washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

April 5: Bad Moon Rising For Republicans in Wisconsin

After watching the election returns from Wisconsin Tuesday night and marveling at an unexpectedly big win for a left-of-center judicial candidate, I offered some observations at New York:

Yesterday’s landslide win for progressive (and Democratic-backed) Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Dallet may be dismissed by some observers as the product of a low-turnout special election with no particular implications for the November midterms, when Governor Scott Walker is on the ballot and the massive money and mobilization effort he has generated in the past is in play. But Walker himself is not exactly exuding confidence:

It’s the startling double-digit margin of Dallet’s win that’s setting off alarm bells among Wisconsin Republicans. Yes, turnout in November will likely more than double yesterday’s million-voter performance (though it did significantly exceed average turnout in Wisconsin’s traditional spring Supreme Court elections). But it’s a combination of mobilization and persuasion that seems to have produced Dallet’s big win.

The results end a pretty impressive Wisconsin winning streak for the GOP, featuring Walker’s 2014 reelection by more than a five-point margin, and then in 2016, Senator Ron Johnson’s comeback win over Russ Feingold and Trump’s shocking victory in a state that hadn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since Reagan’s 49-state wipeout in 1984. Indeed, as conservative blogger Allahpundit noted, Wisconsin Republicans have lost a lot of ground in the last year:

“Last year Wisconsin Republicans practically ruled America: Reince Priebus was in charge in the White House, Paul Ryan was in charge in the House, and Scott Walker was a three-time gubernatorial winner in an important purple state. A year later Priebus is long gone, Ryan’s the subject of endless rumors that he’s on his way into retirement if Dems flip the House this fall, and Walker’s banging the drum warning that a Democratic landslide could bury him.”

A lot could change between now and November, and Walker has survived adverse political developments before. But he’s not invincible, as evidenced by his ignominious withdrawal from the 2016 presidential contest long before the first vote was cast. 2018 could be the year when his and his party’s remarkable run of luck in Wisconsin just runs out.


Bad Moon Rising For Republicans in Wisconsin

After watching the election returns from Wisconsin Tuesday night and marveling at an unexpectedly big win for a left-of-center judicial candidate, I offered some observations at New York:

Yesterday’s landslide win for progressive (and Democratic-backed) Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Dallet may be dismissed by some observers as the product of a low-turnout special election with no particular implications for the November midterms, when Governor Scott Walker is on the ballot and the massive money and mobilization effort he has generated in the past is in play. But Walker himself is not exactly exuding confidence:

It’s the startling double-digit margin of Dallet’s win that’s setting off alarm bells among Wisconsin Republicans. Yes, turnout in November will likely more than double yesterday’s million-voter performance (though it did significantly exceed average turnout in Wisconsin’s traditional spring Supreme Court elections). But it’s a combination of mobilization and persuasion that seems to have produced Dallet’s big win.

The results end a pretty impressive Wisconsin winning streak for the GOP, featuring Walker’s 2014 reelection by more than a five-point margin, and then in 2016, Senator Ron Johnson’s comeback win over Russ Feingold and Trump’s shocking victory in a state that hadn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since Reagan’s 49-state wipeout in 1984. Indeed, as conservative blogger Allahpundit noted, Wisconsin Republicans have lost a lot of ground in the last year:

“Last year Wisconsin Republicans practically ruled America: Reince Priebus was in charge in the White House, Paul Ryan was in charge in the House, and Scott Walker was a three-time gubernatorial winner in an important purple state. A year later Priebus is long gone, Ryan’s the subject of endless rumors that he’s on his way into retirement if Dems flip the House this fall, and Walker’s banging the drum warning that a Democratic landslide could bury him.”

A lot could change between now and November, and Walker has survived adverse political developments before. But he’s not invincible, as evidenced by his ignominious withdrawal from the 2016 presidential contest long before the first vote was cast. 2018 could be the year when his and his party’s remarkable run of luck in Wisconsin just runs out.


