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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

June 16: Becoming Clear January 6 Really Was a Criminal Conspiracy Involving Trump

After watching the first three days of the House Select Committee investigating the events of January 6, I reached a conclusion about where the committee is heading, and shared it at New York:

The third day of hearings by the House select committee investigating January 6 focused on the backstory of Donald Trump’s very public effort to coerce then-Vice-President Mike Pence into stopping the certification of Joe Biden’s election during a joint session of Congress. Witnesses (most critically, former Pence counsel Greg Jacob) made it abundantly clear there was no real support in legal circles within or beyond the White House for the scheme cooked up by Trump campaign attorney John Eastman whereby Pence was expected to either reject Biden electors or suspend the process of counting them in order to give Republican legislators time to flip the election.

In a carefully reconstructed ticktock of discussions involving Trump, Pence, legal advisers to both men, and Eastman, the committee sought to allay any significant doubts that virtually everyone other than Eastman thought his claim of vast vice-presidential powers over the certification of electors was nuts. Indeed, Jacob, who was most directly involved in conversations with Eastman, indicated that Eastman repeatedly betrayed his own lack of faith in his outlandish claims about the veep’s breathtaking 12th Amendment powers. But Eastman and his boss continued to pressure Pence to violate the law and abandon his own clearly stated position right up to the fraught hours on January 6, 2021, when Trump allegedly told Pence in a phone call that he was a “wimp,” then informed a crowd of soon-to-be rioters that Pence had to stop the Biden certification.

Jacobs’s account was strengthened by taped testimony concerning Trump’s other legal advisers, as Above the Law’s Joe Patrice noted when the hearing concluded:

“White House Counsel Pat Cipollone thought it was wrong according to testimony. Eric Herschmann said he told Eastman that it didn’t make any sense beforehand and, according to Herschmann, Eastman concluded that it probably would be a loser at the Supreme Court. Herschmann even testified that he told Eastman before January 6 that “you’re going to cause riots in the streets.” Certainly that also crossed the mind of other lawyers in the building.”

Even Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, thought it was a bad idea (though he reversed himself in the excitement of January 6 itself). And just to emphasize the point that Eastman’s theory had no respectable support, conservative legal titan J. Michael Luttig was brought in to denounce it as antithetical to the Constitution and democracy and to warn that Republicans might try the same play again in 2024.

The committee went on to describe how Trump’s rage at Pence put the lives of the veep (and presumably many members of Congress) in danger when the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol to stop the Biden certification since Pence didn’t “do his duty.” That provided some gripping images, but the real point of the hearing became plain when Representative Pete Aguilar, who directed much of today’s proceedings, quoted from a March 2022 ruling by California federal judge David Carter, who was reviewing Eastman’s claims that his subpoenaed communications with Trump were privileged. Here is the pertinent language, as I described it at the time:

“Until this week, no one in the U.S. judicial system had officially suggested the 45th president might have committed a crime. Now California federal district court judge David Carter (a Clinton appointee) has ruled that Trump ‘more likely than not … corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021,’ and that Trump and his attorney John Eastman ‘more likely than not … dishonestly conspired to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021.’”

All the evidence in today’s hearing reinforced this potentially explosive conclusion: A rogue lawyer and his rogue client cooked up a ridiculous justification for an illegal action that risked lives and endangered democracy itself. Much of the evidence incriminated Eastman, who took the Fifth Amendment 100 times when forced to testify before the committee and had tried to secure a pardon from Trump. A telling exchange between Eastman and Jacob occurred when the latter asked the former via email, as the Capitol riot raged, whether he had finally advised Trump “that in your professional judgment the vice president DOES NOT have the power to decide things unilaterally.” Eastman replied, of Trump, “You know him — once he gets something in his head, it is hard to get him to change course.”

The lawyer and client were a match made in hell. And now they may both be in actual danger of legal consequences, or so the January 6 committee seems to believe. But that will presumably be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose department will have to make the call on potential prosecutions coming out of these hearings.

June 10: Mike Pence Deserves Some Thanks, But No Medal, For Doing His Job on January 6

As the country refocuses on the horrific events of January 6, 2021, there’s renewed talk, but little real perspective, about Mike Pence’s refusal to overturn the 2020 election results. I tried to offer some at New York:

I am really glad, even grateful, that then–Vice-President Mike Pence didn’t obey Donald Trump’s order to use imaginary vice-presidential powers to stop the confirmation of Joe Biden’s election on January 6, 2021. He was under a lot of pressure to do so from the Boss, whose other plays to stay in power had failed by then. The more we understand about what was happening that day, the clearer it is that everything else Trump did depended on Pence playing his assigned role. There were never enough votes in the Democratic-controlled Congress to overturn the recognition of Biden electors. And the mob Trump incited to attack the Capitol could not have done anything other than delay the inevitable for a day or two (or, as it happened, a few hours). So yes, Pence’s refusal to take a blatantly unconstitutional and perhaps even treasonous action mattered a great deal.

But let’s not get carried away. As the House committee investigating January 6 prepares to launch public hearings, Jonathan V. Last (whom I greatly esteem) suggested in The Atlantic that Democrats could take away some of the partisan atmospherics of their inquiry by showing some serious love to Pence. And he means serious love:

“Congress can name a building in his honor. The House and Senate could propose nonpartisan resolutions recognizing Pence for his service to democracy. And then Joe Biden could give Pence the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Because while Pence may not be the hero you or I might have wanted, he was the hero America needed.”

