Election 2020 Politics

The Trailer: The war on wokeness is reshaping GOP campaigns

That experience comes with some costs. In radio ads hitting Youngkin, Americans for Limited Government warns that the candidate “made his millions by investing in China,” and gave “millions to the radical Black Lives Matter group that wants to defund the police.”  At a town hall last month in Norfolk, Youngkin had to explain that “a company that Carlyle had invested in” with “no ability to control” had a CEO who, unfortunately, had made a $50,000 donation to BLM.

“This is what the Pete Snyder campaign does,” said Youngkin, referring to the race’s other wealthy business leader. “They go grab that, and they say that I did it.”

Conservative anger at “woke corporations,” a term levied at companies that take liberals’ sides in political or cultural legislative fights, has boiled over, confusing voters who associate the GOP with a hands-off approach toward  business. Governors with higher ambitions back legislation that would punish any social media company if it censors its platform. Legislators debate stripping tax breaks for companies that criticize their laws. And the Republican base is captivated.

“If you told me that I would be running for governor of Virginia and I would [say] ‘cancel culture is out to get every one of us’ — a year ago, I’d have said ‘dial back on the caffeine, cut the Newsmax back a little bit, take the tinfoil hat off,’” Snyder said at a March 31 town hall near Richmond. “But when they can silence and wipe off the face of the Internet the sitting president of the United States, imagine what they can do to all of us.”

Virginia Republicans will pick their nominee at a convention on May 8, a process that empowers especially active, conservative voters. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) learned this week, urging corporations to “stay out of politics” while urging them to invest in it through campaign donations can be confusing. (McConnell, after criticizing Delta for opposing Georgia’s new voting law, clarified that his problem was that the airline didn’t “read the damn bill.”)

But anger at boardroom “wokeness” runs through most of the issues animating Republican voters. Youngkin’s latest TV ad in Virginia promises to “fine big tech companies that silence Virginians,” echoing proposals in Florida and Texas to use state power to change social media company policies. After Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) vetoed a far-reaching bill restricting medical treatment for trans youth — the GOP legislature overrode that veto — he was grilled by Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who refused to believe that corporate pressure didn’t bend him. 

“Have you spoken to any of the biggest employers, the big companies in Arkansas about this?” Carlson asked. “Have you taken any calls from Tyson’s? From Dillard’s? From Walmart? Has anyone from those companies called you about this bill?” 

Hutchinson repeatedly said no, but the premise was rooted in reality: Republicans have clashed more with corporations, and become more skeptical of their leadership, as those companies have opposed conservative efforts to curtail LGBTQ rights and change voting laws. The Republican State Legislative Committee, which produced a report on suggested state elections changes this week, included a recommendation that private companies be prohibited from funding election operations. That was a nod to grants that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made to election managers; legislation in at least three states has been written to prevent this. 

“While the Commission members who produced the report are not targeting any particular organization, they believe selective funding of election jurisdictions by special interest groups leads to a lack of equity in how voters are treated, and raises concerns about undue influence of the election process,” said RSLC spokesman Andrew Romeo.

Boycotts of corporations for their political moves aren’t new, and aren’t limited to conservatives. During Barack Obama’s presidency, when conservatives launched projects such as 2ndVote to help shoppers avoid companies that donated to Democrats, they were aping something liberals had put together during George W. Bush’s presidency. When Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) condemned American Airlines for its statement on a voting restriction measure, he added that the company, four years earlier, “led the fight to try to force us to allow boys to play girls’ sports in Texas.”

What’s new is the primacy of the issue in Republican politics, and the willingness of some conservatives to try punishing corporations for woke-ness, to see whether it can hold up in court. After Republicans threatened Delta and Coca-Cola with the loss of tax breaks, former Trump budget director Russ Vought called it a “successful playbook for how these fights will be won.” On a conservative podcast last month, Will Chamberlain, a senior counsel at the conservative Internet Accountability Project, suggested that the Texas proposal might “conflict with federal law,” but could become a “template” when conservatives won power again. 

