(CNN)The back-to-school season is turning into a frightening one for parents and children as they find themselves in the middle of political skirmishes over mask and vaccine mandates, leaving students’ safety determined more by geography and the political whims of governors than the science that should be guiding best practices.
Florida’s Covid surge tests DeSantis
Trouble for school-aged children in other states
How Trump’s legacy became ‘pure poison’ for independents
The highly touted red wave in last month’s midterm election failed to develop largely because it hit a wall of resistance among independent voters, especially across the key battleground states. And that presents difficult questions for Republicans looking forward to 2024.
The GOP’s disappointing showing among independents this year marked the third consecutive election in which the party has underperformed with those critical swing voters. Although Donald Trump ran competitively among independents in his first presidential race in 2016, since he took office, the GOP has consistently faced broad opposition among them, especially those who are women or hold four-year college degrees.
The GOP’s 2022 struggles with independents were especially striking because they came even as most of those voters expressed negative views of both President Joe Biden’s job performance and the state of the economy – sentiments that typically cause most swing voters to break for the party out of the White House. To many analysts in both parties, the reluctance of so many independents to support Republican candidates despite such discontent underscores how powerfully the Trump-era GOP has alienated these voters.
“There’s a huge lesson here, which is if you talk like Trump or remind voters of Trump, particularly at a personality level, it’s pure poison to independent voters,” John Thomas, a GOP consultant, said flatly. “It might have been effective in 2016 because voters were looking for something new and a change, but it hasn’t been useful since then.”
For Republicans, the results underscore the electoral risks of the party’s continuing refusal to repudiate Trump, even as he has openly associated with two antisemites who praised Adolf Hitler, praised the January 6, 2021, US Capitol rioters and publicly called for the “termination” of the US Constitution to restore himself to power.
In the election, fully 66% of independent voters said they had an unfavorable view of the former president while just 30% viewed him favorably, according to the results of the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN. Among female independents, Trump’s ratings were even worse: just 23% favorable and 72% unfavorable, according to previously unpublished exit poll results provided by the CNN polling unit. Trump’s unfavorable rating hit a comparable 69% among independents with at least a four-year college degree. “I have a hard time seeing the Republican Party escaping the grasp of Trump with or without him on the ballot anytime soon,” says Tom Bonier, chief executive officer of TargetSmart, a Democratic data and voter targeting firm.
The results among independents also contained plenty of warnings for Democrats. The exit poll found that Biden’s image among them was only slightly more favorable than Trump’s (with 37% viewing the president favorably and 60% unfavorably) and that nearly three-fourths of independent voters (including virtually identical numbers of men and women) said they did not want him to run again in 2024. In a post-election survey conducted by Way to Win, a liberal group that works primarily with candidates and organizations focused on voters of color, roughly four-fifths of independents across the battleground states said they couldn’t identify anything the Biden administration has done that has directly improved their lives.
Most importantly, the exit poll showed Democrats winning independents in the national vote for the House of Representatives only by a narrow 49% to 47% margin. That was a significantly smaller advantage than the double-digit lead among independents Democrats enjoyed in both the 2020 presidential race and the 2018 contest for the House.
“These results weren’t necessarily an endorsement of Democrats,” says Democratic pollster Matt Hogan. “But they disliked Republicans and viewed them as even more extreme.”
Still, the magnitude of the Democratic advantage among independents was probably less revealing than the fact that the party carried them at all, especially in a period of such economic unease. The party controlling the White House has not won independents in the national vote for the House in any midterm election since at least 1982, according to exit polls.
While Republicans held the presidency, Democrats won independent voters by double-digits in House elections in the midterms of 2018, 2006 and 1986, according to exit polls. While Democrats held the presidency, Republicans won independents by double-digits in House elections in the midterms of 2014, 2010 and 1994. In each of the past two midterms, the party out of the White House (Democrats in 2018 and Republicans in 2014) won independents by a resounding 12 percentage points, the exit polls found. The GOP’s severe underperformance of that standard allowed Democrats to finish unexpectedly well last month even though Republican voters, extending the usual midterm pattern for the party out of the White House, participated in larger numbers than Democrats.
In the key statewide races this year, the Democratic advantage among independents was often much more pronounced than their slim lead in the national House vote.
Democratic candidates, the exit polls found, won independents by double-digit margins in the Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, narrowly ran ahead with them in North Carolina and essentially split them evenly in Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin. (The latest CNN poll conducted by SSRS for Tuesday’s Georgia Senate run-off again shows Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock holding a commanding lead among independents over Republican Herschel Walker.)
