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Political Wire logo California’s Recall Is a Terrible Way to Replace a Governor
CIA Director Held Secret Meeting with Taliban Leader
Bill Kristol Endorses Terry McAuliffe
DeSantis Takes Massive Covid Gamble
Pelosi to Resume Negotiations with House Moderates
Afghanistan’s Economy In Peril

Republicans Have Done Well in Special Elections This Year

Last week, a Republican won a state Senate seat in a district that Joe Biden carried by more than 20 points. And this election was not an exception. Averaged over 30 state and federal special elections this year, Republicans are doing 4 points better than Donald Trump did in the same districts last year. Is this a harbinger or a fluke? Ask us in mid-November 2022 and we'll tell you, not before.

Some of the elections were jungle elections, with candidates from all parties running against each other, usually with the top two facing each other in a runoff. If these races are discounted and only the head-to-head races are counted, the Republicans are doing 3 points better than Trump. Either way, Republicans are overperforming The Donald. However, Trump lost by 4 points nationally, so a Republican gain of 3-4 points suggests an even playing field. Given the joint issues of reapportionment and gerrymandering, that would be enough for Republicans to capture the House in 2022.

The trendline is even more disturbing for Democrats. In the 17 special elections held through early April, the Republican gain over Trump was just one point. In the most recent 17 special elections, the Republicans have beaten Trump's tally by 7 points. Since the beginning of July it has been over 10 points. Will this hold? The pattern is similar to what happened in 2009 and foretold the shellacking the Democrats would take in 2010. Also, four years ago, Democrats were outperforming Hillary Clinton by 14 points and went on to crush Republicans in the House in 2018.

Another ominous sign is the California recall. Biden won California by 30 points. A Democratic governor who hasn't been involved in any scandals should be winning by 30 points, not 2-3 points, as current polls indicate. All these things seem to point to the normal case of the president's party losing seats in Congress in the midterms. The inevitable problem is that the opposition is united in its hatred of the president whereas many people who voted for him are disappointed that he didn't do all the things they were hoping he would. In some cases, the votes to pass a bill just weren't there. In other cases, voters were imagining that the president was going to do something they wanted even though he was never really committed to it.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of possible game changers that could play a role. One big one is passage of one or two popular infrastructure bills (but see below). Huge victories here, coupled with millions of new jobs next year, could definitely help the Democrats. Also, if the Democrats can convince all their members that the filibuster has to be reformed, they could pass several other popular bills that could shore up support. But if the Democrats aren't able to actually get anything done this year, it doesn't look good for them next year. (V)

Pelosi Wants to Pass Infrastructure Bills by Oct. 1

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has set October 1 as the target date for passing both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation budget bill. She just wrote a letter to the members of her caucus informing them of her plan. The Senate has already passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but she is not going to bring it up for a vote until the reconcilation process has finished and all the spending measures have been written and packaged together. She expects that to be in September. In the letter, she told her House colleagues how important the bills are, blah blah blah.

The only fly in the ointment here is that nine of her members don't want to follow this procedure. They are: Carolyn Bourdeaux (GA), Ed Case (HI), Jim Costa (CA), Henry Cuellar (TX), Jared Golden (ME), Vicente Gonzalez (TX), Josh Gotheimer (NJ), Kurt Schrader (OR), and Filemon Vela (TX), They want to pass the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill right now and then call it a day. They have argued that all those potholes, which have been there for years, can't wait another day. Bourdeaux said: "Everyone knows, time kills deals." In general, that may be true, but the Senate has already passed the bipartisan bill. Even if every Republican senator who voted for it changes his or her mind, there is no way for them to unpass the bill. It remains valid until Jan. 3, 2023, so this argument is completely disingenuous. Bourdeaux knows this.

In reality, they have no interest in the $3.5-trillion in soft infrastructure that the Democrats want to pass using reconciliation. If the vote on the bipartisan bill were taken first, the soft infrastructure bill would die. Pelosi knows that very well. For that reason, she wants to have both bills come up for a vote on Oct. 1, with soft infrastructure going first.

