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2020 roundup: More presidential announcements are coming

WASHINGTON — The 2020 Democratic presidential field, like the universe, appears to ever expanding. 

Thursday brought news of the latest Democrat to enter the fold, Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, best known for an ill-fated challenge to California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi's perch atop Democratic leadership. 

He's far from the only Democrat on the sidelines who is still making moves.

South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is currently still in his "exploratory phase," appears set to hold his launch event on April 14. California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell told Fox News this week he's decided whether to run, and sounds very much like a candidate. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden left little doubt about his 2020 plan when he tweeted out a two minute video addressing concerns from some women who say their personal interactions made him uncomfortable. 

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton is traveling to Nevada on Friday as he considers a presidential bid. 

Former Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The Richmond Times-Dispatch he's "very close" to deciding whether to run. 

And amid the news that Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, a spokesman told NBC News that he still plans to run for president if he’s cancer-free after his treatment.

Right now, there are already 14 major candidates in the race (as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who says he's met the donation threshold to qualify for the presidential debate). So the field may begin to bump up soon against the 20-candidate limit the Democratic National Committee set for the first debate. 

As you consider the swelling presidential field, read on for more from the 2020 beat. 

  • Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that she'll decide on whether to run for Senate this month, but if she doesn't run, she doesn't believe she has to decide on whether to run for president until September. 
  • Read more from NBC's Adam Edelman about Buttigieg's regret over using the term "all lives matter," which he shared after a speech at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network's annual convention. 
  • NBC's Steve Kornacki analyzes the implications of a lack of post-Mueller bounce for President Trump.

With Grassley running, just a handful of Senate incumbents are left to decide on 2022

Friday's decision by 88-year-old Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley to run for re-election brings major clarity to the state. With Grassley, in there are just a few more senators up for re-election in 2022 who haven't officially announced their plans yet. 

Here's a look at the highest-profile senators who haven't yet explicitly confirmed whether they'll run next year, and what they've said: 

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Representing a state that has repeatedly swung between Republicans and Democrats in recent statewide elections, the race for this seat is expected to be one of the most competitive of the election cycle regardless of whether or not Johnson runs. 

He raised about $3.3 million over the first six months of 2021, ending June with $1.7 million in cash on hand. That's a lower number than many other vulnerable incumbents at this point, but enough to immediately hit the ground running if he decides to run. 

Johnson's publicly admitted he's unsure if he'll run, saying in an interview with a conservative commentator that he wants to keep the seat red but "I may not be the best candidate" to do that. Nevertheless, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott, R-Fla., has said he believes Johnson will run (per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). 

But even amid the senator's wavering, a gaggle of Democrats have already announced they're running, including Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and former Assembly Leader Tom Nelson. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska 

Murkowski finds herself in a unique situation ahead of her 2022 re-election for a number of reasons. First, Alaska has overhauled its election system for top offices and replaced it with a non-partisan primary where the top four candidates advance to a general election, which will decided by ranked-choice voting. And secondly, former President Donald Trump is endorsing her GOP challenger. 

The long-time fixture in Alaska politics is no stranger to odd circumstances surrounding a re-election, or overcoming trouble within her own party — she won her 2010 race as a write-in candidate after losing her primary. But the ranked-choice system, and Trump endorsing against her, could inject significant uncertainty into a 2022 race. 

While she hasn't officially announced her intentions, she told Bloomberg this week she'd reveal them "when I have plans to announce." 

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.  

Thune's seat is not expected to be at any risk for Republicans in 2022, so unlike these other two senators, the decision is more about whether Thune wants to run again. 

The member of Republican leadership is only 60 years old and could potentially succeed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell once the 79-year-old retires. But Thune has drawn the ire of Trump too, with the former president calling for a primary challenge for Thune after his critical comments about Trump's push to challenge the 2020 election. Thune told Politico in August that he's "not in any rush" to decide. 

Progressives aren’t the only ones who have a beef with the bipartisan infrastructure bill

The $550 billion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate last month was one of the rare bipartisan achievements in the past decade, with 19 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in support of the legislation. 

Its fate in the House, however, has become more uncertain as Democratic progressives have threatened to vote against it ahead of next week’s scheduled vote unless their larger $3.5 trillion reconciliation package passes first.

But the bill also has attracted widespread criticism from city-planners and transit advocates.

Charles Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, a city planning advocacy group, argues that that the legislation doesn’t make a real dent in the U.S. transportation system’s disrepair, despite the bill’s $110 billion for roads and bridges, $65 billion for high-speed internet access and $39 billion for public transit.

