Is Biden’s embrace of Obamacare risky?

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Joe Biden had just rolled out his health care plan when he made what could be a fateful pledge to a crowd in Iowa: “If you like your health care plan or your employer-based plan, you can keep it.”

The remark echoed assurances President Barack Obama made repeatedly as he sold the Affordable Care Act, which became known as “Obamcare.” But Obama’s promise proved an exaggeration, if not a falsehood, and it anchored early GOP attacks on the law as new regulations led private insurers to cancel certain policies, even if they had to offer replacements to consumers.

Biden’s promise on job-based coverage , which almost 160 million Americans use, underscores the risks of positioning himself as the health overhaul’s chief defender. Fully embracing the health law and pledging to expand it also means exposing Biden to attacks from all sides: from the left that wants more than what Biden is offering; from the right that loathes the law in any form; and from the middle, where voters remain skeptical about the nation’s complex and expensive health care system.

“This is one of those issues where the pendulum has swung back-and-forth since ‘Obamacare’ passed,” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said, pointing to health care’s role in Republican victories in 2010 and Democratic wins last November. “Right now we have the advantage,” Maslin said, “but I’d be a fool to say there’s no risk here.”

Indeed, the Republican National Committee has seized on Biden’s policy rollout. “Biden has to deal with the fact that he would be the 2020 face of Barack Obama’s notorious lie that if you like your health care plan you can keep it,” said Steve Guest of the Republican National Committee.

Biden is at the center of a broader Democratic divide over the future of health care that will likely be an animating issue at this week’s primary debate in Detroit.

The former vice president is proposing to add a “public option” that would allow Americans to choose whether to buy government insurance or buy private policies. He also would boost existing subsidies that consumers use to buy policies on the law’s exchanges. That would mark a significant expansion but still be a more incremental approach than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” proposal, which would essentially replace the private market with government insurance.

Biden’s campaign says his position reflects voters’ slow embrace of the 2010 law, while acknowledging voters’ concerns about the cost and consequences of a single-payer, government health insurance system and their distrust of private insurers and the pharmaceutical industry.

“I knew the Republicans would do everything in their power to repeal ‘Obamacare,’” Biden says in an online campaign ad. “They still are. But I’m surprised that so many Democrats are running on getting rid of it … and if I’m elected president, I’m going to do everything in my power to protect it and build on it.”

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this spring found 57% of adults wanted the health law to remain; 42% percent said it should be kept, but with changes. Four out of 10 favored a rollback, but just half of those called for total repeal. Meanwhile, 53% favored adding a nonmandatory government insurance plan to the market; less than one-fifth opposed that course. That’s a more favorable split than on single-payer, which garnered 43% support and 31% opposition.

Which party ultimately wins on health care, Maslin and other Democrats argue, depends on who voters believe will better protect access to care, regardless of the details. “People still don’t like the way the market works,” from rising premiums to spiking drug costs, Maslin noted, but they distrust a politician “who might be taking something away.”

Republicans capitalized in 2010, when voters saw Obama’s new law — adopted but not yet in place — as the threat and rewarded the GOP’s mantra of “repeal and replace.”

By 2018, after years of GOP failures to offer an alternative, voters had grown accustomed to key provisions, chiefly the guarantee of coverage for those with existing health conditions and Medicaid expansion to cover the working poor and lower middle class. Last November, Democrats won a net 41-seat gain in the House and seven new governorships, many of the victories driven by suburban voters who’d seen a deluge of ads defending the law and hammering Republicans for attempts to gut it. Trump continues to pursue repeal, and the administration backs a pending federal lawsuit to strike down the law in its entirety.

A few months into the new Congress, the AP-NORC poll found Democrats with a 17-point advantage, 40% to 23%, on the question of which party voters trusted more on health care.

“People may have different feelings about our different approaches, but they’re more popular than Trump’s repeal that would make the problem worse,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked on health care messaging in recent election cycles.

Added Maslin: “Part of me says we’d be better off with no plan, let Republicans continue to screw it all up. But that’s just not responsible.”

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Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Will gaffes sink Biden’s presidential hopes?

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Joe Biden has sat atop the crowded Democratic presidential field from virtually the moment he joined the race, leading the polls, raking in money and campaigning with the air of an inevitable nominee. But his recent fumbles on abortion and race are a reminder that early front-runners often face the most intense scrutiny.

The former vice president’s strengths and weaknesses will be on display this weekend when he joins virtually every other White House hopeful in South Carolina.

Following controversial comments about his past work with segregationists, Biden will make appeals to African Americans, including at a closed-door meeting with black leaders on Friday afternoon. And after sparking a fury this month by saying he didn’t back federal funds for abortion — only to quickly reverse his position — he’ll appear before abortion rights activists at a Planned Parenthood forum on Saturday.

