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In this edition: Why a Democrat wants his special election to be a “referendum” on abortion, what happened in June’s primaries, and where all these Pritzker Pals came from.
Even when this newsletter comes late, it’s faster than a California ballot count. This is The Trailer.
Pat Ryan signed up for one of the worst jobs in Democratic politics — a swing-seat special election in New York at a lousy moment for his party. His plan to win on August 23? Exactly what Democrats refused to do in 2018, when they flipped the state’s 19th Congressional District.
“We are going to nationalize this race,” Ryan said in an interview. “I believe this has to be a national referendum on Roe. It’s our first chance to send this message, that the country is not going to tolerate this erosion of our fundamental rights.”
Just days after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, suburban Democratic candidates put it front and center in their paid messaging, marched at abortion rights rallies, and seen an uptick — small but noticeable — from online donors. They see an issue that can motivate liberal voters who are running out of other reasons to vote. When pollsters find the electorate furious at President Biden, but ready to elect a Democrat to Congress, strategists suspect the invisible hand of Justice Samuel Alito.
The evidence? It’s not in polls, which continue to find abortion badly trailing inflation and other economic questions as voters’ top concerns. It’s in a race that Democrats lost last week, a special election in Nebraska that Republicans expected to win by double digits and ended up winning by 6 points.
“I think that the Dobbs decision helped me get people geared up and paying attention,” said Nebraska state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, the Democrat who lost last week’s election to Rep.-elect Mike Flood, a Republican. “If the decision had come out a week earlier, it would have been even more helpful.”
Democrats have waited for a post-Roe backlash to emerge, and hoped they saw one even before the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was handed down. They were hopeful, when Texas Republicans passed an abortion restriction that polled terribly, that it could help them polarize last year’s election in Virginia; at the very least, maybe it could be used against Republicans in Texas.
That didn’t happen, and the Nebraska result was still a defeat. And days earlier, Texas Republicans flipped a majority-Latino House seat that national Democrats decided not to aggressively contest. Their theory was that GOP nominee Mayra Flores would win under the current lines, but lose when the November election was held on a friendlier, bluer map; the losing Democrat’s campaign manager told the Texas Tribune that the party groups had “failed at their single purpose of existence.”
But Lincoln, Neb. is not heavily Catholic South Texas. Neither is the Hudson Valley, where Ryan is running; neither is Alaska, whose sole House seat will be filled in a three-way special election next month. In each race, the Democrat pushed the Dobbs decision in her or his messaging, while Republicans briefly reacted and moved on.
Pansing Brooks went on the air about abortion two weeks before the election, and shortly before the Dobbs decision, with a spot that covered both a “Supreme Court assault on women’s rights” and voters’ economic jitters. “I’m the only candidate for Congress who will defend women’s rights and fight inflation,” Pansing Brooks said in the spot. Flood’s advertising hit inflation, but did not touch on the conservatives’ victory over Roe.
The result was a close race in a district then-president Trump had carried in 2020 by 15 points. It was close thanks to Democratic strength in Lincoln, the district’s biggest and most liberal city, and other eastern Nebraska suburbs.
Flood, who had been challenging a scandal-plagued incumbent who resigned after a campaign finance conviction, won everything in rural Nebraska; Pansing Brooks carried Lincoln’s Lancaster County by nearly 10,000 votes. “We can’t win all the conservative districts,” the Democrat said, “but we can narrow the gap.”
On the air, Pansing Brooks did not get terribly specific about what should happen to legal abortion after Roe, a stumbling block for other Democrats. In a short time frame, she didn’t need to. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, had discussed banning abortion in the state, and Flood cheered the Dobbs decision.
The Democrat showed up to abortion rights marches and opposed an abortion ban, and the shock of the decision drove up turnout, with Lancaster, always the district’s biggest source of votes, making up more of the electorate than it had two years ago.
In New York, Ryan was employing a similar strategy, in a district that actually voted for Biden in 2020; it became vacant when newly appointed Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado left the seat to run statewide. Ryan’s first paid ad went up the day of the Dobbs decision, starting with a recap of his military service and how he fought for “freedom,” before the candidate turned to camera to say something else: “Freedom includes a woman’s right to choose.”
