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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

July 31: Trump’s Ultimate Strategy on Voting By Mail

An ominous series of strategic moves from Donald Trump began to dawn on me, and I wrote about it for New York:

The president is getting a lot of much-deserved negative attention for his weird little tweet  suggesting that the 2020 election should be delayed — up to and including a co-founder of the Federalist Society saying that it was “fascistic” and merited a new impeachment proceeding. But considering how rapidly the idea is being repudiated by everyone in both parties, it’s likely Trump was simply adding fuel to the fire of his relentless campaign to stigmatize voting by mail, which he continued in an afternoon press conference. And it’s increasingly apparent that he has a two-pronged strategy in doing this, based on the strong likelihood that even if all the experts mock his claims about voting by mail, Republican voters will listen, setting up a strange dual election in which one party’s voters disproportionately show up on Election Day while the others disproportionately vote by mail.

One reason he might want to do this is highlighted by David Wasserman in a column warning that mail ballots are always more likely to be invalidated than in-person ballots, with the disparity skyrocketing this year:

“The real danger is a perfect catastrophe of administrative overload, postal delays and voter error that could lead to millions of absentee ballots not counting. And this year, unlike the past, those ballots are likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic … An extensive study by Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, estimates the true number of uncounted mail ballots in 2016 was … 1.4 million — 4 percent of all mail ballots cast.

“’Voting by mail is twice as involved administratively than voting in person,” Stewart said. “If problems arise in mail voting, it’s twice as hard to correct them than it is in person. And first-time voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected.’”

And that’s in a normal year, when you don’t have the number of people trying to vote by mail — many of them in states totally unaccustomed to this phenomenon — spiked by fears of contracting a deadly virus, and/or by inadequate in-person voting infrastructure in their neighborhoods (especially minority neighborhoods). As Wasserman observes, the record of states handling mail ballots in this year’s primaries has been ominous:

“[I]n pandemic-era primaries, rejection rates have been even higher, as ill-equipped and understaffed election offices strain to meet surging demand for mail ballots from voters inexperienced with casting them.

“In Wisconsin, over 9,000 requested ballots were never mailed to voters and 23,000 absentees (more than 2 percent) were rejected. In Kentucky’s Fayette County, the state’s second largest, 8 percent of absentees were tossed out. And in parts of New York City, upward of 20 percent of absentees have been flagged as invalid.”

If big majorities of these mail ballots are being cast by Democrats, then Democrats will lose votes they would otherwise harvest. And in a close election, that could be decisive, or at least muddy the waters.

And speaking of muddy waters, there appears to be a second prong of Trump’s strategy, which I have written about before:

“In most states, Election Day results are reported first (and in all states they are counted before late-arriving mail ballots and provisional ballots, both of which already tend to skew Democratic). So if Republicans are disproportionately voting in person and Democrats are disproportionately voting by mail, misleading early returns may show Trump and other Republicans doing much better than they will eventually do, enabling Trump to claim fraud when those evil mail ballots turn it all around for Biden and his Democrats.

“Anyone doubting this is a plausible scenario needs to look back to 2018, when Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy made specious claims of voter fraud when late-arriving mail ballots predictably shifted the results in key House races in California. It could have been a dress rehearsal for what might happen this November.”

And it’s with this scenario in mind that an even later tweet by Trump today should be viewed, in which he said: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months or even years later!”

After having this message beaten into their brains by Trump for weeks on end, MAGA folk — and for that matter, election officials in Republican-controlled states and counties — will be very inclined to view mail-ballot-dominated later returns as fraudulent, just as POTUS keeps saying they are. I don’t know exactly what Trump will do with the toxic atmosphere he might create with Election Night claims of total victory based on relatively small fractions of the ultimate vote. Maybe it would spawn litigation, or violence in the streets, or even schemes for Republican legislatures to begin naming electors since the popular vote is “disputed.”

Either way, by hook or by crook, a partisan split in methods of voting may give Trump an unearned advantage he’ll really need in November.

Now that they have the whip hand in coronavirus stimulus negotiations in Washington, it would be a good time for congressional Democrats to make the new funds ($3.6 billion) for election assistance a must-have priority. Perhaps more competent election administration can cut down on the number of mail ballots invalidated on minor technical grounds. And surely improving the sense that we are holding a fully legitimate election that maximizes the opportunity to vote will help silence those from the White House on down who will seize on uncertainties to cry havoc.


July 29: The Evolution of the Veep Reveal

With Joe Biden indicating he will announce his choice of running-mate next week, I decided to do a brief reminder at New York of how this “reveal” has evolved over time.