March 31: Trump’s Approval Rating Rise Mostly a Reversion to the Mean

After receiving a couple of inquiries from colleagues concerned about talk of Trump registering a dramatic rise in job approval ratings in a couple of major polls, I looked into it, and reported my conclusions at New York:

For many Republicans (and most definitely for Trump himself), every spike in any measurement of the president’s popularity is a sign that (a) Americans are getting used to him; or (b) Republican policies are making life so wonderful that people don’t care about this or that report of scandal or chaos in the White House, or (c) the anti-Trump enchantment woven by the fake-news media is wearing off. Conversely, Democrats tend to view drops in Trump approval as a sign that his party is toast in the upcoming midterms, while experiencing spikes as a sort of flashback to the evening of November 8, 2016.

There’s been a new buzz this week because two surveys absolutely guaranteed to get media attention — one from CNN and the other from the Associated Press — both showed the president’s job approval rating jumping seven points in the last month. Both, as it happens, had the same numbers both months: 35 percent in February and 42 percent in March. So once again, the speculation began: What might be lifting Trump’s popularity? Was it the economy or the tax bill? And was this the beginning of a rise that could stun the world this November, and then keep him in office through (yikes!) 2024?

In this and every other situation involving polls, it’s generally wise to look at averages rather than isolated polls, which are subject to all sorts of statistical “noise” and issues with samples, methodologies, and timing. Looking at the RealClearPolitics averages, on February 15, when the AP poll went into the field, Trump’s approval rating was 42.1 percent. On March 14 when the latest AP poll went into the field, the average rating was 41.0 percent, down just over a point. No “spike” for Trump there. Similarly, on February 20, when CNN began its polling for that month, Trump’s approval rating was at 41.9 percent. On March 22, when the latest polling began, it was at 41.6 percent. No Trump Bump there, either.

There has been, as you may know, a herky-jerky rise in Trump’s approval ratings since they bottomed out in December of last year, at a time when the tax bill he and Republicans were pushing was quite unpopular, and it looked like the GOP might finish the year with virtually no legislative accomplishments. You can get an exaggerated sense of the turnaround by looking at individual polls that showed Trump ready to be tarred and feathered in December and other individual polls that showed him well up into the mid-40s — damn near even to his disapproval rate — much more recently. But again, the averages aren’t so dramatic. His low point at RCP was 37.0 percent on December 12, and his high point, which he’s equaling right now, was 42.2 percent. That’s nice for him, but less exciting when you realize that his average approval rating was roughly the same in May and September of last year.

The more you stare at the numbers, the more it looks like Trump had a really bad month in December and now his popularity is reverting to the mean. That provides no particular reason to believe it’s going to keep drifting upward.

Some Republicans think — or hope — that growing confidence in Trump’s stewardship of the economy will continue to lift his overall approval ratings. But it’s unclear that’s the key variable. In the quite negative-for-Trump February AP poll his approval rating on the economy was 45 percent. In the much better March AP poll it was 47 percent. And it’s not exactly clear that the economic indicators for the near term are all that boffo anyway; a lot depends on how Trump’s trade war shakes out. In any event, the economy isn’t what’s exerting a drag on Trump’s popularity: it’s basically everything else, and everything else isn’t going away.

Another thing to keep in mind in a low-turnout midterm election year is that intensity of approval and disapproval matters more than in a high-turnout presidential year. In that wonderful March CNN survey, 28 percent of respondents approved strongly of Trump; 46 percent disapproved strongly. The pattern persisted among the most important subcategory of voters, self-identified independents (whom Trump carried in 2016): 24 percent of indies strongly approve of Trump, while 43 percent disapprove strongly. Noting that this adverse intensity ratio has persisted over time, CNN’s analysis concludes: “[T]he fluctuation in Trump’s ratings comes largely among those whose views on the President aren’t that deeply held.” And that’s not a good thing in terms of any positive popularity trend, particularly in a midterm year when the irresolute may simply refrain from voting.

Trump fans, of course, are ever-ready to remind us that the president wasn’t very popular when he won the presidency. That may bode well for his 2020 reelection prospects if he draws an opponent as unpopular as Hillary Clinton. But in midterms, poor presidential approval ratings invariably mean poor performance by the president’s party. The most important historical data point remains this: Presidents who go into the midterms with an approval rating under 50 percent have an average loss of 36 House seats. Democrats need 24 seats to take control. Trump and the GOP have a ways to go to become popular enough to minimize their losses.