Last’s basic argument is that if someone more subservient to Trump (if that’s possible) had been in Pence’s position, then … well, “it’s not clear what would have happened next,” as he puts it. I respect Last for acknowledging it’s not at all likely that the Pence-led coup Trump demanded would have worked. Had Pence tried to recognize fake Trump electors, he would almost certainly have been overruled by Congress. If he had instead abruptly adjourned the January 6 joint session to (as Trump kept putting it) “send it back to the states” … again, where would this have led? Congress could have called itself back into a joint session to do its job with or without Pence’s consent, and the machinery wasn’t in place for Trump to get the electors he needed from Republican legislators. The courts would have almost certainly intervened, and had Trump just refused to leave the White House on January 20 when it was time for Biden to take office, I think military intervention would have been a real possibility. So while Pence’s refusal to act might have saved the Republic from a crisis even worse than the one we experienced on January 6, let’s not credit him for saving the Constitution on his own. There were other protections in place had Pence played the toady.

Last also stresses Pence’s personal courage on January 6, and maybe he has a point. It’s true that some members of the mob looked at Pence as a traitor and might have done him harm if given the opportunity, as they threatened with their “Hang Mike Pence” chant. I’m in no position to judge whether the VP really was in danger that day; perhaps the January 6 committee will cast more light on that.

But didn’t Pence show great courage in defying Trump to begin with? Well, that’s less clear. It seems everyone he consulted while he wavered (and he clearly wavered), including former Republican vice-president Dan Quayle and greatly respected conservative legal scholar J. Michael Luttig, told him that of course he had no authority, constitutional or statutory, to do what Trump was asking. The only person telling Pence he did have the authority was Trump’s attorney John Eastman, whose specious arguments would have probably gotten him bounced from a basic constitutional-law course. Indeed, you have to ask yourself whether Eastman would have made this plea to anyone with less than Pence’s long record of intensely, almost religiously obsequious conduct toward Trump. So the veep’s own craven history led to the order he so bravely denied, which means he would come to any Presidential Medal of Freedom award with unclean hands.

It’s also relevant that Pence’s revolt against Trump was and remains extremely limited, as I noted when he got a lot of praise for tough talk about the “un-American” nature of Trump’s demands of him on January 6:

“Pence has a strong natural interest in limiting congressional or media scrutiny to the isolated events of January 6. Did he ever disagree publicly or privately with the foundation for an election coup that Trump laid for months and months by attacking voting by mail and claiming his ticket could lose only if the election were rigged? Did he remonstrate with Trump when he claimed an immensely premature victory on Election Night? Did he dissent from the strategy of frantically asserted and entirely bogus fraud charges by the campaign bearing his own name as well as Trump’s? Did he object to the self-certification of victory by fake Trump-Pence electors in December 2020? Indeed, did Pence do anything to get in the way of the attempted theft of the election until Trump called on him to accomplish it in a clearly unconstitutional coup with the whole world watching?

“If so, we haven’t heard about it.”

Last’s underlying pitch is that Democrats should be trying harder to separate Republican voters who don’t accept Trump’s authoritarian ways from the GOP he still dominates. That makes sense. Is Pence their role model? I certainly hope not since he never repudiated many of the terrible policies the Trump-Pence administration promoted. And as Ross Barkan recently argued, Pence may be a greater threat than Trump going forward, given his rich history of atavistic cultural and economic positions married to the Hoosier respectability that supposedly saved him and his country from perdition on January 6.

I’ll say it again: Thanks, Mike. I’m glad that, like most Americans, you managed to do your job without (on at least one fateful day) undermining its very purpose. We’re the better for it. But you don’t get a medal for refusing to lead a coup d’etat, and I hope you’ll have a few thousand more second thoughts about the president you served so fervently before applying for the same job yourself.

June 8: Primary Shows California Democrats Mostly Need to Get Out the Vote

Having read some insta-reactions to the June 7 California primary that treated it as some sort of massive validation of right-wing law-and-order politics, I pushed back at New York:

The big headlines from yesterday’s California primary were unsurprisingly driven by high-profile contests in the state’s two most prominent cities — San Francisco and Los Angeles. And the results, with the recall of the highly conspicuous progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and strong showing by ex-Republican developer Rick Caruso in the L.A. mayoral race, lent themselves to a law-and-order narrative — with an undertone of panic among progressives that the GOP wave expected to convulse the nation in November might extend even into deep-blue California.

Democrats don’t need to panic just yet; turnout in the primary was too low to sustain any excited interpretations. We won’t know the final numbers for a good while in a state that’s careful to count every vote (California allows mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to count if received within seven days and has generous procedures for “curing” faulty ballots). But with ballots received now at 19 percent of registered voters, the Golden State could challenge the record-low primary turnout of 25 percent in 2014. While low primary turnout is normally a danger sign for Democrats (and may be this year as well), it could just reflect a year when there were no red-hot statewide contests — a dampening effect compounded by the sense that California’s top-two primary system makes the first contest a dry run with few real winners and losers.

The idea that the primary showed a state convulsed with reactionary tough-on-crime sentiment is an overreaction to what actually happened on June 7. Boudin was happily tossed over the side by much of San Francisco’s Democratic political establishment — who regarded him as an embarrassing and not terribly competent outlier, not a national symbol of criminal-justice reform (as some have treated him). And while Caruso’s emergence as a freshly minted Democrat running a viable race for mayor of L.A. was startling, it took a ten-to-one spending advantage over Karen Bass to make the general election. His best shot at winning may have passed in this low-turnout primary; Bass should be favored to win in November.

In addition, there were statewide races that didn’t confirm the “law-and-order spring” hypothesis. Appointed incumbent attorney general Rob Bonta should have been a prime target for tough-on-crime agitation. As The Appeal noted: “Bonta’s record on criminal justice reform, and his ties to groups doing the frontline work to transform prisons and policing, are stronger than either [Xavier] Becerra or [Kamala] Harris,” his two predecessors. (The former is Joe Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary; the latter is his vice-president.) As a novice statewide candidate, Bonta could have been especially vulnerable, but in a primary against four opponents, he has received almost 55 percent of counted votes — a higher percentage than U.S. senator Alex Padilla and a bit below that of Governor Gavin Newsom. Bonta’s most conspicuous tough-on-crime opponent, Sacramento district attorney Anne Marie Schubert (running as an independent after ditching her Republican affiliation as impolitic), tried hard to tie Bonta to Boudin and his L.A. counterpart, George Gascón. Schubert was endorsed by several major law-enforcement organizations and a majority of her fellow county prosecutors, but she finished a poor fourth and is currently running 47 points behind Bonta — who will face one of two not terribly impressive actual Republicans in November.