Until pretty recently, the veep preference of the nominee was traditionally announced, and more often than not actually determined, at the convention itself. In part that was because the identity of the presidential nominee wasn’t always nailed down heading into the convention, making a running mate announcement more than a little presumptuous. Additionally, the veep selection often represented a plum appointment that might prove helpful either in winning the nomination or uniting a splintered party. The ultimate non-presumptuous gesture was made by Adlai Stevenson in 1956, when he allowed the the Democratic convention to name his running mate in open balloting for the gig. After three ballots the convention chose Tennessee populist Estes Kefauver over a young senator named John F. Kennedy (with the father of a future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Albert Gore Sr., finishing third, and yet another future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, running fourth).

Equally unpredictable veep selections took place at conventions for less indifferent reasons. In 1968, Richard Nixon picked Spiro T. Agnew as an inoffensive choice after better-known options were vetoed by party factions he consulted. He did not, of course, know that Agnew would eventually resign in disgrace during his second vice-presidential term as part of a plea bargain, when he was caught taking bribes dating back to his first public office as Baltimore County Executive. In 1972, George McGovern was turned down by multiple pols before he turned to Senator Tom Eagleton — later dropped from the ticket for undisclosed health problems and drunk-driving citations (after, unfortunately, McGovern said he was “1,000 percent” behind the Missourian).

The Eagleton fiasco helped produce today’s very careful process of extensive vetting of potential running mates. That happened in tandem with a presidential nominating process dominated by primaries, which robbed conventions of most of their deliberative nature and also made possible pre-convention running mate announcements. According to data assembled by Nathaniel Rakich, the last veep announcement at a convention was in 1988 when Poppy Bush (himself announced at the 1980 convention as Reagan’s running mate after wild speculation about a Reagan-Ford ticket) chose Dan Quayle. Since then, all but two veep reveals occurred within a week of the convention, at which the choice would be formally ratified (including Obama’s naming of Biden just three days before the 2008 convention). The exceptions were John Kerry’s announcement of John Edwards as his partner 20 days before the 2004 Democratic convention and Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan 16 days before 2012’s RNC. With the 2020 Democratic convention beginning on August 17, Biden will soon be within the historical window for going public with his choice.

Occasionally the timing of veep announcements has had a secondary purpose. In 2008, John McCain’s surprise announcement of Sarah Palin occurred the day after the Democratic convention nominated Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The idea was to “step on” news from the Democrats and shorten and flatten any convention “bounce.” It worked to some extent. Hillary Clinton tried the same thing by announcing Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016 the day after the RNC ended. It did not work as Trump still got a good bounce. With the Republicans going second this year and Trump not expected to dump Mike Pence, no preemptive announcement is in the cards for 2020.

Biden, of course, has reduced the mystery of his veep preference considerably by announcing in advance that he will choose a woman — who will be the first woman selected as a Democratic running mate since Fritz Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro (that was announced four days before the 1984 Democratic convention). The fact that this year’s confab will be largely virtual, however, places a premium on Biden’s veep reveal, which may provide the only Democratic drama before Uncle Joe’s acceptance speech on August 20. Presumably, social-distancing requirements in Milwaukee will prevent the traditional clasped-hands gesture uniting the new ticket mates. Perhaps if Democrats win, a handshake or even a chaste hug will be possible before they are inaugurated next January.


July 23: No, the GOP Isn’t Moving to the Center

After another writer poured cold water on an absurd idea concerning the trajectory of the Republican Party, I amplified at New York:

With the president’s reelection prospects looking poor lately, there’s naturally an upsurge in speculation about his party’s future leadership. If he loses non-catastrophically, you might expect a struggle for the soul of the GOP between the conservative wing of the party that was dominant before Trump and various representatives of the authoritarian-populist twist on conservatism Trump represents.

But a lot of the chatter about post-Trump Republicanism dwells on two pols who would not have been considered serious national party leaders before 2016 and who most definitely do not espouse Trumpism without Trump. Those would be northeastern governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Baker had to publicly rule out a 2020 primary challenge to Trump to kill rumors that it might happen, and Hogan confesses he considered entering the race himself. Both men typically make the lists of 2024 presidential prospects.

What they have in common is a record of winning elections and reelections in heavily Democratic states and an ability to get national attention for distinguishing their views from those of a president who is toxically unpopular in those same states. As McKay Coppins notes in a deeply skeptical column on Hogan’s presidential prospects, that makes these moderate heretics vastly more popular among political writers than among Republican voters:

“[H]e’s routinely introduced as a prospective 2024 candidate. And as a popular blue-state governor with a pragmatic streak, Hogan is catnip for a certain kind of centrist pundit who has long fantasized about the heroic moderate riding in on a white horse to deliver the GOP from barbarism.

