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Democrats are blasting Rick Scott with digital ads

With GOP Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s entry today into the state’s Senate race, Democrats have released digital ads blasting the Florida governor. (Dems will have to save their TV ads for later in Florida’s expensive markets.)

One digital ad by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reminds voters of the $1.7 billion Medicare fraud settlement against Scott’s company.

Another DSCC ad calls Scott “a walking conflict of interest.”

And Senate Majority PAC, the top Dem Senate Super PAC, hits Scott for his record as governor, including education cuts and property-tax increases.

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Tom Steyer posts LinkedIn ad for staff in key 2020 states

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer is looking to hire experienced political operatives in early presidential nominating states, his spokesperson confirmed, taking him one big step closer to a potential 2020 presidential bid.

Steyer, one of the largest donors in the Democratic Party and its most outspoken advocate of impeaching President Donald Trump, posted an anonymous job listing on LinkedIn last week looking for state directors in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Those states vote in the Democratic presidential primary process just after Iowa.

Spokesperson Aleigha Cavalier confirmed to NBC News the posting by a "high profile political campaign based on the West Coast" is indeed Steyer's, as first reported by BuzzFeed, but said the San Franciscan has not yet made up his mind about 2020.

"As Tom has said publicly -- he is considering how he can have the most impact in 2020 and our team is exploring staffing options should he decide to move forward with a run. Tom has not made a final decision and any discussions with potential staff are preliminary," Cavalier said.

Steyer is hardly alone among potential 2020 candidates in reaching out to potential staffers, even though most campaigns do not yet officially exist. Likely candidates often select employees on a conditional basis so that, should they decide to formally get in the race, they can have top staffers in place from the start.

Steyer's posting suggests that he's looking to enter the crowded 2020 field with a robust campaign with a presence in all four early states, a luxury that he can afford thanks to his personal wealth. Other candidates will likely start out with smaller footprint in one or two states before expanding to others later in the process.

Ben Kamisar

Castro the latest Democrat to wade into presidential race with exploratory committee announcement

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro's decision to formally explore a presidential bid brings the number of Democrats officially dipping their toes into the 2020 to three. 

Castro announced his decision to start an exploratory committee in a YouTube video on Wednesday—check out Alex Seitz-Wald's report for more details on that.

He plans to make a formal announcement about his 2020 plans on Jan. 12, 2019 in his home state of Texas. 

The former cabinet official under President Obama has long been seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and one of its more prominent Latinos. During the 2018 cycle, he launched a political action committee to support Democratic candidates, donating to mostly first-time candidates. 

He was vetted by 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as a possible vice presidential pick, but she ultimately chose Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. 

But he has limited executive experience, which includes his stint at HUD and his position as San Antonio mayor, and will likely have to battle it out in a Democratic presidential campaign that could include dozens of candidates. 

Castro also took a pass running for statewide office in Texas in 2018 – with the Senate race ultimately catapulting fellow Democrat Beto O’Rourke into the spotlight despite his defeat, and O’Rourke could very well run for president in 2020.

Castro's move is the closest any high-profile Democratic candidate has publicly come to announcing a bid, even as dozens of other Democrats are making moves behind the scenes. 

Under federal campaign finance laws, a possible candidate is allowed to "test the waters" for a bid without having to register as an official candidate or begin to file campaign finance disclosures. In that exploratory phase, candidates can raise money, poll, travel or make other moves meant to suss out whether they should run. 

But once they start either referring to themselves as a candidate or start raising money in earnest for a full-fledged campaign, they have to file with the Federal Election Commission. 

Maryland Democratic Rep. John Delaney and West Virginia's Richard Ojeda, who recently lost a high-profile congressional bid are the only two active Democratic candidates. 

Ben Kamisar

2020 Democrats are already building nest eggs for potential presidential bids

It may not be the sexiest part about running for president, but you can't have a winning campaign without a steady stream of cash. 

Some candidates can leverage their existing donor base or their own deep pockets for an instant infusion of cash. But for other, less known, presidential hopefuls, they have to find a way to keep their campaign funded if they want to have room to run. 

