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Dem group jabs at Rohrabacher's Russia relationship with provocative new ads

A Democratic PAC focused on flipping Republican-held House seats in California is out with a provocative new digital ad that seeks to exploit Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s ties to Russia.

The new spot from Red to Blue California, obtained by NBC News before its Tuesday release, is styled to look like a message from the Russian government endorsing Rohrabacher.

In it, photos of Rohrabacher and Russian President Vladimir Putin are shown in front of a Russian flag as a narrator thanks Rohrabacher. One version of the ad is in English, while the other is in Russian with English subtitles.

“The Russian Federation is proud to endorse Dana Rohrabacher for Congress, You are true Russian hero. Thank you, Dana Rohrabacher, for standing with Putin and Russia,” the narrator says.

Red to Blue will be targeting swing voters in Rohrabacher’s congressional district with both the digital ads as well as mail pieces themed around the congressman and Russia. One calls Rohrabacher one of Putin’s “two best friends” in Washington, referring also to President Trump, and includes the slogan “Make Russia Great Again.”

The other mailer is a mock letter “from the desk of President Vladimir Putin” that runs through news reports of Rohrabacher’s ties to Russia. In all, the digital ads and mailers are part of a six-figure buy targeting swing voters in the district. 

The ads are a parody—obviously the Russian government hasn’t bestowed Rohrabacher with an endorsement.

But the attacks are an example of how some Democrats believe that the backdrop of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election provides the party with a unique opening in the quest to knock off Rohrabacher.

“Voters and constituents in the 48th District should be asking the question: What is going on here? We want folks to ask these questions and go research their congressman’s history with Russia,” said Andrew Feldman, a spokesman for Red to Blue California.

“We believe they will be ashamed of what they find.”

Dale Neugebauer, a Rohrabacher campaign spokesman, criticized the ad for not focusing on the issues that matter to voters in the district, calling the suggestion that Rohrabacher isn't a patriot insulting. 

 "The ad is a complete miss. Sometimes partisans can't see beyond their own obsessions. I'm sure this idea made the ad makers chuckle, but voters in the 48th district are more concerned about Harley Rouda's extreme plan to pay Medicare benefits to illegal aliens at their expense. In our district, people worry about the impact of Sober Living Homes on their neighborhoods, the storage of spent fuel at the closed San Onofre nuclear power plant, and finding a healthcare solution that works for Americans with pre-existing conditions," he said in a statement.

"Voters here know Dana Rohrabacher is a patriot who worked beside President Reagan to defeat Soviet communism, and that he is a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the region of the world that includes Russia. To suggest otherwise as this attack does, insults the intelligence of people in this community who know Dana stands apart from the Washington crowd, and stands up for them."

Democrat Harley Rouda won the right to face off against Rohrabacher in November after a close race in June. While Rohrabacher has held the seat for decades, recent public polling shows the race neck and neck. 

Rohrabacher’s friendly relationship with Russia has received more scrutiny in light of the revelations of the nation’s interference in the 2016 elections.

The Washington Post released a recording of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy joking that both President Trump and Rohrabacher were on Putin’s payroll; the New York Times reported last year that Russian agents had previously tried to recruit him; and Rohrabacher admitted this year to meeting with a Russian national who has since been indicted and accused of a scheme to quietly promote Russian interests in American politics.

UPDATED to include full Rohrabacher campaign statement. 

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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.

Ben Kamisar

Democrats flip Georgia's 6th district, more than one year after costliest special election in history

The apparent victory by Georgia Democrat Lucy McBath not only gives Democrats control of yet another GOP-held seat, but it serves as an interesting end note to the race that kicked off the 2018 midterm cycle. 

In 2017, Georgia's 6th Congressional District was the center of the political world, as Democrats embarked on a costly endeavor aimed at flipping the seat being vacated by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. They hoped that flipping the seat could send a signal that suburban voters were read to revolt against the GOP and its standard-bearer in President Trump. 

After more than $45 million in spending on both sides, Democrat Jon Ossoff fell short to Republican Karen Handel in a deflating defeat for Democrats, but one where the narrow margin demonstrated that suburban voters were in play for Democrats. 

But McBath finished the job on Tuesday when Handel conceded the general election, giving Democrats another flipped seat as they expand their House lead.  

The election still drew a health $5.3 million in outside spending, but Republican and Democratic resources were largely devoted to other races across a historically-large battlefield. 

McBath is a former flight attended who became a gun-violence advocate after her teenage son was shot and killed by a white man in 2012 in Florida after an argument about loud music. 