“The fact that we have just overbuilt our infrastructure and not made very good use of it means that even a generational size bill can't take care of everything,” Marohn said.

“As advertised, it is bold, but when it comes to spending on infrastructure that boldness lies in its size, not its vision,” Marohn wrote in a booklet published in response to the bill. 

Jarred Johnson, the executive director of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Transit Matters, contends that the bipartisan infrastructure bill doesn’t move far away enough from auto-centric transportation. 

“There are things cities can do to build momentum for projects when the money does come,” Johnson said. “Dedicating street space for other road uses, like bike and bus lanes, and showing people that the world is not going to come to an end because you’ve taken out a car lane.”

Johnson also criticized the bill’s reliance on spending money to build and renovate transportation projects, but not on addressing operating costs.

“No American city is designed in a way that befits relying on fares. Providing operating costs would help low-income communities by encouraging agencies to alleviate some of the burden on them,” Johnson said. 

And Salim Furth, a senior research fellow focusing on land use regulation and housing at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said he was disappointed that the infrastructure bill doesn’t address building additional housing near transit stops.

But Caron Whitaker, deputy executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, said that for her beloved and oft-ignored bike lanes, there is cause for optimism in this bill, with its allocated $6 billion to fix existing streets using safety standards that are good for bikers and pedestrians.

“This is the first time we’ve really seen Congress take the safety of people – biking, walking, using wheelchairs and scooters — seriously.”

“Is it a perfect bill? No,” Whitaker says. “But it is better than what we would get out of the next Congress, probably.”

Marohn of Strong Town is less convinced, however.

“We need an entirely new strategy for how we invest in infrastructure. It needs to start with maintenance, and it needs to start with getting better use of the stuff we have already built,” he said.

“Ten years from now, when we’re done with this spending, we will have more bridges in disrepair than we do now. We will have more lane miles in bad condition than we do now.”

Progressive non-profit attacks Sununu on abortion ahead of possible Senate bid

Amplify NH, a progressive non-profit, is launching a seven-figure television and digital ad buy attacking New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu by arguing the possible Republican Senate candidate is out of step with the state on abortion. 

The spot, which began running Thursday morning, begins with the narrator saying the ad will include "no scary voices, no over the top music, just facts," before reading local headlines on the budget Sununu signed, which included a ban on abortion after 24 weeks, except for in the case when a "pregnant woman’s life or a major bodily function is threatened." 

The ad notes that there's no carve out for victims of rape or incest, before directing views to read more online. 

Amplify NH tells NBC News that it will put about $1.5 million behind the ad.

"The more Granite Staters learn about Governor Sununu’s abortion ban, the more they dislike it — and disapprove of the job he’s doing as governor,”  Molly Kelly, an Amplify New Hampshire board member, said in a statement announcing the ad. “Health care professionals, patients, and activists have repeatedly called on Governor Sununu to repeal his abortion ban because it is wrong for New Hampshire. We plan to educate every Granite Stater about Governor Sununu’s extreme, far-right agenda that puts politics before women’s health care.”

According to NPR, Sununu addressed the issue at the time, arguing that while he considers himself a "pro-choice governor," the abortion restrictions wouldn't prompt him to veto the bill. 

“So, look, I’m a pro-choice governor, but like most citizens of the state of New Hampshire, I do not think that we should be doing late-term or, you know, these at-the-very-last-minute type abortions,” Sununu told New Hampshire talk radio host Chris Ryan in June, according to NPR. “That’s all this really touches upon, and I think most people agree that that’s, that’s not appropriate. So, no, I wouldn’t necessarily veto a budget over that.”

Abortion is expected to be one key issue on the campaign trail if Sununu decides to run for Senate, as many Washington Republicans have been pushing for. Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, who Sununu would be running against if he decides to jump in, criticized Sununu for signing the legislation in an interview with the same talk radio show, arguing that "a pro-choice governor would never have allowed this attack on reproductive rights."

A new online poll from the University of New Hampshire found that 57 percent of state residents approve of Sununu's job performance and 37 percent do not. While those numbers are high, the University of New Hampshire notes in their poll release the disapproval number is the highest it has recorded since Sununu took office. 

Conservative group launches $7.5 million ad buy criticizing Democratic spending plans

A top conservative outside group is dropping $7.5 million in new ad spending aimed at using the battle over the multi-trillion Democratic reconciliation bill to undercut the standing of vulnerable House Democrats. 