Currently the Democrats have a 220-212 margin in the House. If the nine refuseniks vote "present," the vote will be 211-212 and the bill will not pass. If Pelosi can peel two of them off by offering some special goodies, then the vote will be 213-212 and the bill will pass. Pelosi knows all of her members well and is sure to try to play them off against each other. Whoever takes the bait first gets the extra pork and the others won't. All of them know this, too. Can the group hold together or will Pelosi manage to get a couple of them to defect?

It is also possible that the nine are just playing games to show the folks back home how "centrist" they are and they really don't have any plans to scuttle the soft infrastructure. Do they really want to campaign in 2022 on "I killed Biden's agenda!"? Is that what is going to motivate Democratic voters? At the very least, it will almost certainly guarantee primary challenges for all of them. (V)

Austin Speaks the Truth

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin talked with ABC's Martha Raddatz yesterday and said out loud what no one in the administration has been willing to say so far about Afghanistan: Nobody predicted that the government would fall in 11 days. That is really the core of the problem. The U.S. spent 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping the Afghan military to defend its own country. And the first time it needed to fight, it just surrendered on first contact with the enemy, the Taliban. Nobody saw that coming. The Afghan army had better training and far better weapons and could have inflicted massive casualties on the Taliban. But it didn't even try. If it had fought hard, it could have delayed the (probably) inevitable loss for weeks, maybe even months, providing enough time to evacuate all Americans and Afghans who worked with them.

There might be a lesson here for future conflicts of this type. When the U.S. props up a U.S.-friendly, but corrupt and unpopular, government (which it did in Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, and elsewhere), the people aren't going to side with the U.S., and in Afghanistan that even included the army. If the soldiers and their commanders are thinking: "Why should I give my life to fight for a corrupt government nobody likes?," it is probably not going to turn out well. We saw that in Vietnam and again in Afghanistan. Unless the lesson is learned, it could well be repeated next time as well. (V)

Foreign Policy Performance Is a Poor Predictor of Elections

Imagine a president who wins a war dramatically and has a 90% approval rating after the troops come home. Surely he's a shoo-in for reelection 2 years later. Especially if his popularity demoralizes the other party and causes it to nominate a sacrificial lamb that nobody has ever heard of, right? That's why George H.W. Bush smashed Bill Clinton in 1992, after Bush invaded Kuwait and quickly and decisively drove Saddam Hussein out.

Oops. Maybe not so much. Clinton actually won that one, despite being involved in a few sex scandals.

So, winning a war isn't enough to win reelection. Does a big military defeat doom you? In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan sent U.S. troops into Lebanon as peacekeepers. Hundreds of them were killed in a bombing and Reagan withdrew the rest to avoid even more deaths. Polls in early 1984 showed that 60% of Americans felt that Reagan's policies in Lebanon were a failure. Yet, a year later, he won reelection easily.

In both these cases, the person responsible for the military success or failure was on the ballot himself. The voters could have directly rewarded or punished him. And they didn't. In 2022, Joe Biden will not be on the ballot. The Republicans' pitch is going to have to be: "Biden messed up, so vote against Congressman [X] to punish Biden." It's kind of a weak argument, especially since there was no vote on a authorization to use military force that can be hung around the neck of Congressman [X]. Well, unless Rep. [X] was in Congress 20 years ago, perhaps.

Also, Congressman [X] can come back with: "My opponent wanted more Americans to be killed in Afghanistan. I agreed with Biden and wanted to bring the troops home." That is actually a popular position. A recent poll shows that 55% of Americans supported getting out of Afghanistan. If that view continues to hold, the Republican argument gets even more tenuous. In addition, between now and Election Day 2022, there will be a lot more news and the American public tends to have a short memory concerning things that do not affect it directly. All in all, much as the Republicans would like to make 2022 about Afghanistan, there is a pretty good chance that dog won't hunt. (V)

H.R. 4 Is about Court Reform

If the Supreme Court hadn't gutted the Voting Rights Act and hadn't let partisan gerrymandered maps stand and hadn't generally been friendly to many forms of voter suppression, the Democrats would not have had to draw up H.R. 4, which is an attempt to create an updated Voting Rights Act. One can make the case that H.R. 4 really is about reining in the Supreme Court and blocking its ability to let voter suppression stand, by requiring states that want to change their voting laws to first get permission from the Dept. of Justice.

