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New polls: NC NV
Dem pickups: OH PA WI
GOP pickups: GA NV

New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Delaware Bring up the Rear

Except for those crazy kids in Louisiana, with their Election Day jungle primary, we have reached the end of primary season. Yesterday, the good people of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Delaware took their turns; here are the big stories, in our view:

And that's pretty much a wrap, except for that Republican Senate primary in New Hampshire. Full speed ahead to November 8! (Z)

Graham Uncorks an Abortion Curveball

You certainly don't see this every day. Usually, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) leads from behind. Well, actually, he really doesn't lead at all; he just drifts wherever the political winds seem to be taking him. Yesterday, however, he tossed a grenade right into the middle of the 2022 election cycle, introducing a bill that would significantly restrict abortions nationwide.

Quite often, of course, bills are given titles meant to help spin and sell the proposed legislation. The Inflation Reduction Act is a fine example of the practice. And Graham has turned the spin up to 11, as that is one more than 10. The title he has chosen for the bill "Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act." By late-term, the Senator means "anything after 15 weeks," which is a novel definition (doctors think that "late-term" means 41 weeks, but what to they know?)

In an obvious effort to defray uncomfortable questions, the bill does provide exceptions in case of rape, incest and threats to the mother's health. However, invoking those is designed to be quite onerous. For example, the rape exception would require proof that the woman reported the assault to law enforcement or sought medical treatment. Further, in addition to the doctor performing the procedure, "a second physician trained in neonatal resuscitation" would have to be present. And any doctor found guilty of breaking the law could be looking at a 5-year federal prison sentence.

Usually, when a politician does something like this, we are able to hazard a pretty good guess as to what's going on. But we've had about 12 hours to consider this one, and we've thought about what Graham is doing, from top to bottom, and we're kinda stumped. The theory that initially occurred to us is that Graham was providing cover for candidates running for statewide office. Recall, for example, the ad for Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen (R) that we wrote about yesterday, where he insists that abortion is a federal issue and not a state one. In theory, Graham's bill would allow folks like Jensen to pass the buck on what is clearly a losing issue, and to deflect the heat to senators who are not up this year or who are from safe red states.

However, that theory is clearly not correct. If it was, then surely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and others among Graham's Republican Senate colleagues would be on board with the plan. But, by all indications, they were all gobsmacked. Here's what some of them said when reporters asked them about the bill:

It's possible that all of these folks are performing a little political theater for our collective benefit, but we don't see how that makes sense. The only plausible way to get Republican candidates off the hook with a bill like this is for the Republican conference to commit to the message that "Congress will take care of it."

That leaves us with only one alternative explanation: That Graham, who knows something about having a spine of jelly, saw that many Republican candidates were getting weak-kneed on abortion, and he decided to force them to climb back on board by effectively committing the party to a staunch anti-choice agenda. He knows that such a bill has no chance of becoming law anytime soon, but now every Republican candidate is going to be asked whether they support the measure or not.

Even then, it's not entirely clear to us why Graham would force an issue that is clearly working to his party's detriment. If he was Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), we would assume he was making a play for McConnell's job or for the Party's 2024 presidential bid. But Graham has never shown that kind of ambition, and it's hard to believe that he could persuade himself that a promotion like those is viable. Alternatively, if he was Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), we would just assume that he's stupid and doesn't understand politics very well. But whatever Graham's failings may be, nobody doubts that he's a shrewd political operator. And if he was Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), we might guess that Graham was trying to shore up his reelection bid, even it meant putting himself ahead of the Party. But Graham isn't up again until 2026, so it's not like this just couldn't wait, if that was his concern.

As such, all we've got in terms of his motivation is that he's a True Believer on this issue who is willing to do whatever it takes to keep abortion restrictions on the front burner. Graham is not known for being particularly religious or particular dogmatic on the issues (see: spine of jelly). But everyone has a few sacred elephants, and maybe this is his. He certainly not someone who is likely to have considered the other side of the issue. After all, there's no chance that he ever accidentally gets someone pregnant.