“But figures like Hogan have a history of attracting more column inches than votes in Republican presidential primaries. (See: John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, assorted other Jo(h)ns.)”

For the moment, and perhaps for good, pols like Hogan and Baker who have criticized Trump on multiple issues have in effect traded any possibility of national party significance for popularity back home. It works because the GOP in their states is so weak they will themselves trade orthodoxy for the rare opportunity to win statewide races (though it’s worth noting that Baker has lost control of his state party, and some speculate he may choose to run for a third gubernatorial term as an independent). And the self-disqualification for national leadership these moderates have invited isn’t just a matter of criticizing Trump: They are both pro-choice, which is an absolute nonstarter when it comes to being taken seriously as a presidential candidate in today’s GOP. The party remains formally committed to a constitutional amendment banning all abortions forever from the moment of conception.

The real leadership options Republicans will face if Trump loses in November will probably come down to the hard-core conservatives (think 2016 candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, plus Nikki Haley), who accommodated themselves to MAGA over the past four years but represent an older conservative movement, or the designated Trump successors (e.g., Mike Pence, Donald Jr., or Tucker Carlson), or perhaps those who may represent a sort of protofascist extension of Trumpism (e.g., Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley). There remains, of course, the possibility that the 45th president himself will hang around in hopes of becoming the 47th. It’s infinitely more probable than the prospect of Hogan or Baker leading the Republican Party.


July 22: Trump on Wrong Track for Reelection

As part of my general coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign at New York, I noted Charlie Cook’s discussion of an important metric for presidents running for reelection:

If you want to know why Team Trump is so frantic to make the November election a “choice” rather than a “referendum,” Charlie Cook has a very good answer: Presidents running for reelection when voters are sour on the country’s direction tend to lose, sometimes badly. There’s a polling metric for that perception, generally known as right track/wrong track:

“[This is] an age-old poll question, usually worded something like: ‘Generally speaking, do you think that the country is headed in the right direction or is off on the wrong track?’ Ronald Reagan’s legendary pollster Richard Wirthlin popularized the metric, even calling it ‘the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.'”

It’s a particularly important number for presidents running for reelection. There have been six of those in the past 40 years. For the four who won, the “right track” number just prior to the election was at 47 percent (Reagan 1984), 39 percent (Clinton 1996), 41 percent (George W. Bush 2004) and 42 percent (Obama 2012). The two who lost had much poorer “right track” numbers: 20 percent (Carter 1980) and 17 percent (Poppy Bush 1992).

Guess which set of numbers is similar to today’s? Cook has the answer:

“In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, ‘right direction’ was a dismal 19 percent, compared to a ‘wrong track’ of 72 percent, for a net minus 53 points. These are numbers screaming for change, and unlike four years ago when Donald Trump was running against a party that had held the White House for eight years, he is seeking a contract renewal and representing the status quo. Joe Biden is the candidate of change, even if it is a change back toward normal. Indeed, a different Republican strategist summed up the mood of the electorate as hoping for someone to make their lives normal again.”

Getting voters to change their view of Biden sufficiently to make them forget about the terrible disappointments of the Trump administration — including its mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic — would be quite the heavy lift even if Trump were a sunny, likable fellow who just ran into a patch of bad luck and held some residual goodwill from a sizable majority of the public. He’s none of that, of course, and really needs a positive feeling about the direction of the country to offset deeply entrenched misgivings about his nasty, erratic, and mendacious personality.


July 18: RIP John Lewis. His Struggle Will Survive Him.

On the sad news of the death of John Lewis, I’ll republish here the piece I wrote earlier this month for New York on a new documentary about his life.

On the eve of the 44th president’s inauguration in Washington, Georgia congressman John Lewis said, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

This was a remarkable comment from the man who was severely injured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, a police riot that horrified the country and paved the way for adoption of the Voting Rights Act in July of that year. David Remnick’s 2010 Obama biography made Lewis’s quote a departure point; the new president represented the “Joshua generation” that had reached a post-racial promised land through the efforts of the “Moses generation” of civil-rights leaders like Lewis. By implication, that older generation could retire from the spotlight with dignity, its essential work having been completed.

