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Amy for America! (But Maybe Not For Democrats)

The Saturday before last, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar took her presidential campaign to New Hampshire, and we were there.  Here’s our report.

A bit more than six months ago, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar stood in a snowstorm along the Mississippi River to formally announced she was seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

Klobuchar Announces Her Candidacy In A Snow Storm

At the time, I pegged her as my dark horse candidate to win the nomination.  While certainly not the favorite at the outset – Biden and Sanders occupied that position – I thought she was well positioned to pick up support if any of the top-tier candidates – particularly Biden – stumbled.  I based that assessment on a number of factors: her ideological position as a relative political centrist within the Democrat Party (she’s currently the 33rd most liberal Senator based on her voting record in the current Congress); her geographic basis of support as a Senator from the Midwest; her track record in winning elections; and her gender, which I thought might be an added attraction among Democrat voters.  

To date, however, she has struggled to gain traction in the polls, both nationally and in in key early states, including Iowa, which borders her home state, and where she hopes to gain momentum coming out of the gate next February.  Nationally, she’s polling at about 1.3% in the RCP aggregate polls (see below) and isn’t doing much better in either Iowa (4%), or New Hampshire (1.3%).

Klobuchar Languishing In National Polls

She came to Cornish, New Hampshire (the site of a Castro event the night before) on a very hot Saturday afternoon.  Due to the heat, the event had been moved into a shady area under overhanging trees, but it was still quite warm (so warm that at one point my phone died from heat stroke during my live tweeting of the event.) Fortunately, Klobuchar’s staff came prepared with plenty of water, and later popsicles too.

Taking Shade As We Wait For Klobuchar To Arrive

She arrived shortly after 2 p.m., worked the crowd and then stepped up on the house steps and, after some microphone issues, launched into her campaign spiel, starting with a humorous story about heat and standing in the sun during a visit to an Oklahoma military base.  (“They put the soldiers in the shade, and the politicians stood in the sun.”)

She Takes Center Steps!

As it turned out, she used humor in her talk quite effectively, and to a far greater degree than any other candidate we’ve seen so far.  (Klobuchar’s story regarding her hairdresser’s horror when Klobuchar gave her announcement speech in a snowstorm was worth the price of admission.)

After referencing the first Democrat debate, and how she was standing alongside five men over 6 ‘ 2 “ tall (and noting as an aside that unlike Tulsi Gabbard she didn’t use an elevated platform!) , she launched into her stump speech, which was a combination of biography, condemnation of Trump’s presidency, an overview of her policies, and an argument in favor of her electability.

One thing she did quite well – much more effectively than did Castro the night before – was to orient her campaign speech to her New Hampshire audience.   She mentioned how informed N.H. voters are, citing as an example the question she received from an 11-year old (Quinn from Peterborough!) at an earlier N.H. rally asking whether Mueller should testify before Congress, and if so in which chamber, and before which committee.  Later, she referenced N.H. senators Maggie Hassan and Jean Shaheen as evidence that New Hampshire voters prefer candidates who can work across the political aisle to get things done.   She would return to this theme of bipartisanship and legislative accomplishment later in the talk.

She blasted Trump’s recent statements on “sending them back home” and noted that the biggest Somali refugee population in the United States is in her home state. Later she returned to the issue, noting – to applause – that “Immigrants are not a threat to America. They are America.”  She described immigration as an “economic issue”, rather than a national security one, and she called for passage of legislation similar to the 2013 comprehensive immigration act that she supported, and which passed the Senate before dying in the House.

Regarding climate change, she promised if elected to rejoin the International Climate Change Agreement and restore the Obama-era Clean Power regulations. She argued that what was missing from the climate discussion were “voices from the heartland” who could testify regarding climate-change-related events such as tornadoes and wildfires.  She discussed visiting a woman living along the Mississippi river whose house was submerged in flooding, something the woman said she had never experienced before.  

She then transitioned to discuss the need for new infrastructure spending, noting that her announcement speech took place a mile from where a bridge collapsed, and citing Iceland’s progress in wiring the entire country for broadband; the need for workforce training (here she made a plea to hire more retired persons); and her support for election reform, including automatic registration for 18-year-olds and greater use of paper ballots.

Regarding health care, she touted bipartisan legislation she sponsored along with Shaheen designed to stabilize health insurance markets and lower premiums through easier eligibility for cost-sharing and greater use of reinsurance programs.  Like Biden, Hickenlooper, Klobuchar and O’Rourke, she cautioned against creating a Medicare-for-All program at the expense of private insurance, and instead supports the option to buy-in to expanded Medicare and Medicaid programs, while retaining private health insurance for now.  