Trump’s Approval Rating Rise Mostly a Reversion to the Mean

After receiving a couple of inquiries from colleagues concerned about talk of Trump registering a dramatic rise in job approval ratings in a couple of major polls, I looked into it, and reported my conclusions at New York:

For many Republicans (and most definitely for Trump himself), every spike in any measurement of the president’s popularity is a sign that (a) Americans are getting used to him; or (b) Republican policies are making life so wonderful that people don’t care about this or that report of scandal or chaos in the White House, or (c) the anti-Trump enchantment woven by the fake-news media is wearing off. Conversely, Democrats tend to view drops in Trump approval as a sign that his party is toast in the upcoming midterms, while experiencing spikes as a sort of flashback to the evening of November 8, 2016.

There’s been a new buzz this week because two surveys absolutely guaranteed to get media attention — one from CNN and the other from the Associated Press — both showed the president’s job approval rating jumping seven points in the last month. Both, as it happens, had the same numbers both months: 35 percent in February and 42 percent in March. So once again, the speculation began: What might be lifting Trump’s popularity? Was it the economy or the tax bill? And was this the beginning of a rise that could stun the world this November, and then keep him in office through (yikes!) 2024?

In this and every other situation involving polls, it’s generally wise to look at averages rather than isolated polls, which are subject to all sorts of statistical “noise” and issues with samples, methodologies, and timing. Looking at the RealClearPolitics averages, on February 15, when the AP poll went into the field, Trump’s approval rating was 42.1 percent. On March 14 when the latest AP poll went into the field, the average rating was 41.0 percent, down just over a point. No “spike” for Trump there. Similarly, on February 20, when CNN began its polling for that month, Trump’s approval rating was at 41.9 percent. On March 22, when the latest polling began, it was at 41.6 percent. No Trump Bump there, either.

There has been, as you may know, a herky-jerky rise in Trump’s approval ratings since they bottomed out in December of last year, at a time when the tax bill he and Republicans were pushing was quite unpopular, and it looked like the GOP might finish the year with virtually no legislative accomplishments. You can get an exaggerated sense of the turnaround by looking at individual polls that showed Trump ready to be tarred and feathered in December and other individual polls that showed him well up into the mid-40s — damn near even to his disapproval rate — much more recently. But again, the averages aren’t so dramatic. His low point at RCP was 37.0 percent on December 12, and his high point, which he’s equaling right now, was 42.2 percent. That’s nice for him, but less exciting when you realize that his average approval rating was roughly the same in May and September of last year.

The more you stare at the numbers, the more it looks like Trump had a really bad month in December and now his popularity is reverting to the mean. That provides no particular reason to believe it’s going to keep drifting upward.

Some Republicans think — or hope — that growing confidence in Trump’s stewardship of the economy will continue to lift his overall approval ratings. But it’s unclear that’s the key variable. In the quite negative-for-Trump February AP poll his approval rating on the economy was 45 percent. In the much better March AP poll it was 47 percent. And it’s not exactly clear that the economic indicators for the near term are all that boffo anyway; a lot depends on how Trump’s trade war shakes out. In any event, the economy isn’t what’s exerting a drag on Trump’s popularity: it’s basically everything else, and everything else isn’t going away.

Another thing to keep in mind in a low-turnout midterm election year is that intensity of approval and disapproval matters more than in a high-turnout presidential year. In that wonderful March CNN survey, 28 percent of respondents approved strongly of Trump; 46 percent disapproved strongly. The pattern persisted among the most important subcategory of voters, self-identified independents (whom Trump carried in 2016): 24 percent of indies strongly approve of Trump, while 43 percent disapprove strongly. Noting that this adverse intensity ratio has persisted over time, CNN’s analysis concludes: “[T]he fluctuation in Trump’s ratings comes largely among those whose views on the President aren’t that deeply held.” And that’s not a good thing in terms of any positive popularity trend, particularly in a midterm year when the irresolute may simply refrain from voting.

