In this edition: California’s indifference toward its would-be favorite daughter, Democrats struggling with the Hunter Biden question, and impeachment getting injected into down-ballot races.
I’m the guy who gets disappointed when a headline about “the AP poll” is something about football instead of Iowa. This is The Trailer.
SAN DIEGO — Three years ago, Kamala Harris won a Senate seat from California in a 24-point rout. More than 7.5 million voters, most of them Democrats, backed her candidacy.
But at the moment, not many of them are interested in supporting her for president.
“I find her message much less clear,” said Beth Malikowski, 58, who wore a 2016 Hillary Clinton T-shirt to Elizabeth Warren’s Thursday night town hall here. “I’d love to watch her mop the floor with Trump, but I didn’t know much about her until she ran for president.”
“She’s not known around here,” said William Pierce, 70. “I have a thing against her, because we can’t get an answer from her about the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant.”
“I don’t like her,” said Cindy Mohr, 58. “I saw a clip of her in San Francisco, talking about dealing with kids dropping out of school or playing hooky, and smirking as she said she was going to put their parents in jail.”
Five months out from California’s primary, just four months before the first ballots go out in the mail, Harris has fallen to the middle of the pack in a state where she has won three big, expensive races. A run of early endorsements, including one from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), has not translated to popular support. Democratic nervousness about the candidates dominating their primary — former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — has not translated into support for any candidate in the middle of the pack.
The candidate most obviously struggling in that arrangement is Harris, for whom a potential advantage — a delegate-rich early primary in her home state — has yet to pan out. This week, as the senator appeared on the cover of Time magazine, a new poll from the Public Policy Institute found just 8 percent of California Democrats supporting her run for president.
“I do not rise and fall with poll numbers,” Harris told reporters at the SEIU’s “Unions for All” forum this week. “What we are seeing when we go to these early states is a great amount of enthusiasm. We’re building up as we always intended to do.”
After a spectacular start, a rally in her hometown of Oakland that remains the largest single gathering for any 2020 Democrat, Harris has slipped behind in California for the same reasons she’s struggled nationally. Other campaigns plunged into the state and organized early; other candidates proved more compelling to Democratic and labor groups. Liberal voters who pay close attention to the primary were deluged with early, negative stories about Harris’s time as San Francisco district attorney; other voters often didn’t realize she was their senator.
“Harris isn’t the ‘favorite daughter’ candidate, but that’s not unusual, because she’s not well known,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime Democratic strategist who helped elect Harris’s predecessor, Barbara Boxer. “Five years into [Boxer’s] first term, one-third of voters said they didn’t know enough about her to have an opinion. And she was a pretty high-profile, aggressive senator.” Voters were probably not even aware of the Newsom endorsement, she added; it was, at best, a one-day story.
Harris’s campaign remains well organized in California and dominates other candidates with local endorsements — at least 150 of them, from left-wing icon Rep. Barbara Lee to Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Jim Costa. The campaign has 11 staff working in the state and says that at least 3,000 volunteers “have been trained to be community organizers through Camp Kamala,” its organizing school.
The campaign is clear-eyed about its problems, suggesting that the California picture, and every other primary, would shift if the senator did well in Iowa. But some donors who had high hopes for Harris have started to play out a primary where the senator lags behind.
“She’s built a really strong base of fans in California, and I think she’ll retain that, either in this race or in the future,” Donna Bojarsky, a Democratic strategist who attended a Harris fundraiser last week, said in an email. “We do see more people now pondering out loud how/if Elizabeth Warren could broaden her base in a general election. That has definitively shifted in the last few weeks.”
Warren has become a bigger part of the conversation for two reasons — a series of rallies where she has drawn out thousands of Californians and a strong appearances at the sort of forums where Harris has struggled. The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents around 15,000 California nurses, endorsed Harris in her 2016 Senate race; last month, its members voted to support Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. (The senator from Vermont had won the union’s 2016 presidential endorsement outright.)
