washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

August 7: Trump Claims God and the Bible

After shaking my head for a while, I wrote up the latest Trump outrage at New York:

If you want a good, clear sense of how transactional Donald Trump’s relationship with the conservative Evangelical Christians who make up his strongest base of support really is, check out this rambling litany of comments he made in a radio interview today with his buddy Geraldo Rivera after the host inquired about how well he thought he was doing against Joe Biden:

TRUMP: One of the polls said, “Trump is leading by one in Texas.” Okay, I’m in favor of oil and gas, I’m in favor of the Bible, I’m in favor of the Second Amendment, right? Biden’s against all these things. He’s against oil and gas, he’s against the Bible — essentially against religion, but against the Bible — and he’s against the Second Amendment.

RIVERA: That may be a little harsh, him being against the Bible …

TRUMP: Well, the people that control him totally are …

Then the two of them wandered off into attacks on Biden as an “empty suit” and discussed “shy Trump voters” and other Trumpian memes. But given the importance of Bible believers to the president’s reelection, his casual mention of the Good Book as a political positioning item to tick off, like oil-and-gas subsidies and gun rights, shows how little respect he has for these voters.

Beyond this, does Trump have any idea what’s in the Bible from any sort of Christian viewpoint? Recall that when asked about his favorite Bible verse in 2016, he responded with the decisively un-Christian “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” line from the Hebrew Scriptures. He never goes to church unless it’s to pick up an endorsement. So what do you suppose he thinks it means to say that he’s “for the Bible” and Biden is “against the Bible”? Presumably, it’s that Trump is on the “right” side and Biden is on the “wrong” side of Christian-right litmus tests opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights, which, as it happens, have at best a very ambivalent relationship with the Good Book and particularly with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who never saw fit to so much as mention either subject.

Is there even the remotest chance the president has a clue about the very different conservative and liberal Protestant interpretations of Biblical passages bearing on political topics, from the patriarchal sex-and-gender codes the former deem critical to the peace-and-equality messages cherished by the latter? Since he’s calling the observant Catholic Joe Biden an opponent of the Bible, does he know Catholics view the Bible (not codified until the fourth century) as a product of the Church rather than the other way around, intelligible only via Church teachings and rational inquiry? It seems more likely that he can fluidly interpret the “unknown tongues” some of his conservative Pentecostal supporters regard as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, Trump seems to be warming to the idea of describing himself as God’s candidate, as reflected in remarks he made in Ohio today, according to Felicia Somnez:

“In Ohio remarks just now, Trump says Biden will ‘hurt the Bible, hurt God.’ Then he says: “‘He’s against God.'”

When he talks like this, Secret Service agents should scan the skies for signs of clouds from which thunderbolts might come crashing down.

All of this is simply to say that a religious illiterate with heathenish leanings like Donald Trump really needs to stay far away from blithe assertions of his and his opponent’s relationship to the Bible, Christianity, or faith itself. His religious allies can delude themselves all they want about Trump being an ignorant vehicle of divine vengeance against their liberal enemies, but even they tend to shy away from the assertion that Trump — who once famously said he had no sins to confess — is a God-fearing man in any serious sense. He’ll toe the Christian-right line as long as it’s necessary to carry the electoral votes of states like Texas, and not a moment longer.


August 5: 2020 As the New 2010

After thinking back to the calamitous 2010 election cycle, it occurred to me to compare 202o as a potential corrective to it, and wrote about it at New York.

Democrats came out of the 2008 elections feeling really good, and not just about the fact that they had nominated, and the country had elected, America’s first Black president. After two consecutive national landslide wins, they were sitting pretty across the land, with a super-majority in the Senate, the largest margin of control in the House either party had in decades, 29 governorships, and 27 state legislatures (and a share of power in eight more). There was much talk of an Obama Coalition that included all the rising elements of the electorate, and of the GOP as a spent force that had wrecked the economy and shown the folly of its foreign policy hubris in Iraq.

But in the 2010 midterms, disaster struck for Democrats. They lost 63 House seats — the most either party had lost since 1948 — and losing control of the chamber. Republicans flipped seven U.S. Senate seats, six governorships, and an incredible 20 state legislative chambers. If the size of the comeback was impressive, the timing was impeccable. All those state gains gave the GOP the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process that unfolded in 2011 and 2012 in which legislatures redrew lines for themselves and their U.S. House delegations. Particularly egregious Republican gerrymandering ensued in states ranging from the midwest (e.g., Michigan and Wisconsin) to the northeast (Pennsylvania) to the sunbelt (Florida, North Carolina, and Texas).

While most of the focus ahead of the 2020 elections is on the presidential contest and the Democratic drive to regain control of the U.S. Senate, the wave that seems to be building up for the Donkey Party could equal 2018’s and put Democrats in a far better position in the next round of redistricting than seemed possible less than a year ago.

Right now the Democratic advantage in the congressional generic ballot — a polling estimation of the national House popular vote — gives them a 8.8 percent advantage, according to RealClearPolitics averages. They won the national House popular vote by 8.4 percent in 2018, so they are on track to consolidate and perhaps expand their control of the House, which could be crucial if Joe Biden becomes president and the usual midterm House losses for the party controlling the White House occur in 2022.

But it’s at the state legislative level that big 2020 gains could pay off richly for Democrats, as Ron Brownstein explained on Friday:

“Democrats are pursuing a wide range of state-level targets in both the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt. Party strategists believe they have the best chance to dislodge current Republican majorities in the Minnesota state Senate; the state Houses in Texas, Michigan, and Iowa; and one or both chambers in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The GOP advantage now stands at six seats or fewer in all of those chambers except the Texas and Pennsylvania houses, where the Republican cushion is nine seats each. Democratic groups are contesting Florida and Georgia as well, but with the bigger GOP margins there (14 seats in Florida and 16 in Georgia), they remain a tougher climb.”

It’s worth noting that among these targets, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas are expected to gain seats in the reapportionment of the U.S. House after the Census is complete, while Michigan and Pennsylvania are expected to lose seats. These are the states where control of redistricting can have the biggest partisan impact.

Democratic potential in state legislative races actually may be larger than you’d guess from looking at the overall balance of power as indicated by the presidential contest:

“For the legislative races, the key question isn’t whether Trump or the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, wins a given state; it’s how Trump and Biden perform in the specific seats Democrats are targeting, particularly in major metropolitan regions. Even if Trump holds states such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona by maximizing his rural performance, Democrats could still get a huge boost in down-ballot races if Biden routs the president in the growing urban and suburban areas. Biden’s performance in big metros is ‘the whole ball game,’ Vicky Hausman, the founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority, a Democratic group that tries to flip state chambers, told me. ‘Trump can run up the score in the rural areas, and it doesn’t impact our path to the majority through the suburbs.'”

Unfortunately for Democrats, there are only 11 governorships up for grabs in 2020, and according to the Cook Political Report, the only two competitive races (in North Carolina and Montana) involve seats currently held by Democrats.

Still, if Democrats can pull off an election cycle in which they gain the White House and the Senate; consolidate their hold on the House; and gain the upper hand in redistricting in a number of states with large congressional delegations, that will represent a good year’s work.


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.