Trump fans, of course, are ever-ready to remind us that the president wasn’t very popular when he won the presidency. That may bode well for his 2020 reelection prospects if he draws an opponent as unpopular as Hillary Clinton. But in midterms, poor presidential approval ratings invariably mean poor performance by the president’s party. The most important historical data point remains this: Presidents who go into the midterms with an approval rating under 50 percent have an average loss of 36 House seats. Democrats need 24 seats to take control. Trump and the GOP have a ways to go to become popular enough to minimize their losses.


March 30: The Second Amendment As We Know It Today Is Less Than a Decade Old

In the ongoing debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment, it is often forgotten that the NRA’s position on it was not endorsed by the courts until recently. I offered a quick refresher on that subject at New York:

In the minds of most gun enthusiasts, the idea that the Second Amendment was consciously designed by the Founders as a bedrock right to horde shooting irons, either for self-protection or to overthrow future “tyrants,” is beyond question. But as retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens reminds us today, the personal right to bear arms as a premise of constitutional law is actually less than a decade old.

“For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated militia.'”

That precedent held until June of 2008, when by a 5–4 margin in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller the court finally recognized a right to civilian firearm ownership for self-protection.

Stevens wrote the main dissenting opinion in that case, which featured this argument:

“Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature’s authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”

It wasn’t until 2010, in the case of McDonald v. Chicago that another 5–4 Supreme Court majority determined that its novel interpretation of personal, civilian gun rights would be binding on the states via the 14th Amendment. Again Stevens wrote the principal dissent, arguing that even if there’s some personal right to bear arms outside the militia context, it’s hardly the sort of “liberty interest” that requires its imposition on the states.

This treatment of the subject is far, far away from the standard conservative treatment of the Second Amendment as the most fundamental right of them all, extending not just to the sawed-off shotguns Congress was regulating in 1939 to all sorts of military and quasi-military weapons.

Yes, Stevens was in the minority in those two landmark cases, but the point to keep in mind is that the arguments about the Second Amendment assumed as being self-evidently true by gun rights advocates these days are, from the point of view of constitutional law, fragile and recent. And even conservative jurists were dismayed by the gun lobby’s efforts to change constitutional law on this subject, as Stevens points out:

“During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that [Second] amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating ‘one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.'”

Stevens understands how much water has gone over that particular dam in the years since the Heller decision. And so he is now advocating a constitutional amendment to remove the Second Amendment altogether, as “a relic of the 18th century” that is enabling gun violence.

Constitutional amendments, of course, are all but impossible to enact these days, and the zeal, paranoia, and vast resources the gun lobby would bring to bear in opposition to any effort to remove the Second Amendment make that idea a total nonstarter. What’s less fanciful is the possibility that a Democratic president or two could make Supreme Court appointments leading to a partial or even total reversal of the not-so-well-established precedent of Heller.


The Second Amendment As We Know It Today is Less Than a Decade Old

In the ongoing debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment, it is often forgotten that the NRA’s position on it was not endorsed by the courts until recently. I offered a quick refresher on that subject at New York:

In the minds of most gun enthusiasts, the idea that the Second Amendment was consciously designed by the Founders as a bedrock right to horde shooting irons, either for self-protection or to overthrow future “tyrants,” is beyond question. But as retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens reminds us today, the personal right to bear arms as a premise of constitutional law is actually less than a decade old.

“For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated militia.'”

That precedent held until June of 2008, when by a 5–4 margin in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller the court finally recognized a right to civilian firearm ownership for self-protection.

Stevens wrote the main dissenting opinion in that case, which featured this argument:

“Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature’s authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”

It wasn’t until 2010, in the case of McDonald v. Chicago that another 5–4 Supreme Court majority determined that its novel interpretation of personal, civilian gun rights would be binding on the states via the 14th Amendment. Again Stevens wrote the principal dissent, arguing that even if there’s some personal right to bear arms outside the militia context, it’s hardly the sort of “liberty interest” that requires its imposition on the states.

