The Sweep: The GOP 2024 Primary Primer, Part Four

Plus: Is it good for the Democrats if bipartisan infrastructure legislation falls apart?

Our summer odyssey continues as we visit some more potential contenders for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. Anonymous sources continue to hint at a Trump run:

From Rolling Stone: Trump Is Telling His Dinner Pals He’s Planning to Run for President in 2024

From Politico: Trumpworld is already weighing veeps for 2024. Hint: It ain’t Pence. 

From the New York Times: Why I’m Sure Trump Will Run for President in 2024

So this week, we are going to look at the people who will run even if (especially if?) Trump announces a Cleveland-esque third candidacy. 

The Not-Again Trumpers

Larry Hogan: The Moderate’s Moderate

65 years old, governor of Maryland

If the centrist wing of the Republican Party were a teenage boy in the 1970s, Larry Hogan would be a poster of Lynda Carter. After winning his 2018 re-election bid by nearly 12 points in a state that has gone blue in the last eight presidential elections, he’s one of the most popular governors in the country—with an approval rating that reached 76 percent this year.

He’s now the co-chair of the bipartisan group No Labels, bringing together moderates from around the country and across the aisle, including Mitt Romney and Joe Manchin for a summit to talk about Biden’s infrastructure package. He’s governed by avoiding culture war fights, focusing instead on what he describes as “simple, common sense principles”—job creation, family assistance, and statewide economic recovery. What’s more surprising is that he’s maintained a fiscally conservative record—nixing billions in spending on light rail and education reform—while continuing to thrive in a blue state.

Hogan has also been more than willing to criticize the former president. In a 2020 op-ed, Hogan decried the Trump administration’s decision to force states to organize their own testing regimes, arguing that Trump “bungled the effort” to establish a nationwide COVID testing protocol. At the height of the pandemic, when the Trump administration was flailing, his South Korean-American wife helped him negotiate the purchase of half a million test kits for the state, and even though the tests turned out to be faulty, it somehow didn’t affect his reputation as a hero in the state.

Strengths: He may have the market cornered as the only anti-Trump moderate in the field, he’s got a compelling narrative both as governor and a cancer survivor, and he’s well liked by old guard Republicans and Acela-corridor donors with plenty of operatives lining up to work for him.

Weaknesses: He’s following a playbook John Kasich tried to run in 2016 with no success—and Kasich was from bigger, redder Ohio, he’ll have to bet it all on New Hampshire, which hasn’t worked for many (any?) GOP candidates in the last two decades, and he may not be alone in this lane if an Adam Kinzinger or Liz Cheney decides to jump in.

2024 Tea Leaves: He’s openly talked about it, saying, “I think it’s probably not likely that [Trump] will run, and you’ll have 10 or 15 or more people running to be the next Trump, and fighting for that 60 percent. And there’s possibly a wide-open lane with the other one-third of the people, who are the ones encouraging me.”

Chris Christie: The Trump Whisperer

58 years old, former governor of New Jersey

Christie, the tough-talking former governor of New Jersey, ran for president in 2016, and he’s already said he’s thinking about running again in 2024. Christie first burst onto the national scene in 2009 when he defeated New Jersey’s incumbent Democratic governor, becoming the first Republican in twelve years to win a gubernatorial contest in the reliably blue state. He quickly established a reputation for being a strong fiscal conservative, cancelling an $8.7 billion commuter rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey that would have been the largest public works project in the country.

Christie has been through his share of scandals, however. In 2012, he faced criticism from conservatives for his endorsement of President Obama’s disaster relief efforts, and in 2013, he was accused of shutting down highway lanes to retaliate against a Democratic mayor in what became known as “Bridgegate.” While the high point of Christie’s 2016 presidential run was his debate takedown of Marco Rubio, the candidacy itself was short lived—Christie dropped out after finishing sixth place in New Hampshire and endorsed Trump shortly after.

Now, Chris Christie says he won’t defer to Trump if the former president runs again in 2024, and he has recently taken shots at the Biden administration’s stances on infrastructure and voting rights. “What I want to do,” Christie said in May, “is to try to lead the party in a productive and smart way, for us to continue to argue for populist-type policies but not to be reckless.”

Strengths: Trump has never attacked Christie despite plenty of criticism the other way, Christie has stayed relevant with frequent TV appearances and has a book coming out in the fall, he’s a strong debater, and he has run a national race before.

Weaknesses: He doesn’t have much new to offer voters since his 2016 run, his support of Trump in the run up to 2020 coupled with his frequent criticisms of Trump since may leave him without a home base, and it will be hard to attract attention in Iowa and New Hampshire with so many new faces.

2024 Tea Leaves: He’s openly considering it.

Liz Cheney: The Lonely Stalwart

54 years old, congresswoman from Wyoming

Back in May, Cheney told Bret Baier she was not vying for the 2024 nomination. And even if she changed her mind, there is almost no chance the outspoken congresswoman would win the Republican nomination in 2024, despite her solid conservative credentials. The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney has served in Congress since 2017 as the representative at-large for the state of Wyoming. In 2019, she became the House GOP conference chair, the third ranking House Republican after minority leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican whip Steve Scalise.

After the 2020 election, however, Cheney ran afoul of Republican leadership over her forthright rebukes of Trump’s election lies. While House Republicans initially voted to keep Cheney in her leadership role after she backed the second impeachment effort in January, her continued criticism of the former president finally cost her that position. In May, the House Republican conference decisively voted to oust Cheney from her role as conference chair.

Since then, Cheney has come into increasing conflict with McCarthy and other congressional Republicans, most recently over her decision to accept a spot from Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the House January 6 select panel. At the same time, Trump’s top political advisors have been working to unseat Cheney in her Wyoming district, where they believe she is politically vulnerable.

For now, Cheney’s top goal is simply to prevent Trump from winning the presidency again in 2024. “He must not ever again be anywhere close to the Oval Office,” she said in a recent interview. “I'm going to do everything that I can, both to make sure that that never happens, but also to make sure that the Republican Party gets back to substance and policy.”

Strengths: She has an unimpeachable conservative voting record, high (last) name ID, access to national donors, experience—albeit as a daughter—with presidential campaigns, and a proven ability to get under Trump’s skin and not back down.

Weaknesses: Even folks who want to move on from Trump may not get behind someone who voted to impeach him, her foreign policy stances are now out of step with the majority of the party, and she doesn’t have the big personality that a David often needs to take on Goliath.

