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Ailing Sen. Thad Cochran announces he'll retire on April 1

After months of speculation amid poor health and absences from the Senate, MIssissippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran has announced that he'll retire on April 1. 

"I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge. I intend to fulfill my responsibilities and commitments to the people of Mississippi and the Senate through the completion of the 2018 appropriations cycle, after which I will formally retire from the U.S. Senate," Cochran said in a statement Monday. 

Cochran, 80, was first elected in 1978 and is the tenth longest-serving senator in U.S. history. 

Per Mississippi law, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will appoint a replacement, and a special election will be held in November for the seat. 

That means that the state will hold not one, but two Senate elections this fall; Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker is also up for reelection.  He's currently facing a primary challenge from conservative Chris McDaniel, although Cochran's announcement could shake up the contest. 

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Ben Kamisar

GA Dems running television ads soliciting stories on gov vote count concerns

The battle in the Georgia governor's race has gone from the ballot box to the courtroom — and now to the airwaves. 

Republican Brian Kemp currently holds a slim lead in the too-close-to-call contest, but Democrats are hoping that outstanding votes and provisional ballots could pull him down below the majority threshold to force a runoff against Democrat Stacey Abrams. 

As votes continue to trickle in while counties certify their results, and Abrams allies rally to "count every vote,"  the Georgia Democratic Party and the Abrams campaign are out with a new spot that calls on voters to reach out if they had a ballot-access problem. The Georgia Democratic Party has booked $273,300 in television between Wednesday and next week. 

"Behind every vote is a voice — the voices of our family members, friends, our communities, the voices of Georgia," the ad's narrator says. 

"This election, was your voice heard? Too many were silenced. For every voice to be heard, every vote must be counted."

The ad directs to a website, a telephone number and an email address associated with the campaign's voter protection group. 

The spot launched a day after a federal judge directed the state to set up a hotline or website to help voters check to see if their provisional ballots were accepted and for officials to review provisional ballot eligibility in states with more than 100 of such ballots. 

The final results of the race are set to be certified between Friday at 5 p.m. and Nov. 20. But that timeline could be scuttled by any future legal battles. 

Abrams has argued her campaign wants to ensure that all eligible voters have their ballots recorded, while the Kemp team has accused the Democrat of rejecting the results of the election. 

Ben Kamisar

Almost six in 10 Americans believe Trump should not be reelected

Only 36 percent of Americans believe President Trump should be reelected, according to a new Monmouth University poll released Wednesday. 

With the dust settling on the 2018 midterms and Democrats already beginning to telegraph their presidential plans, 59 percent of Americans want to see someone other than Trump elected in the 2020 presidential race, the poll shows.

Registered voters also feel similarly, with 37 percent supporting Trump's reelection and 58 percent opposing it.

 Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Democrats want Trump to lose his reelection. But 59 percent of independents and 16 percent of Republicans also believe Trump shouldn't get another term in the Oval office. 

The same poll found the president's job approval rating at 43 percent.

“It’s interesting that the number of Americans who feel Trump deserves re-election is actually smaller than the number who give him a positive job rating. It seems that some Americans are okay with Trump as president now but feel that four years might be enough,” Patrick Murray, the director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement released with the poll. 

While a majority of Americans want to turn the page on Trump after the next presidential election, there's no clear appetite for impeaching him before then. 

Thirty-six percent of Americans want Trump impeached and kicked out of the White House, while 59 percent of Americans want to see him serve out his term. 

But Americans do want the new Congress, which will include a Democratic House, to keep a watchful eye on Trump. 

Fifty-two percent of Americans want "keeping President Trump in check" to be a major priority for Congress, a view that is also shared by 54 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of independents. 

Voters are less clear about whether they think new Democratic control of the House will be good for the country. A plurality of 42 percent think the change won't have a substantive effect on business in Washington, while 28 percent say it will change Washington for the better and 16 percent say it will change it for the worse.

And as Congress looks likely to keep the status-quo in its leadership elections, pluralities want House Democrats and Senate Republicans to find new leaders outside of California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell respectively. 

Within their own parties, a plurality of Democrats also don't want to see Pelosi as speaker, while a plurality of Republicans want McConnell to remain the party's leader in the Senate. 

Pelosi's approval rating sits at just 17 percent among Americans, while McConnell's approval rating is 15 percent. 