The timing of the decision, said Ryan, changed his campaign — he spent the weekend after it going to emergency rallies across the district, and had the best fundraising days of his campaign since his launch. (The decision came one week before the quarterly fundraising deadline, making the impact somewhat harder to trace.)
“We saw a massive influx of grassroots support,” Ryan said in an interview, describing the weeks after a draft Dobbs decision leaked to Politico, and activists began to mobilize. “We immediately made the decision that this is the central issue in my campaign.”
Republicans say that Democrats are making an error with this strategy. But they’re not saying it very loudly. When approached for comment last week before the July Fourth break, the Molinaro and Flood campaigns did not provide an on the record response. Molinaro had previously reacted to the decision by emphasizing that nothing would change in New York.
Before Dobbs, Molinaro had released a newsy poll that showed him cruising to a win; after Dobbs, Ryan put out a poll that found the race narrowing to single digits once voters focused on abortion. If there is a unified Republican message on abortion, it’s not about the policy, but about why Democrats are so interested in discussing it when voters are far more focused on inflation.
“Pat Ryan is either ignoring every recent poll or living in a dream world if he thinks this election is about abortion,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Samantha Bullock in a statement. “Voters care most about soaring prices and they hold Democrats responsible.”
For now, national abortion rights groups haven’t said much about the race Ryan calls a “referendum” on abortion; they didn’t respond to questions, either. Far more attention is going to a vote that’ll happen before New York’s court-delayed primary — the Aug. 2 primaries in Kansas, where a measure that could ban abortion in the state Constitution, pushed and endorsed by Topeka Republicans, is on the ballot.
But having lost Roe, Democrats are acting on the poll-tested belief that voters didn’t want it to go, and that the Republican position in each race will be tougher to explain and sell. In Alaska, which has not elected a Democrat to Congress since Richard M. Nixon’s presidency, two Republicans are now facing one Democrat in a runoff.
The Democrat, Mary Peltola, immediately reacted to the Dobbs decision by condemning it, and raising some money. The Republicans, Nick Begich and ex-governor Sarah Palin, said little on social media, then said at a candidate forum that the court had done the right thing, returning the issue to the states — stopping short of endorsing the national abortion ban that Democrats want to campaign against this year. A referendum on abortion, right now, sounds better to Democrats than a referendum on just about anything else.
“With Roe overturned, Democrats present a patchwork of countermeasures,” by Annie Linskey, Mike DeBonis, Marianna Sotomayor, and Tyler Pager
The Democratic non-plan for a day the party dreaded.
“Election deniers have taken their fraud theories on tour — to nearly every state,” by Miles Parks, Allison Mollenkamp, and Nick McMillan
Tracking the new stop-the-steal celebrities.
“He was prepared to kill Jan. 6 rioters. Now MAGA voters may give him a Senate seat,” by Paul Kane
The surprising rise of Markwayne Mullin.
“Joe O’Dea plots GOP upset of Sen. Michael Bennet in blue-ish Colorado,” by David M. Drucker
Colorado Republicans go for electability over point-scoring.
“Why Republicans should be nervous about their candidates for governor,” by Dan Balz
Vulnerabilities at the top of the 2022 ballot.
June was the busiest primary month of the year. In Texas’s 34th Congressional District, Republicans won a special election that Democrats temporarily gave up on. The mid-month victory of Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Tex.) shrunk the Democrats’ House majority for the rest of the year; the defeat of Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D) in New York showed the limits of Democratic self-flagellation over crime. (It also suggested the downside of a Democrat blaming a Democratic governor when a mass shooting happens.)
Here are three trends that got much clearer as the final June ballots got tallied:
Republican voters didn’t take the bait, mostly. Some Democrats have played a high-risk, high-reward game with primaries this year, funding GOP candidates they believe to be so far-right that they can’t win, even with voters souring on President Biden. It worked in Pennsylvania; it didn’t work as well in most June primaries. Republican primary voters have, in some key races, preferred candidates who did not embrace false claims that his 2020 election was stolen or that he can be put back in power.
That was the story in Colorado, where Democrats hoped that “stop-the-steal” obsessives would win the major GOP statewide nominations. They didn’t; Republican voters in a state where college-educated White voters have recoiled from their party picked a slate of less controversial candidates for governor, U.S. Senate, secretary of state, and member of Congress in the new 8th Congressional District. It was a reversal from what their electorate did during the 2010 tea party wave.