His reception in the state that’s home to the first Southern primary will set the tone for an even bigger stage next week, when 20 White House hopefuls — including Biden — gather in Miami for the first debate of the primary. The biggest question going into the pivotal stretch ahead is whether voters have already digested Biden’s tendency for clumsy comments and are sticking with him in the belief that he’s best positioned to beat President Donald Trump. And with many voters only now beginning to pay some attention to the campaign, some Democrats say Biden’s rough week won’t have a long-term impact.

This is the kickoff of the campaign preseason, and “the regular season starts next week,” said South Carolina Democrat Antjuan Seawright, an unaligned party strategist. Even after weeks in the spotlight, “it’s still everyone else trying to catch Joe.”

Still, Biden’s vulnerabilities as a candidate are increasingly clear. His comment at a New York fundraiser this week that the Senate “got things done” with “civility” even when the body included segregationists with whom he disagreed sparked outrage from many Democrats, including two black candidates who are also seeking the party’s nomination — Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker .

The Biden campaign has sought to minimize any potential damage, arguing that, taken in full, Biden’s remarks on his former Senate colleagues make clear that he fought segregationists on matters of race. Aides insist his overall argument for a more functional government is a winner, even in a primary.

He called Booker on Wednesday night, but that seemed to do little to mitigate the tension. The New Jersey Democrat’s campaign released a statement on Thursday calling on Biden to “take responsibility for what he said and apologize to those who were hurt.”

The episode suggested Biden was struggling to adjust to the level of attention paid to the words of a front-runner. And like the abortion debate weeks earlier, Biden found himself open to criticism that he’s out of touch with a party that is getting younger, less white and more liberal.

“On its face, I don’t think Joe Biden said anything intentionally racist,” said Quentin James, the founder and executive of Collective PAC, which works to elect people of color. “I just think he’s going to have a hard time this election cycle catching up to where our society is politically.”

Biden isn’t expected to change his tactics. Aides said he will use his trip to South Carolina to reinforce a message of unity and helping the middle class, while implicitly conveying his pitch that he’s the ideal nominee to oust Trump. One aide, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said campaign insiders were not pressuring Biden to alter the way he’s been making his case.

Biden’s South Carolina supporters put it even more bluntly.

“Look, Joe Biden isn’t going to stop being Joe Biden, so why would I tell him to even try?” said state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former state party chairman and longtime friend of the Biden family. “People here know Joe Biden,” Harpootlian added, “because he’s been coming here for years. This doesn’t damage him here, with blacks or whites.”

Harpootlian, who is white, noted the makeup of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate fits Biden. Contrary to more liberal Democratic electorates in other regions, the South Carolina primary trends older, moderate and pragmatic. Black voters make up more than 60% of the electorate and whites account for nearly all the rest.

Indeed, those older voters also are accustomed to watching black and white South Carolina politicians, including former segregationists, work together.

The senior South Carolina Democrat in Congress, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, made that point in Biden’s defense this week. The highest-ranking black member of Congress, Clyburn noted that he spent decades working with Sen. Strom Thurmond, once a full-throated segregationist who left the Democratic Party to become a Republican when national Democrats began supporting civil rights for African Americans after World War II.

Biden eulogized Thurmond when he died in 2003. He did the same earlier this year when another South Carolina politician and onetime segregationist, Democrat Fritz Hollings, died.

Seawright, the black party strategist, said the best avenue for any Biden rival to cut into his South Carolina lead may be through younger black voters who aren’t as loyal to Biden. He said Booker, Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have been aggressive on that front.

“Biden’s relationships are deeper and generational,” Seawright said. “So maybe the best way to beat him is to go make your own relationships.”

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Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko contributed to this report from Washington.

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Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Biden flips on federal funds for abortions

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the I Will Vote Fundraising Gala Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

After two days of intense criticism, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reversed course Thursday and declared that he no longer supports a long-standing congressional ban on using federal health care money to pay for abortions.

“If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment” that makes it harder for some women to access care, Biden said at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Atlanta.

The former vice president’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment came after rivals and women’s rights groups blasted him for affirming through campaign aides that he still supported the decades-old budget provision. The dynamics had been certain to flare up again at Democrats’ first primary debate in three weeks.

Biden didn’t mention this week’s attacks, saying his decision was about health care, not politics. Yet the circumstances highlight the risks for a 76-year-old former vice president who’s running as more of a centrist in a party where some skeptical activists openly question whether he can be the party standard-bearer in 2020.