Winning Democratic candidates also posted gaping double-digit advantages among independents in the Michigan and Pennsylvania governor races and solid leads of 6-7 percentage points in Arizona and Wisconsin. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Mike DeWine in Ohio, two increasingly solid red states, were the only statewide GOP candidates to win independents by a comfortable margin, according to the exit polls.
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, vice president and chief strategy officer for Way to Win, says concerns about the Trump era GOP’s commitment to basic rights, including abortion rights, and to democracy itself offset the usual tendency among independents to check the party holding the White House. “I think that the combination of the threats to democracy, the threats to freedom was a powerful antidote to that usual pattern,” she said.
Hogan was part of a bipartisan team (along with Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s lead pollster in 2020) that polled during the election for the AARP, the giant senior’s lobby. In a post-election survey of the 63 most competitive House districts, that pollster team also found that Democrats narrowly carried independent voters.
Like Ancona, Hogan says the key to that result was that as many independents in these districts said abortion rights and threats to democracy were the most important issues in their vote as cited inflation and the economy – a result that surprised him. Though many independents were negative on Biden’s job performance and pessimistic about the economy, he notes, they remained unwilling to entrust power to a Republican Party reshaped in Trump’s image.
Another measure of that hesitation came in the national exit poll. Overall the survey found that a virtually identical share of voters nationwide, just over half, said they viewed the GOP and the Democratic Party each as “too extreme.” But independents were much more likely to stamp that label on the GOP. While the share of independents who considered Democrats extreme exceeded the share who did not by a narrow four percentage points, the gap for Republicans was 18 points. Nearly two-thirds of independents with college degrees, and exactly three-fifths of female independents, said they viewed the GOP as too extreme, considerably more than in either group that identified Democrats in that way, according to detailed results from the CNN polling unit.
Paul Bentz, an Arizona-based Republican pollster and the 2010 campaign manager for former GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, believes that label severely hurt the GOP in that critical swing state. Bentz says the GOP’s 2022 slate of Trump-aligned candidates – led by gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Senate choice Blake Masters – systematically alienated not only independents but also a critical slice of moderate Republicans through their rigid opposition to legal abortion and embrace of Trump’s discredited claims of fraud in the 2020 election. “They did not appear to have any interest in targeting, identifying and communicating with independent voters,” Bentz says.
In Arizona and elsewhere, the GOP especially struggled among college-educated and female independents. The exit poll found that Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, while beating Masters, drew 55% of female independents and 61% of independents (of both genders) with college degrees; Democratic governor-elect Katie Hobbs, in her win over Kari Lake, won almost exactly as many of each group.
They were hardly alone in dominating among both college-educated and female independents. In the national exit poll, Democrats carried exactly 54% of each group. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won 59% of the independents with degrees and 56% of women independents. Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers virtually matched those numbers. In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Democrat John Fetterman carried over three-fifths of both groups in his comfortable victory; Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan roughly equaled his performance while winning reelection by an even wider margin in New Hampshire. Democratic Senators Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Warnock in Georgia both carried 53-55% of each group. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic-governor elect in Pennsylvania, set the pace by carrying over two-thirds of both female and college-educated independents in his landslide against far-right GOP nominee Doug Mastriano.
Results provided by Edison Research showed that Democrats also dominated among women and college-educated independents in the 2018 House races and 2020 presidential contest, races also heavily shaped by attitudes toward Trump.
In both parties, many analysts see little chance for the GOP to reverse these trends if they nominate Trump for the presidency again in 2024. The bigger question may be whether another nominee would allow the GOP to climb out of the hole that Trump has opened beneath the party with independents.
Bentz, the Arizona-based GOP pollster, thinks the answer is yes. Bentz says the key to the state’s recent tilt away from decades of Republican dominance is the recoiling from the Trump definition of the party among well-educated, higher-income swing voters in the Phoenix suburbs. But he notes that outgoing GOP Gov. Doug Ducey, with more of a business-oriented and problem-solving image, twice ran well with those voters; that precedent, Bentz says, suggests that if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis can fit that mold, he could recapture many of them in 2024.
“Trump would very much struggle in this state again,” Bentz says. “DeSantis, especially depending on who he chooses as his running mate, I think he could be competitive here.”
Less clear is whether DeSantis can present himself in that way. While he’s less personally bombastic and does not carry the association with election denial and violence that has stained the former president, the Florida governor has embraced a wide array of right-wing culture war causes, from limiting how teachers talk about race, gender and sexual orientation to targeting undocumented immigrants and restricting access to abortion.