In Utah, conservative challengers to GOP incumbents lost. And in Oklahoma, Sen. James Lankford (R) easily defeated a conspiracy theorist who attacked him for not challenging the results of the 2020 election. In South Carolina, Republicans unseated Rep. Tom Rice (R) over his impeachment vote, but narrowly renominated Rep. Nancy Mace (R), who had been erratically critical of Trump and voted not to challenge the election.
The one notable exception: Illinois, where state Sen. Darren Bailey, who had raised questions about the validity of the 2020 election, prevailed in the Republican primary for governor.
Liberal candidates are winning open seats, but not primary challenges. After two years and more than $7 million spent, Justice Democrats couldn’t unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) — not even as a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion signaling the potential end of Roe v. Wade before the court did overturn it, drove fresh attention to Cuellar’s antiabortion views. Challenger Jessica Cisneros conceded after a recount put Cuellar up by fewer than 300 votes. And that was the best that the Democratic left did in any House challenge last month.
It got ugly. The combination of a tough new district and a campaign finance probe sunk Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), a left-wing Justice Democrat who unseated one of the only other antiabortion Democrats in the House two years ago; Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) defeated her easily. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), a backbench Democrat who will turn 81 this year, held off Justice Democrat Kina Collins by single digits in Chicago’s loop. After two cycles when it succeeded in ousting Democratic incumbents and electing left-wing challengers, Justice Democrats is set to finish the primaries with two wins in open seats, and no wins for challengers. Nevada activist Amy Vilela, a 2018 Justice Democrat, didn’t get the group’s support this time, but even an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) didn’t help her — by a 4-1 margin, she lost her challenge to Rep. Dina Titus (D), in a new Las Vegas-area district that was drawn to be more competitive for Republicans.
If you’re a Democratic strategist, it’s a heck of a paradox. Republican campaigns have highlighted the most far-left, ideologically rigid Democrats in their campaigns. And Democratic voters are more wary of those candidates than they’ve been since 2016.
The left didn’t lose Los Angeles — it gained ground. People who crave election takes out of election results: Please, please remember how long it takes California to process all of its ballots. The day after California’s June 7 primaries, developer Rick Caruso was leading the race for mayor and liberal candidates were trailing in the races they’d targeted. But the count didn’t finish for weeks, and the results were on the high end of expectations for the city’s left-wing Democrats. (San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin got recalled, which set the tone for the day, but that race got closer with the final ballots, too.)
First, Caruso ended up trailing Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in the race for mayor, and the votes for candidates who differentiated themselves from Caruso’s crime focus — including an emergency declaration to swiftly relocate the homeless — added up to a majority. Bass wound up with 43 percent of the vote, with 8 percent going to city council member Kevin de Leon and 7 percent to police abolitionist Gina Viola, an activist who to Bass’s left after the congresswoman advocated restoring the LAPD-authorized level of nearly 10,000 officers. Two percent went to Mike Feuer, the city attorney, who had quit the race before the primary to endorse Bass.
The Los Angeles Times map of the results shows what happened: Caruso won most of the San Fernando Valley, and dominated the wealthy west side communities like Malibu and Brentwood. He won Asian American communities west of downtown, some narrowly. Bass won most everywhere else, with de Leon doing best in heavily Latino parts of his current district. She cleaned up in the most left-wing parts of east Los Angeles, which was where the left was trying to win the 1st and 13th city council districts.
As more ballots came in, that plan came together: prison abolitionist Eunisses Hernandez ousted city councilman Gil Cedillo, and union organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez led incumbent Mitch O’Farrell by 9 points, with the council member securing less than a third of the total vote. Erin Darling, who won socialist support to replace retiring council member Mike Bonin, got the most votes of any candidate in his 11th district, and will head to a runoff. Left-lane candidates Kenneth Meija and Faisal Gill led the races for city comptroller and city attorney, too. And countywide, Sheriff Alex Villanueva led a crowded field with 31 percent of the vote, a bad omen for his chances in November, when he’ll face ex-Long Beach police chief Robert Luna in a runoff.
