Donald Trump's role as a kingmaker (or more accurately, a senatormaker) may be waning, but his effects on the Republican Party are surging. Politico interviewed Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarians and the author of a book on them. She noted how well Donald Trump fits in with previous right-wing authoritarians but having someone like that in American politics is like an earthquake or volcano. There have been previous conservative presidents, like Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, but an authoritarian who has no respect at all for democracy is a shocking new development.
She noted that all authoritarians lie about everything. Check. They call democracies tyrannical. Check. They say their supporters are victims. Check. They attack the media. Check. They attack people in their own party who oppose them. Check. They have simple, unified messages. Check. All the signs are there.
And it is not just Trump. The effect he has had on the Republican Party is gigantic. The party of Ronald Reagan or even George W. Bush is dead and gone. The effect can be most clearly seen in some of the gubernatorial races this year. Solid conservatives with proven conservative records are being attacked from the right by Trumpists who hold that merely wanting to make abortions illegal (and for the people on the cutting edge, banning all discussions of homosexuality) isn't enough. You have to worship Trump and believe with your whole heart that he was robbed of the presidency by Democrats, Republicans, corrupt bureaucrats, voting machine manufacturers, and maybe Satan as well.
Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-OK) just signed a bill making it a crime to perform an abortion in almost all circumstances. Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) signed bills banning trans girls from high school sports. Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL) is proclaiming that Trump won in 2020, even though there is not a snowball's chance in Hell that she believes it. Why are they all carrying on like this? Because they are under attack from Trumpists in the primaries—Joel Kintsel, David Perdue, and Lindy Blanchard, respectively.
Even Republican governors from deep-red states who should be absolute shoo-ins for reelection are facing serious primary challenges, including Govs. Mike DeWine (OH), Mike Dunleavy (AK), Mark Gordon (WY), and Brad Little (ID). It is only in states where the governor has gone full Trumper already where there are no serious primary challengers, notably in Texas and Florida.
That doesn't mean those governors are just coasting along. They are aggressively backing legislation and issuing executive orders designed entirely to please their Trumpist base. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) has deployed the Texas National Guard to secure the border. That is not their job and way exceeds his authority. He could not care less. He also loaded three buses full of undocumented immigrants and sent them to D.C. as a publicity stunt. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has done a large number of things to prove his bona fides, from signing the "Don't Say Gay" bill to inviting police officers and teachers who don't want to wear masks to move to Florida, the land of "Freedom."
Defeating a sitting governor is tough, but these Republican governors are not taking any chances. Most know that they don't have to worry about Democrats, so their main concern is moving so far to the right and hugging Trump tightly so there is no space there for potential primary challengers. Moving to the far right is usually not a good general election strategy, but they all assume that it is in the bag if they can just win the primary. In some cases, most obviously that of DeSantis, that may be a very big assumption. (V)
The rightward move in politics is not limited to gubernatorial races in red states. It is even showing up in races for mayor in very blue cities. Consider the race for mayor of Los Angeles, an extremely diverse and blue city in an extremely diverse and blue state.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), a Black woman who is a long-time progressive, is running. But she has set her liberal views aside and is running on a platform of more police, not fewer police. Many progressives are disappointed with her. In some ways, her campaign mirrors that of Eric Adams for mayor of New York City last year. Adams won and Bass has no doubt taken note of it. And New York is just as blue as Los Angeles.
To some extent, Bass' hand was forced by her opponent, billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who has already spent $9 million of his own money on ads telling how he will crack down on crime. A new UC Berkeley/Los Angeles Times poll shows 24% of the voters back Caruso and 23% back Bass. Who is ahead right now doesn't matter because Los Angeles uses a jungle-primary system in which the top two candidates in the June 7 primary will make it to the November runoff. As long as these two remain #1 and #2, in whichever order, they will clash head-on in November.
Bass seems to understand that the voters care more about crime than about progressive priorities. Her campaign website lists only four issues: homelessness, public safety, crime prevention, and business and jobs. And two of these are the same, actually (public safety and crime prevention). There is nothing there about a $15/hr minimum wage, climate change, or free college or pre-K. In fact, the website would be a fine fit for almost any moderate Republican. For example, Caruso. His campaign website lists three issues: homelessness, public safety, and corruption. Do you see any similarities? Odd, no?
It's nice that Caruso wants to end corruption. On his list of ways to end corruption is taking the city council out of land-use discussions. Currently, if a developer wants to displace a poor community to put up high-end housing, the city council might object. Caruso sees this as corruption that needs to be blocked. Better to have anonymous technocrats (who can be easily pressured or bribed) make the decisions about land use than the people's elected representatives who have to take public votes on plans.