2024 Tea Leaves: She faces serious primary headwinds in 2022 as challengers have been coming out of the woodwork—in a primary without a runoff, more opponents are a good thing, but Trump seems to understand the urgency of uniting the Cheney-haters behind a single challenger. She told Baier she wasn’t running, but she also has said she isn’t “ruling anything in or out.” 

What is foaming Stirewalt’s latte these days? The politics of spending … and I’m very here for it.

Obama Pollster’s Timely Warning on Spending 

Former Obama pollster Joel Benenson has some advice for congressional Democrats as it relates to going big on domestic spending proposals and the midterm elections: Watch out. 

Sharing his data with Axios on how persuadable voters are likely to receive additional spending crammed into the multi-trillion-dollar packages bouncing around Congress, Benenson urged caution. “You gotta win the middle to win,” he said. It’s a warning that will likely have few admirers on the left wing of the Democratic conferences in both chambers. 

In those quarters, the potential failure of the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden is trying to shepherd through is likely to be received as good news. If the compromise plan sinks, it would probably increase the ceiling on the companion party-line legislation the Blue Team aims to pass using the procedural maneuver called budget reconciliation. If progressives and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer succeed in what looks like an effort to stampede the gangsters off of their $1.2-trillion bipartisan bill, that money could also go into the pot for the party-line vote. Even better, it would go in without having to make any concessions on how the money would be spent.

Now, that relies on all 50 Democrats staying on board. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s goldilocks sensibilities will no doubt be even sharper in light of his reversal on a possible re-election run in 2024. The same goes for Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. But if Republicans bolt from the compromise plan, as former President Trump is urging them to do, moderate Democrats might be open to some upward revisions on the party-line package. As they consider how much, they ought to heed Benenson’s advice.

While voters sometimes punish politicians for flip-flopping or inconsistency, the reverse is never true. Voters are allowed to hold contradictory views, and they usually do. Voters love free money, stimulus checks, and massive domestic spending packages. But they also hate deficit spending and inflation. Politicians in both parties have very much enjoyed the vacation from the politics of fiscal restraint, but the end will invariably come. Nothing like higher consumer prices to put a damper on the festivities.

Biden sure knows it, which helps explain why he is so eager to have Republicans sign off on at least some of the spending. This is also why Trump wants the compromise to go down. In Trump’s best-case scenario, “infrastructure week” would be as much of a punchline for Biden as it was for him. If Trump is playing Grover Cleveland to Biden’s Benjamin Harrison, the best-case scenario would be for the bipartisan bill to fail, and then for the left wing to overreach on the companion bill causing it to fail. No infrastructure gets built while still delivering fresh talking points about radical Democratic policies.

Schumer could be acting out of his own primary considerations for 2022, or maybe this is just gamesmanship. But whatever it is, he should be listening to Benenson. The party is almost over on spending, and Democrats would be wise to not be the last ones standing on this game of fiscal musical chairs.

The Sweep: The GOP 2024 Primary Primer, Part Three

The three presidential hopefuls coming out of the last guy's administration.

And we’re back with more 2024 contenders! If you’re looking for some extra content, Chris and I talked to Chris Christie this week on the pod, who provided some of his own insights into how he sees the race shaping up. 

This week we are looking at some of the folks who served in the Trump Administration and are considering a 2024 run to replace their old boss. It’s actually pretty unusual on the Republican side—Lamar Alexander in 1996 was the last cabinet secretary to run by my count. 

The Formers

Nikki Haley: The Weather Vane 

49 years old, former UN Ambassador

Nikki Haley’s presidential ambitions have been clear for some time, and she has the resumé to prove it. An accountant by trade, Haley has legislative experience from three terms in the South Carolina House of Representatives, executive experience from six years as governor, and foreign policy experience from nearly two years as ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley was the first woman and first non-white governor of South Carolina, elected on a wave of outsider, Tea Party energy. A pro-business fiscal conservative, she rose to national prominence in 2015 in the aftermath of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston: She successfully pressured the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol.

After harshly criticizing candidate Trump, Haley agreed to serve in his administration when he became president, establishing her credentials for a future presidential run, and was one of the few administration officials to leave on good terms after the 2018 midterms. But in the wake of January 6, she denounced the former president’s role in the insurrection, saying that “he's lost any sort of political viability”—only to pirouette once again a few months later to say that she would support Trump in 2024 if he decides to run again, all while clearly laying the groundwork for a run of her own.

She “navigated the Trump era with a singular shrewdness,” but the problem for Haley is obvious: can she be Trumpy enough to win the 2024 GOP primary while remaining palatable to the moderate, suburban swing voters she naturally appeals to?

Strengths: She’s the triple threat—experience, instincts, work ethic. Her ability to maneuver during her time in the administration was like watching an Olympic figure skater—the artistry can make you forget the sheer athleticism on display.

Weaknesses: It’s rare to see a single magazine piece tank someone’s presidential campaign, but this write up by Tim Alberta in February—portraying her as someone whose ambition and paranoia trumps loyalty or consistency—stopped her momentum in its tracks and seemed to hand the ball to DeSantis at the exact wrong moment for Haley. 

2024 Tea Leaves: No question she is running if Trump doesn’t, and she probably sees some advantages to drafting behind DeSantis as the focus of opposition research and media spotlight for a while too.  

Mike Pence: The Tightrope Walker 

62 years old, former Vice President

Who is President Trump’s heir apparent? For 99 percent of the Trump era, that answer seemed obvious: then-Vice President Mike Pence. The former Indiana governor and staunch social conservative had saved Trump’s skin back during the 2016 campaign by providing reassurance to then-skittish evangelical voters, then spent the next four years as Trump’s unflappable shadow—the stoic, self-effacing foil to his grandiose, manic boss.

Then the 2020 election happened. Over the excruciating two months between election day and the certification of Biden’s win, as Trump railed against a rigged contest and made it increasingly clear he demanded nothing less than absolute personal devotion from his allies on the issue, Pence walked a tightrope—refusing to call Joe Biden the president-elect, but declining to explicitly endorse claims of a stolen election either.

For the vice president, judgment day was January 6, the day he would need either to preside over the certification of Biden’s victory, or—at Trump’s urging, in defiance of the law—make a last-ditch procedural attempt to overturn it.

As a mob massed outside, Pence chose to do his job. It was probably the best possible moment to finally declare his independence—but it may still cost him his presidential shot. Trump remains the biggest kingmaker in a party that has largely decided to memory-hole the capitol riot, and he has not forgiven Pence’s final abandonment. As the riot unfolded, Trump tweeted that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,” and he has taken the time to attack him along similar lines every few months since. 