And Biden’s explanation tacitly repeated his critics’ arguments that the Hyde Amendment is another abortion barrier that disproportionately affects poor women and women of color.

“I’ve been struggling with the problems that Hyde now presents,” Biden said, opening a speech dedicated mostly to voting rights and issues important to the black community.

“I want to be clear: I make no apologies for my last position. I make no apologies for what I’m about to say,” he explained, arguing that “circumstances have changed” with Republican-run states — including Georgia, where Biden spoke — adopting new, severe restrictions on abortion.

A Roman Catholic who has wrestled publicly with abortion policy for decades, Biden said he voted as a senator to support the Hyde Amendment because he believed that women would still have access to abortion even without Medicaid insurance and other federal health care grants and that abortion opponents shouldn’t be compelled to pay for the procedure. It was part of what Biden has described as a “middle ground” on abortion.

Now, he says, there are too many barriers that threaten that constitutional right, leaving some women with no reasonable options as long as Republicans keep pushing for an outright repeal of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

The former vice president said he arrived at the decision as part of developing an upcoming comprehensive health care proposal. He has declared his support for a Medicare-like public option as the next step toward universal coverage. He reasoned that his goal of universal coverage means women must have full and fair access to care, including abortion.

A Planned Parenthood representative applauded Biden’s reversal but noted that he has been lagging the women’s rights movement on the issue.

“Happy to see Joe Biden embrace what we have long known to be true: Hyde blocks people — particularly women of color and women with low incomes — from accessing safe, legal abortion care,” said Leana Wen of Planned Parenthood, the women’s health giant whose services include abortion and abortion referrals.

Other activists accepted credit for pushing Biden on the issue.

“We’re pleased that Joe Biden has joined the rest of the 2020 Democratic field in coalescing around the Party’s core values — support for abortion rights, and the basic truth that reproductive freedom is fundamental to the pursuit of equality and economic security in this country,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, a leading abortion-rights advocacy group.

Repealing Hyde has become a defining standard for Democrats in recent years, making what was once a more common position among moderate Democrats more untenable, particularly given the dynamics of primary politics heading into 2020. At its 2016 convention, the party included a call for repealing Hyde in the Democratic platform, doing so at the urging of nominee Hillary Clinton.

At least one prominent Democratic woman remained unconvinced.

“I am not clear that Joe Biden believes unequivocally that every single woman has the right to make decisions about her body, regardless of her income or race,” said Democratic strategist Jess Morales Rocketto, who worked for Clinton in 2016. “It is imperative that the Democratic nominee believe that.”

Republicans pounced, framing Biden’s change in position as a gaffe.

“He’s just not very good at this. Joe Biden is an existential threat to Joe Biden,” said Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

A senior Biden campaign official said some aides were surprised at the speed of the reversal, given Biden’s long history of explaining his abortion positions in terms of his faith. But aides realized that as the front-runner, the attacks weren’t going to let up, and his campaign reasoned that the fallout within the Democratic primary outweigh any long-term benefit of maintain his previous Hyde support.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

Biden’s decadeslong position first gained new scrutiny several weeks ago when the American Civil Liberties Union circulated video of the candidate telling an activist who asked about the Hyde Amendment that it should be repealed.

His campaign later affirmed his support for his fellow Democrats’ call for a federal statute codifying the Roe v. Wade abortion decision into law.

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Associated Press writer Elana Schor and Juana Summers in Washington, Steve Peoples in New York and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP

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Bernie Sanders tops 2020 Dem fundraising…so far

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the We the People Membership Summit in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A handful of Democratic presidential candidates are touting the amount of money they’ve raised in the first fundraising period of a 2020 primary fight that will last into next spring. The totals for the first quarter, which ran through March 31, are the first measure of how candidates are faring.

Details for the entire field won’t be known until candidates file their required disclosures with the Federal Election Commission by April 15, but here are some takeaways from what the campaigns have released so far:

BERNIE REALLY IS A FRONT-RUNNER

Bernie Sanders joins former Vice President Joe Biden atop many polls of prospective Democratic primary voters. But Sanders has something Biden doesn’t have (yet): a campaign operation raking in cash.

The senator from Vermont, who showed surprising fundraising heft in his upstart challenge to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton four years ago, raised more than $18 million in the 41 days between his official campaign launch and March 31, giving him $28 million cash on hand.

Those totals are expected to lead the Democratic field, putting pressure on other heavyweights, including Biden, who is still deciding whether to run and who is navigating accusations that he’s acted inappropriately toward women.

Besides Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris of California put up an impressive $12 million haul. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas didn’t offer a fundraising total Tuesday, but aides said he raised more than $1 million over the weekend and previously said he raised more than $6 million in his first 24 hours as a candidate.