Bass' lack of apparent interest in any of the current progressive priorities is upsetting some of her previous supporters (her district covers a substantial piece of Los Angeles—in California-speak, from the I-405 to the I-110, south of West Hollywood and north of Inglewood). No Republican has been elected to Congress from CA-37 for 30 years, when the district was substantially different. Some progressive voters might decide to vote for Kevin de León, who is running on a much more progressive platform. If he overtakes Bass, then the runoff could be Caruso vs. De León, putting moderate Democrats on the spot. Some of them might defect to Caruso, enabling him to win a squeaker. Caruso was a Republican for most of his adult life, then switched to independent for a while, and about a month ago registered as a Democrat, so reach your own conclusions about his partisan leaning. (V)
Donald Trump currently does not hold any public office, yet he is calling the shots for the Republican Party. He inspires fear, hoards cash, doles out favors, and crushes people he hates. Supplicants come to his office at Mar-a-Lago begging favors and his blessing. Has there ever been anything like this before in American history? Not exactly, but perhaps the closest analogy is that Trump is a modern version of "Boss" William Magear Tweed, the 19th century New York City politician who ran the Democratic Party there. Tweed was a one-term member of the U.S. House and later a one-term member of the New York state Senate, and a longtime alderman for the city of New York, but his power didn't come from those offices.
He was a member of various boards and commissions and was able to dole out jobs, money, and favors due to those positions. He also stole from New York City taxpayers an amount then estimated to be in the $25-$45 million range, but now estimated in the $200 million range. Note that we're talking 1860s dollars; today that would be on the order of $1-$6 billion. Today, corruption is a bit more discreet, we suppose. Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner just closed a deal with Saudi Royal Prince MBS to manage $2 billion of the kingdom's money for a fee of $25 million a year. And young Jared has scant experience managing that kind of money. Also, the Saudi board in charge of vetting proposals rejected Kushner's proposal. Does anyone smell a fish rotting in the desert?
The New York Times has interviewed over 50 people to come to the conclusion that Trump is like a 19th century machine politician, pulling all the strings backstage. One thing that Trump has in common with Tweed and all the others of his ilk is his effort to put people beholden to him in key positions. Trump's ability to pull this off will be severely tested this year since he has endorsed 140 candidates for office. By Nov. 9, stories about his batting average will be all over the media. If he hits .350, he would be an extraordinary baseball player, but even at .500, he would be a terrible politician.
Like Tweed, Trump is definitely and primarily interested in money, only he handles it differently. He makes money by allowing favored candidates to hold fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago. Tweed, by contrast, made most of his money in kickbacks. The Mar-a-Lago events are kind of like kickbacks, but they do add an extra layer of respectability.
All this has created a cottage industry of "consultants" who can be hired in an attempt to win Trump's endorsement, get him to adopt some position, or get special access to Mar-a-Lago. Many of these consultants are scammers and can't deliver; ironically, those may be the folks who understand Trump best. You know, two peas in a pod, and all that. Boss Tweed, on the other hand, generally delivered. If he promised you something, he came through with it. Trump is much stingier. He rarely makes donations to his preferred candidates and almost never allows even his most favored candidates use of his giant e-mail address list. When he does deliver, it is more in the way of intangibles, like appearing at a rally with a favored candidate.
Also like Tweed, Trump pays a huge amount of attention to the mechanics of elections, including who counts the votes and who certifies them. See, for example, this very famous cartoon of Tweed, drawn by his archenemy Thomas Nast:
Michael D'Antonio compares politicians begging for Trump's approval to his earlier reality-television show career, where wannabe real estate moguls were begging for his approval. And D'Antonio described Trump's show, The Apprentice, as a "sad scramble of people behaving like crabs in a bucket to be lifted out by him." The smart crabs know that Trump must be flattered, and when making a pitch, it is important to bring visual materials, with photos and graphical materials in color and text in a very big font. Really smart crabs know that a good way to get to him is on television. So, for example, when Trump was staying at his Bedminister, NJ, golf club, Arizona Senate candidate Jim Lamon bought an ad on Fox News in New Jersey in the hope that Trump would see it. Undoubtedly, other examples of creativity will present themselves as Trump sycophants try to top each other. (V)
Democrats got a shock in 2020 when Latinos along the Rio Grande in Texas shifted notably towards Republicans, especially given that Donald Trump was on top of the ticket. A similar effect was noticeable in Miami. If this effect is permanent, it could spell trouble for the Democrats in November. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows that the effect has not gone away yet. It may not be permanent, but if Latinos sour on Democrats in November, it is going to cost the blue team big time.
