washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

June 15: Trump Losing Ground in Key 2016 Heartland States

Any time new state-by-state data about Trump’s popularity comes out, I am very focused on those once-blue “Heartland” states that shocked the world in 2016 and lifted him to the presidency. So I wrote about some new Morning Consult findings at New York:

The president’s ratings among registered voters are underwater (more negative than positive) in the very heartland states he flipped from a past heritage of Democratic voting in 2016: Wisconsin (-12), Michigan (-9), Iowa (-7), Ohio (-4), and Pennsylvania (-4). In the short term, that matters because all these states other than Iowa have Senate races in November, and there are a total of 12 highly competitive House races among them (according to the Cook Political Report).

There are some other Trump ’16 states where his high standing has eroded significantly, including six that are holding Senate races this year: Arizona (+2), Montana (+3), Florida (+5), Missouri (+5), Texas (+5), North Dakota (+6), and Indiana (+8). There are other 2018 Senate battlegrounds, however, where POTUS is still very popular, such as Tennessee (+20), Mississippi (+23), and West Virginia (+27).

It may be argued that Trump did, after all, win in 2016 despite poor favorability ratings. But presidential elections are comparative, and Trump was fortunate to face a Democratic opponent with pretty bad favorability ratings as well. Since midterms are typically more of a straight-up referendum on the president (and are likely to be so even more with a president who dominates the news like this one has), lack of presidential popularity should be a much bigger deal. Yes, Trump’s national approval ratings have drifted upward in 2018, but are still well south of 50 percent. And there’s one bit of historical data from Gallup that ought to especially worry Republicans: the parties of presidents facing midterms with job approval ratings below 50 percent have on average lost 36 House seats.

Of course, 2020 is a different matter, and what happens then will depend on a thousand variables, including the identity of Trump’s Democratic opponent (assuming he’s running for reelection). But let’s don’t forget he won in the first place by executing what amounts to an inside straight based on extremely narrow wins in heartland states in the context of a national popular-vote defeat. And that’s why we might pay especially close attention to how his party does this November in those very states.


Trump Losing Ground in Key 2016 Heartland States

Any time new state-by-state data about Trump’s popularity comes out, I am very focused on those once-blue “Heartland” states that shocked the world in 2016 and lifted him to the presidency. So I wrote about some new Morning Consult findings at New York:

The president’s ratings among registered voters are underwater (more negative than positive) in the very heartland states he flipped from a past heritage of Democratic voting in 2016: Wisconsin (-12), Michigan (-9), Iowa (-7), Ohio (-4), and Pennsylvania (-4). In the short term, that matters because all these states other than Iowa have Senate races in November, and there are a total of 12 highly competitive House races among them (according to the Cook Political Report).

There are some other Trump ’16 states where his high standing has eroded significantly, including six that are holding Senate races this year: Arizona (+2), Montana (+3), Florida (+5), Missouri (+5), Texas (+5), North Dakota (+6), and Indiana (+8). There are other 2018 Senate battlegrounds, however, where POTUS is still very popular, such as Tennessee (+20), Mississippi (+23), and West Virginia (+27).

It may be argued that Trump did, after all, win in 2016 despite poor favorability ratings. But presidential elections are comparative, and Trump was fortunate to face a Democratic opponent with pretty bad favorability ratings as well. Since midterms are typically more of a straight-up referendum on the president (and are likely to be so even more with a president who dominates the news like this one has), lack of presidential popularity should be a much bigger deal. Yes, Trump’s national approval ratings have drifted upward in 2018, but are still well south of 50 percent. And there’s one bit of historical data from Gallup that ought to especially worry Republicans: the parties of presidents facing midterms with job approval ratings below 50 percent have on average lost 36 House seats.

Of course, 2020 is a different matter, and what happens then will depend on a thousand variables, including the identity of Trump’s Democratic opponent (assuming he’s running for reelection). But let’s don’t forget he won in the first place by executing what amounts to an inside straight based on extremely narrow wins in heartland states in the context of a national popular-vote defeat. And that’s why we might pay especially close attention to how his party does this November in those very states.


June 14: Democrats Gradually Improving November Prospects

The defeat of Mark Sanford got most of the headlines on the evening of the June 12 round of primaries. But the broader impact on the general election battlegrounds should be noted, as I observed at New York:

In several places primary voters set up intriguing battles.

Virginia: Here comes the 2018 wave of Democratic women

According to the Cook Political Report, there are four Republican-held House seats in the Old Dominion that are vulnerable to a Democratic takeover. And Democrats have nominated four impressive women to take on this critical challenge.

The most vulnerable seat of all probably belongs to Barbara Comstock, whose suburban/exurban Tenth District in Northern Virginia, which Hillary Clinton carried by nearly ten points in 2016. Last night the national party favorite to take on Comstock, state legislator Jennifer Wexton, won over a large and well-qualified field.

In the central Virginia Seventh District, represented by hard-right representative Dave Brat (famous for upsetting then–Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary), another woman with strong national and elected-official backing, former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, routed Marine veteran Daniel Ward in what was expected to be a close race. In the Tidewater Second District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks it has the right challenger to former Navy SEAL and freshmen representative Scott Taylor (a frequent Trump critic who had no trouble in his own primary) in Navy vet and small-business owner Elaine Luria, who easily defeated self-proclaimed progressive Karen Mallard in the primary.