Over a decade later, for John Lewis at least, that dignified retirement turned out to be an illusion. In a new documentary film by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the veteran voting-rights champion views himself as facing the potential reversal of his life’s work via an open conservative crusade to restrict the franchise, led by Obama’s successor in the White House. Indeed, Obama himself is a relatively minor figure in the film, which skillfully alternates between footage and narrative of Lewis’s early life and his series of key contributions to the civil-rights and voting-rights movements of the 1960s, and his most recent efforts to fight voter suppression and the white identity politics of the contemporary right, notably in the 2018 midterm elections.

There’s an anecdote in the film in which a Lewis speechwriter asked him if he had ever spoken before a crowd as large as the one he addressed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (a speech for which I had the privilege of helping rehearse Lewis, the most decent politician I met in many years of convention service). He gently reminded her he had spoken to a throng of a quarter-million people during the March.

At every step of the way, Lewis was brutalized by police and civilian racist violence, earning him respect even from his enemies for his courage, without shaking his commitment to the principles of nonviolence he learned in Nashville. Porter’s film touches on the famous incidents in which Lewis was so intimately involved, including the Freedom Summer in Mississippi that led to the murder of civil-rights volunteers by Klansmen, another moment that helped rouse the conscience of the country.

Likely because the film wants to depict Lewis’s current political battles as something of a throwback to his civil-rights heyday, it doesn’t dwell much on his turn to more conventional political pursuits, other than a segment on the sadly bitter 1986 congressional election in which Lewis defeated his old friend and SNCC colleague (and later NAACP chairman) Julian Bond, and began his long career in the U.S. House.

But in the portions of the film devoted to his more recent campaign work we are shown the merger of Lewis’s social movement and party politics backgrounds. It’s made clear that the development that turned him from a well-deserved semi-retirement was the destruction of the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Right Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. The shocking nature of this reversal is illustrated by footage of George W. Bush proudly signing a bipartisan extension of the VRA in 2006.

By 2018, Lewis was barnstorming the country, pursuing the twin goals of a Democratic takeover of the House (in which he serves in the party leadership) and the battle to vindicate voting rights. A segment on midterm Election Night and the immediate aftermath shows his pride in the party’s victory (which also expanded the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus), but also his dismay at the defeat of Stacey Abrams, in some respects his heir as a southern voting-rights champion, for the governorship of his own state after an aggressive campaign of voter suppression by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Toward the end of Porter’s film, he is given tributes by a number of young politicians of color (e.g., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Cory Booker) who stress both his legacy and his continued leadership. Now they, rather than Obama, seem to represent the end of the bridge in Selma. Stacey Abrams encapsulates the message by saying Lewis is a living reminder that “the past isn’t past.”

You get the sense watching Lewis in the more recent footage that like most people his age, he’s slowed down. His wife of 44 years, Lillian, passed away in 2012. There is no explicit reference to his diagnosis late last year of pancreatic cancer, though clearly his staff and friends are solicitous about his health. There’s no question the upshot of the film is that defeating Donald Trump in 2020 and reestablishing inalienable voting rights would represent the capstone of a very public life. Even if his body is now weak, his voice is the same, bred in the sermons of the Black church in Jim Crow Alabama, a voice of prophecy, determination, and charity. I’m sure John Lewis has his regrets like all of us, but his principles haven’t changed since his training in nonviolent social change in Nashville six decades ago.

The title of Porter’s film comes from a frequently repeated saying of Lewis’s, usually preceded by a reference to his 40 arrests over the years: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” It’s his fate to be placed in the position of still being a troublemaker at the age of 80. But for this singular man, it’s more appropriate than a quiet retirement.

May he rest in piece as others take up his struggle.


July 17: January in Georgia Could Be Red-Hot in 2021

I thought another reminder of Georgia’s funny elections laws and why they might matter this year was in order, and wrote it up for New York:

Democrats are looking at more than a presidential win in November. A Democratic Senate would probably ensure a Biden administration could get its executive and judicial appointees confirmed while giving it a fighting chance of enacting a legislative agenda as well.

Right now, if you go by the Cook Political Report’s renowned cheat sheet, there are 11 competitive Senate races on tap in November, 9 of them involving seats currently held by Republicans and 2 held by Democrats. The Democrats need a net gain of three seats for control of the Senate, assuming Joe Biden’s veep is the tiebreaker. Since one Democratic-held seat in Alabama is in considerable peril, it may require flipping four Republican seats to get the job done. It will be a reach, but assuming Biden wins solidly, not a long reach.