Newsom for California, “Florida Freedom.” This ad is a (barely) six-digit troll: A straight-to-camera spot for Fox News viewers in some Florida markets, urging them to fight back against Republicans. “Freedom, it’s under attack in your state,” says Newsom. “Republican leaders? They’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors.” Newsom was leading with his chin: California has seen hundreds of thousands of former residents move out since 2020, while four of the 10 fastest-growing communities in America were in Florida.
Susie Lee for Congress, “Stark Choice.” The Dobbs decision rapidly transformed Democratic messaging in suburban races. The first general election spot from Lee, a two-term Democrat in a swing seat around Las Vegas, is entirely about abortion rights, warning that “pro-life candidate” April Becker, the GOP nominee, is endorsed by groups that want to “make all abortion illegal, no exceptions.” The president carried the new version of Lee’s seat by single digits.
Val Demings for U.S. Senate, “Marco Rubio’s Plan for Women.” The Florida Democrat goes at the abortion issue from another angle here, with a narrator warning that Rubio wants “forced pregnancy even in cases of rape and incest.” Those two words — “forced pregnancy” — have been embraced by some Democrats, though there’s a faction that prefers “government-mandated pregnancy.”
Republican National Committee, “Warnock Leaves Hispanic Americans Behind.” This is one in a series of new ads in states with competitive U.S. Senate races and sizable Latino populations — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. All of them focus on inflation, as the American Dream “slipping out of reach” thanks to “Senator Warnock and the Democrats.” The ads don’t make the sale for a particular Republican candidate; the focus is on vibes. “Rising prices, failures in the supply of food, extremely expensive housing have transformed the dream of a better future into a fantasy for many.”
Democratic National Committee, “After Overturning Roe, Republicans Want a National Abortion Ban.” The ad starts with former vice president Mike Pence saying that “we may well be on the verge” of Roe v. Wade being overturned, as if the result was still in question. It goes on to quote Republicans advocating for a national abortion ban. But the ad ran in some markets where abortion is now illegal, or where restrictions that weren’t permitted under Roe were now in effect.
Courageous Leaders PAC, “Tired.” How many ways can ad-makers allied with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes aim to portray him as a middle-class guy? His own campaign showed him shopping and worrying about prices, and this PAC’s first ad calls him “son of a teacher and a third-shift factory worker” who’ll “lower middle class taxes.” Republicans say Barnes is vulnerable, if he makes it through the U.S. Senate primary, over his support from left-wing groups; this ad associates the candidate with the most poll-tested, uncontroversial Democratic promises.
DGA Action, “Meet Dan.” National Democrats have now spent millions of dollars to help right-wing Trump supporters win Republican nominations, and they’re trying again in Maryland. (More about that below in “Poll Watch.”) It’s easy to tell: If a candidate is accused of being “too conservative,” the accuser is a Democrat, who sees the conservative as a sure loser. The Democratic Governors Association’s ad highlights Dan Cox’s Trump endorsement, his tweet endorsing the challenge to the 2020 election, and his opposition to gun laws. Message to Republicans: Vote for him.
Schmitt for Senate, “Taking a Blow Torch to Biden’s Agenda.” Missouri’s attorney general, a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, expands the visual vocabulary of fed-up candidate ads by showing off a blow torch — a preview of what he’ll do to the president’s “socialist agenda.” He doesn’t use the tool in the ad, and two of the three issues he discusses aren’t directly related to the Biden administration: Schmitt sued schools, not “Fauci,” to lift mask mandates, and his lawsuit to challenge Pennsylvania’s electoral votes obviously came and went before Biden took office. Details, details. The point is to show that Schmitt has fought, and sometimes beaten, liberals in court.
“If the election for United States Senator were being held today, and the candidates were Raphael Warnock the Democrat and Herschel Walker the Republican, for whom would you vote?” (Quinnipiac University, June 23-27, 1497 registered voters)
Raphael Warnock (D): 54%
Herschel Walker (R): 44%
It didn’t do them any good, but Walker’s Republican primary opponents spent millions of dollars arguing that the ex-football star would be too vulnerable to attacks on his past to win the November election. The first public post-primary poll of the Walker-Warnock race suggests that the Republican has problems, with just 37 percent of all voters viewing him favorably. Other polls — even ones paid for by Democrats — have put Walker closer to Warnock, but all of them have found the U.S. Senate candidate losing a share of Black and White voters who are ready to reelect Gov. Brian Kemp.
