The Trailer: Five questions and answers about the midterms, with nine weeks to go
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In this edition: A Q&A to kick off the midterms, a look at the Democratic upset in Alaska, and what polling shows about the battle for Congress.
The campaign newsletter that’s out-lasted two British prime ministers: This is the Trailer.
Before every campaign became a permanent campaign, Labor Day was the semiofficial start of election season. President Biden tried to revive the tradition this year, heading to Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, with Vice President Harris heading to Boston. Both argued that Democrats deserved a new majority after the work of the last 20 months.
They did so after polling showed Democrats gaining back some ground and Republicans losing it — not usually what happens this close to a midterm election, and not what anyone was predicting two months ago. So for the last time before the Nov. 8 vote, we asked Trailer readers for their campaign questions, and took some time to answer them.
“It seems like a lot of the successful Trump-endorsed candidates are struggling with fundraising and building out their campaigns, perhaps thinking they can rely on grass-roots enthusiasm for Trump to power them over the finish line. Have you seen any evidence of weakness in these candidate’s campaigns?” — Gaurav
It does seem that way, and Republicans have admitted that their candidates and traditional party organizations are not as well-funded as they should be right now.
They’ve said so literally, with Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel telling donors that the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade opened a gusher of new money for Democrats. They’ve said so implicitly, like how One Nation (a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)) announced a $3.8 ad million buy in Ohio. When Republicans talk about “candidate quality,” they appear to be saying that they were saddled with weaker nominees than they wanted at the start of the cycle, and suggesting (never out loud!) that this happened because former president Donald Trump kept endorsing candidates loyal to him and his false insistence that the 2020 election was stolen from him — and the rest of the party didn’t really have a plan to combat that.
The fundraising numbers don’t tell that whole story; if they did, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) would have lost reelection in 2020. You should view the Democrats’ cash advantage as a function of how they are now the party of suburban liberals and college-educated voters who can donate to campaigns at higher rates than working class voters. J.D. Vance and Blake Masters both ran smart primary campaigns that refocused the entire GOP race around their issues. Bad candidates can’t do that.
“Is there any measurable reaction from more moderate Republican primary voters over people like Mastriano getting nominated?” — Max
Yes, some, though the best example was probably last month’s special election for the U.S. House in Alaska. It’s not a traditional red state; it’s more of a libertarian-leaning oil-dependent state where Republicans have a narrow advantage but Democrats can win against far-right or weak GOP candidates. That race was decided — and Sarah Palin lost — because tens of thousands of GOP voters declined to rank Palin second (or at all) on their ranked-choice ballots.
But you mentioned Pennsylvania and Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. In July, a Fox News poll of that race found Mastriano winning 82 percent of self-identified Republican voters — pretty good for someone who got less than half that in a crowded primary. His problem was that Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee, was winning 92 percent of Democrats and 9 percent of Republicans. It doesn’t sound like much, fewer than one in 10 GOP primary voters backing the Democrat, but that’s clear evidence of one faction of GOP voters being unwilling to support him. Just hours ago, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) declined to say he’d campaign for Mastriano, so that problem isn’t solved yet.
“There’s lots of talk about how overturning Roe has become a major issue in the midterms, but what happened to the topics that previously seemed to drive the narrative? Are voters still concerned about crime? What about covid policies and school closings? Or inflation? Have some things totally faded away?” — Evan
Some things have faded away, yes. Coronavirus-related school closings just aren’t happening in the same way anymore. I’m only seeing campaigns talk about coronavirus restrictions in races where Democratic incumbents presided over them until mid-2021 — think about Nevada, where Gov. Steve Sisolak is running again after a lockdown that absolutely floored the hospitality industry. But “open the schools” is last year’s issue, and it’s hard to see it emerging again absent a lockdown or a candidate gaffe. (Imagine some nominee freezing when asked if they’d ever close schools again.)
Crime is also a contest-to-contest issue; it is central to Lee Zeldin’s campaign for governor in New York, and he has reacted to multiple recent crimes as evidence that Democrats unleashed a new wave of violence by reforming cash bail. You’re seeing Republicans run against crime in other states where Democrats took charge in 2019 — they arrived while crime was at historic lows, and in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, it jumped up under their watch. Add Minnesota to that list; the race for AG will be about crime, because Keith Ellison (who’s repeatedly denounced the “defund the police” slogan) endorsed a doomed ballot measure to replace Minneapolis’s police department.
