Senate page     Jan. 26

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Looking Under Rocks for White Grievance

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) built his campaign around Critical Race Theory, and the things being taught to (white) students in the state's classrooms. He concluded, correctly as it turns out, that this would be an issue on which Trump Republicans and more mainstream Republicans could agree, giving him the basis for a winning coalition. The Governor did not come up with the idea of running on white grievance, of course, but the fact that he won in a generally blue state certainly served as proof of concept. And so, whether it's CRT or affirmative action or media portrayals or the treatment of 1/6 insurrectionists vs. the treatment of BLM protesters, Republican politicians are searching everywhere for race-centric opportunities to exploit.

The latest "goldmine"? COVID drugs, particularly sotrovimab, which is the only monoclonal antibody proven effective against Omicron. There is much demand for COVID treatments in pill form, since they are cheaper, easier, and don't involve needles (which many people fear). Also, for reasons best parsed by a psychotherapist, pills are less subject to conspiratorial thinking than vaccinations are.

The problem is that, for the foreseeable future, the supply of COVID drugs is nowhere near enough to meet demand. So, the federal government had to come up with suggested guidelines for physicians as they try to decide who gets the pills and who doesn't. And one of those was that race and ethnicity should be considered as part of the equation.

This was an evidence-based recommendation, it should be noted. For various reasons, not the least of which is having less access to healthcare, minority groups (excepting Asians) have had less access to COVID treatments of various sorts than white Americans. Further, and in a related trend, minorities (again, excepting Asians) are about twice as likely to die from the disease as are white folks. Also, recall that it was a recommendation, and not a rule—just a suggestion of one of the things physicians might want to consider.

It did not take long, however, for Republican politicians to turn this into, effectively, "death panels for white people." Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called the policy "racist and un-American." Stephen Miller, who loves white people as much as anyone, has filed multiple lawsuits. Donald Trump, at his recent rally, declared that the Biden administration is "denigrating white people to determine who lives and who dies." We have no doubt that Sarah Palin, the original "death panel" belly-acher, would be out there saying the same kinds of things if she wasn't recovering from a case of COVID-19 that she was unvaccinated against.

It's a good question as to whether something like this has enough juice to linger into November. After all, even CRT seems to be running out of steam a bit. Still, the GOP clearly has its campaign theme for 2022. So too do the Democrats, for that matter—infrastructure wasn't moving the needle, so they'll run on the threat that Trumpers pose to democracy, and on voting rights, and on the need to slay the filibuster (more below). (Z)

The Filibuster May Linger a While Longer, but It's on Life Support

If you could travel back a century, and ask American voters about the filibuster, one wonders how many of them would even know what you were talking about. After all, there were no incredibly informative blogs like this one around back then, and the filibuster had yet to become a sledgehammer in the Senate minority's toolkit.

Voters know about it now, however, and it definitely rubs them the wrong way. This is particularly true of Democratic voters, who perceive—not without reason—an unfair double whammy. Whammy one is that the Senate is set up in such a way that smaller states are disproportionately represented, often grossly so (e.g., a Wyomingite's vote for senator counts 62 times more than a Californian's). Whammy two is that the filibuster often allows those small-state senators to dictate the agenda of the upper chamber and of the country.

As a result, it is now effectively required for aspiring Democratic senators to take a stand against the practice. The three leading Democrats in the Wisconsin race (Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, and Alex Lasry), the two leading Democrats in the Pennsylvania race (Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Rep. Conor Lamb), the only major Democrat in the Ohio race (Rep. Tim Ryan), the only major Democrat in the North Carolina race (Cheri Beasley), and the only major Democrat in the Florida race (Rep. Val Demings) have all promised that, if elected, they will vote to change or kill the filibuster. That covers pretty much all of the serious Democratic pickup opportunities.

Most of these candidates actually favor killing the filibuster altogether, though there probably won't be 50 votes for that, since many of the moderates already in the Senate prefer reform rather than a wholesale elimination. And, of course, there's not much purpose in making this change until one party or the other has the federal trifecta. But that day will come. Indeed, if the Democrats hold the House this cycle (tall order), then that would almost certainly mean that the Party picked up at least a couple of Senate seats as well, most likely Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. So, there could be change as soon as January 2023.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been a filibuster fetishist, usually speaking of it in terms reserved for mom, baseball and apple pie. But he is also very good at reading which way the political winds are blowing. And if the first trifecta that comes after 2022 is a GOP trifecta, then (assuming he's still in office) he would likely make a move. After all, there's a sizable benefit to being the first party to operate with fewer constraints. The next possible chance for a Republican trifecta, of course, is Jan. 20, 2025.