Strengths: He has high name ID, untouchable conservative credentials, plenty of national experience, and can take credit for all of the Trump administration’s accomplishments.

Weaknesses: Trump continues to trash him, he’s not a dynamic speaker, and it’s hard to pinpoint who his base voter is when he is squeezed on both sides—literally at Trump’s side for four years and now without his support.

2024 Tea Leaves: I actually think Pence is the one guy who may not run, but he was in New Hampshire last month and Iowa this month and has kept a team in place. 

Mike Pompeo: The Candidate

57 years old, former Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo’s shiny resumé was never in doubt. After West Point, a stint in the Army, Harvard Law School, a prestigious D.C. law firm, and running an aerospace business back in Kansas, he ran for and won a Kansas seat in the House, putting together a voting record consistently to the right even of his fellow Republicans.

Despite predicting Trump would be “an authoritarian President who ignored our Constitution,” Pompeo—who was little known outside of his role in the Benghazi hearings—was tapped for CIA director. And in a little over a year, Pompeo had clearly impressed his new boss. Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet and announced Pompeo as his replacement. As Secretary of State, he focused on Iran, met with Kim Jong Un, lauded Israel, and took a more aggressive posture toward China. 

He also developed a reputation for being able to placate Trump. A former American ambassador described him to Susan Glassner at the New Yorker “like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” And on November 10, 2020—two days after all major news networks had called the election for Biden—he even went so far as to tell reporters “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” As the Washington Post put it, Pompeo’s time in the administration was “a careful balancing act designed to lay future claim to Trump’s large and loyal political base while retaining credibility among the GOP establishment.”

Strengths: He wants it. Really, really badly. That counts for something.

Weaknesses: State isn’t usually a great platform to run from because your expertise is the one thing it’s hard to get the American people jazzed about: foreign policy.  Fun fact: The last Secretary of State to win the presidency was elected in 1856 and precipitated the Civil War. Pompeo has little name ID, no base voters, and no serious campaign experience.

2024 Tea Leaves: No one is running more than Pompeo. His midterm PAC has asked its supporters to call themselves “pipehitters” to the endless mockery and merriment of the internet. He is in overdrive trying to win over New York donors. He is literally zooming into events in New Hampshire while sitting in Iowa. 

Operative View: Focus on Biden

This week, we’ve got some nuggets of wisdom from Alice Stewart, who was the communications director for the presidential campaigns of Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Michele Bachmann. 

It’s early, but never too soon to get a temperature of the electorate. Anyone who feels the fire in the belly for 2024 should set up a PAC based on their key interests and issues in order to raise money and build a network of support. It’s not about grabbing headlines, it’s about making headway in key states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. Visit these states early and often.

Obviously, Donald Trump is the elephant in the room—don’t ignore it, but don’t trip over the trunk either. This means focusing on the policies that unite the GOP and not the personalities that divide us. The Biden administration has given the GOP plenty of material to work with in terms of their failed agenda, and focusing on that is the way to win in 2022 and 2024. 

For those of you who are already tired of 2024 talk, it’s Stirewalt’s turn to weigh in on what he’s watching.

A Reality Check on Polling 

The ongoing auto-da-fé by America’s pollsters in the wake of a better-than-expected performance by former President Donald Trump in 2020 continues apace. First in sackcloth and ashes came the pollsters who work for Democrats, and now arrive the rest of the penitents with the postmortem from the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

The sin was allegedly “wildly” inaccurate polling on the presidential election, a subject that has not just been the repeated object of Trump’s inexhaustible reservoir of splenetic rage but of great frustration for journalists who sometimes seem to be almost as upset as the former president himself. “The real catastrophe is that the failure of the polls leaves Americans with no reliable way to understand what we as a people think outside of elections,” wrote The Atlantic’s David Graham soon after the election, “which in turn threatens our ability to make choices, or to cohere as a nation.”

Holy moly! The whole point of the elections is so that we know what people think. Outside of those, unless you’re doing market research for a living, we don’t really need to know what people think. And it’s a good thing, too, since they often aren’t sure themselves what they really do think, and change their minds at the drop of a hat. Polls can be interesting, but they are not themselves particularly important. I write that as a person who has devoted much of my professional life to understanding polls and public opinion research. It’s fascinating stuff, but the polls are the scouting report, not the game itself.

Part of the reason so many journalists seem so upset about the problems with polling is how many of them overuse and abuse surveys. And they’re not letting up despite their disappointment with the 2020 results. Witness: Two of Trump’s former pollsters each recently released surveys that said Trump was dominating the 2024 field. Tony Fabrizio said his former client was “still the 800-pound gorilla,” with 47 percent of the primary vote. Jon McLaughlin said Trump “obliterates the field” with 55 percent. So what? Even if these surveys were done by objective pollsters, there’s basically no value in a poll this far in advance other than to know who is the most famous.

But when a Politico reporter goes to Iowa to assess former Vice President Mike Pence’s chances, not only does this kind of polling make it in, but so does a straw poll taken by attendees at CPAC, where Trump himself was the headline speaker and object of cultish levels of affection. That’s like taking a straw poll on favorite music groups at a BTS concert. In the old, old days, reporters would have to have hunches based on what insiders said, how they saw organizations performing, and what they knew about the electorate. The explosion in polling over the past 20 years created the false impression that every political opinion was fixed and knowable, and an unfortunate certitude crept in. Political forecasting at the very end of a campaign cycle is very data-driven. But three years out? It’s a lot of guesswork based on reporting and experience. You can pretty well ignore the presidential polls until we get past midterms. There just aren’t enough voters paying attention.

Another problem at the media-polling nexus are cheap-o polls designed to grub up newsy nuggets like this or this or, heaven help us, this. The pap that outfits like YouGov and Survey Monkey pump out—to say nothing of partisan chops shops like Data for Progress—are too easily confused with the real thing. Polls like these look like news, but are just a lazier version of the old man-on-the-street interview. Online surveys on clickbait subjects are no more revealing than stories where reporters just collect tweets, slap on a headline and go fishing for clicks.

There are real problems confronting political polling, especially on the state-level. Compounding the nationwide problem of Republicans becoming more and more reluctant to participate in polls, state-level surveys have their own challenges, including the erosion of geographic area codes as people keep cell phone numbers for life. Finding a geographically discrete sample that includes the right mix of voters has become very hard, indeed.

