washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

September 30: Real Democrats Don’t Love “the Senate As an Institution”

I ran across a quote from Kyrsten Sinema this week that made me angry, so I vented my spleen at New York.

In a cloying little exchange of pleasantries before Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema spoke from the podium of Mitch McConnell’s eponymous center at the University of Louisville on Monday, the Senate Republican leader called the Democrat “the most effective first-term senator” he’d ever seen. McConnell was probably being sincere given Sinema’s role, along with Joe Manchin, in saving the filibuster, the chief tool in the GOP’s obstructionist bag of tricks. He could have called her a “one-term senator” since her demise in 2024 seems all but certain after she alienated as many Arizona Democrats as she could, but that wouldn’t have been gracious. Instead, he went on to give her the highest token of his esteem, calling her a “deal-maker.”

For her part, Sinema noted that she and McConnell share a “respect for the Senate as an institution,” a statement she reinforced by calling for the restoration of 60-vote thresholds for executive and judicial-branch confirmations in the upper chamber, which were abolished by serial Democratic and Republican majorities in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Sinema is, you see, an old-school respecter of the Senate, which makes me sick to my stomach.

Anyone who spends time around the Senate (I worked there in the late 1980s and early 1990s and with Senate offices for years before and after that) is aware of the extremely high regard in which senators hold themselves “as an institution.” They don’t publicly bash House members as petty-minded, party-bossed parochial Lilliputians who have to spend all their time running for reelection. But the unstated though very real mutual disdain of the two congressional chambers is deeply rooted in the Senate’s distinctive constitutional role as an anti-democratic redoubt of entrenched privilege.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Sinema’s beloved filibuster, which in its most recent incarnation has made supermajorities a requirement for even routine legislation. But lest we forget, even if the filibuster went away, the Senate’s grant of equal power to all 50 states is profoundly undemocratic. The states themselves are not allowed to get away with such a gross misappropriation of legislative power. In the 1964 decision in Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, under the Equal Protection Act of the 14th Amendment, state legislatures had to respect the principal of “one person, one vote,” with seats in the upper as well as lower chambers being awarded in districts of equal population. As Chief Justice Earl Warren famously wrote in the Court’s opinion in a 8-1 decision:

“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.”

The logic is the same with respect to the model for all those once-oligarchical state upper chambers, the U.S. Senate itself. But the Senate has its own separate, unassailable constitutional basis. The Article I, Section 3 provision of the Constitution providing for equal representation of states in the Senate is expressly exempted from amendment in Article V (“no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate”). So we are stuck with an anti-democratic chamber. But we don’t have to celebrate it.

It’s important to remember the two reasons we have a U.S. Senate. First, it represented a compromise with those in the founding generation who wanted an unelected body like Britain’s House of Lords to counteract “the people’s House,” the lower chamber. But more important, as James Madison made clear in “Federalist 62,” it was essential to the ratification of the Constitution that the country maintain its original character as a compact of states, not as a truly United States:

“It may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each state, is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual states, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty …

“Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states.”

This understanding of the country as a modified confederation of states with a stronger central government than it originally had more or less perished with the outcome of the Civil War and the ratification of the Civil Rights Amendments (including the 14th Amendment, that great and still-evolving guarantee of individual rights against states rights). But the Senate remains as a relic of the era when McConnell’s hero Henry Clay and a host of other patriarchal slaveholders held the Union temporarily together by engaging in “deal-making” at the expense of human dignity. The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 and providing for the popular election of senators instead of letting state legislatures choose them, took the chamber as far toward democracy as a flawed Constitution would allow.

“Respect for the Senate as an institution” means contempt for democracy as a fundamental value. That is why those with respect for democracy — particularly those who profess to be a member of the Democratic Party — should do everything possible to minimize the Senate’s ability to function according to the Founders’ design instead of boasting about making the chamber even more susceptible to high-handed measures to frustrate the popular will.


September 28: The Gridlock Theory of the 2022 Midterms

In looking at the trajectory of the 2022 midterms, I noted at New York a theory that suggests we’d better get used to close elections that defy history:

With six weeks to go until Election Day, the midterms aren’t unfolding as we all expected earlier this year, when Republicans were better than even money to retake the Senate and a lead-pipe cinch to flip the House by a substantial margin. There are, of course, plenty of reasons you can cite for this change in the political climate, from the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision to somewhat better economic news to Donald Trump’s continued presence on the campaign trail to bad GOP-candidate selection. It’s nerve-racking, of course, because with Democrats holding the slightest of majorities in both congressional chambers, very small micro-trends in just a few states or districts could have enormous consequences for the parties and for the country (the consequences extend, of course, to state-level positions, not just governors but election-supervising secretaries of State).

But as political observers anxiously parse polls and hold up weather vanes to test partisan winds, Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter offers another way of looking at this election cycle:

“In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck write that American politics has become more polarized and calcified. Events and the responses to them from politicians no longer have the ability to deeply and fundamentally reshape our politics or political coalitions. ‘Voters and leaders in the two major parties are not only more ideologically distant from each other but also more likely to describe each other in harsh terms,’ they write. ‘In the fall of 2020, 90 percent of Americans said there were important differences in what the parties stood for — the highest number recorded in almost 70 years of American National Election Study surveys.’

“Moreover, they write, voters are ‘less likely to change their basic political evaluations or vote for the other party’s candidate.’ This calcification of our partisanship ‘produces rigidity in our politics — even when dramatic events suggest the potential for big changes.’