A large part of the problem is that the Democratic pooh-bahs think all Latinos care about is immigration so they are fixated on that. It turns out that many Latinos identify more as "working class" than as "Latino" and their concerns are more about inflation and other kitchen table issues than about immigration. Democrats find this difficult to believe. In the poll, only 12% of Latinos said immigration is their top issue, while another 12% said it was the war in Ukraine.
Sometimes the Democrats shoot themselves in the foot—on purpose. In Oregon, the state got a new congressional district that is 20% Latino. Latina Andrea Salinas decided to run for it. She has the backing of top Latino groups and Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Yet the House Majority PAC, which is close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), chose to put $1 million into ads supporting a white first-time candidate, Carrick Flynn. That must be why they're called the Majority PAC and not the Minority PAC. In any event, this left Latino leaders fuming, since they said that Salinas was the right candidate for the district and could probably win it. There are only 13 Latinas in the House, so actively opposing someone who could be #14 is not likely to help win the hearts and minds of Latinos in Oregon or elsewhere. The PAC would have been much wiser to just stay out of the primary and announce it will help whoever wins.
The poll showed Joe Biden's overall approval rating nationally at 33%, the lowest ever, but among Latinos it was an astounding 26%. You don't win elections with a 26% approval rating. Latinos are notoriously difficult to poll and it was a small sample and elections are still half a year away, but this is not an encouraging sign for the Democrats. It isn't that Latinos are suddenly feeling their inner Trumper, but if they are convinced that the Democrats don't really care about them, they could stay home in droves, spelling disaster for the blue team.
The poll also asked about the war in Ukraine. Biden is not doing well there, either, as only 39% approve of how he is handling it and 48% disapprove. There is no breakdown as to why, though. Probably some fraction of the 48% want him to do more and some fraction want him to stay out of it altogether and leave Ukraine to deal with Russia without help. The issue is definitely not that no one is paying attention. About 86% are paying at least somewhat close attention to the war with older people paying more attention than younger people and whites more than Black voters or Latinos. Almost everyone thinks the worst is yet to come. (V)
Latinos aren't the only critical group Democrats are losing. A new Gallup poll shows weakness among young voters, as well. Among Gen Z voters, people born 1997-2004, Joe Biden's approval rating was 60% at the start of his term. Now it is 39%. Among millennials, those born 1981-1996, it was also 60% at the start of his term. Now it is 41%. The Democrats can ill afford to lose Latinos and young voters, even if losses among Boomers are minimal and among the Greatest Generation are nonexistent.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll has a similar result. Among voters between 18 and 34, just 21% approve of the job Biden is doing while 58% do not approve. Among voters 35 to 64, Biden is doing better, with 35% approving... better, but still not good. Among seniors, Biden's approval is 48%.
It is hard to pinpoint why young voters are unhappy with Biden while seniors are more upbeat about him. Probably a large part of it is young voters have less experience with politics and when they heard him make all kinds of promises, they expected he would keep them. Many of them are not aware that presidents are greatly constrained by Congress and when the president's party has 50 seats in the Senate and two of the members don't want to play ball, then he is not going to get anything done. Older voters understand the role of Congress much better and probably don't blame Biden as much for not getting much done in the face of a recalcitrant Senate.
The young people who don't approve of Biden certainly don't approve of the Republicans. The danger is that they stay home and don't vote in November. If Biden doesn't do something to make young voters happy, Democrats are not going to be happy the evening of Nov. 8. Unfortunately, he has limited power to do things on his own. One thing he can do is wipe out some student loan debt, but that has the downside of potentially alienating some young blue-collar voters. At the very least, he could keep pushing the loan payment moratorium back until after the midterms, but that is hardly a panacea. But he needs to do something, and fast. Just muddling along isn't going to cut it. (V)
Traditionally, presidential election campaigns don't start until after the midterms, when potential candidates see which kinds of candidates and themes won (and lost). But this time the Republican primary is already well underway, months before the midterms. This is somewhat surprising since polls show that Donald Trump is the favorite of most Republican voters and most of the POTUS wannabes will have no chance if he runs. So why not wait until after the midterms to see if he jumps in? Probably, each candidate is afraid the others will get a head start, so it is now or never.