Meanwhile, nobody really knows what's going on in the heads of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). However, if they really are defending the filibuster because they see it as a sacred Senate institution, then they might just be open to reason here. One argument would be: "The filibuster simply isn't going to last much longer; is it worth it to sacrifice voting rights to keep it for a few more years (or maybe just one more year)?" An alternative, and probably more persuasive, argument would be: "The longer the filibuster exists in its current form, the angrier voters get, and the more likely that they will demand that the whole thing be burned down. The only hope of saving the filibuster in any form is to tone it down right now." So while filibuster reform might seem to be a dead issue for now, it might just make a return this year, after there's been time for everyone to cool off. (Z)

Pelosi Is In...

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had signaled that she would run for reelection, and yesterday she made it official with a video posted to her Twitter account:

While we have made progress much more needs to be done to improve people’s lives. This election is crucial: nothing less is at stake than our Democracy.

But we don’t agonize-we organize. I am running for re-election to Congress to deliver For The People and defend Democracy. -NP

— Nancy Pelosi (@TeamPelosi) January 25, 2022

Her district, CA-11, was sapphire blue under the old California map and it will be even bluer (sapphireier?) under the new map. She's popular there, and is one of the most famous Democrats in the country. So, she's a mortal lock for reelection.

That said, there are a couple of questions worth considering. The first is whether Pelosi will try to stay part of the Democratic leadership in the House. On one hand, in 2018, she committed to serving only two more terms as the #1 Democrat in the House. On the other hand, she's very good at what she does, and if the Democrats do hold the House this year, it will likely be by the skin of their teeth. That's not the best time to throw a veteran whipper of votes overboard in favor of a rookie. Our guess is that if the Democrats remain in the majority, Pelosi's term-limit agreement will be forgotten, but that if they end up as the minority, then she'll step aside to give someone new time to learn the ropes.

The second question is whether Pelosi is actually going to serve out her next term. She has observed, numerous times, that if she were to announce her retirement she would be a lame duck. Ducks, of course, are not well suited to herding cats, and maintaining control of the Democratic caucus would become much more difficult for the remainder of her term. So, she would declare a reelection bid even if she was planning to retire. Further, if she has a preferred successor for her seat, it will be easier to swing that by retiring after being re-elected and thus triggering a special election. The shorter timeframe would make it rather harder for a challenger to overcome "this person is Nancy Pelosi's handpicked successor."

It is hard to imagine that, after having been at the locus of power in Washington, Pelosi is interested in being an 83-year-old backbencher. So, putting it all together, we would imagine that if the Democrats hold the House, she will be Speaker at this time next year. And if they do not, then she'll retire early in the term. (Z)

...While Cuellar Has Trouble...

Last week, we noted that the campaign office and home of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) had been raided by the FBI. We also pointed out that while it was largely unknown what the Feds were after, and that Cuellar might not be guilty of anything, politics plays by different rules than the jury system does. Thus the mere hint of bad behavior could be a real problem for the Representative in terms of his reelection bid.

It did not take long for this to become the case. It was known last week that the FBI's probe has to do with Azerbaijan, and now it's known that it's probably focused on businessman and felon Kemal Oksuz, and trips to that nation that he funded for Cuellar and his wife. And the Representative is particularly unlucky here, politically, for two reasons. The first of those is that he narrowly avoided being primaried in 2020 by progressive Jessica Cisneros (D), 38,834 votes (51.8%) to 36,144 (48.2%). The second of those is that Cisneros is back for another tilt, and the primary theme of her campaigns was/is "Cuellar is corrupt, and too cozy with business interests."

Cisneros has a fair bit of ammunition to work with here. Regardless of what the FBI does or does not find, and what the Department of Justice does or does not charge, the optics are very bad here. First, many voters are going to presume, fairly or not, that innocent people don't generally get raided by the FBI. Second, it is an incontrovertible fact that Cuellar is the co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. We follow politics pretty closely, and even we are not clear why there needs to be a Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. While there are certainly "national" caucuses centered on shared heritage (e.g., the Congressional Friends of Scotland Caucus), or on key allies (e.g., Congressional Iraq Caucus), Azerbaijan does not seem to fit in either of those categories. There's no Congressional Kazakhstan Caucus (sorry, Borat!) or Congressional Turkmenistan Caucus or Congressional Tajikistan Caucus. Heck, there's not even a Congressional Ukraine Caucus, and that nation is clearly of greater strategic import than Azerbaijan. Anyhow, this Azerbaijan-centered caucus sure looks like something set up in order to give easier access to lobbyists like Kemal Oksuz. And even if there's more to it than that, the fact is that the other members of the caucus haven't been raided by the FBI and Cuellar has.

Because Cisneros is not a sitting member of Congress, her bankroll lags Cuellar's by $2 million, so she wasn't planning to start running ads for several more months. After all, TV money only goes so far in a populous state like Texas. Now, however, she has decided to strike while the iron is hot, and has launched an ad hitting Cuellar while at the same time sharing her story. The clear message: "He's a fat cat politician who's on the take, and I'm a working-class type who isn't." She doesn't say, "Hell, I've never even been to Azerbaijan," but she might as well.

Cuellar insists that he will stay in the race and that he will win, although that could certainly change. Previously pro-Cuellar PACs are pulling back right now, and have put a hold on $179,000 in planned ad buys. If the FBI situation gets worse (i.e., Cuellar is indicted), or if the polls turn grim, he might decide to back out. If Cisneros does successfully primary him, she's going to have to win in a D+7 district that's probably not quite as lefty as she is (although it is 78.5% Latino, which helps). If Cuellar survives to the general, he'll have to deal with any lingering damage from the FBI's activities and from what is going to be a bruising primary. It's just one seat out of 435, but this figures to be one of the more interesting stories in 2022. (Z)

...And Cooper Is Out

On Monday, the Tennessee General Assembly approved new district maps for the state. On Tuesday, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) announced his retirement after 16 terms in the House. These two developments are not unrelated.

Under the old map, Cooper's Nashville-centered district, TN-05, was a comfortable D+9. However, it was surrounded by districts that were R+21, R+22, and R+26. If a party is looking for a gerrymander, there almost isn't a more prime opportunity than that. And so, Nashville is now split across three different districts, and TN-05 is now roughly R+8. Cooper didn't see himself surviving that, and so he headed for the hills. "I explored every possible way, including lawsuits, to stop the gerrymandering and to win one of the three congressional districts that now divide Nashville," he said in a statement. "There's no way, at least for me, in this election cycle."

Cooper decided not to pursue a lawsuit, but the Tennessee Democratic Party has already promised to file one. The problem is that such suits are generally only successful when it can be shown that the gerrymander was racial—that is, that it was undertaken to weaken the voting power of minority voters. However, while there is a sizable Black population in and around Nashville, they are about a quarter of the overall population. That's usually not enough to win a case like this. So, TN-05 is almost certainly a lost cause for the Democrats. TN-09, which is centered on Memphis, will remain bluer than John Lee Hooker, which means Tennessee's next congressional delegation will surely have 8 Republicans and 1 Democrat. (Z)

The Slow-Moving Coup, Part VI: The Good News, Vol. II--The Republicans

It takes a fair bit of time to lay the groundwork for more research-intensive pieces like this one, and the ones on Joe Biden's trajectory. We did one of each yesterday, and ended up posting very, very late. So, we'll alternate between the two series while they're both going concerns to avoid a repeat of that. Anyhow, here are the slow-moving coup pieces we've already run:

Yesterday, we noted that one major challenge in mounting a slow-moving coup is that it's very difficult to keep everyone on the same page. For some supporters, like Mike Pompeo and Steven Mnuchin, there's such a thing as a bridge too far. Others may stay on board, and yet engage in infighting over who the true Dear Leader is (Donald Trump or Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-FL), or about other things, like whether vaccinations are OK or not, or what level of fanaticism is satisfactory.

In any event, those dynamics apply to folks who are squarely on board with Trumpism. But there are a sizable number of prominent Republicans who aren't on board, and are only pretending to be so (with various levels of enthusiasm) because of the costs that come with openly declaring that the emperor has no clothes. For these folks, as with some of the defectors within Trump's orbit, there is most certainly a thing as a bridge too far.

To start, let's take a look at state-level machinations. It is very clear that Republican-dominated legislatures and Republican governors are willing to change the rules in ways that benefit Trump in particular and the Republican Party in general. Some of them are doing this because they love the Donald, some because they want to help out anyone who will lead in Trumpy fashion, and some because they want to help Republicans in general. Laws governing the conduct of elections are far and away the most effective tool available when it comes to pulling off a slow-moving coup, and are absolutely a major cause for concern. We'll take a much closer look at this question in the next installment.