The Constitution actually gives Congress a large amount of authority over the Supreme Court and H.R. 4 exercises some of it. Art. 3, Sec. 2 states in part (with our italics)

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

So, Congress clearly has the authority to put restrictions on the Supreme Court's appellate authority. For example, H.R. 4 prevents the Supreme Court from issuing emergency orders that reverse lower-court decisions that protect the franchise. If the high Court wants to strike down a lower-court ruling that protects the franchise, it will have to take the case, hear oral arguments, and then take a vote. That often takes a year and is thus much more difficult than just issuing an unreasoned emergency order in a big hurry.

Also relevant here is that during the height of the pandemic last year, many states quickly instituted new rules about voting, such as having secretaries of state send every voter an absentee ballot, expanding the number of drop boxes, etc. Republicans sued to block all these new measures, but the lower courts usually upheld the emergency measures, only to have the Supreme Court overrule them, often with no oral arguments and no explanation.

The Supreme Court even came close to nullifying ballots cast pursuant to a lower-court order. On Sept. 18, 2020, a district court suspended South Carolina's requirement that a witness sign absentee ballot envelopes (because having voters invite witnesses into their houses to have them sign the envelopes was a clear public health risk). On Oct. 5, just a month before Election Day, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling and reinstated the requirement. Three of the justices (Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch) even wanted to invalidate ballots already cast without witness signatures, even though they were legal at the time, pursuant to the district court ruling. Under H.R. 4, the Supreme Court would not be allowed to do this so close to an election.

In this light, H.R. 4 is more about court reform than anything else. It makes explicit Congress' stated will to allow people who are legally eligible to vote to actually do so. It requires courts to consider the right to vote to take precedence over state claims that the state has a generalized interest in enforcing its laws. It specifically states that the Supreme Court cannot set aside a lower-court decision to expand access to the ballot unless the lower-court decision was clearly incorrect, in which case it must give a detailed written explanation of why it was incorrect.

In effect, if H.R. 4 passes, which will first require filibuster reform, then it sets up a game of chicken between COTUS and SCOTUS. If the Supreme Court makes rulings at such times and over such material that Congress explicitly said it may not, that will be setting up a showdown between the two branches. The Executive Branch might have to get into the act as well. If Congress says the Supreme Court may not rule about certain cases in certain time frames and it does anyway, the president or attorney general could say to the Court something like "Congress took away your authority to rule on [X], so your ruling is not valid and we are not going to enforce it." But as we said, all of this is moot unless the Senate first reforms the filibuster in order to pass H.R. 4. (V)

Trump Campaigns for Brooks in Alabama

One of the big as-yet-unanswered questions of this election cycle is how much Donald Trump's endorsement is worth. One of the test cases is the Republican senatorial primary in Alabama. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is retiring, and the winner of the Republican primary is virtually certain of succeeding him. Trump has endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), one of the Trumpiest Republicans in the House. However, Shelby has endorsed his chief of staff, Katie Britt. The former ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, is also in the race.

Yesterday Trump went to Cullman, AL, to hold a rally for Brooks. Brooks didn't get off to a good start when he said: "Now, our choices are very simple. There are some people who are despondent about the voter fraud and election theft in 2020. Folks, put that behind you." The crowd booed him. In Alabama, the past isn't dead. It isn't even past. Yes, William Faulkner was from Mississippi, not Alabama, but it holds in Alabama, too. If April 9, 1865, isn't past, then Nov. 3, 2020, certainly isn't.