Sanders’ haul shows that his base is just as enthusiastic as it was four years ago. In fact, it may be growing. The senator’s campaign noted that of his 525,000 unique donors, about 20% are new, about 100,000 are registered independents and about 20,000 are registered Republicans.

As impressive as Sanders’ fundraising has been, it’s not as large as previous presidential contenders who were more reliant on big donors.

In her first quarter as a candidate ahead of 2016, Clinton topped $45 million. In 2007, when then-Sen. Barack Obama and Clinton were beginning their long battle for the 2008 nomination, the favored Clinton opened with an initial fundraising quarter of $36 million, while the underdog Obama pulled in $26 million.

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EXPECTATIONS GAME: MAYOR PETE WINS

Sanders’ fundraising haul set the curve for all candidates and will give pause to some of the other perceived heavyweights in the field, particularly his fellow senators Harris, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. (Harris is the only candidate of that group to release her fundraising totals.)

But the biggest winner may be Pete Buttigieg, an unlikely headline-grabber even among a group of lesser-known candidates that includes governors and members of Congress.

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, raised $7 million, calling it “a great look for our first quarter.” That might be an understatement.

Such a sum ensures Buttigieg can finance a legitimate campaign operation for months as long as he’s not a profligate spender. (Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker learned in the 2015-16 Republican presidential campaign that being an early fundraising leader is no guarantee of success; he spent big, ran out of money and dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.)

Just as important as the bottom line: Buttigieg said he has almost 160,000 unique donors, a mark that meets the new grassroots fundraising thresholds that the Democratic National Committee has set for candidates to qualify for the initial summer debates.

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SMALL DONORS RULE THE DAY

It’s a new day in Democratic politics, with small donors carrying the day.

Sanders touts that he’s held zero traditional fundraisers and has an average donation of $20 — less than 1% of the $2800 maximum. Sanders’ campaign says the senator got 88% of his money from donors who contributed $200 or less.

Buttigieg said his average contribution is about $36, with 64% of his total coming from those donating $200 or less. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who’s never held political office, has raised just $1.7 million, but his campaign says it’s come from about 80,000 donors averaging less than $18 per contribution.

This shift largely reflects politicians reacting to a progressive base that looks with suspicion and distrust on big-money donors.

For example, Warren is among the perceived favorites in the field but has promised she’ll be financing her campaign without leaning on traditional donors.

Harris isn’t eschewing high-dollar fundraisers. In a recent stop in Atlanta, she held one small-dollar event but also a high-dollar gathering sponsored by bundlers who’d pulled together at least $28,000 for her campaign. Yet when her campaign aides released fundraising totals for the first quarter, it wasn’t the big checks they touted. Rather, they emphasized that 98% percent of her contributors gave less than $100.

Gordon Giffin, a former Canadian ambassador under President Bill Clinton, recently hosted a fundraiser for Klobuchar in his metro Atlanta home. Traditional fundraising isn’t going away, Giffin said in a recent interview, “but that grassroots money can more than make up for it, and candidates have to prove they can do that.”

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Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Can Democrats draw needed rural support?

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., talks with Deanna Miller Berry in Denmark, S.C. Several Democratic presidential candidates are trying to make a play for rural voters. (AP Photo/Bill Barrow

Deanna Miller Berry doesn’t often see presidential candidates. So when New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker recently came to Bamberg County, South Carolina, she was primed to unload about a contaminated water system.

“What is your plan to fix it?” Berry asked, her eyes narrowed.

Booker, former mayor of Newark, the largest city in the most densely populated state, assured Berry he cares about the 3,000 residents of Denmark, South Carolina. “This is a time in America where too many people are feeling left out, left behind, not included,” he said, promising “a massive infrastructure investment” targeting “forgotten” places.

The exchange highlights the effort by Democratic presidential candidates to make inroads in rural America. With the first contests unfolding next year in South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire, small-town voters will play a critical role in choosing the next Democratic nominee. And the early attention could help the eventual nominee be more conversant on rural issues and compete for votes in places that gave President Donald Trump his most intense support in 2016.

“Organizing in every precinct is the key to winning both the caucus and the general election in Iowa,” Iowa Democratic Chairman Troy Price said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders lamented rural decline during an Iowa swing this weekend.

“All over America, we have tragically seen more and more young people leave the small towns they grew up in, the small towns they love, because there are no decent-paying jobs in those towns — we intend to change that,” Sanders said, drawing cheers at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

At the same time, California Sen. Kamala Harris was in small-town South Carolina advocating more spending on telemedicine, broadband internet and infrastructure. Booker used his two-day rural swing last month to talk health care, housing, infrastructure and criminal justice, among other issues. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was the first candidate who ventured to rural northern New Hampshire. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has already visited a tiny town in Wisconsin, which will be a general election battleground.