Klobuchar finished by again emphasizing her electability, noting that she has won every race, every time, every place, that she has ever entered dating back to grade school, when her campaign slogan was “All The Way With Amy K!” (“I’ve since dropped that slogan”) and promised to govern with integrity.  

Klobuchar then opened it up for questions.  The first questioner asked her whether she had the “grit” to take on and defeat Trump. “That’s what this process is about,” she replied, citing her multiple appearances on Sunday talk shows, town halls and on the debate stage.  She noted that based on her unique donor contributions and polling that she will likely be one of the 10-12 candidates who survive the early winnowing to earn eligibility to the September debate platform.

A second question asked her policy on no first use of nuclear weapons and her views regarding the nation’s nuclear weapons force posture more generally.  She noted that she is still studying the issue but used the question to denounce the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, saying “the president calls himself a dealmaker, but we are less safe now.”

A third question solicited her views regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  She responded that she had met with Palestinian groups both during her trips to Israel and back in Minnesota, and that she backed a two-state solution.  However, she would not support legislation to cut off aid to Israel, and reminded the audience that Israel is a “beacon of democracy” in the region, and important to the U.S.  As president, she would work to jumpstart negotiations to a peaceful settlement, but she said it was important to emphasize “the good that Israel has done.”

She was then asked about the impact of the Republicans stacking the courts, and whether she would agree to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposal to expand the Supreme Court.  She acknowledged that she was open to the idea, although she noted it was unlikely to happen.  She said as president she would nominate judges who “follow the law” and here she referenced her highly-praised questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court nomination hearings.   She promised to place Roe v. Wade on a statutory basis, noting that 77% of American do not want to see the court ruling reversed.

A final question returned to the problem of defeating Trump, and it was here that I thought Klobuchar made perhaps her most insightful comments of the whole event.  “Trump is a bully – how will you combat him?” she was asked.  She began by noting that the person who has handled him most effectively so far is a woman – Nancy Pelosi.   She acknowledged that Hillary Clinton was an effective debater.  However, she said to defeat Trump you must emphasize what unites us, not what divides us.   She pointed out that Trump likes to use humor – “You just don’t think he’s funny!”  But humor, she said, can be a useful tool against him.   She recounted how Trump mocked her as “snow woman” in response to her giving her announcement speech that focused on combating “global warming” while standing in a snowstorm.  Rather than get defensive, she said she responded with her own humorous barb, tweeting him ask whether his hair would survive in such a storm.  (The actual tweet read:  “Science is on my side, @realDonaldTrump. Looking forward to debating you about climate change (and many other issues). And I wonder how your hair would fare in a blizzard?”  

She said poking fun at him is not meant to imply the stakes in this election aren’t serious.   “Take your work seriously, but not yourself,” she summarized.

Klobuchar ended the event by reiterating the need to mobilize, and how that would be the key to taking back the White House no matter who won the Democratic nomination.  She reminded listeners how the day after Trump’s election 6,000 women signed up to run for office.  She hailed the Parkland students for mobilizing on behalf of stronger gun control laws, and the people who marched on behalf of climate science.  She also reminded them that the Republican official in New Jersey who asked if Women’s March protesters will get home ‘in time for them to cook dinner’ was defeated by a female Democratic candidate who ran against him after seeing his statement.   All these are examples of the change that can occur if people mobilize.  With that, she exhorted, “Thank you, and let’s go win!”

After her remarks, and despite the oppressive heat, she stood in line to take selfies.  Here she is with a well-known local politician.

Klobuchar With Well-Known Vermont Politician

Klobuchar is an impressive candidate, very personable, well informed and, as noted above, not above poking fun at herself to make a broader point. She exhibited an easy rapport with her audience and there was no sign of the Klobuchar who has been criticized for allegedly harsh treatment of her staff.  (Full disclosure – in my brief conversation with her after the event she discussed majoring in political science at Yale and rattled off a who’s who of significant political science professors she had studied with, including Dahl, Rosenstone, and Lindblom.  So, I may be a bit biased!) Clearly, she is positioning herself as a midwestern pragmatist competing against a group of more liberal coastal candidates, and she is playing up her record of accomplishment (she has passed more bills than any of her Democrat rivals) compared to that of her more progressive rivals.  She also touts her electability, reminding voters that in 2018 she won 42 Minnesota counties that voted for Trump two years earlier.