“In other words, if every election is an existential fight, then every election will be close. Or, as the Democratic strategist told me, ‘notably competitive.’”

If true, this would mean not only fewer “persuadable” swing voters to produce big shifts in the results from election to election, but likely a reduction in the sorts of “enthusiasm gaps” thought to affect partisan turnout patterns in the past. Elections would be more like a series of huge pre-mobilized armies meeting in a series of huge clashes with no prisoners taken (and little cooperation across party lines between elections). Even if that’s an exaggeration of the degree of gridlock from which our government and our electorate is suffering, we might truly be entering a period in which swings in party voting are limited. And as Sides, Tausanovitch, and Vavreck note, the “calcification” of party and ideological divisions can become self-perpetuating:

“Calcified politics and partisan parity combine to produce a self-reinforcing cycle. When control of government is always within reach, there is less need for the losing party to adapt and recalibrate. And if it stays on the same path, voters have little reason to revise their political loyalties.”

To be clear, very close elections can have variable outcomes. And in our winner-take-all system, the stakes will remain high. It will obviously make a great deal of difference which party wins the White House in 2024. Control of the Senate, moreover, depends as much on near-accidents of landscape than on the overall voting strength of the two parties, since only one-third of senators face voters each cycle. Democrats are benefiting from a modestly positive Senate landscape this year. Republicans should have a big Senate advantage in 2024. There is no guarantee either party can muster a governing “trifecta” in the future. As Republicans learned in 2017–18 and Democrats have learned in 2021–22, a trifecta isn’t all that if you can’t rigidly discipline all your troops all the time.

When white-knuckle time arrives just before Election Day this year, the odds are pretty good there will remain a lot of uncertainty about exactly what will happen when the votes are all counted (assuming we can get bipartisan buy-in on the results as officially certified, which is hardly a safe assumption at present). If Democrats managed to hold onto both congressional chambers, they may well feel vindicated by voters and go on to undertake an ambitious agenda in the next two years. More likely we will have a return to divided government and even more uncertainty and gridlock as we enter still another momentous election cycle.


September 23: About That House Republican Agenda

I’m certainly old enough to remember lots of these pre-election “agenda” documents, and couldn’t help but mock the latest one at New York:

In Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 cult novel The Crying of Lot 49, a character who has taken too much LSD decides that if everyone on earth repeats the marketing phrase “rich, chocolatey goodness,” it will represent the voice of God. With or without drugs, a lot of people in politics have a similar delusion that getting candidates to make the same noises like chirping cicadas will produce electoral victories. It’s a particularly strong belief among congressional Republicans, who share the dubious conviction that Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” is what flipped control of Congress in 1994.

With the assistance of Gingrich and former Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, the House Republican Conference has released a new “agenda” document, entitled “Commitment to America.” The document, clearly designed for online consumption, has lots of bells and whistles and factoids about the hellish reign of Joe Biden and his “Democrat” Party. What it doesn’t have is a whole lot of specificity, unlike the unfortunate “agenda” that Republican Senate Campaign Committee chairman Rick Scott released earlier this year to the near-universal horror of his colleagues, who don’t want to be identified with the proposed sunsetting of Social Security and Medicare.

The relatively anodyne character of Kevin McCarthy’s pet project doesn’t mean it is entirely useless. Candidates mouthing the approved pieties will presumably not be expressing their pithy views on Jewish space lasers or repeating QAnon slogans.

Still, it’s hard to take seriously an agenda for the nation that does not mention climate change, Russia, or extremist threats to democracy — or one that suggests the sole cure for inflation is to cut “wasteful government spending” without explaining what that means (in the indictment of Democrats that accompanies the agenda, there is much criticism of direct stimulus payments, which Donald Trump preferred to virtually every other form of government spending).

Most interesting was how House Republicans handled a red-hot issue they dare not ignore completely, given the obsession it commands among a very big chunk of the GOP party base: abortion. You have to look pretty hard to find it, nestled as it is under the unlikely heading of “A Government That’s Accountable,” and the downright misleading subheading of “a plan to defend America’s rights under the Constitution.” And it simply says Republicans will “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.” So they checked off a box for anti-abortion activists in the manner least likely to draw curious or unfriendly attention to the extreme abortion views so many of them have expressed, which don’t poll well. Perhaps voters will be too mesmerized by the overall party message to notice. Repeat after me: rich, chocolatey goodness.

 


September 21: The Return of Party “Issue Ownership”

I knew there was something familiar about the way Democratic and Republican strategists were talking about the 2022 issue landscape, and it finally hit me, as I noted at New York:

In the gospel according to the Church of Bipartisanship, the way politics should work is that each side should devise distinctive solutions to commonly identified problems and then compromise where necessary to get things done. If that doesn’t happen, the blame is typically assigned to self-serving politicians and fanatical activists who prefer gridlock to any accommodation of divergent views.

Reality is more complicated. In part, that’s because the real engines of gridlock are the institutional obstacles (especially the Senate filibuster and judicial review) available to minority parties to obstruct anything they don’t want to happen. Beyond that fundamental problem, moreover, is a flawed premise at the heart of the bipartisan proposition: The parties often don’t agree on any “commonly identified problems.” Indeed, as Ron Brownstein explains, that’s why Democrats and Republicans appear to be “talking past each other” in this year’s midterm-election chatter:

“As the Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told me, 2022 is not an election year when most Americans ‘agree on what the top priorities [for the country] are’ and debate ‘different solutions’ from the two major parties. Instead, surveys show that Republican voters stress inflation, the overall condition of the economy, crime, and immigration. For Democratic voters, the top priorities are abortion rights, the threats to democracy created by former President Donald Trump and his movement, gun control, climate change, and health care.”