Inflation was a more widespread campaign issue, and it still is, but Republicans really were taken aback at how abortion overwhelmed it in last month’s special elections. Before he lost the special election in New York’s 19th Congressional District, Republican nominee Marc Molinaro told The Trailer that he was focused on inflation really affecting peoples’ lives, and not the abortion issue that wouldn’t come before the House this year anyway. It’s clear that falling gas prices have eased the inflation fears, slightly; the real danger for Democrats was a perception that prices would keep surging with no end in sight, and that’s not happening anymore.
“Do you see any evidence on the ground of the advertising differential over the summer? Are voters mentioning talking points that came up in Dem ads rather than GOP ads? Has that started to change recently as the GOP begins to spend? — Jason
I’d relate this to the Roe question — the negative attacks I’ve heard voters repeat from TV ads have been the direct quotes from GOP candidates about banning abortion. A lot of GOP nominees have voiced unpopular views of abortion — see Michigan’s Tudor Dixon and her “no exceptions” line — before the ruling came down and made those views more relevant.
“I was just wondering what you make of the trend (if polling is to be believed) of parties losing House seats and gaining Senate seats in the same election. Is it just because of the weird structure of Senate elections and the Senate being more insulated from popular sentiment or is there something else going on here?” — Oliver
There’s a lot going on, but yeah, start with the “weird structure.” Democrats are favored by some to win the Senate because the key races are happening in places that Biden won (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada) or where Trump won by single digits (North Carolina, Florida, Ohio). In 2018, the most competitive races were in places that Trump won handily — Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, Montana. It’s really that simple. If John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz were running against each other in Missouri, the race would be over; we’d be discussing which committees Sen. Oz wants to serve on.
What’s underappreciated, and part of your question, is that Democrats had a pretty lousy 2020 and a middling round of redistricting in 2021 and 2022. Even when you factor in gerrymanders, the House is more responsive to election-year swings than the Senate; the narrow Democratic majority reflects an election where they lost all but a few seats in Trump-won territory. The vast majority of GOP targets are in districts won by Biden, dozens of which he won by double digits. And if there is a uniform swing in the GOP’s direction, those seats will be in play.
“In sprint to November, Democrats seize on shifting landscape over abortion,” by Hannah Knowles and Caroline Kitchener
After special election wins, Democrats are emboldened for the fall.
“How a record cash haul vanished for Senate Republicans,” by Shane Goldmacher
A bet on small donors that did not pay off.
“Trump plots aggressive midterm strategy seen in GOP as double-edged sword,” by Isaac Arnsdorf, Michael Scherer, and Josh Dawsey
How to campaign when an ex-president writes the storyline.
“Maxwell Frost is figuring out how to be Gen Z’s likely first congressman,” by Marianna Sotomayor
A profile of a twenty-something who’s on his way to the Capitol.
“Meet Minnesota’s most vulnerable progressive,” by David Siders
Keith Ellison on the trail.
“Biden has tamped down talk of a primary challenge, for now,” by Yasmeen Abutaleb
The end of the Gavin/Buttigieg boomlet (for now).
“Massachusetts GOP voters size up Trump loyalist for governor,” by Steve Leblanc
A look at the day’s big primary.
Full transparency time: The stakes are limited for Democrats and Republicans in today’s Massachusetts primaries. The retirement of Gov. Charlie Baker (R) set up an open-seat contest for his job that Attorney Gen. Maura Healey is the clear favorite to win. A new congressional map — in the ancestral home of gerrymandering — locked in the Democrats’ 9-0 delegation advantage. The party’s supermajority in the state legislature is safe, too, after Republicans failed to field candidates in enough seats to potentially take control.
Put it all together and today’s races will likely be more competitive than November’s, starting with the GOP contest for governor. Ex-state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) four years ago, announced his candidacy 14 months ago as a pro-Trump, anti-tax, anti-lockdown challenger to Baker, who’d hire back the state workers fired for resisting a vaccine mandate. Baker had governed as a centrist who’d work with liberals to pass budgets, but curtail their spending and veto their most far-reaching social reforms. (The sort of stuff Baker junked: a net-zero climate regulation bill and a framework for letting undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses.)