We don't love our assessment here, but it's all we can come up with. In any event, it sure looks like the Senator handed a big gift to Democrats. The economic news was rather mixed yesterday (see below) and, as Politico observed, Graham saved the day for the blue team. After all, Joe Biden & Co. know an opening when they see one, and they most certainly took it. The White House slammed the proposal as "radical," and pointed out that when Mississippi tried to impose the same set of restrictions several years back, much of the nation gasped. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also railed on the hypocrisy of the Supreme Court killing Roe because abortion is a state issue, and then Graham turning around and declaring that it's a federal issue. She said: "I'm going to quote Senator Lindsey Graham from Aug. 7, 2022. And he said, 'I've been consistent. I think states should decide the issue of marriage and states should decide the issue of abortion.' That's from his own mouth and now he wants to do a national ban."

Naturally, other Democrats were all over Twitter, and also had their press people working overtime to get out press releases. At the same time, several of this year's Republican candidates have already run for the hills. Joe O'Dea, who is facing Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) decreed: "A Republican ban is as reckless and tone deaf." Tiffany Smiley, who is up against Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) concurred, and said that abortion should be a state issue. Both of these folks are running in pretty blue states, but those are exactly the places where abortion is going to be a real problem for Republican candidates. What Lindsey Graham does will not affect GOP candidates running in Idaho or Alabama.

So, it sure looks like a serious misstep to us. We'll soon see if Democrats are able to make this an anchor around the Republicans' necks. (Z)

Judge, DoJ Both Push Back Against Trump

On Monday, Donald Trump's legal team filed a brief reiterating the claim that the documents that the former president retained were not classified. This was done in a vague and somewhat passive faction, leaving open the possibilities that: (1) they were not classified because he magically declassified them, or (2) they were not classified because he only took non-classified materials with him. These are both dubious propositions, but we guess two dubious theories are better than one.

Yesterday came the blowback to Trump's filing. First, the Department of Justice filed a new brief with Judge Aileen Cannon. In it, the feds observe that in each legal filing, the former president seems to have a different story as to whether he declassified the documents or not. Further, the filing declares that "Plaintiff principally seeks to raise questions about the classification status of the records and their categorization under the Presidential Records Act. But plaintiff does not actually assert—much less provide any evidence—that any of the seized records bearing classification markings have been declassified." You know these lawyers; they're always persnickety about trivial things like evidence.

Meanwhile, Judge Bruce Reinhart—who has been considerably less friendly to Trump than Cannon has been—ordered the release of a less-redacted version of the affidavit that justified the Mar-a-Lago search. The main new information is that a bunch of the documents that Trump had were labeled HCS (human sources), SI (signals intercepts) and FISA (domestic surveillance). These are all very classified stuff, and some of it may not be legal for a president to declassify (or to have at his private residence, of course). There is no way to know if Reinhart deliberately timed his order in response to the Monday "What classified documents?" filing from Team Trump, but if not, it's quite the coincidence.

Yesterday, we wondered if we'd have a Trump legal item today, and guessed we probably would. We were right, though at least it was a short one. (Z)

The News on Inflation Is... Good?

Many people were waiting anxiously for the latest CPI report from the Department of Labor, which was released yesterday, as per the normal schedule. The report was either good news for Joe Biden and the Democrats, or maybe it wasn't. We're not entirely sure.

Let's start with the things that Biden will certainly be talking about as he travels the campaign trail this month. Inflation was basically level (0.1%) in the month of August. That means that the one-year figure is down to 8.3%. That's not great, but it's better than the 8.5% it a month ago, or the four-decade high of 9.1% it was 2 months ago.

The other thing Biden will likely mention, once or twice, is that gas prices are still trending downward. From a high of about $5 a gallon in June, the national average is now $3.71. Part of this may be due to actions the President took, like releasing oil from the national strategic reserve. Certainly, part of it was the decrease in demand that invariably happens in September, as vacations conclude and people head back to school/work, bringing an end to "driving season." Biden has nothing to do with that, of course, but he won't be the first president to claim credit for things that were not really in their control.

