In this edition: Betomania, bad polls for every Democrat, and presidential candidates voting to take their own (theoretical) power away.
I think “Robert Francis O’Rourke” is the worst Trumpian nickname for any Democrat yet, and this is The Trailer.
Beto O’Rourke meets Iowa voters at the Lost Canvas in downtown Keokuk, Iowa, on Thursday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
To watch the coverage of Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign debut, you can forget that the former Texas congressman is not — in any sense of the word — the Democratic front-runner. Dozens of reporters are crammed into coffee houses; live shots are beaming every optimistic word and dramatic hand-chop onto TV screens. Each iteration of his announcement, from a Vanity Fair cover to a text to an El Paso TV station, has been covered intensely.
“I’m running to serve you as president of the United States,” he said, after one Iowan (who may have missed the windup) asked whether he was really running.
All of this is happening for a candidate who has apparently lost some support in early states since November, when the buzz about a presidential bid began. Last weekend’s Iowa poll, conducted for the Des Moines Register and CNN, found O’Rourke falling from 11 percent support at the end of last year to just 5 percent now. He has yet to announce something like the donor surge that welcomed Sen. Bernie Sanders to the race. Just four House Democrats have endorsed their former colleague, one more than supports Julián Castro, who is not being swarmed by TV cameras.
So why the focus on O’Rourke? His decision actually looks like a reset moment for the Democratic primary — not one that shakes up the order of the field, but one that makes Democrats consider what voters are actually focused on and whether some early ideas about the electorate have been wrong.
Do litmus tests still matter? For much of 2018, Democrats with presidential ambitions were asked whether they were in or out on the key priorities for left-wing activists. Their agenda was spelled out in major pieces of legislation, usually sponsored by Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, free college tuition and, eventually, a Green New Deal.
O’Rourke has cut his own path on those issues. He has supported “single-payer health care,” saying so when he linked to an article about Medicare-for-all on Facebook. But he never co-sponsored H.R. 676, the House’s Medicare-for-all vehicle. He left Congress before the Green New Deal resolution was finished and has said he likes it in principle but hasn’t signed a pledge in favor of it.
Instead, O’Rourke sounds conversant in the reasons voters and activists embrace those policies; he just doesn’t commit to the sticky legislative language. In his first Iowa stop, he said that the migrant flows that the Trump administration considered a “crisis” would pale before “the kind of crisis and refugee migration that we will see when entire bands of this world are no longer habitable.” That was a reference to climate change and captured the apocalyptic motivation behind the Green New Deal.
By waiting to enter the race, O’Rourke might have seen how little the actual endorsements of left positions are worth. Multiple co-sponsors of Medicare-for-all legislation, for example, have told early-state crowds that they see that bill as just one way to achieve universal coverage, which differs from the Sanders position. The presence of Sanders in the race has cut short, at least for now, any potential gains for candidates who endorse his bills; from December to March, that quartet of senators (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand) rose from a combined 17 percent to a combined 19 percent in the Iowa poll, one-third the increase that the poll found for Sanders.
Are “lanes” even real anymore? This newsletter has been all over the debate over “lanes” and “tiers” and whether certain candidates really are competing for the same votes. The first few months of this primary have demonstrated just how wobbly those lanes are. They exist — there are left-wing voters who are in for Sanders and would have been gettable for Warren or Tulsi Gabbard had he not run. But they are not well defined.
The first months of polling on the front-runners have demonstrated this, dramatically. Ideologically, there is a large distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — so much so that former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz has suggested that he must run an independent bid if Sanders wins the nomination, and probably won’t run if Biden does. But in polls, voters whose first choice for president is Biden or Sanders tend to hold one of those candidates as their second choice, too.
O’Rourke has been profiled as a centrist Democrat for two reasons — a voting record that is slightly to the right of the House Democratic average, and a hurricane of opposition from Sanders supporters who consider him a cipher. His endorsements today came from Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), a liberal who succeeded him in Congress, and Rep. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Rep. Kathleen Rice (N.Y.), and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), three moderate Democrats from the suburbs.
How much do the Democrats want to talk about money? In 2017, O’Rourke was one of the first Democrats to turn down corporate PAC money and urge against the creation of a super PAC. (Some fans created one anyway.) That got him plenty of positive coverage, especially on the left. And then, when he began discussing a bid for president, O’Rourke took friendly fire — one investigation by Sludge found that he’d taken “dozens of contributions of over $200 from oil and gas executives,” enough to get him bounced from a list of candidates who’d turned down industry money. They weren’t top executives, but it was enough to raise hackles.
