ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s the fight “everyone’s [been] waiting for.” After 20 months of holding his tongue — 20 months spent watching his successor, Donald Trump, trash-talk his record and undermine his legacy — former President Barack Obama returned to the political fray late last week with a long, acerbic speech in central Illinois, a midterm rally in the congressional hotspot of Orange County, Calif. and the announcement of additional campaign stops in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the days and weeks ahead.
Naturally, the press went nuts. OBAMA VS. TRUMP! the headlines screamed, above stories salivating over the war of words between the once and current leaders of the free world.
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?” Obama asked of Trump’s oddly equivocal response to last year’s murderous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“I’ve found he’s very good,” Trump replied, referring to Obama’s rhetorical abilities — “very good for sleeping.”
But while reporters were busy hyping each verbal volley — “not normal,” “crazy” and “dangerous” were three of Obama’s harshest burns — we here at Midterm Mania couldn’t help wondering how the ex-president’s reemergence, and Trump’s response to it, will shape actual elections in the actual places that will actually determine which party controls the next Congress?
One way to answer that question is the way Politico did over the weekend: by pointing out that “Republicans for years used Obama to energize voters, yoking down-ticket Democrats to a president reviled by the GOP” — and suggesting that this is “a formula [they] think they can repeat” in 2018.
“If [Obama] cared at all about his party, he’d shut up and go away,” tweeted conservative writer and radio host Ben Shapiro, echoing this view. “Now he’s uniting Republicans against him” (as if there were ever a time when Republicans weren’t united against him).
Still, it’s worth considering the upcoming Obama-Trump title bout from a slightly different perspective.
For nearly two years, Obama refused to mention Trump by name; the furthest he would go was to release a judicious, policy-centric statement when one of his signature achievements — the Affordable Care Act, for instance — came under GOP attack.
In part, this reticence was a nod to tradition; former presidents usually refrain from attacking their successors. But it was also calculated. According to reports, Obama concluded early on that anything he said about Trump, and anything Trump said back, would dominate the news and distract from the more important things Democrats should be focusing on instead: protecting the ACA, battling Trump’s tax bill, resisting the rightward lurch of the Supreme Court, and so on.
Given how strategic Obama’s silence was, it’s unlikely that he’s suddenly speaking out in a fit of pique. It’s safe to say there’s some strategy here, too.
But what is it? Why do the benefits of confronting Trump now outweigh the costs, at least in Obama’s estimation?
Look closely at four factors specific to this moment in politics — let’s call them the Four M’s — and the decision starts to make sense.
The first factor is The Megaphone. Last year, researchers at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzed the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. They found that, during that period, Trump was the topic of 41 percent of all news stories — three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents. Meanwhile, Trump himself was the “featured speaker” — the primary voice — in nearly two-thirds of these reports, another unprecedented number.
It’s no secret why Trump dominates the news; he’s a celebrity who never stops saying outrageous things. But wall-to-wall Trump is a problem for Democrats who want to get their message out — especially in a midterm environment, where they’re not fielding a presidential candidate who can command a similar level of attention.
Making matters worse is the fact that the Trump effect seems to trickle down. According to the Shorenstein Center, Republican voices accounted for 80 percent of what newsmakers said about Trump during his first 100 days in office, compared to only 6 percent for Democrats.
Obama is the obvious solution to this problem: the only Democrat in America with a megaphone that can rival Trump’s. And while activism and legislation was key when the action was all on Capitol Hill, the fall campaign is now fully underway. Obama’s voice no longer risks distracting Democrats; instead, it’s the party’s best chance to get heard.
Which brings us to the second factor: The Message. What Obama and Trump are saying is as important as the fact that it’s them saying it. For months now, Trump has been insisting that the GOP will actually increase its House and Senate majorities in November, despite all evidence to the contrary. This has some Republicans worried.
“You have Trump-MAGA loyalists, and their friends on Fox, who have reached a point of not believing polls and media people telling them things are going wrong, that I believe is actually causing the Republicans problems,” a top GOP midterm strategist recently told Axios. “We’ve seen it in focus groups, with Republican base voters, where you’ll come up with a hypothetical that the Democrats win, and people are like, ‘That’s not going to happen, that’s stupid.’”