For most of his two terms, Baker had been one of the country’s most popular governors. That didn’t carry over to the Republican base. The small electorate of registered Republicans, outnumbered 10-1 by registered Democrats, had always included a core of anti-Baker conservatives; he won just 64 percent of the primary vote in 2018, against a conservative anti-LGBT activist who budgeted just $140,000 for his campaign. Baker lost even more Republican votes from his strict public health approach to the pandemic and his criticism of Trump; he blanked his presidential ballot in 2016 and 2020, and condemned the ex-president for inspiring the Jan. 6, 2021 riot in the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
What happened next was what happened in every state with a Republican clearly identified as anti-Trump — the conservative challenger surged. By November, Diehl was 20 points ahead of Baker in polls of GOP primary voters, had secured Trump’s endorsement, and was becoming the favorite to win at the party’s nominating convention. Baker dropped out, as did most of Healey’s Democratic challengers; state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who remained in the race to challenge Healey from the left, ended her own campaign this June.
As Baker exited the race, metal gear manufacturer Chris Doughty climbed in, positioning himself as an electable outsider against an unelectable MAGA candidate. He loaned his own campaign far more than Diehl could raise, and plowed ahead after the May state GOP convention, when a supermajority of delegates endorsed Diehl.
“It’s impossible for him to win,” Doughty said of Diehl in their only debate, in July, on conservative talk radio. “He’s running a campaign that’s targeted to Alabama voters.” That debate was hosted by pro-Trump commentator Howie Carr, who went on to endorse Doughty, tweeting that “Maura Healey would rather run against Geoff Diehl.” The Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association have spent their money elsewhere since Baker quit.
Most of the state’s row offices are open, too, and there are competitive primaries down the ballot. Diehl’s endorsed ex-state Rep. Leah Cole Allen for lieutenant governor over ex-state Rep. Kate Campanale; Democrats have a three-way contest between Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, and state Reps. Eric Lesser and Tami Gouveia. Driscoll had the most support at the nominating convention, but didn’t get an endorsement, while Gouveia ran to her left and while Lesser outraised both of them. But last month, Driscoll got a boost from Leadership for Mass, a super PAC with funders who’d given more to Republicans than Democrats. The candidates have fought more over the PAC than about their ideological differences, which are few.
Democrats, who’ve held every other statewide office for years, have contests for three more of them — attorney general, auditor, and secretary of state. The last public polling here, before Labor Day, found close races for the first two offices, with most voters undecided and two Democrats effectively tied. Labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2020 but quit before the primary, is in a closer race with Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell, who narrowly missed last year’s mayoral runoff. That race, too, has exposed fewer ideological differences than disagreements about spending: Liss-Riordan has self-funded her campaigns, and Campbell has it.
In the auditor race, state Sen. Diana DiZoglio has run on elected experience and on using the office to enhance transparency; anti-Olympics organizer Chris Dempsey envisions a more activist role for the office. Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who’s held that office since Bill Clinton’s first term, fended off a primary challenge in 2018 and will have to do it again; challenger Tanisha Sullivan, who chairs the Boston chapter of the NAACP, wants that office to make more liberal policy, like privacy for women’s abortion records.
Republicans already have their nominees in those three statewide races, with no competition today. There are just two GOP primaries across the state’s nine House seats: In the 8th Congressional District, where Realtor Hamilton Rodrigues and videographer Rob Burke want to challenge Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), and in the 9th Congressional District, where nurse Dan Sullivan is facing veteran Jesse Brown for the right to face Rep. William R. Keating (D-Mass.). National Republicans aren’t targeting either race, and after a series of expensive primaries in 2018 and 2020, there isn’t much infighting on Team Blue; Lynch and Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), who beat more liberal challengers in 2020, have no primaries today.
Diehl for MA, “How We Prosper.” The Trump-endorsed GOP candidate for governor in Massachusetts closed out his campaign with a Trump call-in, a reminder of which Republican faction he represents. But nonaffiliated voters can vote in the GOP primary, and some of Diehl’s paid media is aimed at them, not the hardest of the Republican hardcore. This spot softens Diehl’s critique of popular Gov. Charlie Baker into one about how the state simply hasn’t been competitive enough to keep residents from moving; instead of talking specifically about vaccine mandates, Diehl says it’s time for the state to “reopen.”