Recent campaigns by once lesser-known Democrats like Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke show that it's possible to build a fundraising juggernaut from scratch in a matter of months. But it doesn't hurt to have a cushion of a few million dollars to hit the ground running and take the pressure off in the early weeks and months. 

So while the first quarter of 2019 will be the real kickoff to the 2020 fundraising circuit, many possible presidential hopefuls spent the last cycle quietly amassing funds that could be immediately used to run for president. That’s because any money raised into a candidate’s House or Senate campaign account can be transferred directly into that same candidate’s presidential account if they decide to run, as long as they follow individual donation limits and other campaign finance laws.  

Here's a breakdown of much money the field of possible Democratic presidential candidates closed the 2018 cycle with, according to Federal Election Commission reports through Nov. 26. 

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren—$12.5 million

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—$10.5 million

Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders—$8.8 million

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar—$4.4 million

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker—$4.1 million

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard—$2.1 million

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown—$1.8 million

California Sen. Kamala Harris—$1.7 million

California Rep. Eric Swalwell—$1.7 million

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley—$1.6 million

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey—$603,000

Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke—$477,000

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan—$166,000

Maryland Rep. John Delaney—$78,000

West Virginia state Sen.  Richard Ojeda—$42,375

Ben Kamisar

Harris to keep high-profile Judiciary Committee post

California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris will retain her spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee next year, keeping her on the high-profile committee ahead of a possible presidential bid in 2020.

Democrats were concerned that Harris could lose her post after Republicans won two more seats in the body during the 2018 elections. Harris has the lowest seniority on the committee, so her spot could have been on the chopping block.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday that Harris would keep her spot. 

"As a former prosecutor, [Harris] has strived every day for a more fair judicial system for all Americans. I’m proud that we successfully fought to keep her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee," he tweeted. 

A source familiar with the negotiations confirmed to NBC News that keeping Harris on the committee was a priority for Schumer and that Republicans will gain a seat on it in exchange.

That means that Republicans will have a two-vote majority on the body instead of the one-vote edge they had this past Congress. 

Harris has been a vocal member of the committee since she joined it in 2017, and she's been able to leverage the spot to increased recognition and visibility during high profile issues like the recent confirmation hearings for now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

--Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.

Ben Kamisar
Leigh Ann Caldwell

North Carolina GOP chair: New congressional election 'likely' if latest allegations are true

A top North Carolina Republican official said Tuesday that a new election would "likely" be needed in the state's 9th Congressional District if new claims that Bladen County officials gave unnamed people improper, early access to early voting totals is true. 

The accusation is the latest in mounting claims of malfeasance in the congressional race, where Republican Mark Harris had appeared to defeat Democrat Dan McCready. But the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement refused to certify the results and kept investigating instead. 

Last week, the state election board released a copy of the election results tape  printed at Bladen County's only in-person early vote location. Those preliminary results were tabulated the Saturday before the election, which violates state election law. 

In an affidavit dated November 29 and distributed to media by North Carolina Democratic Party and other sources,an individual named Agnes Willis alleges that the tape “was run after the polls closed, and was viewed by officials at the one-stop site who were not [poll] Judges."  

Willis, identified as a precinct worker by the Charlotte Observer, doesn’t name or describe the “officials” whom she claimed viewed the partial results data.

The election results tape document itself includes a signature for “Agnes Willis,” one of three signatures under a statement certifying the incomplete results as “a true and accurate account of the election held November 6, 2018.”  Willis’ affidavit does not address that detail. 

Robin Hayes, the chairman of the state Republican Party, blasted the potential leak of election data in a new statement that points to a new story in the Charlotte Observer, which includes the affidavit. 

"We are extremely concerned that early voting totals may have been leaked in Bladen County as reported by The Charlotte ObserverThis action by election officials would be a fundamental violation of the sense of fair play, honesty, and integrity that the Republican Party stands for," Hayes said. 

"The people involved in this must be held accountable and should it be true, this fact alone would likely require a new election. Accessing early vote totals before the overall results are final can clearly give an unfair advantage to one candidate over the other."

In the statement, Hayes went onto argue that if there ultimately is a new election in the district, that the state election board should take control of election operations in Bladen County. 