Unless there is a Democratic tsunami, however, we may not know who controls the Senate for a good while after November 2. In part that’s because of likely heavy voting by mail that will delay definitive “calls” on close races. But there’s another reason for delayed gratification: one state with peculiar election laws that is home to two competitive Senate races.

In Georgia, a red state that’s been steadily turning purple in recent years, winning a general election requires a majority of the vote. If no one achieves a majority (which typically happens in razor-close contests with some minor-party voting), a runoff is held in December for state and local offices, and in January for federal offices. There have in the past been two U.S. Senate general-election runoffs, in 1992 and in 2008. If the Senate race involving Republican incumbent David Perdue and well-financed Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff ends with a plurality winner, a runoff will be held on January 5, 2021.

But there’s a second Senate race in Georgia that is quite likely to go to a runoff: the special election to choose someone to finish the term Isakson gave up at the end of last year due to poor health. Under Georgia’s rules, a nonpartisan “jungle primary” will be held the same day as the general election (November 3), and if no one wins a majority, the top two finishers will go to a January 5 runoff. There are 20 candidates who will appear on the ballot, including the interim appointed senator, Republican Kelly Loeffler. She faces fierce competition for Republican voters from congressman Doug Collins. Democratic leaders are mostly backing Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Raphael Warnock, but early polls have shown Matt Lieberman (son of Joe) with significant support, probably because of name ID. The odds of anyone winning a majority in November are low.

Perhaps one party or the other will nail down a Senate majority on or soon after Election Day. But there’s a nontrivial chance it could all come down to Georgia in January.

The conventional wisdom is that Republicans would be favored in either or both Senate runoffs because their more affluent voters are more likely to turn out for a special election. In the two precedents we have, Republican Paul Coverdell upset incumbent Democratic senator Wyche Fowler in 1992, and Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss easily dispatched Democrat Jim Martin in 2008. But Senate control was not at stake in either of those contests. And even though Republican Karen Handel prevailed over Jon Ossoff (the self-same candidate now opposing Perdue) in the famous 2017 special House election in the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia, turnout from both party bases was robust.

What would one or two January runoffs with the Senate at stake be like? Probably an insane frenzy with every unemployed campaign worker and every unspent campaign dollar in the whole country being deployed in one place. Whoever is president would definitely have Georgia on his mind 24/7. The vice-president (who could be Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms or 2018 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, according to many Biden veep lists) would be waiting with gavel at the ready.

Early voting would definitely begin during the holiday season, when Americans traditionally try to think about anything and everything other than politics (particularly after what is likely to be a vicious and possibly contested general election). For all we know, COVID-19 (or fears of its reemergence) could still be inhibiting in-person political activity and complicating voting. And Georgia is quite the testing ground for get-out-the-vote efforts these days, with veteran vote suppressor Brian Kemp in the governorship and his 2018 challenger Abrams heading up the nation’s preeminent voting-rights group.

Those unfamiliar with Georgia may not realize that this Deep South state has some mighty cold weather in January. But it could be a red-hot political site in early 2021.


July 10: The Big Consequences of a Big Biden Win

Got a little hypothetical at New York this week given Biden’s big polling lead over Trump:

Among those of us who obsessively track electoral horse-race analysis, it was the shot heard round the world: “This election is looking more like a Democratic tsunami than simply a Blue wave.”

Coming from veteran observer Amy Walters of the ultra-cautious Cook Political Report, this was an unusually bold assertion, buttressed, it appears, by her belief that “the president is not interested in changing his approach or focus” despite countless indicators that he needs to in order to survive. She even discounts the possibility that Trump’s dismal performance will create a “checks and balances” undertow benefiting down-ballot Republicans among voters worrying about too much Democratic power:

“At least one Republican I spoke with … was wary of a check and balance working this year, telling me that ‘people are looking for a restart and a reset.’ That includes down-ballot candidates as well as the president. “

So it might be time to take a cautious and highly conditional look ahead at what a “Democratic tsunami” might look like, and might produce after the elections. Democrats with a superstitious fear of even thinking over-confidently are excused from a further reading of this piece, lest they tempt the Lord Satan (or at least Vladimir Putin) to intervene demonically on the president’s behalf.

1. A Decisive Result That Makes Any Trump Post-Election Contest Impossible

Let’s say Joe Biden performs exactly as national and state polling averages at RealClearPolitics currently suggest. That would be an 8.7 percent advantage in the national popular vote, the largest major-party victory margin since Ronald Reagan’s blowout win over Walter Mondale in 1984. He’d carry all seven battleground states for which there is public polling in the RCP database: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, giving him at least 333 electoral votes.

