By David Weigel
SAN JUAN, P.R. — The first trip by any presidential candidate, before the campaign trail blurs into a haze of Pizza Ranches and VFW halls, is supposed to send a message. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s first trip to Iowa began in the state’s deep red western counties, where Democrats never expect to win. Donald Trump’s first campaign rally took place in Phoenix, where he could emphasize his hard line on immigration.
On Sunday, former HUD secretary and San Antonio mayor Julián Castro made Puerto Rico, an island with 3.1 million American citizens and no electoral votes, his first campaign stop outside Texas. He started with a speech to Latino activists and hit the road to visit neighborhoods badly damaged, and in some cases abandoned, after the 2017 devastation of Hurricane Maria.
“We need to make sure not only that you recover, but that you thrive,” Castro told a Sunday morning gathering of the Latino Victory Fund, a political organization founded in 2014 to make around-the-year contacts to Latino voters. “To make sure that you are respected. To make sure that you count.”
Castro is not the first Latino candidate for president. But he’s approaching his campaign differently from his party’s most recent nominees, who vied to be the first black president and the first female president but bristled — at least at first — at coverage that focused on their identities. Castro, 44, has positioned himself as the antithesis of the president — a descendant of Mexican immigrants with zero nostalgia for how things used to be.
“What Julián represents is a forward-looking young talent who’s governed a city that looks like the United States in the 21st century,” said Henry Muñoz, the finance chairman of the DNC, who is officially neutral on the race. “What’s interesting to me is seeing how many people of color will be in this race. They have outstanding records and they speak to people, either because of age or cultural identity, who look like them.”
For many Democrats, that’s a new argument. In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Barack Obama was premised on something that was easier to say in private than public: that the younger, nonwhite son of an immigrant would lose white working-class voters. In interviews about a potential Joe Biden candidacy, some of the former vice president’s colleagues have pitched him as the kind of guy who could win those voters back. Former senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who’s 76, told the New York Times that Biden was “moderate enough” to win his state; Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who’s 85, told CNN that Biden would bring the “secret ingredient” of “credibility” into a presidential run.
Castro, who is likely to be joined soon by a cluster of Democrats running with an eye on identity, does not look back. The president says that he represents “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” and considers pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord to be the sort of policy that flips “Rust Belt voters.” Castro, in his announcement speech and in Puerto Rico, said he would reenter the accord on his first day in office; he also endorsed a “Green New Deal.” He doesn’t dismiss the idea of winning back Obama-Trump voters, but he talks about what Democrats could offer a bigger, younger coming electorate; the implication is hard to miss.
When the past appears in Castro’s remarks, it’s not to demonstrate a time when America offered a better deal to average citizens; it’s to describe how protests improved the country. A story about his mother’s health care (“thank God for Medicare”) becomes a pitch for “Medicare-for-all.”
Castro’s campaign is also designed to maximize the Latino vote itself — more powerful than ever in the early Democratic primary calendar but rarely mobilized. As reported by this newsletter Sunday, the LVF is working to double Latino turnout in the first three primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It is already a major factor in Nevada (the fourth “early” state), and it is ripe for mobilization in California and Texas. Early voting will be taking place in those states while the first four are voting; there are, for the first time, millions of potential Latino votes in play before the first month of the primaries is over.
Annette Taddeo, a new state senator from Florida, said Castro had a long head start on making that happen. As mayor of San Antonio, he’d been one of the best-traveled Latino surrogates in his party. (He is not rolling out endorsements yet, but Democrats know who he has already built contact with.) That was remembered by Florida Democrats, who lost razor-thin races for governor and Senate last year in large part because Republicans communicated early with Latino voters and Democrats didn’t.
“Rick Scott was everywhere,” said Taddeo, referring to the two-term governor who defeated Nelson in the Senate race. “If you were arriving to Florida from Puerto Rico, you saw his ads welcoming you to the state. I looked at the inauguration for the new president of Colombia, and there was Rick Scott! Republicans send their best surrogates to Florida, and Democrats just don’t.”
Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico who in 2008 tried to become the nation’s first Hispanic president, said in an interview that he was disappointed when Castro was not picked as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate — the umpteenth case he saw of his party taking Latinos for granted.
“Latinos are always taken to the altar, and then at the end we’re given a nice divorce,” Richardson said in an interview. “My advice for Julián is this: Don’t run just as a Hispanic candidate with Hispanic issues. Run as a Democratic candidate, talk about immigration and education, and concentrate on Hispanic states, which have a larger role than ever in the primary.”
And in Puerto Rico, which has more delegates than Iowa but rarely becomes competitive in the primary, Castro was the first 2020 candidate to see hurricane damage up close. He joined San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for a walk around a damaged neighborhood and a recovery center; over horchata, he and a small group of community activists talked over how the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he ran under Obama, could develop the island “the right way.”
The Republican National Committee, which is working to brand Castro as an opportunist, accused him of “trying to further his own political aspirations off of a natural disaster.” But locals had little good to say about the Trump administration and plenty of praise for how a presidential candidate had bothered to fly down and meet them.
“You’re so young and handsome!” said Omara Rios, a 49-year-old community activist, before sitting down with Castro to discuss what San Juan needed from the rest of the country.
Amy Klobuchar. “I have made very clear that I’m looking at this. … I also had said I wanted to talk to my family. So big news today — my family is on board, including my in-laws, showing some momentum.”
Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s expected to announce her candidacy for president tonight on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Eric Swalwell. He used some of his floor time in the debate over censuring Steve King to mention that he’s got deep roots in western Iowa.
John Delaney. He became the first 2020 candidate to weigh in on Brexit, which, if you recall, Barack Obama also opposed. (Delaney is against it.)
How Steve King won. With every day that passes, more Republicans are denouncing Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and calling on him to resign from Congress. It’s one of the fastest turnarounds politics has ever seen — Republicans who campaigned with King for years, from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), have denounced him and said the nine-term congressman has no place in their party.
Just as remarkable as the speed of this public shaming is how little it means for King’s agenda. The current controversy started after Trip Gabriel, a New York Times reporter who has covered Iowa extensively, published a look at how the congressman “set the agenda for the wall and anti-immigrant politics.” What tripped King up was his exasperation that terms such as “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” had become “offensive.”
By the end of Tuesday, King will have no committee assignments, an official censure levied against him and at least one 2020 primary challenger. What no one can take away from him is that agenda. He set it. He won. The government is shut down over an idea — a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border — that was fringe when King entered politics.
One way to demonstrate the change is by looking at the Republican Party’s platform. In 2000, the last election before King came to Congress, the party’s official stance on immigration was that it should be monitored but encouraged. While the platform attacked the Clinton administration’s “lax enforcement of our borders,” it made no mention of a wall. Instead, it argued that “the long-term solution for illegal immigration is economic growth in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean” and that work visas should be expanded to “greatly increase the number of highly qualified workers in all sectors of the American economy.”
That is not what the party believes anymore. The 2016 platform endorsed a wall across the border and specified that it “must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.” It also called for an end to DACA
and DAPA and hinted at a rollback for work visas. “In light of the alarming levels of unemployment and underemployment in this country, it is indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year,” the platform committee wrote. In November 2000, the unemployment rate was at 4 percent; in November 2016, it was at 4.6 percent.
What got King into trouble was his years of flirtation with white-nationalist politicians, including endorsements of far-right leaders in Canada and Europe. But the policy that motivated him was immigration restriction and a border wall. If he were leave office tomorrow, he could do so confident that his ideas had won and the pro-business/pro-immigration lobby he campaigned against had lost. In 2007, 2013 and 2015, most serious Republican candidates for president courted King, whose district contained more Republican votes than any other part of Iowa. There were plenty of opportunities to distance from him; those opportunities just weren’t taken.