“If the Democratic primary for Maryland governor were held today, which of the following candidates would you support for the Democratic nomination?” (Goucher College, June 15-19, 403 likely Democratic voters)
Peter Franchot: 16%
Wes Moore: 14%
Tom Perez: 14%
Doug Gansler: 5%
John King: 4%
Jon Baron: 2%
Ashwani Jain: 2%
Early voting in Maryland’s primaries starts Thursday, and no Democrat has established himself as the favorite for governor. Their electorate is mostly content with Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who’s winding down his second term; 64 percent of Democrats approve of the job he’s doing, not far off the 71 percent who approve of Biden. One-fourth of Democrats even say they’re open to supporting the Republican nominee, if she’s endorsed by Hogan. King, a former Secretary of Education, is right now a non-factor; Franchot, the moderate longtime comptroller who refused to back the party’s last nominee against Hogan, is keeping pace with well-known Democrats who’ve never held office. No issue has separated the field, but Gansler, a former attorney general, has run against crime with little to show for it.
“If the Republican primary for Maryland governor were held today, which of the following candidates would you support for the Republican nomination?” (Goucher College, June 15-19, 414 likely Republican voters)
Dan Cox: 25%
Kelly Schulz: 22%
Joe Werner: 3%
Robin Ficker: 2%
The GOP race to replace Hogan is a proxy fight between the governor and Trump. The ex-president endorsed Cox last November, as he was elevating Republicans who challenged the results of the 2020 election. (Cox has also introduced a resolution to impeach Hogan, largely over his use of executive emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic.) Hogan endorsed Schulz, his state secretary of commerce, this spring. Schulz has called Cox a “conspiracy theorist,” though 57 percent of Republican voters in this poll say that the 2020 election was stolen — a false claim Hogan and Schulz reject. At a rally last week, Hogan denounced Democrats for funding ads that could help Cox: “The people who scream all day long about democracy being at stake are willing to play Russian roulette with the Maryland State House just to win an election.”
Call them the Pritzker Pals. They are left-leaning, politically. They’re depressed by the Biden administration. They are — this is the key — incredibly dangerously online. And they want to meme Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) into the White House.
Launched last month, the “Socialists for Pritzker” account quickly amassed over 10,000 followers, for wisdom like “what if we got J.B. one of those big swords from Final Fantasy.” More irony accounts have sprung up in its wake, like “Anarchists for Pritzker” and “Capitalists for Pritzker,” sharing overlapping memes in which enemies flee from the first-term governor. Most imagine Pritzker the way that 4Chan memes imagine Trump, as a conqueror with supernatural powers; one imagines the governor literally devouring the Secretary of Transportation.
“People see him as a nice placeholder while the left sort of catches its breath,” said the anonymous activist behind the Socialists for Prizker account, in a phone interview. (The account owner was granted anonymity to more openly answer questions about the account and where it came from.) “I don’t think that AOC or any other rising, movement-left star is going to be ready and well-positioned to win in 2024.”
What explains this — a joking-but-not-really groundswell behind the most politically successful member of the Pritzker family, which owns the Hyatt hotel chain? Part of it is left-wing disappointment with the Biden presidency, shared by many Democrats who don’t necessarily want to tweet about it. Part of it is a theory that the Democrats’ frontbench (Biden, Vice President Harris) is too old and/or unpopular to run and win another national election.
And then there is Pritzker’s size, which the advocates see as relatable and endearing, with a nod at how some Pennsylvania voters seem to like 6’8″ Lt. Gov. John Fetterman more than other, smaller, more traditional-talking moderate Democrats. Felix Biederman, a co-host of the left-wing Chapo Trap House podcast, has shared pro-Pritzker takes and called him a “unicorn” for hapless Democrats: “He is enormous, doesn’t come off as particularly intellectual, and has good instincts.”
The Pritzker fan-fiction was being written before the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, which brought a new national media focus to the governor. (His reaction to the shooting, which included his skepticism that the founders would have said “you have a constitutional right to an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine,” was well-reviewed by Pritzker Pals.) Socialists for Pritzker explained that the governor impressed the left flank of the Democratic Party because its expectations, when he took office, were low. Pritzker spent nearly $175 million of his own money to dispatch primary opponents who ran to his left, then to beat one-term GOP governor Bruce Rauner.