Several candidates plan to attend a March 30 rural issues forum at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa — population 10,600.

The approach matters most immediately because the delegates necessary to become the nominee are awarded in part from primary and caucus results in individual congressional districts, even the most rural and Republican-leaning. But investing there also could narrow Republicans’ general election margins, by increasing turnout among Democratic-friendly constituencies like rural black and Latino voters or peeling off white voters or both.

That could flip states like Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina — even Florida — that propelled Trump to an Electoral College majority. Besides helping win the presidency, rural gains would be necessary for Democrats to have the muscle on Capitol Hill to enact the kinds of sweeping policy changes they are advocating on many fronts.

“So much of this is about the margins,” Iowa’s Price said.

Beyond the politics, candidates say rural outreach is required of anyone who wants to govern a diverse nation.

“Folks want to be seen,” Harris said. “They want their issues to be heard. … They could care less about half the stuff that gets covered on cable news networks.”

In Wisconsin, Klobuchar said, it’s “about knowing the issues that matter to people whether they’re Democrats, Republicans and independents — and in rural areas it’s not just about the farm bill.”

The 2018 midterms demonstrated Democrats’ tough realities beyond metro areas, but still offered some bright spots.

AP VoteCast, a national survey of more than 115,000 voters, found rural and small-town residents cast 35 percent of midterm ballots; 56 percent of those voted for Republican House candidates, compared to 41 percent for Democrats. The advantage was wider among small-town and rural whites: 30 percent of the electorate, tilting 63-35 for Republicans. Correspondingly, Democrats’ net 40-seat gain in the House was driven mostly by previously GOP-leaning suburban districts, while Democratic nominees fell short in more rural areas.

There’s no consensus on whether rural success for Democrats is about policy or personality or some combination. Some winners establish a personal brand at odds with the national party — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin defending the coal industry, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown opposing much of U.S. trade policy, Montana Sen. Jon Tester playing up his rancher credentials.

But that won’t necessarily work for a presidential candidate looking to become the face of a party with a decidedly liberal base. None of the declared candidates deviates from Democratic orthodoxy supporting abortion rights and LGBTQ civil rights and opposing Trump’s hard line on immigration — all positions that run afoul of rural and small-town voters who collectively are more culturally conservative than urban dwellers.

Sanders struggled with that balance in 2016 when Hillary Clinton hammered him for some Senate votes against gun measures that most Democrats backed. Sanders noted that many Vermonters, as in the rest of rural America, view guns differently than most big-city residents, but Clinton successfully used the issue against Sanders, particularly with black women.

Would-be Democratic presidents are left to mix economic arguments with biography.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee grew up in Seattle, but he often mentions that he spent his early adult years in central Washington. He touts his signature issue — combating climate change — as a boon for the “heartland” economy by growing the clean-energy industry.

Klobuchar, a Twin Cities-area native, points to her work on the Senate Agriculture Committee and notes she’s won every congressional district in Minnesota during her Senate career. Sanders, who still speaks with his native Brooklyn inflection, drew roars in Iowa when mentioned using antitrust law to limit corporate power.

Harris notes that California — caricatured in Middle America as a bastion of coastal liberalism — has the nation’s biggest agricultural output. And in South Carolina, she said she heard a lot about jobs and state Republicans’ refusal to expand Medicaid insurance.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren notes that long before her Harvard law career, she was a child in Norman, Oklahoma, where her family’s working-class struggles shaped her liberal approach to consumer, labor and finance law.

After hearing Booker, Kenneth Belton, a 63-year-old resident of struggling Fairfield County, South Carolina, said a president doesn’t have to come from his walk of life. Belton just wants the person in the Oval Office to understand him — and then to help.

“It just feels like they’ve been ignoring us,” he said.

Berry, the clean water activist, agreed, crediting Booker and others for what she describes as first steps.

“I’ve heard enough to be inspired,” she said, pausing before adding, “enough to want to hear more.”

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Associated Press writers Sara Burnett in Chicago, Alexandra Jaffe in Des Moines, Iowa, Meg Kinnard in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

In Dem response, Abrams nails Trump for failures

Stacey Abrams delivers the Democratic party’s response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 from Atlanta. (Pool video image)

Stacey Abrams harnessed the frustration of Democrats on Tuesday with a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump for abandoning working Americans and fomenting partisan and cultural discord.

