Clyburn advises Biden against early VP pick if he runs

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Less than a year ago, South Carolina’s top Democrat was predicting that Joe Biden could win the state’s critical early primary “going away” if he were a candidate. As the Democratic field has expanded — and with Biden possibly just days away from entering himself — House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is being more cautious.

“Well, not going away maybe,” Clyburn told NBC News during an interview on the steps of the South Carolina capitol Tuesday. “When you get this many people into a race you have no idea how the spread will occur. What I do know is, according to all the polls I’ve seen in South Carolina and around the country, he is the leading contender among Democratic voters. Now, how big that lead is I think depends upon whether or not any of the other people catch fire. And some of them may.”

The two men have been friends for decades, and Clyburn said the two spoke as recently as three weeks ago. Even though he said he has not been told about Biden’s final decision, he offered some advice, suggesting that Biden's focus should be about the country’s future.

He also advised Biden against something the former vice president's team has considered: naming a vice presidential running mate at the same time he announces his candidacy.

“I think that we have to be careful about doing cute things in campaigns,” he said. “I think it would be a mistake for Joe Biden to come out – or any other candidate – and announce a running mate right out of the gate.”

Clyburn, who said he does not plan to endorse in the race, expects about half of the Democratic contenders to attend his annual fish fry fundraiser, scheduled for June 21.

Asked about former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy ahead of his first trip to South Carolina, Clyburn questioned whether the enthusiasm that brought him to nearly upset Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last November would carry over into 2020.

“His [challenge] is whether he’s able to show that same kind of energy, intensity, and fundraising capacity that he did against Cruz. I’m not too sure that that can happen in the presidential race. But if he can, he’s going to be very formidable,” he said.

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College football great Lou Holtz endorses in IL House race

WASHINGTON — College Football Hall of Fame Coach Lou Holtz is backing one of his former Notre Dame players, Republican Ted Gradel, in his quest to face off against freshman Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood. 

Gradel jumped into the Republican primary for the western Illinois seat on Tuesday with a video that predominately features Holtz telling the story of Gradel's quest to become the starting Notre Dame kicker despite not coming into college with a football scholarship. 

"Americans know what it's like to be up against the odds. We just need our chance and leaders to protect our freedom, opportunity and the values that made this underdog nation the greatest on Earth," Holtz says as video 

"You give Ted Gradel a chance, I promise you, he won't let you down."

After his time playing football, Gradel went into a career as an investor and trader. It's because of that experience, he says, that he decided to run for Congress.

Gradel will have to wade through a crowded field if he wants to win the chance to challenge Underwood, a field that includes State Sen. Jim Oberweis, who was the party's nominee for Senate in 2014 and the party's nominee for the district in 2008 before redistricting shuffled the boundaries. 

Underwood defeated GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren in 2018 by 5 points, despite the fact that President Trump won the district in 2016 by 4 points. 

Democrats differ on granting voting rights to prisoners

WASHINGTON—The Democratic presidential field has differing opinions on whether incarcerated felons should be allowed to vote, a divide that surfaced during a handful of candidate town halls on CNN Monday night. 

When asked about his view on the issue, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders backed the idea of protecting the voting rights of people in jail, even violent felons, pointing to the fact that it's already law in his home state. 

"The right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote.  Oh, that person did that, not going to let that person vote.'  You're running down a slippery slope," he said.   

"So I believe that people commit crimes, they paid the price.  When they get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have the right to vote.  But I do believe that even if they are in jail they're paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy."  

Other candidates disagreed, or offered a more qualified answer.

  • California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris: "I agree that the right to vote is one of the very important components of citizenship and it is something that people should not be stripped of needlessly...I think we should have that conversation. "
  • South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, when asked if those incarcerated should be able to vote: "No, I don't think so. I do believe that when you are out, when you have served your sentence, then part of being restored to society is that you're part of the political life of this nation again.  And one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote."
  • California Rep. Eric Swalwell: "Some people, like the Boston marathon bombers, those individuals should never vote in America again.”
  • Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren addressed the issue Tuesday in a conversation with reporters, saying "I'm not there yet." 

