Oct. 18

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New Senate: DEM 46             GOP 54

New polls: AZ FL NJ OH TN
Dem pickups: (None)
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Programming Note: We are going to add a new feature around here, wherein we answer readers' questions twice a week. Politics, civics, history, that sort of thing. For example:

If you have a question for us, please send it here. We're going to include the initials and location for each questioner (e.g., "D.T., Washington, D.C."), so please make sure that information can be inferred from your message. We may, of course, edit for length/clarity.

Saudi Situation Is Not Improving for Trump

Donald Trump has been trying desperately to spin the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi away into the vapor. Actually, it's not the murder that is the problem, per se. It is the possibility that Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, orchestrated the hit. Consequently, the President has proposed alternative theories (without evidence), and repeated over and over again that the Crown Prince denies any involvement, and accused the media of making a big story out of nothing, and has done everything he can to protect the ongoing exchange of U.S. arms for Saudi cash.

None of this is working, however, as the plot gets thicker and thicker, and the positions of both bin Salman and Trump get worse. Among the new developments:

As a result of all of this, the White House is reportedly in "crisis" mode right now. That said, "crisis" mode is pretty much "normal" mode for this administration, so maybe that doesn't mean so much. Anyhow, we shall see how well the President weathers this particular storm, but since Congressional Republicans are very good at putting their foot down right up until the point that it's time for them to actually do something, the odds are pretty good that it will once again be smooth sailing for the S. S. Trump by the time the month is out. (Z)

McGahn's Officially McGone

It has been known for at least a month that White House Counsel Don McGahn would not be around much longer—a product of his now-poor relationship with Donald Trump, his weariness with the job, and, probably most importantly, that he spent 30 hours spilling his guts to special counsel Robert Mueller. The end came even quicker than anyone expected, though. Having chosen Patrick Cipollone as the new White House counsel on Tuesday, Trump promptly showed McGahn the door on Wednesday.

Customarily, the outgoing occupant of the job would remain until the new person was up to speed. However, according to one insider, "McGahn was tired of the President and the President was tired of McGahn." That will not make life any easier for Cipollone, who not only has to get up to speed on his own now, but will likely soon face an avalanche of subpoenas and demands for documents and lawsuits, all while grossly understaffed. And, for that matter, he'll have to deal with working under Trump, who tends to treat attorneys like something he accidentally stepped in at the dog park. Maybe Cipollone will be able to hang on for the long term, or maybe he will pull a "Mooch" and be gone by Halloween. (Z)

Republicans Are Starting to Pretend They Are Democrats

A number of Republican candidates have gotten the word that a lot of voters don't care so much about tax cuts, immigration, or other Republican talking points. They care about health care and they don't like what the GOP has to say on the subject. So they are switching platforms and starting to spout Democratic talking points and say how much they care about health care, especially preserving the rights of people with pre-existing conditions to get affordable health care.

For example, in Missouri, Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) once filed a lawsuit claiming that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. Now he is running an ad announcing that one of his young sons has a rare chronic disease and how important he thinks it is for insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions. Clearly, this is a time for prayer: He is praying that the voters have forgotten that he has long opposed his current position. Needless to say, his opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), is reminding them of it.

Now to Pennsylvania, where Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) is trying the same stunt. He put up an emotional ad in which he talks about his young grandson who has cancer. He now feels that people with pre-existing conditions need to be protected. The ad doesn't bother to mention the dozens of times he voted in the House to repeal the ACA.

In Wisconsin, long-time opponent of the ACA Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) put up a video telling viewers that his wife has diabetes, his mother is a breast cancer survivor, and his brother has a heart condition. Videos can't be too long or viewers get bored, so he didn't have time in the film to mention that Wisconsin is suing to overturn the ACA.

Now Arizona. In this week's debate between Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D) and Martha McSally (R), Sinema accused McSally of fighting to overturn the ACA. McSally angrily called that a lie. In the heat of the campaign, she must have forgotten her impassioned call last May to repeal the ACA, just before one of the numerous votes in the House in which she supported repeal.

The list goes on and on. The Republicans are hoping that Democratic voters will have long forgotten their past hatred for the ACA (and in many cases their votes or lawsuits). In a vacuum, that might just work. However, in a campaign, their opponents often have video footage that contradicts their new-found interest in Obamacare. Historically, it has been the other way around, with Democrats pretending to be Republican-lite. Given a choice between a real Republican and a fake Republican, voters almost always chose the real Republican. We'll know by the morning of Nov. 7 whether the reverse works. (V)

O'Rourke Attacks Cruz in New Ads

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) is trailing in the polls but has a Texas-sized bank account ($38 million, but who's counting) and has decided that the best way to spend it is to attack his opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). But to avoid ruining his reputation as a nice guy you would love to have a beer with, the ads go after Cruz' policies, not his personal foibles.

Like almost all other Democrats, O'Rourke has decided to go after Cruz on health care. The pitch is: "Ted Cruz has voted to take away health care from millions of American families," and for good measure: "And he shut down the government because he thought too many people had too much health care." Given that every poll shows that health care is issue #1 for most voters, this could motivate some voters to go to the polls Nov. 6.

On immigration, O'Rourke's pitch is that Cruz wants to deport "every single dreamer." Texas has a lot of Latinos who are U.S. citizens and who care about this issue. It could also be a strong motivating factor. He also is going after Cruz' vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

The combination of being behind and having a basically infinite amount of money has caused O'Rourke to change his strategy. In the past, all of his ads were positive, saying what a great guy he is and what he will try to do in the Senate. Now it is all negative. Polite negative to be sure, but still negative. Which is something of a case of tit-for-tat, since Cruz always goes negative. So, Texas TV watchers are in for a pretty depressing three weeks. (V)

Texas Senate Debate Is a Tie, O'Rourke Loses

Beto O'Rourke's new ad campaign (see above) follows an aggressive debate performance this week in which O'Rourke hit Cruz left, right, and sideways for being a liar, a flip-flopper, a tool of the rich, and for defending Donald Trump even though he is Vladimir Putin's toady. The Democratic challenger even brought up Trump's nickname for Cruz: "Lyin' Ted." Cruz was ready for each of these lines of attack, however, and managed to deflect pretty much all of them, mostly by rolling his eyes, and laughing as if everything O'Rourke had to say was ridiculous. It was reminiscent, in many ways, of Ronald Reagan's debates against Jimmy Carter, when the Gipper didn't actually say much of anything, and just kept shaking his head and declaring, "There you go again." Anyhow, observers agreed that it was a tie, as the two men duelled to a standstill. And since Cruz is fine and dandy with the status quo, as he is the frontrunner, that makes the evening a loss for O'Rourke, who really needed to change the trajectory of the election.

Given the significance of the Senate seat, as well as the national profile of the two participants, The Hill did a list of takeaways from the tête-à-tête:

Or, if you prefer your takeaways from a local source, here's the breakdown from the Dallas Morning News:

So, O'Rourke attacked, Cruz parried, and neither particularly gained the other hand is the executive summary of these executive summaries. (Z & V)

Cruz-Trump Rally Scheduled for Next Week

Continuing with tonight's series on the Senate race in Texas, Donald Trump has officially scheduled the rally he promised to stage on behalf of Ted Cruz. It is going to be next Monday at NRG Arena in Houston.

We remain dubious that these rallies really do much to impact voters, since the audience is made up of people who are already true believers. That being the case, this news is of interest for two reasons. The first is that, when the plans were first announced, Trump made the following promise:

I will be doing a major rally for Senator Ted Cruz in October. I’m picking the biggest stadium in Texas we can find. As you know, Ted has my complete and total Endorsement. His opponent is a disaster for Texas - weak on Second Amendment, Crime, Borders, Military, and Vets!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 31, 2018

NRG Arena, which has a relatively modest 8,000 seats, is just a tad bit smaller than "the biggest stadium in Texas." That would be the Texas Motor Speedway (TMS), which checks in at 154,861 seats. Team Trump says that they could not find a larger venue than NRG that was available for their use, but that is, of course, nonsense. In fact, TMS has just one event scheduled for the entire rest of the month, a giant revival to be held on October 20 and 21. So, the President is effectively telling us that he and Cruz combined are only about 1/19th as popular as Jesus. Note also that even if Houston simply had to be the city of choice (TMS is in Fort Worth), there are other, much larger venues that are dark that night. Like, for example, NRG Stadium, which is just two blocks from NRG Arena.