In the west-central Virginia Fifth District, which leans Republicans (Trump carried it easily) but has pockets of Democratic strength, a fourth woman, former journalist and author Leslie Cockburn, had no primary opponent, but is awaiting a local GOP selection process trigged by incumbent representative Thomas Garrett’s sudden announcement two weeks ago that he was struggling with alcoholism and would not run for another term. Cockburn has been a fundraising dynamo.

All four of these Democratic candidates benefited from the early support of EMILY’s List, which is having a really good cycle so far. If 2018 does turn out to be the Year of the Democratic Woman, it could begin in Virginia.

One Virginia Democrat who is breathing much easier today is U.S. senator Tim Kaine, whose GOP opponent will be neo-Confederate Trumpite Corey Stewart. The fiery Stewart, who nearly upset Ed Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial primary, had a surprisingly tough time dispatching state legislator Nick Freitas in his primary, but narrowly survived.

Maine: Ranked-choice voting has arrived

Maine has a competitive House race in its rural-dominated Second Congressional District (carried by Trump in 2016 and held by GOP representative Bruce Poliquin), and a governor’s race that could determine whether term-limited wild man Paul LePage’s reactionary policies (including a fight against a voter-mandated Medicaid expansion) continue or end. In both contests the state’s embattled experiment with ranked-choice (a.k.a. “instant runoff”) voting is coming into play. Driven in part by LePage’s two plurality (thanks to independent candidacies) gubernatorial wins, Maine voters mandated adoption of ranked-choice voting (which asks voters to rank all candidates on the ballot and then reallocates last-place votes by secondary preference until someone achieves a majority) in a 2017 ballot initiative. A subsequent court decision limited rank-choiced voting to federal elections and state primaries, but it was fully deployed on June 12.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary heavily funded front-runner Shawn Moody won a clear majority and will avoid any ranked-choice follow-up. In the Democratic primary, though, longtime front-runner and Attorney General Janet Mills only received a third of the vote, and will have to wait for ranked-choice tabulations (which could take as long as a week) to determine if she can hold off second-place finisher Adam Cote (or theoretically, even another candidate, should one of them pile up a huge number of second-choice preferences). The same is true in the Second District Democratic congressional race, where with votes still being counted state legislator Jared Golden has slipped just below a majority, which means second-preference ballots from third-place finisher Craig Olson will determine whether Golden or Burt’s Bees scion and environmentalist Lucas St. Clair will get the nod.

In a separate vote, a “people’s veto” referendum overruled legislation passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature to revoke ranked-choice voting in the future, so it will be available at least for congressional races in November barring future judicial interventions.

Nevada: A huge Senate race ahead

Democrats’ slim but very real hopes of winning back control of the U.S. Senate in November depend heavily on U.S. Representative Jacky Rosen, a freshman congresswoman from southern Nevada and a close ally of former Senator Harry Reid. Rosen easily defeated five opponents in the June 12 primary and will now take on the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbent who hasn’t decided to retire, Dean Heller, in what should be a close race in closely divided state. Heller tried to carve out an identity as relatively independent of Donald Trump and the Senate GOP leadership early in the Trump administration, but when that began to upset conservatives in Washington and back home, he quickly turned himself around. He ultimately benefited from a Trump intervention to talk conservative gadfly Danny Tarkanian out of a primary challenge, and now has to figure out how to survive a general election.

While Trump’s action was good news for Dean Heller, it could wind up costing Republicans a rare shot at a Democratic-held House seat, Rosen’s Third District. Tarkanian (son of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian) has lost a string of five straight elections for public office dating back to 2004, the most recent being a loss to Rosen in 2016. Trump’s sort-of endorsement and the fundraising machine he had put together for a Senate run made Tark an instant front-runner, and he won 44 percent against former TV reporter Michelle Mortensen and state legislator Scott Hammond. If history is any indication, Tarkanian may have an uphill fight against Third District Democratic nominee Susie Lee, a philanthropist with her own fundraising chops and strong support from both Rosen and Reid.


Democrats Gradually Improving November Prospects

The defeat of Mark Sanford got most of the headlines on the evening of the June 12 round of primaries. But the broader impact on the general election battlegrounds should be noted, as I observed at New York:

In several places primary voters set up intriguing battles.

Virginia: Here comes the 2018 wave of Democratic women

According to the Cook Political Report, there are four Republican-held House seats in the Old Dominion that are vulnerable to a Democratic takeover. And Democrats have nominated four impressive women to take on this critical challenge.

The most vulnerable seat of all probably belongs to Barbara Comstock, whose suburban/exurban Tenth District in Northern Virginia, which Hillary Clinton carried by nearly ten points in 2016. Last night the national party favorite to take on Comstock, state legislator Jennifer Wexton, won over a large and well-qualified field.

In the central Virginia Seventh District, represented by hard-right representative Dave Brat (famous for upsetting then–Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary), another woman with strong national and elected-official backing, former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, routed Marine veteran Daniel Ward in what was expected to be a close race. In the Tidewater Second District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks it has the right challenger to former Navy SEAL and freshmen representative Scott Taylor (a frequent Trump critic who had no trouble in his own primary) in Navy vet and small-business owner Elaine Luria, who easily defeated self-proclaimed progressive Karen Mallard in the primary.

In the west-central Virginia Fifth District, which leans Republicans (Trump carried it easily) but has pockets of Democratic strength, a fourth woman, former journalist and author Leslie Cockburn, had no primary opponent, but is awaiting a local GOP selection process trigged by incumbent representative Thomas Garrett’s sudden announcement two weeks ago that he was struggling with alcoholism and would not run for another term. Cockburn has been a fundraising dynamo.