While that profile may be appealing to voters in the general election, however, the unknown question is whether she will be viewed as too moderate in a Democrat Party that has shifted substantially left in recent years.  There is also some question regarding how well she will do among the approximately 25% of Democratic nomination voters who are African-American, as well as other racial minorities. Tomorrow’s debate may give Klobuchar her best opportunity to date to address those issues. Already, however, the media is describing the event as a showdown between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; Klobuchar is typically relegated to an afterthought in the media coverage, if that. Given the prevailing media narrative, and how speakering time was allotted in the first debate, she is going to need a big performance in order to change her coverage and break into the top tier of candidates. We’ll see if she can deliver.  Stay tuned.  

Me and Julián Down By The New Hampshire Backyard

Last Friday, our blogging team traveled to Cornish, NH – J.D. Salinger’s hometown – to attend a house party hosting Julián Castro, the former Mayor of San Antonio who later served from 2014-17 as Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and youngest member of his cabinet.  (Castro is fond of telling how he got Obama’s call to join his cabinet while he was eating at a Panda Express.  The caller I.D. said “private caller.”) Castro came to New Hampshire trying to generate some momentum coming off what was generally viewed as a strong first debate performance (something he alluded to several times during his talk).  The event was held at the home of former New Hampshire state senator Peter Burling, who regularly host Democratic candidates at this picturesque site.  (We would return the next day to the same location for an Amy Klobuchar event.)

Despite his strong debate performance, Castro is lagging in the polls – a situation he is trying to turn to an advantage by noting that, as he says in his campaign biography, citing his roots as the grandchild of a Mexican immigrant: “I’ve never been a frontrunner.”  Still, Castro’s drawing less than 1% nationally in the RCP aggregate polling.  He’s doing only slightly better in NH polling, clustered at 1.3% with Tulsi Gabbard, Klobuchar and Cory Booker.

The evening got off to a slow start, with Castro running 40 minutes late, and then getting introduced as “Julio” when he arrived. 

He Arrives…..Better Late Than Never!

Unfazed, he quickly introduced himself, emphasizing the “an” in Julian, and then presented a brief biographical overview, beginning with his immigrant roots (his grandmother emigrated from Mexico, and raised his mother as a single mom), his upbringing in west San Antonio (opposite the tourist section) raised by a single mother (his parents divorced when he was eight), including attending public schools, and the pride his grandmother felt when he (and his twin brother Joaquin who is currently serving in Congress) were accepted into Stanford. He then attended Harvard Law before returning to San Antonio where he jumped into local politics, initially serving on the city council.  Eventually, after losing in his first bid, he was elected mayor of San Antonio in 2009 before resigning to join Obama’s administration.

Castro drew in part on those experiences in laying out his presidential vision.   He began by emphasizing a theme of inclusivity – one nation, with one destiny – in which everyone counts, contrasting it with Trump’s “send them back” rhetoric.  He then launched into a dizzying array of policy proposals, delivered in a polished (and often humorous) manner.  Noting the lack of investment in people, he began by focusing on education: support for universal pre-K (noting his success on this issue in San Antonio), merit pay for teachers, tax incentives to get teachers to work in low-achieving schools, smaller class sizes, free or reduced prices for school meals for lower-income families and bringing vocational education back so students can learn trades.  He also supported tuition free schooling for those attending community colleges and state universities.

He then turned to health care, arguing for an expansion in Medicare for all who want it but not going as far as some of his more progressive rivals who seek to replace private health insurance.  Here he also made a point of mentioning the need for more mental health funding.   This was followed by a call to reform the justice system: investing in public defenders, pushing sentencing reform and a strong call to retrain local law enforcement by establishing national standards for the use of force.  Here he pointed out that he was the only candidate calling to “demilitarize” the police by restricting their access to military-grade weaponry.

This was a policy-heavy presentation, and I likely can’t do full justice to it in this post.  He supports passing the Equal Rights Amendment, proposes codifying Roe v. Wade in statute, passing an equality act protecting LGBTQ rights, increasing the minimum wage, protecting the right to unionize,  and reforming the tax code to reward workers as opposed to executives (here he cited Amazon’s pay for CEO’s.)  For the most part, he placed these issues in a national context, rather than focusing on New Hampshire voters.  However, he did mention a rental crisis in New Hampshire as a lead into his proposal for renter tax credits similar to the home mortgage deduction, part of an overall strategy designed to end homelessness nationwide by 2028. 

As with every Democrat candidate we’ve seen, he promised to rejoin the Paris climate accord, and to push the U.S. to become the world leader in “clean” jobs. 