There are even more votes at play with the California SEIU, which does not make its own endorsement but has a role in the national endorsement and was a major presence at a “Unions for All” forum. Bob Schoonover, the president of the California SEIU, complimented Harris’s focus on sector-wide organizing — one of the union’s major priorities — while praising the “personal connection” Joe Biden had with the audience and Warren’s ability to explain labor’s goals.
“Do we have a really good relationship with Sen. Harris? Absolutely,” Schoonover said. “We made a real difference in her 2010 election for attorney general. We are probably closer to her than any other candidate. But Joe Biden’s been around forever; Elizabeth Warren’s been around a really long time. So has Bernie Sanders. You have to get a longer look at people than we’ve had so far.”
Warren and Sanders, in particular, have also been building out their California campaigns. The Sanders campaign said that 730,000 Californians have taken some sort of action on its behalf, from donations to house parties; over the weekend, when the candidate’s health scare kept him in Las Vegas, pre-scheduled campaign events and office openings went forward with mariachi bands instead of Sanders. Warren’s campaign has held five “barnstorming” events in major cities, similar to the Sanders campaign, to sign up and train supporters.
There has been less grass-roots organizing so far for Tom Steyer, the other Californian in the race, and the last candidate to enter it. Most of the appearances by Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have been in front of donors. But that donor interest is a function of Democrats’ interest in their non-Harris alternatives. After his own “Unions for All” appearance, Buttigieg, who had drawn a large crowd to a rally in Sacramento, played down the idea that home-state candidates had the advantage in California.
“One of the things I’ve found from the fantastic reception we’ve got in different California communities is it feels like the voters of the state are very open-minded,” Buttigieg said. “As far as I can tell, California is wide open. And we’re going to continue appearing here, not just in the biggest cities, but also we really enjoyed visiting different kinds of communities like Fresno, which in some ways reminds me of my hometown of South Bend.”
Amy B Wang contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
“Uncertainty takes over the lead in the Democratic presidential race,” by Michael Scherer and Matt Viser
Nervousness about Biden, a health scare for Sanders and persistent panic about Warren, all in the same week.
“Biden faced his biggest challenge and struggled to form a response,” by Jonathan Martin, Alexander Burns and Katie Glueck
Did the slow fight-back to Trump’s Ukraine scandal have an effect on Biden?
“Sanders’s heart attack raises questions about his age, potential damage to campaign,” by Sean Sullivan and Amy Gardner
There’s one playbook for how heart attacks get covered, and it’s not good for Sanders.
The oppo research roots of an investigation that has been backfiring.
“ ‘Out on a limb’: Inside the Republican reckoning over Trump’s possible impeachment,” by Robert Costa and Philip Rucker
Republicans broadcasting confidence while they fret the latest details.
“Tulsi Gabbard’s return sets stage for debate fireworks,” by Daniel Strauss
Democrats don’t worry about her in the polls; they do worry about how she could use her onstage time to attack them.
“For House Democrats, impeachment probe widens the divide they hoped to bridge,” by Mike DeBonis and Amber Phillips
This week’s congressional town halls didn’t have as many fireworks as Republicans hoped for, but the mood was not all positive about impeachment.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
LOS ANGELES — Joe Biden remains the biggest obstacle in the path of every other Democratic candidate for president. Even his donors are growing nervous about the attacks on him, asking whether the time it took for him to respond to President Trump — and an effort to keep focused on Biden’s policy agenda, steering away from “distraction” — hints at any general election weakness.
Meanwhile, Biden’s presidential rivals keep declining to pile on. Elizabeth Warren initially hesitated when asked whether her ethics plan would prevent a Hunter Biden-style situation: a member of a vice president’s family getting a job with a foreign company. Since then, she has refused to engage on the question, pivoting back to Trump. And at the SEIU’s two-day candidate forum here, most Democrats again refused to take a swing at Biden.
