How a bipartisan stimulus became a political stumbling block

In this edition: The newly bitter politics of the Cares Act, the closing messages in next week’s primaries, and the president cancels a rally while donning a mask.

All of these newsletter items are cakes, and this is The Trailer.

The Cares Act, a $2 trillion stimulus bill designed to float American workers and businesses through the coronavirus recession, passed with almost unanimous support. If any government program might be robust enough to survive campaign politics, it would be this — an election-year deal between an unpopular president and a party that desperately wants to beat him.

Yet in the past week, “the single biggest relief package in American history,” as President Trump accurately labeled the legislation, has evolved toward the political fate of most other spending bills. Candidates who benefited from it, however indirectly, are accused of taking handouts; calls for another round of benefits have been muted. 

Less than two weeks before the bill’s expanded unemployment benefits expire, the Cares Act has emerged as a political stumbling block in House and Senate races. The Paycheck Protection Program, which provided loans that companies are to repay and has helped at least temporarily halt some business losses, gets attacked as a giveaway; unemployment benefits that added up to more than some workers’ salaries have become cautionary tales for Republicans.

“We knew there was a problem with enhanced unemployment, in that [in] certain cases, people were paid more than they made,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Thursday interview on MSNBC. “We want to incentivize people to go back to work.”

In Congress, Republican jitters about more generous benefits have led to proposals for benefits that would go to fewer people, making less money — though Democrats are ready to cut more checks, even if a president they oppose would get a political win. In campaigns, meanwhile, a PPP program that made 4.4 million loans in an attempt to prevent businesses from laying people off has become a source of occasional embarrassment, with candidates getting hammered for benefiting from those loans, whether or not they supported the program in the first place. 

“I don’t think we ever dreamed that we would be providing financial assistance to political campaigns,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said after a news network reported that Christine Mann, a Democrat seeking a suburban House seat near Austin, got a $28,600 PPP loan. 

Mann, even before getting negative press for the loan, returned it. (Any company was eligible to apply for, and get, a PPP loan.) But more tenuous connections have become problems for other candidates, with the attacks usually seeking out hypocrisy. In Arizona, Republicans have attacked Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly’s business career and speeches; Kelly tweeted last month that “too many small business owners were left with no relief, especially those in tribal communities,” and that Congress should “ensure that the relief is getting to those who need it most.” 

When names of PPP recipients were published, a company co-founded by Kelly was revealed to have taken a seven-figure loan, as did Giffords, the gun safety group he ran until last year. Neither was a large corporation, but Kelly got whacked anyway.

“Mark Kelly tried to score cheap political points by criticizing the bipartisan success of PPP while quietly taking the money for his own large corporation,” Sen. Martha McSally’s campaign manager told the Arizona Republic, as Kelly retained a small stake in the company.

In Nevada, where Republicans are working to defeat Democratic Rep. Susie Lee, they’ve focused on her success in letting gaming companies obtain PPP loans, which came before her husband’s gaming company got a PPP loan to rehire employees. “Conflict of interest would be putting my personal interests above the interests of my constituents,” Lee told the Nevada Independent, which Republicans responded to with a nickname: “Swindlin’ Susie.” 

Candidates have largely been caught in the crossfire of PPP stories, which have frequently focused on large corporations or comfortably wealthy business owners who’ve benefited from a much needed bailout. There are echoes of what happened in 2009 and 2010, when the passage of the nearly trillion-dollar American Reinvestment and Recovery Act became a political football for Republicans. The difference then was that all but three Republicans, all senators, opposed that legislation; Republicans were so happy with this year’s legislation that the president, as he typically has done since the impeachment trial, held a signing ceremony that included no Democrats.

In ordinary times, bipartisan support for a program, or a bill, usually neutralizes the effectiveness of political attacks. For incumbents, the Cares Act has generally looked like a winner, with polling from both parties finding voters satisfied with Congress’s initial response and, for most of the spring and summer, optimistic about recovery.

But decades of skepticism about “handouts,” and about the winners and losers in any major government program, have led to an intermittent wide-scale shaming. That shouldn’t have been surprising. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who like every Senate Democrat backed the Cares Act, called for more transparency in the ongoing loan process, on the premise that the most powerful loan-seekers would crowd out small and minority business owners. 

“We knew PPP was broken,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington tweeted last month. Like many Democrats, she preferred a support system that was more generous for small businesses and workers and less so for large businesses, like the ones deployed in Europe. “We knew minority-owned businesses weren’t receiving help. We knew mass unemployment wasn’t being ended. And now, it’s clear the Trump [administration] has been completely corrupt with this program.” 

One month later, and after billions of dollars were distributed, coverage of a PPP success story — unemployment a bit lower than projected — has been nudged aside for coverage of whether some recipients didn’t deserve it. 