Of course, what Brooks said is very much in Brooks' interest. He is not interested in relitigating the 2020 election. He wants everyone to focus on May 24, 2022, when the primary will take place (with a possible runoff on June 21, 2022, if no one gets 50% +1 votes on May 24). Still, the crowd wanted to look back, not forward. So, Brooks had to concede that he will look back at it, though he won't, of course. The only change in his behavior will be to be more careful about talking about the 2020 election in the future.

The rally began at 5 p.m., but people were already streaming in at 2 p.m., some of them from out of state. The line to get in was 2 miles long. At least one rally attendee was from Kentucky. He said: "Our country is in a terrible situation. A lot of people don't realize it. President Trump, I think he has the nation's best interest at heart, the working-class people. And that's my reason for being here." Back in reality, the only thing Donald Trump cares about is Donald Trump. The people of Alabama and Kentucky are pretty far down the list, but until they figure that out, they will keep coming to his rallies. A man from Tennessee was there and explained why: "Just because he tells the truth about everything. I want my kids to experience it." Again back in reality, The Washington Post catalogued 30,000 lies Trump told as president. We guess everyone has their own alternative facts these days.

The reason for the big draw is that, during the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, Trump rarely bothered to go to places like Alabama, since he was sure of their electoral votes anyway. He concentrated on more competitive states, so many of his supporters in and around Alabama have never actually seen him in person. During his speech, Trump spent some time attacking the concept of "woke." He asked the crowd if Gen. Patton was woke. Then in case they didn't know (or more likely, had no idea who Gen. Patton was), he answered and said the general was not woke. Why he invoked Patton is not clear. It is not as though Patton was a local boy who did well. Patton was born in San Gabriel, CA, went to school in Pasadena, and then went to West Point in New York. He has no connection at all to Alabama. However, Patton was overtly racist and antisemitic, loathed socialism, and had a way-too-high tolerance for Nazis, so maybe we know why Trump brought him up after all. Trump also said he loved Alabama. He did get in a few good words for Brooks, though, saying that the Representative is a "fearless warrior for your sacred right to vote." As usual, though, when Trump gives a speech endorsing some candidate, 90% of the emphasis is on Trump, not on the candidate. (V)

Redistricting in the Midwest and Mountain West

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball has been running a series on the topic of reapportionment. Reapportionment is likely to determine control of the House for the next 10 years, so it is vitally important. Here is a brief summary of the current installment, by state:

  • Colorado: Democrats are kicking themselves for getting behind an independent commission to do the redistricting because they now hold the trifecta in Colorado and that won't do them any good. Colorado is getting a new House seat and if they were doing the redistricting, the current 4D, 3R would become 5D, 3R or maybe 6D, 2R. But now the commission gets to draw the map. Colorado maps always have a giant district in the eastern part of the state (basically, part of the Great Plains) and a giant district in the mountainous western part of the state. The battles are about how the Denver Metro area is chopped up.

  • Idaho: Idaho also has an independent commission, so Democrats have a seat at the table. What they don't have is any Democratic voters to put in some district. Currently, the Idaho House seats are 0D, 2R and will remain that no matter what the commission does. Idaho is growing rapidly in population and might even get a third seat in 2030. Then the map would have to be completely redrawn. This time there is no real need to change it much, except to adjust the district boundaries to equalize the population in each one.

  • Iowa: The Republicans control the trifecta here but the process of map drawing is as nonpartisan as it can be under those circumstances. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency draws the map and then presents it to the legislature. It then has a straight up or down vote on it. If it votes no, the Agency draws a new map. If that one is voted down as well, then the legislature can draw its own map. The current map has no split counties, a sign of a fair map. IA-01, IA-02, and IA-03 have all changed hands at least once in the past decade, another sign of a fair map. IA-04 is heavily Republican. If the legislature rejects the two maps it is offered and gets to work on its own, it could try to go for 0D, 4R, which might backfire, or it could try to stuff all the Democrats into the Des Moines district, and end up with a stable 1D, 3R configuration.