“Leave Joe Biden alone,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), repeating her refrain from the last two weeks of Biden coverage.
“There won’t be any confusion about the ethical expectations that I will have for my White House,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said when he faced the same question. “But specifically with regards to this question, I also think it is not a good idea for us to get sucked into commenting on one of our fellow Democratic competitors when the real story here is the president of the United States confessing on air to the abuse of power, and we cannot allow him to change the subject.”
A little discord came from former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who has swung back and forth in his approach to Biden, from demanding he answer for certain key votes to saying Democrats should not attack one another. In California, he was alone in suggesting that a strong ethics plan would prevent the sort of situation now being mined for attack material by Trump.
“I can’t totally follow all the twists of that,” O’Rourke said when asked about Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. “I would not allow a family member, anyone in my Cabinet to have a family member, to work in a position like that.”
But as the president continues to make incorrect assertions about Biden, no Democrat has defended the story at the center: Hunter Biden’s career. Last week, in a CNN interview, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said flatly that people in the younger Biden’s position shouldn’t take questionable jobs.
“I have a lot of beliefs about ethics rules and the needs for our government of the United States to go far further in the rules that we have,” he began. “I just don’t think children of vice presidents, presidents, during the administration should be out there doing that.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who appeared on CNN today, went down the same path. Asked whether she would have let any presidential or vice presidential offspring take a job with a foreign company, she said she wouldn’t have.
“I can promise you right now, my own daughter, who’s only 24, does not sit on the board of a foreign company,” Klobuchar said. “But that is not the issue. The issue here is what the president is doing, because we have the Ukrainian prosecutors saying that there’s no evidence. There has — as you have said on your show, multiple people looking at this — that there’s no evidence that the vice president did something wrong here.”
Remarkably, no Democrat has tried to twist the issue back to the president himself — a president who has involved his children more closely in campaigning and governing than any modern predecessor, while putting no limitations on their ability to conduct business, in the United States or overseas.
All three races for governor this year, in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, will be held in states that voted overwhelmingly to put Donald Trump in the White House. All three are more competitive than the 2016 results might suggest, with Democrats reaching out to Republican voters and focusing on health care — exactly what national Democrats want the next year to be about.
The result? While even some swing-district Democrats have endorsed the impeachment inquiry, the red-state Democrats running for governor have mostly declined to talk about it — much less to endorse it. In Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood has sounded a bit like Republicans, describing anything happening between the president and Democratic leaders as noise.
“I’m focused on our race for governor and on the local issues affecting Mississippi such as education, roads and bridges, and healthcare,” Hood said in a statement last month. “All of the craziness and gridlock in Washington has created a positive response here in Mississippi where moderates in both parties are coming together to move our state forward.”
In Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin tried to inject impeachment into the race by holding a news conference, where he reiterated that he opposed impeachment (“it’s destroying this nation”) while his opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear, would not take a position.
“As Kentucky’s top prosecutor, I make my decisions based on facts and evidence. And all I have right now are news stories,” Beshear said in an interview with Kentucky reporters. “My hope, if they choose to proceed, is that they set it up in a nonpartisan way that is focused on getting to the truth and evidence, and not scoring political points.”
Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards, the only incumbent Democratic governor on the ballot this year, took a similar approach. Impeachment has not even come up in televised debates so far.
But Democrats were taken aback at the way the president tweeted about the race, urging voters to pick any Republican in the Oct. 12 primary and labeling Edwards a “Nancy Pelosi/Chuck Schumer Democrat.” Up to now, Republicans had preferred to tie Edwards to Hillary Clinton or one of the 2020 presidential candidates; the impeachment inquiry had convinced Republicans that the Democrats in Washington made better foils. And on Sunday, the president announced an Oct. 11 rally in Louisiana, the day before the primary, nationalizing a race that Republicans had struggled to turn into a Trump referendum.