All four of these Democratic candidates benefited from the early support of EMILY’s List, which is having a really good cycle so far. If 2018 does turn out to be the Year of the Democratic Woman, it could begin in Virginia.

One Virginia Democrat who is breathing much easier today is U.S. senator Tim Kaine, whose GOP opponent will be neo-Confederate Trumpite Corey Stewart. The fiery Stewart, who nearly upset Ed Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial primary, had a surprisingly tough time dispatching state legislator Nick Freitas in his primary, but narrowly survived.

Maine: Ranked-choice voting has arrived

Maine has a competitive House race in its rural-dominated Second Congressional District (carried by Trump in 2016 and held by GOP representative Bruce Poliquin), and a governor’s race that could determine whether term-limited wild man Paul LePage’s reactionary policies (including a fight against a voter-mandated Medicaid expansion) continue or end. In both contests the state’s embattled experiment with ranked-choice (a.k.a. “instant runoff”) voting is coming into play. Driven in part by LePage’s two plurality (thanks to independent candidacies) gubernatorial wins, Maine voters mandated adoption of ranked-choice voting (which asks voters to rank all candidates on the ballot and then reallocates last-place votes by secondary preference until someone achieves a majority) in a 2017 ballot initiative. A subsequent court decision limited rank-choiced voting to federal elections and state primaries, but it was fully deployed on June 12.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary heavily funded front-runner Shawn Moody won a clear majority and will avoid any ranked-choice follow-up. In the Democratic primary, though, longtime front-runner and Attorney General Janet Mills only received a third of the vote, and will have to wait for ranked-choice tabulations (which could take as long as a week) to determine if she can hold off second-place finisher Adam Cote (or theoretically, even another candidate, should one of them pile up a huge number of second-choice preferences). The same is true in the Second District Democratic congressional race, where with votes still being counted state legislator Jared Golden has slipped just below a majority, which means second-preference ballots from third-place finisher Craig Olson will determine whether Golden or Burt’s Bees scion and environmentalist Lucas St. Clair will get the nod.

In a separate vote, a “people’s veto” referendum overruled legislation passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature to revoke ranked-choice voting in the future, so it will be available at least for congressional races in November barring future judicial interventions.

Nevada: A huge Senate race ahead

Democrats’ slim but very real hopes of winning back control of the U.S. Senate in November depend heavily on U.S. Representative Jacky Rosen, a freshman congresswoman from southern Nevada and a close ally of former Senator Harry Reid. Rosen easily defeated five opponents in the June 12 primary and will now take on the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbent who hasn’t decided to retire, Dean Heller, in what should be a close race in closely divided state. Heller tried to carve out an identity as relatively independent of Donald Trump and the Senate GOP leadership early in the Trump administration, but when that began to upset conservatives in Washington and back home, he quickly turned himself around. He ultimately benefited from a Trump intervention to talk conservative gadfly Danny Tarkanian out of a primary challenge, and now has to figure out how to survive a general election.

While Trump’s action was good news for Dean Heller, it could wind up costing Republicans a rare shot at a Democratic-held House seat, Rosen’s Third District. Tarkanian (son of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian) has lost a string of five straight elections for public office dating back to 2004, the most recent being a loss to Rosen in 2016. Trump’s sort-of endorsement and the fundraising machine he had put together for a Senate run made Tark an instant front-runner, and he won 44 percent against former TV reporter Michelle Mortensen and state legislator Scott Hammond. If history is any indication, Tarkanian may have an uphill fight against Third District Democratic nominee Susie Lee, a philanthropist with her own fundraising chops and strong support from both Rosen and Reid.


June 8: The Iowa Bellwether

While perusing the less noticed January 5 primary states, I had some thoughts about that white working-class enclave in the prairies, Iowa, for New York:

California was the Big Kahuna of June 5 primary states. And New Jersey has four competitive House races going on this year.

But it’s another June 5 primary state, Iowa, that may wind up being the more important bellwether heading into autumn.

Democrats there are targeting two House seats and the governorship, along with other statewide offices and the legislature. But just as importantly, they are challenging the trend of the last two election cycles, in which Iowa tilted red at an alarming pace.

Entering 2012, Iowa was a classic battleground state, with one senator from each party (an arrangement Iowans seemed to like because it protected them against party swings in Washington), a governorship that had gone back and forth since 1998, a legislature with control divided between the two parties, and a three-Democrat, two-Republican House delegation. Thanks to redistricting, a Democratic and Republican House incumbent were forced to face off, and the Republican won. Barack Obama carried the state by just under 6 percent.

In 2014, the “Harkin seat” in the Senate (in which U.S. House Democrat Bruce Braley was the front-runner to succeed the retiring Harkin) went to Republican Joni Ernst by nearly nine points. GOP governor Terry Branstad was reelected by an astonishing 22-point margin. Braley’s First Congressional District, which he had held since 2006 fell to a very conservative Republican, Rod Blum. It was a terrible year for Democrats.

And then it got worse. Of the six states that flipped from Democrat to Republican in the presidential elections of 2012 and 2016, Iowa’s had by far the largest shift in popular votes: from D+6 to R+9 (Ohio was second with a net 11-point shift). From being a classic battleground state for years with most recently a distinct Democratic advantage (Obama carried it by 8.5 points in 2008), Iowa was suddenly more Republican than Texas. (This was particularly astonishing because Iowa was one of the few states Trump lost in the nominating contest.) The GOP also won undivided control of Iowa’s state government for the first time since 1998.