  • Kansas: The current breakdown is 1D, 3R. They could go for a 0D, 4R map, which Gov. Laura Kelly (D-KS) would veto, but there are enough Republicans in the legislature to override her veto. As in Iowa, the big question is how greedy the Republicans get. If they try to turn KS-03 red to knock off Sharice Davids (D), they could probably do it and be more successful than in Iowa, simply because the state is much redder than Iowa.

  • Missouri: Republicans control the show here and will either try to hold the current 2D, 6R configuration or target Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) and pick up her St. Louis-based seat. Her district has lost population and needs another 50,000 people. Adding them will change MO-01 from a majority Black district to a majority non-Black district, which might be rejected by the courts. The way this is done could affect Ann Wagner (R) in adjacent MO-02. Still, MO-01 is so Democratic that the Republicans' only hope is to put in enough additional white voters so a white person can win the Democratic primary, which might cause some Black voters to stay home on Election Day. It's not likely, though. The other Democrat is Emanuel Cleaver in MO-05, a D+7 district. Republicans could try to move some of the Democrats out of the district into adjacent districts that are so red that a few more Democrats won't matter, but which might make MO-05 competitive. The best realistic case for the Republicans is to defeat Cleaver and make the delegation 1D, 7R.

  • Montana: Montana is getting its old second seat back. The state's politics tend to run east-west. Ranchers in the eastern part are Republicans. Miners in the western part are Democrats. If the Republican controlled legislature could have its druthers, it would draw a straight line horizontally across the middle of the state, so each district would reflect the state as a whole and give them both seats. But there is a problem: a nonpartisan redistricting commission. It is not known what it will do, but since the state is heavily Republican, almost any map is likely to result in two Republican seats.

  • Nebraska: The unicameral Nebraska legislature is nominally nonpartisan, but don't believe it. The Cornhusker State is heavily Republican, but with a twist: It is one of the two states that awards electoral votes by congressional district. In 2008, Barack Obama won Omaha-based NE-02. State Republicans certainly don't want a repeat of that, so they are likely to try to make the R+4 district more Republican. There are so many Republican precincts around it, that it shouldn't be difficult, subject only to the requirement that all the districts need to have roughly the same population.

  • Utah: The current breakdown is 0D, 4R and the Republicans are certainly going to try to keep it like that. The current districts run from R+13 to R+26, so that shouldn't be hard. Nevertheless, once in a while a Democrat can win in Salt Lake City. In principle, there is an independent commission, but the legislature has the final say. And with so few Democrats in the state, unless the legislature actively tries to gerrymander the state for the Democrats, which it won't, almost any map will result in a 0D, 4R delegation.

The main conclusion is that the Democrats have a good chance to win the new seat in Colorado and the Republicans are probably going to win the new seat in Montana. That aside, a lot depends on how aggressive the Republicans are about targeting Democrats in Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. Basically, the best the Democrats can hope for is no net loss. The worst case for them is the loss of 2-3 seats in these eight states (on top of the major losses in the South). (V)

Democrats Are Trying to Put Together a Strategy for the State Legislatures

Reapportionment affects not only the U.S. House, but also the state legislatures. As populations shift, the state maps have to be redrawn, even if the number of state Senate and state House or Assembly districts does not change. Democrats had high hopes of flipping one of the chambers of the Arizona state legislature last November and failed to do so. In fact, they didn't flip a single state legislative chamber anywhere in the country. They even lost both chambers in New Hampshire, giving the Republicans the trifecta. It was a pretty dismal picture for them except for the White House and U.S. Senate.

Now they are licking their wounds and trying to figure out what to do about the state legislatures. As things stand, Republicans have trifectas in states with 187 House districts and Democrats have trifectas and the power to draw maps in states with only 84 House districts. In part that is because in California and Colorado, Democrats have trifectas, but independent commissions draw the maps. Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which helps Democrats run for state legislative seats, said: "If we hold the House in 2022, it will be a structural miracle."