Now this is not, of course, an entirely unprecedented phenomenon. Ever since polling and focus groups were invented, politicians have understood there are certain issues that favor or disfavor their own parties. For ages, Republicans have struggled to maintain credibility on fundamental fairness, maintenance of an adequate social safety net, and sensitivity to the needs of minorities, while Democrats aren’t really trusted to keep government efficient, attend to national security needs, or protect traditional moral values. Ceding whole areas to the opposition unfortunately tends to reinforce such stereotypes, which in turn makes loud shouting the way to elevate the issues one “owns.”

In living memory, some of the more innovative politicians in both parties have refused to play this game of ownership and instead sought to “capture,” or at least neutralize, the other party’s issues with distinctive policies of their own. Most famously, Bill Clinton, to the great dismay of Republicans and quite a few people in his own party, insisted on offering proposals aimed at reducing crime (e.g., community policing and deploying more officers on the streets), reforming welfare (originally a work-based proposal that maintained a personal entitlement to assistance), and “reinventing government.” Yes, Clinton, whose party did not control either chamber of Congress for six of his eight years in office, ultimately went too far in accommodating Republican policies on both crime and welfare reform (thus exposing him to the charge of “triangulating” against his own party). But the basic idea of offering Democratic proposals on public concerns outside the party’s comfort zone was smart, and it drove Republicans, who constantly complained that Clinton was “stealing our issues,” absolutely crazy.

Similarly, George W. Bush, on the advice of strategist Karl Rove, spent much of his first term offering modest but significant proposals on health care (a Medicare prescription-drug benefit), education (the No Child Left Behind Act), and immigration (a comprehensive reform measure) — all issues Democrats were generally thought to “own.” Like Clinton, he paid a price among party activists for “RINO” efforts to address “Democrat issues.” Arguably, the conservative backlash to his perceived heresies, especially on immigration, fed both the tea-party movement and its descendent, the MAGA movement, though Bush himself was clearly undone by the Iraq War and his inept reaction to a financial crisis. But the impulse to build credibility on salient public concerns where none existed was wise, and it was even in some minor respects emulated by Donald J. Trump (e.g., in his effort to co-opt criminal-justice reform via the Jared Kushner–brokered First Step Act).

Is anything like this kind of mold-breaking occurring at present? To some extent, Democrats have tried to address “Republican issues” involving the economy. Certainly, Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have spent much of 2021 and 2022 touting their budget proposals as essential to the task of building a strong economy. And while Joe Manchin might have been principally responsible for branding the fiscal year 2022 budget-reconciliation bill as an “Inflation Reduction Act,” by the time Biden signed the legislation, it had come to seem like a very good idea to most Democrats. The party has been less resolute in dealing with the crime issue, other than by constantly trying to rebut made-up claims that it wants to “defund the police” as part of an orgy of “wokeness.”

Republicans, perhaps because they thought they had a surefire winning message in 2022 and are loath to depart from it, have been less adept in adjusting to shifting public concerns that undermine their position. They justifiably think of abortion as a “Democrat issue” right now — one that threatens to boost Democratic turnout while flipping many suburban swing voters — and when Lindsey Graham tried to offer a proposal to reposition them on stronger ground, the reaction among Republicans was overwhelmingly negative, as the Washington Post reported:

“In a memo to GOP campaigns released this week, the Republican National Committee laid out what it called a winning message on abortion: Press Democrats on where they stand on the procedure later in pregnancy, seek ‘common ground’ on exceptions to bans and keep the focus on crime and the economy. Then, Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy — overshadowing new inflation numbers and undermining what many GOP strategists see as their best message for the fall: ‘Leave it to the states.’

“’It’s an absolute disaster,’ GOP strategist John Thomas said, as Republican Senate nominees already targeted for their comments on abortion were asked to weigh in. ‘Oy vey,’ he said when informed that Blake Masters in battleground state Arizona had just expressed his support.”

Even if Republicans succeed in making inflation or crime or border control more salient than abortion among 2022 voters, they will pay a price down the road — among voters generally and in their powerfully anti-abortion base — by running for the hills when an issue is raised that’s not going to go away in the foreseeable future. Maybe someday the two parties can get onto the same page when it comes to the menu of national problems they intend to address. But don’t hold your breath.


September 16: Georgia’s Grudge Re-Match

As a former long-time resident of Georgia, I still follow politics there closely, and filed this update on the governor’s race at New York:

In 2020, Georgia became the ultimate battleground state with a very close presidential contest and two Senate races that went into overtime and ultimately decided control of the chamber. The tradition continues this year with another close and crucial Senate race featuring incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.

But for aficionados of high principle and hardball tactics, the race to watch is the rematch of Republican governor Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. Kemp is a hard-core conservative and veteran vote suppressor who survived a purge attempt by Donald Trump earlier this year, while Abrams is a nationally renowned voting-rights champion who came very close to winning four years ago in the most successful Georgia Democratic gubernatorial campaign of this century. The two pols represent polarized and evenly matched parties in a state that has turned from red to purple thanks to demographic change. Abrams has helped build a powerful coalition of Black voters aligned with white moderates in the rapidly growing Atlanta suburbs, and Kemp, the product of an older Georgia in the iron grip of exurban and rural conservatives, has fought her every step of the way. It’s likely Georgia is in the process of turning blue, but the peculiar forces in play in this midterm election could give the GOP a reprieve. It will probably come down to which party best mobilizes its base in November.