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Labor comes out in support of Pelosi for speaker

WASHINGTON — Eleven labor groups are backing Rep. Nancy Pelosi to be the next speaker of the House, according to a letter obtained by NBC News, giving her a boost as she looks to dispel dissent from within the party ranks. 

Six new labor groups came out on Wednesday, writing a letter of support, including the Airline Pilots Association, American Federation of Government Employees, United Auto Workers, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the National Association of Letter Carriers. 

"Throughout your career you have been an unquestioned champion for the interest of working men and women and their families," they wrote in a letter to Pelosi. "we can think of no one better suited to be speaker at this critical moment in history."

These six join the AFL-CIO, United Farm Workers, American Federation of Teachers, United Steelworkers and the National Education Association. 

Pelosi is facing a backlash as more than a dozen new freshman Democrats campaigned on not supporting her and about a dozen current members have indicated they wouldn't support her. Their problem, however, is there is no one who has stepped forward to challenge her. 

The Democratic caucus will chose their candidate for speaker on November 28 and 29. The entire House floor will vote on the speaker position when the new Congress begins in January. 

Leigh Ann Caldwell

A look back at NBC News' #MeTooCongress coverage

WASHINGTON – It’s been one year since the #MeToo movement hit Capitol Hill, when an influx of women speaking up led to the ouster of a handful of members of Congress.

But the House and the Senate have yet to complete their work on reforms to the Congressional accountability system that puts taxpayers on the hook for paying out settlements.

While the House and Senate have individually passed their separate bills, they still haven’t reached agreement on one unified measure although progress is being made, sources say. 

Still, sticking points remain. While the House bill makes members personally responsible for paying out claims of sexual harassment or abuse, an aide in California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier’s office said the Senate bill doesn’t include that provision.

Speier’s office is working on the negotiations between the two bodies.

Senate negotiators, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., met on Tuesday to discuss the legislation. “This is the moment, we should work to get it done, and so it’s just trying to negotiate these last few things,” Klobuchar told NBC News.

As Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of when the issue really exploded on Capitol Hill, here’s a look back at some of NBC News’s reporting on the saga:

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., spearheaded the #MeTooCongress movement by sharing her story of sexual harassment from her time as a Congressional staffer and inviting others to do the same.  Speier told a House committee she knew of one sexual harasser in each party currently serving in Congress, while Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock relayed a story of sexual harassment forcing a staffer to quit her job. That same week, Speier and other members introduced the Me Too Congress Act to attempt to remove barriers delaying Congressional staff from filing formal complaints.
  • Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers resigned under pressure after revelations he paid an accuser a settlement out of his personal office funds, bypassing the official process. His resignation was messy, as many democrats were reluctant to see the Congressional Black Caucus founder go.
  • Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold found himself facing criticism for an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement claim paid out to a former employee. This settlement was the first of its kind to be made public and ultimately led to Farenthold’s resignation.
  • By early December, Democratic women helped led the charge to push out Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who resigned  resign after multiple women accused him of harassment or sexual misconduct.
  • Shortly after, Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks resigned amid an ethics investigation into sexual misconduct. Franks said in a statement that he had discussed his interest in finding a surrogate mother with two women in his office, making them uncomfortable. His wife has struggled with infertility, he said.
  • Newly revealed documents uncovered the largest settlement uncovered to date, $220,000 in taxpayer dollars paid out to a congressional staffer who accused Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., of making unwanted sexual advances toward her and threatening to fire her. In order to receive that settlement, the accuser was forced to resign and agree to never seek employment within the Congressional office where she worked.
  • Data provided to the House Administration Committee showed that taxpayers paid an additional $115,000 to settle sexual harassment complaints in Congress from 2008 to 2012. The information did not include the names of victims or those accused, nor did it include other ways members of Congress can settle claims, including with individual congressional funds.
  • The Senate, after pressure, finally releases data, hours after the Senate left for the holidays, on their harassment claims. Of the $600,000 listed over the past decade for harassment claims, just one claim for $14,260 for "sex discrimination and reprisal" — failing to include a $220,000 settlement for sexual harassment in 2014 that was recently made public.
  • In February, 2018, the House of Representatives easily passed major reforms to the way sexual harassment is reported in Congress, a measure aimed at overhauling the secretive, excessively complicated system in place for decades.
  • In May, the Senate passed its version of the legislation by a unanimous vote. But some House members arguing the Senate bill lacks enough accountability of members who are accused of improper behavior, concerns that have deadlocked Congress to this day.
  • This week, a group of advocates working to root out sexual harassment on the Hill wrote a letter to Congressional leaders, imploring them to come to an agreement and pass the remaining sexual harassment reforms.