In general, the overall California returns belie the idea that it was some sort of conservative-backlash election. The top-performing statewide Republican candidate, Lanhee Chen (known nationally as chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns), made the general-election contest for state controller. But he did well mostly because he faced four viable Democrats and, at present, is only winning 37 percent of the vote. Chen has distanced himself from his national party and is running on a claim that California needs a non-Democrat in this position to avoid fiscal recklessness by the dominant party. He remains a long shot, at best, to break the GOP’s 16-year losing streak in California statewide elections.

At the congressional level, there’s no sign of an anti-Democratic wave so far. Candidates from both parties expected to make the general election have done so. Probably the weakest performances by incumbents were posted by Republicans David Valadao and Young Kim, who are both struggling a bit to put away challengers running to their right.

It’s a long way until November, and there are many dynamics that will shape the outcome — from inflation rates to gun-violence incidents, the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion rights, and efforts by Donald Trump to steal the spotlight. But California Democrats weathered Republican midterm waves in 2010 and 2014 quite well. And while California voters are expressing concerns about crime and (more prominently) homelessness and housing policy that may hurt some Democratic incumbents, talk of a law-and-order tsunami in the Golden State is premature. Like their colleagues everywhere, California Democrats should most urgently focus on getting their voters to the polls.

June 4: Gen Z Could Be Crucial For Abortion Rights

Public opinion on abortion hasn’t really changed much since the 1970s. But that could be about to change as I explained at New York:

There are some “culture war” issues, notably involving LGBTQ+ rights, in which public opinion shows really sharp generational divisions. To put it bluntly, homophobia appears largely to be a geriatric illness, born of inadequate experience with real live LGBTQ+ people and rigid views of acceptable conduct. Even among conservative Evangelical youth, hostility toward marriage equality has ebbed.

But until recently, there have been few persistent generational divisions on abortion rights. As Gallup noted in 2010, older and younger generations steadily converged in their views on legal access to abortion in the early years of this century. And the millennial generation has confounded expectations that it would lead a liberalizing trend on abortion like it has on same-sex marriage, as Daniel Cox explains at FiveThirtyEight:

“Over the past decade, one of the most confounding trends in public opinion has been why millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) who are less religiousmore educated and more liberal than previous generations — are not stronger supporters of abortion rights. Polls have generally shown that millennials express considerable ambivalence about abortion, views that do not distinguish them from the broader public.

Millennials’ attitudes on abortion rights stand in stark relief to the way they tend to approach other issues of sex and sexuality. For instance, they were among the strongest proponents of legalizing same-sex marriage at the height of debate in the mid-2000s, and they have generally liberal views on contraception, sex education and premarital sex. Abortion has always been the exception.”

As the steadily increasing fragility of abortion rights has raised the issue’s visibility in recent years, Generation Z (those born in or after 1997) looks likely to break the mold and lead a backlash to the impending revocation of a constitutional right to abortion by the U.S. Supreme Court. A new Pew survey released in May showed that 74 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 believe abortion should generally be legal, and that includes 30 percent who say it should be legal in all cases without exception. That’s a 12-point jump from the percentage of adults ages 30 to 49 taking the “generally legal” position and the difference between a solid majority and a supermajority.

This generational trend could solidify the anti-abortion movement’s isolation as an ideological group that is only dominant among white Evangelicals (who oppose legal abortion by a 74-24 margin, according to the same Pew survey). Pew shows Catholics now favoring legal abortion by a 56-42 margin (in sharp contrast to the largely monolithic official position of the Catholic Church in opposing legal abortion). Non-Evangelical white Protestants favor legal abortion by a 60-38 margin, and Black Protestants take the same position by a 66-28 margin. And among the religiously unaffiliated (an increasingly large group in both the millennial and Gen-Z cohorts), support for legal abortion soars to 84 percent.

According to Cox, there is an emerging gender gap in the overall ideological positioning of Gen Z that is less apparent in older generations:

“An analysis of Gallup surveys over the past decade conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, which I lead, found a critical shift in political identity among young women. In 2021, we found that 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women identified as liberal, whereas only 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women identified as such a decade earlier. Among men in this age group, the share who identified as liberal was essentially unchanged during the same time period.”

In any event, the national divide over abortion isn’t as immutable as it has often seemed.  If the Supreme Court is indeed going to relegate abortion policy to the political realm to be fought out state by state in hand-to-hand legislative and electoral combat, there are some grounds for optimism about what might happen down the road.

June 1: Much As They Enjoyed It, Democrats Not To Blame for Trump’s Georgia Defeats

Was kind of amused at the latest blame game being directed to Democrats after the May 24 Georgia primary, so I wrote about it at New York:

Donald Trump isn’t known for owning up to his mistakes. So it’s natural that in the wake of the setbacks his 2022 Republican-primary endorsement program experienced in Georgia on May 24, the once-and-would-be-future president is looking for excuses. The most tempting to him surely involves blaming his candidates — particularly the feckless gubernatorial aspirant David Perdue and the even more feckless secretary of State challenger Jody Hice, who lost to Trump enemies Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, respectively. But then that would reflect poorly on Trump’s own judgment in hand-picking them to begin with, wouldn’t it?