It was reasonably clear at the time that demographics were a big factor in Iowa’s lurch. As I said in 2016 in a piece headlined “Iowa Is So White It’s Turning Red,” Iowa was a microcosm of some important national trends:

“Iowa, once a classic blue-leaning battleground state (it went for Obama handily in 2008 and 2012), is moving toward the GOP and particularly Trump because of its high concentration of conservative white working-class voters and its small minority population. To put it another way, Democrats in both presidential and state elections have had to rely in Iowa (as in other Upper Midwestern states) on winning a relatively high percentage of the white vote. The ‘Obama Coalition’ in its full glory just doesn’t exist there. And as Democratic support among white voters — especially evangelicals, and especially non-college-educated people — has gradually eroded, it has gradually made Iowa more hospitable to Republicans, who won a very big midterm victory in the state in 2014.”

If Democrats are going to mitigate or reverse their losses among white voters (and especially non-college-educated white voters), states like Iowa are a great place to start. And Iowa Democrats have some good indicators. For one thing, their front-running candidates in three big, competitive races won their primaries easily: wealthy businessman Fred Hubbell in the governor’s race, state legislator Abby Finkenauer in the northeast Iowa First Congressional District, and small-business owner Cindy Axne in the southwest Iowa Third Congressional District. For another, the early signs sure don’t indicate another easy GOP year. A February 2018 Iowa Poll from the very reliable Selzer & Company showed incumbent Governor Kim Reynolds with a narrow 42/37 lead over Hubbell, who isn’t remotely as well known (but who has the resources to make up for that). In May, Roll Call named First District incumbent Representative Rod Blum the country’s most vulnerable House incumbent. Finkenaeuer has been out-raising him, and a late 2017 generic congressional poll of the district showed Democrats with a huge 18-point lead. Third District incumbent David Young isn’t in as much trouble as Blum, but Cook Political Report calls the race competitive (“Leans Republican”). Democrats also think they can make gains in the Iowa House, which is being targeted by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Such gains are a matter of sheer conjecture at this point, and the demographic factors that tilted Iowa red in the last two cycles have not gone away. But there’s no better laboratory for how to undermine the Trump coalition.


The Iowa Bellwether

While perusing the less noticed January 5 primary states, I had some thoughts about that white working-class enclave in the prairies, Iowa, for New York:

California was the Big Kahuna of June 5 primary states. And New Jersey has four competitive House races going on this year.

But it’s another June 5 primary state, Iowa, that may wind up being the more important bellwether heading into autumn.

Democrats there are targeting two House seats and the governorship, along with other statewide offices and the legislature. But just as importantly, they are challenging the trend of the last two election cycles, in which Iowa tilted red at an alarming pace.

Entering 2012, Iowa was a classic battleground state, with one senator from each party (an arrangement Iowans seemed to like because it protected them against party swings in Washington), a governorship that had gone back and forth since 1998, a legislature with control divided between the two parties, and a three-Democrat, two-Republican House delegation. Thanks to redistricting, a Democratic and Republican House incumbent were forced to face off, and the Republican won. Barack Obama carried the state by just under 6 percent.

In 2014, the “Harkin seat” in the Senate (in which U.S. House Democrat Bruce Braley was the front-runner to succeed the retiring Harkin) went to Republican Joni Ernst by nearly nine points. GOP governor Terry Branstad was reelected by an astonishing 22-point margin. Braley’s First Congressional District, which he had held since 2006 fell to a very conservative Republican, Rod Blum. It was a terrible year for Democrats.

And then it got worse. Of the six states that flipped from Democrat to Republican in the presidential elections of 2012 and 2016, Iowa’s had by far the largest shift in popular votes: from D+6 to R+9 (Ohio was second with a net 11-point shift). From being a classic battleground state for years with most recently a distinct Democratic advantage (Obama carried it by 8.5 points in 2008), Iowa was suddenly more Republican than Texas. (This was particularly astonishing because Iowa was one of the few states Trump lost in the nominating contest.) The GOP also won undivided control of Iowa’s state government for the first time since 1998.

It was reasonably clear at the time that demographics were a big factor in Iowa’s lurch. As I said in 2016 in a piece headlined “Iowa Is So White It’s Turning Red,” Iowa was a microcosm of some important national trends:

“Iowa, once a classic blue-leaning battleground state (it went for Obama handily in 2008 and 2012), is moving toward the GOP and particularly Trump because of its high concentration of conservative white working-class voters and its small minority population. To put it another way, Democrats in both presidential and state elections have had to rely in Iowa (as in other Upper Midwestern states) on winning a relatively high percentage of the white vote. The ‘Obama Coalition’ in its full glory just doesn’t exist there. And as Democratic support among white voters — especially evangelicals, and especially non-college-educated people — has gradually eroded, it has gradually made Iowa more hospitable to Republicans, who won a very big midterm victory in the state in 2014.”

