I’m more worried about those in the middle.”
In a reporter scrum after the debate, Renacci dodged four questions on whether he supported a federal minimum wage, saying he wanted states to set their wages — the sort of lunch-pail issue President Trump learned not to mess with. On trade, he was outflanked by Brown, who has supported the administration’s steel tariffs with none of the angst that haunts more Chamber of Commerce-styled Republicans.
The opioids issue sticks to the party in power. There’s compelling evidence that Democrats lost the most support from 2012 to 2016 in counties where deaths from opioid overdoses had risen the most. In 2016, the Trump campaign benefited from outrage at Barack Obama’s administration. In 2018, Ohio’s statewide and congressional Democrats are running against Republicans who have run the state, top to bottom, since 2010.
That debate is playing out on TV ads. Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican nominee for governor, has attacked Democratic nominee Richard Cordray for backing Issue One, a ballot measure that would replace jail time with treatment for people convicted of drug possession. Cordray’s own ads say he’s “called for longer sentences for drug dealers.” On the trail, Cordray has mocked DeWine’s self-appointed role of “opioid czar,” while DeWine has talked up his work to “punish” the companies that hooked so many people on the drugs in the first place.
And in the Senate race, there’s a striking contrast from 2016. That year, Sen. Rob Portman (R) ran a farsighted campaign that highlighted his work on opioids. Renacci has, less compellingly, asked whether the state’s Medicaid expansion is a reason the problem has persisted.
“Medicaid expansion is a problem that’s unsustainable,” Renacci said. “We have 19 states that didn’t expand Medicaid. They’re doing better than Ohio.”
One tax cut and no preexisting conditions. Ohio’s expansion of Medicaid has been broadly popular, and Democrats have kept statewide Republicans on the defensive by talking about the threat that Republican Gov. John Kasich’s successor could scrap it. DeWine opposed Medicaid expansion as attorney general, suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Since the primary, he has said that he would keep a changed version of the expansion in place.
The provisions on preexisting conditions in the ACA have been just as problematic for Republicans; Gibbs is one of many Republicans who voted for the GOP’s ACA repeal bill and has since run ads saying he would protect people covered by those rules.
“He’s voted 13 times on preexisting conditions alone, to gut protections,” Harbaugh said in an interview, after a roundtable with female voters at a Mission BBQ in Canton. “People just don’t trust him anymore. People are worried about how they’re going to pay their next medical bill.”
The power of the issue was evident in a short interview with Gibbs, as he emphasized that people on employer insurance plans would be protected from most changes to the law, and that he had co-sponsored a separate bill that “would really codify” the preexisting conditions rules. Health policy experts say the bill would not work out of concert with the rest of the ACA.
Hillary’s not here, man. It can’t be overstated: There is, at the moment, no challenger to Trump. There’s no challenger whose husband signed NAFTA. The absence of Hillary Clinton has reset politics in a number of states; attempts to pull her back into the conversation have gone nowhere. At the Millersburg party dinner, Clinton’s name came up just once, when Gibbs referred to her comments last week that “civility” could return to politics if and only if Republicans lost the House.
At a town hall Sunday, Harbaugh got some anecdotal evidence of what had changed. Roger Roe, 55, who came to the town hall to ask about treatment for fellow Army veterans exposed to the fumes of “burn pits,” told Harbaugh that he had seen nothing but Trump signs on the roads when he commuted to his construction job two years ago.
“Now I see a lot of your signs up there,” he said. “I voted for Hillary, but to be honest, neither of them made me feel good.”
Indiana Senate. Liberal Hoosiers say Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) earned some cred with them by voting against Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation; had he gone the other way, he might have created an enthusiasm problem. Donnelly’s cashing in by portraying himself as a sensible centrist, naming a series of left-wing positions he doesn’t hold. “I support ICE and funding President Trump’s border wall,” Donnelly says in his new spot, as images of left-wing protesters flash across the screen. Deny coverage for people with preexisting conditions? “Not on my watch.”
Florida Governor. Before he was a #MAGA congressman, Rep. Ron DeSantis was a member of the House Freedom Caucus who joined its charge for large-scale entitlement restructuring. That’s what Democrats want voters to remember now that DeSantis is the GOP’s nominee for governor: “Ron DeSantis voted to raise the retirement age to 70 for Social Security and Medicare, and DeSantis voted five times to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, to give more tax breaks to billionaires.” Why do Democrats think that can work? Because DeSantis’s vanquished primary opponent hit him with the same attack, in an ad that emphasized that this was a major difference between DeSantis and Trump — who helped boost DeSantis with an endorsement.
New Jersey Senate. The story here isn’t that the Senate Majority PAC, the Democrats’ outside campaign group, is attacking Republican Bob Hugin for his support of President Trump. The story is that SMP is spending $3 million in a race that Hugin has kept competitive by plowing $24 million of his own money into negative ads, refusing to let Sen. Bob Menendez (D) get away with the donor scandal that nearly ended his career. (In the third quarter, Hugin raised just over $1 million from donors.) Menendez has stayed consistently, narrowly ahead of Hugin, but Democrats are forced to spend money to defend him in a state where they can’t lock in an early voting lead. If there’s evidence that Republicans remain behind, it’s in Hugin’s decision to run an ad resurrecting unproved claims that Menendez solicited prostitutes – a move that’s been covered quite negatively by the New Jersey media.
Oregon Governor. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s survival strategy here involves tying Republican nominee Knute Buehler, who has built an independent, moderate brand, to the national GOP that’s still toxic in this state. Her new ad joins Buehler and Trump at the hip: “Buehler even cheered Trump’s pardon of the arsonist ranchers who sparked the Malheur standoff.”
Pennsylvania 01. This may be a first: a Democratic campaign that refers to “fake news sources” by way of rebutting a Republican attack. Here, it’s Scott Wallace asking voters to dismiss the Washington Free Beacon, which has become a conduit for Republican opposition research (and produces plenty of its own), and focus on his work as a counsel for the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
South Dakota Governor. Republicans have tried to blunt support for Democratic nominee Billie Sutton by highlighting his support for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sutton responds by renouncing her: “On TV, Kristi Noem is trying to make me Hillary Clinton,” he says, referring to the GOP nominee. “That’s just not true. I’m a pro-gun fiscal conservative.”
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Florida 26 (Mason-Dixon, 625 Likely Voters)
Carlos Curbelo (R) – 46%
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) – 45%
This is the second South Florida poll that’s shown a tight race, though unlike in the 27th district, Democrats have recently been able to compete in the 26th. (Curbelo defeated a one-term Democratic incumbent in 2014.) Murcarsel-Powell leads by 17 points with white voters and by 37 points with non-Cuban Hispanic voters. That’s very close to the coalition that can flip the seat. Why are Democrats keeping this in play while Texas’s 23rd district, with a Republican incumbent who’s also broken with the White House sometimes, seemingly falls out of play? One reason may be the more reliable voting patterns of Democrats here. In 2014, when Republicans picked up both those seats, just 113,337 votes were cast in the one in Texas, and 160,738 votes in the Florida district.
New Jersey 03 (Stockton, 534 Likely Voters)
Tom McArthur (R) – 46%
Andy Kim (D) – 44%
This is a respectable result for Republicans after two regional pollsters, Siena and Monmouth, found McArthur falling behind Kim in a campaign largely about health care. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which has shrunk some of its Philadelphia area investments, has pushed further into this district and Pennsylvania’s 1st district. Just as interesting is a question about the U.S. Senate race. While the district backed Trump by 6 points in 2016, Hugin, the Senate candidate, is winning it by 10. That sounds great until you consider that Trump lost by 14 points statewide. Murray Sabrin, a frequent Libertarian candidate, is pulling 4 percent of the vote, and some Democrats think that the nasty tone of race will drive some voters to third parties instead of Hugin.
New York 27 (Siena, 490 Likely Voters)
Chris Collins (R) – 46%
Nate McMurray (D) – 43%
The off-again, on-again Collins reelection campaign has angered local Republicans, who nonetheless want him to retain the seat after his indictment over alleged insider trading. But the indictment took a hit. While 56 percent of voters in the district support Trump (who won here by 24 points), and 56 percent want a Republican Congress, 1 in 6 of those voters are unwilling, at the moment, to back Collins. There’s a lot of that going around; at this moment, the three 2018 incumbents most damaged by scandal — Collins, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — are favored to win reelection.
West Virginia 03 (Monmouth, 350 Likely Voters)
Carol Miller (R) – 48%
Richard Ojeda (D) – 45%
Republicans have always considered this race, in a district that backed Trump by 49 points, to be marginal but not quite lose-able. Since the summer, even as Trump’s numbers have remained unchanged (and positive), even with voters disproportionately viewing Ojeda as the candidate who “understands the day to day concerns of people like you,” he has fallen slightly behind Miller, as she got out her pro-Trump messaging. (Miller’s one of many Republicans running on a pledge to protect Medicare.) But what popped out to Democrats here was the number for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Since June, his lead in this district has grown from 14 points to 20 points, a number that would be in line with a clear statewide victory.
ON THE TRAIL
In three days, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will set out on a nine-day, nine-state campaign tour, rallying with candidates for governor, incumbent members of Congress and activists who simply want to see him.
The announcement of the tour inspired some inevitable talk about whether Sanders will run for president again, as he’ll rally in the early primary states of Iowa and South Carolina before it’s over. The tour also sparked a little controversy when South Carolina Republicans accused Democratic nominee for governor James Smith of inviting Sanders to their state — and Smith preemptively denounced Sanders and his “Medicare-for-all” health bill.
Sanders jumped on the phone to preview the tour and answer questions about how his health-care plan has, for the first time, become grist for negative political attacks against Democratic candidates. An edited Q&A from that conversation:
WASHINGTON POST: Tell me why you’re making this trip, and why you chose the states you did.
BERNIE SANDERS: The truth is that since 2016, I’ve been to 30 states in this country. Whether we’re fighting to defeat the Trump proposal on repealing the Affordable Care Act, or his tax proposal, the goal is always the same: to get more working people, young people, to turn out, and to get more candidates to run for office. Republicans are trying to suppress the vote, and we’re trying to get more people voting.
So, this trip is a continuation of what I’ve been doing for years. We’re supporting progressive Democratic candidates so that we can end one-party rule in Washington. And the very good news is that many of the ideas we’ve fought for, that seemed so extreme and radical, are now part of mainstream conversation, and are being adopted by many candidates in states and cities. That’s a $15 minimum wage, that’s investing $1 trillion in infrastructure, that’s making college tuition free, that’s obviously Medicare-for-all. Our ideas are resonating very strongly and a majority of the American people support them.
WP: Okay, on Medicare-for-all: That has become a major line of attack against Democrats in close races. That issue didn’t get litigated as much in 2016. What does it say now that it’s such a handy weapon for Republicans?
BS: Look, Republicans lie a lot. President Trump, as you may know, did an op-ed the other day in USA Today and we counted at least 19 lies in it. The Washington Post did a fact-finding article, finding many, many lies in what they say. The Republicans can’t campaign on what they’ve done. They can’t campaign on trying to throw 30 million people off of health care. I have not seen one ad where a candidate says, “Hey, I voted to throw 30 million people off of health insurance. Vote for me!” I haven’t seen that ad and I don’t think I’m ever going to see it. They’re not going to talk about their tax cut going to the 1 percent. They’re not going to talk about the realities of climate change.
So, what do they do? They lie. They make personal, ugly, lying attacks on Democratic candidates. They know that a majority of the American people want Medicare-for-all. Last poll I saw had 70 percent for Medicare-for-all. So they try to tell senior citizens that if we get Medicare-for-all, their care will be diminished. It’s a lie. Our legislation expands Medicare for seniors, for eyeglasses and for hearing aids. They’ll lie about anything and everything.
WP: But what does it say to you about the political possibility for ever getting elected on that plan and implementing it?
BS: Hey, I was attacked by this in Vermont years ago. The same bull—-, the same ads were running against me, at least six years ago. The ads were: Bernie Sanders is going to raise your taxes, government control, all of that. We’ve heard that for years. When you take on an industry that represents 18 percent of the GDP in the United States, when you take on some of the most powerful forces in America, they spend endless amounts of money on campaigns and lobbying, it’s going to be a very, very tough fight. I don’t know if you remember this, but I was out in California in 2016, working with, among others, National Nurses United, on a prescription drugs ballot measure. Do you remember that?
WP: I do, and both that ballot measure and the 2016 Colorado single-payer measure, which both lost, are cited as proof that this stuff is toxic.
BS: Yeah, well, the one in California, that was trying to get the state government not to pay more for prescription drugs than the Veterans Administration was paying. Do you know how much money the pharmaceutical industry spent to defeat that, in one state, one ballot item?
WP: I think it was $100 million?
BS: One-hundred and thirty-one million dollars, and our side wound up with 46 percent of the vote. I understand there’s a reason why the United States is the only developed country on earth not to guarantee health-care coverage. It’s because these people are enormously powerful and have unlimited amounts of money to spend. No one ever said that taking them on would be easy.
WP: Back to the tour itself. You’re stumping with some people that you endorsed against. Did you talk, for example, to [Michigan gubernatorial candidate] Gretchen Whitmer about her issues, after she beat the candidate you endorsed in the primary?