The website for Trump’s official statements has only one allusion to the Georgia fiasco: an “ICYMI” link to a deranged bit of MAGA conspiracy-mongering basically claiming that only fraud can explain a Trump defeat this severe. But at his Wyoming rally over the weekend, Trump “denounced crossover voting in Georgia, where all voters can choose which primary they want to vote in, by Democrats who opposed Perdue and Hice,” noted the Washington Post. Trump might have been engaging in a little preemptive spinning as well, since the candidate he is trying to purge in Wyoming, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, is openly seeking to pull Democrats and independents into her August 16 primary.

The 45th president isn’t the only one attracting attention to the participation of Democrats in the Georgia Republican primary; it received some serious buzz among election analysts with no particular stake in the outcome. In mid-May, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution estimated that about 7 percent of early voters in the GOP primary were Democratic primary voters in 2020. And after the voting was done, the Associated Press suggested around 9 percent of 2022 Republican-primary early voters in Georgia were 2020 Democrats. So is Trump right? Did those rascally socialist Democrats sneak over into the GOP primary to smite candidates endorsed by the Greatest President Ever?

Maybe and maybe not. First things first: There is absolutely nothing illegal or even mildly inappropriate about Georgia voters choosing to participate in either party’s primaries as they wish. Georgia is one of 15 “open primary” states with no party registration. Voters show up at the polls and are offered either a D or R primary ballot. And while there may be some truth in Trump’s self-centered assumption that crossover voters were seeking to thwart his will, there’s no way to distinguish them from strategic voters seeking to choose the weakest general-election candidate or simply from voters who changed their actual party affiliation for one reason or another (clearly the heavy ad spending on the Republican side could have drawn in previously Democratic voters in the absence of competitive Democratic primaries in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races). I personally know Democratic voters in Georgia who routinely vote in Republican primaries because they live in deep-red jurisdictions where all the local contests are resolved in the GOP primary (the same was true in reverse for the many decades in which Democratic primaries were tantamount to general elections in states like Georgia).

The other thing to keep in mind is the folly of trying to attribute close election victories to one of many potential causes. The AP story on crossover voting in Georgia noted that the margin by which Raffensperger avoided a potentially dangerous runoff contest was smaller than the estimated number of Democratic voters participating in the GOP primary. Does that mean Democrats decided the outcome? Perhaps, but only if you assume (a) that nearly all of them voted for Raffensperger and (b) that he might not have won a runoff anyway.

The bigger issue in Georgia for Trump at the moment isn’t figuring out why his candidates lost but whether his anger at the primary outcome will lead him to sabotage the GOP ticket in November. His chief Peach State vanquisher, Kemp, is reportedly reaching out to the camp of the ex-president in order to arrange a truce to keep the GOP more or less united going into a tough general election in which Kemp will face a rematch with Democratic voting-rights champion Stacey Abrams, and Trump’s guy Herschel Walker will confront incumbent senator Raphael Warnock. It’s unclear what will happen, as the Journal-Constitution notes:

“Two people close to Trump say the chances of reconciliation were worsened when former Vice President Mike Pence headlined a pre-primary rally for Kemp, furthering a split between the two former running-mates. Others remain hopeful they can at least minimize Trump’s potential harm in a race where even slight changes in voting patterns could have a significant effect on the results.”

Trump has several months to pout and whine before putting on the party harness and avoiding a replay of his destructive role in the 2021 runoffs in Georgia that gave control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats. But if he remains in a fantasyland in which even a 2022 Republican primary in a state controlled by his party was “rigged” against him, he may never make his way back to a presidential ticket.

May 26: Evaluating Trump As a 2022 King-Maker

Now that we are into the 2022 primary season, it’s time to lay down some markers on how to evaluate Donald Trump’s candidate endorsement strategy, which will inevitably get attention. I offered some preliminary thoughts at New York:

Ever since he became president, Donald Trump has made a habit of endorsing a lot of candidates for office. According to Ballotpedia, as of today, he has endorsed a total of 497 primary- or general-election candidates, 192 of them since leaving the White House. Trump, of course, claims his endorsements have been a smashing success. A day after his attempt to get revenge on his Georgia enemies failed spectacularly, he was boasting of his prowess on Truth Social:

“A very big and successful evening of political Endorsements. All wins in Texas (33 & 0 for full primary list), Arkansas, and Alabama. A great new Senatorial Candidate, and others, in Georgia. Overall for the “Cycle,” 100 Wins, 6 Losses (some of which were not possible to win), and 2 runoffs. Thank you, and CONGRATULATIONS to all!”

But is Trump actually a midterms kingmaker? The answer is a bit trickier than simply checking his math. The former president has been furiously padding his win record by backing unopposed House incumbents in safe seats, so the numbers don’t tell us much. Instead, let’s look at the objectives behind his aggressive midterms enforcement strategy and how well he’s meeting each goal.

Trump wants to keep the focus on himself.

Everyone knows Trump is self-centered to an extreme degree, but there is a rational motive for him wanting to enter every political conversation: It keeps his name in the news and his opinions on people’s minds. This requires some effort given Trump’s loss of key social-media outlets and of the levers of presidential power.

He’s meeting this objective well so far. It’s a rare 2022 Republican primary in which Trump’s support or opposition is not an issue of discussion. He has endorsed 16 gubernatorial candidates, 17 Senate candidates, 110 House candidates, 20 non-gubernatorial statewide elected officials, and even 18 state legislators and three local elected officials. That means a lot of jabbering about Trump and a lot of speculation about who might win his support. And even where his candidates have fallen short, the signature MAGA themes of immigration, “election security,” and “America First” have been on most candidates’ lips. Arguably, Trump nemesis Georgia governor Brian Kemp ran a MAGA campaign.

Trump wants to get revenge on his enemies.