Just months after narrowly losing her bid to become America’s first black woman governor, the Georgia Democrat stepped onto the biggest stage of her political career to deliver her party’s rebuttal to Trump’s State of the Union address. She was the first black woman to deliver such an address and used the high-wattage event to blister Trump on everything from education and school safety to being out of touch with the middle class.

But she was especially stinging when it came to Trump’s role in the 35-day partial government shutdown over his demands for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values,” Abrams said.

Her speech was much shorter than the president’s hour-plus address. And she largely avoided the pitfalls of others who delivered similar responses, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who broke from his script in 2013 to swig sips of water, and Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who was ridiculed for his overuse of ChapStick in 2018.

Still, a union hall in Atlanta doesn’t compare to the grandeur — and bright lights — of the House chamber, where Trump delivered his speech.

In choosing Abrams to deliver the Democratic response to Trump, party leaders acknowledged the power and influence of women — especially black women — in anchoring the Democratic base. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to persuade Abrams, 45, to run for Senate in 2020, sensing the opportunity to flip a Republican-held seat and bolster turnout in Georgia, which could become a presidential battleground.

Some potential 2020 Democratic presidential contenders were quick to praise her performance.

“Stacey Abrams achieved in a matter of minutes something Donald Trump failed to do in over an hour — to embrace and give voice to the spirit and core values that make America great,” former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “I think all know why she would have been a wonderful governor of Georgia.”

In her speech, the Yale-educated attorney traced her personal story to her parents, who were raised in segregated Jim Crow Mississippi. She recalled how her family and neighbors overcame adversity by relying on each other and valuing education.

“These were our family values: faith, service, education and responsibility,” she said, crediting her parents, both of them United Methodist ministers, for teaching her about “this uncommon grace of community.”

“We do not succeed alone,” she added. “In these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbors will come for us.”

Abrams’ audience at the union hall included workers, activists, labor leaders, health care professionals, educators, entrepreneurs and voters who her aides say had trouble casting their ballots in 2018. Abrams abandoned her governor’s race without a formal concession, asserting that her opponent, Brian Kemp used his last post as secretary of state to make it harder for people, particularly minorities and the poor, to cast ballots. Kemp defended his job performance, but Abrams has still emerged as a leading voting-rights advocate nationally.

“Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” she said Tuesday, arguing that the issue must be solved before government will be capable of addressing matters from climate change to expanding health care access.

“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country,” Abrams said. “The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders – not where politicians pick their voters.”

As she did running for governor, Abrams spoke candidly about her personal debts, which Republicans have used as an attack. Abrams often said her student loans and other debts amassed caring for family members left her more empathetic than most politicians to what the majority of U.S. households experience in day-to-day life. “My family understood firsthand that while success is not guaranteed, we live in a nation where opportunity is possible,” she said.

Republicans are not sparing Abrams, with the Republican National Committee lambasting what it calls “extreme policies” that were “rejected by her home state of Georgia last November.” Trump resisted any shots at Abrams leading up to their prime-time juxtaposition. But last fall, as he advocated for Kemp, the president called Abrams “unqualified” for statewide office.

Even as she critiqued Trump, she said she wasn’t rooting for his failure.

“I’m disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems,” she said. “I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”

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Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP

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A racism test for Democrats running for president

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks during a news conference outside of his home, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Newark, N.J. Booker earlier in the day declared his bid for the presidency with a sweeping call to unite a deeply polarized nation around a “common purpose.” (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A racist photo tied to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spurred the first major test for how Democratic presidential hopefuls will address racial tensions that have polarized American life.

Nearly every major declared and potential Democratic candidate called for Northam’s resignation after disclosure of the photo, which shows one person in blackface and another hooded in white Klan regalia.

Their reactions came before Northam, 59, who is white, said during a news conference Saturday that he was not in the photo on his page of the 1984 yearbook. He acknowledged using blackface when he dressed as pop icon Michael Jackson for a dance contest, also in 1984.

That leaves Democrats running for president or considering bids to navigate an explosive and embarrassing story as they mount campaigns intended to serve as a contrast with racial divisions that have intensified under the presidency of Donald Trump.

“The candidates were right on this, but this one was easy; the questions and issues on race will only get harder,” said Symone Sanders, one of the Democratic Party’s most visible black strategists and an aide to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Northam’s refusal to step down, Sanders added, threatens to “bring down the Democratic ecosystem” when candidates already face challenges explaining their own records on racially fraught matters. “How do you tell black, brown and young disillusioned voters who didn’t vote in 2016 to come out and take on Donald Trump and take America with this in the party?” she said. “It’s a real concern.”

That means more potential pitfalls for candidates as varied as California Sen. Kamala Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, and former Vice President Joe Biden, a white man who prides himself on his working-class heritage.