Without question, the Abrams-Kemp contest is a grudge match between candidates with a lot of history together. During and prior to their 2018 race, Kemp exploited his position as secretary of State to purge voter rolls and close polling stations aggressively, while running a savagely ideological campaign as a “politically incorrect conservative” backed by Trump. After his very narrow win, Abrams was so angry at his abuse of office that she refused to officially concede (though she did not contest his right to serve as governor).

The desire to eject Kemp from the governor’s office and a career-long goal of gaining either the governorship or the presidency impelled Abrams to pass up some tantalizing opportunities. She could easily have won a Senate nomination in 2020 to face David Perdue (Jon Ossoff ran instead and won), and no one batted an eye when she was spoken of early in the cycle as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate. After deservedly getting significant credit for building the voter-registration and vote-turnout machine that allowed Democrats to make such impressive gains in 2020, she was the uncontested choice for a second gubernatorial nomination.

Going into 2022, Democrats were looking forward to popping popcorn and enjoying a Republican civil war as Trump (infuriated by Kemp’s co-certification of Biden electors and his refusal to buy into MAGA election conspiracies) talked former senator Perdue into a primary challenge to the sitting governor. At first, Perdue looked formidable, but in the end, Kemp absolutely demolished him by nearly a three-to-one margin, carrying all of Georgia’s 159 counties. Indeed, Georgia Republicans under Kemp’s leadership administered Trump’s worst setbacks of the entire primary season, as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (hated even more than Kemp by MAGA folk) and two other statewide Trump targets won their races. The very size of the beatdown minimized any intraparty grudges as Perdue quickly endorsed Kemp, Trump kept his mouth shut, and Republicans united by respectful fear of Abrams closed ranks.

While the usual smears of Abrams as a hustler (a charge levied at all Black pols in the Deep South with no evidence deemed necessary) and an extremist (belied by her very mainstream platform) are a regular feature of the GOP campaign in Georgia, Kemp has drawn on assets beyond thinly veiled appeals to racism and sexism and a surprisingly united party. The state’s booming economy and burgeoning revenues have allowed Kemp and the legislature his party controls to enact voter-pleasing measures like tax cuts and a gasoline-tax suspension. He has also tried to blunt one of Abrams’s signature issues, Medicaid expansion, by obtaining a waiver from the Trump administration (and successfully defending it in court against efforts by the Biden administration to revoke it) in a small expansion of health-care services tied to work requirements. Kemp’s job-approval ratings have generally been above water, though not by much.

Abrams has supplemented her generally moderate 2018 platform by calling for legalized sports betting to help fund public-education improvements, building on the successful legacy of the late Zell Miller’s lottery-for-education initiative back in the 1990s. And she is definitely trying to capitalize on the backlash to the Dobbs decision by emphasizing her commitment to abortion rights and attacking the “heartbeat” law Kemp signed in 2019 and quickly began to enforce, banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and giving fetuses certain legal rights.

But while both candidates are pitching swing voters on their specific policy proposals, the contest is essentially a battle of base mobilization in a deeply polarized state. A recent poll of the contest by Quinnipiac made that clear:

“Republicans (98 – 1 percent) back Kemp, while Democrats (97 – 2 percent) back Abrams. Independents are split, with 50 percent backing Abrams and 48 percent backing Kemp.

“Nearly all likely voters (94 percent) who support a candidate in the race for governor say their minds are made up about how they will cast their vote, while 5 percent say they might change their minds before the election.”

That’s a narrow band of persuadable voters in a race Qunnipiac called nearly even (with Kemp leading by two points) among likely voters generally.

Abrams is building on her renowned voter-registration and turnout efforts, along with those deployed (especially by Ossoff) in the 2020 Senate races to break a long Georgia Democratic losing streak in general-election runoffs that place a premium on turning out voters. Kemp’s backers believe they would have won those runoffs had Trump not discouraged Republican base voters by calling the state’s Republican-run election machinery “rigged.” They hope to match or surpass Democrats in getting out the vote in November.

Early in the cycle, it looked as if Kemp would benefit, like all Republicans, from a stiff midterm breeze favoring the GOP. That has, for the moment, all but dissipated, leaving these two very effective pols to slug it out in a relatively even landscape tilted just a bit by Kemp’s powers of incumbency. Unlike Kemp’s ticket mate the GOP Senate nominee Walker, who has been dodging debates with primary opponents and general-election rival Warnock all year (though he has finally agreed to one), Kemp and Abrams agreed early on to two televised debates in October. They certainly know each other’s strong and weak spots extremely well.

Kemp enters the home stretch as a very narrow betting favorite, but don’t count out Abrams, already the most successful Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate of this century, whose candidacy will likely generate the kind of enthusiasm that only people whose rights are endangered can show to their champion.