As Axios put it, “Republican strategists want the base to panic so they’ll show up to vote. But instead, Trump is breeding complacency.”
Obama’s message, meanwhile, is precisely the opposite.
“The threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump,” he said in Illinois. “The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. … So if you don’t like what’s going on right now — and you shouldn’t — do not complain. Don’t hashtag. Don’t get anxious. Don’t retreat. Don’t binge on whatever it is you’re bingeing on. Don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment. Don’t put your head in the sand. Don’t boo. Vote.”
Both Obama and Trump are popular with their respective bases. In the most recent available poll, 95 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Obama, and 82 percent of Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, according to a new CNN survey.
But for Obama, there’s more upside than downside in trying to rally the base: young voters, minority voters, etc. Republicans already tend to turn out in midterms; Democrats don’t. And because 77 percent of Democrats strongly approved of Obama on his way out the door — while only 60 percent of Republicans strongly disapproved — he’s likely to motivate the former more than the latter.
The third factor to consider is The Middle. On Twitter, Trump likes to boast about how the candidates he’s endorsed have routinely triumphed in GOP primaries, and how this portends a “RED WAVE!” in November. It doesn’t. Republican primaries are decided by Trump’s most loyal voters. But while base turnout is also important in general elections, they ultimately tend to be decided by voters much closer to the center of the political spectrum.
The problem for Trump is that he is uniquely unpopular with independents. According to the CNN poll, 36 percent of voters currently approve of the job Trump doing, while 58 disapprove — the lowest standing for any president at this point of his presidency since Harry Truman. Among independents, though, Trump’s numbers are even worse: 31 approve to 59 percent disapprove.
Obama doesn’t have this problem: His most recent approval rating was 63 percent, with only 36 percent disapproving. And Obama’s numbers among independents were nearly as strong; as he was leaving office, they approved of his job performance 61 percent to 37 percent.
This is probably why 42 percent of voters told Politico/Morning Consult last month that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who received Obama’s endorsement, while only 34 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for an Obama endorsee. For Trump, the numbers were inverted: 34 percent more likely to 41 percent less likely.
In a general election, Trump will hold sway with the right and Obama will hold sway with the left. But part of the reason Obama is reemerging now is because it’s clear his words carry more weight with the middle.
The fourth and final factor is The Map. The Senate landscape is drawn to favor the GOP, with Democrats defending 10 seats in redder, more rural states that Trump won in 2018; this explains why Trump has recently held rallies in places like Montana, Indiana, West Virginia and North Dakota.
The House map, however, is different. In November, Republicans will be defending a full 25 districts that have already expressed their distaste for Trump by voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016; to regain control of Congress, Democrats need only flip 23 of them and call it a day.
And yet another 40 or so GOP districts are also considered competitive, compared to only 4 on the Democratic side. These vulnerable GOP seats are, of course, diverse. But they tend to fall into a few categories: Sun Belt districts with above-average Latino populations, (like TX-07, outside of Houston, where GOP incumbent John Culberson is facing a strong challenge from Democratic attorney Lizzie Pannil Fletcher); well-educated suburban districts on the coasts and in the Midwest (like NJ-03, stretching from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the beach communities of the Jersey Shore, and NE-02, around Omaha); and white working-class areas that voted for Obama twice before voting for Trump (like IA-01, encompassing Cedar Rapids and Waterloo in the northeast corner of the state).
These sorts of districts play more to Obama’s strengths than Trump’s; the current president is particularly unpopular with minorities and college graduates, and even Obama-Trump voters “still want the change they voted for in 2016 — and [are] open to giving Democrats a chance,” according to a recent Ohio focus group.
Given all that, it isn’t hard to see why Obama has decided to reengage. On Saturday, he traveled to Anaheim, Calif., in the middle of Orange County, where Democrats are targeting four GOP districts that Clinton won in 2016. His message was the same one he delivered a day earlier in Illinois — “Where there is a vacuum in our democracy, when we are not participating, we are not paying attention, other voices fill the void” — but his tone was less combative, probably because, as he put it, he wants to “talk to independents” and “reach out to some Republicans … who say to themselves … ‘I don’t recognize what’s going on in Washington right now. That’s not what I believe.’”