The donor litmus test is a relatively new one; it was not in place in 2007, when Barack Obama surged into contention for the Democratic nomination with plenty of big money from Wall Street. The Democrats of that year were desperate to take back the White House and put up with a lot of (pre-financial crisis) heresies from their candidates.
This year, in part because of liberal support for the Sanders campaign, there’s a race to find the most problematic donations for Democrats, even if they’ve obeyed a “no corporate PAC” pledge. There are signs of a backlash to this, as Warren found after Politico revealed a relatively paltry $90,000 in donations from big tech employees to her two Senate campaigns. (They amounted to around 0.1 percent of her fundraising totals.)
The resilience of Biden in public polls, and the early interest for O’Rourke, might signal some Democratic fatigue with the liberal expectations their candidates are expected to meet, all before taking the mantle in what they expect to be an election with existential stakes. Is O’Rourke the only candidate who could get Democratic voters to rethink this? We’ll find out: Nearly every candidate is on the trail this coming week.
Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the following Democratic candidates? (Quinnipiac, 1,058 Florida voters)
Joe Biden — 49/35
Bernie Sanders — 37/49
Elizabeth Warren — 26/44
Kamala Harris — 23/30
Beto O’Rourke — 19/24
Cory Booker — 20/30
Kirsten Gillibrand — 10/22
Amy Klobuchar — 11/16
John Hickenlooper — 5/10
Jay Inslee — 3/7
It’s one poll out of Florida, but this gets to one of the real mysteries of the 2020 race: Why do so many voters view the Democrats negatively? This isn’t how partisan sorting usually works. At a similar point in the 2008 primaries, the Q-poll of Florida had every leading Democrat enjoying favorable ratings — 48-39 for Hillary Clinton, 46-23 for John Edwards and 40-19 for Barack Obama. In March 2015, the same poll had Clinton above water in Florida, 49-46, even after the first reports on her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
What’s going on here? No Democrat can say. There’s been more coverage, and more negative coverage, of this Democratic field than of previous fields. When they began campaigning, Edwards and Obama were nationally known, and taking liberal positions, but not really associated with the party’s left wing.
As an independent, do you lean toward a particular political party? (Pew Research)
Democrat — 46%
Republican — 35%
No party — 19%
One of the most easily busted myths in politics is that independents are, ipso facto, ready to vote for independent candidates. The latest research on that question finds a lot of consistency — over the past decade, most “independents” have leaned toward one of the major parties come Election Day. The only movement has come with more independents leaning toward the Democratic Party and Republican-leaning independents growing more negative about the opposition.
ON THE TRAIL
Three short weeks ago, Democrats in northern Iowa picked an educator named Eric Giddens as their candidate for a special state Senate election. Since then, Giddens has campaigned alongside more Democratic candidates for president than anyone in America. This weekend, he will be swarmed by media as Beto O’Rourke, on his first Iowa visit as a candidate, stumps alongside him. And then he will have three other presidential hopefuls to meet with.
He has had visits or has planned visits from Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Cory Booker (N.J.); former executive Andrew Yang; former congressman John Delaney; and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who are in the race, as well as from potential candidates Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Giddens made some time for a quick phone interview ahead of the March 19 election. His race will not determine control of the state Senate — the GOP majority is too large — but a lot of powerful Democrats are watching to see whether he can pull it off.
The Trailer: So, who’s helped you so far, and how much?
Eric Giddens: So far we’ve had — let me check: Warren, Swalwell, Bullock, Hickenlooper — he just came through. I said Warren already, right? Andrew Yang was here the other day. Beto will be here during the day on Saturday, Amy [Klobuchar] on Saturday, and Cory Booker on Sunday. Oh, and John Delaney is here Saturday.
TT: Has anyone else tried to help in another way? With money, or staff, or something?
EG: Well, we were going to have Kamala Harris come through, but we had really bad weather, and she couldn’t make it. Kirsten Gillibrand sent some staff here. [That’s Sen. Harris of California, who also sent staff, and Sen. Gillibrand of New York, who are both in the race.]
TT: Is that enough?
EG: Oh, yes, sending staff is huge for us! It’s a great help. We’re talking about having four weeks to win this election. This is the only race in the state so we got a lot of hands on deck. It’s not a problem. It’s a wonderful opportunity.
TT: I imagine you get more time to talk to these candidates than anyone in the country. What do you tell them?
EG: I say to them that this is about our community, really. It’s about what’s best for the Cedar Valley. The issue at the top of our concerns right now is education. I’m from an education background; I work for the University of Northern Iowa, I’m on the school board, so I’ve got education credentials I’m proud of. My opponent was the chair of the state education committee for two years, so he had a lot of opportunity in majority party to demonstrate what he’d do, and he doesn’t have much of a record.