This treatment of the subject is far, far away from the standard conservative treatment of the Second Amendment as the most fundamental right of them all, extending not just to the sawed-off shotguns Congress was regulating in 1939 to all sorts of military and quasi-military weapons.

Yes, Stevens was in the minority in those two landmark cases, but the point to keep in mind is that the arguments about the Second Amendment assumed as being self-evidently true by gun rights advocates these days are, from the point of view of constitutional law, fragile and recent. And even conservative jurists were dismayed by the gun lobby’s efforts to change constitutional law on this subject, as Stevens points out:

“During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that [Second] amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating ‘one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.'”

Stevens understands how much water has gone over that particular dam in the years since the Heller decision. And so he is now advocating a constitutional amendment to remove the Second Amendment altogether, as “a relic of the 18th century” that is enabling gun violence.

Constitutional amendments, of course, are all but impossible to enact these days, and the zeal, paranoia, and vast resources the gun lobby would bring to bear in opposition to any effort to remove the Second Amendment make that idea a total nonstarter. What’s less fanciful is the possibility that a Democratic president or two could make Supreme Court appointments leading to a partial or even total reversal of the not-so-well-established precedent of Heller.


March 23: R.I.P. Zell Miller, a Democrat Who Zig-Zagged in Good and Bad Directions

Today’s crowded news cycle included the death of former Georgia governor and senator Zell Miller. Because many people from outside his native state have a limited view of his career, which I observed from up close, I wrote an assessment for New York:

Most news consumers remember Zell Miller, if they remember him at all, for his abrasive attacks on John Kerry — the presidential nominee of the party to which Miller had belonged for his entire, long life — at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Older folk may remember his keynote address at the 1992 Democratic Convention that nominated his close friend Bill Clinton.

People in his home state of Georgia are probably aware of additional aspects of Miller’s career, including his many years in elected office (he was lieutenant governor from 1975 until 1991, and governor from 1991 to 1999, before an appointed stint in the Senate from 2000 until 2005). They also know about his legacy initiative, the much-praised and imitated lottery-supported HOPE Scholarship program, which made college affordable for many hundreds of thousands of young Georgians while boosting academic standards at the state’s public colleges and universities by getting talented kids to stay in-state.

The length of Miller’s time in the public spotlight, and the wildly varying directions it took him, have often been encapsulated by the nickname he acquired from critics early on: “Zig-Zag Zell.” And the taunt goes back a lot further than his bookend Democratic and Republican convention addresses. Early on Miller ran twice for Congress in his native North Georgia mountains as an opponent of civil-rights legislation (a posture for which he later apologized), and then served as chief of staff for the state’s infamous segregationist governor Lester Maddox. But by 1974, Miller had managed to reframe himself as a relatively progressive Democrat in running for lieutenant governor, and by 1980 was most definitely the “liberal” candidate challenging the old reformed segregationist Herman Talmadge (losing in a Democratic runoff).

Elected governor in 1990 by running to the left of former ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and future governor Roy Barnes, Miller had a reasonably progressive record centered on HOPE and unprecedented appointments of women and minorities to executive and judicial offices. After his association with Clinton very nearly earned him defeat in 1994 (his Republican opponent ran hundreds of ads featuring Miller’s Democratic Convention speech, particularly the line, delivered in Zell’s mountain twang: “BILL CLINTON FEELS YORE PAIN”), he lost his zest for national Democratic politics. He was settling into multiple university teaching gigs and political retirement until he shocked most people he knew by accepting a Senate appointment when Paul Coverdell died in 2000.

No one was more shocked than I was, as his former (from 1992 through 1994) federal-state relations director, who had accompanied him to Washington often enough to understand his intense antipathy to the city and its culture. It surprised me less when he hated the Senate, and began lashing out at his Senate Democratic colleagues and the party to which he nominally owed allegiance. In 2003, he published a strange memoir (titled, for maximum book sales to conservatives, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat), which enveloped a proud account of his own progressive record in brief but quote-worthy attacks on Democrats. Soon afterwards, he completed his apostasy with his RNC speech embracing George W. Bush and savaging his former colleague John Kerry.

