Trump: The Democrats’ not-so-secret weapon

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky gestures with his right hand as he talks to reporters.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky talks to reporters about why Republicans failed to recapture control of the Senate during a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, the 30-second ad that Sen. Raphael Warnock began airing Thursday on Atlanta television contains an essay.

The spot — the kickoff of Warnock’s campaign in Georgia’s Dec. 6 Senate runoff election — consists of video showing one very recognizable man standing on a podium earlier in the week. Remarkably for a Warnock ad, the man is heartily endorsing Warnock’s opponent.

“We must all work very hard for a gentleman and a great person named Herschel Walker,” the familiar voice of the former president of the United States says. “Get out and vote for Herschel, and he deserves it.”

Then, as the image shifts to a photo of Walker shaking hands with his endorser, two lines appear on screen, distilling the message of Warnock’s campaign: “Stop Donald Trump. Stop Herschel Walker.”

VIDEO | 00:36
Raphael Warnock - ad campaign

Raphael Warnock campaign ad

A weird symbiosis

Trump craves center stage; Democrats eagerly want to keep him there.

That weirdly symbiotic relationship was key to this year’s midterm elections; it’s shaping the Georgia runoff, and it likely will continue to shape the presidential campaign that kicked off Tuesday with Trump’s announcement of his plans to run again.

In Georgia, nearly six in 10 voters in the midterm election said Trump factored into their decision about which candidate to support for the Senate, according to the VoteCast exit poll conducted for the Associated Press by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Warnock won those voters 57%-41%, the poll found. That’s a big reason why he beat Walker, albeit not by enough to avoid the runoff Georgia requires if no candidate gets over 50% of the vote.


Warnock and his strategists have placed a clear bet that keeping the focus on the former president offers their simplest path to victory.

If the last few weeks are any guide, their odds are good: Across the country, Trump’s embrace proved toxic to Republican candidates. He played a central role in Democrats’ ability to beat the historical odds, keep control of the Senate, flip several state legislative chambers, pick up additional governorships and limit their loss of seats in the House to a handful.

Here’s how Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky summed up his party’s problem:

“We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party and leadership roles is that they are involved in chaos, negativity, excessive attacks, and it frightened independent and moderate Republican voters,” he told reporters this week.

None of that means Democrats can count on smooth sailing ahead.

They did lose control of the House, after all, and in aggregate, when all votes are counted, Republican House candidates probably will end up winning the total vote nationwide by about three percentage points.

In at least some parts of the country, notably Florida, Republicans continued to make gains among Latino voters. Turnout lagged in several areas with large percentages of Black or Latino voters. Whether that’s a sign of continued erosion of Democratic support or just a result of a lot of noncompetitive races is hard to know, at least until states finish releasing data about who voted — a process that generally takes a few months.

Moreover, the abortion issue, which played a major role in boosting Democratic fortunes, clearly didn’t work everywhere or in all races. Republican governors who signed anti-abortion bills into law, including Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, easily won reelection.

Where the issue did prove effective, it fit into a larger effort to portray Republicans as out of the mainstream, Democratic strategists said.


Successful Democratic campaigns combined concern over abortion with other issues, including election denialism, the memories of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Trump’s personality.

“All of these things served to create a big contrast” with the opposition, said Democratic strategist Aileen Cardona-Arroyo, vice president at Hart Research, who worked for Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, among other candidates.

Trump “supported all these candidates who were extreme at many levels,” Cardona-Arroyo said. “It gave Democrats an opportunity to talk about how ‘I’m different from this crazy person,’” she said. It also provided them an opening to ask voters who were unhappy about the state of the country: “Is the Republican alternative the type of change you want?” she said.

For a lot of voters — especially younger voters and independents, two groups that overlap a lot — the answer was no.

In Nevada, voters younger than 30 made up a larger share of the electorate than they had in 2018, according to data compiled by Tom Bonier of the Democratic vote targeting firm TargetSmart. The AP VoteCast exit poll shows that Cortez Masto won almost six in 10 of those young voters.

Elsewhere in the country, turnout of young voters wasn’t as large. Overall, it appears to have been significantly lower than four years ago, when youth turnout broke records, but still big enough to boost Democrats to victory in close races.

Young women, in particular, were central to Democratic fortunes, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll, which correctly forecast Democratic victories in Senate races including Pennsylvania and Arizona. Young women backed Democrats by about 3-1, Miringoff said.


That’s just one of the pressing problems Republicans face.

Nationally, voters who identify as independent sided with Democrats — by two points in the AP VoteCast exit poll (49%-47%) or four points (42%-38%), according to the exit poll conducted for television networks by Edison Research.

Either number would be striking at a time when independents strongly disapprove of President Biden and hold pessimistic views of the nation’s direction.