Harris touts her record as a prosecutor but faces critiques from the left for her role in a system that has for decades disproportionately imprisoned young men of color. Biden, a longtime senator before he was President Barack Obama’s political partner, recently expressed regret for supporting a 1994 crime bill that toughened sentencing laws. He had defended the vote for years.

Antjuan Seawright, a veteran of campaigns in South Carolina, which hosts the first presidential primary with a large black vote, said candidates must explain their pasts and use them — and Northam — to talk about institutional racism. “There’s a larger discussion here about the poisonous effects of racism on the country and how these things really serve a hindrance for all of us moving forward,” he said.

Harris and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro were the first declared candidates to call for Northam to step down. Among the party’s most prominent Latino figures, Castro called the photo “racist and unconscionable.” Harris wrote on Twitter that “the stain of racism should have no place in the halls of government.”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has faced her own troubles over her claims of Native American heritage, followed suit.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a black man who launched his campaign Friday, the first day of Black History Month, put the incident into historical perspective. “These images arouse centuries of anger, anguish and racist violence,” he wrote on Twitter.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, campaigning in the first primary state of New Hampshire, initially stopped short of calling for resignation, telling reporters she’d not seen the picture that she still called “very racist.” She later issued a statement saying she’d seen the image for herself and believed Northam should step down.

“There aren’t two sets of rules for our friends and our foes: Right is right and wrong is wrong … and racism cannot be excused in our government or anywhere else,” she wrote.

Gillibrand helped lead calls for Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign after he was accused in 2017 of sexual harassment.

Most of the presidential hopefuls sidestepped what would happen should Northam resign: A black man, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, would become the state’s second black chief executive.

The most prominent white men in the potential Democratic field, Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, both waited until Saturday morning to issue resignation calls.

Biden has deep ties in the black community, both from two unsuccessful presidential campaigns but also from two terms as the top lieutenant to the nation’s first black president.

Sanders, who represents a state that is almost 95 percent white and less than 2 percent African-American, has tried to expand his relationships in the black community after his gaps proved a major liability in his 2016 presidential nominating fight against Hillary Clinton. Sanders, who hasn’t said whether he’ll run again, did well in much whiter states, but Clinton dominated him in states where black voters held strong sway, building an early delegate lead Sanders couldn’t reverse.

Seawright, the South Carolina Democrat, dismissed any concerns over comparing candidates’ response times over less than 24 hours. He said Republican leaders had ignored years of racist comments from Iowa Rep. Steve King before finally issuing a condemnation and ousting him from House committees in January after he questioned why “white supremacy” is considered offensive.

“We just can’t be the party of hypocrisy … and direction is more important than immediate timing,” Seawright said.

North Carolina NAACP leader William Barber, a minister who has spoken at Democratic National Conventions, said he is keeping no scorecard on who has called on Northam to step down.

“People calling for his resignation, or Steve King’s for that matter, they have a right to do so,” Barber said. But “to simply have all this discussion about racism when we have some pictures and some words, as ugly and grotesque as they are, but not call out the structural racism that is often presented in more genteel ways — by denying health care, by gerrymandering unconstitutional legislatures, by a prison system that is the new Jim Crow to do that is not to deal with what racism actually is.”

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Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Jupiter, Florida, and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.

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Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP

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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Southern voters split along urban-rural lines

Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams answers her phone before speaking at the National Association of Black Journalists in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The Solid South is no more.

A century of rule by “Southern Democrats” followed by a generation of Republican domination is evolving into something more complex.

This month’s midterms revealed a South that is essentially splitting in two. In states like Georgia and Texas, population growth and strong minority turnout propelled liberal Democrats such as Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke to come close to statewide victories once thought impossible. Yet the Old Confederacy states in between are mostly holding to form, with white majorities giving President Donald Trump high marks and conservatives a clear advantage going forward.

An Associated Press analysis of election returns along with data from AP VoteCast, a national survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters, found two factors largely driving election outcomes. Competitive races required both a racially diverse electorate and Democratic success in building support from white voters in growing metro areas.

One or the other wasn’t enough. For instance, Democratic hopes to make inroads in Kentucky and Tennessee failed because there weren’t enough minority voters to rely on. Meanwhile, the GOP maintained its grip on Alabama and Louisiana, states that have a significant minority population but where white voters in metro areas often voted in line with their rural counterparts. The same scenario could play out Tuesday in Mississippi’s runoff election for a Senate seat.