The new spending campaign from American Action Network, one of the top GOP-aligned outside groups in House races, includes broadcast, cable and digital ads across 24 Democratic-held districts. The spots accuse Democrats of "overspending" which "benefits a few while working Americans suffer" and will lead to more inflation. 

“The more we learn about this bill, the worse it gets. This bill is creating a world of problems for Members in 100 different directions,” AAN President Dan Conston said in a statement announcing the ad campaign. “Members should think long and hard before walking the plank for Pelosi when we’re only beginning to see just how toxic this bill will be back home.”  

Democrats are struggling to balance competing wants within their party on infrastructure, new spending and the debt ceiling, so the final plan is far from completed. But there's already a race to define the new Democratic spending plans and win the war of public opinion on the airwaves. On top of the millions that AAN is spending now and has already spent, other Republican groups have spent millions on similar messaging aimed at influencing Congressional races. Democrats are spending millions too on boosting vulnerable Democrats by messaging the plan as a way to jumpstart the economy and help struggling Americans.

Youngkin drops round of new ads on crime, vaccines and education

Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin has released a flurry of new ads in recent days, just six weeks before Election Day, aimed at going on offense against Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe on crime and education, and defending himself against attacks on his stance on vaccine mandates. 

A new spot, released Tuesday, centers on a police officer injured in the line of duty in 1984 who says she fears McAuliffe would release violent criminals back on the street. It comes after Youngkin criticized a  McAuliffe parole board appointment during last week's debate (the Democrat said that he would punish anyone found to have committed wrongdoing but that he wants to invest in parole to "lift everybody up").

Another recent ad focuses on criticism of his stance on vaccines. At last week's debate, McAuliffe repeatedly criticized Youngkin for not supporting vaccine mandates, as Youngkin has said "individuals should be allowed to make that decision on their own." Youngkin's new spot includes a doctor saying that McAuliffe is playing politics on the issue and that he trusts the Republican to keep him safe. 

Youngkin's other two ads are focused on education (including one spot with a Loudon County teacher arguing that the Republican will bring “real leadership” to the state’s education system), and another targeting Hampton Roads with his plan for the area. 

The new spots come as McAuliffe's ads have been focusing on similar issues. He's leaned in heavily on the pandemic and his criticisms of Youngkin's policies on vaccines. He has a spot on education too, arguing that vaccines and masks are the way to keep schools open, and another criticizing Youngkin's work in private equity with typical attacks on things like layoffs. 

Both candidates are gearing up for a sprint to the finish line — as of today, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe has just shy of $2 million of ads booked through Election Day, compared with $1.2 million for Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin.

Former Nevada Sen. Heller is running for governor

Former Republican Sen. Dean Heller is running for Nevada governor, making him the highest-profile Republican to mount a challenge to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. 

Heller made his announcement, which had long been expected, in a social media video released Monday, where he recounted growing up stock car racing and went on to lament how he believes "mask-mandates, defunding the police, endless lockdowns" under Sisolak are hurting Nevada's workers. 

"Look what's happened to Nevada. We have a governor more interested in locking us out of work than putting us back to work," Heller says. 

"I'm sick of seeing abortion clinics open while churches and schools are closed, my grandkids playing soccer in masks. That's all on Gov. Sisolack. We can't go on like this, it's time Nevada had a conservative governor with a lick of common sense." 

Heller served in Congress from 2007-2019, first for two terms in Congress and then one term as a senator. The Republican notably broke with former President Donald Trump during the 2016 election, saying that he "vehemently oppose[s]" Trump but was committed to "voting against Hillary Clinton." He subsequently said he did end up voting for Trump, but the relationship between the two men was a big story ahead of Heller's defeat (and Trump told reporters Heller lost because of his critical comments of the then-GOP nominee). 

Heller joins a crowded field that includes North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, attorney Joey Gilbert and businessman Guy Nohra. 

Sisolak is running for his second term in office after winning his 2018 race against then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt. (Laxalt is running for Senator this cycle against Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto.) 

A July poll from OH Predictive Insights found the majority of Nevada voters view the Democratic governor favorably, and approve of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy (pluralities approved of his handling of race relations and guns, while voters were virtually split on his handling of immigration). 

Molly Forgey, a Sisolak campaign spokesperson, released a statement marking Heller's entry emphasizing the crowded primary. 