NBC's Kasie Hunt, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Marianna Sotomayor, Alex Moe, Frank Thorp V, Garrett Haake and  Rich Gardella are receiving the Joan Shorenstein Barone Award at Wednesday night's Radio & Television Congressional Correspondents' Dinner for their reporting on sexual harassment in Congress. 

 

Ben Kamisar

Few incoming House Democrats vocally support impeachment

Republicans spent much of 2018 warning that Democrats would impeach President Trump if they took control of the House.

But as the dust is settling on the midterms, only seven of the almost 50 incoming House Democrats have publicly declared their support for impeachment, adding to a significant group in the caucus (but not a majority) who are open to impeaching the president.

Virtually all of the incoming freshmen who support impeachment are from safe, blue districts. And the one Democrat who faced a real race in November, Steven Horsford, gave a full-throated endorsement of impeachment during his primary but moderated his stance for the general election. 

So while few have ruled it out, and are giving themselves significant wiggle room to support impeachment depending on the outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the House Democratic caucus will enter 2019 the same way it left 2018, with a majority of members publicly opposed to impeachment.

New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most visible members of the freshmen class, backed impeachment in a CNN interview shortly after upsetting Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary.

"I would support impeachment. I think that we have the grounds to do it," she said. 

"What we need to focus on is ensuring that we can, when people potentially break the law, hold everyone accountable and no person is above that law." 

Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley ran in part on her zeal for impeachment as she took down another long-time incumbent, Rep. Mike Capuano, in her primary.

Texas Democrat Veronica Escobar told the Texas Tribune ahead of her primary for her deep-blue seat that she’d vote for impeachment but would like Democrats to wait for the Mueller investigation to end.

Colorado Democrat Joe Neguse said during a primary debate that “there is certainly enough evidence” to begin impeachment proceedings; Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar said she’d vote “yes” and called Trump a “tyrant” in an interview with CNN; and Minnesota Democrat Rashida Tlaib told The Hill that the 2018 elections were in part about "electing a jury that will impeach" Trump. 

Former and future Rep. Steven Horsford, who won a battleground seat, initially came out in favor of impeachment during his primary, but pivoted away from that stance in the general election.

In a February interview with The Nevada Independent, Horsford said he “would support” impeachment, arguing that there are “many things that are becoming evident every day as to why he is unfit to be president and why Congress should hold him accountable.”

But in an October interview with Nevada Public Radio, Horsford said that Congress should allow Mueller “to complete his investigation,” arguing that a “key element” to impeachment is whether Trump “is found to have broken the law.”

No other Democratic candidates, running in moderate districts or for open seats, made any declarative statements supporting impeachment. Most said they want to wait until Mueller’s report is made public before deciding.

And while the freshmen class will grow depending on the outcome of a handful of races not yet called by NBC News, virtually all of those Democratic candidates are also waiting for Mueller, while the others aren’t vocally calling for impeachment either.

The group of pro-impeachment Democrats will join a vocal group of lawmakers in their own caucus, but a group that still makes up the minority.

Fifty-eight Democrats voted to advance impeachment articles against Trump last December, and an NBC News analysis of recent statements by incumbent House Democrats shows little public change in support for impeachment.

Like the candidates, many of those lawmakers have qualified their stances pending the result of the Mueller investigation.

So the spotlight will be on many of these incumbents, and new members, if and when that report is completed and made public, especially if public pressure from the party’s base continues to mount.

Exit polling showed that only 39 percent of midterm voters want to impeach Trump, compared to the 56 percent who do not. But that’s magnified by a deep partisan divide—92 percent of Democrats want Congress to impeach Trump, but just 7 percent of Republicans share that view.   

Ben Kamisar

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown considering presidential bid

Fresh off of a commanding victory in a reddening Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is flirting with a presidential bid in 2020. 

Brown told The Columbus Dispatch on Monday that he's heard "sort of a crescendo" of people discussing him running for president, admitting that the interest has prompted him to think about running but that he and his wife are "not close to saying yes." 