If Democrats are going to mitigate or reverse their losses among white voters (and especially non-college-educated white voters), states like Iowa are a great place to start. And Iowa Democrats have some good indicators. For one thing, their front-running candidates in three big, competitive races won their primaries easily: wealthy businessman Fred Hubbell in the governor’s race, state legislator Abby Finkenauer in the northeast Iowa First Congressional District, and small-business owner Cindy Axne in the southwest Iowa Third Congressional District. For another, the early signs sure don’t indicate another easy GOP year. A February 2018 Iowa Poll from the very reliable Selzer & Company showed incumbent Governor Kim Reynolds with a narrow 42/37 lead over Hubbell, who isn’t remotely as well known (but who has the resources to make up for that). In May, Roll Call named First District incumbent Representative Rod Blum the country’s most vulnerable House incumbent. Finkenaeuer has been out-raising him, and a late 2017 generic congressional poll of the district showed Democrats with a huge 18-point lead. Third District incumbent David Young isn’t in as much trouble as Blum, but Cook Political Report calls the race competitive (“Leans Republican”). Democrats also think they can make gains in the Iowa House, which is being targeted by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Such gains are a matter of sheer conjecture at this point, and the demographic factors that tilted Iowa red in the last two cycles have not gone away. But there’s no better laboratory for how to undermine the Trump coalition.


June 6: Still Waiting For the Next RFK

In connection with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I offered these thoughts at New York:

Fifty years ago today, I awoke to a radio that was playing the famous recording from Mutual Broadcasting System reporter Andrew West, who was an eyewitness to Robert Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles:

“Senator Kennedy has been … Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has … Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! … I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer [Johnson]! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”

Moments before being fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy had said to the celebrating crowd at the Ambassador: “It’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!” That year as in most years, the California primary was the last on the schedule, and RFK was pointing toward the twilight struggle over delegates that would precede the national convention in late August.

It has been widely surmised in the years since, with the special intensity of a counterfactual myth that can neither proved nor disproved, that had Kennedy not been assassinated that night, he would have gone on to win the Democratic presidential nomination and then the presidency, sparing America and the world from years more of bloody conflict in Vietnam, and from the Nixon presidency with its polarization, corruption, and eventual disgrace.

In fact, our best guess from this distance (reinforced by serious examinations of the issue from RFK biographer Evan Thomas and historian of the 1968 election Michael A. Cohen) is that Kennedy’s odds of winning the nomination were slim by the time of his death. His antiwar rival Eugene McCarthy was in no mood to get out of his way, and the Johnson-Humphrey administration had an iron grip on delegates from many of the 33 states that did not hold primaries (and even some that did, but which did not bind delegates to primary results). Kennedy himself seemed to believe his only chance to win was by reconstructing his late brother’s alliances with old-school urban political bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley, and it’s at best a wild conjecture that they would have defied LBJ and the unions that were so close to Humphrey to take a flyer on Bobby.

And even if Kennedy had won the nomination, he, like Humphrey, would have led into the general election a divided party that had done horribly into the 1966 midterms and had lost much of its white southern wing to George Wallace. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether RFK’s countercultural associations would have alienated fewer Democrats than Humphrey’s tardy establishment of an independent position on Vietnam. And there’s no telling what LBJ might have done to complicate life for the bitter rival he loathed and feared for so long.

Even RFK aide Jeff Greenfield, who wrote an alternative history account of a Robert F. Kennedy presidency, concedes that on this day 50 years ago the path to that actually happening was rocky and uncertain:

“’We were losing altitude,’ de facto campaign manager Fred Dutton reflected later, looking back at the political terrain Kennedy was facing. In fact, the day of the primary, Dutton was skeptical enough of our chances to suggest that RFK would take the vice-presidential slot if offered.”

There is a reason for the persistent myth of the world we lost to RFK’s assassin, that goes beyond loathing for LBJ or Humphrey or Nixon or the policies they embraced. And it involves more, I think, than just general Kennedy/Camelot nostalgia. For a whole generation of progressive political activists and journalists, there was a glimmer of something different in RFK than the more conventional politics of his brothers Jack and Ted — an ability to both put together a mind-bending coalition of minority and white-working-class voters that would blow up the racial politics the GOP was beginning to aggressively embrace by 1968 and to keep the fraying New Deal majority alive.

This coalition was glimpsed by some journalists watching Kennedy win African-American and Polish-American voters in Indiana, and others examining his California victory and its heavy reliance on a black-brown-and-white working-class support base that eschewed the McCarthy-loving suburbs. Without exit polls and other modern tools, it is difficult to discern how broad RFK’s 1968 voting coalition actually was. But the fact that Kennedy was later adopted as a patron saint for all sorts of left-of-center folk (both left-bent radicals and centrist “New Democrats”) who were tired of the old-time religion of interest-group liberalism suggests that he might have been onto something new. Indeed, in a critical 2000 book about the RFK myth, Ronald Steele suggested just that:

“He was the link between two competing visions: the welfare state world of the New Deal and the ‘middle way’ of latter-day New Democrats like Bill Clinton.”

Indeed, in the real world of politics without RFK, it has often been southern-bred centrists who have been been able to put together solid biracial coalitions that maintained minority enthusiasm and reached deep into the white working-class. No Kennedy coalitions were more mind-bending than that of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who had equally devoted support from African-Americans and former Wallace supporters — albeit only in his native South. Bill Clinton had some of the same appeal. But so too (mostly outside the South) did Barack Obama in 2008.

It may be significant or incidental that Carter lost a lot of his white working-class support in 1980 (after surviving an intraparty challenge from RFK’s brother) as did Obama in 2012. And then in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost in no small part because she did very poorly among white working-class voters while suffering from low turnout by minority voters as well. In terms of the enduring myth of RFK, HRC was the anti-Bobby, or at least the representative of a party that was struggling with both its New Deal and more recent constituencies.