Some of Trump’s endorsements are meant to settle old scores with Republicans who thwarted his efforts to reverse his 2020 loss or supported one of his two impeachments. In addition to punishing figures such as Representative Liz Cheney, Trump hopes withholding his support from disloyal Republicans will serve as deterrent to anyone who might disobey him in the future.

This is why the victories of Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia were so damaging to Trump’s brand: These two men (especially Raffensperger, who not only mocked Trump’s election-theft fables and defied his orders to “find” votes for him but wrote a book about it) stood up to the boss on an important matter and didn’t lose their jobs over it. That could be dangerous for Trump if it continues.

Trump wants to show he still runs the GOP.

Trump demonstrates his power through his ability to instruct Republicans on how to vote and by making his good will the coin of the realm for Republican aspirants to office. From that point of view, the ideal primary for the former president was probably Ohio’s Senate contest on May 3. All but one of the candidates spent months seeking his favor, and the lucky beneficiary of his endorsement, J.D. Vance, surged to victory on the wings of MAGA support. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Trump managed to get multiple Senate and gubernatorial candidates to dance to his tune before settling on Doug Mastriano for governor (a win) and Mehmet Oz for the Senate (a possible win; his duel with David McCormick has gone to overtime with a recount and a court case).

Trump didn’t do so well in instructing his voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Georgia, losing gubernatorial primaries in all three. But he barely lifted a finger on behalf of Idaho lieutenant governor Janice McGeachin against Brad Little, and you can’t really blame him for his Nebraska candidate, Charles Herbster, being accused of groping multiple women (though you can certainly blame him for not only sticking with Herbster after the allegations emerged but also advising him to deny everything and fight back).

Here, again, the results in Georgia were devastating for Trump. Voters in the state emphatically rejected Trump’s repeated and incessant instructions to vote again Kemp and Raffensperger; in the gubernatorial race in particular, there was no doubt about his wishes. Yet Kemp won with nearly three-fourths of the vote. That level of voter disobedience hurts.

Trump wants to get in front of the Republican victory parade.

If we assume Trump is running for president in 2024, then it makes perfect sense for him to attach his name to a midterm Republican campaign effort that, for reasons that have nothing to do with him, is likely to be successful. Getting in front of a parade that is attracting larger and more enthusiastic crowds is a surefire way to look like a leader without the muss and fuss of having to make strategic decisions, formulate message documents, raise money, or plot the mechanics of a get-out-the-vote campaign.

Trump’s success in making himself the face of the 2022 Republican comeback will, of course, depend on what happens in November. At least three of his endorsed Senate candidates (four if Oz prevails in the Pennsylvania recount) are already Republican nominees in top November battlegrounds. He has also endorsed Senate candidates in future 2022 primaries in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Wisconsin, which should be close and pivotal races in November. If the Senate candidates Trump has handpicked underperform (e.g., Georgia’s Herschel Walker, whose personal and business backgrounds have come under scrutiny) or, worse yet, cost the GOP control of the upper chamber, you can bet Mitch McConnell and many others will privately or even publicly point fingers of angry accusation toward Mar-a-Lago. The same could be true in states holding crucial gubernatorial elections.

Portraying himself as the leader of a Republican midterm wave may conflict with some of Trump’s other goals. For example, he may need to put aside his thirst for vengeance against Kemp to back the GOP’s crusade against Democrat Stacey Abrams (whom Trump once said he’d prefer to Kemp). More generally, if Trump makes himself too much of the 2022 story, he could help Democrats escape the usual midterm referendum on the current president’s performance. In that case, 2022 could serve as a personal disaster rather than a bridge to his 2024 return to glory.

Georgia’s primaries presented multiple danger signs for Trump’s 2022 strategy of aligning himself with winners, intimidating his enemies, and remaining the center of attention. But despite his recent setbacks, there are no signs Trump is shifting tactics, and it’s a long way to the final reckoning in November.

May 19: Will Abandoned Pro-Choice Republican Voters Flip?

Amidst all the talk about the impact of a likely reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, I thought a history lesson was in order, so I wrote one at New York:

Last week, the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have codified abortion rights, died in in the Senate by a vote of 51 to 49. All 210 House Republicans and all 50 Senate Republicans voted against the legislation. This surprised no one, but it’s actually odd in several ways. While Republican elected officials are almost monolithically opposed to abortion rights, pro-choice Republican voters didn’t entirely cease to exist, and this could become a problem for the party if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the right to abortion at the end of this term.

Though polling on the issue is notoriously slippery, our best guess is that a little over a third of Republicans disagree with their party on whether to outlaw abortion (while about one-quarter of Democrats disagree with their party on the topic). These Americans have virtually no representation in Congress with the limited exceptions of Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski (both GOP senators support some abortion rights, but they are still opposed the WHPA and are against dropping the filibuster to preserve abortion rights).

Ironically, abortion rights as we know them are, to a considerable extent, the product of Republican lawmaking at every level of government. The most obvious examples are the two Supreme Court decisions that established and reaffirmed a constitutional right to abortion. Of the seven justices who supported Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that struck down pre-viability-abortion bans, five were appointed by Republican presidents, including the author of the majority opinion, Harry Blackmun, and then–Chief Justice Warren Burger. All five justices who voted to confirm the constitutional right to pre-viability abortions in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey were appointed by Republican presidents as well.

These pro-choice Republicans weren’t just rogue jurists (though their alleged perfidy has become a deep grievance in the anti-abortion movement). Today’s lock-step opposition to abortion rights among GOP elected officials took a long time to develop. Indeed, before Roe, Republicans were more likely to favor legal abortion than Democrats. In New York and Washington, two of the four states that fully legalized pre-viability abortions in 1970, Republican governors Nelson Rockefeller and Daniel Evans were at the forefront of abortion-rights efforts. They weren’t fringe figures; Rockefeller went on to become vice-president of the United States under Gerald Ford. Pre-Roe, various other Republican officials supported more modest efforts to ease abortion bans; among them was then–California governor Ronald Reagan, who signed a bill significantly liberalizing exceptions to an abortion ban in 1967.

