Dem 49
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GOP 51
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New polls:  
Dem pickups vs. 2012: (None)
GOP pickups vs. 2012: (None)

Trump Engages in War of Words with Rouhani

When Donald Trump took office, there was some concern that he might just start World War III, given his impetuous nature and his love of military force. The big question was: What country would be on the other side? Possibly Syria, or North Korea, or maybe even China or Russia. On Sunday night, another contender took the lead in this (very grim) horse race: Iran.

Getting the international pissing contest started was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is still smarting over the United States' withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear arms agreement, and who knew a fiery anti-Iran speech was coming from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later in the day. Rouhani warned that the world, "must understand that war with Iran is the mother of all wars and peace with Iran is the mother of all peace." He also threatened: "Do not play with the lion's tail, because you will regret it eternally."

Next up was Pompeo, who spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Sunday afternoon, and delivered exactly the speech that everyone thought was coming. He started with some low-level Islamophobia, and then moved on to lambasting the current regime:

The level of corruption and wealth among regime leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government. These hypocritical holy men have devised all kinds of crooked schemes to become some of the wealthiest men on Earth while their people suffer.

In the span of 48 words, the Secretary managed to impugn Rouhani's integrity, leadership, competence, and piety. The only thing he didn't work in was some sort of allusion to the Iranian president's parentage.

As it turns out, the Pompeo speech was just the appetizer, though. Just before midnight on Sunday, Trump unleashed this:

It's not clear exactly what Trump is threatening, but the ALL CAPS gives the impression that he has visions of nuclear warheads dancing in his head.

Given how bad a week Trump has had on the Russia front, it is fair to wonder if this was carefully-coordinated political theater, designed to create a distraction (since the Cohen tapes clearly didn't do the job). Now, is it really plausible that someone could come up with such a scheme? Why, yes it is:

It is unfortunate that the world now has to hold its breath a bit, and hope that Trump is merely running his mouth and not planning to take this to the next level.

Even if the President cools off tomorrow though, significant damage has been done. When Trump killed the Iran nuclear deal, it was very difficult to see how he was going to come up with something better. Now, the already low odds have gotten much worse. Further, Rouhani and his administration are moderates (by the standards of Iranian politics). Trump's words and actions will undoubtedly provide fuel for those who would challenge Rouhani from the right. And if hardliners take over the government of Iran (again), then a situation that was merely challenging turns into one of the two or three gravest threats to U.S. security in the world. Think North Korea, except with money, resources, and proximity to Israel and Europe. (Z)

Mariia Butina Got Funding from Russian Oligarch Close to Putin

The circumstances surrounding Russian spy Mariia Butina get more complicated by the day. Now it has been reported that she was funded by a Russian billionaire, Konstantin Nikolaev, who has investments in port, railroad, and energy companies in both Russia and the U.S. Like all Russian oligarchs, he has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. So it is now abundantly clear that Butina is not a freelancer who was sleeping her way to the top of the conservative establishment in the U.S. for the fun of it. She actually has close ties with two top Russians, Nikolaev and Deputy Head of the Russian Central Bank Aleksandr Torshin. It is very likely that Putin instructed Nikolaev and Torshin to make use of her talents to penetrate the NRA and the Republican Party, which she then did. She has since been arrested and is awaiting trial for failing to register as a foreign agent. If she spills the beans, it could eliminate any doubt that Russian interference in the election was far deeper than posting fake news to Facebook.

Also of note is that Nikolaev was spotted at the Trump International Hotel during Donald Trump's inauguration. In addition, his son Andrey was a volunteer in Trump's campaign.

In a court filing, prosecutors noted that Butina's emails and chats were full of references to "her funder," which was almost certainly Nikolaev. While this is a developing story, it could well be that Butina was an asset run by Torshin with Nikolaev providing the funding to make it harder for the CIA to connect the dots. Her mission might have been to get to know multiple top U.S. conservatives really well for the purpose of funneling Russian money into the election to help Trump, who may or may not have known about it. In fact, there is little reason to believe Putin, Torshin, Nikolaev, and Butina needed any help for their little project. Introducing Trump to Butina might have resulted in Butina getting $130,000 to $150,000 from Trump later on, but Nikolaev didn't need any money. (V)

Carter Page: I Advised the Russian Government

There was so much contact between people working on Donald Trump's campaign and the Russians that it is hard to keep track of. Yesterday, campaign adviser Carter Page told CNN that accusations that he was a Russian agent are a "ridiculous smear campaign." Then he admitted that he worked as an adviser to the Russian government. On Saturday, documents related to the FBI's application to the FISA Court to conduct surveillance on him were released (in heavily-redacted form). Many Republicans claimed that Page was being unfairly targeted, but now he has admitted that someone working for the Trump campaign (himself) was advising the Russians. Most people (other than the great majority of Republicans in Congress) would think that was a pretty good reason for the FBI to want to know a bit more about what he was up to with the Russians. If a campaign staffer talking to top Russians isn't collusion, then what is?