Was it inevitable? Worries about transparency for political money have been circulating for years. In the aftermath of the 2009 stimulus, many on the left argued that fretting about how handouts would look, and how grants to unsympathetic-looking projects would backfire, stopped the Obama administration from doing more. Obama’s vice president has proudly defended the 2009 approach, repeatedly contrasting the lack of controversy back then to the high-profile stories about big businesses or politically connected people getting loans now.

“I’m the guy that had responsibility of handing out $84 billion in the Recovery Act in the financial recession,” Joe Biden said this week in remarks near Scranton, Pa. “I met once every two weeks with the inspectors general. Everything was open. What are we finding out now? That large chains and hotel chains and chains of restaurants, they divided all the restaurants up and treated them as individual restaurants, they’re already making hundreds of millions of dollars. The mainstream mom-and-pop businesses, they didn’t get the money.”

There was little chance, in an election year, that the biggest stimulus package in American history would hit without controversy. But when Congress returns to respond to the ongoing crises, months of cynicism and negative spin may weigh more heavily than the feelings of March.

Reading list

“The once-mocked ‘Never Trump’ movement becomes a sudden campaign force,” by Ashley Parker and Robert Costa

Republicans against the president find some strategies that click and develop a ground game.

“What women want,” by Sarah Longwell

Lessons from focus groups of female former Trump supporters.

“Biden releases U.S.-centered economic plan, challenging Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda,” by Sean Sullivan and Jeff Stein

The Democrat’s “Buy American” plan was step one of a campaign rollout.

“When Val Demings stood by police officers accused of excessive force,” by Matt Dixon and Maya King

How a potential vice president spent her years as Orlando’s top cop.

“A onetime Alabama favorite son hopes to win back his Senate seat. Trump stands in the way,” by Eric Velasco and Paul Kane

Jeff Sessions on a rocky comeback trail.

“In the race for Joe Kennedy’s successor, an anti-Kennedy emerges,” by Daniel Boguslaw

The progressive battle for a safe Democratic seat.

“Trump’s drop in polls has confident Democrats sensing ‘a tsunami coming’ in November,” by Philip Rucker, Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim

Democrats in … array?

In the states

Culture wars over statues, socialism and support for the president dominated campaigning over the weekend as Republicans in Wisconsin held their state convention and candidates in Alabama, Maine and Texas went to the wire for their runoffs and primaries. 

Wisconsin’s convention, scaled down from previous years but mostly held in person, was like a lot of recent Republican events ― specific criticism of Democratic nominees took a back seat to praise of the president and condemnations of “socialism” inside the Democratic Party. Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign adviser who leads the Black Voices coalition, told delegates that the president’s approval rating with black voters had crested 40 percent, a number seen in some campaign-friendly polls but not in the polls released by media outlets.

“The Black Voices for Trump coalition will be taking on Black Lives Matter, because we have the candidate with the policies that prove black lives matter, because he believes that all lives matter,” Pierson said.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, who represents a strongly Republican district in the center of Wisconsin, told delegates that the Black Lives Matter’s “Marxist” origins needed to be exposed and that Republicans needed to tell the story of how the president’s approach to policing had made the country safer, blaming unrest in cities on local mayors.

You have to remind the public of what a caring president we have,” Grothman said. “The day he leaves, you’re going to see a change in law that when a policeman goes to arrest somebody, they’re going to be looking over their shoulder.”

Democrats ignored much of what was said at the conference, though a moment when Grothman tried to say “Donald John Trump,” and was struck by a coughing fit, went viral. Instead of that, the state’s Democratic Party focused on a guest speech by Yuri Maltsev, an emigre from the old Soviet Union and current professor at Carthage College, in which he warned that the rising left would take America to the same dark places as European tyrants.

“There is no such thing as democratic socialist,” Maltsev said. “It’s the same thing as democratic Auschwitz.”

In Maine, where voters will nominate candidates for House and Senate on Tuesday, Republican House challenger Erik Brakey used a final debate to attack his opponents for getting support from organizations and donors that had been critical of the president; “accepting help from the very swamp he is trying to drain,” as he put it. In Texas’s deep red 13th District, where the Republican nomination is tantamount to election, former White House physician Ronny L. Jackson has emphasized his support from and for the president; challenger Josh Winegarner has accused him of using the district as a “backup plan” when Jackson’s career faltered. But Winegarner has been just as devoted in his support for the president, accusing Jackson of hurting the vice president’s wife.

“Mrs. Pence’s doctor said that Ronny violated federal privacy by revealing her medical condition,” a narrator says in one of Winegarner’s ads. “A homegrown Christian, Josh stands with Trump to build the wall.”