Inside Iowa, the debate over replacing King is not about his immigration legacy but about how his racist statements and general ineffectiveness amounted to a waste of a safe seat. King already faces at least one primary challenger, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who has said King’s comments do not represent western Iowa. In 2016, he faced Rick Bertrand, another state legislator, who blasted King for squandering his seniority. And then, in 2018, King won reelection by only 3 points, in what should be a slam dunk 20-point district.
“For as strong a Republican district as this was, he should have been in leadership in the Agriculture Committee,” Bertrand said in an interview. “Steve just fired himself from that committee. This is a self-inflicted wound.”
But neither that primary or Feenstra’s challenge so far focused on immigration and the call for a border wall. Bertrand, who is still thinking over whether to run again, said that there was a “responsible and humane way of implementing immigration policy” and that it differed very much from King’s. But the wall was another issue.
“From a policy standpoint, any Republican is going to align with the president,” Bertrand said.
The wall, which used to be a talking point for a lonesome Iowa congressman, is now presidential policy. That is not changing soon, no matter what becomes of King.
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her presidential exploratory committee Dec. 31, she dominated traditional and social media — and not always in the ways she liked. The Facebook page that got the most likes for its Warren reaction was titled “Elizabeth Warren is Batsh#t Crazy.” The top articles shared about her on Reddit dealt with her claims of Native American heritage. Posters on 4Chan brainstormed ways to make Democrats sound conflicted, or even negative, about the Massachusetts Democrat.
“Pose as a concerned Democrat and criticize her for being white,” one wrote. “Criticize her for being a woman. Do whatever it takes to further divide the left and prevent them from unifying behind a candidate for 2020. If we can manufacture another Bernie/Hillary split, they’ll get crushed in the general election.”
All of that came from Storyful, a social media analysis company, which has been tracking the online conversation about Democrats and finding a surplus of trolls. None of it was particularly surprising, as these sites (especially 4Chan) have been hubs for “s—posters” looking to meddle in politics, often in support of Donald Trump.
“We spotted a trend on 4Chan to divide the left; you pretend you’re a Democrat, and try split the party,” said Kelly Jones, the researcher who looked into Warren’s launch.
The point of these trolling campaigns can get lost, now that the candidates and the media know to look for them. One conservative troll’s campaign to get accounts tweeting “We Want Bernie” at Warren was spotted right away — it was announced via tweet — and never got covered seriously. But it’s becoming part of the atmosphere around every launch. When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) announced that she would be setting up a campaign soon, Jones noticed 4Chan posters planning to promote her candidacy, with the same goal of sowing division among Democrats.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Democrat stopped by a Compass coffee shop in the District’s U Street neighborhood and stumbled across a one-sheet memo for Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential campaign. It even had a logo, with a mountain-filled triangle representing an “A,” and plenty of additional descriptions of the triangle’s meaning.
There was one small problem: Klobuchar’s operation had no idea what was going on. “While the Senator likes mountains, last time we checked Minnesota doesn’t have a lot of them. This must have been prepared by an overly enthusiastic supporter, but it was not commissioned by our team,” said Justin Buoen, a senior Klobuchar adviser.
This newsletter is not in the business of spreading misinformation, but it will spread hilarity, and this memo provided 10 to 12 solid minutes of amusement for a press corps wondering when Klobuchar will move. Enjoy.
“Beto O’Rourke’s immigration plan: No wall but no specifics,” by Jenna Johnson
A lengthy interview with the former Texas congressman reveals how much of his thinking on immigration is just that — contemplation and negotiation, with no hard answers yet.
“The Law That Just Passed In New York Is A Huge Win For Voting Rights,” by Ari Berman
A deep dive on the package of voting changes that wiped away decades of repressive New York laws, making it much easier to register and to cast a ballot in the largest state that had allowed no early voting.
“‘This model of education is not sustainable,'” by Sarah Jaffe
A report from the L.A. teachers’ strikes, which have a direct impact on the presidential hopes of Mayor Eric Garcetti — and a whole lot of meaning beyond that.
… one day until the first non-Colbert media event of Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign
… four days until Eric Swalwell returns to South Carolina
… 14 days until the State of the Union address