Castro finished by returning to his biography, noting how he quit a law firm rather than represent a client proposing to build a golf course on an aquifer, even though the loss of the job made it difficult to pay off loans.  (Here he praised caller i.d. for allowing him to screen calls from debt collectors.)  He used this to illustrate that he would be “a partner in Washington” working for them and not special interests.   “My campaign is based on you,” he asserted, reminding listeners that he did not take PAC money. 

In an analogy to students at the start of a school semester, Castro acknowledged that New Hampshire voters were “still shopping for classes” but he asked for their support by February 10, the day of the New Hampshire primary.  He ended, to loud applause, by saying, “Let say adios to Donald Trump!”

He then opened it up to questions.  When asked when he decided to run for president, he said there was no single “epiphany.”  Instead, his decision has roots dating back to his experience as an undergraduate at Stanford.  Although it opened new opportunities, he lamented the lack of community in the San Francisco area, which he contrasted with his feelings of belonging back home. This sparked his desire to return to San Antonio, and to engage in politics to broaden opportunity, and to build on the American dream.  By 2016, he sensed that American was ready for a new generation of leadership and running for president seemed like the logical next step.

Asked how he would bring the U.S. back into the global community, Castro responded that it wasn’t through military engagements. Instead he would rebuild alliances, and here he focused specifically on Mexico and Canada, noting that they are the U.S.’s most important trading partners.  He also advocated for a “Marshall Plan” for Central America.  Castro emphasized rebuilding the State Department by investing in our diplomatic corps.  When asked if he would support restricting the area in which ICE could enforce border regulations, he said yes, he would restrict it to 25 miles from the border.  He used this to talk about the need for a comprehensive immigration policy, including a pathway to citizenship and ending the separation of families.  Immigration, he said is not a security issue – it’s an economic one.  Immigrants are vital for adding to the workforce as baby boomers are retiring, and paying into entitlement programs that are facing insolvency.

When asked, Castro said he doesn’t support former Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposal to expand the size of the Supreme Court, noting that Republicans would use it to stack the courts when they are in power.  Instead, he said he would back term limits for justices.    

Finally, he was asked how he would deal with “that bully” Donald Trump.  Here Castro returned to his debate performance as evidence that he can effectively stand his own and get his message out.  He reminded the audience that Trump “is not a goliath” – he lost the popular vote – and that the way to beat him was by “counter programming.”  (In the middle of this answer, a woman collapsed from heat exhaustion.  Castro rushed over, and when she appeared to recover a bit, he called for a round of applause, before returning to his answer.)  He stressed the need to unite into a broad coalition, to work together, rather than try to “out gun” Trump.  “That’s what I will do” as president, he concluded.

At this point Castro cut short the Q&A in order to go into the house for a live remote interview with Anderson Cooper, although he promised to return to take pictures.  Since it was already getting dark we decided to head back to God’s Green Mountains, but not before snapping our own picture of a local politician next to a Castro sign.

A Local Politician Attending Castro’s Rally

As we left we could see Castro amid the glow of the television lights emanating from a window as he conducted his interview.

Castro Heads To CNN….We Head Home

Castro clearly has strengths as a candidate – his background, coming from immigrant roots to attend Stanford and Harvard Law, get elected mayor of a major city, and earn appointment to Obama’s cabinet, epitomizes the American dream.  He is knowledgeable about a range of issues, and as a Texas politician carries particular credibility on immigration policy, which he sought to showcase in his exchange with Beto O’Rourke during the first debate.  And he was the first candidate to present a comprehensive immigration plan. One might argue that Castro, should he win the nomination, has a shot at unlocking Texas’ 38 Electoral College votes.  In fact, however, Castro lags far behind O’Rourke in Texas polling, which likely reflects O’Rourke’s better name recognition after running against Ted Cruz for the Senate seat.  He’s also lagging in the polls in Nevada, a state with a large Latino population, and which holds its caucus a week after New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. As yet, six candidates are polling ahead of him among this set of voters. However, it is early, and polls suggest a substantial number of Latinos remain undecided.  Moreover, caucuses can be difficult to poll accurately.  Interestingly, polls suggest that health care, and not immigration, is the top priority among Nevada Democrats.  