The anti-abortion movement’s strength in the Republican Party grew steadily after Roe in part because of a more general ideological sorting out of the two major parties as liberals drifted into the Democratic Party and conservatives were drawn into the GOP. To put it another way, there has always been ideological polarization in American politics, but only in recent decades has it been reflected in parallel party polarization. But that doesn’t fully explain the GOP’s shift on abortion policy.

Beginning in 1972 with Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, Republicans began actively trying to recruit historically Democratic Roman Catholic voters. Soon thereafter, they started working to mobilize conservative Evangelical voters. This effort coincided with the Evangelicals’ conversion into strident abortion opponents, though they were generally in favor of the modest liberalization of abortion laws until the late 1970s. All these trends culminated in the adoption of a militantly anti-abortion platform plank in the 1980 Republican National Convention that nominated Reagan for president. The Gipper said he regretted his earlier openness to relaxed abortion laws. Reagan’s strongest intraparty rival was George H.W. Bush, the scion of a family with a powerful multigenerational connection to Planned Parenthood. He found it expedient to renounce any support for abortion rights before launching his campaign.

Still, there remained a significant pro-choice faction among Republican elected officials until quite recently. In 1992, the year Republican Supreme Court appointees saved abortion rights in Casey, there was a healthy number of pro-choice Republicans serving in the Senate: Ted Stevens of Alaska, John Seymour of California, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, William Cohen of Maine, Bob Packwood of Oregon, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, John Warner of Virginia, and Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. Another, John Heinz of Pennsylvania, had recently died.

Partisan polarization on abortion (which, of course, was taking place among Democrats as well) has been slow but steady, as Aaron Blake of the Washington Post recently observed:

“In a 1997 study, Carnegie Mellon University professor Greg D. Adams sought to track abortion votes in Congress over time. His finding: In the Senate, there was almost no daylight between the two parties in 1973, with both parties voting for ‘pro-choice’ positions about 40 percent of the time.

“But that quickly changed.

“There was more of a difference in the House in 1973, with Republicans significantly more opposed to abortion rights than both House Democrats and senators of both parties. But there, too, the gap soon widened.

“Including votes in both chambers, Adams found that a 22 percentage- point gap between the two parties’ votes in 1973 expanded to nearly 65 points two decades later, after Casey was decided.”

By 2018, every pro-choice House Republican had been defeated or had retired. The rigidity of the party line on abortion was perhaps best reflected in late 2019, when a House Democrat with a record of strong support for abortion rights, Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, switched parties. Almost instantly, Van Drew switched sides on reproductive rights and was hailed by the hard-core anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List for voting “consistently to defend the lives of the unborn and infants.”

With the 2020 primary loss by Illinois Democratic representative Dan Lipinski, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, there’s now just one House member whose abortion stance is out of step with his party: Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who is very vulnerable to defeat in a May 24 runoff.

If the Supreme Court does fully reverse Roe in the coming weeks, making abortion a more highly salient 2022 campaign issue, the one-third of pro-choice Republican voters may take issue with their lack of congressional representation. Will the first big threat to abortion rights in nearly a half-century make them change their priorities? Or will they still care more about party loyalty and issues like inflation? Perhaps nothing will change for most of these voters. But in close races, the abandoned tradition of pro-choice Republicanism could make a comeback to the detriment of the GOP’s ambitious plans for major midterm gains.

May 14: Why Everybody’s Talking About MAGA

Noting a shift in some of the rhetoric we are hearing from both parties, I tried to explain it at New York:

Earlier this week, I got an unusual communication from a member of the White House press corps who wondered if I had inspired Joe Biden’s use of the term ultra-MAGA for Rick Scott’s wildly right-wing 2022 agenda for Republicans. I owned up to contriving the term in an effort to describe Scott’s combination of Trumpian rhetoric with Goldwater-era policy extremism. But I had no idea if Biden or someone in his circle read my piece and decided to borrow the neologism or (more likely) came up with it independently for parallel reasons.

Biden hasn’t just hit Scott with “ultra-MAGA”; in the same speech, he also referred to Trump himself as “the great MAGA king.” And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has taken to railing against “MAGA Republicans” as well.

So Democratic leaders are now saying “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) where they would have once used “right wing” or “ultraconservative” or even “wingnut.” This appeared to be a strategic decision, not just a verbal tic or a tossed-off insult. And indeed, on Friday, the Washington Post reported that the rhetorical shift is the result of a six-month research project led by Biden adviser Anita Dunn and the Center for American Progress Action Fund:

“The polling and focus group research by Hart Research and the Global Strategy Group found that “MAGA” was already viewed negatively by voters — more negatively than other phrases like ‘Trump Republicans.’

“In battleground areas, more than twice as many voters said they would be less likely to vote for someone called a ‘MAGA Republican’ than would be more likely. The research also found that the description tapped into the broad agreement among voters that the Republican Party had become more extreme and power-hungry in recent years.”

Despite the potential liabilities, usage of “MAGA” and its variants has been spreading in Republican ranks as well — and the trend began even before Trump decided he liked Biden’s insult and started posting MAGA King memes on Truth Social. For example, Steve Bannon referred to Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette’s rivalry with the Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz as “MAGA vs. ULTRA-MAGA.” The former Trump adviser was using “ULTRA-MAGA” as a compliment; in his eyes, Barnette is deeply devoted to The Cause, while the TV doctor is most palpably devoted to self-promotion.

