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Trail Mix Update: What the Hell Happened This Week?

Now that we’re moving closer to Caucus Day, it’s worth our time to check in on the state of the race and assess the field. Quite honestly, this report was supposed to be focused on something entirely different. But in the past five days, a whistleblower, an emerging democracy in Eastern Europe, and renewed concern over the state of our democracy here threw us all for quite the loop.

Who could have guessed that a Ukrainian corruption scandal could overtake a campaign’s very public admission of its near-death experience as the #1 election story?

“If our campaign is not in a financial position to grow, he’s not going to continue to consume resources and attention that can be used to focus on beating Donald Trump, which needs to be everyone’s first priority.” 
Addisu Demissie, Cory 2020 campaign manager, in a September 21 memo
Photo by Andrew Davey

Just as I woke up on Saturday morning, my easy weekend suddenly got a big disruption: U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s (D-New Jersey) campaign sent an advisory for a press call with campaign manager Addisu Demissie. They also served their supporters and all of us reporters notice that if they don’t raise $1.7 million by September 30, “We do not see a legitimate long-term path forward”.

During the call, Demissie confirmed what all of us suspected he meant by “not seeing a legitimate long-term path forward”: If Booker can’t raise enough money to hire enough staff to keep up with the top-tier candidates and “dark horse” contenders who have large enough war chests to power on through the early states, Booker will have to drop out.

And Demissie didn’t stop there. In his memo and during the call, he called out the other lower-tier campaigns for trying to hide their own struggles and indicated that Booker doesn’t just want to score debate slots and cable TV town halls, but also win real votes and delegates next year. “If our campaign is not in a financial position to grow, he’s not going to continue to consume resources and attention that can be used to focus on beating Donald Trump, which needs to be everyone’s first priority,” Demissie wrote.

So why is Booker in such a bind? And what might this say about the rest of the lower-tier candidates?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Even six months ago, a divide began to emerge. On one end, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) went on hiring sprees to amass not just large national staffs, but also big bumper crops of organizers, communications professionals, and other key staff on the ground here in Nevada and in the other early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina). On the other end most of the rest of the field, from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) to Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California), had bare-bones collections of national staffers to travel with them with nary a field organizer in sight.

Gillibrand and Swalwell have since dropped out, but we’re still seeing candidates traveling here with little or no campaign infrastructure to show Nevada Democrats. Meanwhile six campaigns have stepped up to build robust teams on the ground, and Booker’s is one of those six campaigns. But since South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s cash-flush campaign is on a hiring spree while Warren’s, Sanders’, Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-California), and former Vice President Joe Biden’s respective Nevada teams are as large as ever, Booker either needs to keep up with these heavy hitters or face the music on him falling too far behind.

Again, Booker isn’t the only Democratic candidate who’s in this bind. (In fact, right around the time of publication, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro followed suit with his own urgent fundraising warning.) It’s just that his campaign has been the most vocally honest in admitting such. Since Saturday, Booker’s raised $1.1 million (as of 6:00 AM this morning) and confirmed he will return to Las Vegas for the Giffords/March for Our Lives Gun Safety Forum next week, so he may yet make it to next month’s CNN/New York Times Debate and beyond. But even if Booker overcomes this $1.7 million challenge by Monday, that’s just the first of many more hurdles to come.

Finally, some notes on the most critical swing state of 2020: Ukraine
Photo provided by the Presidential Office of Ukraine, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

On Tuesday, the Reno Gazette-Journal released a new Suffolk University poll showing a close race on top between Biden (23%) and Warren (19%), with Sanders (14%) being the only other Democrat to show double-digit support. In other words, the “Top Three” are still the three who are most likely to make it out of our caucus (politically) alive and onto South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states.

Up until now, the big story worth watching has been Warren’s steady rise and whether it finally ends Biden’s precarious reign atop the polls. But ever since President Donald Trump decided to go fast and furious with what had been a stealth smear campaign against Biden, Biden is once more at the center of the action.

However, it remains to be seen how “Ukraine-gate” and the new impeachment inquiry play outside Congress and on the campaign trail. Now that Trump is on record threatening to strong-arm the Ukrainian government and exert the full force of the U.S. government to attack Biden, will Democratic voters “rally around the flag” in a way that boosts Biden in his time of need? Or will the scent of scandal remind voters of what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 in a way that triggers their PTSD and drives more of them into the arms of Warren and/or another of the non-Biden’s, regardless of the evidence thus far incriminating Trump rather than Biden?

When Biden returns to Nevada tomorrow, we’ll get our first in-person glimpse of how he intends to overcome the rumor-mongering that Trump is all too happy to escalate. And in the coming days and weeks, we’ll learn whether the relative “Trump-free zone” of the 2020 Democratic nomination contest will remain that way. At the very least, Trump’s latest and greatest geopolitical dumpster fire serves as a reminder to voters of all stripes of the hurdles they’ll all have to clear just to survive this next year.

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