"Republicans have found themselves in a crowded primary they will have to fight through for the next nine months. In the meantime, Governor Sisolak will be focused on Nevada’s recovery — getting more shots in arms, Nevadans back to work and businesses back open and thriving."

Abortion, crime, economy and Covid dominate the airwaves ahead of Thursday's Virginia governor debate

Virginia's first gubernatorial general election debate takes place Thursday evening, pitting former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe against Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin.

And looking at what ads have been running makes it clear what each candidate is centering their messages on as the campaign heads into its closing stretch. 

McAuliffe's top ads since the start of the month largely center on the Covid pandemic and abortion. Per the ad-tracking firm AdImpact (which approximates how much campaigns spend on television ads on broadcast and national cable, but not local cable), McAuliffe's most frequent ad is one featuring a doctor speaking directly to camera to claim that Youngkin's "far-right agenda" on abortion "is just wrong and it would harm my patients." 

It's no surprise that McAuliffe's ads are focusing so significantly on abortion, as Democrats have been pointing to the recent decision by the Supreme Court not to block strict abortion restrictions in Texas as proof that the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is at risk. And the issue gained particular salience in the state after a hidden camera video of Youngkin discussing how he would go "on offense" on the issue if elected became public. (Youngkin's campaign claims the video has been edited and says he supports some exceptions for abortions.) 

McAullife's other top ad centers on two other key issues for his campaign — the pandemic and trying to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump. The spot argues that "like Donald Trump," Glenn Youngkin refuses to take coronavirus seriously," pointing to his opposition to vaccine mandates for teachers and mask requirements in schools.  

Youngkin's top spots are right in the wheelhouse of a GOP politician — crime and the economy. 

He has focused heavily on crime in the hopes of linking McAuliffe to the parts of the Democratic base that have called for cutting funding to police departments. In one of his top recent ads, Youngkin's campaign includes a group of sheriffs arguing that with crime on the rise in the state, "extreme Democrats supporting Terry McAuliffe want to defund the police." It's an argument the Democrat's campaign has pushed back on, arguing that the state was one of the safer in the nation under his tenure. 

And the other top spot features Youngkin wandering a grocery store, promising to eliminate the state's grocery taxes to fight rising prices. 

The two candidates will debate Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET, airing on local news stations and C-SPAN. 

Abortion rights advocates gear up for re-match against moderate Texas Democrat

Abortion rights advocates are backing progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros’ re-match against Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the last Democrats in Congress who does not support abortion rights.

NARAL Pro-Choice America plans to announce its support Wednesday for Cisneros, the group told NBC News, hoping to send a message with its unusually early support for a primary challenger that there is no room for opposition to abortion rights in the party. The move comes a week after the Supreme Court opted not to block Texas' strict abortion law from going into effect, raising concerns among Democrats that the court may ultimately weaken the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. 

“There's room in the Democratic Party for folks with different opinions. You can identify as someone who is pro-life. But you can't impose your view on others and restrict the decisions of other people,” said NARAL's chief campaigns and advocacy officer Christian LoBue.

“The message that we're hoping to send with this endorsement is that reproductive freedom is a central and core tenet of the Democratic Party,” she added. 

NARAL and other liberal groups that support abortion rights backed Cisneros’ failed attempt to oust Cuellar in a 2020 primary — the incumbent narrowly won by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent. But they’re starting earlier this time in the hopes of giving Cisneros more time to gather momentum. 

They’re hoping for a repeat of what happened in Illinois last year, where now-Rep. Marie Newman ousted former anti-abortion Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski on her second attempt, after an unsuccessful bid in 2018.

Newman’s suburban Chicago district is bluer than Cuellar’s largely rural South Texas district that stretches along the border with Mexico, though both voted for President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump, and LoBue said they expect Texas’ new abortion law to galvanize voters there.

“Mr. Cueller is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House, so it just couldn't be more important,” LoBue said.

Cuellar has long been criticized by the left. In a statement to NBC News ahead of his 2020 matchup against Cisneros, then-Cuellar campaign spokesman Colin Strother said that "we feel very strongly that the Congressman represents the values of his district very well and that he knows and understands the priorities for his constituents."

Covid a top closing message for Democrats ahead of California's recall

The voting to recall California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom — and potentially elect a replacement — comes to an end on Tuesday, and Democrats have leaned heavily into messaging on the Covid pandemic in the race's final days. 