Mike Pence is going around giving speeches saying that Donald Trump was wrong (about the vice president's power to overturn elections). The other Mike (Pompeo) is about to release a book, which candidates often do to get some publicity and lay out their plans about how things should be. Nikki Haley has been in Iowa and is going back for a reception held by the state Republican Party. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) has famously already issued his platform—which was lambasted by none other than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Then, of course, there is the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room, Ron DeSantis. He makes a lot of noise and gets a lot of attention, but isn't a good campaigner and is not well known outside of Florida. So his approach is to use his position as governor to throw red meat at the base in Florida, rather than travel to Iowa or New Hampshire.
Republican strategist Alex Conant said: "I think the anticipation is that Biden might not run again or if he does, he'll be really vulnerable. There are a lot of people who are very excited to run in 2024 and are doing everything they can now to be ready." Then he added: "Every candidate is, on the macro level, trying to raise their profile, distinguish themselves on some key issues. And then at the micro level, start building a team, making friends, winning over donors. I think a lot of it is already happening." Right now, much of it is under the radar, but as soon as the midterms are over, candidates are going to make their decisions public as soon as it is known what Donald Trump is planning.
Of course, he could foil them by teasing a run but making no formal announcement until the summer of 2023 or even later. This would prevent any but the most determined candidate from putting together a potential campaign against him. For Trump there is little downside in holding off. He doesn't need time to get name recognition or raise money, like all the others do. The one thing that may make him jump in as early as Jan. 2023 is that he loves campaigning. He didn't like governing at all, but having adoring crowds cheer him and hang on his every word is something he really, really likes. So the earlier he announces, the earlier he can start campaigning in earnest. People might even start showing up to his rallies again. (V)
Money isn't everything in politics. Just ask Sens. Jaime Harrison (D-SC), Sara Gideon (D-ME), and Steve Bullock (D-MT), all of whom greatly outraised their opponents in 2020. Still, better to have more money than your opponent than less. Two of the most vulnerable Democrats, Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA), are doing really well on the money front. Warnock pulled in an astonishing $13.6 million in Q1, triple what Republican Herschel Walker raised. Warnock has $25.6 million in his campaign account now. Kelly's haul was $11.4 million and he has $23.3 million in his account. No Republican comes close to matching that and in Arizona, the Republicans are likely to spend most of what they raise bashing each other in the primary. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) also outraised their opponents.
In Florida, Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), who is challenging Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), outraised him $10 million to $5.8 million. However, each had about $13 million cash on hand. In North Carolina, Cheri Beasley (D) took in $3.6 million compared to $1.1 million for Trump-endorsed Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) and also for former governor Pat "Bathroom bill" McCrory.
In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz (R) loaned his Senate campaign $6 million while David McCormick (R) loaned his $7 million. In Ohio, Mike Gibbons loaned his Senate campaign $5 million. None of these candidates really expect the loans to be paid off, but campaign laws make loans more attractive than outright gifts.
In Wyoming, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) is doing fine in the money race. She raised $2.9 million to $1.3 million for her opponent, Harriet Hageman. At the end of the quarter, Cheney had $6.8 million in her account to Hageman's $1 million. In a cheap-to-advertise state like Wyoming, Cheney could probably buy up every ad slot from now to November if she wanted to, but she understands that beyond a certain point, ads are counterproductive as people get angry seeing the same ad 20 times in an evening.
While the Democrats have a big advantage with the small donors who fuel their campaigns, the Republicans have a counterweapon: the Senate Leadership Fund. It raised $27 million in Q1 from millionaires and billionaires and will use the money where it is most needed. Together with the Congressional Leadership Fund, the two Republican super PACs have $166 million cash on hand. The Democratic counterparts have only $82 million.
And finally, there's Donald Trump, who is not on the ballot in 2022. But he pulled in $19 million in Q1 and is sitting on a war chest of $110 million for future use. (V)
Crossover districts are those won by one party in the presidential race and the other party in the House race. Currently, there are only 16 in the whole country, out of 435. The other 419 are wholly owned subsidiaries of one party or the other. This means that only 3.7% of the House districts are clearly competitive. This wasn't always the case. As recently as the late 1980s, 40% of all House districts were crossovers, as shown in this graph:
Clearly the trend is way down. Less than 50 years ago, there were times when half the districts were crossovers. That was the time when people said: "I vote for the best candidate, regardless of party." Sounds pretty quaint now.
Currently there are nine Republicans in districts Joe Biden won and seven Democrats in Trump districts. Here is the list.
The first thing that pops up when you look at the data is that most of these House races were close. In fact, 12 of the 16 were decided by under 5 points. Will they be close in 2022? Some might be but others definitely won't be due to gerrymandering. For example, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) is now in a D+14 district so he will cruise to reelection.