The GOP losses among independents — and among political moderates — were worst in swing states. In several of those places, GOP candidates were “crushed by independent voters,” McConnell said, pointing specifically to Arizona and New Hampshire.

In the latter of those two states, the losing Republican Senate candidate, Don Bolduc, embraced Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and got just 43% of the independent vote, according to the network exit poll. By comparison, incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, a public critic of Trump, won 59% of the state’s independents.

Similar numbers punctuated the returns in states such as Pennsylvania, where Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor, won 71% of moderates, 64% of independents and 16% of Republicans en route to his victory, and Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won two-thirds of moderates.

That poses a big challenge for the new Republican majority in the House. Most House Republicans come from districts where Trump remains popular, and they appear determined to focus on the issues and causes Trump brought to the fore during his 2016 campaign and his four years in the White House — opposition to immigration, support for abortion bans, investigations into a host of alleged Democratic misdeeds, many of which have little traction among voters outside of the GOP media bubble, and fealty to the former president personally.

That path may please Republican partisans, but it shows little promise of improving the GOP’s image among key groups in the electorate, either next month in Georgia or nationwide in 2024.

Look for Trump to figure in a lot more ads in the next couple of years — mostly for Democrats.


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Los Angeles mayoral election

— It took a week for enough votes to be counted, but on Wednesday, the Associated Press called Los Angeles’ mayoral election for Rep. Karen Bass. A short time later, her opponent, Rick Caruso, conceded. As Julia Wick wrote, the 69-year-old congresswoman won despite Caruso spending more than $100 million of his own fortune on his mayoral bid, shattering local spending records and pumping previously unprecedented sums into field outreach and TV advertising. Bass will become the first woman and second Black person to serve as mayor in the city’s 241-year history. As of Thursday, with more votes still to count, Bass leads Caruso 53% to 47%.

How did Bass win? As Wick and Benjamin Oreskes reported, a key to her victory was the consolidation of support from major Democratic figures. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, those endorsements gave Bass an advantage that all of Caruso’s money couldn’t overcome. A crucial moment came in mid-October, as Bass’ own polls, as well as public surveys, showed a dramatically tightening race, prompting former President Obama to weigh in on Bass’ behalf.

— The reality of being the city’s next mayor is just starting to set in for Bass, Wick and Benjamin Oreskes wrote. “I’m really focused on getting things up and running, because I only have three weeks, and that’s a crazy amount of time to try to pull an administration together,” the mayor-elect said. She renewed her promise to declare a state of emergency related to large homeless encampments.

— George Skelton writes in his column that back when Bass was a legislative leader, one rare quality that impressed him about Bass was her candor in admitting ignorance about a complex subject. Bass is the type of leader who gets things done with a smile rather than a sneer or a threatening stare, he added. She’s never served in an executive position, but she’s also shined in every previous job she’s held.

— In her column, Erika Smith reflected on how much has changed in California over the past two years. At that point, Black women appeared to be on the verge of being shut out of political power in California, despite the central role they play in the Democratic coalition.

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The Divided States of America

— Florida is a “refuge of sanity” and a place where “woke goes to die,” Gov. DeSantis said after winning reelection last week. California is a “true freedom state” that rejects “demonization coming from the other side,” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom promised. The two governors’ declarations of independence are only the latest signs that the next two years’ fiercest political battles will be fought not in Washington, but between clashing states, Noah Bierman reported. Come January, more than 80% of Americans will live in states with governments entirely controlled by one of the two major parties. After new legislators and governors are sworn in, the governorship and both chambers of the legislature will be controlled by the same party in at least 39 states, a seven-decade high. The result means Americans will see even more differences in their schools, workplaces and doctors’ offices as they cross state lines.

The latest from the campaign trail

— Republican power brokers may be ready to break from Trump, but a significant slice of Republican voters? Not so much. As Melanie Mason reported, the fundamental question facing the Republican Party during this long run-up to the next election is who truly is in control: the elected officials and opinion leaders who have shaped their party’s agenda from the top, or the grassroots bloc of Trump faithful who have ruled from below. The latter may have shrunk in numbers since the former president left office, but they still command outsize influence in GOP primaries — and there may be just enough of them to propel Trump forward in a crowded field of competitors.

— Despite the win for Cortez Masto and several other Democratic candidates in Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead, both lost. As Freddy Brewster reported, in a year when Democrats outperformed expectations almost everywhere in the country, Sisolak was the only incumbent Democratic governor to lose his seat. Sisolak’s COVID-19 policies, which shut down casinos and led to high unemployment, were unpopular, and his opponent, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, is well known in the state. But some Nevada Democrats are saying party infighting is also to blame for Sisolak’s loss.

The latest from Washington

— After months of speculation about her future, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Thursday she will not seek to lead House Democrats for another term, but will remain in Congress. As Nolan McCaskill wrote, the decision — capping a 35-year career in which Pelosi became the most powerful female member of Congress in U.S. history — followed her party’s narrow loss of the chamber in last week’s midterm election.

