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The Trailer: The one thing that matters in Republican primaries

In this edition: Why Republicans didn’t fret about a QAnon-curious candidate’s win in Colorado, how Trump-friendly media hunts for Biden gaffes, and what changed after Tuesday’s primaries.

I’m glad that, finally, those of us who live in cities will get to hear some fireworks this weekend, and this is The Trailer. We’ll be back next week after the holiday.

Rep. Scott R. Tipton had not made any of the mistakes that typically unseat a member of Congress. He spent 10 years in Congress without a hint of scandal. He helped bring the Bureau of Land Management to Colorado’s western slope, the sort of economic coup that usually secures reelection. And he got an endorsement from the president, branding him a “great supporter of the #MAGA Agenda!”

But Tipton’s congressional career is over, after his defeat Tuesday by gun rights activist and gun-themed restaurant owner Lauren Boebert. The first-time candidate, who spent less than $120,000 on her race, unseated Tipton on the premise that the co-chair of President Trump’s Colorado campaign was not sufficiently pro-Trump and not doing enough to win the cultural war against the president.

“If AOC can be one person and direct the narrative for an entire nation, then doggone, so can I,” she told the Denver Post last year, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “I am ready to stand up and change that narrative back to good.”

Boebert’s win was the latest proof, if more was needed, of just how strongly the president has redefined the Republican Party and its priorities. While distraught ex-Republicans run ads against him, and while rumors swirl about how endangered senators will separate their campaigns from his, loyalty to the president is, more than ever, the determinant of whether a Republican can win a primary. 

Boebert’s well-known flirtation with the QAnon conspiracy theory, in which Trump is secretly at war against a murderous “deep state,” did not hurt her campaign or even draw a rebuke from national Republicans. Even as the president’s poll numbers slip, there is no way for a Republican candidate to be too close to the president. Footage and quotes from Republicans who criticized Trump before his presidency, even when they criticized him from the right, is the most combustible material any campaign can use against them. And because so many Republicans criticized the future president at so many moments, there’s plenty of it to go around. 

Loyalty to Trump has shaped this primary season ― there are still three months to go — more than any other issue. According to data provided by Advertising Analytics, the president has been featured in 339 ads run by Republicans or affiliated PACs in this year’s primaries. Just five Republican ads have mentioned Democratic nominee Joe Biden, largely as an afterthought, or a stand-in for the left-wing forces that want to defeat the president. In this week’s Oklahoma primaries, for example, the Club for Growth’s PAC blistered state legislator Stephanie Bice because she had endorsed Carly Fiorina for president in 2016.

“The candidate Bice backed called for President Trump to be impeached,” the ad says. “And now the candidate Bice backed says she’s going to vote for Joe Biden, not Donald Trump.” Commercials like that helped to force an August runoff, with Bice, who outspent a field of less-experienced candidates, taking just 25 percent of Tuesday’s vote — even as her own ads accused the D.C.-based Club for Growth of attacking her “because Bice stands with President Trump.”

In an interview, Club for Growth President David McIntosh explained that no issue moved Republican votes like support for the president. The group’s polling, he said, found a 15- to 20-point bump for candidates who were endorsed by Trump and found that having opposed the president was “one of the top three negatives” in any race. (Three Republicans have lost renomination despite endorsements from Trump, though all lost to more conservative candidates.) The group’s endorsements were based on candidates’ records on taxes and spending, and the ads got into that. But the hook, frequently, was the president — an irony for an organization that had spent millions in 2016 to stop Trump in the primary.

“In my old district, there was a guy who led in the polls because he’d been elected countywide prosecutor, Carl Brizzi,” said McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman. “He was claiming to be pro-Trump, but there were these video documents of him on a radio show just trashing Trump. When we ran that ad, it completely flipped the numbers.” Brizzi wound up with less than 6 percent of the vote, as a pro-Trump state legislator triumphed.

Trump loyalty has been a defining Republican issue for most of this presidency. Before it was used against former attorney general Jeff Sessions in this year’s U.S. Senate primary in Alabama, it was deployed in the 2017 race for his open seat. Rep. Mo Brooks, who like Tipton came into office during the 2010 tea party wave, was pilloried for criticizing Trump during the 2016 primary. Like many of the Republicans subjected to this treatment, Brooks had opposed Trump from the right — he supported Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — only to see his skepticism that Trump was a reliable conservative turned into faithlessness toward a Republican president.

