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

2020 roundup: Beto hits the big screen

The "Beto-mania" that captured Democrats during Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke's failed Senate bid last cycle may have died down a bit from its fever pitch, but a new documentary seeks to bring it to the big screen. 

Here's the latest on that effort, as well as another update from the trail: 

  • "Running with Beto," the new documentary about O'Rourke's bid against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz will debut at the annual South by Southwest film festival in Austin. A promotional piece for the documentary says the filmmakers "embedded with Beto for the final twelve months of his campaign," so the film could spark yet another round of headlines about O'Rourke when it debuts in March, around the time he will decide on a presidential bid. 
  • Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader and MSNBC host, is holding an event on Monday to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be attended by a slew of prominent New York politicians, including Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who recently announced she's running for president. 
  • California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris announced Thursday that she's voting against President Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr. "While I respect Mr. Barr’s past public service, I do not believe he will defend independent investigations from attacks, embrace a smart on crime approach to public safety, and  ensure equal protection under the law for every single American," she said in a statement.
Ben Kamisar

Gabbard in new video: 'I’m deeply sorry' about past LGBT comments

Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a newly-minted presidential candidate, is apologizing for her past statements about LGBT rights as she seeks to tamp down criticism from within her own party after those statements surfaced last week. 

In a new Twitter video released Thursday, Gabbard stands in front of a snowy backdrop and directly addresses the backlash. 

"In my past, I said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, hurtful to people in the LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones. I’m deeply sorry for having said and believed them," she says.

"My views have changed significantly since then, and my record in Congress over the last 6 years reflects what is in my heart: A strong and ongoing commitment  to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights."

Gabbard goes on to say that she was "raised to believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman" by a father who was "an activist who was fighting against gay marriage equality in Hawaii," who she wanted to defend. But she adds that she eventually changed her views as she got older. 

Her past opposition to same-sex marriage surfaced quickly after she announced her presidential bid last week when CNN penned stories that brought up her past remarks and support for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. That prompted some criticism from the left, as same-sex marriage is overwhelmingly popular in the Democratic Party

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: It's Sherrod's turn

Another day, another round of Democratic politicians who just so happened to decide to take a winter trip to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina. 

Here's the latest from the trail: 

  • Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown announced his "Dignity of Work" tour that will run through key early primary states, and his home state, which happens to be a pivotal one on the path to winning 270 Electoral College votes. 
  • Fresh off the unveiling of her exploratory committee, New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand held a press conference in Troy, New York where she reiterated her desire to run for president. During a question-and-answer session with reporters, she defended herself from donors who are frustrated she called on Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken to resign after accusations he groped women, she promised not to take money from corporate PACs or lobbyists and spoke out against super PACs. 
  • The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton is heading to New Hampshire in a move that will once again spark questions about whether he's considering a presidential bid. Last month, Moulton was part of a group of House Democrats to withhold votes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership bid in exchange for promises of new blood at the top of the party. 
Ben Kamisar

Iowa newspapers call for King to resign as political woes deepen

Pressure continues to mount on Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King as his party begins to turn on him after a long history of racist comments, calling his electoral future into question. 

Bipartisan condemnations have been pouring in from Capitol Hill and now the White House, culminating in him being stripped of committee assignments and a resolution that disapproved of his most recent statement.

He's also facing criticism in his own backyard, as a credible primary challenger emerges.

Both the Des Moines Register and the Sioux City Journal penned op-eds telling King to resign his office. Part of the reasoning is that with no committee assignments, he is, as the Journal refers to him "an outcast within the body in which he serves." And both papers savaged King for, as the Register put it, having "made Iowa a laughing stock on the national stage with his offensive and absurd remarks." 

Neither paper's editorial board have been kind to King—both endorsed his 2018 opponent, citing his past rhetoric. 

King remains defiant—he said Tuesday on the radio show "The Ed Martin Movement"  that he will not resign and that he's confident that what I have done has been true and right and just and honest." 

His top GOP primary challenger, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, is using the controversy as a launching point for his primary bid. He's launched a website called "" that pans King for having "left us without a seat at the table" and criticized King as a "sideshow" that distracts from advancing conservative policy. 

King just narrowly survived his closest general election in years, so it's clear that the general electorate in his district is tiring of him. But Feenstra is betting that the trend, and King's latest turn in the spotlight, will help him flip the GOP primary electorate onto his side too. 

Ben Kamisar

Gillibrand on 2020: 'I’m going to run'

Add New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s name to the quickly-expanding list of Democratic presidential candidates. 

She’s announcing her exploratory committee on tonight’s episode of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on CBS, which was filmed earlier today. Read more here from NBC News’ Jane C. Timm about her announcement and how Gillibrand matches up with the field. 