September 15: 2022’s Debate on Debates

An old subject has arisen unusually often in this midterm election year, and I addressed it at New York:

The received wisdom from political scientists on candidate debates is that, outside the presidential arena where everything gets attention, they rarely have a significant effect. This is mostly because viewership of anything other than a presidential debate is typically limited to the kinds of political junkies who have already made up their minds. The exception comes when a candidate makes a serious gaffe in a debate (e.g., former Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s inexplicable brain freeze during her opening remarks in a 2010 encounter she nonetheless survived); the news media will cover it, and the opposing campaign will heavily publicize it. This is why front-runners tend to avoid or minimize debates, while candidates who are in danger of losing will relentlessly call for as many as possible to maximize the opportunities for lightning to strike.

But it’s clear that the debates over debates are assuming a bigger role than usual in the 2022 midterms. There are two key reasons: a breakdown in bipartisan understanding about when and where general-election debates occur, and a couple of high-profile contests in which it’s entirely possible that debates could be decisive.

As a CNN rundown of debates on debates shows, there are an unusual number of contests this year in which, for various reasons, candidates cannot agree on the timing, frequency, or format of a debate. Some states have such a strong tradition of revisiting a particular debate venue or host that the event just happens regardless of either candidate’s strategic needs. This is the case in the Florida Senate race, as CNN notes:

“In Florida, a statewide coordinator for the long-running “Before You Vote” debates, Ron Sachs, told the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his opponent, Democrat Rep. Val Demings, had committed to an October 18 debate to be broadcast in the state’s 10 major media markets. It is the only debate both candidates have reportedly agreed to so far, though neither has explicitly acknowledged that publicly.”

In these cases, noncompliant candidates risk the event’s taking place with just one participant. This leads to one of the hoariest traditions of them all: the compliant candidate “debating” an empty chair or a podium. It’s a bad look for the absent candidate and gives the attending candidate an extended free ad, assuming it’s televised. It may even matter in a very close race (as it appears to have done in Georgia’s 2020 Senate runoff between Jon Ossoff and David Perdue).

But there seem to be fewer and fewer of these must-have bipartisan debates these days. The trend accelerated at the presidential level earlier this year when the Republican National Committee flat-out banned participation in events organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The group had been jointly founded by the two major parties, but in this MAGA era of Republican politics, it has been deemed “biased.” Henceforth, presidential debates will be negotiated between campaigns that are busily hurling demands and insults at each other (if they happen at all).

This trend appears to be spreading to the sub-presidential level as well. The situation in Nevada’s very close Senate race, as reported by CNN, is typical:

“After Republican Adam Laxalt won the Republican Senate primary in June, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto agreed to three debates.

“Ignoring that trio of debates, Laxalt wrote on Twitter in August that he had instead agreed to two statewide televised debates hosted by local television stations and was continuing ‘to consider other debate invites.’ Laxalt spokeswoman Courtney Holland pointed to the Republican candidate’s previous comments, noting that Cortez Masto has not agreed to the two debates Laxalt proposed and accusing the Democratic incumbent of ‘hiding from her constituents.’

“’It’s clear Laxalt can’t defend his record and wants to avoid being held accountable on the debate stage,’ said Josh Marcus-Blank, a Cortez Masto campaign spokesman.”

There are two crucial Senate races this fall in which proposed debates have assumed an outsize importance thanks to concerns about a candidate’s ability to function in that environment — or, for that matter, in the Senate itself. After almost comically misfiring on a number of fronts, Pennsylvania Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz seems to have settled on drawing attention to the stroke that his opponent, John Fetterman, had earlier this year, using multiple debate challenges as a means of questioning the Democrat’s fitness for office. At first, like most front-runners, Fetterman ignored the Oz campaign’s constant taunting. But amid signs that Oz may have reversed his candidacy’s downward trajectory, Fetterman has now agreed to participate in at least one debate on October 25.

An even more unusual debate over debates developed in Georgia, where Republican nominee Herschel Walker had seemed reluctant to debate, even though, unlike Fetterman, he is at best locked in a tight race. After refusing to commit to three separate debate invitations, Walker said this week that he will meet Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock on October 14. Walker is a novice candidate with multiple issues (including mental-health troubles, shady business dealings, and previously unacknowledged children) that he would just as soon not discuss in an uncontrolled environment. He successfully avoided debates and even interviews during his primary campaign and has made strange, incoherent comments on the campaign trail when not tightly scripted. Warnock, by contrast, is an experienced candidate and a minister who has been preparing and delivering Sunday sermons for most of his adult life. You can see why Walker wouldn’t want to take him on.

It’s possible that debate-shy candidates like Walker and Fetterman always intended to debate but wanted to lower expectations so that even a weak performance would seem like a vindication. Candidates who have the most to lose from a poor debate performance will work diligently to make sure they don’t matter much at all.


September 1: How a Democrat Beat Sarah Barracuda in Alaska

Here’s my take from New York on the very special House election in Alaska that concluded with a ranked-choice vote tabulation on August 31:

Alaska voters spurned a comeback bid by former governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and instead sent Democrat Mary Peltola to Washington to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House until January. Peltola will be the first woman and the first Alaska Native to hold the state’s one U.S. House seat, albeit temporarily. She’s the first Democrat in that position since 1973, when Republican Don Young, whose death in March necessitated this special election, first won the seat.

Peltola’s victory was made possible by Nick Begich III voters’ unwillingness to make fellow Republican Palin their second choice under the state’s new ranked-choice system. In the top-four primary on June 11, Palin finished first, Begich was second, independent Al Gross was third, and Peltola — who had a mere 10 percent of the vote — was fourth. But Gross soon dropped out, creating a top-three general election with Peltola drawing a lot of Gross’s supporters.