As with many Democrats lower in the polls, Castro’s problem is overcoming a lack of name recognition – a problem heightened by the media’s tendency to write off second-tier candidates.  At 44 years, he is also young, and it is not clear whether voters see him as ready for the highest office in the land.   Still there are signs that with another strong debate performance, there is room for growth in his support.  A Univision post-debate poll shows his support among Latinos growing to 28%, placing him second – up from third before the debate – 4% behind Kamal Harris, among Latino voters.  And he now leads in net favorability among Latinos. This suggests that another strong debate performance might push Castro closer to the top five candidates, particularly if one of them (Buttigieg? Sanders?) begins to see an erosion in support.  And if he puts together a strong ground game in Nevada, he may be one of the candidates left standing heading into Super Tuesday, which includes the Texas primary.   

Stay tuned.  Next stop: Amy Klobuchar’s New Hampshire house party.

Can Hick Throw The Race For A Loop(er)?

Last Wednesday, your intrepid blogger traveled to Hanover New Hampshire to hear John Hickenlooper, the former two-term Colorado governor, make his case to be the Democrat’s nominee for the presidency. Hickenlooper is staking his campaign on the belief that as someone with executive experience, he has a record of accomplishments that none of his Democratic rivals – most of whom are legislators – can match.  This was a theme he stressed at the first Democratic debate, and one that is a central theme in his snazzy “Standing Tall” campaign video. So far, however, he has struggled to break out of the second tier of candidates and has not even registered support in recent New Hampshire polls.  So, I was interested in how he would present himself to a New Hampshire audience, and how they would respond.   

His Chances Are Blurry!

I arrived at the Hanover Inn just as Hickenlooper was finishing his opening statement, in which he laid out the case for his candidacy.  This was a small event, with perhaps 35 people in the audience, most of them students.  The event was hosted by Dartmouth’s College Democrats and was also attended by a high school debate team, part of the Dartmouth Debate Institute. Given the small size of the event, there were a surprising number of media outlets covering it – I counted three or four reporters.

Because of my late arrival, I missed Hickenlooper taking the time to set up chairs at the start of his own campaign event.  (Kudos to NBC reporter Nate Reed for the video). It was either a testament to his ethos of public service, or a sign of low expectations for his campaign – or perhaps both that Hickenlooper stood in as part of his own advance team.  After his opening statement, he took about 40 minutes worth of questions, many from the debate team.  “I was surprised how good they were,” he later acknowledged when asked about the debate team questions.  The questions spanned a gamut of issues, from health care to trade to climate policy to gun control. Hickenlooper presented in an affable, low-key demeanor, and never seemed ruffled by any of the questions, even the ones that essentially asked why he was in the race for the presidency. One student asked him why he wasn’t running against Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who is in a tough reelection fight, given the need for Democrats to retake the Senate. Hickenlooper said there are several good Democrats in Colorado who “will beat Gardner like a drum”, and that they didn’t need him.  He acknowledged, however, that at “1% in the polls I can’t be too confident I’ll get the [Democratic] nomination.” 

Asked how he would reduce gun violence as president, particularly if Republicans held the Senate, he pointed to his role in getting legislation mandating background checks on private and online gun sales, and banning ammunition magazines holding more than 15 rounds, passed in Colorado. He noted that once in place the background checks blocked numerous individuals who otherwise would have been allowed to purchase guns from doing so.  Based on that experience, he argued, he learned the power of taking a fact-based argument to an audience, and he promised to go state-to-state showing the impact of background checks on reducing gun violence.  He also floated the idea of requiring a gun safety course as a prerequisite for owning a gun, comparing it to taking driver’s education and passing a test before getting a license to drive.  “I don’t think that will violate anyone’s second amendment rights,” he said.  Passing both pieces of legislation was no small feat in a western state whose residents cherish gun rights.   Later, when asked to point to an illustration of his leadership capacity, he returned to this example, noting that when he took office he went to the funerals of 34 individuals killed in gun violence, including 12 killed in the Aurora Theatre shooting. 

He also recounted how in 2013 he was faced with devastating floods that destroyed roads and other infrastructure.  His transportation officials said repairs would not be complete until after the winter.  Hickenlooper says he told them that was unacceptable, and he wanted to get the roads open by Thanksgiving.  They “compromised” he said, smiling, on December 1.  They reached that target because his transportation officials worked 80-90 hours a week.  That is an example of what people can accomplish when they are motivated by strong leadership.

Asked how he would reduce the education achievement gap between high and low-income families, he noted there were many causes, including the need for both parents in lower-income families to work, often multiple jobs. That takes away from their ability to focus on their kids’ education he said. He also emphasized the need to reward good teachers with higher salaries, while acknowledging the opposition of teacher’s unions to merit pay.  Hickenlooper also suggested longer school days and more days in session.  In summary, he said the key was to identify the “algorithm” that explained why certain schools produced high achieving students and work to replicate those conditions as broadly as possible.

