In this edition: The Democratic family feud in Texas, the long-awaited Social Security fight between Sanders and Biden, and the new, new, new debate rules.
Tune in tonight when the New York Times will reveal who shot Mr. Burns. This is The Trailer.
LAREDO, Tex. — If Rep. Henry Cuellar wins his primary next month, the eight-term Texas congressman wants his party’s left to pay attention. The “socialists,” as he calls them — as they often call themselves — would not own the Democratic Party. An anti-abortion Democrat who supports gun rights could keep running, and keep winning.
“They believe in circular firing squads, and I think that’s wrong,” Cuellar said in an interview, after shaking every voter’s hand in a restaurant near his campaign office. “If they have a problem with the Democratic Party, leave. Go start your own party. I believe in a big-tent party, and they say the tent is too big. Who are they to say that?”
Cuellar, 64, was targeted one full year ago by Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York with ambitions of replacing “corporate Democrats” everywhere. With Democrats focusing most of their attention on the presidential primary, the race for Cuellar’s 28th Congressional District has revealed the strength of the Justice Democrats’ model.
It also has shown why that Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 upset of a longtime incumbent is tough to repeat. Challenger Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year old immigration attorney, has raised more money than she did. But Cuellar has mobilized more endorsements and resources than other endangered incumbents, and taunted Cisneros over her résumé and ideology in a way that 2018’s incumbents never dared.
“Even after AOC won, people were like, this is a fluke and it can’t happen again,” said Waleed Shahid, the spokesman for Justice Democrats. “They doubted that other people could wage successful primary challenges. Jessica has exceeded all expectations. She’s got ads up on TV. AOC never even went on TV.”
Texas’s 28th District, which starts in Laredo and rolls up to the suburbs of San Antonio, intrigued left-wing organizers for several reasons. It looked safely Democratic, having rejected Donald Trump by a 20-point margin. Local Republicans struggled to recruit candidates even before the Trump presidency corroded their brand; the party’s 2020 nominee will be Sandra Whitten, a conservative activist who has raised just a few thousand dollars, and who protested comedian George Lopez last week because of a joke he’d told about Trump.
Then there was Cuellar himself, who was more conservative than nearly anyone the left had challenged recently, and who first won his seat with a primary challenge to a more liberal incumbent. Cuellar’s strategist Colin Strother still wears a hat with the number “58,” a reference to the congressman’s 2004 win margin after a recount, and a warning of what happens when someone challenges him.
Cisneros was just 11 years old when Cuellar first won, and just 20 when she interned in his office. No one wanted to miss getting credit for another AOC-style upset, so Cisneros has basked in national attention and won breakthrough endorsements. Emily’s List, which had sat out the 2018 race, endorsed Cisneros; local labor unions invited Cisneros to meet with them, with a branch of the Communication Workers of America endorsing her and attacking Cuellar for having “sided with Donald Trump 67 percent of the time.” For some voters, simply stating Cuellar’s voting record with the president can make Cisneros’s sale, with plenty of ammo — donations from Koch Industries’ PAC, anti-abortion votes, support from the NRA — ready to go.
“As soon as people hear that at the doors, they’re shocked,” Cisneros said in an interview between meet-and-greets last weekend. “We live in a district where Hillary Clinton won by almost 20 points in the last presidential election. When people learn that they have somebody that’s voting so much with the Trump administration, they feel betrayed. It’s visceral.”
Joe Crowley, the high-ranking Democrat who lost the 2018 race to Ocasio-Cortez, tried to hold on in their primary contest without alienating her supporters, and without attacking her personally. That’s not Cuellar’s style. He and Strother have portrayed Cisneros as a puppet of national left-wing donors, emphasizing that she was living in Brooklyn when supporters nominated her to run. To Justice Democrats, the strategy of advertising a “Cuellar fund” and putting out a call for Texas candidates was a success, and to the congressman it shows that elitists from the coasts struggled to find a candidate who’d face him.
“They ran ads because they couldn’t find anybody to run, and they got a candidate who had to move here after she got recruited,” Cuellar said. “I took the bar in Texas, which she hasn’t taken. She had to take it in New York. So, was her intention to live in New York? I have nothing against her, but the group that did this, I definitely have a problem with.”
Cisneros was raised in the district, but any candidate would look like an interloper next to Cuellar. At intersections around Laredo, three signs often nestle next to each other: Martin Cuellar for Sheriff, Rosie Cuellar for Webb County Tax Assessor-Collector, and Henry Cuellar for Congress.