TT: Are there larger issues that you want them to know about when they’re on the ground?
EG: Well, there are a number of solutions that could address our water quality situation that haven’t been acted on. The GOP has privatized Medicaid, which is a mess, and we talk about that. We have low unemployment, but we have a big skills gap problem; for us that circles right back to education.
TT: I don’t assume you’re endorsing any of these candidates right now.
EG: Ha! No.
TT: When do you typically make up your mind about who to caucus for?
EG: Let me just say, all of these candidates have been wonderful to visit with. We just see this as a great opportunity to introduce them to our community, since they’re in the state anyway because of the caucuses. But I’m staying open with this one for now. I won’t make up my mind for a while.
TT: Would you hold it against any candidate who did not come and campaign for you?
EG: Absolutely not! We’ve been reached out to by the majority of the field and it’s just wonderful.
TT: This is a question, but not a serious one: Do you have an unfair advantage over your Republican opponent? After all, the president isn’t out here campaigning for him.
EG: No, we’re not taking anything for granted. This isn’t about the presidential candidates. It’s about the Cedar Valley.
TT: But I’m sure that Republicans have tried to use these visits to tie you to the Democrats. They haven’t attacked you as a socialist who wants to ban private insurance, or something?
EG: There’s some of that name-calling and mudslinging stuff, and in my view that’s the problem with politics. My opponent wants to talk about how the Cedar Valley needs a legislator who will represent the majority party, which is the Republican Party. And what that equates to is partisanship, in my view. I’m not interested in that. The name-calling is just kind of desperate.
TT: What would you say to any more candidates who are looking at coming in?
EG: Well, we’ve had a ridiculously cold and miserable winter, but I’d love to take them to meet the people in this community. We want to just introduce them to Iowans. Another reporter was out here last week, actually, and she went door to door with us, and it was just great. We’ve got a couple of feet of snow, and she wore the wrong shoes, but it was a good time.
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IN THE STATES
Just a few thousand votes were cast across the country Tuesday, but they all fell in the same direction — toward Democrats. After four Republican wins in Trump-leaning districts this year, Democrats ran the table in exurban and traditionally low-turnout races.
Maine. Democrat Josh Perry easily held a state legislative seat that opened up when the incumbent joined the administration of new Gov. Janet Mills. Turnout was paltry, with just 1,109 total votes cast. But Republicans held onto just 28.7 percent of their 2018 vote; Perry held onto 30.6 percent of the Democratic vote.
Pennsylvania. Democrat Bridget Malloy Kosierowski won the 114th state legislative seat, based in the suburbs of Scranton, exactly the sort of district where the party had been losing ground this year. Kosierowski had no such problem: She took 62.4 percent of the vote over Republican Frank Scavo. That was the best any Republican legislative candidate had done in the district since it was drawn, eight years ago. But it was far short of the support President Trump found here.
Texas. Democrat Ray Lopez won an open state House seat in the San Antonio area, a brushback for Republicans after their surprise 2018 win in a special election in South Texas. Early voting had been relatively strong for Republicans; a $15,000 state Democratic investment for Lopez made that irrelevant.
Up next: That little election in northern Iowa.
WHAT I’M WATCHING
President Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Thursday. (Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg News)
Democrats vs. presidential power. On Thursday afternoon, around half of the Democrats seeking the presidency went on the record to limit their own prospective power. Every Senate Democrat, including seven who are running or testing the waters for presidential bids, voted to disapprove of the president’s emergency declaration on border security; both of the House Democrats running or exploring runs had already done so.
Even Democrats who didn’t need to weigh in on the vote have preemptively come out against using emergency powers to get what they might not get through Congress. At a news conference in California this week, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) said he hoped that Congress or the courts would stop the president’s emergency declaration, then emphasized how he wanted to end the filibuster to give any president more room to actually govern.
“I believe in democracy, in which if people vote for Democrats they should get Democratic policies, and if they vote for Republicans they’ll get Republican policies,” he said.
When they talk like this, Democrats are lined up with polling on Trump’s emergency declaration. Like most of his moves on immigration, it has been consistently unpopular, with a majority of voters opposed to the idea of a presidential declaration moving resources from the military budget to the building of a border wall.
But Democrats are talking about the resolution in wider-ranging terms than the politics might dictate. In a conversation before he passed on a 2020 presidential bid, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) suggested that Republicans needed to mislead about what Democrats would do — to argue that they, too, would declare emergencies to bypass Congress — to justify GOP support for Trump’s emergency declaration.