For a while there, Miller was like fellow arch-Appalachian Andrew Johnson reincarnated, turning on former friends and embracing former enemies with equal passion. It seemed there was no GOP candidate he wasn’t willing to support, the nadir probably being his establishment of a group called Democrats for Santorum, just as the right-wing senator was going down the tubes in the 2006 elections in Pennsylvania.

But in the last few years, as his health declined and he became more distant from politics, the fiery mountaineer seemed to mellow. He mended fences with old Democratic friends and advisers James Carville and Paul Begala (whom he first introduced to Bill Clinton). And in his last major political endorsement, in 2014, he supported Democrat Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign.

You can think of that as a final “zig-zag,” or as a bit of a homecoming. I personally think it reflected a complicated and conflicted man who often regretted his own political impulses, and had more of a sense of humor about it all than most people realized.

I had some evidence for that suspicion. Back when it appeared, I wrote a review of A National Party No More that basically suggested Miller had lost his bearings after going to the Senate. The title was “Zell Bent.” A few months later a friend who had visited his Senate office brought me a handwritten note from my former boss (who was normally proper but not affectionate towards staff) that read: “Your review was fair and honest, and I remain your friend and admirer.” And he signed it “Zell Bent.”

He was one of a kind, and should be remembered for more than his zig-zags.


R.I.P. Zell Miller, a Democrat Who Zig-Zagged In Good and Bad Directions

Today’s crowded news cycle included the death of former Georgia governor and senator Zell Miller. Because many people from outside his native state have a limited view of his career, which I observed from up close, I wrote an assessment for New York:

Most news consumers remember Zell Miller, if they remember him at all, for his abrasive attacks on John Kerry — the presidential nominee of the party to which Miller had belonged for his entire, long life — at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Older folk may remember his keynote address at the 1992 Democratic Convention that nominated his close friend Bill Clinton.

People in his home state of Georgia are probably aware of additional aspects of Miller’s career, including his many years in elected office (he was lieutenant governor from 1975 until 1991, and governor from 1991 to 1999, before an appointed stint in the Senate from 2000 until 2005). They also know about his legacy initiative, the much-praised and imitated lottery-supported HOPE Scholarship program, which made college affordable for many hundreds of thousands of young Georgians while boosting academic standards at the state’s public colleges and universities by getting talented kids to stay in-state.

The length of Miller’s time in the public spotlight, and the wildly varying directions it took him, have often been encapsulated by the nickname he acquired from critics early on: “Zig-Zag Zell.” And the taunt goes back a lot further than his bookend Democratic and Republican convention addresses. Early on Miller ran twice for Congress in his native North Georgia mountains as an opponent of civil-rights legislation (a posture for which he later apologized), and then served as chief of staff for the state’s infamous segregationist governor Lester Maddox. But by 1974, Miller had managed to reframe himself as a relatively progressive Democrat in running for lieutenant governor, and by 1980 was most definitely the “liberal” candidate challenging the old reformed segregationist Herman Talmadge (losing in a Democratic runoff).

Elected governor in 1990 by running to the left of former ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and future governor Roy Barnes, Miller had a reasonably progressive record centered on HOPE and unprecedented appointments of women and minorities to executive and judicial offices. After his association with Clinton very nearly earned him defeat in 1994 (his Republican opponent ran hundreds of ads featuring Miller’s Democratic Convention speech, particularly the line, delivered in Zell’s mountain twang: “BILL CLINTON FEELS YORE PAIN”), he lost his zest for national Democratic politics. He was settling into multiple university teaching gigs and political retirement until he shocked most people he knew by accepting a Senate appointment when Paul Coverdell died in 2000.

No one was more shocked than I was, as his former (from 1992 through 1994) federal-state relations director, who had accompanied him to Washington often enough to understand his intense antipathy to the city and its culture. It surprised me less when he hated the Senate, and began lashing out at his Senate Democratic colleagues and the party to which he nominally owed allegiance. In 2003, he published a strange memoir (titled, for maximum book sales to conservatives, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat), which enveloped a proud account of his own progressive record in brief but quote-worthy attacks on Democrats. Soon afterwards, he completed his apostasy with his RNC speech embracing George W. Bush and savaging his former colleague John Kerry.