Chris Doughty for Governor, “The Losing Diehl. We’ve Seen This Movie Before.” Diehl’s self-funding rival trails in general election polls, too — but he hasn’t run or lost an election before, and Diehl has. That’s the subject of Doughty’s closing spot, which combines a few is-he-conservative-enough questions with a Greatest Misses of Diehl’s career. His loss in a safe Democratic seat in a 2015 special election becomes Diehl “losing his home state Senate seat by 17 points.”
Leadership for Mass, “Kim Driscoll.” The donors behind this super PAC don’t always agree with Planned Parenthood — some of them have given to Republicans. But the abortion provider is one of the validators cited in this ad, which promotes Salem, Mass., Mayor Kim Driscoll as a successful liberal Democrat who “fixed budgets” and “led on wind power.” This primary season strategy, of centrist groups using liberal messaging to boost their candidates, has succeeded in state after state in 2022.
Friends of Andrea Campbell, “Fair Shot.” If nominated today, Campbell would be the heavy favorite to become Massachusetts’s first Black attorney general. But her advertising has downplayed history in favor of reliable Democratic messaging for attorney general races; here, she’s filmed telling a crowd that she’ll take on “price gougers” and protect children from “predators and bullying.” The Bay State hasn’t seen crime jump much since 2020, and it’s less of an issue in this race than in some other states where this office is open.
Senate Leadership Fund, “Only One.” As Mehmet Oz has flailed and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has maintained a lead in the polls, the national Senate GOP super PAC and conservative media have continued to focus on crime. This spot cites some of the Washington Free Beacon’s reporting on a convicted criminal whose sentence Fetterman — who embraced his role on the state’s parole board — wanted to commute. The attack is one of the first that Fetterman’s felt the need to respond to; his advocacy for shrinking the prison population was more popular when he took office than it is after four years of Republican campaigning against crime.
McMaster-Evette ‘22, “Frat Boy Joe.” It was supposed to be a nice gesture after losing his reelection bid; Joe Cunningham, on the House floor, cracking open a beer and praising “bipartisanship.” But the video of the South Carolina Democrat raising his can appears twice in this attack ad from his opponent, Gov. Henry McMaster, which portrays it as an example of the telegenic liberal being a “frat boy” who wants to be “Internet famous.” Cunningham’s support for marijuana decriminalization is summarized like this: “He loves weed.”
“All other things being equal, if the election for Congress were held today, would you be more likely to vote for the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate for Congress?” (WSJ/Frabizio/Anzalone, August 17-25, 1313 registered voters)
Democrat: 47% (+6 since March)
Republican: 44% (-2)
It’s the question nobody can truly answer for two more months: Did Republicans peak too early? The WSJ’s poll is one of several regular surveys of the electorate that found Biden and Democrats collapsing last year, staying mired for most of 2022, then bouncing back in August. Biden’s own approval rating, at 45 percent, is the highest it’s been since before last year’s elections, which went poorly for Democrats, and Democrats have narrowed the GOP’s advantage on handling the economy. With gas prices dropping, Republicans have a 4-point lead on that question, far less than their advantage on immigration (15 points) or crime (17 points). The GOP still has a 12-point lead on tackling inflation, but issues of safety and national sovereignty play better for them, while Democrats have a 19-point advantage on handling “abortion.”
2022 Nevada elections (Nevada Independent/AARP Nevada, August 16-24, 1132 likely Nevada voters)
Steve Sisolak: 41%
Joe Lombardo: 38%
Catherine Cortez Masto: 44%
Adam Laxalt: 40%
Even as their numbers increased nationwide last month, Democrats in Nevada, which hasn’t backed a Republican for president in 18 years, remained locked in close races, with most voters wary of reelecting their incumbents. The key factor is the Latino vote, softer for both Sisolak and Cortez Masto — the first Latina senator from Nevada — than it was in the 2018 and 2016 races they won. Both lead with Latino voters by less than 15 percent, and lead overall largely because the GOP nominees have little crossover appeal and trail badly with college-educated voters.
Alaska. The biggest news of the last week was the victory of Rep.-elect Mary Peltola in Alaska, making the former state legislator the first Alaska Native ever elected to Congress — and the first Democrat who will hold its sole House seat since the death of Nick Begich 49 years ago.