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) could have run in a nearby district that Biden won by 8 points instead of her current district, but she chose to retire instead. Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and John Katko (R-NY) also chose to retire rather than face the voters in less favorable districts. Of the four California Republicans on the list, only Young Kim is running in an improved district for her. The other three are in worse districts now. Other than these four, the districts haven't changed much.
When we look at the new 2022 districts, the picture is different. There are still 16 crossover districts (by accident) but the makeup is different. In November, there will be 11 Republicans running in districts Biden would have won and five Democrats running where Trump would have won. The new 16 are as follows.
In a Republican wave year, all the Democrats in Trump districts could get wiped out while Republicans could win in districts Biden narrowly carried. Overall, it seems likely that there will be more crossover districts in January than now, simply due to Republican victories in very light blue districts. But there might not be a single Democrat left in a red district. (V)
The Walt Disney Corporation has always tried to avoid being explicitly political, but has never succeeded in avoiding criticism from partisans. Only its enemies have changed. For decades, Disney was hated by the left as a huge corporate monolith that spread the myth that all Americans lived in father-dominated, two-child, white nuclear families in the suburbs. When Paris' Euro Disney opened, there were protests from the left about "cultural imperialism" and even an actual bombing in 1992. Also, while the Mouse didn't have any religious or political views, Walt himself was a devout Christian, active Republican, and generous donor to Thomas Dewey's 1944 presidential bid. This was widely known, so people who didn't like the founder's views often reflexively didn't like his company either.
Now everything has turned around. The company hasn't changed all that much, but now it is the right that hates it. It is accused of "grooming" children because it opposes Florida's new "Don't say gay" law. It has probably taken this position because it is in a creative industry and a substantial portion of its creative staff is opposed to anti-gay laws. Management understands that keeping key employees happy is important for corporate success even if it angers some partisans who don't work for the company.
The "grooming" accusation is a throwback to the 1970s singer, orange juice saleswoman, and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant (who, as a devout Christian, also opposed divorce until she filed for one herself). Her pitch was: "Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America." Even if that were true, which it certainly isn't, there is no reason to believe that a multinational corporation founded by a religious and cultural conservative would help with recruitment.
What conservatives either don't see or don't want to see is that big corporations like to be in the mainstream. Espousing unpopular views is rarely good for business. And now, opposition to gay people and their rights is no longer mainstream, as it once was. That ship has already sailed. The Disney company understands that, but its opponents don't. (V)
Most Republican politicians will do anything for Donald Trump's endorsement. If that involves telling obvious lies, licking his boots, or whatever, that is not a problem. Now that Trump has formally endorsed author J.D. Vance in the Ohio Senate race and quack Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race, all eyes are on the race for governor in Pennsylvania. Trump cares about that race more than almost any other north of the Mason-Dixon line because if he runs for president in 2024, he is counting on the governor of the Keystone State to award the state's electors to him, whether or not he wins the popular vote.
Nine Republicans have filed to run in the May 17 gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania. A recent poll from the Trafalgar Group has state Sen. Doug Mastriano at 22%, former U.S. representative Lou Barletta at 19%, and former U.S. attorney Bill McSwain at 17%. With such a close race, Trump's endorsement could be critical. All three candidates would love to have it, as would the six others in the race, but Trump hates picking losers. McSwain is the least likely of the top three to get Trump's blessing because McSwain didn't challenge Trump's loss in Pennsylvania in 2020.
That leaves Mastriano and Barletta. Greg Stewart, the chairman of the Centre County Democratic Party, said of Mastriano: "He's like a mini version of Trump." On the other hand, Trump knows Barletta much better and has high regard for him, despite Barletta's crushing loss to Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) in the 2018 Senate race. Barletta was one of the first members of Congress to endorse The Donald in 2016. This puts Trump in a bit of a bind: Endorse the guy who supported you early on, even though he is a loser, or support the johnny-come-lately you don't know but who is ahead in the polls. After Trump stunned everyone by endorsing Oz in the Senate race, we'll go out on a limb and state that there is a 50% chance Trump will endorse Barletta.
Trump often waits until the end and then endorses the candidate who is ahead. But with the primary only a month away and the candidates so close, that strategy probably won't work. Also, the longer he waits, the less impact the endorsement will have because even his supporters will see through an endorsement clearly intended to raise his batting average rather than because he really likes the candidate.
As an aside, shortly after Trump endorsed Oz for Senate, Trafalgar polled the race. Oz came in first at 23%, with hedge fund manager David McCormick at 20% and Fox News commentator Kathy Barnette at 18%. For the Democrats, Oz would be the ideal opponent as their oppo researchers would have a treasure chest of quotes and recordings of all the nutty things he said on his TV show for years. (V)