And that’s partly why Bobby Kennedy remains so fascinating a character. In trying to build a multiracial coalition that includes a robust share of the still-very-large white working class, there remains the ancient formula of the social-Democratic Left: a class-based appeal that eschews all cultural or identity issues and simply pounds away at the need to defend and extend the universal benefit programs, progressive taxes, and anti-corporate regulations and trade policies that presumably all poorer folks support or ought to support. It seemed to work pretty well for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, and in all honesty, it has never really been tried by the national Democratic Party since the days of the actual New Deal.

But for progressives who, for one reason or another, don’t think white working-class losses or lagging minority turnout are the product of too little “populist” agitation or too much talk about the racial or cultural issues that voters seem to care greatly about, there is a persistent craving for something less formulaic and more poetic. Is it possible to develop a message that transcends group tensions by a higher appeal to common values and aspirations that cannot be captured by tax or benefit distribution tables or the lashing of a common corporate foe? Fifty years after the fact, the abiding myth of Bobby Kennedy is a testament to that abiding hope.


Still Waiting For the Next RFK

In connection with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I offered these thoughts at New York:

Fifty years ago today, I awoke to a radio that was playing the famous recording from Mutual Broadcasting System reporter Andrew West, who was an eyewitness to Robert Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles:

“Senator Kennedy has been … Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has … Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! … I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer [Johnson]! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”

Moments before being fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy had said to the celebrating crowd at the Ambassador: “It’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!” That year as in most years, the California primary was the last on the schedule, and RFK was pointing toward the twilight struggle over delegates that would precede the national convention in late August.

It has been widely surmised in the years since, with the special intensity of a counterfactual myth that can neither proved nor disproved, that had Kennedy not been assassinated that night, he would have gone on to win the Democratic presidential nomination and then the presidency, sparing America and the world from years more of bloody conflict in Vietnam, and from the Nixon presidency with its polarization, corruption, and eventual disgrace.

In fact, our best guess from this distance (reinforced by serious examinations of the issue from RFK biographer Evan Thomas and historian of the 1968 election Michael A. Cohen) is that Kennedy’s odds of winning the nomination were slim by the time of his death. His antiwar rival Eugene McCarthy was in no mood to get out of his way, and the Johnson-Humphrey administration had an iron grip on delegates from many of the 33 states that did not hold primaries (and even some that did, but which did not bind delegates to primary results). Kennedy himself seemed to believe his only chance to win was by reconstructing his late brother’s alliances with old-school urban political bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley, and it’s at best a wild conjecture that they would have defied LBJ and the unions that were so close to Humphrey to take a flyer on Bobby.

And even if Kennedy had won the nomination, he, like Humphrey, would have led into the general election a divided party that had done horribly into the 1966 midterms and had lost much of its white southern wing to George Wallace. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether RFK’s countercultural associations would have alienated fewer Democrats than Humphrey’s tardy establishment of an independent position on Vietnam. And there’s no telling what LBJ might have done to complicate life for the bitter rival he loathed and feared for so long.

Even RFK aide Jeff Greenfield, who wrote an alternative history account of a Robert F. Kennedy presidency, concedes that on this day 50 years ago the path to that actually happening was rocky and uncertain:

“’We were losing altitude,’ de facto campaign manager Fred Dutton reflected later, looking back at the political terrain Kennedy was facing. In fact, the day of the primary, Dutton was skeptical enough of our chances to suggest that RFK would take the vice-presidential slot if offered.”

There is a reason for the persistent myth of the world we lost to RFK’s assassin, that goes beyond loathing for LBJ or Humphrey or Nixon or the policies they embraced. And it involves more, I think, than just general Kennedy/Camelot nostalgia. For a whole generation of progressive political activists and journalists, there was a glimmer of something different in RFK than the more conventional politics of his brothers Jack and Ted — an ability to both put together a mind-bending coalition of minority and white-working-class voters that would blow up the racial politics the GOP was beginning to aggressively embrace by 1968 and to keep the fraying New Deal majority alive.

This coalition was glimpsed by some journalists watching Kennedy win African-American and Polish-American voters in Indiana, and others examining his California victory and its heavy reliance on a black-brown-and-white working-class support base that eschewed the McCarthy-loving suburbs. Without exit polls and other modern tools, it is difficult to discern how broad RFK’s 1968 voting coalition actually was. But the fact that Kennedy was later adopted as a patron saint for all sorts of left-of-center folk (both left-bent radicals and centrist “New Democrats”) who were tired of the old-time religion of interest-group liberalism suggests that he might have been onto something new. Indeed, in a critical 2000 book about the RFK myth, Ronald Steele suggested just that:

“He was the link between two competing visions: the welfare state world of the New Deal and the ‘middle way’ of latter-day New Democrats like Bill Clinton.”

Indeed, in the real world of politics without RFK, it has often been southern-bred centrists who have been been able to put together solid biracial coalitions that maintained minority enthusiasm and reached deep into the white working-class. No Kennedy coalitions were more mind-bending than that of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who had equally devoted support from African-Americans and former Wallace supporters — albeit only in his native South. Bill Clinton had some of the same appeal. But so too (mostly outside the South) did Barack Obama in 2008.