That pattern has continued into this year. In Alabama, where several House primaries will be decided by runoffs this month, Republican Jerry Carl has attacked rival Bill Hightower over a retweet of conservative columnist Quin Hillyer in which Hillyer said he was “disgusted” with both parties’ 2016 nominees. “Hightower is trying to disguise his disgust for President Trump,” one ad warns. In recent New Mexico and Kentucky primaries, candidates volleyed back and forth accusing each other of being critical of the president, splattering the screen with old Facebook posts or retweets.

Actual “Never Trump” Republicans are hard to find in this year’s primaries; most Trump-related ads focus on the candidate’s own unshakable support for the president. In Oklahoma, Rep. Markwayne Mullin fended off gadfly challengers by emphasizing how he fought “Pelosi’s impeachment sham.” In South Carolina, a PAC accused state Rep. Nancy Mace of “abandoning Trump before the showdown with Crooked Hillary,” a reference to criticism of Trump in 2016; Mace fought back with a Trump endorsement and multiple promises to “help President Trump take care of our veterans.” (She won her primary.) 

When viewed together, the pro-Trump ads and messaging have a theme bigger than support for the president. It’s that the president is under siege, that even some in his party do not defend him strongly enough, and that other Republicans do not understand why it’s so important to do so.

The sudden popularity of the QAnon theory is in sync with that messaging. As with many conspiracy theories, its adherents hold a range of opinions. Some “9/11 truthers” believed that the government was covering up something up about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack; some believed that no planes actually struck the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. Similarly, the supporters of whoever is posting on message boards as “Q,” claiming to be a government operative with details of how Trump will arrest his enemies, range from people who believe that bureaucrats are working to undermine the president to people who believe that coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions were biding time for government agents to free “mole children” from underground tunnels.

Ten Republican candidates have, so far, advanced to runoffs or won their nominations while expressing some support for QAnon theories. (None responded to interview requests this week.) They have generally, Boebert included, kept their endorsements of the theories as generic as possible. In a May interview with online host Ann Vandersteel, Boebert talked about QAnon only when prompted and dealt with none of the theory’s specifics.

“That’s more my mom’s thing; she’s a little fringe,” Boebert said. “Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real, because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values. And that’s what I am for.”

That was enough for Democrats to attack Boebert, the first nominee to speak positively about the conspiracy theory and win a nomination in a Republican-friendly district. Georgia’s Q-curious Marjorie Taylor Greene was denounced by the party, after a Politico investigation found her making a series of racist statements. She faces a runoff election Aug. 11. But Republicans stood by Boebert, accusing Democrats of peddling “their radical conspiracy theories and pushing their radical cancel culture,” without tackling the substance of the attack.

The mention of “cancel culture,” a pejorative term for demands that offensive or outdated thoughts be removed from public life, captured Boebert’s place in the movement and the reason for that QAnon interview. 

Boebert did not win because of one online interview. She became well known in the district for being on the conservatives’ side of culture wars. She opened a restaurant with gun-themed food where waiters and diners were encouraged to carry firearms. She confronted Beto O’Rourke, during the waning days of his presidential campaign, over his idea of mandatory gun buybacks. And she opened her restaurant during the state’s stay-at-home orders, putting the restaurant’s license at risk and making her one of the biggest news stories on the western slope.

“I don’t see anyone else taking these people on,” Boebert explained in that same interview with Vandersteel. “We want someone who is going to disrupt the narrative and bring attention to what matters to us.”

Anu Narayanswamy contributed reporting.

Reading list

“Trump supporters hope to use conservative anger at Chief Justice Roberts to energize troubled campaign,” by Robert Costa

How some losses in the courts are being spun for partisan consumption.

“A warning for Democrats: Handling the economy is Trump’s last remaining bright spot,” by Peter Hamby

What a super PAC’s focus group says about the race.

Trump set to headline high-dollar fundraising dinner at a private Florida home next week, by Josh Dawsey and Michelle Ye Hee Lee

The race for cash continues as the White House looks past the pandemic.