The tragedy turned McBath into a visible proponent for stricter gun laws, and her involvement ultimately compelled her to run. 

Everytown for Gun Safety, the pro-gun control group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, lent McBath an important hand in both the primary and the general election. It spent more than $500,000 on the airwaves during her primary and another $1.7 million during the general. 

That spending by Everytown narrowly outpaced the National Republican Congressional Committee's spending in the district, giving the Democrat the edge on the airwaves. 

So while Democrats were unable to flip the district in 2017 with the eyes of the world on the Atlanta suburbs, the party will head into 2019 with control of the congressional seat. 

Ben Kamisar

Undecided Senate races could prove pivotal for long-term Senate control

While Republicans secured control of the Senate Tuesday, all eyes are on the margin as the GOP tries to cement a durable majority that could last for multiple cycles. 

Two Senate races remain undecided as of Wednesday morning — Arizona and Florida — with the Mississippi race going to a runoff. That puts the GOP majority in the Senate at 51 seats before those races, which means they can end the night with at most a 54-seat majority. 

So Democrats and Republicans alike will be glued to the upcoming returns to see whether the Senate majority will be on the table in the 2020 elections. 

That's because while the 2020 Senate map isn't as difficult for Democrats as the 2018 map was, there are only a handful of races likely to be competitive. 

Democrats could have openings in GOP-held seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Iowa and North Carolina, but none are slam dunks. And the party will have to defend a seat in deep-red Alabama too, a reality that could lower the ceiling for Democratic gains. 

So if Republicans are able to add to their majority by either holding their leads in Florida and Montana, winning a seat in deep-red Mississippi, and/or clawing back in Montana, the GOP will make it that much harder for Democrats to flip the body in 2020. 

But by the same token, Democrats can keep their hopes of eventually flipping the Senate alive by limiting those gains. 

Be sure to download 1947: The Meet the Press podcast for more analysis on the Senate map and the rest of Tuesday's results. 

Ben Kamisar

Election night wrap up: Divided country picks divided Congress

As the dust settles on Election Day, the results give everyone something to celebrate and to lament. 

With key Senate and House races still left uncalled, Democrats are pushing a net gain of 30 seats in the House while Republicans have expanded their lead in the Senate. 

Here's the best of the political unit's midterm coverage from last night's midterm live blog and NBC News special report, as well as across our NBC channels in case you missed it: 

California's Swalwell heads to Iowa as 2020 race begins

Dozens of midterm races remain to be decided, but at least one ambitious Democrat is already setting his sites on a key 2020 prize.

Rep. Eric Swalwell of California tells NBC News Wednesday that he will travel to Iowa Sunday for a meeting with local Democratic leaders. It’s the first post-election announced visit to the Hawkeye State by a potential 2020 Democrat.

Swalwell, who represents the Bay Area in Congress but was born in Iowa, has already been a frequent visitor to the state. He made 12 trips there in 2017 and 2018. He’s also built a national profile as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and also serves on the Judiciary Committee — two perches that will have big roles in conducting oversight of the Trump administration under Democratic chairmen.

Earlier Wednesday Swalwell, 37, touted what he called the promise of “transformational leadership” in Washington with the election Tuesday of at least 20 new congressmen in their 40s and under."We want more fresh blood at the table. I'm the youngest member of the [House] leadership team,” Swalwell said on NBC’s “Today” show. 

Still, Swalwell said he expects Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) to return as Speaker of the House. 

“This election was about health care and Nancy Pelosi was the architect of the health care law. She helped hold Democrats together to stop it from completely being eviscerated. And I think we'll protect it in the next two years,” he said. 

Ben Kamisar

Analysis: Midterm victories underscore Trump's GOP takeover

As Republicans continue to post strong showings in tight Senate and gubernatorial elections, NBC "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd says the results are evidence that President Donald Trump has taken control of the GOP.

NBC News has projected that Democrats will gain control of the House, which Trump largely ignored in the final weeks of the campaign. But at the same time, the GOP is poised to make gains in the Senate after Trump barnstormed the country with a hard-line immigration message aimed directly at the GOP base. 

While some of Trump's picks are struggling in gubernatorial races, two of his more conservative picks are poised for victory in those races, too. Republican Ron DeSantis is the apparent winner in Florida while Georgia's Brian Kemp is in strong position in that race. 

“The Republican Party is Donald Trump’s party. He may have been hijacking a political party in ’16 and borrowing it. He has remade it and he knows how to activate it," Todd said.

"Why is Andrew Gillum likely to lose and not win? Why is Stacey Abrams likely to lose and not win? I would argue that Donald Trump figured out how to get his base out.”