The general election took place on August 16, but the final results were only announced on August 31. Peltola won 40 percent, Palin 31 percent, and Begich 29 percent — eliminating him from the contest and reallocating his voters’ second preferences. In a special ranked-choice tabulation live-streamed by state election officials, it was revealed that only 50.3 percent of Begich voters backed Palin, while 28.7 percent supported Peltola and another 20.9 percent left the ballot line for a second preference blank. This gave Peltola the victory by a margin of 51.5 percent to Palin’s 48.5 percent.

Some observers will attribute the upset to the ranked-choice voting system itself, which Palin bitterly denounced as “crazy, convoluted, confusing” after her defeat was made clear. But while Gross’s withdrawal definitely ensured Peltola would make the final round, it’s not entirely clear things would have turned out differently with the traditional system had Palin won a Republican primary, then faced Peltola. A July poll from Alaska Survey Research showed Palin with a 37-60 favorable/unfavorable rating while relatively little-known former legislator Peltola rang in at 37-16. Peltola hit some progressive themes as a general-election candidate including support for abortion rights, ocean productivity, and food security. But as the Associated Press noted, she was able to rise above the fray as Palin and Begich pounded each other.

The winner has a uniquely Alaskan background, as CNN observed:

‘Peltola, who turned 49 on Wednesday, is the daughter of a Yup’ik mother and a Nebraskan father who had moved north to teach school and later became a bush pilot.

“She had spent a decade in Alaska’s House of Representatives, from 1999 to 2009, where she chaired the bipartisan “bush” caucus of rural lawmakers and overlapped with Palin, her leading opponent in the special congressional race, who was governor from late 2006 through mid-2009. Peltola later became a Bethel City Council member, a lobbyist and a salmon advocate as the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.”

Peltola’s authenticity may have subtly fed on resentment of Palin’s perceived abandonment of the state after Palin’s abrupt resignation as governor in 2009 following her failed national campaign, followed by a peripatetic political and pop-culture career mostly taking place in the Lower 48. Palin jumped into the House special-election race late (Begich had already been running against Young) and only gained steam when Donald Trump endorsed her.

For the moment, Pelota is a surprise addition to the Democrats’ fragile House majority from a very red state (Trump defeated Biden in Alaska by 10 points in 2020). It’s possible that Peltola’s service and the much higher name ID she will soon gain will make her a formidable candidate in November. In the regular primary for a full term in Congress (which took place the same day as the special general election), Peltola again finished first with Palin second and Begich third. A fourth candidate, Republican Tara Sweeney, was far behind, and, like Gross in the special election, she has indicated that she plans to withdraw. After losing the special election, Palin immediately vowed to fight on to November. “Though we’re disappointed in this outcome, Alaskans know I’m the last one who’ll ever retreat,” she said.

But you have to figure that Republicans unhappy with Palin losing a House seat that the party controlled for 49 years, and looking at her unfavorability numbers, may be tempted to consolidate their support behind Begich to give Peltola a stronger challenger. How the two Republicans behave toward each other and what national Republicans frantic to win the seat do to boost the odds of victory may do a lot to determine the outcome. But at the moment, Mary Peltola’s political future looks a lot brighter than Sarah Barracuda’s.


August 26: What if Democrats Actually Control Congress in 2023?

With so much of the political landscape in a state of flux right now, it’s time to think very positively for a minute, as I did at New York this week:

At the moment, gamblers would be advised to bet that Republicans will control the House and Democrats the Senate when it’s all said and done this November. This has for the most part been the betting line since Republican optimism about the upper chamber began to fade once the shortcomings of some of their Senate nominees became apparent. And despite strong recent showings by Democrats in the generic congressional ballot and a reduction in the predicted GOP gains by most handicappers, the probability of Democrats hanging on to the House (currently set at 22 percent by FiveThirtyEight) remains low. In terms of governing in the two years before the next presidential contest, that’s the ball game. Without the trifecta it now enjoys, Joe Biden’s party won’t be able to get much done other than confirm presidential appointees, assuming it does control the Senate. That’s not nothing, but it portends a stretch of time when it is mostly focused on 2024 and preventing a MAGA reconquest of the White House by Trump or DeSantis or some other scary figure. It really doesn’t matter how many senators it has if Kevin McCarthy is sitting there like a troll blocking any Democratic legislation from emerging in the House.

But it’s important to note that the trend lines for Democrats remain quite positive; even the key lagging indicator, Joe Biden’s job-approval rating, is now moving up at a slow but steady pace (gaining five points in just over a month in the RealClearPolitics averages). So the question needs to be asked: What if Democrats pulled off the shocker and won the House as well?

“If the legislative story of the past two years — of the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — is the return of industrial policy, then the legislative story of the next two years must be the return of social policy, as well as an all-out effort to protect and secure the rights that are under assault by the Republican Party and its allies on the Supreme Court.”

Bouie specifically mentions a robust permanent child-tax credit in the social-policy arena, and then abortion rights, voting rights, and union rights in the latter category. But of course, he acknowledges, this would require not just continuation of the current balance of power in Congress, but a little more help in the Senate:

“[T]o pass any of these laws, Democrats will have to kill the legislative filibuster. Otherwise this agenda, or any other, is dead in the water. If Democrats win a Senate majority of 51 or 52 members, they might be able to do it. And they should.”