It may be significant or incidental that Carter lost a lot of his white working-class support in 1980 (after surviving an intraparty challenge from RFK’s brother) as did Obama in 2012. And then in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost in no small part because she did very poorly among white working-class voters while suffering from low turnout by minority voters as well. In terms of the enduring myth of RFK, HRC was the anti-Bobby, or at least the representative of a party that was struggling with both its New Deal and more recent constituencies.

And that’s partly why Bobby Kennedy remains so fascinating a character. In trying to build a multiracial coalition that includes a robust share of the still-very-large white working class, there remains the ancient formula of the social-Democratic Left: a class-based appeal that eschews all cultural or identity issues and simply pounds away at the need to defend and extend the universal benefit programs, progressive taxes, and anti-corporate regulations and trade policies that presumably all poorer folks support or ought to support. It seemed to work pretty well for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, and in all honesty, it has never really been tried by the national Democratic Party since the days of the actual New Deal.

But for progressives who, for one reason or another, don’t think white working-class losses or lagging minority turnout are the product of too little “populist” agitation or too much talk about the racial or cultural issues that voters seem to care greatly about, there is a persistent craving for something less formulaic and more poetic. Is it possible to develop a message that transcends group tensions by a higher appeal to common values and aspirations that cannot be captured by tax or benefit distribution tables or the lashing of a common corporate foe? Fifty years after the fact, the abiding myth of Bobby Kennedy is a testament to that abiding hope.


June 1: Don’t Hold Your Breath For Any Immigration Deal

After reading a lot about new movement in Congress towards immigration legislation, I thought it was time for a reality check, which I wrote for New York.

In the House, an all-conference GOP confab on June 7 could well determine whether a variation on the hard-line Goodlatte legislation, a Democratic bill backed by a handful of Republican “moderates,” or some yet-to-be-identified compromise bill that virtually all Republicans can support — or some combo platter of alternatives — will make it to the floor. That’s pretty remarkable given the lower chamber’s record as a graveyard for immigration legislation in this century.

Meanwhile the Senate, where four separa”te immigration bills went down to defeat in February, is informally talking about the subject, if only because the House might toss a bill in their direction — or the federal courts might reach some action-forcing resolution of the legal challenges surrounding the president’s revocation of the DACA program protecting Dreamers last fall. But it’s quite the heavy lift, as Politico reports:

“In recent weeks, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has been taking the lead on talking to [Sen. James] Lankford and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), two more junior GOP senators who are widely viewed as bellwethers of Republican support for immigration reform. While senators say that the staples of any immigration deal are protections for Dreamers and money for border security, negotiations have broadened to include the expiring protected status for hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants.

In the past a narrower DACA-for-border-security deal was considered most likely to get something done on immigration policy. Now new issues — and new complications — have been introduced. That is probably not a good thing. And meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has cut to the chase:

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will not commit another week of the Senate’s time to immigration after the February exercise, but he added the Senate might take legislation if the president is supportive and it can pass the House.”

McConnell might as well have said “If I had some ham, I’d make a ham sandwich, if I had some bread.”

The problems the House is having on this subject are well known. So too is the likelihood that Trump will use a veto threat to head off any legislation that isn’t quite similar to his own proposal. Just last week he made it clear that he wouldn’t sign the kind of Democratic-backed bill that would likely come out of the House if the discharge petition House GOP moderates are threatening to consummate triggers a series of immigration votes:

“President Donald Trump said Wednesday he will veto any immigration legislation that emerges from Congress that does not include funding for a border wall and improved border security measures, a warning shot at moderate House Republicans pushing GOP leadership for a vote on immigration proposals.

“’Unless it includes a wall, and I mean a wall, a real wall, and unless it includes very strong border security, there’ll be no approvals from me. Because I have to either approve it or not,’ the president said in a Fox News interview that was taped Wednesday and aired Thursday morning. ‘There are bills going through. I’m watching one or two of them. We’ll see what happens, but I can tell you there is a mood right now for border security.'”

This was a pointed reminder that at the end of the long, twisting road which in theory leads to an immigration deal in Congress, Trump will be there with his chief immigration adviser Stephen Miller handing him a veto pen.

And that could sap the already limited interest in Congress in cutting an almost impossible deal.

The two most-likely scenarios in the House are passage of a Democratic bill with the support of the GOP “moderates” who want relief for Dreamers, or passage of some modified version of the Goodlatte bill with tweaks to attract some more votes. It is extremely unlikely either of those approaches would survive a Senate filibuster.

The Trump factor makes it all immensely more difficult. His own position has hardened during the course of his presidency, with his increasingly adamant demands for what he is calling a “real wall” at the border and his more recent but equally strident support for legal immigration restrictions — both reportedly at the behest of Miller. What makes the administration’s position especially problematic is that all these quasi-nativist provisions are combined with what many actual nativists despise as “amnesty” — a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

It’s no real surprise that Trump’s proposal, offered by Chuck Grassley, got only 39 of the required 60 votes. And it may have been designed that way.

In a fascinating new profile of Stephen Miller, McKay Coppins suggests that at the heart of Trump’s approach to the immigration issue is Miller’s lack of interest in actually accomplishing anything as opposed to outraging liberals and firing up Trump’s base:

“When Miller found out one afternoon in January that Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin were coming to the White House to pitch Trump on a bipartisan bill, he reportedly moved to stack the Oval Office with hawkish conservatives in hopes of swaying the president. By the time Graham and Durbin arrived, Trump was in an uncompromising mood: angry, dug in, and ranting about immigrants from ‘shithole countries.’ As Trump uttered those soon-to-leak words, which would poison the talks on Capitol Hill, Miller stood on the periphery. ‘He doesn’t have to command rooms to be effective,’ one senior Democratic Senate aide said, ‘because he does his thing behind the scenes.'”