“If we can’t do this at the state level, then what Texas has done is shown us exactly the type of law we should be trying to pass to the federal level,” Chamberlain said. “And if we get a lot of different states to pass this type of legislation and then it gets struck down on, essentially, preemption grounds, then I think next time we’re in power, we have a really good shot of getting something similar passed.”

In power, before his clash with Twitter, Trump took on corporations in some political fights, but largely pursued policies that helped them. Delta, for example, has not yet been punished by Georgia; three years ago, its profits and stock prices jumped as a result of the 2017 tax cut. According to Terry Schilling of the American Principles Project, which backed the Arkansas legislation, corporate America was a “paper tiger” and didn’t have the power to stop social conservative legislation unless Republicans buckled and bestowed that power.

“I think one of the main reasons why the corporations are so eager to go against Republicans is because they don’t think the Republicans will ever fight back,” Schilling said. “They take it for granted that Republicans always want lower taxes or less regulations, or whatever. And they know that the Democrats, if they want to get something from, need to be buttered up.”

The calls for punishing woke companies hint at the reality of the stances those companies are taking ― largely popular, with no harm to their bottom line. And some Republicans have doubts about how to proceed. Last week, when Republicans in Texas’s 6th Congressional District met for a forum about their upcoming special election, a few candidates were asked about fighting “tech censorship,” and not all were enthusiastic.

“Political speech is sacrosanct in this country,” said Michael Wood, the only Republican in the race who has criticized Trump. “The last thing we need to do is have government get involved in that. I understand you’re worried about the incredible power that these companies have. We’re going to work through this. The absolute worst thing to be would be to try to impose a solution on the country from Washington, D.C.”

Reading list

Are lockdowns in the past, or the future?

A comprehensive look at an industry that the left blames for blowing elections.

Moving from a primary to a complicated convention has rattled a crowded race.

What do you get for the Trump voter who has everything? More merch.

How a onetime Trump skeptic won over the former president: Trying to overturn his 2020 defeat.

The political impact of a count that should be finished soon.

Turnout watch

Tuesday’s state and local elections gave St. Louis a new mayor, Wisconsin a new state education officer, and didn’t change the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats. But both parties learned plenty from the results.

In Wisconsin, an early Democratic investment paid off in the race for state superintendent of education, a job that the candidate backed by teachers’ unions typically wins. Jill Underly, the superintendent of a school district in the state’s rural southwest, kept the streak going. She defeated Deborah Kerr, a more conservative candidate backed by former governor Scott Walker and other Republicans, by 15 points, helped by an early six-figure Democratic investment and higher-than-usual turnout.

Although defeated, Republicans saw some bright spots in the final results. Underly won 526,286 of 912,678 votes cast, the second-highest raw vote for anyone who’d ever sought the office. Kerr, a Democrat who ran on some Republican education priorities such as school choice and preventing trans girls from competing in girls’ sports, won 386,392 votes — the highest raw vote for anyone who’d lost the office. And Kerr won 23 of the state’s 76 counties, denying Underly the kind of shutout that one predecessor, now-Gov. Tony Evers (D), got four years ago.

It wasn’t nearly enough for conservatives, but the trends were the same that have restored Wisconsin’s status as a swing state: Republican improvement in rural areas, Democratic gains in the Milwaukee suburbs, and the dominance of Madison’s Dane County. Underly grabbed a 71,344-vote margin out of Dane, half of her overall win margin, and impossible for Kerr to make up elsewhere. Of the state’s 10 largest counties, Kerr won just two: Waukesha, the GOP’s suburban Milwaukee stronghold, and Marathon, a Republican-leaning part of generally Republican central Wisconsin.

Turnout was just around 20 percent of eligible voters, and the Republican margin in a special state Senate election to replace now-Rep. Scott Fitzgerald was hurt by that: Republican John Jagler won by just 7 points after Fitzgerald had won his last term by 18. Democrats also ousted a Republican mayor in the coastal city of Sheboygan, albeit a moderate one, in a race where neither candidate ran with a party label. 