In the audience, a woman named Elizabeth Triana, 67, nodded approvingly. A recently retired English teacher from Mission Viejo, Triana voted Republican her entire adult life — from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. Then came Trump.
“I switched from Republican to Democrat the second he got elected,” Triana told Midterm Mania. “It was like, boom, done. I was ashamed to be a Republican.”
In November, incumbent Republican Mimi Walters will face off against Democratic consumer protection attorney Katie Porter in Triana’s district (CA-45). Triana has never voted for a Democrat in a midterm before; in fact, she can’t remember voting in a midterm at all. But now she will be voting for Porter.
New Hampshire’s First Congressional District: On Tuesday both Democrats and Republicans nominated potentially historic candidates to appear on the November ballot in New Hampshire’s First Congressional District, which includes the city of Manchester and the rest of the eastern half of the state.
Democrat Chris Pappas, a member of New Hampshire’s executive council, which advises and acts as a check on the governor, defeated top challenger Maura Sullivan, a first-time candidate who worked in the Obama administration, along with nine weaker contenders, by focusing on his local roots, touting endorsements from both of the state’s U.S. senators and arguing that Democrats across the country must “find our way forward from the local level up.” (Sullivan, a Marine veteran, moved to the district in 2017 after considering a run in her home state of Illinois.) If elected, Pappas would become New Hampshire’s first openly gay member of Congress.
On the Republican side, former South Hampton police chief Eddie Edwards, a Navy veteran who also served as enforcement chief for the state liquor commission, emphasized character issues in a bitter, and ultimately successful, campaign to edge out rival Andy Sanborn, a state senator who has been accused of sexual harassment.
“People demand change in Washington,” said Edwards, who refused to back Sanborn if defeated. “They yearn for honesty, integrity and leadership.”
Edwards would be New Hampshire’s first black representative in Congress.
So who has the advantage? A former Republican redoubt, NH-01 has flipped parties in five of the past six elections thanks to the Granite State’s notoriously independent voters, who tend to swing hard to parties riding waves. (In 2016, it was one of only two New England districts to vote for Donald Trump — but just barely.)
When Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter announced her retirement, Republicans zeroed in on NH-01 as one of their best pickup opportunities of the 2018 cycle. But now the national momentum favors Pappas, who was also twice elected to the state’s executive council from a district that almost entirely overlaps with NH-1 and has twice as much money in the bank as Edwards, a hardcore Trump loyalist.
On Wednesday, expert handicapper Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report changed his race rating from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic to reflect the primary results.
Arizona Senate: A pink tutu has become the focus of a critical race for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, reports Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward.
Since Martha McSally won the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona at the end of August, she has charged out of the gate with a clear attack on Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.
McSally, an Air Force veteran who was the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat, aired a TV commercial that touted her own military service after the 9/11 attacks and mocked Sinema for taking part in an antiwar protest while wearing a pink skirt that McSally referred to as a ballet garment.
“While we were in harm’s way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service,” McSally said.
Sinema, a 42-year old congresswoman, is running as an independent-minded centrist and rarely mentions that she is a Democrat. McSally, a 52-year-old congresswoman, is intent on reminding Arizona voters of Sinema’s hard left past. Sinema, a congresswoman since 2013, was an antiwar and Green Party activist nearly 20 years ago, but is now a moderate centrist Democrat who touts her willingness to work with Republicans.
The two women are competing to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who is retiring after his criticism of President Trump caused his popularity among Arizona Republicans to plummet.
Sinema is attempting to run a positive campaign, and has an authentic story of going from hard-left partisan warrior to a bipartisan centrist. McSally, a congresswoman since 2015, has gone negative and dramatically shifted from moderate on immigration and critical of Trump, to an enthusiastic supporter of the president. She now takes a hard line in favor of a border wall and against citizenship for minors brought to the United States by undocumented immigrant parents.
If McSally wins, it will demonstrate that Republican voters in red states remain more interested in voting for figures who dig in against the Democrats and double down on Trumpism. If Sinema prevails, it will be because of a huge anti-Trump wave but it will also signal that voters still want to see politicians work with the other side.