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
Early voting has wrapped up in Louisiana‘s gubernatorial primary; in-person voting for the primary is still six days away. And the first batch of numbers looked better for the Republicans in the race than it did for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Overall, 374,190 ballots were cast in the early vote, up nearly 50 percent from the early vote in 2015. In that race, a moderate Republican was challenging Edwards and the GOP front-runner, David Vitter; this year, two other Republicans are challenging Edwards, and the result has been a boost in party turnout. As first reported by pollster John Couvillon, registered Democrats had a 14-point advantage in the early vote four years ago. This year, the Democratic advantage shrank to a single point.
Edwards’s campaign suggested that the black early vote, which jumped on the final day, was a positive sign — one in four early voters was black, down just marginally from 2015. But Republicans were much happier, with David Weinman, a spokesman for GOP candidate Ralph Abraham, calling the turnout “historic.” And it came while Edwards and an allied super PAC dominated early TV advertising, before Republicans tapped the president to try to nationalize the race. Trump tweeted Sunday that he is going to Louisiana on Friday for a rally, aiming to deny Edwards a majority of the vote. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote next month, the top two finishers will head to a November runoff.
Joe Biden, “Unhinged.” The former vice president’s campaign had been running “general election” ads before this week, with messaging and policy proposals designed as much for independents as for the activists who might actually caucus in Iowa. This spot attacks Trump directly but is aimed more at Democratic primary voters, warning them that the president thinks his tactics “will allow him to pick his opponent and face only the candidates he thinks he can beat.”
The campaign is spending $6 million to put the ad on TV and digital platforms, by far the biggest buy by any Democrat not named Tom Steyer. It’s also relying quite a bit on earned media, which the Biden speech quoted in this spot did not dominate — he delivered it at night in Reno, on Pacific time, missing many of that day’s news deadlines.
Donald Trump, “Changing Things.” As his party has bounced between a couple of different strategies to fight back on impeachment, Trump has focused on one: blaming Democrats for envy-inspired chaos. “It isn’t pretty,” a narrator says. “The swamp hates him. But Mr. Nice Guy won’t cut it. It takes a tough guy to change Washington.” Polling hasn’t found much support for the message beyond the president’s supporters, but it’s meant to change the entire discussion around corruption: If a voter is disgusted at Washington, he should trust the president and assume that any accusations against him are false.
2020 election in Wisconsin (Fox News, 1,512 voters)
Joe Biden — 48%
Donald Trump — 39%
Bernie Sanders — 45%
Donald Trump — 40%
Elizabeth Warren — 45%
Donald Trump — 41%
This is one of the first polls conducted entirely since the beginning of the Trump-Ukraine saga and the House’s impeachment inquiry. It finds two things that cut against Republicans’ planning: The president is weak in the swing state that Democrats worry the most about, and attacks on Joe Biden haven’t turned many voters away from him.
Every major Democratic candidate leads Trump and runs ahead of Hillary Clinton with key voters; none lose rural voters by 27 points, as Clinton did, and Biden loses them by only two points. By a 22-point margin, voters believe that the Ukraine story is a “serious” liability for Trump; by a one-point margin, voters are comfortable with impeachment, though divided on whether they also want the president removed from office. White voters, who powered Trump’s narrow 2016 wins in the Midwest, are cooler on him now. Three years ago, he won 52 percent of their votes in Wisconsin, and he’s now at 44 percent with them against Warren, 43 percent against Sanders and 41 percent against Biden.
The Democrats’ own primary is a bit more muddled. Biden leads the field with 28 percent to Warren’s 22 percent; Sanders, who won the 2016 primary in a landslide, polls at 17 percent. There’s much less support for the candidates who have run on Midwestern roots and electability — 7 percent for Pete Buttigieg and 2 percent for Amy Klobuchar.