“Trolling Trump, the Lincoln Project also peddles militarism,” by Jeet Heer

A left-wing worry about Joe Biden’s new Republican support.

“In wake of Trump’s Tulsa rally, his campaign is still contending with the fallout,” by Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig

The aftermath of a less-than-expected comeback event.

“‘Burned to the ground’: Anti-Trump Republicans set new goal of defeating the GOP Senate,” by David Catanese and Alex Roarty

Why exiled party strategists want even Republicans such as Steve Daines and Cory Gardner to lose.

Warren discusses fight to end systemic racism as some discuss her as potential VP, by Erinn Haines

A talk with the white woman still most often mentioned for Biden’s ticket.

On the trail

Joe Biden’s Tuesday afternoon news conference focused largely on the coronavirus and the ongoing questions about bounties allegedly offered by Taliban-linked militants to Afghans who killed Americans. After nearly three months of goading by Republicans, who pointed out Biden’s avoidance of media questions, the Democratic candidate didn’t make anything easily construed as a gaffe.

But the reaction to Biden’s Wilmington, Del., event from the Trump campaign and Fox News provided a lesson in epistemic closure, and how in Trump-friendly media, Biden is constantly on the verge of collapse. In the 24 hours after the news conference, a voter who learned about it from the Trump campaign and Fox News might think Biden gave a dangerously incoherent performance and that the media covered it up — though the event was carried live on TV.

“It was pretty hard to watch, the digressions, the stammering, the confusion all on display,” Fox News’s Sean Hannity told viewers Tuesday night.

Fox’s prime time programming covered the Biden event as a debacle, focusing on moments when the Democratic nominee paused or restarted a sentence, which happened a few times over the course of an hour. As in most other media, the most talked-about question was the one asked by Fox News reporter Doug McKelway: “Have you been tested for some degree of cognitive decline?” On Fox, the question hardly needed an answer; conservative TV anchor Raymond Arroyo told Fox’s Laura Ingraham that people who watched this, and I spoke to Democrats and Republicans, they felt really bad watching Biden.

The Trump campaign got three short videos out of the news conference. One compiled moments when Biden paused, draining the color from the clips and labeling them part of a “silent movie.” Another played Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” over clips of reporters asking questions about the campaign or the president. And another focused on Biden’s remarks about the “list” of reporters there to insist that Biden’s “handlers are afraid of him going off script.”

That theme continued all day Wednesday. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is 18 months younger than Biden, told reporters at the White House that the media was covering up the decline in what he mistakenly called Biden’s “interview.”

“He took long pauses in answering questions, and he had a teleprompter,” Giuliani said. “He’s having trouble reading, not just thinking.”

The president’s middle son, Eric, had taken another direction, saying on Fox News that the shame of the news conference was that Biden did not get the same sort of questions that his opponent did.

“My father’s getting shouted at by crazy Jim Acosta every single day,” Trump said. “He’s literally getting lambasted by these people, and you see these little softballs, where Joe Biden’s going through this list.”

The president himself cohered both arguments into one tweet, falsely accusing Biden of colluding with reporters on the questions and answers. “He read the answers from a teleprompter,” Trump tweeted. But while Biden read from a short speech on the teleprompter, and while he had a list identifying which reporters were in the room, he had no heads up on the questions, and no script for the answers.

Portraying Biden as a “declining,” incoherent bumbler is central to the Trump reelection message. When Biden doesn’t stumble memorably, the president’s reelection machine is ready for that, too, making a supercut of moments when he searched for words. The looming question: whether this technique would work for an event, such as debates or a convention speech, likely to be viewed in real time by millions of people.

Ad watch

Joe Biden, “Cacerolazo.” A spot designed exclusively for the Miami media market, this drew outrage from some of the online left, with accusations that the Democrat was running against Black Lives Matter. But protesters appear in the ad in the context of being suppressed by police, on orders of the president. The thrust of the ad is that Trump is behaving like an authoritarian thug, with Spanish-speaking viewers in Miami prodded to compare him to Cuba’s Castros and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

Mitch McConnell, “Defeat the Mob.” One of two new McConnell spots that focus on the protests that unfolded across the country last month, this features the Senate majority leader speaking straight to the camera, unloading on how “the mobs have come for our founders and our heroes.” There’s a mention of Seattle’s anarchic free zone, which was shut down as the ad began running, and even a mention of the Lenin statue that stands in that city. “When the dust settles, it is never the mobs or the looters who we honor,” McConnell says.