Ben Kamisar

What the 2020 Democrats focused on during Barr nomination hearings

Democratic senators and possible 2020 presidential candidates Amy Klobuchar, Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris all had a big opportunity Tuesday during William Barr's attorney general confirmation hearing.

As members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tasked with advising and consenting on Barr's nomination, the three possible White House hopefuls had time during the nationally televised hearings to make their points and question Barr. 

Certainly they all have issues they want to address based on their time on the committee, but there's no doubt the confirmation hearing will be looked at through the lens of 2020 (just as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation was last year). 

Here's a rundown of what each of the three senators asked of Barr during their questioning (UPDATED to include their second round of questioning later Tuesday afternoon): 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Klobuchar, who came out of the Kavanaugh hearings with a 2020 bump after Democrats lauded her tough questioning, started her questioning off pushing Barr on the government shutdown and the border wall. 

She then spent the majority of her time running through a battery of quick-hit questions: does Barr have confidence in FBI Director Christopher Wray; whether various actions by a president would constitute obstruction of justice; why he wouldn't commit to following the advice of Justice Department ethics officials on whether or not to recuse himself from the special counsel's probe; would he make the probe's findings public; would he recuse himself if he had a conflict with an investigation; and how he'd aim to protect voting rights. 

Klobuchar also elicited an eye-catching response from Barr when she asked if he would be open to the department jailing journalists for reporting. Barr kept the door open on that by replying that "there could be a situation where someone would be held into contempt."

On her second pass at Barr, she questioned Barr about the attorney general's loyalties during a constitutional crisis, asked him to review her bill on preventing abusers stalkers from obtaining firearms, and to support the Violence Against Women Act. 

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Booker's round of questioning was more subdued than his rounds of questioning during the Kavanaugh hearing, where he evoked "Spartacus" and got into a clash with Republicans over previously confidential documents.

This time, he focused primarily on criminal justice, on the heels of the bipartisan bill signed into law. 

He got Barr to commit to not using Justice Department resources on prosecuting marijuana crimes in states that have legalized the drug, with Barr saying he doesn't want to "upset settled expectations" and "reliance" on the Justice Department's past policy to ignore those violations of federal law. 

Confronting Barr on his record on mass incarcerations during his first stint as attorney general, Booker asked Barr to commit to studying "racial disparities and disparate impacts" of criminal justice policies (Barr said he would). And he ended on a personal note. 

"Sir, I was a young black guy in 1990s. I was a 20-something-year-old. And I experienced a dramatically different justice system," Booker said. 

During the afternoon portion of the hearing, Booker brought up Barr's old writings on LGBT rights, to which Barr said he's open to the law as it stands but wants "accommodation to religion." 

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

Harris stuck to similar themes as Booker and Klobuchar, a consequence of her being one of the final members of the committee to question Barr. 

She pushed Barr on states' rights on marijuana, on whether a wall would prevent the flow of drugs into America since most drugs come to America through legal ports of entry, and to definitively state why he might choose to disregard the agency's ethics board if they recommend he recuses from the special counsel investigation. 

And she called for the Justice Department to approach the drug epidemic as more of a public health response instead of a "lock-em-up" response, an important issue as she looks to frame her past work as a prosecutor for a Democratic primary electorate that could be distrustful of a former state law enforcement chief. 

"The war on drugs was an abject failure, America frankly has a crisis of addiction and putting the limited resources of our federal government into locking up people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars," she said. 

"If confirmed, I'd ask you to take a look at the more recent perspective on the drug crisis." 

Later in the day, Harris pointed to the recent Washington Post story reporting that President Trump was concealing records related to meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin to ask if he thought that was against the law (Barr said he wasn't familiar with the underlying law).

And she peppered Barr with questions about the Justice Department's position on the ObamaCare lawsuit, put him on the record agreeing to address her concerns about voter suppression and on consent decrees with local police departments. 

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Klobuchar, Gillibrand inching closer to bid

Democratic politicians are so far making good on their pledges to "take the holidays" to decide whether to run for president — it seems like every day, another candidate is sending smoke signals about an impending bid. 