With that resume, Fernandez Ancona says DeSantis is vulnerable to the same stamp of extremism and intolerance that has hurt Trump with independents-if Democrats do the work to define him. “I don’t think you can separate Trump from Trumpism,” she says. “And DeSantis is absolutely an acolyte of Trumpism … that’s a story we would have to tell.”
Thomas, the GOP consultant, is the founder and chief strategist of Ron to the Rescue PAC, a Super PAC promoting a 2024 presidential bid for DeSantis (who has not yet announced whether he’ll run). Like Bentz, Thomas believes DeSantis could improve on the GOP’s Trump-era performance among independents. For all DeSantis’ fervor as a culture warrior, Thomas argues, the Florida governor has also shown he can execute the nuts-and-bolts aspects of governing “that matter to independents.”
But Thomas doesn’t discount the risk Democrats could define DeSantis exactly in the manner Fernandez Ancona suggests – especially if the Florida Governor leans too far into what Thomas calls culture war “stunts” like his recent move to fly undocumented immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. Thomas says he’s confident that if DeSantis runs, he can manage “the tightrope” of appealing to both independent general election voters repelled by Trump and base primary voters attracted to his belligerence toward liberals. But Thomas agrees if DeSantis’ “argument for voters is the stunts, I think that becomes too Trump-like at the end of the day.”
Republicans performed better among independents last month in states that already lean in their direction. Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas ran virtually even among those voters, and DeSantis carried them – as did Ohio GOP Gov. Mike DeWine and, even more decisively. J.D. Vance, the GOP’s Ohio senator-elect, also ran about even with them, the exit polls found.
But despite all the unhappiness with Biden and the economy, Republicans continued to struggle with independents in almost all gubernatorial and Senate races across the five states that decided the last presidential race by switching from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. (The only exceptions were the governor’s race in Georgia and Senate contest in Wisconsin where Republican incumbents Brian Kemp and Ron Johnson each ran about even among independents.)
That pattern suggests Republicans are unlikely to regain an Electoral College majority and recapture the White House in 2024 unless they can pry away more independents from the coalition that has now staunchly rejected Trump’s vision for America over three consecutive elections. And Democrats, watching the GOP again almost completely avoid direct criticism of Trump amid his latest provocations, see few signs Republicans are willing to do what that would likely require.
“I don’t think these fundamentals are going to drastically change,” says Fernandez Ancona. “The pieces are in place right now for us to be able to continue to grow this anti-MAGA majority.”
The Year Ahead: Politics in 2023
Trudeau, Poilievre, and the fight for democracy take centre stage
The Smith-Notley fracas escalates in Alberta as Trudeau wages multiple battles federally. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to reverberate around the world, while cost-of-living woes dominate on the home front.
1. The highest-stakes election will be in Alberta
Maybe by the time Albertans head to the polls in May, Premier Danielle Smith will be done dousing her political tire fires. She spent her first days in office walking back controversies, including an assertion that unvaccinated people are “the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.” She can probably count on the votes of those unvaccinated Albertans, but her broad appeal remains uncertain. The NDP is competitive in Alberta—in one recent poll, respondents favoured NDP Leader Rachel Notley by a 14-point margin. Elected to government in 2015, Notley lost to Jason Kenney in 2019, toughed it out in opposition, and might yet complete a phoenix-like comeback.
2. Trudeau will have a year from hell
Justin Trudeau’s fight card for 2023 is already full. Premiers are banging the table for more health money. Quebec Premier François Legault is chafing over his province’s share of federal immigration targets (which he says are so high as to cause social unrest), while Bill 21, his legislation banning public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols, may end up at the Supreme Court. Alberta, meanwhile, wants to pass a Sovereignty Act that would allow it to ignore federal laws. In February, we can expect a potentially damaging verdict on Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act to quell the Freedom Convoy’s occupation in Ottawa. And we may see more premiers thumb their noses at his father’s legacy, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, by invoking its notwithstanding clause—the back-door provision, recently used by both Legault and Ford, that overrides the rights the Charter is intended to guarantee.
3. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be felt on Canadian soil
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Canada has imposed sanctions on Russian oligarchs, given Ukraine $3.85 billion in cash, trained Ukrainian soldiers for battle and gifted all the matériel we had to spare. As fall turned to winter, Russia’s flailing boots-on-the-ground invasion gave way to sustained bombing of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure—a cruel strategy in a frigid country. What Ukrainians need now are heated homes. That means more people seeking refugee status and, with energy in short supply across Europe, more looking to leapfrog across the Atlantic. Canada needs to get ready; we’re still struggling to process the roughly 200,000 Ukrainians who’ve already applied. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has promised to fast-track energy projects to help Europe. Allies will expect progress by 2024.