CFG Action, “Game Time.” The Club for Growth is helping former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in his Senate primary runoff with former attorney general Jeff Sessions. Like much recent Club output, the focus is on Trump, and specifically on how Tuberville will be an ally of the president while Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe. “Alabama wants winners, not recusers,” says a narrator.

Doug Jones, “For Each Other.” The senator waiting for either Tuberville or Sessions at the end of their primary continues to run ads that offer no red meat whatsoever, portraying him as an ideology-free politician who is concerned about public safety during the pandemic. “In Alabama, we do this for each other,” Jones says, pulling on a mask after emphasizing that the end of the pandemic would allow businesses to reopen.

Poll watch

What’s the likelihood you might vote for this candidate? (Monmouth, 733 registered voters)

Donald Trump
Certain: 34%
Not at all: 50%

Joe Biden
Certain: 40%
Not at all: 39%

This monthly poll has found Biden with a lead all year, growing every month, though the 12-point lead this time isn’t very different from the previous, 11-point Biden lead. But Monmouth is finding an intensity gap that cuts against the main argument being made by Trump allies recently: that the president, unlike Biden, has an enthusiastic support base. While more support for Trump is positive (for him) and more support for Biden is negative (against Trump), far more voters are considering Biden, and slightly more Biden voters are firm in their support. When Monmouth gave voters a generic third-party option, Biden’s lead stayed at 12 points. When the Green and Libertarian nominees were added, by name, Biden’s lead stretched slightly to 13 points, and Trump’s support fell to 39 percent.

Money watch

For the second month running, Joe Biden and his coordinated campaign out-fundraised the president and the Republican National Committee. Biden and the DNC announced Wednesday that they’d raised $141 million in the month of June; Trumpworld had announced, a few hours earlier, a $131 million haul. On Twitter, a giddy Biden campaign spent the evening mocking Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who’d celebrated the smaller GOP number by tweeting that Americans were “voting with their wallets.”

Biden’s campaign did not reveal its cash on hand, which was almost certainly lower than the Trump campaign’s. Even after spending $100 million in June, an period that saw the president’s disappointing return to the campaign trail and a series of anti-Biden ad buys, the president’s reelection effort had $295 million left to spend. As of May 31, the last date we have information for, Biden had a bit more than $82 million in the bank.

Something we don’t yet know, and won’t until the FEC publishes full candidate filings, is whether Biden’s under-the-radar campaign is slowing down his burn rate. The president held two big in-person fundraisers last month, and the aforementioned Tulsa rally; Biden’s travel and rental expenses never got much bigger than a flight and a high school gym. While the Biden campaign made a $15 million ad buy in June, the Trump campaign spent a bit more. And the most vital aspect of the Trump campaign’s cash advantage has been its years-long volunteer training program, something Biden has no choice but to catch up to.

Still, Biden has quickly evolved from a laggard fundraiser with a high burn rate to a candidate who can break Democratic Party fundraising records. According to the campaign, 2.6 million of its June donors had not given before. Even without the use of Bernie Sanders’s donor list, the Democratic nominee is now outmatching Trump. That’s no guarantee of victory, and not long ago, Mitt Romney repeatedly outraised President Barack Obama on his way to losing the 2012 election. But if you were watching fundraising numbers before, and noticed that the combined totals for Democrats outpaced donations to Trump, you can see how Biden consolidated a free-spending donor base.

In the states

Tuesday’s elections produced a new Republican star in Colorado, but they also ended one of the Democrats’ most divisive primaries and expanded Medicaid in a deep red state that had resisted the policy for a decade.

In Colorado, former governor John Hickenlooper easily defeated former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff, after a stretch of bad news that raised questions about Hickenlooper’s electability. Ballots were sent to voters the very day that Hickenlooper blew off a state ethics commission meeting; ballots were being returned by the time Hickenlooper paid back $2,750 for travel gifts uncovered by a Republican group.