On more than one occasion Hickenlooper touted his record of accomplishments in a “purple” state and argued that showed he could bring the nation together to address controversial issues.  An older woman pushed him on that point, asking, “Other than being white, what makes you think you can work across the aisle [with Republicans] more effectively than Obama?”  Hickenlooper responded, in his usual even-handed manner, “That’s a loaded question, and I reject the premise.”  He then returned to his theme regarding the importance of listening to others, citing his record of accomplishments as evidence that this approach can work.   

The final question asked him to talk more about his belief that health care “is a right, not a privilege.”   In Colorado, he noted, they achieved near universal health care coverage through the Colorado health care exchange, and they expanded Medicaid coverage.  However, “I don’t agree with Medicare for all…. the idea that we will transition to it in four years.”   He reminded his listeners that many people negotiated private health care coverage as part of their benefits package, and they shouldn’t be forced to give that up.  “My solution is for a public option,” he said.

At this point he took questions from local media.  They focused mostly on the horse-race aspect of his candidacy and what he must do to increase his support.  As I noted above, he did not register having any support in either of the two most recent New Hampshire polls, and nationally the RCP aggregate poll has him at .4%.  Asked by a reporter at the event whether he could dig himself out of such a hole, Hickenlooper responded, “Of course I can!” and proceeded to reiterate his record of accomplishments and note, accurately, that it is still very early in the race. 

Hickenlooper is an impressive candidate. Nonetheless, like many of the other second-tier candidates, it is hard to see how he is going to change a media narrative that seems already determined to write him off. The July 30 debate may be his best opportunity to do so. When asked by a journalist what he must do to capture attention in the next debate, Hickenlooper said he would focus on his record.  So far, that hasn’t seemed to be enough, particularly when he’s competing for airtime and media attention with 20 other candidates, all struggling to break into the top five.  

Part of his difficulty, I think, is he is running as a moderate in a party that has moved left, making it difficult for him to find a natural constituency among Democrats, particular when others, such as Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar, are struggling to reach the same voters.   Moreover, the more activist Democrats who endorse and give money are more likely to support candidates further left on the party’s ideological spectrum.   For all these reasons, he faces a steep uphill climb to gain traction.  

After meeting with the media, his staff made sure there were no more questions, and then realized it was raining outside. 

Where’s The Umbrella?

As they went in search of an umbrella, I watched the debate team being interviewed, and then headed out.  On the way, I signed the candidate’s register (fundraising emails inevitably to follow!), grabbed a sticker and brochure to add to my collection, and headed home.  Next candidate write up: Julian Castro. Keep those comments coming, and be sure to follow my live tweeting later today, beginning at 2 p.m., from the Klobuchar event.  

Beto, We Hardly Know Ye!

This is the second of a two-part post recounting my visit to a Beto O’Rourke house party in the New Hampshire lakes town of Meredith.  You can read the first post here. In this post I’ll describe what I saw and heard after Beto arrived.

Reminder:  Unless in quotation marks, I’m paraphrasing what I heard, based on notes taken at the time along with my live tweets.

Beto entered the living room as the staff-led chant of “B-E-T-O Let’s Go Beto!” reached a crescendo (which they had to hold for a bit longer than anticipated when he stopped just outside the door to greet a visitor).  In person Beto appears slightly taller than I expected based on media clips, and thinner as well.  Although this was his 4th campaign stop of the day, he showed no signs of fatigue; rather, he exuded an earnestness and energy that border on hyperactivity.   His staff positioned him in the center of the living room, where he could make eye contact with the circle of people around him and on the overhanging balcony.

Beto Surveys The Room

 After a few opening remarks commenting on the excessive size of New Hampshire mosquitoes, and the beauty of the surrounding landscape (“I certainly came at the right time of year!”), he launched into his campaign spiel, which was fascinating both for the breadth of topics he covered and the almost-stream-of-conscious manner in which he presented them.  He began by noting that he had attended a Lights for Liberty vigil the previous night, and it was a reminder of the danger our democracy is in when children who have committed no crime are incarcerated by the government.  From there he segued into a reminder of the Civil Rights Movement’s accomplishments a half century ago, and linked that to the need to expand access to health care while making it more affordable (here he related the story of Petra, a special needs child who would need a lifetime of health care which would be unaffordable without caps on lifetime healthcare spending), and to maintain access to abortion clinics and to clean drinking water before turning to education policy and student debt.   After listing these problems, he asked, rhetorically, how do we meet the challenges?  Here he touted his own candidacy, focusing on his race in Texas where he came within 2.5% of unseating Ted Cruz, and noted he did so by running a campaign in which he visited all the counties in Texas.  He emphasized his belief in hearing all voices, which was the centerpiece of his campaign, and he boasted that he had unlocked Texas’ 38 electoral votes.