South Carolina Democratic primary (Fox News, 803 Democrats)
Joe Biden — 41% ( 6)
Elizabeth Warren — 12% ( 7)
Bernie Sanders — 10% (-4)
Kamala Harris — 4% (-8)
Tom Steyer — 4% ( 4)
Cory Booker — 3 ( 0)
Pete Buttigieg — 2 ( 0)
Michael Bennet — 1 ( 1)
Tulsi Gabbard — 1 ( 1)
Tim Ryan — 1 ( 1)
Marianne Williamson — 1 ( 0)
Andrew Yang — 1 ( 0)
The first Southern primary remains, for Biden, a variation on the “firewall” — he leads there handily, but not with the margin that Hillary Clinton won on her way to putting Sanders away. In 2015, Fox’s first South Carolina poll was taken in December, and it found Clinton up by 44 points with a 71-point advantage among black voters. Biden leads with black voters by 39 points over Sanders, who gets 9 percent of their support, while Warren gets 8 percent. Overall, 50 percent of South Carolina’s black Democrats pick Biden; 30 percent pick another candidate, and the rest are undecided.
That’s more than enough to keep Biden ahead of a crowded pack, as no other Democrat has built a powerful constituency here. The former vice president trails with only one group of voters — white voters with college degrees, who back Warren by a 26-to-21 margin over Biden. The continuing weakness of the race’s black candidates gives Biden more space here, with Harris, who would be the first black woman president, at just 3 percent with black women.
The Oct. 15 debate in Ohio will be the last Democratic faceoff under the current rules — qualifying by getting 2 percent in four polls and more than 130,000 donations. The November debate, with no set date yet, will be limited to candidates who reach 3 percent in four national polls, or 5 percent in two polls of early states, all while getting at least 165,000 donations.
As of today, seven candidates have qualified for November’s debate: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Tom Steyer. The latter two were pushed over the line by new Fox News polling from South Carolina. And that leaves more than half the Democratic field off the stage, with perhaps a month to move things around.
The stragglers fit into two categories. Five of them qualified for the October debate: Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro and Tulsi Gabbard. Only one of these candidates, Yang, is close to making November’s debate; one more poll would do it for him, as he passed the donation count weeks ago.
Bernie Sanders. He was discharged from a Las Vegas hospital Friday, then headed home to Vermont, with no individual campaign events scheduled. “I’m feeling so much better,” Sanders said. “I just want to thank all of you for the love and warm wishes that you sent to me.”
It’s all but certain that Sanders led the 2020 Democrats in fundraising for the third quarter; he collected $25.3 million, slightly ahead of Elizabeth Warren. Half of their competitors have yet to announce their totals, but none were on track to pass Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, the other Democrats with eight-figure hauls.
Joe Biden. On Friday, he held his first media gaggle since the impeachment inquiry began, unloading on the president as the human “definition of corruption” and chastising reporters who wanted him to talk about Hunter Biden’s Ukraine work.
Joe Sestak. He’ll walk the length of New Hampshire, west to east, from Oct. 13 to 20. (That will put Sestak past Keene on the day of the fourth Democratic debate, for which he did not qualify.) In his past two races, both campaigns for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, Sestak walked across a much larger state.
Mark Sanford. In a Sunday interview on CNN, he agreed with an argument from House Republican leaders — that Democrats should hold a real impeachment vote, rather than letting an “inquiry” run through committees. “I don’t know that, ultimately, impeachment is the best way to go,” he added. “I think probably censure is, given the fact that we’re this close to an election.”
Tulsi Gabbard. She’s campaigning across Iowa on Sunday through Tuesday, with a series of town halls and more intimate coffees.
Steve Bullock. He raised $2.3 million in the third quarter, though he did not release numbers to suggest he would hit the debate thresholds.
Amy Klobuchar. She was in New Hampshire on Sunday to open a Manchester campaign office.
… four days until the CNN-hosted LGBT town halls
… six days until Louisiana’s gubernatorial primary
… nine days until the fourth Democratic debate