While other issues, like health care and climate change, have dominated much of the presidential debate, many Democrats have previously voiced their support for a related measure—felon re-enfranchisement laws that would grant the right to vote back to former felons who complete their sentencing requirements. 

Harris, Buttigieg, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Warren and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke are among those who back that policy. 

The push comes months after a high-profile vote in Florida last November that gave formerly incarcerated felons the right to register to vote after completing any post-sentencing requirements (such as parole and probation.)


Gillibrand criticizes Kushner for downplaying Russia election hack

WASHINGTON—New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is running for president, accused top White House adviser Jared Kushner of trying to minimize Russia's interference in the 2016 election. 

Earlier Tuesday, Kushner downplayed Russia's interference as "a couple of Facebook ads" during an interview at the Time 100 Summit, arguing that "the investigations and all the speculation that's happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy." 

Gillibrand responded to Kushner's comment during an interview on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" by calling it "an outrage." 

"For him to make light of a foreign adversary purposely trying to undermine our elections is untenable," she said. 

"And I'm gravely concerned this administration continues not to take this seriously and those statements are highly inappropriate.” 

Gillibrand also criticized Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's lawyer, for normalizing foreign election interference  during his Sunday interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." And she pointed to her new pledge to not use hacked or stolen information on the campaign trail. 

The Mueller report detailed extensive attempts by Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump's favor through posts on social media. It also outlined that the Trump campaign planned how to to best capitalize  on the release of private information stolen from Democrats, and that some members of the campaign sought to reach out to WikiLeaks to learn more information about the hack.  

Watch Gillibrand's full interview below. 

Poll: Democratic voters aren't putting a premium on the diversity of their presidential nominee

WASHINGTON—As former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders continue to hold the top spot in Democratic presidential primary polling, a new national poll shows that Democratic voters aren't placing too much importance on the diversity of their nominee. 

Almost nine in 10 registered Democrats in Monmouth University's new poll said that the race of their nominee doesn't matter in the campaign against Donald Trump. The remaining portion was split between whether Democrats would be better off nominating a candidate of color or a white candidate. 

There's a bit less ambivalence over the gender of the presidential nominee, but not much. More than three quarters of registered Democrats don't believe the gender of the nominee matters, with seven percent believing the Democrats would be better off nominating a woman and 12 percent saying the party would be in a better position with a male nominee. 

That sentiment comes as four white men—Biden, Sanders, former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg—have all spent time toward the top of the polls. 

“This is the most diverse field of presidential candidates in history, but that doesn’t seem to be a major consideration for Democratic voters at this early stage of the campaign. It’s probably a large reason why a couple of old white guys are leading the pack right now,” Patrick Murray, the director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement accompanying the release of the poll.

That same poll showed Biden in first place, followed by Sanders, Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and O'Rourke.

Monmouth polled 330 registered Democrats by telephone (a mix of landline and cell phone) between April 11 to April 15. The poll's margin of error is 5.4 percent. 

MJ Hegar jumps in to face John Cornyn in Texas Senate battle

WASHINGTON—MJ Hegar, the Texan combat veteran who ran a surprisingly strong challenge in a Republican-held House seat during the 2018 midterms, is running for Senate in the hopes of taking on Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

Hegar announced her bid in an online video, a familiar medium for the Democrat. Last cycle, her introductory video detailing her service and challenge to Defense Department restrictions on women in combat went viral and helped her raise more than $5 million over the cycle. 

The new spot recounts her last campaign and the strong challenge former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke ran against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. And Hegar spends the final minute of the video laying into Cornyn as a lackey to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Weakness, partisanship, gridlock. Those are not Texas values, John. But maybe you've been in Washington so long that you've forgotten that," Hegar says.

Hegar's candidacy gives Democrats a candidate with a strong ability to fundraise and someone with experience on challenging political terrain. While Hegar lost her congressional bid last cycle, she came within about 3 points of GOP Rep. John Carter, who hadn't previously faced a competitive election since he entered the House in 2002. 

President Trump won the district by 13 points in 2016. 

But Cornyn is a strong fundraiser himself, with more than $7 million in the bank. He has a deep network of experienced operatives looking to keep him in office. And Republicans are already making it clear they're looking to dust off the same playbook they used against O'Rourke in 2018, framing Hegar as a Washington-backed candidate who is too progressive for the red state. 