But the most immediate, and perhaps most important, effect of a large Biden win would be to neutralize Team Trump’s pretty visible plans to contest a close loss based on success in early returns, followed by legal maneuverings, state government machinations, and even violence in the streets to produce a 2000-style victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat. Even if Trump managed to post early leads in some competitive states based on heavy in-person Election Day voting by Republicans, they wouldn’t last long, and the Biden wave in later-counted (mostly mail) ballots would be too large and national to attribute to any sort of wire-pulling, particularly given Republican control of the election machinery in some of these states.

A Biden tsunami is definitely the best, and possibly the only, way to avoid disinformation about the results in a year when a slow count is going to definitely occur.

2. A Solidly Democratic, if Not Filibuster-Proof, Senate

Right now, control of the Senate is teetering in the balance, with Democrats needing (assuming Biden wins and installs his vice-president as the chamber’s tie-breaker) a net gain of three seats to take away Mitch McConnell’s gavel.

Using Cook’s very change-averse ratings, of 11 competitive Senate races, nine are for seats currently controlled by the GOP, with Biden leading in the polls in five of the states with those vulnerable GOP seats. Given the recent trend toward straight-ticket voting — in 2016, every single Senate race was won by the party that carried the state in the presidential election — it’s extremely likely Democrats would win the Senate if they and Biden are performing as they are currently. That’s crucial, for the most obvious reason that a Senate majority would ease confirmation of Biden’s executive and judicial branch appointees.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that Biden’s lead expands and Democratic Senate candidates do even better. If Democrats won all 11 competitive races on Cook’s ratings board, they’d have 56 Senate seats (though one win would likely have to wait until January of 2021 for a runoff in the Georgia seat occupied by Republican appointee Kelly Loeffler). That’s a comfortable margin that would give Democrats a nice cushion on difficult Senate votes, thought not enough to overcome a united Republican minority deploying the filibuster. It might give new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, enough votes to abolish the filibuster even if he loses a few institutionalist Democrats. And it could very likely put reconquest of the Senate in the 2022 midterms out of reach for Republicans.

3. Iron-clad Democratic Control of the House

Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to step down as House Speaker in 2022 subsequent to a deal she cut to head off opposition following the 2018 elections. A big Democratic win in 2020 would make her last two years wielding the gavel much more pleasant.

The current Democratic margin of control in the House (35 seats), along with recently enhanced party unity, means that Pelosi rarely has to worry about Democratic defections. Another ten or twenty seats would likely remove all doubt.

Above all, of course, a Democratic trifecta in Washington for the first time since 2010, means House and Senate Democrats could focus on enacting laws rather than fighting off destructive GOP legislation (as they had to do for the first two years of the Trump presidency) or producing gridlock (as they’ve done since their House takeover).

4. State Government Gains Just in Time for Redistricting

Democrats are targeting seven key states where an achievable flip in control of legislative chambers could have a major effect on the redistricting cycle that plays out between 2021 and 2022: Arizona (House and Senate), Iowa (House), Michigan (House), Minnesota (Senate), North Carolina (Senate), Pennsylvania (House and Senate), and Texas (House). A true Democratic tsunami could pull other chambers into play, with dividends that could pay off for the next decade.

There are only 11 gubernatorial races this cycle, and according to Cook, only two are competitive, both in seats currently held by Democrats (in Montana and North Carolina). But while gains are unlikely, holding onto those two governorships, particularly in the North Carolina battleground, would be quite valuable.

All in all, a Democratic “tsunami” this November would not only end the Trump Era and destroy much of the power of his Senate allies, but could force an extended crisis in a Republican Party that is already looking down the barrel of demographic trends that are not friendly to its reactionary views or narrow constituencies.


July 8: Trump’s Approaching Convention Fiasco

I’ve been following this story for a good while, and did an update this week at New York:

With each passing day, it’s becoming more obvious that the old-school, packed-hall national political convention the president is forcing his party to undertake — despite the inconvenience, cost, and risk — may have to be canceled or scaled back, lest it become a supersize version of the Trump fiasco in Tulsa.

First of all, thanks to Trump’s decision to yank key parts of the convention from its original site in Charlotte, financing the event has become a struggle, as the New York Times reports:

“The abrupt uprooting of the Republican National Convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville has created a tangled financial predicament for party officials as they effectively try to pay for two big events instead of one. Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent in a city that will now host little more than a G.O.P. business meeting, and donors are wary of opening their wallets again to bankroll a Jacksonville gathering thrown into uncertainty by a surge in coronavirus cases.”