“There’s a strong argument to be made that J.B. Pritzker is the best Illinois governor since progressive John Peter Altgeld,” said Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the democratic socialist alderman from Chicago’s 35th ward, who briefly ran for lieutenant governor alongside one of Pritzker’s 2018 rivals. “That said, I’m not feeling the bit, although I might be feeling a Pritzker presidential bid.”
Pritzker inherited a nearly-ideal political situation from Rauner. The governor had fought the Democratic legislature in Springfield for years, and longtime state House speaker Michael Madigan was feeling the heat from a racketeering investigation that started with his allies and eventually reached him. Pritzker had a supermajority that could pass priorities like legalizing marijuana and a $15 minimum wage; eventually, he was cooperating with the probe that brought down Madigan. He entered this month as a favorite to win a second term, after his party spent money boosting a right-wing candidate to the GOP nomination — more material for the legend of J.B.
“He was able to get the Illinois credit rating upgraded multiple times during his term,” said the tweeter behind Socialists for Pritzker. “I didn’t even know states had credit ratings until that started.”
There is no actual draft-Pritzker effort, nothing whipping this irony campaign into a real one. But the chatter has helped Pritzker get mentioned as one of the Democrats who could run if Biden can’t, or if the president appears unelectable. The governor spoke in New Hampshire last month, and when Natasha Korecki of NBC News asked if he thought Biden should face a challenge, Pritzker did not say no.
“That’s not something I’m encouraging, but it’s certainly possible,” said Pritzker. “We’ve seen it in the past.” It was an exciting moment for the Pals.
Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party has done wonders for the political confessional — the book of regrets and dropped names from an operative who thinks he or she got it wrong. And even for the genre, Tim Miller’s “Why We Did It” is thick with apologies. He second-guesses deals he made with sources, things he said on TV, things he said on Twitter. He creates an organization devoted to beating Hillary Clinton, then votes for Hillary Clinton. When the GOP gets one chance to redefine itself between the 2012 election and the rise of Trump, Miller plays a key role — and it doesn’t work.
Miller talked with The Trailer about “Why We Did It” last week, during a moment of particularly loud despair from Democrats who think Republicans (and Trump) outplayed them.
The Trailer: We’re talking in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, and a refrain I see in pro-Trump conservative media is that it took a leader like him to achieve this. Let’s say you elect Mitt Romney in 2012. Does Roe get overturned?
Tim Miller: Sure. Hypotheticals are tough. There’s reason to believe that someone else besides Trump could have beat Hillary. I didn’t get to run the autopsy version of an anti-Hillary campaign. So, could Marco Rubio have run on a pro-immigration reform, pro-criminal justice reform platform and won? Maybe with a different electoral map breakdown.
What the America First people have right is that the Republican establishment didn’t actually care that much about what their voters wanted, on a whole range of issues. Trump also didn’t care, but he pretended to, and then he delivered on some of it. He also showed that the establishment folks were weak and had noodle spines and would go along to get along, if someone dominated them. But if we’re talking about the judges as a conservative achievement, they were picked by Mitch McConnell/Leonard Leo in the establishment. Not by Donald Trump.
The Trailer: In the memoir, you look at why the 2012 GOP autopsy wasn’t adopted, and write that you “totally ignored” the voters who became the MAGA vote. “No revisiting of the so-called forever wars,” you say. “No reimagining of the supply-side economics or trade and globalization policies that had helped most Americans prosper, just not them.” Why not, and what would have happened if you had?
Tim Miller: We wanted a vision for the party that reflected our own biases, right? Our own prior beliefs. The people on the Republican campaign side of the game were not the ideologues, not the ones with deeply culturally conservative viewpoints. We put our jerseys on and we played for the three legged stool. Remember that? Foreign policy, cutting government, and you know, whatever — abortion.
Our standpoint was, in order to win, let’s do the things that would make the party more appealing to people like us and to people like our friends. The counterfactual that I posit in the book a little bit is, there might have been a way to actually adjust to the inevitable, bottom-up populist movement of the party. And I do think that was inevitable — this has happened in basically every democracy over the last few years.
So, could we have answered peoples’ concerns about the forever wars, their concerns about trade deals that were hollowing out their communities, and come to maybe more of a middle ground on immigration — that might have resulted in a more healthy, populist Republican Party? But we didn’t offer that.