It was not enough to help Romanoff, who has now lost his third election in 10 years. Romanoff, who had moved to the left since his days as a legislator, defeated Hickenlooper at the party’s activist-heavy convention and argued that the ethics fine made him less electable against Sen. Cory Gardner. But at best, the scandal reduced Hickenlooper’s expected landslide to a slightly smaller landslide. By Thursday, after 96 percent of ballots had been counted, Hickenlooper led by 18 points and had carried all but one county — rural Saguache, where fewer than 2,000 votes were cast.

When the count is over, more than 1 million ballots are likely to have been cast in the primary. While only recently have independents been allowed to vote in Colorado’s Democratic contests, that’s going to set a record. In 2010, when only Democrats could vote in the primary, Romanoff lost a challenge to Sen. Michael F. Bennet in a race where just 338,186 votes were cast. This week, Romanoff got tens of thousands of more votes than that, only to lose so decisively that he endorsed Hickenlooper within an hour of polls closing.

Turnout was markedly higher for both parties across all races compared with 2018. More than 200,000 votes were cast in the Democratic and Republican primaries for the aforementioned 3rd District, with Republican turnout slightly edging out Democrats. (Republicans had no statewide race to turn out for.) Dianne Mitsch Bush, the former state legislator who lost the district’s 2018 race for Democrats, easily defeated a more moderate but less-known candidate.

In Oklahoma, pro-Medicaid-expansion campaigners overcame the challenges of a summer election, picked by state leaders because turnout would have been higher in November, and passed State Question 802 by just one point, a margin of fewer than 7,000 votes. By all evidence, the negative campaigning made a dent. Early votes broke by a 3-to-1 margin in favor of the measure, but Election Day and later absentee votes broke against it.

What moved numbers? The campaign by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which deluged the state with ads, labeled the measure a “takeover” that would empower left-wing Democrats to run Oklahomans’ health care. Its ads targeted four well-known Democratic Party figures: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Tellingly, the ads did not bother with Joe Biden.) That moved partisan Republican support, though not enough to sink the measure, in a state where the president won 65 percent of the vote.

Down the ballot, Republicans set up an August runoff between state Sen. Stephanie Bice and previously unsuccessful candidate Terry Neese. The winner will face Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn in one of several 2020 races where a seat once held by a male Republican will be held, no matter the result, by a woman. In a small irony, ads against Bice focused on her support for 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who has become a critic of the president. Neese served as Fiorina’s co-chair in Oklahoma.

In Utah, while the GOP gubernatorial primary was too close to call, former NFL player Burgess Owens fended off three rivals to win the nomination in 4th Congressional District. He’s the second black Republican to win the nomination in the seat, which was held for two terms by Mia Love. And he was helped by frequent appearances on Fox News, which gave him more earned media than state legislator Kim Coleman, who was backed by Sen. Mike Lee. Owens will face Rep. Ben McAdams, who narrowly beat Love in 2018, but he ended the primary with just over $110,000 cash on hand, to $2.2 million for McAdams.

Candidate tracker

The final campaign day before the holiday weekend was dominated by the June jobs numbers, which found 4.5 million people returning to the workforce despite a slowdown at the end of the month. While the raw unemployment number, 11.1 percent, remained high, President Trump quickly scheduled a news conference to celebrate

“Today’s announcement proves that our economy is roaring back,” Trump said, adding that better news might come right when it would matter most for him politically. “The good thing is the numbers will be coming out right before the election.

But previous jobs numbers haven’t done much to change the trajectory of the race. Last month, when the jobs report found 2.5 million people heading back to work, the president announced the start of the “great American comeback, and made it the focus of his campaign. In the time since, his support has dipped slightly in an average of polls.

Joe Biden responded later in the day, saying that the last weeks of June gave cause to worry about employment trends, as coronavirus infections rose and more businesses closed up.

“Quit hoping for the best, Mr. President,” Biden said. “Quit claiming victory with almost 15 million Americans still out of work because of this crisis. Quit ignoring the reality of this pandemic and the horrifying loss of American life.” 

Countdown

… five days until primaries in Delaware and New Jersey
… nine days until the Louisiana primary
… 12 days until runoffs in Alabama and Texas
… 46 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 54 days until the Republican National Convention
… 64 days until North Carolina begins sending out absentee ballots
… 124 days until the general election

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