Every year, more children are enrolled in Henry Cuellar Elementary School. Cuellar sits on the Appropriations Committee, a fact he emphasized last year by bringing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the district, where she denounced the president’s emergency border declaration. As in the 2018 New York primary, the challenger has to argue that it’s worth throwing that away.
“If Jessica wins, it definitely would bring more attention to everything that we have going on with immigration,” said Amber Avis, who leads the Young Democrats in Webb County and runs an Airbnb just blocks away from the border. “With her being a human rights attorney, and with Henry being one of the political figures that gets money from the private prisons, it’s a great contrast. If she wins, it flips the narrative about immigration. It gives a voice to the people that are locked up and the children in the cages.”
Cisneros is trying to do that on Super Tuesday, when even most left-wing activists’ eyes will be on the presidential race. Justice Democrats-backed challengers have won in both high-turnout situations, like the one that sent Rep. Ayanna Pressley to Congress from Massachusetts, and low-turnout primaries, like Ocasio-Cortez’s. Cuellar’s campaign is expecting turnout to surge thanks to the primary, and in a way that would complicate things for Cisneros. Four years ago, in a primary campaign when he had only a little time to devote to Texas, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) lost the district to Hillary Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin.
The challenger’s strategy takes that into account, and is organizing heavily in the part of the district that touches San Antonio, drawn in by Republicans who were packing Democrats into as few seats as possible. At least 46 percent of the vote is likely to come from Laredo’s Webb County, while a little more than a third might come from San Antonio’s Bexar County.
Cuellar, facing that map, has argued that constituents need a congressman who’s not too left-wing, and who doesn’t sweat litmus tests. Asked whether private prisons served a necessary function — the industry has donated to his campaigns — Cuellar quickly said that the critics of private prisons had created an issue rather than understanding crime on the border.
“I mean, what’s your address?” Cuellar asked rhetorically. “I’d be happy to send those people to your house.”
The congressman bristled when asked why he had not joined his two anti-abortion Democratic colleagues — one of them, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, also faces a primary challenge — and co-sponsored an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade when a relevant case comes before it this year.
“What for?” Cuellar asked. “I’m pro-life and I support funding for Planned Parenthood, even though they said the opposite about me.”
Cisneros’s strategy was to spread the word of Cuellar’s old votes as widely as possible, especially in Bexar County, and was encouraged when he didn’t sign the amicus brief. As happy as he was when punching “socialists,” he had adapted to the challenge.
“That in itself is a victory,” Cisneros said. “We’ve been pushing him to the left on these issues. Look at how he voted to increase the minimum wage, that was not something he was doing before.”
But few incumbents lose, and while Cisneros has plenty of money, the race with Cuellar has been a back-burner priority for activists outside Texas. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which was nudged into canceling a fundraiser for Lipinski, has not cut off Cuellar or ruled out supporting him with party resources. Cuellar sees the race as a chance to expose and humble the party’s left wing, and while some in that faction of the party remain tied up with a race for president. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) has endorsed Cisneros, for example, while Sanders has not, though he has not ruled it out.
“Progressives need to dedicate time, money and energy to getting Cisneros across the finish line, not narrowly focusing on the presidency,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, who had been urging the left to challenge Cuellar since 2018. “For years, leftists complained about Obama not investing enough down ballot, and now they’re doing the same thing.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
“Sanders-Warren rift highlights liberal divide: Purity vs. pragmatism,” by Annie Linskey and Sean Sullivan
The substance underneath a feud.
“Pete Buttigieg’s white supporters are baffled by his lack of black support,” by Molly Hensley-Clancy and Henry J. Gomez
When “All Lives Matter” goes wrong.
Counter-programming the caucuses.
What else we’ve learned since a secret 2018 meeting.
“Biden, Buttigieg seek edge amid Warren-Sanders fight and impeachment complications,” by Matt Viser and Chelsea Janes
What the campaign looks like for candidates not stuck in Washington.
How to incorporate a racially divided city into a week-long party (or brawl).
DEMS IN DISARRAY
DES MOINES — The Bernie Sanders campaign is getting the fight it has wanted with Joe Biden, one that it hoped to have at last week’s debate. And it started with a fight about video clips.
On Saturday, when a voter in Indianola, Iowa, told Biden that she had heard unsettling things about his commitment to Social Security, Biden reassured her by saying that a video she might have seen about his stance had been altered.
“It’s a flat lie,” Biden said. “They’ve acknowledged that this is a doctored tape. And I think it’s beneath [him] and I’m looking for his campaign to come forward and disown it, but they haven’t done it yet.”