For a while there, Miller was like fellow arch-Appalachian Andrew Johnson reincarnated, turning on former friends and embracing former enemies with equal passion. It seemed there was no GOP candidate he wasn’t willing to support, the nadir probably being his establishment of a group called Democrats for Santorum, just as the right-wing senator was going down the tubes in the 2006 elections in Pennsylvania.

But in the last few years, as his health declined and he became more distant from politics, the fiery mountaineer seemed to mellow. He mended fences with old Democratic friends and advisers James Carville and Paul Begala (whom he first introduced to Bill Clinton). And in his last major political endorsement, in 2014, he supported Democrat Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign.

You can think of that as a final “zig-zag,” or as a bit of a homecoming. I personally think it reflected a complicated and conflicted man who often regretted his own political impulses, and had more of a sense of humor about it all than most people realized.

I had some evidence for that suspicion. Back when it appeared, I wrote a review of A National Party No More that basically suggested Miller had lost his bearings after going to the Senate. The title was “Zell Bent.” A few months later a friend who had visited his Senate office brought me a handwritten note from my former boss (who was normally proper but not affectionate towards staff) that read: “Your review was fair and honest, and I remain your friend and admirer.” And he signed it “Zell Bent.”

He was one of a kind, and should be remembered for more than his zig-zags.


March 22: GOP Plans to Take Down Joe Manchin Could Founder on Ex-Con Mine Owner’s Campaign

In watching the ever-changing Senate landscape for this November, an unexpected development from West Virginia caught my eye. Here’s my explanation from New York:

Of all the “Trump Ten” Democratic senators from states carried by the president in 2016 who are facing reelection this November, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin is fighting the strongest MAGA tide. Trump won his highest percentage in the Mountain State, defeating Hillary Clinton by a 69/26 margin. Enthusiasm for the 45th president in West Virginia has not flagged; according to Gallup, his average job approval rating in the state during 2017 was 61 percent — again, the highest in the country.

So despite Manchin’s popularity in the state (his job approval ratio as of the end of 2017, according to Morning Consult, was 52/36), he attracted two A-list Republican opponents: U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins, who represents coal country’s Third Congressional District, and Attorney General Pat Morrisey. But as a May 8 primary approaches, it’s a third candidate who has all the momentum and is seriously worrying Republicans: former mine owner Dan Blankenship. A prominent figure in West Virginia economic and political life for years, Blankenship gained national notoriety during his prosecution by the Justice Department for his alleged role in a 2010 mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 workers. He was acquitted of the felony charges the Feds wanted, but was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards, and served a year in a federal prison in California.

Now Blankenship has launched an unlikely Senate bid, which appears largely designed to reboot his brand. Thanks to his high name ID, his wealth, and his willingness to go after his GOP opponents, he’s soon become a formidable candidate, as Politico reports:

“Blankenship’s rise has been driven in part by his self-financed TV ads. Since launching his campaign in late November, Blankenship has spent over $1.1 million on roughly a dozen commercials, according to media buying totals, far surpassing his opponents. Morrisey has so far spent nothing on TV ads and Jenkins only about $38,000.

“Blankenship has used the ads to paint his rivals as insufficiently conservative, blasting Jenkins over his positions on Obamacare and climate change, and Morrisey on abortion. He’s positioned himself as an unshakable ally of President Donald Trump, who received 68 percent of the vote in the state.”

Jenkins is somewhat vulnerable as a former longtime Democratic state legislator who only became a Republican in 2013 when he decided to run for Congress. And Blankenship has gone after Morrisey for his law firm’s links to pharmaceutical companies, and his wife’s law firm’s representation of Planned Parenthood.

Objective public polls in this contest are hard to come by, but the consensus is that the race has become a close three-way fight. A new Morrisey-commissioned poll shows Jenkins dropping into third place behind Blankenship, who is right behind Morrisey.

A Manchin–Blankenship general election would be nasty and personal. The senator has said of the mine owner: “I believe Don has blood on his hands.” And Blankenship has charged that Manchin, who was governor at the time of the mine explosion, conspired with Barack Obama (not a popular figure in West Virginia) to send him to the hoosegow.