4. The fight for democracy will eclipse trade disputes with the U.S.
In a speech in Washington last February, trade minister Mary Ng described the Canada-U.S. relationship as having “a million moving parts.” Those include the perpetual popped springs of cross-border trade, American dairy and Canadian softwood lumber. Meanwhile, supply chains continue to sputter and American protectionism is hampering Canadian business. But in another Washington speech in October, Chrystia Freeland warned of bigger problems ahead: autocracies are on the rise and will challenge democracies for global dominance. As dark as her vision is, it spells good news for Canada-
U.S. relations–the need to co-operate will outweigh petty squabbles.
5. We’ll welcome a record number of newcomers
Canada is admitting more immigrants than at any time in its history: the previous record of 400,000 was set in 1913, equalled in 2021 and crushed this year. And the plan is to keep setting new records, ultimately hitting 500,000 in 2025. The economy depends on it: more Canadians are now leaving the workforce than entering it, creating a persistent labour shortage, with nearly as many job openings as there are unemployed workers. The challenge is to match immigrants’ skills to jobs, especially in sectors such as education, health care and construction.
6. Everyone wants an electric car—but good luck charging it
Electric and hybrid cars now account for more than seven per cent of new vehicle registrations in Canada, a rate that doubled in two years. That means we need more charging capacity, and fast. There are now 22,000 EV charging stations in Canada, about 420,000 short of what we’ll require by 2035. Ottawa is funding 50,000 more chargers over the next three years through the Canada Investment Bank, which the Liberals launched in 2017. A lingering question is whether Canadians are ready to change their travel routines. Even the fastest charge takes 30 minutes, compared to a quick two-minute fill at the pump. If Canadians keep buying EVs at a record pace, of course, that question will answer itself.
7. Big tech will throw a fit about CanCon rules
Ottawa’s ambitious effort to regulate big tech (companies like Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and so forth) will get its first real test in 2023. The combination of the Online Streaming Act (Bill C-11) and the Online News Act (Bill C-18, still under consideration in the House of Commons) will make internet firms subject to Canadian content regulations, force them to contribute to the country’s content subsidy programs and have them share revenues with media organizations whose news they post on their sites (and whose ad revenues they’ve poached). Big Tech is chafing at the prospect, but for the federal government, it’s about forcing these companies–which happen to be among the world’s most valuable–to invest some of their Canadian profits back in Canada. Ottawa is also threatening to implement a three per cent Digital Services Tax on these companies’ Canadian revenues starting January 1, 2024. Washington has warned Canada not to collect the tax, even as the U.S. stymies a collaborative, global approach to the issue. All in all, 2023 has the makings of a ticking Big Tech time bomb.
8. The country will go deeper into debt for dental care
As part of their deal to avoid another federal election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised Jagmeet Singh’s NDP a national dental care program in 2023. A recent poll showed that 72 per cent of Canadians support it. Dentists have expressed only minor quibbles. The provinces, though often touchy about new federal programs, have kept mum. Money, of course, could yet scuttle it. The Parliamentary Budget Officer reckons the five-year price tag could be nearly double the $5.3-billion estimate. The PBO is also forecasting deficits for the next five years, which means the government would have to borrow that money at ever-rising interest rates. Other priorities beckon—a brewing recession, aid to Ukraine—and Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives oppose the plan, saying it will goose inflation.
9. We’ll finally get cheaper daycare
Last year, the Liberal government made good on its promise to sign agreements with the provinces to reduce daycare fees. But the details will vary from province to province. In most cases, provinces will phase in reductions, reaching $10 a day by 2026. And though the plan will create new subsidized spaces, there still won’t be enough for all of the country’s 2.1 million kids under age six. Nevertheless, parents are already dreaming about what to do with the thousands of dollars they’ll save. Of course, maybe it’ll just go to their mortgage renewals: the Bank of Canada predicts that in a few years, a typical mortgage payment will be 30 per cent higher thanks to rising interest rates.