When CNN's Jake Tapper asked Page about his work as an adviser, Page tried to minimize the importance of it, saying things like: "I sat in on some meetings." When Tapper pressed him, he was evasive, saying: "This is really nothing and just an attempt to distract from the real crimes shown in this misleading document." He didn't specify what the "real crimes" were, but Trump has said the real crime was the FBI spying on his campaign aide, merely because he spent time in Russia talking to important officials. The FISA Court application literally states: "The FBI believes that Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government," which is precisely what Page did by sitting in on some meetings. (V)

Trump's Meeting with Putin Didn't Move the Needle Much

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll about Donald Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin shows that while the public does not approve of it, the results fall along partisan lines and are completely predictable, with 8% of Democrats, 33% of independents, and 66% of Republicans approving of Trump's performance in Helsinki. Adding it all up, 33% of Americans approve of how Trump conducted himself, 50% disapprove, and 18% have no opinion. This lines up with many polls about Trump, no matter what the subject. If Trump were to barbeque and eat a live puppy, the poll results would be similar. The actual event being polled doesn't seem to matter any more. No matter what question the pollster asks, what the respondent hears is: "Do you like Trump?"

Nevertheless, the poll does contain some interesting information when you look at the crosstabs. College graduates are much more likely to disapprove of how Trump handled Putin than those without college degrees (62% disapproval vs. 44% disapproval). Americans under 40 also gave Trump worse marks for his handling of the summit than did older Americans, but on other questions they did not differ so much. (V)

Progressive Democrats Are Not Doing Well in New York and California

With all the hype about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' upset victory over Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), one might think that progressive Democrats were on a roll. Not true. Ocasio-Cortez, a young Latina, beat Crowley, an old white man, by 4,000 votes in a very heavily young, Latino district in a very low-turnout election. But in the big races, progressive Democrats aren't doing so well.

The big race in New York is for governor, where progressive actress Cynthia Nixon is challenging the moderate Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Polling puts Cuomo ahead by nearly 40 points, 59% to 23%. The recent Quinnipiac poll with those numbers is the eighth consecutive poll putting Cuomo ahead by at least 20 points. In part, Nixon is failing in the same way that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) failed: She, like him, is not getting any traction at all with black voters. Sanders lost the Democratic primary in Mississippi, the blackest state in the country, by an astounding 65 points, losing every county in the state in the process. Nixon is trailing Cuomo among black voters in New York by 57 points. Given the large number of black Democrats in New York, there is no way Nixon can win unless she can change her standing with black voters by dozens of points. It is tough for any progressive to win a primary election when trailing by 50 points or more in a segment of the electorate that makes up at least 20% of the vote (in Mississippi, more than half).

The situation for progressive Democrats in California isn't much better. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), whom many progressives dislike because she is a centrist, is running against progressive champion Kevin de León (D) in the general election. In the primary, Feinstein got 44% to De León's 12%. The most recent USC/Doornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of the general election puts Feinstein ahead 36% to 18%, although 50% are still undecided.

So it appears that while progressives have pulled off surprising victories in some House races, in the big top-of-the-ticket races, they still have steep hills to climb. (V)

Democratic Governors Are Testing the 2020 Waters

It is a mere 18 months until the 2020 Iowa caucuses, so the presidential race is already heating up. Plenty of Democratic senators are keenly interested, including Kamala Harris (CA), Cory Booker (NJ), Kirstin Gillibrand (NY), Elizabeth Warren (MA), and Sherrod Brown (OH), as is Bernie Sanders. But now a few Democratic governors have also been bitten by the presidential bug and are considering throwing their hats into the ring.

One of them is Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), who won reelection in 2016 in a state Donald Trump took by over 20 points. His pitch is that Democrats can't just surrender all the red states and expect to elect a president. They need a candidate who has proven he can win in red states—for example, himself. In 2016, he was the only Democrat who got reelected statewide in any state Trump won. Despite being governor of a red state, Bullock has a fairly progressive record to run on. When he was Montana's attorney general, he pursued railroads for monopolistic practices, hit FedEx for classifying drivers as independent contractors instead of employees, and challenged Citizens United, by citing a 100-year-old state law forbidding corporate contributions to campaigns. He won that one in the Montana Supreme Court, but the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the decision. As governor he has focused on jobs and has worked with businesses to create in-state jobs.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) is also interested in moving to D.C. He is a centrist who has twice been elected governor of a key swing state. His issues have included ending homelessness in Colorado, gun control, and spurring economic growth in rural areas. He has also vigorously criticized Trump for separating families at the border and for kowtowing to Vladimir Putin in Finland. He is 66, but looks a lot younger, which could help with younger voters.