There's actually a third thing that Biden really should mention, and maybe he will, though it's never going to get much media coverage: Child poverty has hit a record low (at least, for the era since the government specifically started taking measurements); it's down to 5.2%. This is part of an overall downward trend from a peak of 27.9% back in 1993. So, it's another area where it's not all Biden's doing. However, the legislation he's signed since taking office has played some role, so he's not totally out of bounds if he takes some of the credit.

Also, this isn't good news, per se, and isn't something Biden will be working into his speeches. However, a major driver of inflation last month—one of the things that kept it from being negative—was increases in house prices. This affects a lot of money, but a relatively small number of people. Further, since people don't generally purchase homes on a weekly basis, they are less likely to perceive a clear inflationary trend. In other words, more expensive gas is more likely to hurt the party in power than more expensive houses.

Of course, besides gas, the other thing that people tend to notice is higher food prices. And that's where the bad news for Biden begins. The yearlong number on food costs was +11.4%, which is the biggest year-by-year increase since May 1979. And this trend isn't going to improve anytime soon, since food prices are affected by things largely beyond government control, like droughts, outbreaks of avian flu, and wars in Ukraine, all of which are restricting global food supply at the moment.

The other unhappy news for the President and his party is that the stock market took a big dive yesterday, with the Dow down about 1,200 points. It usually recovers some the next day (i.e., today), but 1,200 is a pretty big drop. Certainly it's another thing that won't be finding its way into his stump speech anytime soon. (Z)

Warnock, Walker to Debate October 14

Yesterday, we had an item about U.S. Senate debates, and the various reasons that some candidates want to avoid them like the plague. We specifically included Georgia Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker in that, who is so prone to putting his foot in his mouth, and who has so many skeletons in his closet, that a debate would be... problematic for him.

That said, it's not easy to avoid debating entirely without taking a hit in the polls. Skipping the events, at least for now, makes it seem like a candidate is scared or has something to hide. Someone in the Walker camp, maybe Walker himself, apparently decided this was a real problem. And so, he has now agreed to face off against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) on Friday, Oct. 14.

We do not know exactly why Walker is so prone to egregious verbal gaffes. Maybe he's not very bright. Maybe he's got a speech impediment. Maybe he suffered some sort of brain damage as a result of his football career. What we do know is that it is nearly inconceivable that he can stand under the hot lights for 2 hours, with Warnock trying to shake him up, without stepping in it big-time.

And if we were hired to help Walker with his debate prep, we honestly have no idea what we'd do. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), for example, is no great shakes as a debater. But he's certainly capable of memorizing canned responses. So, his people figured out what might come up during the debates with Barack Obama and had Romney absorb a bunch of pre-written answers. Then they wound him up and sent him out on stage. When Romney was left to his own devices, he sometimes embarrassed himself (e.g., "binders full of women"), but the strategy worked well enough, on the whole.

With Walker, we just don't see that as plausible. He does not seem to be capable of taking in that much scripted material (few can), much less delivering it in anything approaching a natural fashion. Further, there are so many angles from which he might be approached—policy issues he doesn't know, personal scandals, etc.—that it would be impossible to prep for them all. Whoever is actually tasked with helping him prep is going to earn their paycheck and then some.

In any event, it's going to be fascinating to watch. We cannot help but think of (alleged) contests between lions and Christians in the Roman Colosseum. The one silver lining for Walker is that expectations will be so low, even a mediocre performance will exceed expectations. However, we would not be one bit surprised if he discovers at the last minute that, for reason [X], he just can't make the debate (after all, Oct. 14 IS National Dessert Day). And we would be very surprised if he succumbs to the pressure from Warnock to schedule a second (and even a third) debate. One has gotta be the upper limit, right? (Z)

Stefanik Plans to Hang Around

When Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) was booted out of her job as House Republican Conference Chair, and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) was chosen to replace her, the whole thing was framed as a temporary arrangement. The general idea was that replacing Cheney with Stefanik would afford continuity (translation: keeping the House Republican leadership from becoming a complete sausage party). Then, once the new Congress was seated in 2023, the Republicans could take their time and select the ideal person for the job.