The other reason that the story is of interest is that Cruz and Trump hate each other, and neither is a particularly good actor when it comes to pretending otherwise. So, the event is likely to give us some of the most uncomfortable, awkward political moments since this:

Trump and Mitt Romney

It will be interesting enough to watch that Fox News might well broadcast this one, reversing their recent policy of sticking with their regular programming. If not, the highlights will undoubtedly be on YouTube sometime Monday night. (Z)

Kamala Harris Jockeys For Position

It has often been said that 100 Senators look in the mirror each morning and see a future president staring back at them. The 49 Democrats currently in that body may not all be planning to act on that instinct, but a sizable number of them are. Add to that all of the governors, and mayors, and Obama administration muckety-mucks, and a few other assorted folks, and the Democrats are going to have as big a field of candidates in 2020 as any party has ever witnessed.

There are quite a few reasons for this. Among them:

As a consequence of all this, sports books are offering odds on no less than 66 different Democratic candidates. Some of those are ridiculous ones, of course (Lady Gaga, George Clooney, Al Gore, Christine Blasey Ford, etc.), but roughly 50 of them are within the realm of possibility.

The crowdedness of the Democratic field creates a significant strategic problem that every candidate is going to have to address. On one hand, it is not wise to become a formal candidate too early. Among other problems, that puts a target on the candidate's back, and also triggers much more strict rules about raising and spending money. On the other hand, if a candidate declares too late, they risk becoming "just another name" on the list, and could also find that key endorsements and money from the muckety-mucks are already spoken for.

One way around this problem, at least for now, is for a candidate to speak "hypothetically" about their plans, or to have their staff do so for them. That sends a clear signal to the donors, the grassroots, party movers and shakers, etc. without quite pulling the trigger. Such is the case with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) this week, whose staffers were pleased to discuss her "hypothetical" primary strategy, in great detail, with the folks at Politico.

The plan—if she should just so happen to run—is to focus on Iowa (like most candidates do), but then to spend the next phase of the process campaigning in Nevada, South Carolina and California. That is to say, the most diverse of the early primary states. So no attention for, say, lily-white New Hampshire. More broadly, and throughout the process, her focus will be almost entirely on Southern states (lots of black voters) and the purple/blue Western states (lots of activist, unionist, and minority voters). As one Harris underling put it, it will be "the SEC primary meets the West Coast offense." Nothing like a couple of good football metaphors to make clear that you're running a ball-control scheme, and not just tossing up a Hail Mary.

This kind of triaging proved disastrous for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. His plan was to focus on the big states, particularly his home state of New York, but by the time those contests rolled around, he was already a dead candidate walking. In fact, he had to throw in the towel five days before Empire Staters went to the polls. For this reason, candidates have generally been leery of embracing this kind of plan since then (at least, they have been leery of doing so openly). However, given that Hillary Clinton made the opposite error as the nominee in 2016 (trying to compete in too many states, including ones that weren't really winnable), and with as wide a field as there will be in 2020, Team Harris might be making the correct call to basically ignore about half the country. (Z)

Today's Senate Polls

Our map at the top now shows the GOP up 54-46, because so many Republicans have leads. They are slim ones, however, and a lot of things would have to break right for all of those victories to come to pass. In fact, given that the results in the various contests are somewhat correlated, a 54-46 map with a bunch of slim GOP leads is better news for Democrats than, say, a 51-49 map with zero slim leads. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Arizona Kyrsten Sinema 46% Martha McSally 47% Oct 15 Oct 17 Siena Coll.
Florida Bill Nelson* 47% Rick Scott 49% Oct 15 Oct 16 St. Pete Polls
New Jersey Bob Menendez* 51% Bob Hugin 44% Oct 10 Oct 16 Quinnipiac U.
Ohio Sherrod Brown* 43% Jim Renacci 31% Sep 10 Oct 04 U. of Akron
Tennessee Phil Bredesen 44% Marsha Blackburn 47% Oct 04 Oct 11 Ipsos

* Denotes incumbent

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