But the Sanders campaign pushed back, with campaign manager Faiz Shakir saying that “Biden not only pushed to cut Social Security” but was “on tape proudly bragging about it on multiple occasions.” The next day, in New Hampshire, Sanders himself defended the criticism.
“I think anyone who looks at the vice president’s record understands that time after time after time, Joe has talked about the need to cut Social Security,” Sanders told The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan on Sunday.
Who’s right? Not Biden, because the video was not “doctored.” Instead, the clip, created independently from any campaign, plays on the viewer’s unfamiliarity with a Biden tic. In the video, he whispers into a microphone as if sharing a secret with his audience.
In 2018, at the Brookings Institution, Biden said that then-House Speaker Paul Ryan was “correct when he did the tax code,” meaning that it was an obvious target for reform, before saying that “the first thing he decided we had to go after” was “Social Security and Medicare.” Then the whisper: “That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it.”
Fact-checkers have judged this as an unfair hit on Biden, as he was being sarcastic and, in a part of the video not included, spoke of protecting Social Security. But later in the speech, Biden said that it was important to find “enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay,” and that the entitlement system “still needs adjustments.” That’s a big, red, blaring alarm for opponents of entitlement reform; even the word “reform,” to them, is read as a warning that a candidate believes that the programs people depend on should be cut to shore up the federal budget.
Biden does not enter this discussion with much left-wing goodwill to lose. He joined the Senate in 1973, and was there for every fight over entitlement spending and the national debt. As Ryan Grim reported in the Intercept last week, Biden, like many moderate Democrats of his generation, viewed entitlement reform as exactly the sort of thing the parties could do together; if both of them were willing to slay some sacred cows, the country’s fiscal health would benefit.
“I have introduced on four occasions — four occasions — entire plans to balance a budget,” Biden said in a 1995 floor speech in the Senate, after Republicans took over Congress and came close to passing a balanced-budget amendment. “I tried with Senator [Charles] Grassley back in the 1980s to freeze all government spending, including Social Security, including everything.”
The Sanders campaign and its grass-roots supporters have been waiting, and waiting, for a chance to argue about this. It wasn’t just about clips from Biden’s Senate years, but about the deals he seemed willing to cut with Republicans as vice president in 2011, when only the recalcitrance of tea-party freshmen prevented a “grand bargain” that would have adjusted (read: cut) entitlement spending while slightly raising taxes. (It was the tax part that Republicans could not stomach.)
As a candidate for president, Biden has abandoned any hint of a fiscal bargain that would reduce Social Security spending. At a summer series of forums in Iowa, organized by AARP, Biden allied himself with liberals like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who wanted to expand the program’s benefits by raising the cap on FICA taxes.
“We should be increasing, not decreasing, Social Security,” Biden said. “It’s within our capacity to do so.”
Sanders wants this fight because he has been consistent, while Biden, after years of talking up a bargain to cut entitlement spending, has shifted very recently to the left. He is not getting much air cover from other candidates. Asked about the dispute here, on Sunday, Warren pivoted to talk about her Social Security expansion plan, currently being sold to voters in TV ads. Not long after, Biden’s campaign emailed donors, insisting that “as Democrats, I thought we all knew this election was too important to attack other Democrats,” and summarizing Sanders’s criticism as based on a “deceptively edited” video.
But Sanders is unlikely to let this go. Biden’s dealmaking history and friendships with Republicans are some central premises of his candidacy. It’s not just that the left wants to beat Biden. It also worries about a future where a President Biden is brought to the table for another grand bargain, and makes a deal that Sanders, or Warren, never would.
Andrew Yang, “Freedom Dividend.” The first-time candidate started this race with one big idea — a universal basic income — before broadening his agenda and introducing himself with ads on health care. But in the meantime, Yang began giving $1,000 checks to 10 Iowans, to show in real time the benefits of a UBI. One of them, an Iowa Falls supporter named Kyle, stars in this spot and thanks Yang for making it possible to work as a family caregiver.
Joe Biden, “Who He Is.” There are now 30-second and 60-second spots that emphasize the tribute President Barack Obama gave Biden when he awarded him the Medal of Freedom. It sounds remarkably like an endorsement speech, though it isn’t; Obama could have denied the campaign his blessing, but he didn’t.
American Action Network, “Focus.” The latest spots from this pro-Republican 501(c)4 target swing-seat Democrats with the same message, delivered by “Stacy,” who appears to a disappointed constituent of them all. Instead of focusing on real issues, she worries that Rep. Max Rose of New York, and Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, and so on, won’t let “voters decide elections” and would prefer to impeach the president.