Peltola defeated Republican Sarah Palin in the state’s first ranked-choice election since the passage of a 2020 ballot measure putting that new system in place. Four candidates qualified for the special election; one, independent Al Gross, folded his campaign instead of continuing to the final round. After weeks of counting, Peltola won 39.7 percent of the first-round vote, while Palin grabbed 30.9 percent and fellow Republican Nick Begich III, the grandson of the Democrat who disappeared in 1973, got 27.8 percent.
As Trailer readers knew, these were the ideal conditions for a Democratic upset. Begich spent much of his campaign attacking Palin, who won Trump’s endorsement — she’d given him crucial early support in 2016 — but was seen by the state GOP as erratic and less electable.
After all of the first-choice ballots were counted, Palin had 58,328 to 52,504 for Begich. When Begich dropped from the count, 16,399 of his voters had marked Peltola as a second choice, giving her 91,206 votes. Palin needed the vast majority of Begich voters to rank her second, but not enough did — she added 27,659 votes in the second round, falling short to the Democrat.
National Democrats, who had not targeted the race, celebrated; Republicans hadn’t targeted it either, with Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, explaining in a pre-election memo that the GOP was split in the race, with local parties backing Begich and Trump backing Palin.
That division’s likely to continue through November. On Labor Day, Palin called a news conference to urge Begich out of the race. He stayed in, and will appear on the ballot in a ranked-choice vote for a full two-year term, with Peltola seeking reelection as an incumbent.
New Mexico. For the first time, an elected official who participated in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election was removed from office over the Disqualification Clause of the 14th Amendment. Couy Griffin, an Otero County commissioner who was convicted of a misdemeanor over his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, lost a legal battle to keep his job, after similar lawsuits directed at members of Congress failed to disqualify Republicans running for reelection to Congress. He’s expected to appeal.
New Hampshire. Next week’s primaries are the last before the midterms, and national Democrats are getting one last play out of their 2022 playbook — spending money to get a MAGA candidate through his primary. Senate Majority PAC dumped more money into New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate primary this week, putting nearly $6 million so far into ads designed to hurt state Senate President Chuck Morse and boost retired Gen. Don Bolduc.
“It’s a satirical look at an American family, and it’s a study of a man suffering from addiction,” says director Robert Davi. “He happens to be the son of the president of the United States, who is making deals with the most powerful people in the world.”
“He” is Hunter Biden, played by Laurence Fox in “My Son Hunter,” a new film by Davi about the president’s son and the hard drive originating from a laptop he reportedly dropped off at a computer repair shop in 2019 and never reclaimed.
The Trailer viewed the movie ahead of its Los Angeles premiere; it’s available for sale Wednesday through the conservative website Breitbart, using the direct-distribution model that’s gotten films like “What Is A Woman?” and “2000 Mules” onto millions of screens. The creators blur details for dramatic effect and invent dialogue.
If the movie has a villain, it’s the mainstream media, portrayed as comically unwilling to touch a story that could have altered history. The decision by Twitter and Facebook to censor the New York Post’s initial stories on the laptop’s contents continues to outrage conservatives.
The growing skepticism among many conservative activists and voters about the media has been evident this election cycle and some Republican candidates have embraced an increasingly hostile posture toward the press. That reality, combined with the film’s portrayal of Hunter Biden – as played by Fox, a British actor and critic of left-leaning media, he is a lost soul, cutting deals around the world to funnel money to his family – could give the movie some resonance in conservative circles, where animosity toward the Bidens has grown since the president took office. It’s creation in some ways underscores the continued power of these themes on the right.
Congressional Republicans, who demanded answers from social media companies as soon as the original coverage was throttled, have hinted at more investigations of both Hunter Biden and how he’s been treated by law enforcement, should they take control of the House in the midterm elections.
“It’s all worked out for now,” says Joe Biden in the film, as played by former “Dynasty” star John James, assuring his son that the contents of his laptop are being held by the FBI so they can’t damage the family political. In this world, online searches for “Joe Biden scandal” produce only flattering Biden family stories.
… seven days until primaries in Delaware, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island
… 63 days until the midterm elections
… 210 days until Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court election
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