Alabama’s runoff, which will decide whether former attorney general Jeff Sessions has a path back to the Senate, ended with former University of Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville running out the clock. Tuberville’s “People versus the Swamp bus tour ended June 14, and he both declined Sessions’s challenge to a series of debates and stayed off the trail in the final weeks of the campaign. Sessions has closed out with a series of interviews, and with criticism of Tuberville’s role in a disastrous hedge fund. But the president backed Tuberville again on Twitter over the weekend, inspiring a final pre-runoff response from Sessions.

“I’ve taken the road less travelled,” Sessions tweeted. “Not sought fame or fortune. My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults. Your scandal ridden candidate is too cowardly to debate. As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”

Look for a rundown of all the July 14 primaries in the next edition of The Trailer.

Turnout watch

The Democratic presidential primary inched closer to its conclusion this weekend with votes in Louisiana and Puerto Rico. By the time the country goes to sleep Sunday night, just 60 of the party’s 3,981 pledged delegates, the ones from Connecticut’s upcoming primary, will still be unassigned.

Louisiana’s much-delayed Saturday primary ended with easy, unsurprising landslides for Joe Biden and President Trump. Biden won 80 percent of the 266,941 Democratic votes; Trump won 96 percent of the 204,175 Republican votes, one of his best results in any primary held this cycle. The quirkiness of this race, which was initially scheduled for the end of March, kept nearly every candidate on the ballot; Trump’s lowest total across the state was in Orleans parish, where 18 percent of Republicans backed either former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld or another protest candidate.

Biden’s primary came with its own quirks. Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, who quit the race in February after a poor finish in New Hampshire, won 6,163 votes — by far his best result, and likely thanks to the newsy endorsement of Louisiana-born strategist and celebrity James Carville. Yet Biden ran ahead of his statewide average in Orleans, East Baton Rouge and other high-population parishes with substantial numbers of black voters. He did worst in the parts of Louisiana that bolted the Democratic Party during his vice presidency, the heavily white “Cajun country” of Acadiana. Biden bottomed out at 41 percent in Cameron Parish, where just 199 Democrats bothered voting, down more than two-thirds from the competitive 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and down more than 50 percent from 2016, when Clinton rolled past Bernie Sanders.

For all that, Democratic turnout was closer to 2016, when both parties held competitive primaries, than Republican turnout. Compared with that year, Democratic turnout fell by 14 percent, while Republican turnout fell by 32 percent. But that’s not much of a preview for November. Democrats have not seriously contested Louisiana since 1996 and are not investing in the state at the presidential level this year.

Ad watch

Restoration PAC, “Joe Biden: Unsuited Then, Unsuited Now.” Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein is the main force behind this PAC, which plays more in Uihlein’s neighboring Wisconsin than his native Illinois. This spot focuses entirely on comments Biden made 33 years ago, browbeating a skeptical voter who asked him about his college grades and boasting, falsely, that he’d won an academic scholarship, a special award, and graduated in the top half of his law school class. “It’s new information to most voters,” PAC founder Richard Truax told

Candace Valenzuela, “Teachers.” A progressive candidate fending off more moderate (and controversial) House candidate Kim Olson in Texas’s 24th District, Valenzeula isn’t closing on an issue contrast. She’s closing on biography and focusing on Olson, who has led with her experience as a veteran, for her work on the Dallas Independent School District. “I remember when she fired hundreds of teachers, after we mismanaged the budget, one teacher says.

Tony Gonzales, “President Trump Endorses Tony Gonzales.” Texas’s 23rd District is one of just three seats won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 but held by a Republican today. Local Republican Rep. Will Hurd, a Trump critic, is retiring; Tony Gonzales is emphasizing his own support from Trump in the GOP runoff, emphasizing several times that Trump tweeted his endorsement, as footage shows the candidate cheerfully greeting a Border Patrol officer in the country’s biggest border district.

John Cornyn, “Liberal Royce West.” It’s a common tactic in modern primaries: Elevate the opponent that you think would be easier to beat. The surprise here is only that Cornyn, who hasn’t broken a sweat in any race since joining the Senate 18 years ago, would use that tactic. Here, he portrays West, a black state senator from Dallas who has struggled to raise money, as a “liberal politician” who supports “dangerous late-term abortions and would destroy the Second Amendment. West is the underdog in Tuesday’s runoff with MJ Hegar, a less liberal candidate. But in other attempts to boost a liberal over a candidate backed by national Democrats, Republicans have run afoul of cautious Democratic primary voters.