“New York liberal Chuck Schumer found his chosen candidate in MJ Hegar. Hollywood Hegar’s support for late-term abortion and government-run health care will play better with progressive Hollywood celebrities than with mainstream Texans," National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Jesse Hunt said of Hegar in a statement.

Hegar so far is the top Democrat in the race, but allies of Rep. Joaquín Castro are encouraging him to run and he has not yet ruled out a bid.

Shaquille Brewster

Sanders releases internal poll showing lead over Trump in PA, WI and MI

WASHINGTON—Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign is releasing new internal polling that shows him leading President Donald Trump in hypothetical matchups in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

According to the internal data released to reporters by the campaign, Sanders is up by double-digits in Michigan and Wisconsin (by 11 points and 10 points respectively), and leads in Pennsylvania by 8 points.

The poll did not measure Democratic candidates against Trump in head-to-head matchups, and it did not include a scenario in which a third-party candidate like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is also on the ballot.

But Ben Tulchin, Sanders' pollster, says that the results still indicate that Sanders is in a uniquely strong position to take on Trump.. 

"I don’t think it’s any generic Democrat fits the mold here,” he told NBC News. “Trump is vulnerable here, but it has to be for the right kind of Democrat who has real strengths and can win these three states.”

"I don’t think any other candidate is as well positioned as Bernie is in these three states.”

Some data points the campaign highlighted include that, across all three states, a majority of voters believe the country is on the wrong track, disapprove of Trump's handling of the job, and support Medicare for All — a platform that's becoming increasingly popular among Democratic presidential candidates. 

The three states were key to Trump's 2016 victory. Before Trump’s success there, the last time a Republican presidential candidate had won any of those states was 1988. 

Sanders' allies believe his message on economic equality helps him connect to the kinds of blue-collar voters that Democrats lost in 2016. Earlier this month, the senator went on a four-day road trip through the Midwest, highlighting his general-election focus on the region.

But while Sanders also says that his identification as a democratic socialist is far more about an embrace of those policies, other polls shows that socialism isn't popular with the electorate. 

February's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 18 percent of Americans view socialism positively, while 50 percent view it negatively. And being a socialist was one of the least desirable characteristics for presidential hopefuls.

That's why Republicans have made attacks on socialism—which evoke Sanders regardless of the distinction between socialism and democratic socialism—a key piece of their message in the early months of the election cycle. 

Tulchin brushed aside the idea that the socialism attacks could damage Sanders in a general election, arguing it has "no significant impact at all" because of Trump's poor standing among these voters.

"Bernie is popular enough and strong enough to withstand that attack," he said. 

2020 roundup: De Blasio continues to tease presidential bid

WASHINGTON—New York Mayor Bill de Blasio once again floated the prospect of jumping into the Democratic presidential race, telling MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday that he'll "make a decision soon." 

The Democrat sounded like a candidate as he laid out his argument that he would "speak about sharp, clear, bold, progressive change and prove you can do it" if he runs.

And he emphasized the importance of what he referred to as New York's "Green New Deal," which includes an idea to heavily fine "inefficient" buildings and "ban" new construction of inefficient skyscrapers. 

Watch de Blasio's interview here, and read on for more from the campaign trail. 

  • Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Seth Moulton is the latest Democrat to announce a presidential bid, pointing to his career as a Marine and his successful 2014 vanquishing of a long-time Democratic incumbent as reasons why he can take on President Trump. Read more from NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald here.
  • NBC's Benjy Sarlin has a deep dive into another climate cause that's dividing Democrats: the push against fossil fuel extraction.
  • Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for more than 40 million Americans, which she would pay for with taxes on the wealthy.  
  • President Trump said Monday that he's "not even a little bit" worried about impeachment, even as Democrats appear more open to the possibility after the release of the Mueller report. 
Leigh Ann Caldwell

Possible 2020 contender Michael Bennet gets clean bill of health after cancer treatment

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is contemplating jumping in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential race, has been given a clean bill of health after undergoing surgery to remove cancer, his office said in a statement.