So the road to a potential legislative nirvana passes through two difficult obstacles: how historically rare it is for the president’s party to avoid House losses (particularly when the president isn’t very popular), and the fact that two current Democratic senators are dead set against filibuster reform, which is necessary to any major congressional action outside the budget process.

Is a 52-Democrat Senate possible after the midterms? Yes, though it would require that Democrats hold vulnerable seats in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada while flipping Republican seats in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (or possibly Florida, North Carolina, or Ohio). At the moment, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecasts, Democrats are favored in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, and they have a good shot in Wisconsin. So it’s hardly crazy to think they might be able to tell Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to kiss the filibuster good-bye in the 118th Congress. Once again, that only matters, though, if Democrats hold the House.

If that small miracle did occur, you have to wonder if Nancy Pelosi would reconsider her expressed plans to step down as the top Democratic leader in 2023. Any Democratic majority would be very small, and her skill in managing a very small majority in the current Congress might not be transferable.

Such questions still seem far down the road at this point, with history, Florida and Texas gerrymanders, and the current state of play all suggesting a Republican House. It should be reasonably clear that if a beneficent God gives them another two years of trifecta control, they should ruthlessly exploit it to get things done. The 2024 Senate landscape is simply horrid for Democrats, who will have to defend 23 seats — six in states carried by Trump in either 2016 or 2020 — even as Republicans defend just ten seats, all of them in states Trump carried twice. However you feel about how much or how little Democrats got done in the last two years, the next two — if they’re lucky — could represent an opportunity that may not come around for a good while.


July 25: Crist Tries Novel Approach Against Bully-Boy DeSantis

Veteran ex-Republican pol Charlie Crist was chosen by Florida Democrats to take on the very menacing Governor Ron DeSantis. I had some thoughts at New York about Crist’s apparent strategy.

Former and would-be future Florida governor Charlie Crist is famously one of the sunniest people in politics. In a classic profile of the perma-tanned ex-Republican and ex-independent candidate during his first gubernatorial run as a Democrat in 2014, Michael Kruse marveled at the authenticity with which Crist uttered cringeworthy pandering remarks:

“One of the guests [at a political event] asked, ‘Governor, do you ever have bad days?’ And he answered, ‘It hardly ever happens! How can you have bad days? We live in Florida!’”

Now that Crist is taking on the powerful and aggressively abrasive culture warrior Ron DeSantis, Kruse wondered earlier this year if such an upbeat politician was mismatched in a contest that seemed to call for maximum confrontation:

“[T]he way Crist is running is a bet. That people are exhausted of the nonstop politics of conflict. That what they want really is to dial down the volume and the vitriol. And that almost all Democrats will vote for Crist and almost all Republicans will vote for DeSantis but that enough of the people somewhere in whatever’s left of the middle will vote because of this for Crist.”

But the day after Crist easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary over the more hard-edged Nikki Fried, he seemed to strike a new and somewhat startling tone:

That doesn’t sound very sunny, does it? But if you listen to his full remarks, he follows this dismissal of DeSantis supporters with an appeal to a broad coalition of voters:

“I want the vote of the people of Florida who care about our state: good Democrats, good independents, good Republicans.”

This echoes his primary-night attack on DeSantis: “Guys, this is simple. Governor DeSantis only cares about the White House, he doesn’t care about your house.” So Crist is indeed continuing the “bet” that he can contrast himself with DeSantis precisely over their stark differences in temperament, focus, and perhaps even authenticity.  At the same time, he’s drawing that contrast with a degree of passion that should satisfy Democrats who want to wage war on the man they fear as Trump 2.0, a coldly calculating authoritarian who knows exactly how to stimulate the fears and hatreds of his MAGA base while keeping the trains running on time. By calling out MAGA voters as snakes in the Garden of Eden that is his beloved Florida, Crist can perhaps have it both ways.

But it’s a gamble. Politicians hardly ever publicly write off voters. For a “legendary retail pol” (as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti recently called Crist), it must be actually painful. Yes, there aren’t nearly as many swing voters today as there were as recently as the 1990s, and boosting base enthusiasm has become the touchstone of candidate messaging lately, particularly in low-turnout midterm elections. Still, condemning your opponent’s supporters as incorrigible while appealing to members of that opponent’s party is tricky (though perhaps Crist, a former Republican, can present himself as a role model). You can be sure that Team DeSantis will take full advantage of Crist’s “don’t want your hateful vote” comment to rile up MAGA voters and tell potential defectors from his coalition that Democrats are the ones who are being hateful and divisive.

Over the course of a general-election campaign, however, it will be hard for anyone paying attention to view Crist as a hater. He will likely convey the sense that he is sad more than angry at what DeSantis is doing to Florida and wants to do to America from sea to shining sea. It’s as likely to work as any other strategy, as this is a midterm where Democrats are at a disadvantage and Florida is trending Republican.


July 19: Why MAGA Republicans Don’t Bother Proving Election Fraud

Took me a while, but it finally hit me that the anti-democratic tone of contemporary Republican politics has deep and disturbing roots, so I wrote about it at New York:

One of the maddening things about Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was “stolen” is that no proof of election fraud seems required to sustain the lie. Among the former president’s supporters, election denial is practically an article of faith; it relies more on conspiracy theories and mistrust of Trump’s enemies than any demonstrable facts. That’s why Trump can blithely assert not only that he won the 2020 election but that it was a historic landslide. The underlying assumption is that elections in the United States are now illegitimate. So why bother engaging with democracy at all if it produces patently “wrong” results?