The allegation is just part of the election fraud allegations that have roiled the race and threatened to invalidate the results. Investigators are also looking into the ballot harvesting efforts of a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless, whose associates have been accused of improperly handling absentee ballots. 

Dowless was hired as a contractor by the consulting firm that worked for Harris. That connection has prompted state Democratic leaders to call on Harris to give a full accounting of what he knew about the allegations dogging Dowless. 

"McCrae Dowless has a long history of conducting absentee ballot fraud that was well documented. Yet Mark Harris still hired him,” North Carolina state Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said at a news conference in Raleigh Tuesday. “And now Harris refuses to answer several questions about their relationship.”

Mark Murray

A Beto 2020 candidacy is starting to look very, very possible

One of the most significant developments in the emerging Democratic presidential race is how Democrat Beto O’Rourke appears to be dipping his toes in the 2020 waters – and we’re not talking about a ‘20 Senate bid against Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Consider what we’ve learned about O’Rourke in the past week:

  • He met with Barack Obama in November, as the Washington Post reported.
  • He's speaking with Mindy Myers, who was Elizabeth Warren's campaign manager in 2012 and who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this past cycle.
  • And he met with Al Sharpton and had a call with Andrew Gillum, as NBC's Garrett Haake and Mike Memoli write. "One source, granted anonymity to describe a private conversation, said [O'Rourke and Gillum] discussed their mutual preference that someone 'young and unapologetically progressive' lead the Democratic Party going forward."

So yeah, Beto exploring a possible presidential bid is starting to look very real for 2020.

And maybe more than that, whether he runs or not appears to have frozen the Dem field, especially when it comes to staffing.

Think about that: O’Rourke’s decision on 2020 might be the biggest shoe to drop on the Dem field.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

North Carolina Board of Elections says it may not finish investigation by Dec. 21

The North Carolina State Board of Elections has indicated that it may not be able to conclude its investigation into alleged election fraud in the state by their previously planned deadline of December 21.

In a letter obtained from a public records request, the board wrote: "The agency’s efforts to finalize its investigation into allegations of fraudulent activity affecting absentee ballots has involved numerous interviews and subpoenas issued to various organizations. Counsel for subpoenaed parties have begun submitting responsive records, but they have uniformly indicated additional time is needed for review and production of additional materials. It may be that their delays in production will lengthen the timeframe initially contemplated by the State Board." 

“Agency staff are working diligently to compile a thorough investigative record on which the State Board will ultimately ensure ‘that an election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election,’” the board wrote, citing the state’s statute mandating the investigation.  

The board is investigating alleged election fraud impacting the congressional race of Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready, as well as two local races, in the state’s ninth congressional district. Harris is the unofficial leader in the race by 905 votes.

New Census data show mixed bag for Trump's reelection chances

Last week's release of population data from the U.S. Census had some good and bad news for President Donald Trump with 2020 approaching.

Nationally, the counties that made up Donald Trump’s base in 2016 lag behind those that voted for Hillary Clinton in population growth, according to the new 5-year American Communities Survey. But look closer at the numbers, and they suggest some rays of light for Trump in the states that mater.

In the new data, 2,600 counties that voted for Trump in 2016 added about 1.79 million more voting-age people in the last two years. Meanwhile, the roughly 500 counties that voted for Clinton added 2.72 million people.

Those data certainly follow the familiar national narrative out of 2016. Donald Trump had a problem because he won in places that are small, largely rural and growing more slowly than the nation as a whole.

So, advantage Clinton, right? It’s not that easy. Look at the states where the final margin was close in 2016 and that put Trump over the top on the electoral map: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

  • In Michigan the eight counties that voted for Clinton have added 23,512 people 18-or-older. But the 75 counties that voted for Trump have added 39,206. That’s an edge of 15,694 for Trump counties.
  • In Wisconsin, the 12 counties that voted for Clinton have added 17,438 18-or-older people, but the Trump counties have added 19,271. That’s an 1,833-person edge for Trump counties.
  • In Pennsylvania, Clinton counties actually hold the edge, 44,350 new 18-or-older people versus 2,363 for Trump counties – a 41,987 Clinton advantage. 