“(Bennet’s) doctors report the surgery was completely successful and he requires no further treatment,” Bennet’s spokeswoman, Courtney Gidner, said in a statement. “Michael and his family deeply appreciate the well wishes and support from Coloradans and others across the country, and he looks forward to returning to work after the recess.”

Bennet, 54, received the prostate cancer diagnosis earlier this month during a routine physical. He had surgery last weekend to remove the cancer.

Because of the successful procedure, Bennet is moving ahead with plans to enter the presidential race.

“I felt like, you know what, this is something I really want to do,” Bennet said of a presidential run on MTPDaily the day after his diagnosis. “I think I've got something to contribute.”

Bennet, a usually mild-mannered senator, erupted on the Senate floor in January during the government shutdown at Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was decrying the shutdown’s impact on first responders.

“These crocodile tears that the senator from Texas is crying for the first responders are too hard for me to take,” Bennet said. Cruz caused a government shutdown in 2013 over his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Bennet, yelling, said that his state of Colorado was flooded and people were died during the Cruz government shutdown.

Bennet would be one of more than 15 candidates in the presidential field and the seventh senator.

Buttigieg to fundraise in DC with help from bundlers for Obama, Clinton

Major bundlers who raised money for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns are throwing their efforts behind South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who will come to Washington next month for a fundraiser.

An invitation to the May 21 event obtained by NBC News from two sources shows that Steve Elmendorf and Barry Karas are among the hosts. The invite says it will be Buttigieg’s first visit to the nation’s capital since entering the race.

Elmendorf is a lobbyist and former John Kerry campaign official who bundled more than $100,000 in the last election for Clinton. He announced his support for Buttigieg on Sunday, just as the Democrat officially launched his campaign.

Karas raised at least half a million dollars for Obama in 2012 and was later appointed by Obama to the Kennedy Center’s advisory board.

The fundraiser comes as Buttigieg is increasingly attracting interest and enlisting help from major Democratic bundlers, with more than two dozen of the party’s top fundraisers now supporting him, CNBC has reported. Buttigieg has said his campaign isn’t taking corporate PAC money or dollars from the fossil fuel industry.

The invitation says tickets for the Washington fundraiser range between $250 for young professionals and $5,600 for event co-hosts. That’s the legal maximum a person can contribute to a candidate for both the primary and general election.

CNBC’s Brian Schwartz contributed.

Two vulnerable Democratic House candidates return donations from Ilhan Omar

WASHINGTON—Two Democratic House candidates—one a freshman member of Congress— have declined to accept donations from Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has faced criticism from Republicans and some members of her own party over comments regarding the American relationship with Israel. 

Dan McCready, the Democrat running in a special election in North Carolina that was called thanks to allegations of fraud in last year's election in the district, took to Twitter  on Wednesday evening to explain why he decided to return Omar's donation. 

"I did this weeks ago because I vigorously disagree with any anti-semitic comments. Since this time, dangerous and hateful attacks have started against her," he wrote. 

"I condemn in the strongest terms the hateful rhetoric against her, the Muslim community and people of color. Too many have been hurt by our broken politics. We must end hate speech against all people and groups."

Omar donated $2,000 to McCready's campaign last year, and his campaign issued the Omar campaign a refund on March 30. The refund was reported on McCready's first quarter fundraising disclosure, which was filed on Monday. 

Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath's campaign told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution it also declined a $2,000 donation from the congresswoman. She narrowly defeated GOP Rep. Karen Handel in November in her suburban Atlanta district. 

Omar has faced criticism for her comments about the Israel lobby, which Democratic leadership panned as trafficking in "anti-Semitic tropes." She apologized for those comments earlier this year.  

The GOP continues to hammer Democrats over her comments, accusing the party of not adequately condemning anti-Semitism. And President Trump has blasted her in recent days by pointing to comments she made about 9/11

Omar's defenders have argued the condemnation is in bad faith—that her comments about the Israel lobby were only meant to critique the power of money in the political system, while her comments on 9/11 were taken out of context and the criticism has led to threats on her life. 

But the decision by these two candidates to distance themselves from Omar and return her donations ahead of two likely contentious elections shows that at least some purple-district politicians see an association with her as a possible political risk.