July 28, 2020 5:51 pm
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Categories: Washington Post

“Kansans want to know who their candidate is, and they can’t get it always from the TV commercials,” Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a medical doctor and candidate for U.S. Senate who spoke at the event, said of the lax coronavirus precautions. “It’s hard. It’s a conflicting message. In my heart, what is the right thing to do?”

Most of the country is still shut down by quarantine orders, to some extent. Just days ago, President Trump canceled the in-person part of the Republican convention over worries about the spread of the coronavirus. But the president’s party nonetheless has taken steps toward traditional campaigning, with door-knocking and bustling campaign offices, as Democrats try to pursue a “socially distanced,” mostly virtual strategy.

Over a few days in two states, Kansas and Michigan, the difference in how both parties have approached the pandemic was stark. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, which typically sets standards for the party’s unified state campaigns, continued to organize supporters in Zoom meetings, training them for the new world of calling voters rather than meeting them in person and instructing them on how to vote safely and make sure absentee votes were counted.

But in Michigan, the Trump campaign had restarted traditional door-to-door campaigning weeks ago, observing a few restrictions while rebooting its original voter contact plans, and keeping in tune with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandatory mask order. In Kansas, where 92 of the state’s 105 counties opted out of another Democratic governor’s mask order, campaigning in those places looked no different from the way it had before a virus began shutting down normal life and economic activity.

“What they’re doing is irresponsible, and they’re putting peoples’ lives and their own lives in jeopardy,” said Vicki Hiatt, the chair of Kansas’s Democratic Party. “I get that it’s an election year, and we’ve got to reach out to people. We know, through some research, that person-to-person contact with voters is our best way to get to them. But things are different now.”

Democrats had also been critical of Republicans in Michigan, which has had nearly 90,000 cases of covid-19 and more than 6,000 related deaths. There, the president’s party shut down in-person campaigning for weeks before its restart last month. Last Wednesday, at a canvass launch in suburban Macomb County, volunteers had to submit to a temperature check before entering the office; once inside, per the campaign’s rules, they had to keep their distance, and wear masks.

“I have a mask on, and gloves,” said Lisa McClain, a candidate for Congress who was helping out with the canvass. “If I’m at a house with a porch, I step off the porch. I keep my distance. I’ve seen everything from people not answering the door to saying: ‘Come on in, have some coffee.’ Of course I don’t do that, but I don’t live in fear. I’m still going out to talk to people.”

Democrats have not resumed in-person campaigning, even with precautions, though they say they have adapted to the new conditions. Michigan Republicans say they have made 4 million voter contacts; Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes declined to say how many voters the party had reached, while emphasizing that they started making contacts in 2017. And the Progressive Turnout Project, an independent group that focuses on canvassing, has drawn criticism for returning to knocking on doors, after eight employees across its dozen targeted states tested positive for the coronavirus.

Kansas, which has not been competitive in a presidential election for decades, is not one of those states. Its most competitive House races, in the 2nd and 3rd districts, are unfolding across counties that have adopted the mask orders. 

But the GOP’s Senate primary is taking place everywhere, with much of the vote likely to come from ruby-red rural counties that have returned to the lifestyle that has vanished in bigger cities and suburbs. On Sunday and Monday, at events across western Kansas’s “Big First” congressional district, masks were optional, and Senate candidates Marshall and Kris Kobach frequently shook hands with voters. (I took my own mask off at stretches of these events, though I kept some distance from the people I interviewed, and avoided shaking hands.)

“It is really tough for me to sort out here,” Marshall said. “In rural areas, where the incidence is so low, Kansans don’t like the mask, and they want to shake my hand. I’ve tried really hard through this process, in Johnson County, or Wichita, the bigger cities — to wear the mask, to do the elbow bumps. It’s tough. I think I’ve had three tests so far, just to try to protect other people because I know I’m meeting lots of people.”

None of the counties that hosted Republican events on Sunday and Monday had been virus-free. Garden City is the heart of Finney County, where there had been 1,688 covid-19 cases and 10 reported deaths, according to CDC statistics. On Sunday, Kobach campaigned in Seward County, which had seen 1,160 cases and 4 reported deaths. In an interview, Kobach emphasized that those cases had been tied to meatpacking plants.

“Many individuals working in the meat plant are living in conditions with six, 10 people in a very small building,” said Kobach, Kansas’s former secretary of state. “So it’s not just the plant, it’s the place where they’re living. If you look at the statistics, and I was just looking at them yesterday, Kansas’s cases per capita are half the national average. And in Kansas, the vast majority of cases are in urban areas, not the rural parts of the state.”

In interviews, Republican voters didn’t question whether the coronavirus was real, or whether it could be deadly. At one event, at the chamber of commerce building in Larned, a dozen voters wore masks throughout.

“I believe in wearing masks, and I do wear them inside,” said Jan Murphy, 82. “If I’m outside, and people are standing apart from each other, then that’s different.”

Kobach and Marshall, who lead in polls ahead of next week’s primary, both said they mingle with voters but take precautions. “I try to wash my hands 40, 50 times a day,” Marshall said, noting that he had taken three coronavirus tests and never come up positive. Kobach said he had not taken a test, but had never experienced coronavirus symptoms. As long as incidences of the disease in rural areas were low, he and his campaign team would proceed carefully, but keep working in public, in person.

“If I lived in New York City, I’d be wearing a mask all the time,” Kobach said. Obviously, things can change, but I anticipate that there’ll be door-knocking and things like that. And even door knocking can be done in a socially distanced way. People can wear masks. They can drop off door hangers without making contact.”

Still, there were moments when rural, conservative voters’ frustration with the pandemic, and the seemingly unending quarantines, burst into the open. At a town hall in Ness City, Kobach got a skeptical coronavirus question from Tatum Lee, 40, an advocate for accurate beef labeling who put the event together. Lee, who said in an interview that she was “skeptical” of mandatory vaccinations and some of the newer vaccines required for children, asked what Kobach thought about the idea of requiring a coronavirus vaccine if one became available.

“I am 100% against mandatory vaccines, be it for covid, or the flu, or anything else,” Kobach said. It’s not only wrong to force people to put something in their body; it’s unconstitutional to force people to put something in their body.

Earlier, at a barbecue lunch in Bucklin, another voter asked Kobach whether “the virus will go away after the election.” Laughter rippled through the room.

“Well, you know it goes away if you participate in a Black Lives Matter protest,” Kobach joked. “You don’t have to wear a mask! It just goes away! Yeah, something tells me there won’t be as much coverage of it after the election.” 

Reading list

The politics that may have fatally compromised the anti-coronavirus fight.

How even the old frontier is seeing the same vote shifts as Midwest and southern suburbs.

Why a botched election in Paterson became part of the president’s “voter fraud” playbook.

The political ambitions of a 55-year old never-candidate.

The latest installment of the Democrats’s build-back-better plan.

In the states

For years, conservative legal groups such as the American Civil Rights Union and Judicial Watch have filed or threatened lawsuits against states and counties that they believe to have “dirty” voting rolls — a list of registered voters that may include people who have died or moved. In many cases, election officials, seeking to avoid a messy fight, have purged the rolls and made the legal threat go away. 

That may be changing in Pennsylvania. Months after Judicial Watch sued the state and three heavily Democratic counties, they’ve met resistance, and officials in one of those counties say that there won’t be a purge before the election. Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan said today that the relevant officials were simply too busy preparing for balloting under pandemic conditions, and that Judicial Watch’s initial complaint had errors that had delayed action, anyway.

“They’re very much on notice that the facts they are putting in their complaints are flawed,” Khan said. “We have people working around-the-clock making sure that everyone has a chance to vote.”

While Bucks County voted only narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, it broke heavily for statewide Democratic candidates in 2018, and the area it’s part of — the Philadelphia suburbs — has swung away from the GOP in local elections. (“Purely coincidental,” Khan said jokingly, about the timing of the Judicial Watch complaint.) In his initial response to the conservative group, Khan noted that the county had a process in place for removing non-voters, and that some of the information in the complaint was outdated. But Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton was surprised to hear that the county would not be scouring its rolls before November.

“They’re obligated to clean the rolls, irrespective of the lawsuit,” Fitton said. “They’ve admitted their problems on the rolls, and they haven’t cleaned them up, and they don’t plan to do anything? That’s disturbing.” 

Ad watch

Mitch McConnell, “Kentucky Jobs.” The Senate majority leader has run several ads about the passage of coronavirus relief packages, and this one adds to the theme by blaming Democrats (who held out for more relief as part of the final deal) for not working faster. “When we needed help quickly, Nancy Pelosi held that help hostage,” one business owner says, with the sentiment finished by another Kentuckian: “And Amy McGrath backs Nancy Pelosi and her left-wing agenda.” What might be most interesting is who doesn’t appear in the ad: Chuck Schumer or Joe Biden. 

David Perdue, “Drugs.” The senator from Georgia, under fire for a digital ad that lengthened the nose of his Jewish opponent, has been running low-key straight-to-camera spots that emphasize the results he wants, while warning that Democrat Jon Ossoff wants “socialism.” Perdue here promises to end “surprise billing” and drive down drug costs, while warning that “socialized medicine” (which would end most billing altogether, and make most drugs free) would never pull that off.

Kris Kobach, “Conservative Champion.” The Senate primary contender in Kansas fell out of the president’s favor, in some ways, after his 2018 defeat in the race for governor. But in mail and in this ad, Kobach reminds voters of his long relationship with the president; this footage from 2018 shows Trump calling Kobach “a man who has been with me from the beginning.” The president has made no endorsement in the race.

Roger Marshall, “Flames.” Kobach’s closest competitor in the Senate race has closed with an emphasis on the 2018 race, and a simple message: “Kris Kobach can’t win.” This ad goes further, blaming Kobach for mismanagement throughout the 2018 campaign, and insisting he weakened the party, just as he could weaken it in 2020.

Poll watch

Joe Biden: 51% (+2) 
Donald Trump: 44% (-1)

Four years ago, Marist struggled to survey key races accurately, stumbling over education demographics in ways that undercounted Trump voters. The process and standards changed in 2018, and the pollster still finds advantages for Democrats that can be explained by external events. Here, by a 29-point margin, voters say they credit the state for prompting the decision to cancel most of the public events for the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, rather than thanking the president for eventually scrapping it after moving to a new Jacksonville location. That cancellation was a risk for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who was condemned by the president and Republicans; he leads in his own reelection bid by 20 points. While voters trust Trump more than Biden on the economy, they trust Biden on the pandemic by a 16-point margin.

Candidate tracker

Joe Biden made his fourth economic agenda speech on Tuesday afternoon, earmarking $30 billion of small business spending for black, Latino, and Native American businesses.

“Nearly 18 million people are out of work. Black unemployment is at 15 percent. Latino employment is at 14.5 percent,” Biden said, citing the pandemic-caused decline for voters whose gains the president had previously touted. “Over 40 percent of black-owned businesses, 440,000 in total, reportedly, had to shut down. And, everything is worsened by the crisis of presidential leadership. A change of ‘tone’ over a few days does not change the facts of the last four years.”

Biden also took questions for the first time in a month, telling reporters that he had not been tested for the coronavirus and that he would announce a running mate “in the first week of August” — i.e., next week.

The day before, Biden made his first public appearance with a crowd since the pandemic began, heading to the Capitol where the late congressman John Lewis was lying in state. President Trump, who had feuded with Lewis when the Georgia congressman refused to attend his inauguration, declined to attend. But in remarks outside the White House on Monday, the president continued saying that he would make broad use of executive powers before the election.

“The DACA decision allowed me to do things that some people thought the president didn’t have the right to do,” Trump said. “I was given that right.  Drug prices will be coming down very, very substantially. No other president has been allowed to do that.  No other president has been able to do that. No president has ever done what I’ve done for prescription drug prices — and, by the way, for many other things, too.” 

Dems in disarray

After a relatively short primary, with Joe Biden’s rivals dropping out just two months after the Iowa caucuses, Democrats have undergone the longest platform-writing exercise in party history. It started with a Biden-Sanders task force that recommended some changes to the nominee’s agenda, continued with a platform draft introduced before negotiations began last week, and moved Biden’s agenda to the left on health care, criminal justice reform, trade, and, in a few ways, foreign policy.

But the estimated 1,076 delegates won by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) want more. A coalition of left-wing activists, which grew out of a similar group of delegates four years ago, is circulating a pledge: Vote against the platform unless it endorses Medicare-for-all. As of Thursday afternoon, 700 delegates had signed on.

“The failing U.S. healthcare system, and what to do about it, was the most discussed topic during this past year’s presidential debates,” said Alan Minsky, the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, in a statement announcing the pledge total. “At the end of these, the exit polling was unequivocal. Democratic voters overwhelmingly want Medicare for All. That certainly sounds like something that should be in the party platform.”

There are not enough Sanders delegates to make this happen. While the senator from Vermont won nearly 200 delegates after suspending his campaign in April, he controls a bit more than a quarter of the 3,976 delegates who’ll officially nominate Biden and vote the platform through. Sanders forces face the same proportionate lack of clout on the platform committee, which voted down a Medicare-for-all plank this week: 36 votes for, 125 votes against, and three abstentions. In 2016, every Sanders delegate and a rump of Hillary Clinton delegates could alter the platform; this year, it would take a mass exodus of Biden delegates to pass their amendments.

The dispute isn’t over whether Sanders won the primary, though; it’s about whether Democratic voters who nominated Biden also supported Medicare-for-all. It’s a surprisingly tricky question. Exit polling typically found that when Democratic voters were asked whether they’d support a “government plan for all instead of private insurance,” they picked the government plan: 57 percent in Iowa, 58 percent in New Hampshire, 62 percent in Nevada, and 49 percent in South Carolina. (In that state, only 46 percent of voters picked “private insurance.”)

The delegates go further, arguing that a majority of Americans want Medicare-for-all, and that the pandemic has proved its necessity. That’s harder to prove. Their announcement on commitments to the Medicare-for-all pledge cited a three-month-old Harris Poll to argue that a majority of Americans backed the proposal. But that poll asked whether voters would “support or oppose providing Medicare to every American.” And the Medicare-for-all fight that raged in the primary, often to the exasperation of the candidates, was specifically about Sanders’s legislation, which would phase all Americans out of their current plans in four years, into a system where most private insurance was illegal; the language put forth by Sen. Kamala D. Harris would include Pete Buttigieg’s “Medicare for All who want it” concept, which the left recoiled at during the primary.

As the party’s “virtual” convention plans evolve, it’s not clear how delegates could continue to fight on this. At a traditional convention, the platform would be voted through during regular business, in the main hall. Democrats have reduced the public-facing part of the convention to just eight hours split over four nights, time expected to be spent on a carefully shaped introduction of Biden, his running mate, and down-ballot candidates. Party rules allow 25 percent of delegates to file a minority report, but if automatic delegates — the party officials who get automatic, “superdelegate” status — vote on the platform, the rebels won’t come close. As Politico’s Holly Otterbein first reported, Sanders, who has been careful not stoke anti-Biden sentiment on the left, plans to support the platform.

“The senator appreciates that, amid a deadly pandemic which is creating a national health emergency, his delegates understand that now more than ever we must guarantee health care as a human right,” Sanders spokesman Mike Casca said Monday, pointedly saying nothing about the vote against the platform.

Countdown

… seven days until primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington
… nine days until primaries in Tennessee
… 11 days until primaries in Hawaii
… 14 days until primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin
… 20 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 30 days until the Republican National Convention
… 38 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 98 days until the general election

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