In the past, Democrats talked about kitchen-table issues like jobs, health care, and education. Pretty much everyone was on the same page. Now they are thinking about using different messages with different communities. But that won't be easy since they are badly fragmented on issues the Republicans can easily exploit, such as defund the police and the $15/hour minimum wage. And in many areas, battles between progressives and centrists make it hard to agree on what they stand for. If they were to run ads aimed at Black voters saying they want to defund (or even reform) the police, Republicans are sure to pick those up and run them nationally. It is very difficult to have contradictory messages aimed at different communities, although the emphasis can be different (e.g., talking about more jobs in Detroit and climate change in Miami).

In addition to the policy issues, Democrats need to get much more funding for state legislature races, something Republicans are much better at. That comes in part because Republicans get a bigger piece of their funding from a small number of very rich donors who fully understand the huge importance of controlling the state legislatures. With the Democrats, small donors and activists play a bigger role, and they tend to be focused mostly on the presidential races and maybe a little bit on the Senate and the House. Flipping three seats in the Arizona state Senate or state House to take control is definitely not on their agenda, while holding those seats is very much on the Republican agenda. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Aug22 Sunday Mailbag
Aug21 Saturday Q&A
Aug20 Biden Holds Forth on Afghanistan
Aug20 Three Senators Test Positive for COVID
Aug20 Man Arrested for Threatening to Bomb Capitol
Aug20 In California, the Drama Intensifies...
Aug20 ...And in Arizona, the Drama Nears Its Denouement...
Aug20 ...While in Texas, the Drama Ends
Aug20 This Week's 2022 Candidacy News
Aug19 The Blame Game Heats Up
Aug19 Democrats Can't Govern
Aug19 Democrats Want to Try to Pass Voting Rights Bill within a Week
Aug19 Red States Are Fighting Their Blue Cities--over Masks
Aug19 Anti-mask Rules Are Creating a Backlash
Aug19 Republicans Give Up on Blocking Gay Rights
Aug19 Judge Grills Lawyers in Smartmatic Lawsuit
Aug19 Mixed Polls on Florida Senate Race
Aug18 Future Tense
Aug18 Proof of Concept for Fox
Aug18 Today's Rachel Maddow News...
Aug18 Abbott Is Diagnosed with COVID-19
Aug18 And So It Begins
Aug17 Afghanispin
Aug17 Send in the Clowns
Aug17 You Win Some, and You Lose Some
Aug17 Toobin Advocates No Federal Prosecutions for Trump
Aug17 Fox Definitely Has Its Candidate
Aug16 "This Is Not Saigon"
Aug16 Biden Is Pro Electric Car--and also Pro Gasoline Car
Aug16 Trump Rules the House--but Not the Senate
Aug16 Trump Got It
Aug16 One-Third of Native Americans Are Not Registered to Vote
Aug16 Schmitt Is Not the Adult in the Room
Aug16 Five Senators Haven't Decided Whether They Will Run for Reelection in 2022
Aug16 Democratic Choice Will Be Tiebreaker on New Jersey Redistricting Commission
Aug16 Buttigieg Is an Amazingly Good Politician
Aug15 Sunday Mailbag
Aug14 Saturday Q&A
Aug13 Let the Games Begin
Aug13 The Sh*t Hits the Taliban
Aug13 SCOTUS to Students: Get Vaxxed
Aug13 Hochul Running for Reelection
Aug13 This Week in Schadenfreude
Aug13 It's a Snap Eh-lection
Aug13 Donald Kagan, 1932-2021
Aug12 The Reconciliation Bill Is Not Home Free Yet
Aug12 Judge Orders Trump's Accountants to Give Congress His Tax Returns
Aug12 Dominion Sues the Rest of Them
Aug12 Biden Could Be the Democrats' Last Chance At Winning Back Noncollege White Voters
Aug12 Redistricting in the Big Southern States May Help the Republicans to a House Majority