So why is this happening now? And is the greater embrace of the term on both the right and the left just a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Democrats really need to make the 2022 midterm elections comparative rather than the usual referendum on the current occupant of the White House, who is held responsible for whatever unhappiness afflicts the electorate, which is reflected in Biden’s chronically low job-approval ratings. They also need to find a way to motivate elements of the Democratic base to vote in November, which isn’t easy because (a) Democratic constituencies (particularly young people) rarely vote in proportional numbers in non-presidential elections without extreme provocation, and (b) many base voters are “unenthusiastic” about voting thanks to disappointment over the limited accomplishments Biden and his congressional allies have chalked up since taking control of Washington.

The tried-and-true bogeyman who could help make 2022 comparative because he continues to meddle in politics and threaten a comeback is, of course, Trump. The specter of his return could be especially scary to young voters, whose unusually high 2018 turnout was attributable to their loathing for the 45th president. So it behooves Democrats to remind voters as often as possible that the Republican candidates who are on the ballot this November are surrogates for the Great Orange Tyrant. And invoking the red-hat symbolism of MAGA is an efficient way to do that. “Ultra-MAGA” suggests there are Republicans who are Trumpier than Trump, like Scott. The whole GOP, we can expect Biden to regularly suggest between now and November, is crazier than a sack of rats and getting crazier by the minute. That’s more important than the price of gasoline at any given moment.

For similar reasons, in intra-Republican politics, the MAGA brand is legal tender among the majority of GOP voters who turn to Mar-a-Lago for direction the way that flowers turn toward the sun. Wearing the red hat or referring to themselves as “MAGA warriors” is a way for Republican politicians to show a particular attachment to Trump. And ultra-MAGA is essential for candidates like Barnette who follow the Trump agenda slavishly but don’t have the Boss’s actual endorsement for whatever reason. It’s also a handy way for ambitious right-wing politicians to suggest there is a cause that will survive Trump’s own career and will indeed flourish under their own leadership. MAGA works a lot better as a symbol of Trumpism Without Trump than such debatable and obscure terms as national conservatism or conservative populism. When he goes after Mickey Mouse with a claw hammer, Ron DeSantis is definitely ultra-MAGA, especially compared to such damaged goods as Mike Pence, who is merely MAGA or even ex-MAGA.

So get used to it. Until we get a better fix on how to describe the ideology of the followers of Donald Trump, both they and their political opponents are likely to keep relying on the MAGA brand, which now means more than the nostalgia for the white patriarchy of yore that Team Trump probably had in mind when it came up with the slogan to begin with. If Trump runs for president in 2024, he’ll have to decide whether his slogan will be “Make America Great Again, Again” (as he has already redubbed his super-PAC) or something else. But for now, everybody pretty much knows it means one person’s dream and another’s nightmare.

May 11: A National Abortion Ban Could Arrive As Soon As 2025

If the leaked Alito draft in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization turns out to be the actual majority opinion, the threat to abortion rights won’t simply be in red states. If and when they are in the position to do so, Republicans can be expected to pursue a national abortion ban by federal statute, as I explained at New York:

Democrats tried and failed this week to codify the abortion rights the Supreme Court is apparently on the brink of abandoning. Republicans could later try to turn the tables and codify national abortion restrictions. It won’t be immediate: If Republicans take control of the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterms, President Biden’s veto pen will prevent them from acting on abortion through the end of his term in January 2025.

But what happens then? The path is treacherous for those hoping to preserve reproductive rights in at least some parts of the United States. It’s entirely possible that Republicans will emerge from the 2024 election with control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. And under those circumstances, the GOP will be under intense pressure from its base to enact federal laws that outlaw abortion even in “blue” states. Mitch McConnell even acknowledged on Sunday that once Roe is overturned a national abortion ban is “possible.”

Republicans are very likely to flip the House in 2022, and that means it’s likely to stay flipped in 2024. As Cook Political Report recently noted, the last time control of the House flipped in consecutive elections was 1954. Meanwhile, the Senate landscape in 2024 is truly horrible for Democrats. They’ll be defending 23 Senate seats, including six in states Trump carried in 2016 or 2020. Republicans, on the other hand, will only be defending ten Senate seats, all in states Trump carried twice.

So the 2024 presidential election will likely be the ball game when it comes to power in Washington. And while both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came back from midterm “shellackings” to win reelection, it’s hardly a solid betting proposition for Joe Biden (or whoever the Democratic nominee is if he decides to retire).

Even if Donald Trump or some other Republican is inaugurated in January 2025, and the party controls Congress, the size of the GOP Senate majority could limit their options for curtailing reproductive rights at the federal level. Republicans would have to get really lucky to emerge from the 2024 election with a 60-vote Senate supermajority. But Republicans could plausibly gain a Senate majority so comfortable that abolishing the filibuster would be more feasible than it is for Democrats today.

Today Republicans passionately defend the filibuster whenever Democrats complain that it’s arcane and obstructionist. So in this 2025 scenario, could they actually flip and nuke it themselves? Absolutely. Mitch McConnell’s term as Senate Republican leader runs through 2027, and he’s shown time and again that he is shameless when it comes to the pursuit and exercise of power. And if he’s retired by then, his successor will likely be even more ideologically attuned to the GOP’s activist base, which is intensely opposed to legalized abortion.

To be sure, giving up the filibuster would be difficult for a party that has relied heavily on anti-majoritarian mechanisms to thwart the popular will on so many occasions. But it was a Republican Senate that nuked the filibuster for Supreme Court confirmations in 2017, and the drive to reverse Roe v. Wade — now apparently at its omega point — was the single most powerful reason that happened. If Republicans find themselves with an opportunity to sweep away blue-state “abortion sanctuaries,” the pressure to end what many GOP activists call an “American Holocaust” would be hard to overestimate. Don’t let talk about Republicans caring more about tax cuts or destroying environmental or labor regulations than about “divisive” cultural issues fool you. The anti-abortion movement, which supplies much of the party’s grassroots energy and small-dollar contributions, has held a mortgage on the soul of the GOP for many years; it’s perfectly capable of calling it in.