BS: I talked to Gretchen Whitmer, and she ran a progressive campaign. I supported Abdul El-Sayed, who was more progressive, I think. But she’s got a progressive agenda. Look, many of the campaigns I’m campaigning with may not agree with me on every issue, but they are fighting for working families, and it is absolutely imperative that we increase turnout. Four years ago we had about 36 percent of people voting in the midterm election. I believe that if we can increase that to 50 percent, Democrats will take the House and the Senate.
WP: Why are you going to California? Specifically, what’s bringing you to Oakland, where there’s no competitive race?
BS: In southern California, there are competitive races. There are at least two House seats held by Republicans where Democrats look strong. In Oakland, look, [Rep.] Barbara Lee is an old friend of mine, and I want to be supportive of her and the candidates she’s working with.
WP: And what about South Carolina, where James Smith, who’s running for governor, has gone out of his way to say he did not invite you?
BS: I don’t know how many Democrats said that. The media picks it up. Somebody says something, and it becomes a media story. I was invited to come down there by progressive Democrats, by Our Revolution. I’m going to be joined by [Our Revolution president] Nina Turner. They’re working hard to bring more people into the political process.
WP: A lot of Democratic activists have said that [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer folded too soon with a deal that got a number of judges confirmed so that the Senate could recess and senators could campaign at home. Do you agree with that criticism?
BS: I think Schumer has an impossible job. If you were at the Democratic caucus, I think what you would have heard, especially from Democrats who are in tough races, is that they wanted to go home and campaign hard. Democrats are in the minority. It’s true that some of these votes could have been stalled out. That’s true. But at the end of the day, these Democrats were telling Schumer: Hey, we’re going to lose if we can’t go home and campaign.
Julián Castro. This isn’t the first time he’s said it, but the former HUD secretary tells Rolling Stone that he’s “likely” to run for president, after reviewing the state of things post-midterms.
Elizabeth Warren. On Monday, she released her DNA test. On Friday, she’ll face her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, in the first of three debates. Warrenworld had previously suggested that she would spend the rest of the campaign in Massachusetts, but Natasha Korecki reports that Warren may swing through Iowa.
The scale of the Democrats’ hard money advantage is laid out here; Democrats led in fundraising across the most competitive Senate races, and leading 3-2 in House races.
Mother Jones goes long on the unique voting issues in Native American counties — with electorates that may play a large role in the Arizona, North Dakota and Montana races.
Efforts by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) to elect more veterans, regardless of where they fall on the left-to-center spectrum, gets the profile treatment, and Moulton gets to say what he thinks about Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi running again for speaker: “She obviously thinks she can twist arms after the election, but this would be disastrous for these candidates who just won us the majority.”
WHAT I’M WATCHING
If there’s one theme to this newsletter, it’s this: The campaign you see on TV and Twitter is not the one being run in the states. More than ever, the drama of national politics is diverging from the parties’ messaging from race to race, and district to district.
Tuesday gave us a dramatic example of that. No competitive campaign, Democratic or Republican, had weighed in on the biggest national political stories of the week — the DNA test of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the setback for Stormy Daniels’s legal case, and the presidential tweets about those weighty matters.
But by Tuesday afternoon, Democrats in every competitive Senate race had put out statements on an interview that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave to Bloomberg News. Asked about the spiking federal deficit, McConnell said that it emphasized the need to restructure the “real drivers” of national debt.
“I think it would be safe to say that the single biggest disappointment of my time in Congress has been our failure to address the entitlement issue,” McConnell said. “We’re talking about Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”
Democrats went on the offensive. In Nevada, the state party warned that Republicans “want to cut essential programs that middle-class families and seniors rely on.” Florida Democrats insisted that “Florida Republicans are largely to blame.” Montana Democrats asked whether the GOP’s Senate nominee, Matt Rosendale, agreed “with the Senate Majority Leader, his party boss, that we should cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
There’s always been a gulf between “serious” Washington, which considers the national debt an immediate crisis, and “campaign” Washington, which goes to war against any hint of entitlement restructuring. It’s been visible in both parties’ ads but most visible among Republicans, who have accused Democrats of threatening Medicare by proposing to expand it, or by supporting the ACA changes that cut its long-term spending.
But Democrats, who have uncorked this attack in every election, are perpetually at risk of it going stale. McConnell’s comments were barely a one-day story in Washington. They’re going to last much longer than that in Democratic campaigns.
… 21 days until the midterms
… 749 days until the 2020 presidential election, for which President Trump has already raised $100 million