Since Sept. 1, the top Democratic ads on the TV airwaves have centered on Covid — Democrats have spent more than $1.5 million on one spot that attacks GOP frontrunner Larry Elder for his stance on Covid mandates, as well at least $1.2 million on a Covid-centric spot featuring former President Barack Obama (note: The creative-spending estimates are from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact and include ads captured on broadcast and national cable outlets, but *not* local cable, so there's more spending the tracker does not capture). 

The top Democratic spot per AdImpact argues that recalling Newsom from office "elects an anti-vaccine, Trump Republican" instead of Newsom, who the narrator says is "fighting the pandemic based on science, compassion and common sense." 

The Obama ad strikes a similar tone, arguing that "your vote could be the difference between protecting our kids and putting them at risk," as does a Spanish-language spot running prominently.

Democrats are also running spots on other issues, including one from Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders talking about the importance of keeping Newsom amid a push on climate change and "health care for all.

Unlike the unified Democratic effort, which gets to be singularly focused on Newsom's priorities, the Republican effort is fragmented by the reality on the ground — their candidates are running both against Newsom, but also each other. So each candidate has a different strategy, particularly on the airwaves. 

The GOP ad with the most spending behind it in September (per AdImpact's tracker) is one from Republican businessman John Cox, where he says he may not be as "pretty" as Newsom or "an entertainer" like Elder, but he has the experience outside government to fix the "mismanaged mess" in the state. That spot has cost at least $475,000 this month.

Elder's top spots during that period include a Spanish-language spot with a woman who says she's a Democrat criticizing Newsom over school and church closures related to the pandemic, and another of Elder's typical direct-to-camera ads where he says "big changes" are on the horizon if he's elected like a repeal of the gas tax and supporting the police. There's been at least around $300,000 behind each of those Elder ads in September. 

Recent California recall polling shows Newsom leading with just days to go

A new poll ahead of next week's recall vote of California Gov. Gavin Newsom shows the Democratic incumbent in a more comfortable position than he was weeks ago. 

Only 38.5 percent of likely voters say they support the effort to dump Newsom, according to the new University of California at Berkeley IGS Poll, while 60 percent saying they would vote against the recall. Six weeks ago, likely voters were narrowly divided in the Berkeley Poll, with 47 percent supporting the recall and 50 percent opposing. 

The pollsters say that an increase in Democratic enthusiasm is key to the shift.

In late July, the poll found that 87 percent of registered Republicans who expressed high interest or said they had already voted, compared to 58 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of those without a party preference. 

In the latest survey, 91 percent of Republicans expressed high interest or said they had already voted, compared to 80 percent of Democrats and 70 percent without a party preference (a group which the poll shows leans toward opposing the recall). 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at The Unity Council in Oakland, Calif., on May 10, 2021.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

The recall ballot has two questions on it. The first is an up or down vote on whether to recall Newsom. If a majority of voters say no, the recall is defeated. But if a majority say yes, then Newsom will be booted from office and replaced by the candidate with the most votes (based on the plurality, not a majority) on a second question of who should replace Newsom (the incumbent is not eligible for this part of the ballot). 

Out of those candidates vying to replace Newsom, Republican commentator Larry Elder has a commanding lead among the field with likely voters, with 38 percent support. Democratic YoutTube financial star Kevin Paffrath finishes second with 10 percent, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer has 8 percent support and Republican businessman John Cox and GOP state Rep. Kevin Kiley each have support from 4 percent. 

It's not the only poll that shows Newsom in solid shape. The 538 poll tracker shows the polling average now at 56 percent supporting keeping Newsom compared to 41 percent who want to remove him, bolstered by recent polls from places like Suffolk University and the Public Policy Institute of California, which show double-digit leads for keeping Newsom. 

Rep. Spanberger meets Afghan refugees at Fort Pickett in Virginia

Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger toured Fort Pickett in Virginia on Thursday afternoon, meeting with some of the 5,000 Afghan refugees who are residing there after being evacuated. 

Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger toured Ft. Pickett in Virginia on ThursdayCourtesy of Rep. Spanberger

Spanberger is the first member of Congress to tour the facility, which is located in her district. There has been minimal access to the facility by the public. 

Spanberger's office exclusively provided photos to NBC News of her tour. 

Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger toured Ft. Pickett in Virginia on Thursday, where a Bojangles food truck served fried chicken to refugees.Courtesy of Rep. Spanberger

While visiting, Spanberger saw a food truck from the fried chicken chain Bojangles that was on site to serve refugees a taste of authentic American cooking.