The financial situation has been exacerbated by the second big problem: Trump has moved his convention from a coronavirus frying pan to a coronavirus wildfire:

“In Jacksonville, fund-raisers are describing the process as the most difficult they have ever confronted: Florida has been setting daily records for new virus cases, freezing money as donors wait and worry about the safety risks of the pandemic.

“’I don’t want to encourage people getting sick,’ said Stanley S. Hubbard, a Minnesota billionaire who has donated more than $2 million to help Republicans, including President Trump, since the beginning of the 2016 election … ‘Unless this thing goes away, I think it’s a bad choice,’ he said.”

The third big problem is that people associated with Trump are now beginning to hint that the convention itself could go away, or at least be held under conditions similar to the virtual convention Democrats moved toward early in the pandemic. On Sunday, Trump-appointed FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said that it was “too early to tell” if Florida will be a safe place to host the RNC.

Texas Democrats more prudently held a virtual event last month.

It’s also possible, of course, that Trump is so enamored of the kind of convention he wants that he will push on with it despite the risk of delegates not showing up or, worse yet, attending a super-spreader event that makes a lot of people sick.

What makes this whole convoluted mess particularly dubious is that there are growing signs it won’t do Trump much good even if it comes off precisely as planned. As Geoffrey Skelley explains at FiveThirtyEight, the idea of a convention “bounce” for either party’s presidential candidate may be outdated:

“[C]onvention bounces have been getting smaller, which is likely a byproduct of how polarized our politics have become. There are just fewer swing voters, so it’s harder for a candidate to attract support outside of his or her core base of supporters.”

Beyond that, of course, the very idea of conventions as stage-managed infomercials that dominate the airwaves with positive messaging could be dead wrong this particular year. Unless the coronavirus really does miraculously vanish between now and late August (Trump’s big acceptance speech is scheduled for August 27), the risks the GOP is taking will get a lot of attention even if the worst doesn’t happen. And the pandemic and its economic impact will probably rob both conventions of the kind of obsessive media attention they typically get.

Republicans should have stuck with Charlotte and moved to a largely virtual convention that would have been far safer and likely more effective from the party’s point of view. As it is, the whole event may simply demonstrate how the president’s narcissism is the GOP’s real — if inadvertent — reelection message.


July 4: Affirmative Action Restoration Leads California Ballot Initiatives

California ballot initiatives often set national trends and affect down-ballot races in the Golden State. I wrote about this year’s batch at New York:

California offers reasonably easy access to the ballot for groups wanting to change state policies, and requires public approval of constitutional amendments passed by the legislature. So it has a rich history of ballot initiative fights that sometimes overshadow elections for public office, from the tax revolts of the 1970s to the immigration backlash of the 1990s and beyond. 2020 is no exception, with 12 measures on the ballot in a year when California won’t be competitive in the presidential contest and has no Senate seats up for grabs.

Going into 2020, it was widely anticipated that a so-called “split roll” initiative removing strict limits on property tax increases from commercial property might blot out the sky and produce one of the most expensive and consequential battles ever. Long the apple of the eye of many public-sector unions and good government groups seeking a broader tax base, the initiative would limit the sacrosanct Proposition 13 protections against tax increases to (largely) residential real estate, exposing commercial property to tax assessments based on current market value rather than its value when the property last changed hands.

Backers of a “split roll” figured a presidential year with high Democratic turnout would be the best time to pursue this measure, but didn’t account for the arrival of the coronavirus and a deep economic recession, which may have made voters averse to major changes in the status quo. The defeat by voters of a statewide bond initiative for education in the March primary may indicate California’s entering a period of fiscal retrenchment, though the huge budget deficits the state is now facing could cut the other way. An April PPIC survey showed.a slim majority of voters then favoring the split roll initiative.

While Prop 209 won 55 percent approval from California voters, the state’s demographics have significantly changed since then. Additionally, past hostility to affirmative action among the state’s Asian-American leadership has abated; a majority of Asian-American legislators supported the repeal initiative on grounds that whatever losses their community might have in university admissions would be more than offset in gains in public employment and contracts, but there may be grassroots opposition among white and Asian-American voters. The repeal is being supported by Governor Gavin Newsom, the Regents of the University of California and most elected Democrats.

Two other ballot initiatives of note would be aimed at expanding voting rights. One would extend restoration of voting rights to parolees as well as the probationers who currently qualify. According to one study, about 40,000 Californians would benefit from this initiative if it passes. A separate amendment would allow those who will turn 18 by any general election date to vote in the preceding primaries (or special elections) at the age of 17.