Brown's wife, columnist Connie Schultz, tweeted the Dispatch's story out with the comment "we're thinking about it."  

Brown's convincing reelection victory in a state where Republicans swept the other statewide offices as well as every competitive House race has some Democrats believing Brown could be one of the few capable to fire up progressives while threading the needle in the Midwest. 

The senator argued during his victory rally last week that Democrats should look to his campaign for inspiration about how to reach out to everyday Americans. 

"Let our country — our nation’s citizens, our Democratic Party, my fellow elected officials all over the country — let them all cast their eyes toward the heartland, to the industrial Midwest, to our Great Lakes state.   Let them hear what we say. Let them see what we do," Brown said. 

"We will show America how we celebrate organized labor and all workers — the waitress in Dayton, the office worker in Toledo, the nurse in Columbus, the mineworker in Coshocton.  That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018, and that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020.”

If he runs, Brown will join what's expected to be a crowded field that includes some prominent Senate colleagues as well as Democrats across the country looking to fill the power vacuum within the party's leadership ranks. 

Here's Brown speaking with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" just hours before the Dispatch report broke, an interview where he also referred to his campaign as a "blueprint" to help the party "prepare for 2020." 

Ben Kamisar

W.V. Dem Ojeda launches long-shot presidential bid

West Virginia Democrat Richard Ojeda has jumped into what's expected to be a crowded field for the party's 2020 presidential nomination, making him the first Democrat to do so after last week's midterm elections. 

Ojeda filed his campaign with the Federal Election Commission Sunday night, unveiling his intentions in an interview with The Intercept and releasing a 30-second ad that evokes his Army service. 

"I never dreamed that I would come home only to find children in my own backyard who have it worse than the kids I saw in Afghanistan. I spent decades fighting for this country and now it's time to go to D.C. and defend our homeland," he says in the ad. 

"Make no mistake about it: I will stand with the working-class citizens over all else. If they don't like it, hit the road." 

The Democrat also unveiled an early piece of his platform, which would force federal elected officials and Cabinet members to donate any net worth over $1 million to charity, place caps on future income earned by those officials and bar those officials from access to healthcare plans that aren't provided to average Americans. 

Ojeda faces a significant  uphill battle, as he lacks the national notoriety and resources available to the top-tier of presidential hopefuls. But he's hoping that his unique brand and populist campaigning can help him break through. 

The state senator and former Army Major gained some national prominence during his recent bid for Congress, where he significantly overperformed Democrats in the reddest district in his state as a spurned Trump voter who embraced progressive populism and played a key role in the state's teacher strikes. Yet, he still fell short by more than a dozen percentage points to future Republican Congresswoman Carol Miller. 

Ojeda is only the second major Democratic candidate to declare for office—Maryland Rep. John Delaney has been running since last year. More are expected to announce in the coming months, as the full field is expected to swell to more than a dozen candidates. 

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer and anti-Trump provocateur who is floating his own presidential bid, is already taking aim at Ojeda on Twitter, arguing that his vote for Trump will come back to haunt him in a Democratic primary. 

NBC's Garrett Haake and Kailani Koenig caught up with Ojeda during his final days on the campaign trail, check out their conversation below. 

Leigh Ann Caldwell

DACA, criminal justice are top priorities for the Koch Network this lame duck

WASHINGTON — The Koch Network is launching a multi-million dollar effort to pressure the lame duck Congress to pass their legislative priorities before the end of the year, including criminal justice reform, relief for DACA recipients and free trade. 

As the outgoing Congress returns this week for the first time after the midterm elections, the group says its priority is to influence a series of must-pass spending bills, which are likely to get weighed down by a fight over funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall. 

The Koch organization is pushing Congress to ensure any funding for a border wall with relief for immigrants who came to the United States as children and were given relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Previous efforts between Congress and the president to find a permanent solution for DACA recipients broke down. 

They also are putting pressure on Congress to pass the First Step Act, a bill that would incentivize job training for prisoners and help those being released re-enter society. The criminal justice reform bill would also change some sentencing guidelines, including lowering mandatory minimum sentences for people with non-violent drug convictions and also retroactively reducing the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity. 

The House passed the First Step Act with an overwhelming majority but the Senate hasn’t yet taken it up. 

“We will work aggressively to bring together a divided government to address these critical issues,” said James Davis, a Koch Network spokesman. “It’s a bold, positive vision for what we must do to help people improve their lives.”

The Koch Network, which is a series of non-profits and political organizations that has traditionally supported Republican elected officials, announced at its June semi-annual donor seminar that it is refocusing its efforts, supporting members of Congress that align with their priorities, including on immigration, criminal justice reform and trade. 

Their position on these issues often conflict with the Republican Party under Trump who has touted policies and rhetoric that result in closed borders and barriers to trade. 

“We see an opportunity to engage the American people to address some of the toughest problems facing our country: a broken criminal justice system, an immigration system that prevents good people from contributing, eliminating cronyism and promoting open trade,” Davis said. 

The Koch Network is also putting out a challenge to businesses to hire people coming out of prison and investing in community groups that work with recently released prisoners. 

Ben Kamisar

Gardner defends Rick Scott's claim that Democrats are trying to "steal" Florida election

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, defended Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott's charge that "unethical liberals" are trying to "steal" the state's Senate election, in which Scott a candidate. 

Gardner argued on Sunday's "Meet the Press" that a state court found that Broward County had violated the state's constitution in delaying identifying how many ballots were left to be counted. And he argued that "I'm going to leave it to the courts to decide how we best protect the integrity of this election."

Florida is now in a recount for the races for senator, governor and commissioner of agriculture after the tight margins triggered an automatic recount. 

Democrats have blasted Republicans like Scott and President Trump for suggesting foul play, arguing that the main goal is to be sure every ballot is accurately counted. 

And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement  has told media that there have been no specific allegations of voter fraud and that it's not currently investigating any foul play in the vote count. 

Watch the full interview here

With long primary ahead, Dem Super PAC aims to lay groundwork for fight against Trump

Priorities USA, the super PAC launched to help reelect Barack Obama in 2012 and rebooted in 2016 to support Hillary Clinton, is now setting out on its most challenging mission to date: building an operation to reclaim the White House long before Democrats settle on their nominee.

No incumbent has gotten the kind of jump-start on his reelection bid that President Trump has. At the same time, Democrats are bracing for one of the most crowded and prolonged nomination battles in decades. It’s a daunting reality that Priorities officials say they’ve been mobilizing to address for months.

"Now, frankly, we’re needed more than ever," Guy Cecil, who is returning as the super PAC’s chairman, said in an interview. "It’s going to be a long primary. Obviously and understandably their focus is going to be on winning the primary. So we need to make sure that there’s an organization that is focused on Trump and … that we have structures that are built so that when we have a nominee we’re not starting from scratch."

Priorities used the midterm cycle to refine strategies to both mobilize likely Democrats and win back voters who may have supported Trump in 2016. It engaged in 55 specific races either on its own or in partnership with other independent expenditure groups.

Having primarily made its mark in 2012 with its broadcast advertising, a major focus has been developing digital advertising infrastructure that is proving to be a more effective messaging strategy. More than 95 percent of Priorities' paid communication budget since 2016 has been on digital advertising, deploying messages informed by research projects on African American millennial voters, Latino voters, and soft Trump supporters.

"We’ve gone from people asking us does digital work, to asking us how does digital work, which I think is a really important thing for Democrats," Cecil said.

In the closing months of the midterm campaign, a team within Priorities began laying the groundwork for 2020, identifying structural deficiencies in the party and making plans to address them. Priorities plans to launch a new coordination hub to provide partner organizations with modeling, targeting and opinion research for its digital, mail and field programs. It is also building a Trump-focused research and press operation that will be deployed in swing states.

"It will operate a lot less like a traditional super PAC and it will operate a lot more like a full scale campaign operation," Cecil said.

Some of the functions Priorities has taken on have traditionally been performed by the Democratic National Committee, an operation that came out of the 2016 campaign mired in debt and controversy. Cecil said the DNC "has gotten its sea legs" since.

"But they have a primary to manage, and the RNC doesn’t," he said. "The DNC has to make sure we have a debate schedule, they have to make sure that we have a convention, they have to make sure that all the normal processes and management of these caucuses and primaries happens in a way that is fair. … We have the luxury of just focusing on one thing."

Priorities spent $200 million in the 2016 campaign. Officials say it now already has commitments of $74 million for 2020, nearly double what they had raised at the same point in the last presidential cycle.