That’s what makes Georgia and Texas stand out: The two factors were simultaneously in play to turn statewide elections competitive for the first time in a generation. That didn’t translate into victory for Abrams or O’Rourke, but the results could help Democrats navigate the upcoming debate over the type of presidential candidate to select. It could also help the party decide where to send financial and organizational resources. Trump, meanwhile, may have to pay more attention to places that have traditionally been loyal to the GOP.

“The story is the rise of the Southern city centers and the surrounding areas,” said Republican pollster Brett Cowden, whose Alabama-based firm Cygnal has polled and led campaigns across the region. “People are moving there from all over, and they tend to be under 50 and college educated. Those are problem areas for Republicans.”

Democrats are happy to embrace those changes, even if they’re not uniform.

“What we’re talking about here is parts of the South starting to look like the rest of the battlegrounds around the country, where Democrats can stitch together a diverse coalition and win,” said Boyd Brown, a Democratic consultant and former state lawmaker from South Carolina. “But then we still have such a bad brand with small-town whites,” said Brown, who is white and comes from a rural part of the state.

Virginia has already made a significant transition following decades of growth in the Washington suburbs that pushed the state from a GOP advantage to a two-party toss-up and now to the edge of becoming firmly Democratic. That trend could accelerate after Amazon picked Arlington, Virginia, as one of its new headquarters, potentially flooding the area with tens of thousands of new voters.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mississippi, where the Old South’s racial politics has been on stark display ahead of the Senate runoff between Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who is white, and Democratic former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who is black.

Falling between Virginia and Mississippi is perpetual toss-up Florida; North Carolina, which has been a presidential battleground since 2008; and Georgia, which could debut as a presidential battleground in 2020 after Abrams’ got a surprising 49 percent of the vote in her bid to become America’s first black female governor.

“Understand this is no longer a red state,” Abrams said in an interview, insisting the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee should “contest Georgia.”

Texas is a wild card, with O’Rourke coming within 3 percentage points of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in a state Trump won by 9 points in 2016.

AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the American electorate conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, demonstrates the dynamic playing out across the South.

Nationally, whites made up 74 percent of the electorate. Among small-town and rural whites (30 percent of the electorate), 63 percent backed a Republican House candidate, compared with 35 percent for Democrats. Suburban whites (33 percent of the electorate) split 51 percent for Republicans and 46 percent for Democrats. Urban whites (11 percent of the electorate) sided with Democrats, 57 percent to 40 percent.

Whites in Virginia voted much like whites nationally, but the composition of the electorate was modestly different. Small-town and rural whites solidly supported Republicans but made up a slightly smaller share of the Virginia electorate compared with the electorate nationally. Suburban whites, meanwhile, were divided in their votes and were a slightly larger share.

Georgia saw mixed results, with metro areas gaining strength, but whites in Georgia still leaning far more to Republicans than whites nationally. Abrams drew enough nonwhite voters and white liberals to the polls to outperform Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential vote totals. But Abrams still fell about 55,000 votes short of Brian Kemp because of his nearly 3-to-1 advantage among whites.

VoteCast showed 82 percent of small-town and rural white Georgians backed Republican House candidates. The Republican advantage was 68 percent to 30 percent among suburban whites. The margin among urban whites was narrow, 52 percent for Democrats to 46 percent for Republicans. Still, the long-term trends could be a warning sign for Republicans. Those rural whites cast 26 percent of ballots, and suburban whites cast 30 percent — both figures modestly lagging the national marks and likely to shrink as Democrats’ base in Atlanta grows.

Tennessee showed Democrats’ reliance on nonwhite voters even where there is a growing metro area like Nashville. Whites in Tennessee trended slightly less Republican than in its neighbors to the south, but nonwhites made up just 17 percent of the electorate — compared with 38 percent in Georgia. The result: Democrat Phil Bredesen lost the Senate race by double digits.

The trends can help Democrats flip congressional districts even if statewide races are still tough.

South Carolina Democrats got trounced statewide, but they picked up a GOP-held House seat based in Charleston.

Despite Abrams’ loss in Georgia, Democrat Lucy McBath won a suburban congressional seat that had been in Republican hands since one-time House speaker Newt Gingrich was first elected four decades ago. A neighboring GOP district is headed to a recount with a narrow GOP lead; and Democrats flipped state legislative seats across the northern Atlanta suburbs.

In Texas, O’Rourke fell short, but Democrats ousted once-safe Republicans from suburban congressional seats outside Dallas and Houston, and the party picked up at least a dozen state legislative seats. Cowden, the Republican pollster, said by his count 43 percent of the statewide ballots came from five counties, all in growing metro areas.

“Texas may not turn blue in 2020, but that doesn’t bode well for Republicans,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Emily Swanson and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Bill Barrow at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved