Politico

Trump fights ideological war on deep blue battleground


LOS ANGELES — The West Coast is so reliably Democratic that the only thing it’s been good for in most presidential elections is raising money. And because of limitations on in-person gatherings, even that wasn’t happening much this year.

But with the wildfires torching the West, the recent shooting of two sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles and Trump’s much-publicized feud with “anarchist jurisdictions” in Washington and Oregon, the West Coast has suddenly become the locus of pressing debates about climate change, racial justice and public safety — some of the most urgent and consequential issues facing the country.

The turmoil has fixed the West, which is typically overlooked in presidential politics because of its deep blue Democratic hue, as an ideological center of the campaign, even if its electoral votes aren’t in play.

“Obviously with the fires in all three states and the social upheaval in Portland and Seattle, it’s front-and-center,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles. “Democrats are using the fires to make the point that we’re a party that believes in science and is going to take on the issue of climate change, and Republicans are doing the same: ‘We’re the party of law and order.’”

“On those two issues,” he said, “We’re an ideological battleground.”

Far from the political power centers of New York and Washington, D.C., California’s wildfires brought Trump to the West Coast on Monday, sandwiched between campaign appearances in the more competitive states of Nevada and Arizona. Kamala Harris, the California senator and Joe Biden’s running mate, was set to follow with a visit to her home state late Monday for a briefing with fire officials Tuesday.

California has seen more than 3.1 million acres burn since the beginning of the year, and more than 30 people have died in fires up and down the West Coast. The air quality is so bad residents choke on smoke inside homes miles from active fires and search for air purifiers like they once did toilet paper.

On Monday, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist,” while Trump, who has criticized forest management practices and dismissed established science about climate change, said, “It’ll start getting cooler, just watch.”

When challenged about the science by the head of California’s Natural Resources Agency, Trump responded, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”

West Coast Democrats delivered some of Trump’s worst defeats in 2016. The president won less than 40 percent of the vote in California, Oregon and Washington state. And they have feuded ever since, litigating over climate change, immigration and other issues. The context of an election now less than two months away has served to amplify the conflict — a mixed blessing for West Coast politicians who can now highlight climate change, but must also appeal to the Trump administration for federal assistance. Now, both Trump and Biden are looking West to make points that will resonate in more competitive regions of the country — Trump on violence in cities, Biden on the effects of climate change.

Speaking about the wildfires in a speech from Wilmington, Del., on Monday, Biden laced into Trump’s overt appeals to suburban voters, a major point of weakness for the president’s re-election prospects.

“You know what is actually threatening our suburbs?” Biden said. “Wildfires are burning the suburbs of the West. Floods are wiping out suburban neighborhoods in the Midwest. Hurricanes are imperiling suburban life along our coast. If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires? How many suburban neighborhoods will have been flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away in superstorms?”


In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti likened Trump’s handling of climate change to his management of the coronavirus pandemic, saying that while climate change is not his fault, “His climate denial is only making these events get worse.”

Dismissive of climate change, Trump has sought to capitalize instead on social unrest in California, Oregon and Washington, holding liberal Democratic leadership in those states out as a foil in his law-and-order-focused campaign.

Earlier this month, Trump threatened to curtail federal funding to “anarchist jurisdictions” or any city that “disempowers” or “defunds” its police. He specifically called out Seattle, Portland, Ore., New York and Washington, D.C., for review. After the ambush of two sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles, he wrote on Twitter of the gunman, “Animals that must be hit hard!”

Trump still regularly refers to his administration’s intervention in protests in Portland, including this past weekend, when he called it “pathetic” that Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, planned to move from his condo building because of protests there.

“And by the way, the U.S. marshals did a great job in Portland,” he said to cheers. “They did a great job. You know what I mean. If Biden wins, the rioters win, the anarchists win, arsonists, flag burners, they all win.”

Justin Matheson, a Republican consultant in his home state of Washington and neighboring Oregon, said the months of protests and violence combined with the depressed economy have created opportunities for Republicans in suburban areas outside Seattle and Portland.

“We’ve seen, especially coming out of our [Washington] primary, base turnouts of Republicans that have been better than we’ve had in recent years,” said Matheson, the northwest director for Axiom Strategies. “It’s not so much Trump, it’s what the politicians around Seattle have done, including defunding the police. Just the unlawfulness and the inability to prosecute crimes is changing the narrative in the suburbs. It’s a whole different environment than it was in January.”

If Portland was beneficial for Trump’s catering to his base, it was also the city that proved more poignantly than anywhere the limitations of his law-and-order appeal. His agents were met there by a “wall of moms,” a nod to the suburban support that has he has shed since 2016 and failed to recover.

But Jim Brulte, a former California Republican Party chair and longtime legislative leader, said, “I don’t remember a presidential election where Portland basically had riots for 90 days before the election.”

For Trump, he said, “I think it’s a legitimate touchstone, and the fact of the matter is these are cities that are controlled by liberals and their ideology has, in part, led to this.”

None of the disputes in the West will matter for the purposes of the presidential election on the West Coast. The last Republican to carry California in a presidential election was George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Oregon and Washington haven’t gone Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Only one of four debates this fall is in the West, and that is the vice presidential debate, in Salt Lake City, far from the coast. Harris is from California. But before Tuesday, she had not been home since early spring, before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Still, rarely has the West Coast drawn as much attention in a presidential campaign.

“Abnormally for California, we are a part of the national conversation in the presidential campaign,” said Doug Herman, a California-based Democratic strategist. “Normally, California is mentioned to denigrate Hollywood celebrities and, ‘We went to California to raise money.’”

On issues of climate, West Coast politicians have felt a shift in the landscape in recent weeks. Though the region has long dominated the climate debate — dispatching then-California Gov. Jerry Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to global summits during the Trump era — the region has struggled to make an imprint in an American media ecosystem dominated by Washington and New York.

“Geography still matters and the center of communications are on the East Coast, not the West Coast, and that has an inclination on how people, including in the media, view the significance of issues. It’s a human trait. We certainly understand it,” Inslee, who made climate change a central platform of his primary run for president, acknowledged in an interview.

But he said the impact of the fires, which have roared onto newspaper front pages across America, will resonate this time and that Republicans will begin coming around to the magnitude of the challenge. “I am hopeful that when Trump goes to his reward that there will be some folks in the Republican Party who will show some leadership on this subject.”

Five years ago, on the eve of a Republican presidential primary debate in California, Brown had all but begged the candidates, including Trump, to address climate change, telling reporters: “My message is real clear: California’s burning. What the hell are you going to do about it?”

The answer, it turned out, was not much. But now, Brown said Monday, “There’s been more print on climate change in the last month than in the last few years, and that’s a byproduct of the suffering, the destruction and the deaths that people are seeing in California. So, this is a cause of awakening.”

Brown said, “The fires are graphically portraying the damage that occurs when the environment is disrupted.”

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