Although Kerr differentiated herself from Underly by favoring a fast, universal return to in-person classes at all schools, that issue didn’t appear to move many votes, and a late buy from a group founded by former Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos focused on Underly’s decision to send her kids to private school, not any policy issue lighting up Republicans. Underly largely neutralized the issue of reopening schools, pledging to make that happen for the next academic year, more than four months away.

Republicans quickly challenged the legitimacy of Underly’s win, pointing out that her allies had outspent Kerr’s. “Dems and liberal groups buy another [Department of Public Instruction] superintendent victory,” tweeted Empower Wisconsin, a conservative group. “The Wisconsin Democratic Party pumped $900,000 into Underly’s ‘non-partisan’ campaign.” State House Speaker Robin Vos went further, tweeting that he wasn’t “going to support putting another nickel into this unaccountable state bureaucracy.”

In St. Louis, the city’s treasurer, Tishaura Jones, defeated White Alderwoman Cara Spencer to become the first Black, female mayor of her city. Jones prevailed by fewer than 2,400 out of 58,237 votes, as turnout stayed flat from four years earlier. Spencer had the support of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but the race split largely on racial lines — Jones winning north of Delmar Boulevard, where most of the city’s Black voters live, and Spencer consolidating the whiter vote in south St. Louis.

“We have had White mayors that have been allies, and White people that have been allies,” Jones said in her final televised debate with Spencer, when asked whether a White mayor could represent all of St. Louis. “But I don’t believe that a White person can understand the lived experience of a Black person in this city.”

In Anchorage, mayoral candidates Forrest Dunbar, a Democrat, and Dave Bronson, a Republican, probably are headed to a runoff. After nearly 42,000 of around 57,000 ballots were counted, Dunbar had 33 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Bronson; neither candidate was likely to hit 45 percent and avoid a runoff and neither was going to be surpassed by a straggler. Democrats have held the office for six years, but the early vote was fairly evenly divided between conservative and more liberal candidates. In Omaha, Republican Mayor Jean Stothert dominated the first round of city elections, but there’s no threshold for avoiding a runoff — she’ll face Democrat RJ Neary on May 11.

Ad watch

Glenn Youngkin, “Glenn Youngkin Will Fight Against Big Tech Censorship and Stand Up for The First Amendment.” One of the two wealthy Republican businessmen running for governor of Virginia, Youngkin has grabbed on to fewer conservative base issues than rival Pete Snyder. This ad goes right at a top Republican concern, with Youngkin pledging to defend free speech from tech companies. “A handful of California mega-corporations are deciding who can say what,” Youngkin says, as Internet pop-up windows sprout around him. “As governor, I’ll fine big tech companies that silence Virginians.”

Jack Ciattarelli, “Phil Murphy’s Failures.” The first Republican to announce against New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has focused on an issue that Republicans in several blue and swing states have emphasized: covid-19 infections in nursing homes. “A pandemic isn’t easy. We get it,” said Ciatterelli, standing with his hands on his hips. “But Phil Murphy’s failures made it worse.”

Poll watch

Democrat: 49% (+0 since December) 
Republican: 40% (-3)

Gallup, which no longer conducts pure horse-race polls, collects quarterly data on how much Americans associate with the Democrats and the GOP. This is the largest advantage for the Democrats since 2012, right after Barack Obama’s reelection, but only just — Republicans polled lower than Democrats on this question for the entire Trump presidency, and haven’t held a lead since the beginning of 2015. 

But the party has won plenty of elections without a big advantage in party identification. Not since early 1991, when the quick success of the first Iraq War bolstered George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings, has the party grabbed an advantage as big as the one Democrats have here. (Independents have made up a plurality of voters in a series of Gallup polls, but this question pushes independents to say which party they lean toward.)

Money watch

Way to Win, a liberal donor group founded after the 2016 election, distributed $110 million to organizers ahead of 2020. The results, according to an audit shared with The Trailer: Clear-cut success, ejecting Trump from power and preventing a theft of the election after the ballots came in. 

“We knew that we needed to upend politics as usual,” Way to Win President and founder Tory Gavito said in an interview, viewing this as the only way to “build a multiracial majority that will have governing power for a generation.”

Way to Win was only one of the groups working toward that goal, albeit a very big one, and the audit doesn’t suggest that much went wrong. Gavito conceded that “the middle of the ballot,” the state legislative races that Democrats hoped to win to break Republican power in swing states, was a debacle. 

“I don’t think you can look at the results in the House [either] and feel satisfied with the direction the House is going in,” she said. “Certainly, in the Senate, we’re just holding on by the skin of our teeth. And so, we think what we really have to do is inoculate against the Southern strategy [to] divide people along racial lines.” 

Way to Win’s strategy is year-round investment and fast mobilization of resources, with a focus on non-White and racial justice organizing. Its autopsy touts a quick dispensation of $1 million to a group that helped “electori[ze] the Movement for Black Lives” last year, $3.3 million for a coalition of election-protection groups, and $100,000 for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona — an under-the-radar grant that may have helped Biden build his margin in the state with Native Americans. 

But the idea of an emerging, multiracial Democratic majority was more popular before the election than after. In defeat, Trump improved on his 2016 margins with non-White voters, improving dramatically in Texas and Florida — both places where organizers got Way to Win grants. Asked what the group had learned from that, Gavito suggested that Democrats and organizers needed to tune up their message.

“It’s a racist appeal, but it’s one that’s really carefully designed to say there are good brown people and they are bad brown people,” Gavito said of Trump. “These are the conditions that good brown people get, and it’s like, Donald Trump was selling gold-plated mansions, whereas these are the conditions for bad brown people. And then suddenly, it’s like kids in cages. Right? That’s the dichotomy. When Democrats don’t have a clear vision of an alternative — regardless of your race, you have a place in this country and these policies are going to improve your lives in very concrete ways then.”

In the states

Ohio: Former state health director Amy Acton opted out of a run for U.S. Senate after a good deal of hype and a commitment by the 314 Action Fund to spend millions to get her through a Democratic primary.

“Please know I am deeply grateful for the outpouring of support from my fellow Ohioans, and from across the country,” Acton said in a somewhat lengthy statement announcing her decision and calling on Ohioans to get involved in civic life. “While I am not entering the race for U.S. Senate, I recognize there is a genuine longing for a fresh approach to leadership that is honest, collaborative, and empowering.”

No well-known Democrat has entered the race, though Rep. Tim Ryan (D), who repeatedly has looked at statewide runs and backed off, is considering the race. Republican Bernie Moreno, an auto dealer who is close to Trump diplomat Richard Grenell, jumped into the race this week, joining former state treasurer Josh Mandel (who lost a 2012 Senate bid here) and former state party chair Jane Timken (who didn’t). In an opening-stretch interview with WKYC, Moreno declined to say that the result of the 2020 election was legitimate, which is fast becoming a marker for Republican candidates.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that an unprecedented alliance between big corporations, big tech, changing election rules at the last minute, was just casting doubt,” Moreno said. “Whether it ended up in fraud or not, it cast doubt. Was the election fair? There’s no question the election was not fair from that perspective.”

California: Caitlyn Jenner is talking to experienced Republican strategists about running for governor in this year’s likely recall election, her second flirtation with a run for office, after floating a 2018 U.S. Senate run then scrapping the idea. Jenner, 71, has little political footprint in the state; her only comments about politics this year have been a tweet congratulating Rachel Levine on becoming the first openly trans federal official, and a retweet of a critical post about coronavirus shutdowns in Los Angeles.