But let’s do keep things in perspective. An average of the final five high-quality national polls for 2020—these were live-interviewer non-partisan surveys with a sufficient mix of cell phones and landlines—underestimated Trump’s share of the national vote by 3.9 points. That was exactly the same estimation that the similar average produced in 2016. What made the difference seem greater this time was expectations. The average forecast in 2016 was for Trump to lose nationally by 2.8 points, but he only lost by 2.1 percent because while both he and Hillary Clinton outperformed expectations, Trump did a squidge better. In 2020, polls almost perfectly predicted Biden’s 51.3 percent of the national vote, but Trump again overperformed his anticipated share, reducing an 8.2-point polling spread to just 4.4 points in reality. 

A similar average from 2012 reveals a 3.3-point gap between the expected margin and the final result. This year it was 3.9 points. It’s worth noting, and I certainly admire the professional devotion of the pollsters, but let’s stop it with the self-flagellation. What’s wrong with polling has more to do with how it’s used than how it’s done.

The Sweep: The GOP 2024 Primary Primer, Part Two

Another batch of plausible candidates—the governors—and some thoughts on publicly funded elections.

Welcome back! As I mentioned last week, we are spending the next few newsletters giving you the first look at the possible field of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. 

Last week, we covered four Senators: Hawley, Cruz, Cotton, and Scott. A few of you (a full stampede, actually) complained that several senators were left off the list. What about Florida Senator Rick Scott, who seems to keep popping up in Iowa? Florida’s other senator Marco Rubio, “The Republican Savior”? Nebraska senator and Trump skeptic Ben Sasse? 

Here’s what I have to say to that: Sure, any of those guys could run too. I think the idea of Florida having all three top electeds—the governor (see below) and both senators—running is insane, making it all the more likely to happen. The 15-plus candidate batch we are covering isn’t comprehensive, but it is the list of candidates I’m most interested in watching and whose candidacies could change the trajectory of the race as a whole. Plus, I reserve the right to revisit our candidate list repeatedly over the next … 29 months. 

Next week, we’ll take on former Trump officials like Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley, and later we’ll get to the moderates such as Larry Hogan and Chris Christie—plus our celebrity bracket with Tucker Carlson and Dave Portnoy. But this week, we’ve got ... 

The Governors

Ron DeSantis: The Frontrunner

42 years old, Governor of Florida

Here’s the central piece of current 2024 conventional wisdom in four words: If not Trump, DeSantis. Despite plenty of Republicans eyeing the top prize, the inside track is currently occupied by the former Florida congressman and current Florida governor, who has steadily built a reputation on the right as the sort of “Donald Trump, without the baggage” leader right-wing pundits and politicos have spent the last few years proclaiming will be the next evolution in GOP politics. Last week, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas asked its attendees who their pick would be for president in 2024 were Trump not to run again. DeSantis collected 68 percent of the vote; nobody else got higher than five percent.

In the modern Republican party, a successful leader is one who can move effortlessly from the flash of culture-war pyrotechnics to the grind of actual government work, and DeSantis has shown himself to be a force on both fronts. In 2018, he knocked off the Republican establishment’s primary pick for governor on the strength of a brand he built defending President Trump from Russia-related allegations on Fox News. Even as governor, he’s never shied away from confrontations with the media—particularly after he became a liberal villain for his relatively laissez-faire handling of COVID-19.

But the spotlight resulting from DeSantis’s appetite for controversy has revealed him to be a canny political operator, too. In recent months, DeSantis has won Republican plaudits for his stewardship of a number of new laws and executive orders designed to please a culture-war-happy base: a ban on vaccine passports here, a ban on biological males in girls’ sports at public schools there, a rule preventing public schools from teaching critical race theory shortly after. Last month, the governor issued a blanket pardon for any Floridians who had violated anti-pandemic measures.

Strengths: He’s leading every poll of GOP primary voters, benefited from a failed 60 Minutes hit piece that was debunked by Democrats in his state, and was relentlessly attacked for opening Florida’s economy too early during the pandemic—only to have remarkably similar outcomes in both death and infection rates as California.

Weaknesses: Everyone who knows him will tell you that he is going to have problems with the retail politics required in Iowa and New Hampshire (read: he’s a jerk), he has to win reelection in 2022, Trump thinks DeSantis owes him and his ego will require a lot of care and feeding (read: groveling) between now and 2024 if DeSantis wants to prevent Trump from trashing him, and frontrunner status comes with a target on your back.

2024 Tea Leaves: The frontrunner tends to run … but feel free to ask President Scott Walker or President Tim Pawlenty how it can turn out. 

Greg Abbott: The Other Governor

63 years old, Governor of Texas

Abbott has been a lawyer, trial judge, Texas Supreme Court justice, and Texas attorney general. He has used a wheelchair since the age of 26, when an oak tree fell on him while he was jogging, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. In 2018, he was re-elected Governor with 42 percent of the Hispanic vote—seven points higher than Ted Cruz that same year. 

He knows illegal immigration can be a winning issue for him. He recently announced “his plan for Texas to build its own border wall, starting with the hiring process for a program manager and providing $250 million in state funds as a ‘down payment.’” This came after he asked other states to send help, prompting Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Florida to answer the call. And he deployed the Texas National Guard and state troopers to “arrest immigrants and charge them for state laws such as trespassing, illegal entry, smuggling and human trafficking.”

Abbott called a special session for the legislature this summer to take up bills on election reform, critical race theory, and tech censorship—topics which have the makings for a tidy stump speech. And now that Democrats have chosen to flee the state in a couple private jets to D.C., Abbott is teed up for some national attention with some easily caricatured villains. 

Strengths: Texas is a big state with some of the biggest GOP donors and all different stripes of Republican primary voters, he’s shown an ability to attract headlines that appeal to GOP base voters, and he faces a clownish gubernatorial primary challenge from former state party chair Allen West, which has the chance to make him look stronger.

Weaknesses: He’s been overshadowed by DeSantis so far, has no political experience in a purple state and very low name ID, is not a compelling speaker, and is known for trying to hang back to read political winds before wading into controversial issues.

2024 Tea Leaves: Rumor has it that Abbott’s team has already begun reaching out to Iowa operatives. Trump’s former rapid response director moved to Texas ostensibly to help with Abbott’s re-election in 2022.

Kristi Noem: The Smarter, Stronger Sarah Palin

49 years old, Governor of South Dakota

It’s hard to summarize Noem’s position in the 2024 field better than Jonathan Martin did in the New York Times: "If Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is widely seen as the brash heir apparent to Mr. Trump, and senators like Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton are attempting to put a more ideological frame on Trumpism, Ms. Noem is trying to cement her place as the only female Trump ally echoing the former president's trigger-the-left approach among the upper tiers of potential 2024 candidates.”

Since her election in 2018, Noem has worked tirelessly to raise her profile and tie herself to Trump. She went so far as to present him with a 4-foot replica of her state’s claim-to-fame, Mt Rushmore, with Trump himself featured next to Lincoln and Roosevelt. This fueled speculation that she was hoping to replace Mike Pence on the ticket in 2020—a rumor that was taken so seriously that she flew to Washington to privately assure Pence that she had no vice presidential ambitions. 

For now, Noem is touting her reputation as one of America’s most hands-off governors during the pandemic—pushing against mask mandates, economic shutdowns, and the like from day one until the present. As she put it at CPAC, South Dakota under her leadership was the “only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close.” These policies came with a cost—South Dakota has been third-worst in the country in COVID cases per capita and tenth-worst in COVID deaths per capita during the pandemic.

Strengths: She made a big splash at CPAC, with the Independent calling her “the smartest and most dangerous force in the country” and CNN labeling her “the female incarnation of the 45th President,” she speaks GOP base about as well as anyone in the field, and she’s shown she can get attention from media on the left and the right.

Weaknesses: Very few people outside of grassroots activists know who she is, she’s running a small state in terms of population and a very rural one, which will make it hard to argue that any of her policies or successes as governor can translate nationally, and Republicans love to root for a Sarah Palin type but we haven’t seen any evidence that they want to vote for one.

2024 Tea Leaves: She’ll be in Iowa later this month. Corey Lewandowski, the President’s former campaign manager, is advising her. It’s a done deal.

And The Winner Is ...

No, the CPAC straw poll isn’t scientific. But it does tell us what an influential group of GOP grassroots activists are thinking. And the message is clear:

Operative View: Early States Matter

I got in touch with Dave Kochel, who advised Jeb Bush in 2016, to ask him what potential 2024 candidates should be doing right now. 

Focus everything on ’22. Congress is within reach, and if you’re not trying to flip it, you’re not able to claim that you were doing everything possible to stop the Biden/Harris agenda. 

Tactically, early states still matter (I’m sitting in Iowa as I write this lol) because you have to have a place to hold the show for the cameras. Lots of good races here to road test a midterm message around pushing back on the left.

No overt organizing yet, there’s time for that later and Trump’s looming presence over the potential field suggests it’s better to keep your head down while he decides what he’s doing.

Spend on digital now, build a file, all under the mission of ’22 and flipping Congress.

That’s about it.

Oh, and get on Fox. Still gotta be famous with the base.

We talk a lot about grassroots donors and heavy hitters in this newsletter, but what about the corporations that spend millions on elections each year? Chris has some thoughts: 

Toyota’s Blind Spot Shows Way Forward on Campaign Finance 

With the rise of celebrity candidates, social media lowering barriers to entry, weak parties, and small-dollar online donations, one would think that we had finally moved beyond the old discussions around campaign finance reform. Alas, we have not. The For the People Act backed by almost every Senate Democrat includes provisions for publicly financed elections, and similar efforts are underway on the state level

Most of these programs work from the assumption that big-money donors are corrupting the political process. While it's certainly true that cash-starved politicians can become beholden to mega-donors, it seems like more of our problems these days relate to the corrupting influence of small-dollar, rage-click online donations. Plus, if recent decades have taught us anything, it is that special interest and corporate money will always find a way into the system. In fact, well-intentioned but bad bills like McCain-Feingold often end up distorting the market for contributions and reducing transparency. What does work, though, is accountability. And a recent episode illustrates how.  

Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group, came out with a report a few weeks ago on corporate political action committees that contributed to the 147 congressional Republicans who voted on January 6 to try to block President Biden from taking office.

The watchdog group padded its numbers by including the House and Senate GOP campaign arms in the list of corporate donations made since the deadly pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in support of members trying to subvert the election results. The National Republican Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee also back the Republicans who didn’t try to steal the election. Eighty-eight percent of the nearly million dollars in contributions were to the committees, not the individual members who backed Trump’s bid to remain in power. But if the group’s position is that the Republican Party is itself seditious, that’s their call. 

However they sliced it, though, one story came through clearly: Toyota’s PACs had given far and away the most money to individuals—$57 thousand—and donated to the largest number of individual members—38—than the committees of any other corporation. The real surprise, though, came when Toyota USA bucked the immediate pressure it faced for the dubious donations. The automaker told Axios it would be wrong to “judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification.” The donations had been reviewed, Toyota said, to exclude “members who, through their statements and actions, undermine the legitimacy of our elections and institutions.” But they still gave money to this guy? Gotcha. 

It might seem strange that a Japanese automaker would be so monosugoku MAGA, unless you understand Toyota USA as a predominantly Southern enterprise. Its headquarters are in the Dallas suburbs, and with the exception of some operations in Michigan and California, its plants are all in red states. Toyota was an early adopter of moving production for the American market to the U.S. and focused on the South and Appalachia where they found several favorable things: right-to-work laws and a generally weak union presence, lower wages, and politicians eager to offer fat incentives to land manufacturing jobs. And that’s still going on today. Toyota was telling the truth: the PAC donations weren’t about supporting the riot or stealing the election. They were about getting porky goodies for a company that relies a lot on government assistance.

That ended last week, when the company put out a statement saying that there wouldn’t be any more contributions for members of Trump’s wrecking crew. This was not surprising. It’s bad business to be associated with radicals like Biggs, and we can be sure that the crazy-cakes behavior from him and other recipients of Toyota PAC money will continue as the 2022 cycle heats up. The pressure worked, and Toyota threw its government benefactors right under the wheels of its RAV4.   

Many states, including the Grand Canyon State, offer versions of publicly funded elections like the one Democrats are seeking nationally. But would lawmakers like Biggs be more or less accountable if they got their campaign cash from taxpayers or from Toyota? Publicly funded campaigns aren’t just an incumbent-retention device but also another way to insulate lawmakers from accountability. If you pair public funding of campaigns with an allowance for small-dollar donations, you get strong incentives for loony behavior and fewer ways to punish bad actors.

As Toyota’s reversal shows, transparency allows for accountability, and accountability is what we’re really looking for. If groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington do their job and we in the press do ours, we won’t stop the corrupting influence of money or keep donors from backing shady politicians entirely. But as long as there’s a real chance for consequences, they’ll at least have to think twice about it.

The Sweep: The GOP 2024 Primary Primer, Part One

First on the docket: The Senate hopefuls.

For the next few weeks, this newsletter will be dedicated to giving you the first inside look at the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Will they, won’t they, who are they? There’s a lot to cover, so this will be a four-part series, including a rundown of potential candidates, their strengths and weaknesses, short interviews with some of the most well-respected GOP operatives in the field, and of course, some sidebars with me and Chris Stirewalt. 

The Contenders

Yes, it’s early. Some of these folks may not run, and undoubtedly many more will throw their hat in the ring at some point. But this is a good start if you want to wrap your head around who is most likely to be spotted eating Casey’s breakfast pizza (think: Iowa) in the next year. We will add to it as need arises. This week, we are tackling …

The Senators

Josh Hawley: The Heir Apparent

41 years old, U.S. senator from Missouri

One of the freshest faces in 2024’s candidate pool belongs to Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a freshman whose metamorphosis has been one of the most instructive stories of the Trump era. An Ivy-educated lawyer with a sterling conservative pedigree—he clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts and worked for years for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—Hawley launched his political career in 2016 with a successful bid for Missouri attorney general. Two years later, he won the hearts of GOP leadership by winning the long-coveted Senate seat then held by Democrat Claire McCaskill.

As soon as he arrived in D.C., however, Hawley got busy trading in his reputation as a donor-friendly Federalist Society wunderkind for new Trumpian bona fides, setting the bar for slashing populism in the Senate with fierce anti-China rhetoric and legislative crusades against Big Tech. Last year, he became the first senator to pledge to contest the January 6 electoral certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election.

Strategists who have followed his rise speak with one voice about Hawley’s ferocious political ambition; an eventual presidential run is likely less a matter of if than when. So far, Hawley has flatly denied any plans to run in 2024, a posture that makes sense given the strong possibility that Trump himself will try for a Biden rematch. But Hawley’s hard-charging, take-no-prisoners start to his D.C. career has left him with remarkably few allies in the Senate, which means stacking up accomplishments to run on in 8 or 12 years might be a difficult challenge. For Hawley, 2024 may be now or never.

Strengths: Momentum and energy are on his side as the new guy willing to stake out new populist positions in the party (see his take on the minimum wage), maybe the most obvious heir apparent for the diehard Trump voter, and he’s enemy No. 1 on the left, which is definitely a plus on the right.

Weaknesses: The January 6 fist pump may have some GOP voters wondering whether Hawly can win a general, no national organization or experience, no wins to tout—legislative or otherwise—in the Senate, he’ll be running for Senate reelection (but Missouri does not have a “resign-to-run” law).

2024 Tea Leaves: He literally signed a friend’s eighth-grade yearbook: “Josh Hawley, president 2024.” Everyone assumes Hawley is running as “a young man in a hurry,” but he himself has denied it when asked. 

Ted Cruz: The Next In Line

50 years old, U.S. senator from Texas 

(Disclosure: Sarah worked for Cruz as his political director when he contemplated a run for Texas attorney general in 2009.)

Ted Cruz came in second to Trump in the 2016 primaries, a campaign he recently claimed “was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.” The junior senator from Texas, Cruz entered Congress in 2013 as part of the Tea Party movement, then quickly earned the ire of the Republican establishment for his go-it-alone tactics to oppose former President Obama’s agenda. In 2013, Cruz led a failed attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act with a government shutdown, giving a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor during which he read excerpts from Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.

In 2016, Cruz was the first Republican candidate to announce his campaign for president, giving a speech at Liberty University where he emphasized his role as an outsider and a strict conservative. While Cruz initially rejected calls to criticize Trump, the race eventually descended into a political brawl in which Trump insulted Cruz’s wife and suggested his father had been involved in the Kennedy assassination. In response, Cruz labeled Trump “utterly amoral,” a “pathological liar,” and “a sniveling coward.”

After Trump’s election, Cruz transformed himself into an outspoken advocate of the former president, even going so far as to cast two votes against the certification of the electoral results in Arizona and Pennsylvania after the January 6 insurrection. But Cruz’s path to the Republican nomination likely hinges on the same core of voters who were swayed by Trump in 2016:  social conservatives and evangelical Christians.

Strengths: High name ID, has run a national campaign before and has kept most—if not all—of his senior people in place, recently launched the most popular podcast of any politician on either side of the aisle, has an uncanny memory that allows him to recall any line he’s ever delivered and tweak it as if he’s rearranging sticky notes on a posterboard.

Weaknesses: Never clear he learned how to navigate Trump, the first runner-ups sometimes win the nomination but rarely win the general (see, eg, McCain, Romney), that whole Cancun thing didn’t show a lot of crisis management acumen, he’ll also be running for reelection (although Texas’ resign-to-run law doesn’t apply to federal office holders).

2024 Tea Leaves: We don’t need any. Barring a pack of wolves mauling him to death in the mean streets of Des Moines, he’s running.

Tom Cotton: The Policy Wonk

44 years old, U.S. senator from Arkansas

Tom Cotton was elected to the Senate in 2014 as the Tea Party continued to rise in prominence. (Republicans picked up nine Senate seats that cycle, including Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Colorado’s since-defeated Cory Gardner.) Harvard undergrad and Harvard Law may make him sound too similar to Cruz and Hawley, but he’s forged his own path. In 2005, he joined the U.S. Army and was awarded the Bronze Star after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Army in 2009, he worked at McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm, and then ran successfully for congress in 2012. He’s married with two kids.

Cotton stands out most for his foreign policy chops—and his impressive ability to stake out popular ground before the rest of the party. He was one of the first to push for a travel ban from China in January 2020 and to raise the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan. Despite widespread criticism and mockery at the time, he was largely vindicated this year as newspapers and media critics came belatedly around to the plausibility of the theory. 

He also was out in front of the “law and order” message in response to protests over the summer. In June 2020, Cotton published an op-ed in the New York Times that argued for the deployment of federal troops as an “overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” Internally, the Times faced a revolt from staff for publishing the piece, which resulted in the resignation of the editorial page editor and a five-paragraph editor’s note appended on the online version.

But if Trump has any say, Cotton won’t be the pick. Trump attacked Cotton in January 2021 after Cotton told Trump to accept the results of the presidential election and "quit misleading the American people." 

Strengths: Consistent policy and political stands, deep understanding of issues, a favorite among some Trump-skeptical conservatives that may be a viable bridge between some of the current warring GOP factions, targeted by left-wing media (see, e.g., “ranger-gate,” which further endears him to the right.

Weaknesses: Relatively low name ID, no national campaign experience, no obvious fundraising base, lacking charisma/retail politicking skills.

2024 Tea Leaves: In June, Cotton visited Iowa and did 22 pushups on stage with Iowa Sen.Chuck Grassley while Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst counted them off to launch his Veterans to Victory midterm PAC, which will support Republican military veterans running for House and Senate seats in 2022. 

Tim Scott: The Guy Everyone Wants on the Debate Stage

55 years old, U.S. senator from South Carolina

Tim Scott was appointed to the post in 2013 by Gov. Nikki Haley after being elected to Congress, the South Carolina House, and the Charleston County Council. When he first ran in 1995, he became the first “African American Republican elected to any office in South Carolina since Reconstruction,” winning nearly 80 percent of the vote with an “overwhelming white vote.”

As the only black Republican senator, Scott quickly became the GOP’s leading voice on race issues. After five Dallas police officers were shot and killed in 2016, Tim Scott revealed he had been stopped seven times in one year after he was elected. “There is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul,” he said, “than when you know you're following the rules and being treated like you are not.”

Scott is currently trying to get support for a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that would limit police tactics like chokeholds and no-knock warrants and increase potential civil liability when officers violate a suspect’s civil rights. But while Republicans may want to find a way to support the bill, it is hardly the type of issue that will rally voters to a presidential candidate at a time when Republicans are more interested in talking about rising crime and critical race theory curriculum in schools.

Strengths: A credible GOP voice on race issues, well-liked by his colleagues.

Weaknesses: Low name ID, doesn’t have the “fighter” personality that GOP voters say they want, no serious political operation in place, everyone’s third choice.

2024 Tea Leaves: He gave the widely praised GOP response to Biden’s joint session speech in April and has been headlining 2022 Republican fundraisers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Operative View: Cruz Has Been Doing the Right Things

I reached out to Jeff Roe, who ran Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, to ask “If you were advising a 2024 GOP wannabe right now, what would you be telling them?”

In response, he offered what Cruz has already been doing. 

“He has launched the most successful and popular podcast of any politician on either side of the aisle. He has written a best-selling book on the Supreme Court. He has raised more money for House candidates than any other single person aside from McCarthy and Scalise and is top five for giving last cycle to Senate candidates. He will raise more money from more donors than anyone IN CYCLE in 2021. And will reinvest in his operations to create efficiencies and increase ROI. All while keeping his core team intact and adding smart comms people to his orbit in preparation for a run.”

Don’t be fooled by some of the jargon here: This is a seriously impressive list of things Cruz's team has been working on. For example, raising money for other candidates is a three-fer at least. First, you make new friends with the candidates you are supporting, which means endorsements and connections to their state-based teams if the need should arise. Second, you have an excuse to bulk up your list of online donors and build more substantive relationships with larger, regional donors across the country. Third, it allows you to keep your finance team on payroll and gives them time working together to see which messages are resonating. This is a team sport, and ensuring your team has time to gel matters. 

Stirewalt’s View: Biden, Not Trump, Is the One to Watch

It’s understandable why so much of the discussion around the Republicans’ 2024 primary field revolves around Donald Trump. Will he run? Who would he back if he doesn’t? Which of the Trump impersonators has the best chance to maintain the former president’s quasi-religious hold on his core supporters? Could conservative and moderate Republicans unite behind a candidate to head the nationalists off at the pass? And on and on and on.

But Trump is a 75-year-old with a weak work ethic and a deep aversion to risking his pride. Frederick Douglass said “the man who is right makes a majority.” Trump, despite his admiration for Douglass, is better understood by his own maxim: “We’ll see what happens.” Trump’s 2024 strategy will be more dependent on events than it is a driver of events. The results of the 2022 midterms, the value of the Trump brand, various criminal probes, etc. will be more determinative than Trump’s own intentions. All politicians are opportunists, but Trump is the marabou stork of the political world, the apex scavenger.

Far more important than Trump’s current attitude toward another run is the disposition of the current occupant of the Oval Office. President Biden’s condition will likely have more to do with the 2024 election, including the Republican primaries, than whatever Trump is up to. 

In 1992, Bill Clinton captured the Democratic nomination in part because other, better-positioned members of his party, most notably then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, determined that incumbent George H.W. Bush, champion of Desert Storm, would be too hard to beat in the general election. The Democratic nomination was perceived of as being of limited value against a strong incumbent, so Clinton got to face an, ahem, less impressive field. Clinton also benefited from Democratic voters’ beliefs that Bush would be tough to beat and was given more leeway to appeal to independents and other persuadable voters. Conversely, the perceived weakness of then-President Barack Obama ahead of the 2012 election produced a too-crowded Republican field and a Republican primary electorate that was too demanding of ideological purity.

We know that when there’s an incumbent in office, the election is invariably a referendum on the sitting president. But we must also remember that the perceptions of the incumbent’s chances have far-reaching effects on how the race shapes up.

If he seeks a second term, Biden will be two weeks shy of his 82nd birthday by Election Day 2024, and will already have lived longer than 37 of his 45 predecessors. Biden would be four years older than the oldest person to ever hold the office, Ronald Reagan. To say the least, it is an open question whether Biden will end up seeking a second term. And the answer won’t just depend on his advancing years. Despite his overall good job-approval ratings and improving public attitudes about the direction of the country, there’s also some evidence to suggest that Democrats are growing frustrated with their man.

If Biden is looking strong politically and seems hale and hearty, the Republican field will probably be puny and Trump, no spring stork himself, will probably stay put in Florida. If Biden looks vulnerable or isn’t seeking re-election by the end of 2022, the Republican field will be crowded and draw in lots of big names, maybe including Trump. There are some, like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who are so thirsty that electoral conditions may not matter to them. But you can easily see how a better-positioned candidate like former Vice President Mike Pence or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis might decide not to risk a brutal GOP primary just to play the foil for a likely Biden re-election bid.

Many Republicans would like you to believe that the moves they’re making now will be important for 2024, but the truth for them is that President Biden is driving this story. Like it or not, re-election bids are about incumbents. Now let’s see if we have one. 

The Sweep: Bipartisan Is Just Another Word for Nothing Left To Lose

2022 headwinds and the cold political math of infrastructure brinkmanship.

Get ready for a deep dive into the 2024 GOP primary next week—this will be your one stop shop for who the likely candidates are (for now), what they’re saying, and the best advice from operatives across the spectrum on what they should be doing this early if they want a chance to compete at “the show.”

But for now ...

Campaign Quick Hits

Good news for Democrats (kind of): As of now, only six House Democrats have announced their retirements. For a party that needs to hold onto nearly every seat they’ve got to maintain the majority, stemming the onslaught of redistricting retirements will be key. Why are incumbents so important to keeping the House this time around? There are all the usual reasons, plus we’re in a redistricting cycle—and a delayed one, at that—so the entire campaign cycle gets compressed until after the new district lines are announced. The result is that an incumbent’s advantages are multiplied: “they are armed with high name ID, fully funded coffers and ready-to-go campaign teams for a compressed election.”

Three of those members appear ready to hang up their political spurs in tight swing districts, but the other three are running for higher office instead. Tim Ryan is running for Senate in Ohio for the seat that Rob Portman is vacating, Charlie Crist for Governor in Florida against Ron DeSantis, and Val Demings for Senate in Florida against Marco Rubio. Conor Lamb is expected to announce soon for the Pennsylvania Senate seat that Pat Toomey is leaving behind, which would make Lamb the seventh House Democratic retirement overall. 

But plenty of others are running again in a midterm election in which Democrats face strong headwinds. As of now, per Politico, “some swing-seat members in Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida—many of whom were openly mulling futures outside the House—are now expected to stay put.” But the full brunt of redistricting is still unknown, so keep your eye on that number. It’s currently six—but it could grow. 

Good news for Republicans (kind of): Here’s some provocative long-term polling that Democrats are chewing on—especially after the New York City mayor’s race seems to have provided even more evidence that the Twitter version of the Democratic Party is way out of step with its median voter. In a great piece in the New York Times, reporter Lisa Lerer noted that “an analysis by Gallup found that the share of white Democrats who identify as liberal had risen by 20 percentage points since the early 2000s. Over the same period, the polling firm found a nine-point rise in liberal identification among Latino Democrats and an eight-point increase among Black Democrats.” 

The result is that white progressives are often out of step with voters of color on the very issues where they think they are speaking most directly for those voters: those concerning race. As Lerer put it, “as liberal activists orient their policies to combat white supremacy and call for racial justice, progressives are finding that many voters of color seem to think about the issues quite a bit differently.”

The most progressive candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—struggled to win over voters of color, while Joe Biden largely won the nomination with the help of black voters in places like South Carolina. And as the Democratic Party lurched left, at least some voters of color were willing to find a new home in the Republican Party, with the result that “Mr. Trump made larger gains among all Black and Latino voters than he did among white voters without a college degree.”

Smart Republicans will see this and know what to do with it. Crime and immigration are two of Biden’s weakest policy areas overall, in large part because he is being trapped by the left wing of his party. If Republicans can drop the culture warring, the Democrats have left the front door to their base wide open in 2022.

A great line to steal if you want to sound like a smart pundit: “You don’t vote to thank people.” A.B. Stoddard was on the Dispatch Podcast with me and Chris Stirewalt on Friday with that line (which I have stolen). Her point is that midterms aren’t about an administration’s positive accomplishments to date. It’s about what voters are unhappy about—and who they think can fix it. Take a listen and check out her columns

Conservative means whatever Donald Trump says it means: I’ve said repeatedly that I’m tired of the label conservative, because I don’t know what it means anymore. Last week, FiveThirtyEight found some data to back me up. Based on their research, “a politician’s support for Trump has come to define who party activists think of as conservative.” 

Looking at their voting records, Sens. Flake, Sasse, and Cruz were all about the same. “But activists thought Flake and Sasse were significantly more moderate ... meanwhile, pro-Trump senators like Jeff Sessions (the first senator to endorse Trump) and Cotton were perceived as far more conservative than their actual voting records indicate.”

I rest my case. The word conservative is now meaningless—or at least it is to me.

Vocabulary Lesson: From Politico, citing The Week’s Matthew Walther: “Barstool conservatives: [Those voters] primarily sharing a ‘disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the elevation of risk-aversion to the level of a first-order principle by our professional classes.’” 

(Overall this is an interesting take on the history and evolution of a certain branch of the GOP, including the Gen X South Park Republicans circa 2001.)

Chris is back with a great headline and even better insight into how Senate Republicans are thinking about the midterms when they talk about the infrastructure deal. 

McConnell’s Silver Linings Playbook

The bad news for Mitch McConnell is that he’s got a lot of vacancies on an already very challenging map. The good news is that means he doesn’t have as many incumbents to take care of.

This helps explain the Senate minority leader’s scorching statement Monday demanding that Democratic leaders de-couple the bipartisan infrastructure deal announced last week from another massive spending package Democrats will try to advance on their own.

“Republicans have been negotiating in bipartisan good faith to meet the real infrastructure needs of our nation,” McConnell said. “The president cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process.” McConnell’s threat here is that if Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold up the bipartisan bill to try to get wavering Democratic moderates on board for the porkier, more ideological bill, Republicans will walk away.

The math here is simple: 4>1. There are four Democratic incumbents in potentially competitive races who would benefit from being part of a bipartisan package that dumps half-a-trillion dollars in infrastructure spending on voters just as the 2022 cycle heats up. Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire would all no doubt like to prove that they can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a bipartisan way. On the Republican side, there’s pretty much just Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the gangsters who brokered the deal.

Now, it’s a little more complicated than that. First, Murkowski looks pretty solid, especially under the state’s new ranked-choice jungle primary system. Second, there are some other Republicans who might need some highway help depending on how things play out. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is just a mess but sounding more and more intent on seeking re-election. Who knows what the heck he thinks is conservative or liberal anymore, but if Johnson is seeking a third term, one supposes he’d be more disposed to voting for free money. And as we discussed last week, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley still hasn’t said what he’s going to do, but a big fat highway bill is usually good politics for incumbents. A third potential Republican beneficiary of a pork infusion could be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who could end up in a tough race.

With all those caveats in mind, it’s still clear that there are more Democratic incumbents in clear need of a bipartisan win than Republicans. This does not compensate for the fact that McConnell is facing nightmare primary scenarios in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and, maybe, Iowa. As the early going in Ohio shows, it’s getting ugly out there. But not having to defend incumbents and cater to their demands on votes and legislative priorities is a solid silver lining. Retiring Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania not only don’t need anything from McConnell but can be counted on to vote in the way that best serves Republican aims of recapturing the Senate next year.

Bear this in mind as you watch the negotiations around these two infrastructure proposals. Democrats would like to have everything, but they have more members who need to show that they can work with the other side on a popular issue.

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