National Republicans understandably fear that this kind of grudge match would move a key Senate race away from the partisan and ideological issues where they have a big advantage in West Virginia. And even if Blankenship fades before May 8, he’s doing some damage to the other two candidates.

West Virginians seem split over Blankenship’s culpability in the death of the miners; their tendency to forgive him reflects the ancient dependence of the state on vanishing coal jobs and their defensiveness about federal efforts to regulate the industry. But if Blankenship makes it through the GOP primary, voters will have to come to grips with his decidedly mixed legacy.

And Joe Manchin would not be the only candidate with a bullseye on his back.


GOP Plans To Take Down Joe Manchin Could Founder on Ex-Con Mine Owner’s Campaign

In watching the ever-changing Senate landscape for this November, an unexpected development from West Virginia caught my eye. Here’s my explanation from New York:

Of all the “Trump Ten” Democratic senators from states carried by the president in 2016 who are facing reelection this November, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin is fighting the strongest MAGA tide. Trump won his highest percentage in the Mountain State, defeating Hillary Clinton by a 69/26 margin. Enthusiasm for the 45th president in West Virginia has not flagged; according to Gallup, his average job approval rating in the state during 2017 was 61 percent — again, the highest in the country.

So despite Manchin’s popularity in the state (his job approval ratio as of the end of 2017, according to Morning Consult, was 52/36), he attracted two A-list Republican opponents: U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins, who represents coal country’s Third Congressional District, and Attorney General Pat Morrisey. But as a May 8 primary approaches, it’s a third candidate who has all the momentum and is seriously worrying Republicans: former mine owner Dan Blankenship. A prominent figure in West Virginia economic and political life for years, Blankenship gained national notoriety during his prosecution by the Justice Department for his alleged role in a 2010 mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 workers. He was acquitted of the felony charges the Feds wanted, but was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards, and served a year in a federal prison in California.

Now Blankenship has launched an unlikely Senate bid, which appears largely designed to reboot his brand. Thanks to his high name ID, his wealth, and his willingness to go after his GOP opponents, he’s soon become a formidable candidate, as Politico reports:

“Blankenship’s rise has been driven in part by his self-financed TV ads. Since launching his campaign in late November, Blankenship has spent over $1.1 million on roughly a dozen commercials, according to media buying totals, far surpassing his opponents. Morrisey has so far spent nothing on TV ads and Jenkins only about $38,000.

“Blankenship has used the ads to paint his rivals as insufficiently conservative, blasting Jenkins over his positions on Obamacare and climate change, and Morrisey on abortion. He’s positioned himself as an unshakable ally of President Donald Trump, who received 68 percent of the vote in the state.”

Jenkins is somewhat vulnerable as a former longtime Democratic state legislator who only became a Republican in 2013 when he decided to run for Congress. And Blankenship has gone after Morrisey for his law firm’s links to pharmaceutical companies, and his wife’s law firm’s representation of Planned Parenthood.

Objective public polls in this contest are hard to come by, but the consensus is that the race has become a close three-way fight. A new Morrisey-commissioned poll shows Jenkins dropping into third place behind Blankenship, who is right behind Morrisey.

A Manchin–Blankenship general election would be nasty and personal. The senator has said of the mine owner: “I believe Don has blood on his hands.” And Blankenship has charged that Manchin, who was governor at the time of the mine explosion, conspired with Barack Obama (not a popular figure in West Virginia) to send him to the hoosegow.

National Republicans understandably fear that this kind of grudge match would move a key Senate race away from the partisan and ideological issues where they have a big advantage in West Virginia. And even if Blankenship fades before May 8, he’s doing some damage to the other two candidates.

West Virginians seem split over Blankenship’s culpability in the death of the miners; their tendency to forgive him reflects the ancient dependence of the state on vanishing coal jobs and their defensiveness about federal efforts to regulate the industry. But if Blankenship makes it through the GOP primary, voters will have to come to grips with his decidedly mixed legacy.

And Joe Manchin would not be the only candidate with a bullseye on his back.