Tim Miller: Look at the difference between how we treated Todd Akin in 2012 versus how we treated Roy Moore. In 2012, there was a sense that it wasn’t worth it to have an extremist win. Maintaining the integrity of the caucus is more important. That’s an outdated mind-set. That’s emblematic of how things degraded over time.
The Trailer: You cover a period here where a few issues front and center of Republican campaigns fall away and don’t really get discussed again. You mention gay marriage between 2004 and 2012, and then Obamacare. How much did Republicans in the game deeply feel what they were campaigning on?
Tim Miller: They genuinely believe that stuff at some level. But day-to-day, these issues got demagogued. Everything from Obamacare to Benghazi to the Ground Zero mosque — it was fake. The outrage about it was fake. Did they like Obamacare? Probably not. But we don’t see a lot of health-care reform warriors out there right now.
The tea party was really just a guttural scream against Barack Obama as the president, and spending ended up being the vehicle for it. But had Barack Obama’s first big piece of legislation been cap and trade, it would have been climate conspiracies, not spending. Had his first thing been codifying Roe, abortion would have been the vehicle for it. In all the interviews I did for the book, I didn’t have a single person say: I stuck with Donald Trump because I knew that we needed somebody who would give us a Tea-Party approved small government.
The Trailer: You also write about the RNC direct mail appeals, real red meat stuff that wasn’t part of the talking points the party might use with the media. What happened when you objected to some of it?
Tim Miller: The fundraising mail people would submit it for communication for approval. I would edit it and send it back to them, then there was one more person on the approval chain, and then they’d send it out.
I was objecting more than usual, so they complained. Four of us ended up in a meeting in the chief of staff’s office where was like: Why are you bothering me with this? Like, why? There was never a moment when anyone, including myself, said: Are we sure we need the extra $50,000 here? How much more is this race-baiting stuff really going to squeeze out of people?
But if you object that means you don’t “get it,” you’re not playing the game. We’re here to win. The highest praise you can get as a political staffer on the right, as a Republican campaign operative, is: This guy gets it. Somebody who’s complaining about the particulars of the policies and whether or not this is true and just doesn’t get what we’re here to do.
The Trailer: How much did Democrats egg on the bad behavior you write about? Certainly, the Clinton campaign in 2016 wanted Trump to be the nominee, and there’s a ton of media that highlights the craziest things conservative politicians say.
Tim Miller: I worry, just generally, about the political culture that is providing rage juice to people. But I don’t really get how Democrats are to blame for pointing out the Republicans’ extremism.
The Trailer: What’s your current relationship with the Democratic Party anyway? Do you want to be a Democratic strategist?
Tim Miller: I don’t want to be a Democratic operative and I don’t think most Democrats want to hear my take on their strategy — which, right now, I don’t get. There are people who voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the Democratic coalition that they shouldn’t just ignore just because they voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and outside of Joe Biden it seems like a lot of Democratic candidates and campaign staffers have their focus on the other parts of the coalition. And I don’t want to be a Democratic operative.
The Democratic electorate includes suburban former Republicans and older voters of color who are more conservative than White liberals. That gives the party more antibodies against extremism. Maybe that won’t last forever. But as it turned out, the Republican coalition didn’t have any antibodies to the extremism. The Chamber of Commerce, moderate Republican part of the coalition was just too small.
As a result, the party has been taken over by extremists, and that is reflected in the operative class. Your average flack for a generic Republican congressmen is much more of a own-the-libs troll MAGA mind-set than the type of person that was in that job ten years ago.
The Trailer: I started with one positive thing mainstream Republicans say about Trump. There’s a lot more. There’s a T-shirt I see at every Trump rally, and spotted on a fellow airport traveler once: “I’d take a mean tweet and $2 gas right now.” The idea there is that we simply had it better under Trump, and the behavior was a small price to pay. How would you respond to that?
Tim Miller: Had the election been slightly closer, and had there only been one close state with a friendly Republican legislature, we would have had not just violence but a legitimate constitutional crisis.
… 14 days until primaries in Maryland
… 28 days until primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington
… 35 days until primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin, and the special House election in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District
… 42 days until primaries in Alaska and Wyoming
… 126 days until the midterm elections