10. Poilievre will hammer Trudeau with more populist rhetoric
Last October, it was revealed that CPC Leader Pierre Poilievre’s YouTube channel was using a hidden hashtag favoured by misogynist groups. To his critics, it was just another step in his continuing descent among the deplorables of populism—part of his plan, surely, to pull his party’s right flank away from Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party. But he’s also trying to broaden the spectrum of acceptable opinion. He was an early opponent of mask mandates, has embraced populist calls to defund the CBC and has pledged to make federal funding to universities contingent on their commitment to free speech. He’ll pick his next populist move the same way he did with his convoy support: he’ll be opportunistic, then lean in hard. In the meantime, he’ll buttress his traditional fiscal-conservative bona fides by endlessly harping on the cost of living and pushing his promise to simplify Canada’s income tax system.
Pandemic Politics Hold Up Gazillion-Dollar Defense Bill
A soldier obeys orders to get a jab.
Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images
One of the very few bipartisan traditions still standing in Congress is the annual passage of a defense authorization bill setting policy for the Pentagon and national security strategy generally. Despite all sorts of partisan tensions and efforts to take the bill hostage, this has happened for 61 straight years. Making that 62 straight years has been a priority for the lame-duck session of Congress currently under way. The House passed its version of the measure — authorizing $839 billion in defense spending for the fiscal year that began on October 1 — in July, with robust majorities from both party caucuses. It was mostly noteworthy for adding to President Biden’s spending requests and knocking down a few of the administration’s specific defense-policy proposals, notably stopping the Defense Department from scrapping certain aircraft, ships, and missile programs.
For mostly scheduling reasons, the Senate has taken longer to negotiate its version of the bill and has decided to work out a final deal with the House and the administration that can be whipped quickly through the lame-duck session in both chambers and presented to the president for his signature. But at the last minute, a dispute that has little to do with defense policy threatens to throw sand into the gears of the process: a battle over revocation of the COVID-vaccine mandate for members of the armed forces that was imposed in August 2021.
It’s entirely unsurprising that Republicans, whose base is heavily larded with anti-vaxxers and who have sought to make any sort of COVID-related requirements a big civil-liberties issue, would want to scrap the military mandate. (Twenty-one Republican governors also recently sent Biden a letter calling for this policy change.) And it seems that Democrats (including within the White House) are grudgingly willing to give them this trophy. Indeed, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is already crowing about it, according to the Washington Post:
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed Sunday that he had worked out the arrangement directly with President Biden. Although White House officials later disputed that characterization, McCarthy described the compromise as his party’s “first victory” since the GOP won control of the House in the midterm elections.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith isn’t conceding it’s a done deal, but it sounds like the handwriting is on the wall, Politico reports:
“We haven’t resolved it, but it is very fair to say that it’s in discussion,” Smith told POLITICO on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum. He noted that the mandate may not be logical anymore.
“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it, a very strong supporter of the Covid restrictions put in place by DoD and others,” he added. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021? That is a discussion that I am open to and that we’re having.”
The bigger problem is that Republicans are mulling a demand that military members who refused to obey the vaccine mandate and were accordingly discharged be reinstated and even compensated. Smith says that’s a nonstarter:
While negotiators are willing to entertain the possibility of undoing the policy, Smith said GOP calls to reinstate or grant back pay to troops who refused the shot amounted to a red line. He called the push “a horrible idea.”
“The one thing that I was adamant about — so were others — is there’s going to be no reinstatement or back pay for the people who refused to obey the order to get the vaccine,” Smith said. “Orders are not optional in the military.”
It’s increasingly clear that the big question is whether Republicans will choose to deep-six the defense bill for the first time in 62 years in order to score a culture-war point about the alleged unreasonableness of a soon-to-be-past vaccine mandate. If they do, it will underscore how important resistance to COVID-prevention efforts is to the GOP’s messaging.
The dispute will also be an indicator as to whether McCarthy has even the most minimal interest in bipartisan governing once he obtains the Speaker’s gavel in January (assuming he isn’t pushed aside by his caucus’s extremists first). Back in November, he was already making noises about forcing a renegotiation of the defense bill so that it would not pass until the next Congress convenes, as Defense News reported:
“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done on many of these things, especially the NDAA — the woke-ism that they want to bring in there,” McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday after House Republican leadership elections, where the majority of his caucus nominated him to serve as speaker in the next Congress. “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the 1st of this year — and let’s get it right.”
That McCarthy is apparently willing to put national security policy on hold so that he can pursue the idiotic MAGA crusade against a “woke military” tells us a lot about the kind of conduct we can expect from him going forward. If he does hold the defense bill hostage, we’ll know that he may formally hold the Speaker’s gavel, but Marjorie Taylor Greene owns it.
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