An initiative relaxing state limits on local imposition of rent control was defeated in 2018. A narrower measure is back on the ballot this year that supplements a new state law limiting the size of rent increases generally.

Another initiative that could spur heavy ad spending is one backed by Uber and Lyft and some delivery services that would essentially exempt their drivers from a new California law designed to limit the classification of workers as independent contractors to avoid minimum wage and benefits obligations.

And in one other notable battle, “split roll” isn’t the only ballot initiative that would change the Prop 13 property tax system. Another backed by realtors (who failed with a similar initiative in 2018) would let homeowners over 55 keep Prop 13 protections when buying new properties. As a sweetener to progressives often hostile to Prop 13, the initiative would also eliminate the so-called “Lebowski Loophole” (so named because actor Jeff Bridges was a major beneficiary, though he is all for its elimination) whereby children can continue Prop 13 protections on expensive investment and rental properties they inherit.

The California airwaves will be busy with ads for and against initiatives in the fall, and could help goose turnout, affecting U.S. House and state legislative races if not the presidential contest.


July 2: Imperial President Wants to Run For Reelection As Outsider

One of the odder takes on Trump’s reelection strategy drove me to a mocking response at New York:

You may have heard that Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. If you are inclined to forget it for a moment, he is ever ready to remind you by incessant tweets, abrasive public comments, loud rallies, expensive ads, and the hallelujahs of his chorus of supporters that he is the man. Not only is he the president, he is, he insists, the greatest president ever, whose administration is dizzy with success and muscle-bound with accomplishments. His midterm self-assessment was modestly entitled “500 Days of American Greatness.” Trump’s presidency is quite possibly the most imperial of imperial presidencies, characterized by contemptuous disregard for any constitutional limits on his power (“I have an Article 2 [of the Constitution] where I have the right to do whatever I want as president” he once said).

I reiterate these well-known attributes of our narcissistic chief executive by way of background for this astonishing Wall Street Journal story:

“President Trump’s case for re-election reprises his pitch for a first term in office, as he and his team try to portray presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as an incumbent while accentuating his own outsider credentials.

“In advertisements, interviews and social-media posts, Mr. Trump is highlighting Mr. Biden’s four decades as a Delaware senator and vice president — the most consistent message among several the president has driven so far about his competitor.”

Now, it’s not surprising that an incumbent president running for reelection at a time when objective conditions in the country are dreadful — in part because of his own hubris, negligence, and, yes, narcissism — wants to avoid a “referendum” election. And that’s particularly true of an incumbent whose personal favorability indices are as horrible as Trump’s (about half the electorate has a very unfavorable opinion of him). Typically, a president in this sort of jam will try to engineer a “choice” election; when Jimmy Carter was in a world of hurt in 1980, his strategy was to frame the election as a “two futures” choice between him and his controversial challenger Ronald Reagan. It didn’t work, but it made sense.

“’Trump is the president, not simply a candidate,’ said Steve Bannon, the chief executive of the 2016 Trump campaign. ‘He is the protagonist in this drama. You drive action like a president, govern like a president, show leadership like a president and you will be re-elected. It really is that basic.’”

Sure, it’s possible, even credible, for Team Trump to treat Joe Biden as a figure from the past who would drag the country back into the swamp from which the 45th president has sought to rescue it. But that doesn’t absolve the president from what has happened since Biden returned to private life in 2017. The best Trump’s campaign can do is to beg for more time:

“Jason Miller, a Trump campaign adviser, said the campaign plans to paint Mr. Biden as ‘part of every job-killing, failed policy decision of the past 40 years.’ The campaign wants voters to see the race as a choice between ‘President Trump’s record of success in less than four years versus Joe Biden’s record of failure over more than 40 years.’”

But even if you are willing, somehow, to describe the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations as a long saga of failure before the so-much-winning of the current regime — and blame it all on Joe Biden — the fact remains that Trump is responsible for where the country is today. A new Pew poll asked Americans if “in thinking about the current state of the country these days” they felt angry, fearful, hopeful, or proud. Only 17 percent answered “proud,” which is a terrible rebuke to a president who has made “America First” nationalism his central theme alongside hatred for those who dare to question his or the country’s divinely anointed destiny.

No, Trump isn’t going to get to proclaim his power and glory as president for three and a half years and then rerun his 2016 campaign as though his presidency did not exist. It is in fact the dominant reality of American political life — joyous for some and painful for many — and perpetuating or ending it is unavoidably going to be the big question for voters in November.