— Pelosi’s not-farewell address captured the quintessence of her history-making career, Mark Barabak wrote in his column. Pelosi’s great strength has never been that of a public speaker. Rather, it is the skills she brought to the speakership: tremendous political savvy, a mastery of the legislative process, a lack of blind ideology and — not least — the ability to count votes, read a room and know when it was time to call the vote, and time to move on.

— The Senate advanced a bipartisan bill Wednesday to recognize same-sex marriage nationwide and codify some of the legal protections from the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling that made such unions a constitutional right. As Nolan McCaskill wrote, the vote, in which 12 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats, kicked off what is expected to be a scramble to advance Democratic priorities while the party still controls the legislative branch. Gay rights advocates have pushed for Congress to pass legislation that would protect marriage equality as a backstop against the possibility of the Supreme Court reversing its position, as it has on abortion rights.


The latest from California

— Last week, Newsom announced that he was rejecting the homelessness action plans of every local government and nonprofit that submitted them, demanding more ambition when it comes to moving people off streets and into homes. As Anita Chabria reports in her column, local elected leaders from across the state, many angry with Newsom’s unexpected and unilateral action, will meet with the man himself in Sacramento on Friday to hash out exactly what this means, and what it will take for them to receive the hundreds of millions in funding that Newsom is now holding up. That could be a turning point in the state’s debate over homelessness.

— Republican Rep. Mike Garcia on Wednesday became the 218th member of his party to win a congressional seat. As Mason reported, his reelection in the congressional district covering northern Los Angeles County pushed Republicans to the majority in the next Congress and dashed Democrats’ hopes of reclaiming a district where they had a sizable registration advantage. Garcia’s opponent, Democrat Christy Smith, has publicly criticized her party’s leaders for writing off her chances of beating Garcia, Mason and Seema Mehta wrote.

— Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, a rising star in the Democratic Party, fended off a challenge from Republican Scott Baugh, a former state lawmaker, to secure her third term in Congress. As Mason wrote, Porter’s race, in a district centered on Irvine, was one of the last to be called.

— Democratic Rep. Mike Levin won reelection in a coastal congressional district that straddles Orange and San Diego counties. As Mehta reported, Levin beat Brian Maryott, a Republican businessman and former San Juan Capistrano mayor, in a rematch of their 2020 contest. As of Thursday afternoon, Levin led Maryott 53% to 47%.

— Democratic Rep. Josh Harder won election Tuesday to a Stockton-centered congressional district, beating Republican Tom Patti, a San Joaquin County supervisor and businessman, Mehta wrote. Harder’s victory keeps one Central Valley district in Democratic hands. In another Central Valley district, centered on Bakersfield, Republican Rep. David Valadao is leading Democrat Rudy Salas 53% to 47%, with about two-thirds of the vote counted.

— West Hollywood City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath declared victory Thursday evening for the only vacant seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors after taking a nearly 20,000-vote lead over state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), who conceded. As Andrew Campa reported, Horvath, 40, will become the lone millennial and renter on the five-member board, which remains all female after her victory. The board is in charge of a budget of nearly $39 billion.

— Municipal law attorney Traci Park claimed victory Thursday in the bitterly contested election to represent parts of the Westside on the Los Angeles City Council. Her more liberal opponent, civil rights and criminal defense lawyer Erin Darling, conceded a few minutes later. As James Rainey reported, Park’s victory in Council District 11 departs from a string of victories in the fall election for progressive candidates in L.A.


— With mail-in voting an ever-larger part of the election process, some jurisdictions have gone to great lengths to ease the concerns of skeptical voters. Hannah Fry looked at the effort Orange County officials have made to answer questions and even give voters guided tours of their vote-count operation.

— The state’s Legislative Analyst is warning that California could face a $25-billion budget deficit next year. As Phil Willon and Mackenzie Mays reported, a deficit of that sort could at minimum curb some recent spending increases for safety-net programs that help Californians most in need. The projection is not a worst-case scenario: If a full-scale recession hits nationwide, as some economists predict, the deficit would be larger, the legislative analyst’s office said.

— As James Queally and Sarah Wire reported, a series of questionable actions by investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office caused Dist. Atty. George Gascón to bring charges against the chief executive of Konnech, a tiny software company based in Okemos, Mich., whose PollChief software is used by election officials in several major cities to register and schedule poll workers. Konnech has been the target of right-wing conspiracy theorists, who have tried to link the company to allegations of Chinese efforts to influence U.S. elections. The charges unexpectedly brought praise from Trump and his allies in recent weeks. Then, on Nov. 9, Gascón quietly dropped the case, saying his office needed more time to investigate.

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