This was the same dynamic, says Coppins, that led to Trump’s unnecessarily provocative travel ban, in which Miller played an equally prominent role:

“One of his first acts on the job was to work with then–chief strategist Steve Bannon in crafting an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend ‘so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.’ They counted the anger on display as a political win.”

So don’t bet the farm on the success of any immigration legislation this year. To Team Trump, failure and the anger it generates may also be greeted as a political win.


Don’t Hold Your Breath for Any Immigration Deal

After reading a lot about new movement in Congress towards immigration legislation, I thought it was time for a reality check, which I wrote for New York.

In the House, an all-conference GOP confab on June 7 could well determine whether a variation on the hard-line Goodlatte legislation, a Democratic bill backed by a handful of Republican “moderates,” or some yet-to-be-identified compromise bill that virtually all Republicans can support — or some combo platter of alternatives — will make it to the floor. That’s pretty remarkable given the lower chamber’s record as a graveyard for immigration legislation in this century.

Meanwhile the Senate, where four separa”te immigration bills went down to defeat in February, is informally talking about the subject, if only because the House might toss a bill in their direction — or the federal courts might reach some action-forcing resolution of the legal challenges surrounding the president’s revocation of the DACA program protecting Dreamers last fall. But it’s quite the heavy lift, as Politico reports:

“In recent weeks, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has been taking the lead on talking to [Sen. James] Lankford and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), two more junior GOP senators who are widely viewed as bellwethers of Republican support for immigration reform. While senators say that the staples of any immigration deal are protections for Dreamers and money for border security, negotiations have broadened to include the expiring protected status for hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants.

In the past a narrower DACA-for-border-security deal was considered most likely to get something done on immigration policy. Now new issues — and new complications — have been introduced. That is probably not a good thing. And meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has cut to the chase:

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will not commit another week of the Senate’s time to immigration after the February exercise, but he added the Senate might take legislation if the president is supportive and it can pass the House.”

McConnell might as well have said “If I had some ham, I’d make a ham sandwich, if I had some bread.”

The problems the House is having on this subject are well known. So too is the likelihood that Trump will use a veto threat to head off any legislation that isn’t quite similar to his own proposal. Just last week he made it clear that he wouldn’t sign the kind of Democratic-backed bill that would likely come out of the House if the discharge petition House GOP moderates are threatening to consummate triggers a series of immigration votes:

“President Donald Trump said Wednesday he will veto any immigration legislation that emerges from Congress that does not include funding for a border wall and improved border security measures, a warning shot at moderate House Republicans pushing GOP leadership for a vote on immigration proposals.

“’Unless it includes a wall, and I mean a wall, a real wall, and unless it includes very strong border security, there’ll be no approvals from me. Because I have to either approve it or not,’ the president said in a Fox News interview that was taped Wednesday and aired Thursday morning. ‘There are bills going through. I’m watching one or two of them. We’ll see what happens, but I can tell you there is a mood right now for border security.'”

This was a pointed reminder that at the end of the long, twisting road which in theory leads to an immigration deal in Congress, Trump will be there with his chief immigration adviser Stephen Miller handing him a veto pen.

And that could sap the already limited interest in Congress in cutting an almost impossible deal.

The two most-likely scenarios in the House are passage of a Democratic bill with the support of the GOP “moderates” who want relief for Dreamers, or passage of some modified version of the Goodlatte bill with tweaks to attract some more votes. It is extremely unlikely either of those approaches would survive a Senate filibuster.

The Trump factor makes it all immensely more difficult. His own position has hardened during the course of his presidency, with his increasingly adamant demands for what he is calling a “real wall” at the border and his more recent but equally strident support for legal immigration restrictions — both reportedly at the behest of Miller. What makes the administration’s position especially problematic is that all these quasi-nativist provisions are combined with what many actual nativists despise as “amnesty” — a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

It’s no real surprise that Trump’s proposal, offered by Chuck Grassley, got only 39 of the required 60 votes. And it may have been designed that way.

In a fascinating new profile of Stephen Miller, McKay Coppins suggests that at the heart of Trump’s approach to the immigration issue is Miller’s lack of interest in actually accomplishing anything as opposed to outraging liberals and firing up Trump’s base:

“When Miller found out one afternoon in January that Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin were coming to the White House to pitch Trump on a bipartisan bill, he reportedly moved to stack the Oval Office with hawkish conservatives in hopes of swaying the president. By the time Graham and Durbin arrived, Trump was in an uncompromising mood: angry, dug in, and ranting about immigrants from ‘shithole countries.’ As Trump uttered those soon-to-leak words, which would poison the talks on Capitol Hill, Miller stood on the periphery. ‘He doesn’t have to command rooms to be effective,’ one senior Democratic Senate aide said, ‘because he does his thing behind the scenes.'”

This was the same dynamic, says Coppins, that led to Trump’s unnecessarily provocative travel ban, in which Miller played an equally prominent role:

“One of his first acts on the job was to work with then–chief strategist Steve Bannon in crafting an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend ‘so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.’ They counted the anger on display as a political win.”

So don’t bet the farm on the success of any immigration legislation this year. To Team Trump, failure and the anger it generates may also be greeted as a political win.