Poll watch

Battleground polls (CBS/YouGov, 1,099 likely voters; 1,229 likely voters; 1,212 likely voters

Joe Biden: 46% 
Donald Trump: 46%

Joe Biden: 48% 
Donald Trump: 42% 

Donald Trump: 46%
Joe Biden: 45%

Three polls that show the president tied or trailing in three states he won four years ago are also the best polls he has gotten in a while across some of those states. The news for Republicans isn’t terrible down the ballot, either, with Sen. John Cornyn leading either Democrat who might win this week’s runoff, and Sen. Martha McSally trailing for reelection by single digits. But voter movement since 2016 is generally against Trump, with the president doing worse with white voters and voters over 65 in every state; with nonwhite voters, he has held steady or lost a little ground. In Florida, without which a Trump reelection is nearly impossible, Hillary Clinton’s 27-point margin among Latino voters was smaller than Biden’s current 31-point margin. In 2018, when Republicans only narrowly won Florida’s key statewide races, the key was a decline for Democrats among Latino voters.

Candidate tracker

On Friday evening, shortly after canceling a planned weekend rally in New Hampshire, President Trump commuted the sentence of political fixer Roger Stone, who had been convicted on seven felony counts related to his work in the 2016 election and his subsequent obstruction of an investigation. Trump had hinted for months that he’d commute Stone’s sentence, even though the limited polling on the issue found it deeply unpopular outside the Republican base.

Joe Biden, who since securing the Democratic nomination has been judicious about commenting on Trump’s comments or scandals, responded with a tweet linking back to his own 2019 comment about Trump surrounding himself “with people who flout our laws.” He added a little to that on Saturday: “Donald Trump is the most corrupt president in modern American history. Every day that he remains in office, he further threatens the future of our democracy.”

There was no other campaign activity by the candidates over the weekend, though the president wore a mask during his visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, an event that his campaign quickly highlighted. It was not the first time Trump had worn a mask in public; he did so briefly during a visit to a Ford plant two months ago. But this was the first time people around the president made an issue out of the mask-wearing, with Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale matter-of-factly tweeting “America First,” and other campaign figures contrasting an image of Trump walking with a mask with some moments at a June event when Biden left his mask dangling by the strings as he answered questions.

“When the child finally does that thing you’ve been asking him to,” Biden spokeswoman Symone Sanders joked, pointing to the boastful Trump campaign tweets.

“Rather than taking responsibility and leading, he wasted four months that Americans have been making sacrifices by stoking divisions and actively discouraging people from taking a very basic step to protect each other,” Biden said in a statement.

Greens in disarray

On Saturday, it finally became official: New York labor activist Howie Hawkins won the Green Party’s presidential nomination. Victory was quick and decisive and came with plenty of discontent. 

Hawkins, 67, had clinched the nomination a few weeks earlier after a string of victories in the 19-year-old party’s primaries. The best known of eight candidates, Hawkins won 205 of 358 available delegates over the course of the year, and nothing — definitely not the occasional speculation that former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura might run — slowed him down. The party also affirmed Angela Walker, the Socialist Party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, as Hawkins’s running mate.

On Saturday afternoon, introduced as “the original Green New Dealer,” Hawkins decried the limitations on ballot access still facing the party and said his campaign would appeal to the disgruntled voters who sit out elections.

“We’re running out of time on issues like the climate crisis and the covid pandemic,” Hawkins said. “Real solutions can’t wait.”

But Hawkins was pursued throughout the race by Dario Hunter, who repeatedly challenged the results of primaries that attracted few voters and accused the party of putting the fix in for Hawkins. On Saturday, after the Hawkins nomination was approved, he released a video encouraging voters to support him as a candidate for president, whether or not his name appeared on ballots.

“We reject the results of the Green Party primary as illegitimate,” Hunter said. “Our recommendation is this: That you vote for Dario Hunter and [running mate] Darlene Elias one more time, as independent Green candidates for president and vice president of the United States.”

Neither Hawkins nor Hunter is particularly well known, though Hawkins gained name recognition in New York after a series of campaigns for local and statewide office. And the Green Party has had more serious schisms. The current party grew out of a split between factions that came after the 2000 election, still the high watermark for the party’s popular vote total. In 2004 and 2008, the party’s best-known nominee, Ralph Nader, ran independent presidential bids that attracted some of the voters who might otherwise have pulled the Green lever.

In a news conference held Sunday morning, Hawkins told The Trailer that he’d run “a positive campaign” and his opponents, like Hunter, had run “negative campaigns against not just me, but against the Green Party.” Asked which states a Green campaign would focus on, Hawkins pointed to Maine, which offers ranked-choice voting. That allows voters, for example, to rank a Green candidate first and a Democrat second, letting the Democratic vote count if the Green does not win. Hawkins also pointed to Hawaii as a place where climate-change-conscious voters might be gettable and joked about “winning the advisory vote in Guam,” before saying the ticket would also try to win left-wing third-party nominations in other states.


… two days until runoffs in Alabama and Texas and the primary in Maine
… 36 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 46 days until the Republican National Convention
… 54 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 114 days until the general election