This question lurks behind the MAGA movement’s growing hostility to democracy, not just to Democrats. In his discussions with grassroots Republicans in the election-denial stronghold of Arizona, New York Times reporter Robert Draper found that the old John Birch Society battle cry that America is “a republic, not a democracy” is on many tongues:

“What is different now is the use of ‘democracy’ as a kind of shorthand and even a slur for Democrats themselves, for the left and all the positions espoused by the left, for hordes of would-be but surely unqualified or even illegal voters who are fundamentally anti-American and must be opposed and stopped at all costs. That anti-democracy and anti-‘democracy’ sentiment, repeatedly voiced over the course of my travels through Arizona, is distinct from anything I have encountered in over two decades of covering conservative politics.”

The identification of conservative political causes as synonymous with Americanism isn’t new, of course. But it’s turning from a rhetorical device to an actual creed whereby the enemies of right-wing political success are deemed enemies to the country itself. This line of reasoning lets MAGA politicians and activists justify any means of resistance, including the often-threatened “Second Amendment remedies.” Kari Lake, Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, minces no words in hurling anathemas at Democrats and those who collaborate with them, as Draper notes:

“They have cast the 2022 election as not just history-defining but potentially civilization-ending. As Lake told a large crowd in downtown Phoenix the night before the primary: ‘It is not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats. This is a battle between freedom and tyranny, between authoritarianism and liberty and between good and evil.’ A week later, in response to the F.B.I.’s executing a search warrant at Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Lake posted a statement on Twitter: ‘These tyrants will stop at nothing to silence the Patriots who are working hard to save America.” She added, ‘America — dark days lie ahead for us.'”

With the very existence of America at stake in every election, does it really matter whether you can prove the “evil” people broke the rules in each individual case? Probably not. And that helps explain why election denial is still flourishing in Arizona. When the state’s bizarre 2020 election audit dragged on for many months and proved nothing that simply led to more assertions that Democrats and RINOs were suppressing the truth. Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for secretary of State, has summed up the Arizona GOP’s illogic by arguing that the burden of proof should be borne by those who consider legitimate elections legitimate:

A former GOP operative told Draper the particular susceptibility of Arizona Republicans to this sort of madness (aside from a tradition of extremism dating back to Barry Goldwater) may be attributable to a huge retiree population prone to conspiracy theories:

“’These are all folks that have traded in their suit pants for sweatpants,’ he said. ‘They’re on the golf course, or they’re in hobby mode. They have more than enough time on their hands. They’re digesting six to 10 hours of Fox News a day. They’re reading on Facebook. They’re meeting with each other to talk about those headlines. And they’re outraged that, ‘Can you believe that the government is lying to us about this?’”

But there’s clearly something else going on in Arizona and the nation that is deeper than the spread of disinformation. Hostility not just to government but to our democratic system of elections has been growing on the right for quite some time. It was evident during the Supreme Court coup of Bush v. Gore and the contempt Republicans expressed for the 2000 Democratic popular-vote victory. It was more fully manifest in the nasty right-wing reaction to the election of Barack Obama, whose legitimacy as president was regularly challenged and whose social and economic policies were attacked for allegedly redistributing resources from “deserving” taxpayers to undeserving poor people. The feeling on the right that democracy had broken America was expressed perfectly by Obama’s 2012 challenger Mitt Romney in his infamous remarks deploring the ability of the “47 percent” of Americans who owe no net income tax to vote themselves government benefits.

The ideological vanguard of the anti-Obama tea-party movement were the politicians and opinion leaders who dubbed themselves “constitutional conservatives,” typified by Jim DeMint, Michele Bachmann, and Ted Cruz. They held that conservative policy prescriptions were embedded in the Founders’ design for America and were eternally binding, regardless of the contrary wishes of democratic majorities. And the absolutism of the constitutional conservative belief system was typically strengthened by Christian nationalist views. An increasing number of conservatives seemed to believe that small government, gun and property rights, and conservative cultural totems like homophobia and fetal rights were handed down by the Founders with the explicit blessing of Jesus Christ. In this scheme, democracy is a strictly circumscribed means for choosing stewards of these inflexible traditions, never to be traduced without dire consequences for the republic.

Donald Trump and his followers took constitutional conservatism to its next level: an aggressive creed mixing libertarian hostility to government with reactionary cultural views, all wrapped in the super-patriotic rhetoric of American greatness. Today’s MAGA-dominated GOP is a perfect playground for people like Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, the Arizona Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate whose campaign Thiel has bankrolled. Thiel proclaimed in 2009, as the tea-party movement began to rage against Obama’s election, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” A few years earlier, Masters said, “People who support what we euphemistically call ‘democracy’ or ‘representative government’ support stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit.”

This authoritarianism in the name of liberty and godliness certainly seems counterintuitive, but it’s extremely useful as a political weapon. Anyone utilizing the democratic process to promote alternative policy visions is deemed un-American, and their successes are dismissed as illegitimate. Or as Trump put it in August 2020: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” That could mean fraudulent ballots, or it could mean allowing immigrants who should have never been admitted to America to vote, or it could mean an election controlled by the 47 percent who expect something for nothing. Any democratic process that fails to affirm the righteous views of Trump and his supporters must be “rigged.”