Perhaps the most difficult question for Republicans on the brink of enacting federal abortion restrictions would be where to draw the line. In the past they have promoted a national ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the specious theory that this is the point at which a fetus can feel pain. If the Supreme Court opens the door to any restrictions lawmakers choose to impose, there’s no reason to think that they will continue to advocate for a standard under which most abortions would remain legal. But do they move to 15 weeks? Six weeks? A total abortion ban? And do they recognize exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, or situations where the health of the mother is at risk? There are no obvious answers to any of these questions, other than to observe that those who think of zygotes as babies will not be satisfied by half-measures.

Senate action on abortion could also be beside the point before too long. By 2025, the anti-abortion movement may have moved on to what will almost certainly be its ultimate goal: convincing the Supreme Court to recognize a constitutional “right to life” for the “unborn” that no state and no Congress could violate.

In other words, all of today’s Republican rhetoric about “letting the states” or “letting the people” decide abortion policy isn’t going to last very long. And those blue-state residents who are consoling themselves with the thought that only red-state governments will force every pregnancy to term may not be safe for long.

May 4: We Don’t Know For Sure What the Supreme Court Is Doing On Abortion Rights

Amidst all the understandable uproar over the leaked Alito opinion in the Dobbs case, I offered a small note of caution at New York:

The stunning leak of a draft majority Supreme Court opinion from Justice Samuel Alito entirely reversing Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey has suddenly confronted Americans with the immediate prospect of life without constitutionally protected reproductive rights. Yes, many observers predicted that would be the outcome of this case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, particularly after the Court’s oral arguments last December. It’s also what Donald Trump, who appointed three of the justices in the purported majority, promised would happen back in 2016. And it’s the goal the anti-abortion movement and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, have been working toward for decades. But it’s still shocking that normally tradition-bound and precedent-venerating justices are taking this fateful step despite widespread public opposition, at a time when a backlash could roil politics in unpredictable ways.

Or are they, for sure?

The Supreme Court said in a statement released the morning after the leak, “Although the document described in yesterday’s reports is authentic, it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.” The draft is dated February 10, 2022, when it was circulated to other justices for comment. It is also far from polished; there are redundancies in the text, just as there are in “first drafts” of a lot of important documents. It was presumably prepared because Alito was chosen to write an opinion reflecting the will of at least five justices, as expressed in a conference just after oral arguments. But we do not actually know if the final decision will be substantially the same as this draft, or might differ in significant respects — just as we do not know at this point who leaked it to Politico and with what intent.

What we do know is that post-conference changes in the position of justices once draft opinions start circulating do happen, if not that often. And in fact, one of the most famous shifts in the Court happened on this very issue 30 years ago. Planned Parenthood v. Casey was widely expected to produce a reversal of Roe and then it didn’t, as I explained recently:

“As Justice John Paul Stevens (a Ford appointee and Roe defender) later revealed in his 2019 memoir, a preliminary-draft opinion circulated by [Chief Justice William] Rehnquist that overturned Roe got five votes. But during the long period of time before the decision was formulated and announced, Reagan appointee [Justice Anthony] Kennedy flipped, succumbing to a plea from [Justices Sandra Day] O’Connor and [David] Souter to help them find a solution that would make state restrictions like Pennsylvania’s constitutionally acceptable without the disruptive counterrevolution that reversing Roe would represent. This development surprised the suddenly displaced anti-Roe majority, and then the country.”

According to Stevens, Rehnquist’s draft was circulated on May 27, 1992. The ultimate 5-4 decision maintaining the essential holding of Roe with a new standard designed to accommodate more state restrictions on abortions was announced on June 29, 1992. It appears that Rehnquist’s majority evaporated right under his nose.

Although we have no particular reason to imagine this kind of switch might have happened in Dobbs, we do know from abundant reporting and from his conduct during oral arguments that Chief Justice John Roberts seemed uneasy with overturning Roe and Casey in one fell swoop, clearly preferring to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban without opening the door to any and all abortion bans. Just a week ago, the Wall Street Journal speculated that Roberts wanted to flip one of the other conservatives to a more limited ruling:

“Chief Justice John Roberts tried during the oral argument to find a middle way. He appeared to want to sustain the Mississippi law on grounds that it doesn’t violate Casey’s test of whether there is an ‘undue burden’ on the ability to obtain an abortion. If he pulls another Justice to his side, he could write the plurality opinion that controls in a 6-3 decision. If he can’t, then Justice Thomas would assign the opinion and the vote could be 5-4. Our guess is that Justice Alito would then get the assignment.”

That appears to be exactly the course of events that produced the Alito draft. But what we don’t know is whether Roberts has continued his efforts towards a “middle way” during the nearly three months since then, and if so whether they have borne fruit. And for that matter, we also don’t know if any of the four justices originally on Team Alito have issues with the scope and breadth of his draft opinion.

It can be argued that the difference between what Alito wrote and what Roberts wants is a distinction without a difference. Both men want ultimately to abolish reproductive rights, and differ only over the pace of the constitutional counter-revolution that would be required. And indeed, it’s not clear how any “middle way” would work. How do you get rid of the constitutional protection of pre-viability abortions without allowing the states to enact more ruthless ban’s than Mississippi’s? I surely don’t know, but would observe that nobody anticipated Casey’s “undue burden” standard until it was announced. Justices and their clerks can be quite innovative when they are putting together coalitions on the Court.

The fate of reproductive rights certainly looks bad right now, but we’ve been here before. So it would be prudent not to be overly confident of what the Court will ultimately do in Dobbs, exactly how it will affect people in need of abortion services, and what the political fallout will be. There’s a slim chance that the right’s long crusade to abolish Roe entirely will be frustrated at the 11th hour once again — in which case, the fury among pro-choice Americans over the Alito draft will be matched in intensity by the outrage of the anti-abortion minority.