If Trump were to hold everything else and just lose Pennsylvania, he would still win reelection. Michigan and Wisconsin would be enough.

These data don’t prove anything, of course. The candidates and issue environment for 2020 is unknown and unknowable. And there is nothing saying the new potential voters in these counties lean one way or the other.

But the numbers serve as a reminder that the Democratic advantage in the growing urban areas of the United States doesn’t necessarily manifest itself at the state level, where electoral politics play out.

Ben Kamisar

McCready wants more answers from Harris about election fraud allegations in North Carolina 9

As allegations of election fraud continue to roil North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, Democrat Dan McCready is calling on Republican Mark Harris to give a more thorough public accounting of what his campaign knew about the man at the center of the accusations. 

McCready appeared to have narrowly lost his race against Harris until the allegations of impropriety arose. Now, investigators are looking into the handling of absentee ballots and have not named a winner.

Speaking on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," the Democrat said he wants to hear more from Harris outside the brief statement he issued Friday afternoon. 

"The responsibility lies with Mark Harris. You know, this went to the top of his campaign," McCready said. 

"So this is much bigger than one election. This really goes to what our country is all about, what our democracy is all about. That’s why it's so important that Mark Harris end his silence."

There's been increasing scrutiny mounting on the GOP effort in the district since the state board of elections refused to certify the election results late last month. 

Since then, the state board named Leslie McCrae Dowless as a person of interest as it investigates possible mishandling of absentee ballots. Dowless was hired as an independent contractor by a consulting firm that played a key part in Harris's congressional bid. 

Harris addressed the controversy in a message on Twitter on Friday where he said he'd cooperate fully with the investigation, and support a new election if "this investigation finds proof of illegal activity on either side, to such a level that it could have changed the outcome of the election." 

But McCready has tried to keep the pressure on Harris in recent days, calling for a more robust public accounting of his relationship with Dowless. 

Ben Kamisar

Rand Paul wavers on Trump's attorney general nominee

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said Sunday he is not committed to supporting President Trump's attorney general nominee, raising concerns that could complicate the White House's path forward. 

Democratic opposition to Trump's choice of William Barr, the former attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush, is already growing based on concerns about his possible oversight over the special counsel investigation. 

But Paul's potential opposition centers on different issues, specifically how Barr's vision for the Justice Department could clash with his libertarian views. 

During Sunday's broadcast of "Meet the Press" on NBC, Paul noted Barr's support for the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 law that expanded surveillance and detention powers of the executive branch, as well as civil asset forfeiture, where the government seizes property of accused criminals. 

"I haven't made a decision about him, but I cant tell you — the first things I've learned about him being for more surveillance of Americans is very, very troubling," Paul said. 

Trump announced he would be nominating Barr on Friday, ending more than a month of uncertainty about the Justice Department's top post that began when the president fired former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November, the day after Election Day. 

Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who has been critical of the special counsel's investigation into allegations Russia colluded with members of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, has been serving as acting attorney general since Sessions's departure. 

While the Senate confirmed him to lead the Justice Department in 1991 without much fanfare, Barr's upcoming confirmation battle is expected to be substantially tougher.

Democrats, including those on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will be handling his confirmation, have already raised concerns about Barr's ability to be impartial about the president's legal woes. And there's been some bipartisan concern about Barr's support for expanding presidential powers. 

Maine Independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, said that he's in a "wait and see" mode on Barr, but that Barr's potential relationship with the special counsel investigation will be a key for Democrats weighing whether to support him. 

"His hearings will be very important and I would be surprised if the Senate confirms and individual who doesn't commit to protecting the integrity of special counsel [Robert] Mueller. I think that's going to be a kind of litmus test for any nominee for attorney general," King said. 

With Congress adjourning in just a few weeks, and with Trump having not yet officially nominated Barr, his confirmation will likely be handled by the next Congress. 

The GOP will have a bit more wiggle room for internal opposition next year after it secured a 53 seat majority in the 2018 elections. 

If every Democratic senator opposes Barr, Republicans could stand to lose four lawmakers' votes because Vice President Pence casts a vote in the case of a tie.