IN THE STATES
For the past few years, courts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina have thrown stumbling blocks in front of Republican legislators who’ve been drawing and defending friendly gerrymanders. Republicans still control the legislature, but not the governor’s mansion, in both states — and that could have consequences in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s Republicans may act first. They have passed legislation that would put a constitutional amendment on the 2021 ballot, and would replace the commonwealth’s current system of electing judges statewide with a set of judicial districts based on geographic lines. Right now, Democrats hold a majority of elected judges, which helped liberals win a 2018 lawsuit that overturned the last, Republican-friendly map. If Republicans hold the legislature after 2020, voters would decide whether to split the court during a usually sleepy off-year primary election.
If this doesn’t succeed, there’s no easy way for Republicans to draw another map to their liking. The party controlled every branch of government in 2011, during the last redistricting, but the next map will need the sign-off of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.
The next Democratic debate will take place Feb. 7, impeachment permitting, and will invite candidates to participate based on an updated set of rules, with two ways to qualify.
To cross the “delegate threshold” into the debates, a candidate must get at least one of Iowa’s 41 pledged delegates when the state holds its caucuses next month. This is the first year in which Iowa Democrats will make these calculations based on the caucus night totals; previously, national convention delegates were selected in the summer.
To cross the “alternate threshold,” the candidates need to do what they did for the past few debates: attract 225,000 unique donations, and either hit 5 percent in any four polls, or hit 7 percent in two polls of the early-voting states.
The new rules effectively keep former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg off the stage, as he’s not competing in Iowa and refuses, as he always has, to ask for donations. (The Bloomberg campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) Just six candidates have crossed the “alternate” threshold, the same ones that crossed it last week: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer.
One candidate, Andrew Yang, has easily crossed the donation line, and needs one more qualifying poll to return to prime time. None of the remaining Democrats have polled high enough to start climbing toward the “alternate” threshold, though Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has likely gotten enough donations.
“The rules have pushed talented leaders like Cory Booker out of the race, which is bad for our party and bad for our country,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, who will continue to be kept from the debates. “Michael will keep making his case that to beat Donald Trump we need the opposite of Trump.”
Most of the Democrats running for president will spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day focused on racial justice, some of them attending events in two early-voting states.
Six of them will participate in King Day at the Dome, the annual ceremony outside the state Capitol in Columbia, S.C. — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer and Deval Patrick. Five of those candidates (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Patrick) will then head to Des Moines for the quadrennial Brown & Black Forum, where they’ll be joined by Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang.
Joe Biden. He won the official support of Rep. Terri Sewell, the sole Democrat in Alabama’s House delegation, and will return to Iowa after King Day in South Carolina.
Bernie Sanders. He was endorsed by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who he had supported in her tight 2016 race for a safe seat from Washington. Jayapal, who co-sponsors the House Medicare-for-all legislation that had previously been carried by Michigan’s John Conyers, had coordinated with Elizabeth Warren when the senator from Massachusetts was formulating her Medicare-for-all transition and costs.
Elizabeth Warren. She’s spending the entire weekend in Iowa, apart from a quick trip to South Carolina and back, and she was endorsed by Janet Petersen, the Democratic leader in Iowa’s state Senate.
Pete Buttigieg. He is maintaining the busiest public schedule of any candidate, scheduling a last-minute trip to King Day and flying immediately back to Iowa for the forum, and for multiple daily town halls with Rep. Dave Loebsack, a new endorser.
Amy Klobuchar. She was endorsed by the Quad-City Times, the largest Iowa newspaper to weigh in on the race so far. (Warren previously picked up the Storm Lake Times.) “Amy Klobuchar is somebody who offers the most hope among the Democratic candidates that progress isn’t just a campaign slogan destined to die in the harsh reality of Washington politics,” the editors wrote.
Mike Bloomberg. He traveled to Tulsa on Sunday to unveil his “economic justice” agenda for black Americans in a city that saw one of the worst anti-black riots in American history 99 years ago. In a Bloomberg administration, a new “Neighborhood Equity and Opportunity Office” would dispense billions of dollars to stoke development in poor cities.
Andrew Yang. He’s still traveling through Iowa every day until the caucuses.
Tom Steyer. He’s staying in Iowa on Tuesday for a pair of “climate conversations” in Council Bluffs and Atlantic.
Tulsi Gabbard. While campaigning in New Hampshire, she called for the legalization and regulation of all drugs.
… one day until the Iowa Brown & Black Forum
… nine days until the special legislative election in Texas
… 15 days until the Iowa caucuses
… 23 days until the New Hampshire primary
… 34 days until the Nevada caucuses
… 44 days until the South Carolina primary
… 45 days until Super Tuesday