New York: Rep. Lee Zeldin (R) of Long Island officially announced a campaign for governor in 2022, arguing that the scandals that have so far not forced Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to resign have made him vulnerable.

“Everyone, everywhere across this state needs to come together as New Yorkers,” Zeldin, who voted in January to overturn the results of the presidential election, said in a Fox News interview. “It’s by us all working together.”

Zeldin is the first well-known Republican to announce a run; Andrew Giuliani, the son of former mayor Rudy Giuliani, stoked rumors this week that he might run, too. (Giuliani, who worked for Trump’s White House, briefly updated his post-election Twitter bio to say that he would be working for the president in a second term. He removed that language after the Jan. 6 riots.) Zeldin also is exiting a House seat that shifted left from 2016 to 2020, and probably will be reshaped by redistricting before the next election. After giving Hillary Clinton just 42 percent of the vote, New York’s 1st Congressional District gave 47 percent of the vote to Biden.

Alabama: Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, abandoned a plan to run for U.S. Senate and announced his retirement from politics altogether, admitting to an extramarital affair. “I think it’s important to me to make sure that I become the man that I have been before,” he told AL.com. Merrill and other challengers to Rep. Mo Brooks had already been dealt a setback after Trump endorsed Brooks, the first member of Congress to announce he’d contest the 2020 election results.

Alaska: Kelly Tshibaka, the first Republican challenger to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), told the Anchorage Daily News that she could explain a $81,000 moving bill paid for by the state: A cumbersome system required her to accept a fake bid, wasting money. “State officials directed Kelly to obtain multiple moving company bids and she was required to select the lowest one, despite a moving expert’s warning that an extremely low bid was a red flag for potential fraud,” her spokesman told the paper. Tshibaka, a former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner, made the move two years ago while in that role, which was why the state funded the move.

Wisconsin: Republican Derrick Van Orden, who narrowly lost a 2020 race to Rep. Ron Kind (D) of Wisconsin, announced a second run for the 3rd Congressional District. Van Orden ran behind Trump last year, as the president carried a district that had been drawn 10 years ago to shore up Kind, only to move away from the congressman as rural southwest Wisconsin became more hostile to Democrats. Kind, who has repeatedly flirted with a statewide run, is considering whether to run for U.S. Senate, and it will be months before he learns whether the divided government in Madison has made his seat redder or bluer.

Where Hunter is

Hunter Biden’s memoir “Beautiful Things” was released on Tuesday, with largely positive reviews, mixed with some criticism of how the president’s son describes his work for a Ukrainian energy company during the elder Biden’s vice presidency. (“Having a Biden on Burisma’s board was a loud and unmistakable f— y– to Putin,” the younger Biden writes.) The book is largely about addiction, with lurid and pathetic details of Biden’s drug addiction. What does it reveal about the 2020 election? Just a few things.

He was “thriving” until his dad became vice president. Biden doesn’t blame anyone but himself for his addiction, but he pulls back a curtain on how his father kept his sons in the loop on his governing agenda, and he notes that he had to “find new work” once Joe Biden joined the 2008 Democratic ticket, and that he subsequently fell off the wagon. As has been more widely discussed, he fell into a self-destructive spiral after his brother Beau’s death in 2015, and briefly considers whether that added to Joe Biden’s reasons not to run for president in 2016.

“I don’t know if my relapses figured into his calculation,” the younger Biden writes. “They certainly couldn’t have helped, but that’s not something Dad would ever say. I encouraged him to run.”

Biden reflects on his decision to give an interview in 2019 to the New Yorker, emphasizes that he agreed without telling his family or the campaign, and expands on some details that appeared in Adam Entous’s profile. He did, indeed, tell his then-wife Kathleen, the day after Beau Biden’s funeral, that he considered running for office because “so many people were more willing to forgive my past mistakes … than I was willing to forgive myself.” As Entous reported, Kathleen Biden rejected the idea immediately. “We didn’t say another word to each other for the rest of the ride,” Biden writes, “or really, ever again.”