Beto then opened the floor for questions.   Interestingly, while the questions weren’t confrontational, they did push Beto to clarify or defend his positions – these weren’t softball tosses.   The first question came from an individual who had benefited under the Affordable Care Act (he had treatment for a heart condition) and worried about losing his private health insurance.  This issue has become something of a fault line among Democrats, pitting the more “moderate” candidates like Biden versus the progressives led by Warren and Sanders.  (It is fascinating, however, when you consider that Biden’s “moderate” position includes moving toward a public option – an issue that was viewed as too radical to be part of Obamacare in 2009.)  O’Rourke said we need to move toward universal coverage, but maintaining choice as we do.  Health care, he said, should be high quality, guaranteed but also allow those who like their current doctors to keep them.  Low-income individual should have the right to enroll in an expanded Medicare program, while maintaining the current system of private care.

He was then asked what he would prioritize as president, and like Biden earlier in the day, O’Rourke highlighted climate change, which he described as an existential crisis.  Here he mentioned that this was an issue that was particularly pressing to the younger generation, and he cited his concerns for his own children, ages 12, 11 and eight. 

Would he ban LBGT “conversion therapy”?  Beto: “Yes” – and he used this topic to address the need to prosecute hate crimes.

How would he address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?  (The questioner prefaced this with a condemnation of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. A follow up question from another individual also touched on this topic.)  O’Rourke said he would pressure both parties to accept a two-state solution, which he argued is the only viable resolution, but said it was also important to understand that the U.S. could not “impose” a solution – it could only assist the two parties in achieving their own resolution.  He acknowledged that he did not support the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement. Here he noted the need to lead by example, and criticized the Trump Administration for providing aid in support of the Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war.

How would he tackle the pending insolvency in entitlements program without adding to the deficit?  O’Rourke would raise the caps on income tax for Social Security and would rescind the Trump tax cuts, and use the additional revenue to shore up entitlement programs.

On foreign policy, he criticized the Trump administration, noting that the Obama nuclear deal with Iran was about as good as we could get and that engaging in a trade war with China without allies is a bad idea. 

Did he support compulsory voting?  No.  Instead, he wants to make it as easy to vote as possible, through same-day registration, making Election Day a national holiday, strengthening the Voting Rights act, ending gerrymandering, and upgrading election security, including paper receipts for voting.

Finally, he was asked what kind of a leader he would be?  Here he emphasized the importance of setting the proper “tone” and he cited his interaction with voters in New Hampshire, and the need for accountability to the voters, as indications of how he would lead.  Democracy, accountability and service were his watchwords, and he promised to pursue the national interest, rather than catering to the polls.

When the Q&A ended, he went out on to the deck for the obligatory selfies.

Lining Up For the Obligatory Selfies! Don’t Worry – He Has Staff For That!

Here he is with another local politician of note.

She’s A Politician Of Note In Vermont

I came away impressed by Beto’s knowledge of policy and his rapport with voters. For someone who came on the national stage only recently, he is well-versed in national issues. More importantly, perhaps, he exudes an earnestness and likability that contrasts with the more polished – some might say cynical – veneer of established candidates like Biden. No wonder Beto’s very young staff clearly adores him. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a candidate who seems to embody the idea that politics is a force for good in a way that attracted younger voters.

And yet – he has not caught on. As we left, I was asked by a reporter whether I thought I was visiting a campaign that was in a downward spiral.  I replied that it was still early in the campaign, and that polls were not necessarily very predictive of outcomes at this stage. The reporter’s question is a reminder that if the press narrative deems O’Rourke candidacy no longer viable, it may very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Since my visit to his campaign, two more New Hampshire polls have come out.  The St. Anselm poll has Beto at zero support, and the CNN/UNH has him at 2%.  Clearly, he has an uphill road to climb if he is going to break into the top tier of candidates here.  This puts even more pressure on him to have a strong debate performance in two weeks.

As we left, I took one last picture, capturing Beto in his best JFK pose. I could not help but wonder if the sun was setting on his candidacy, or that this is the dawn of a new era in American politics. To be continued…. .

Is The Sun Setting On Beto’s Candidacy?

B-E-T-O! Let’s Go Beto!