It is once the ballots are cast that we get into "a bridge too far" territory for many people, including many otherwise Trump-friendly or Trump-tolerant Republicans. Passing new voting laws is entirely legal, and the only possible consequences (assuming you don't mind harm to democracy/voting rights) are: (1) the laws get struck down by a court, or (2) there is political blowback. So, if changing laws gets the job done, and allows Trump or some other Republican to triumph in 2024, then state-level Republicans will congratulate themselves on their savvy, and that will be that.

By contrast, trying to change election results after the fact is much, much harder. We'll talk more about this in a future installment, but for now we'll say that anything in the ballpark of what would-be Georgia Secretary of State Jody Hice (R) is promising—"I'll find the votes needed, if necessary"—is damn near impossible to pull off without detection and is a criminal offense if the person is caught. Thus far, Trump and his acolytes have yet to find a single Republican officeholder at the state level who was willing to commit fraud. Whether out of a sense of duty, or self-preservation, or something else, folks like Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R-GA), and Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) resisted all pressure to cook the books. Even Cyber Ninjas, which was specifically hired to cook the books, and had weeks and weeks to try to do it, ultimately got cold feet.

Meanwhile, the one fraud that Trumpers did try to execute on the state level was the phony electoral certificates in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico. However, the conspirators there weren't elected officials; they were private citizens. Their behavior was detected, and it's likely that by the time the 2024 elections (or even the 2022 elections) roll around, the ringleaders (e.g., Rudy Giuliani) will be indicted. This should serve as a warning to any politician who might be tempted to try something illegal. It's worth noting that in those eras when heavy-duty voting fraud was common, there were experienced professionals who knew how to pull it off. Today's officeholders and operatives are amateurs, and would be as likely to make serious mistakes as, say, someone who tried to rob a bank without any experience at bank robbing.

Now let's consider the federal level. In the end, all election results must be approved by Congress. By 2025, it's possible that the Republicans will control one or both chambers of Congress. And if so, they would theoretically be in a position to ram through dubious electoral results. However, if the Republicans are indeed in control, it would take near-unanimity to do it. And if a Trump/Trumper "victory" is due to anything besides changed voting laws, it is extremely unlikely that unanimity would be forthcoming.

To start with, there are certainly Republicans who place their duty to country above their duty to their party, at least on occasion. For last year's impeachment, ten Republicans in the House voted to bring charges and seven Republicans in the Senate voted to convict. Some of those members will still be in office in 2024, including (probably) five of the seven senators. There's little doubt that more members would have voted to convict, if not for the fact they were convinced it was a futile gesture. However, if the question before the Congress was whether to sign off on clearly crooked election results, and the outcome of the vote could legitimately go either way, it's a safe guess that there would be more Republicans to vote against Trump, like a Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) or a Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD). Note that Rounds has taken the lead, recently, in declaring that Trump really was defeated in 2020.

Meanwhile, there is also an element of self-interest here. Trump is mercurial, and not especially rational, and is like chemotherapy for the Republican Party—he does almost as much harm as he does good. There are many Republicans in high places, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell among them, who are not going to bend over backwards to see Trump returned to the Oval Office. Further, McConnell and all the other members of Congress derive their authority from the Constitution and from the normal operation of the political system. If all of that gets trampled on, then they are weakened, perhaps fatally. Trump was a loose cannon even back when he was at least moderately concerned about playing by the rules. If the former president steals an election, he'll be absolutely uncontrollable. It's no small wonder that McConnell, and even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who spends much of his time kissing Trump's rear end, are open to improving the Electoral Count Act.

We have written most of this with the notion that Trump will be the candidate. He might not be, and it is true that some other person, like DeSantis, might be more tolerable to office-holding Republicans. Nonetheless, we think most of this still applies to him, too. GOP officeholders aren't going to be willing to commit crimes on his behalf, Republicans who have a sense of civic duty aren't going to allow anyone to steal an election, and powerful folks are not going to be OK with letting their influence be degraded. Further, even if DeSantis does better than Trump in terms of establishment acceptance, he will also trail the former president in terms of committed fanatics—both the number of them and the degree of their fanaticism. And it's difficult to execute a coup, even a soft one, without both a serious base of fanatical support and buy-in from the establishment.

And so, in short, there are still Republicans and Trumpublicans, and the former are not especially loyal to the latter, regardless of whatever public posture might be presented. There is simply no reason to think that the Trumpublicans have the manpower or the brainpower it takes to steal an election after the fact. Certainly, when they tried in 2020-21, they screwed it up six ways to Sunday, in a fashion that would be comical if the matter were not so serious. As we've said, stealing an election before the fact, through voter suppression and related trickery, is vastly more plausible. And this will be the next issue we put under the microscope. (Z)

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