As it turns out, Stefanik quite likes power and notoriety. In this, she is hardly unique. But since getting the promotion, she's gotten deeply involved in campaigning for numerous Republicans across the land. She's also on Fox so often that she must have her own green room. And predictably, she announced yesterday that she's going to run for a term as Chair in her own right.

Of course, the big storyline of Stefanik's rise to prominence is that she's gone from being moderate to being an outspoken Trumper, not all that far removed from a Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) or a Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). That's just dandy with the majority of the Republican conference, so Stefanik is considered a shoo-in to keep her post. And that means that if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) becomes Speaker, he's not only going to have to deal with having bomb-throwing members in his conference, he's also going to have to deal with having a bomb-throwing member of his leadership team. That will not make his life any easier, especially since Stefanik clearly has aspirations to replace him one day. (Z)

Ken Starr, 1946-2022

We thought long and hard about doing this item, because really we'd rather not. But he was a key player in American politics, off and on, for a couple of decades. And so we concluded that we have to note that Ken Starr passed away yesterday at the age of 76.

As we wrote in our piece about the Queen last week, we are not believers in writing laudatory pieces about people just because they have recently passed away. If you are someone who disagrees with this philosophy, you should probably look away right now, because things are about to get real. Starr spent nearly all of his time in the public eye as a sleazeball, involving himself in activities that undermined democracy, or helped to target the vulnerable and/or oppressed, or both. A reminder of the lowlights, in rough chronological order:

  1. Although his report on the death of Vince Foster ultimately concluded that it was a suicide and that there was no foul play, Starr nonetheless helped to create a conspiracy theory that lingers to the present day, and that helped poison the water against the Clintons in particular and the Democrats in general.

  2. He worked with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to create Lewinskygate and to impeach Bill Clinton, even though both men knew full well that the whole thing was a political circus.

  3. He landed a job at Pepperdine by pulling strings with a friend who happened to be a major donor to the school and an even more major Clinton hater.

  4. He served as counsel in cases where he fought against campaign finance reform.

  5. He helped strengthen schools' power to limit students' First Amendment rights.

  6. He defended Blackwater when their "contractors" (translation: mercenaries) killed four unarmed civilians

  7. After California (temporarily) outlawed gay marriage, he served as lead counsel in a case that sought to nullify the 18,000 same-sex marriages that had already taken place.

  8. He defended Jeffrey Epstein, and reportedly masterminded a vast, secretive propaganda campaign targeting Epstein's victims.

  9. While president of Baylor University, he swept charges of sexual misconduct against members of the football team under the rug.

  10. He defended Donald Trump during the first impeachment trial.

That's ten and we didn't even have to break a sweat. We recognize that attorneys often have to take on unsavory clients, but other incidents in Starr's life betray the claim of "I was just doing my job." We also concede that Starr must have had some redeeming features. Maybe he was kind to his mother, for example.

There are a few people who are now recognized as having set the Republican Party on the path to Trumpism. Gingrich, of course, and Karl Rove and Lee Atwater and Frank Luntz and Rush Limbaugh, etc. Ken Starr certainly deserves a spot on that list; if you doubt it, just re-read the recitation above. (Z)

Today's Senate Polls

What can we say? Looks like there are going to be a lot of nail-biters this year. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
North Carolina Cheri Beasley 46% Ted Budd 49% Sep 07 Sep 10 East Carolina U.
Nevada Catherine Cortez_Masto* 41% Adam Laxalt 42% Sep 08 Sep 10 Emerson Coll.

* Denotes incumbent

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