Here's our latest round-up of news from the 2020 trail, including the latest flirtations: 

  • Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Tuesday that her family "is on board" with a possible presidential bid. While she added that she is going to make "this decision on my own course," she noted that candidates sometimes use their families as a way out of running and that won't be the case here. 
  • New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand could announce her exploratory committee as soon as Tuesday's taping of CBS's "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," CBS reports
  • Priorities USA, the Democratic super-PAC that plans to support the party's nominee and blast President Trump, is shifting away from the traditional reliance on television and radio advertising, Politico reports, as it looks to change the way it wages the messaging wars in 2020. 
Monica Alba

Shutdown has kept Trump off golf course for longest stretch of his presidency

It's been 50 days since President Donald Trump has hit the links, marking his longest stretch without a golf outing since taking office. The government shutdown is at least partially to blame — his planned holiday break at Mar-a-Lago was cancelled as a result of the standoff, meaning Trump has now spent much of the last seven weeks at the White House in the midst of Washington's winter weather.  

Golf is typically a staple in the president’s weekend routine but the last time the president teed it up was on November 25, at the end of his Thanksgiving vacation in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Beyond what he’s dubbed the “Southern White House,” the president also frequently spends time on the golf course at his Bedminster, New Jersey property in the summer and fall. During the warmer months in Washington, Trump often makes weekend trips to his golf club in nearby Virginia.

Since the start of his administration, Trump has visited self-branded golf properties more than 160 times. It’s not always clear when he is playing a round of golf though, because the White House doesn’t normally acknowledge or confirm that is how the president is spending his time.

In the past, Trump has called the sport his “primary form of exercise!” But he is unlikely to golf again until the longest shutdown in history gets resolved or he decides to go to Florida — whichever comes first.

During this current golf-free stretch, Trump has traveled to Iraq and Germany for brief visits with soldiers, as well as a day trip to the border in Texas and went to Louisiana Monday to speak at the farm bureau convention.

As a candidate, Trump frequently criticized his predecessor for playing too many rounds of golf. (“Can you believe that, with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf. Worse than Carter,” he tweeted in 2014).

Shortly after the December lapse in funding, the president promised in a campaign email: “When our beautiful country’s national security is at stake, I will NEVER take a vacation.”  

With both sides dug in and deadlocked on any shutdown solution, Trump’s golf game also seems stalled indefinitely. 

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Trump takes aim at Warren again

President Trump has been running for reelection since he took office, both with direct efforts like fundraising and indirect efforts like trying to soften up his potential 2020 opponents. 

No Democratic hopeful has faced more incoming from the president than Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He's tweeted about her at least 10 times since taking office, many times using a pejorative nickname referring to her claim of Native American ancestry, and has criticized her even more on the stump and during sessions with the media. 

Those attacks are continuing now that Warren is exploring a bid for president, most recently as Sunday evening on Twitter. 

Along with more on that latest barb, here's a roundup of what you may have missed on the 2020 beat over the last few days. 

  • Trump retweeted a quick clip of a recent Instagram Live video of Warren's where she cracks a beer in her kitchen and talks with her husband. In his tweets, he references the Battle at Little Bighorn and the massacre at Wounded Knee, controversial battles between Native Americans and U.S. forces in the 1800s. 
  • Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders—seen as one of Warren's top opponents in that he has the keys to a strong campaign organization and sits in a similar, progressive/populist lane as Warren does—is staffing up his digital team, according to Politico. Among those moves, Sanders is reportedly in talks to bring on the video team that made viral videos for New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during her Democratic primary last cycle. 
  • Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard apologized for her past statements on LGBT rights to CNN as she begins her presidential campaign.
  • Former Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, who is flirting with a challenge to President Trump, penned a new op-ed in USA Today where he accuses his party of being "stuck in the 1950s" both in its representative diversity and it's approach to problem-solving. 
  • NBC News' Benjy Sarlin took a look at how Washington Democratic Gov Jay Inslee's (a possible presidential candidate) failure to push through a carbon tax in his home state is shaping his approach to combating climate change. 
Ben Kamisar

Castro, Gabbard latest Dems to jump into 2020 race

This weekend brought two more Democratic candidates into the presidential race-former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. 

Castro's announcement had been thoroughly teased out-he announced an exploratory committee last month and made his intentions clear. But he followed through on Saturday when he declared in his hometown of San Antonio. 

Gabbard had been known to be mulling a bid too. But instead of a more scripted roll-out like the one Castro and others landed on, Gabbard told CNN on Friday during an interview that she is running, only after rolling out her campaign website and the other trappings of a bid. 

Castro has made it clear he's running as a progressive, telling Iowans during a trip last week that he's supporting universal healthcare and the "Green New Deal" environmental policies, as well as refusing to take corporate donations. 

Gabbard hasn't given many more details just yet, telling supporters in an email she's running on "building a movement for peace at home and abroad that will fulfill the promise of America for freedom, justice, equality." She has fans among those who supported Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, thanks to her public break with the party to support him. But her stances on other issues, like gay rights and the Syrian conflict, have cost her support on the left too.