He definitely heard what Republicans said about him. Biden, who lives in Los Angeles, gave just a handful of interviews during the campaign and released just a few public statements. But Trump and other Republicans appear throughout the memoir, with Biden not so much settling scores as venting disappointment. 

“I’ll glance up at a TV in the middle of the day and see Lindsey Graham, a man from the opposite side of the aisle whom my dad and family have long considered a friend, morph into a Trump lapdog right before my eyes, slandering me and my father in the coldest, most cynical, most self-serving ways,” Biden writes of the Republican senator from South Carolina. 

Twice, Biden mentions that the Trump campaign sold “Where’s Hunter?” shirts “sizes small to 3XL.” He repeatedly apologized to his father “for bringing so much heat onto his campaign” by working at Burisma, while the future president said he was “sorry for putting me on the spot,” but the pair agreed that they didn’t know exactly what to say to make the story go away. “My only misjudgment was not considering, back in 2014, that in three years Trump would sit in the White House” and go after him.

He was deathly afraid of a Trump win. Biden writes about a period of the 2020 election that hasn’t really been explored: the days when the president-elect’s family was hunkered down waiting for results to put him ahead. “Those early hours, before the vast majority of our outstanding votes had been counted, felt perilous,” Biden writes. “A Trump victory was not only a threat to democracy, it also seemed a threat to my personal freedom. If Dad hadn’t won, I’m certain Trump would’ve continued to pursue me in the criminal fashion he’d adopted from the start.” (Biden remains under a federal investigation related to his taxes.) 

Biden discusses several of the controversies that the Trump campaign exploited in 2020, but not all. He fact-checks rumors about how much he made abroad; he does not get into any of the emails from a discarded laptop obtained by Trump allies before the election, or the emails and text messages, purportedly between him and business associates, that Republicans cited to ask whether Biden had made corrupt foreign deals or kicked some money back to his family. (There’s no evidence that he did so, and the Republican argument is based on a text exchange where he talked about giving “pop” half of his salary, and a reference to the “big guy” that Republicans insisted was a reference to Joe Biden.)

Instead, Biden takes great pleasure in how the campaign against him didn’t save Trump. “Each attack added to my new superpower: The ability to absorb their negative energy and use it to make me stronger,” he writes. “It was like political aikido. Every bogus whistleblower, out-of-context email, salacious photograph or video clip (manufactured or real) made me feel nearly invincible to their slings and arrows.”

Biden does not mention the details of the 11th-hour laptop story, or litigate any of the compromising images and texts, obtained by his father’s political opponents. What matters, in his telling, is that he’s still alive, and his father is president. He reflects on the first presidential debate, saying that his father’s defense of him for having a “drug problem” and getting “past” it effectively smothered the fear that haunted him for a decade: whether he’d hurt his father’s career.

“Those words not only disarmed Trump but gave comfort and hope to millions of Americans,” he writes. “I felt nothing but pride. You would’ve, too.”

Voting wars

While national attention swirled around Georgia’s election changes, and voting rights advocates mobilized against new proposals in Texas, a funny thing happened: Kentucky passed a bipartisan election rule change with support from both parties.

“Some states have stepped in a different direction,” Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said as he signed the legislation. Kentucky leaders were able to come together to stand up for democracy and to expand the opportunity for people to vote.

Republicans romped in Kentucky last year, after Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams agreed to some changes that increased ballot access. The new bill will make some changes permanent: online voting registration, three days of early voting, a process for correcting errors on absentee ballots, and larger voting centers that can process more ballots. 

It doesn’t keep everything that Beshear and Adams scrambled to do in 2020, but it got just a handful of “no” votes in the Republican-run legislature, and got a nod of support from Sen. Rand Paul (R), who said after the election that he’d prioritize election restructuring across the country.

Countdown

… 16 days until the runoff in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District
… 23 days until the special primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District
… 30 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 54 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 61 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 75 days until New York Citys primary
… 117 days until the special primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District

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