McSally is betting that a Trump-style campaign is the way to win. If allegiance to Trump is the main thing that matters to most Arizona voters, this could work for McSally. And there’s fresh evidence it is working. During the primary, when Sinema did not have a serious challenger in the primary and McSally was fighting two other Republicans for the nomination, Sinema led McSally in head-to-head polling by as much as 11 points.
But the first poll of the fall last week showed the race to be a dead heat, with McSally up by one point. – Jon Ward
Sept. 12: Rhode Island primaries
Sept. 13: New York primaries for state and local offices, in which the major candidates are competing to be the most anti-Trump:
In one of the most closely-watched gubernatorial primaries, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is looking to stave off an insurgent bid from “Sex & The City” actress-turned-activist Cynthia Nixon, reports Yahoo News Senior Editor Dylan Stableford.
The Democratic governor, who has been holding a sizable double-digit lead in most polls, seems to be leaving nothing to chance, given the shocking upsets delivered by progressive female congressional candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley over longtime male incumbents in New York and Boston. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley were facing double-digit deficits heading into their primaries, something the Nixon campaign has pointed to repeatedly.
“Don’t believe the polls, don’t believe the hype,” Nixon said in a radio interview before the vote, which is on Thursday. (New York has two different primary dates, one for federal offices, in June, and one for state positions.) “We have a chance to strike a blow for real progressives.”
Cuomo, for his part, appears to be taking Nixon’s challenge seriously, pouring millions into television ads that showcase an endorsement from former Vice President Joe Biden. In 2014, Cuomo didn’t take seriously his primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout, who wound up garnering a third of the vote.
The race has been surprisingly contentious, with Nixon accusing the Cuomo campaign of having a hand in the incendiary direct mailer, sent to voters by the New York State Democratic Committee this past weekend, falsely accusing Nixon of anti-Semitism. (Cuomo said he didn’t know about the mailer, and the committee issued an apology.)
Earlier in the campaign, Nixon, who is bisexual, roasted Cuomo at the annual Legislative Correspondents Association dinner in May. “Vote for the homo, not for the Cuomo,” she quipped in a reference to flyers that turned up during the 1977 New York City mayoral primary between Ed Koch against Cuomo’s father, future Gov. Mario Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo ran his father’s campaign. The flyers, explicitly referencing a long-standing rumor about Koch, said: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”
Her presence in the race has pushed Cuomo left on several issues, including the overhaul of public housing, the legalization of marijuana and the outlawing of plastic shopping bags. She has also won the hearts, if not the votes, of New York City residents by blasting the city’s disastrously unreliable subway system, which is run by a state agency.
Cuomo, who is widely thought to have presidential ambitions, has tried to paint himself as the candidate who is taking on President Trump on behalf of New Yorkers.
“I am the most aggressive governor in the United States of America in taking him on,” he said in a campaign speech Monday. “This Thursday the 13th, we’re going to make it an unlucky day for Donald Trump.”
While the Cuomo-Nixon tilt has received the most attention nationally, the race for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general has implications that go well beyond Albany.
The field includes Cuomo’s former rival Teachout, a professor at Fordham University’s law school; Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18, the Hudson Valley exurbs of New York City); New York City public advocate Letitia James; and Leecia Eve, a former official in the Cuomo and Obama administrations, now vice president for government affairs at Verizon Communications. (Verizon owns Yahoo News’ corporate parent, Oath.)
Recent polls show the race being a tossup. But whoever wins, it promises to be historic. The New York Times notes that Maloney would be the first openly gay statewide official; James or Eve would be the first African-American woman to hold the position; and Teachout, who is pregnant and due in October, “would be the first new mother to be attorney general.”
And the winner will take over a department that has numerous open investigations and pending lawsuits against the president, his associates and his family foundation.
The lawsuits were launched by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned earlier this year after accusations of sexual misconduct. Schneiderman’s interim successor, Barbara Underwood, picked up where Schneiderman left off. And each of the current candidates say they will do the same. “Donald Trump is a clear and present danger,” Maloney said during a debate last week. “He is a crook, and a bigot, and he has a bullseye on New York.”
The matter was important enough to be the deciding factor in the New York Times endorsement of Teachout, who it said was best qualified to pursue the cases. – Dylan Stableford
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