“Democrats have never used the emergency after Congress has turned them down twice, and when the American public is so strongly against this,” Brown said. “Just because this administration is lawless doesn’t mean that Democrats will imitate that. That’s just what Republicans like to say. Because they have no defense of this; they know it’s not an emergency; they know Congress turned it down; they know the public doesn’t want it. So their only answer is, Democrats are socialists and Democrats will do it, too. That’s no answer.”
The paradox: Democrats see a real emergency, an existential threat, coming to America in the next 10 to 15 years. Every Democrat opposing the Trump declaration also believes that man-made climate change could raise the global temperature by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius, leading to economic devastation, the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, and the effective end of major American cities such as Phoenix and Miami. But they have stopped short of saying that a president would need to declare an emergency to respond; Inslee, alone among the Democratic candidates, said it would be a discussion only if Republicans failed to stop this president.
“If the rules change,” Inslee said, “any president will have to use the rules, including emergency powers, as appropriate.”
Bernie Sanders. He got the official endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America after three-quarters of their members decided to back him. He’s rallying in South Carolina tonight and tomorrow; tonight’s rally puts him exactly where Kamala Harris campaigned last month, in a North Charleston gym.
Howard Schultz. He apologized to Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard, the two veterans in the 2020 field, after giving a rambling interview to radio host Hugh Hewitt in which he suggested he’d “probably spent more time in the last decade certainly than anyone running for president with the military.”
Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s returning to Iowa next week, making a Tuesday-Wednesday swing through six eastern and central cities; it’s the first campaign swing since she had to deal with news of a former staffer’s sexual harassment complaint.
Bill de Blasio. He’s heading to New Hampshire this weekend, making up for a trip that was canceled after a police shooting in New York.
Stacey Abrams. In a conversation with The Post, she clarified that she had no plans to run for president and had talked to “most of the Senate caucus” about running for a seat in 2020. “I hadn’t thought about running for president, so I need some time to think about it.”
Cory Booker. He’s back in New Hampshire on Friday, his first trip after rolling out a series of liberal bills on criminal justice restructuring — and after actress Rosario Dawson told TMZ the two are in a relationship.
Seth Moulton. He’s exploring a potential White House run with a Saturday trip to New Hampshire and a Tuesday visit to South Carolina.
Wayne Messam. The mayor of Miramar, Fla. — which, as he points out, is larger than South Bend, Ind. — launched his own presidential exploratory committee, and told BuzzFeed that he wanted to cancel student debt.
Kamala Harris. She’s heading to Houston on March 23, a few weeks after much of the field traveled to Austin.
John Delaney. He’s back in Iowa this weekend to help out with the special election and open more offices.
Amy Klobuchar. She’s spending two full days in Iowa, marching in parades and campaigning for the candidate for that state Senate seat.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
Even as “Medicare-for-all” starts to lose some meaning in presidential politics, it’s growing larger as an issue for groups that want to unseat “corporate Democrats” in 2020. Data for Progress, which has been rolling out waves of data on Democratic voter opinion, went into 12 districts that are seen as potential targets in next year’s primaries. When told that their member of Congress did not support Medicare-for-all, Democratic voters viewed them more negatively. The most entrenched negative opinions were in New York’s 26th District, where 57 percent of Democrats were unhappy to hear that Rep. Brian Higgins (D) did not support single-payer health care; the least were in Texas’s 28th District, where 50 percent of Democrats wanted Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) to get on board.
Cuellar was the first target of a broad left-wing campaign to find primary challengers in 2020, with Justice Democrats creating a fund that a serious challenger could tap if he or she emerged.
“GOP quietly works to expand ballot harvesting in California while criticizing Democrats for the practice,” by Amy Gardner
Republicans have been sounding alarms about a process by which campaign volunteers collect ballots from voters. They want that to be illegal and, until it is, they’re trying to do it themselves.
“How the Democrats can stop nuking themselves and start obliterating Trump,” by Peter Hamby
There’s a growing consensus that Democrats have spent too much time responding to the demands of activists on social media who are outnumbered at the polls.
“No, Joe!” by Alexander Cockburn
As Biden grows ever closer to a presidential announcement, the left-wing literature on why he can’t be the nominee keeps getting more interesting.
. . . two days until Joe Biden’s big speech to Delaware Democrats
. . . five days until that special election in Iowa
. . . 16 days until the first Democratic candidate forum in Iowa
. . . 19 days until Chicago chooses a new mayor
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