Bullock is from a red state, Hickenlooper is from a purple state, but at least one blue-state governor is also interested in trying to grab the brass ring: Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA). He has said he plans to visit Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada before the midterms. He even has a legitimate reason for going there: He is currently chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and all four states currently have a Republican governor. If he succeeds in capturing the governor's mansion for his party in most or all of them, that will give him a lot of street cred with other Democratic politicians. He is also a fierce critic of the Trump administration and filed a suit against it to overturn the Muslim ban.

In short, 2020 will be a wide-open race, with senators, governors, mayors, and probably others (maybe a few dogcatchers?) competing. It will heat up instantly after the midterms, when all the would-be presidents enter the invisible primary, trying to line up donors, consultants, and endorsements. (V)

How Is the Senate Looking?

That is a question that gets much more or much less interesting as Donald Trump's approval rating rises and falls. The latest survey of all the competitive races was done by Axios/SurveyMonkey. The chart below shows their result, plus the average result of all the other major polls that have been done of the race (incumbents, when running, are indicated with an asterisk):

State Republican Candidate Democratic Candidate Axios/SurveyMonkey Avg. of Other Polls
Tennessee Marsha Blackburn Phil Bredesen R+14 D+4.5 (4 polls)
North Dakota Kevin Cramer Heidi Heitkamp* R+5 R+0.5 (2 polls)
Florida Rick Scott Bill Nelson* R+3 R+1 (5 polls)
Indiana Mike Braun Joe Donnelly* R+2 R+1 (1 poll)
Missouri Josh Hawley Claire McCaskill* D+2 D+1 (5 polls)
Nevada Dean Heller* Jacky Rosen D+3 D+1.5 (2 polls)
Arizona Martha McSally/Kelli Ward/Joe Arpaio Kyrsten Sinema D+4/D+10/D+23 D+7.5/D+11/D+23 (5 polls)
Ohio Jim Renacci Sherrod Brown* D+8 D+15 (4 polls)
Michigan Sandy Pensler/John James Debbie Stabenow* D+12/D+12 D+21/D+21 (1 poll)
Montana Matt Rosendale Jon Tester* D+12 D+5.5 (2 polls)
West Virginia Patrick Morrisey Joe Manchin* D+13 D+7 (4 polls)
Pennsylvania Lou Barletta Bob Casey* D+14 D+16 (3 polls)
Wisconsin Leah Vukmir/Kevin Nicholson Tammy Baldwin* D+15/D+13 D+9/D+11 (4 polls)

When Axios ran their story about their poll, it was under the headline "Democrats' Senate dream slips away." This is nonsense. First of all, it is simply too far from the November elections to reach a concrete conclusion like this, particularly based on just one poll (especially when that one poll is an online poll). With any president, there would be plenty of time for an "October surprise;" with this president there's time for a dozen of them. In particular, there is a very good chance of an economic downturn in the next few months, something that would presumably cost the GOP a few points in most races.

And beyond it being too early for such firm conclusions, there's also this: The Democrats should be thrilled with these numbers. It's true that, barring a surprise elsewhere (Mississippi? Texas?), they need to win 12 of these 13 races. However, it is also the case that batting 12-for-13 is clearly within reach. Axios' number in Tennessee is surely flawed, as it is so far out of step with all other polls of the race, including one just last week that put Bredesen up by 6%. If we toss that one out, then every state besides North Dakota is within the poll's margin of error, while the Democrats have a commanding lead in either six or seven races (depending on what happens in Arizona).

If we rely on the non-Axios polls, then the news is even better for the blue team. In that column, they have a commanding lead in seven races, a solid lead in two others, and the other four are effectively statistical toss-ups. In fact, given that ad buys and other financial decisions at the party level need to be made soon, we may soon be at a point when Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and possibly Montana and even Arizona move permanently out of the "toss up" column, and into the "safe Democrat" column. And, at that point, the question becomes something like: Can the Democrats bat 5-for-6? That is certainly doable, particularly if blue-team turnout is high and/or the economy takes a dive.

And finally, a programming note: We will begin updating our map once all the candidates are known. Which is to say, in about a month. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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