Beto O’Rourke broke into the national consciousness when, as a sophomore member of Congress, he challenged Republican Senator Ted Cruz in the 2018 Texas Senate race.  Although initially given little chance of unseating Cruz, O’Rourke parlayed an unconventional  grass-roots campaign (he visited all 254 counties in Texas) and savvy social media presence, fueled by record-breaking donations in outside money from Democratic activists, to come within 2.7% percentage points (220,000 votes out of 8.3 million cast, or roughly 53% of voters) of beating the sitting Senator.  That was the best performance by a Democrat for statewide office in several decades, and the evidence suggests that O’Rourke’s campaign boosted Democrats down ballot, with the Party picking up two U.S. House seats, two state Senate seats and 12 seats in the state House. While analysts continue to debate how much of the outcome reflected displeasure with Cruz and the changing demographics of the state more generally, the race immediately vaulted O’Rourke into national prominence.  

Now O’Rourke is trying to catch lightning in a bottle again, this time while running for President.  To do so, he is emulating his Texas campaign, by again adopting a grass roots strategy centered on voter outreach and funded by small donor activists.  So far, however, despite an initial burst of enthusiasm, and a significant haul in campaign cash,  in response to his March 14 announcement (complete with talking hands) on social media that he was seeking the presidency, O’Rourke has struggled to recapture the magic of his Texas campaign.   His support in the RCP aggregate national polls peaked at just under 10% in the immediate aftermath of his announcement, but he has since dropped to 2.5%, which puts him below the top five candidates in the race, including South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose candidacy has stolen some of O’Rourke thunder, and funding, among small donors.

O’Rourke Is The Pink Trend Line

Nor was O’Rourke’s standing helped by his recent debate performance, where he found himself targeted by fellow Texan and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro for his views on immigration, specifically whether to repeal section 1325 of the federal immigration code that criminalizes illegal entry into the country.  Castro wants to make illegal entry a civil offense under most circumstances, rather than a criminal one, arguing that as currently written the law provides a justification for Trump’s policy of incarcerating parents who enter the country illegally and separating them from their children. O’Rourke is in favor of maintaining the code as it is to provide a legal means to prosecute those engaged in the drug trade and human smuggling. However, Castro claims individuals engaging in these actions can be prosecuted under different laws.  The exchange was prompted by moderator Jose Diaz-Balart’s asking, in Spanish, what O’Rourke would do on his first day as president. O’Rourke responded in Spanish by discussing his immigration policy, including his vow not to prosecute those seeking asylum in this country.  He had obviously prepped for this question, since he views immigration as one of the signature issues with which to different himself from Trump, and from fellow Democrats, particularly given his background in Texas. However, he seemed surprised by Castro’s attack regarding section 1325, and Castro’s charge that “If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section.”   

As I have discussed elsewhere, how the media interprets debates, particularly when rendering verdicts regarding who “won” and who “lost”, can independently influence how these events are perceived by the public. In the media’s search for signature moments, it is easy for them to exaggerate the impact of one exchange in a two-hour debate.  So I was curious to hear O’Rourke on the campaign trail, without the media filter.   Toward that end, we left the Biden rally last Saturday and headed north to New Hampshire’s lakes region, where O’Rourke was scheduled to host a “town hall” in Meredith, a picturesque town nestled on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. It turned out, however, to be more properly characterized as a house party – one of the signature events in New Hampshire in which a party activist hosts a candidate for the opportunity to interact in a more personal setting.  

After a long day on the road, and the heat of the Biden rally, we could not help but be impressed by the beautiful (and much cooler!) setting when we finally arrived.  

This Is How To Hold A Campaign Event!

This was the last event of the day for O’Rourke and we were curious regarding what kind of turnout he would get, particularly since we had been told that this was “Trump” territory (he won Meredith in 2016 over Clinton, 2160 to 1,709.)   When we arrived we were greeted by a young, enthusiastic but very professional staff, who signed us in, gave us a Beto sticker and then ushered us into the house to await Beto’s arrival.  There were about 20 people when we arrived, but the number soon swelled to close to 80 or more, and we were encouraged to move closer into the living room to allow space for late arrivals.  I took the opportunity to canvas my fellow guests.  Several were from out of state – two from California! – and they said they were there primarily to see what Beto was like, but were not necessarily supporting him.  In the center of the room, Beto’s staff had handed out Beto signs, including to one to this very young voter, which generated much cooing and smiles from all of us.

And then we were told Beto had arrived, and the staff led us in a chant of “B-E-T-O! Let’s go, Beto!” which rose to a crescendo as he entered the building.  In my next post I’ll describe his stump speech, and the audience reaction.