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Democrats pick up 43rd state legislative flip

Democrats have picked up their 43th legislative flip of the cycle after a win in a state Senate race in Wisconsin last night.

Democrat Caleb Frostman narrowly defeated Republican Andre Jacque in the 1st Senate District special election, making him the first Democrat to represent the district since the 1970s.

Republicans held on to a state assembly seat elsewhere in the state.

The pair of special elections was one of the most anticipated of the summer by Democratic groups working to turn red legislative districts blue. Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate tried to block the elections from occurring at all until ordered by a judge to schedule them. 

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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. 

Ben Kamisar

Incoming Wisconsin Governor: GOP bill to strip power from Democrats a 'hot mess'

Wisconsin Democratic Governor-elect Tony Evers warned Republican Gov. Scott Walker that his reputation would be tarnished if he fails to veto legislation by the lame-duck GOP state legislature that's aimed at stripping powers from the incoming governor.

"It's around Scott Walker's legacy—he has the opportunity to change this and actually validate the will of the people that voted on Nov. 6," Evers said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"The entire thing is a mess, a hot mess, and I believe he should veto the entire package"

Evers's frustration centers on the decision by Badger State Republicans to respond to a Democratic sweep of top statewide offices by crafting legislation to strip power from Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul specifically. 

Among other changes, the bills would prevent the governor from scrapping the state's Medicaid work requirements, hamper his ability to withdraw from lawsuits like the one challenging the Affordable Care Act, limit gubernatorial appointments to an economic board, and require legislative sign-off for the governor to make changes to certain programs and for the attorney general to settle certain lawsuits. 

The bill would also limit early voting in the state. A previous attempt to cut early voting was found unconstitutional in federal court, so the legislature is trying again with a slightly more expansive approach. 

While he admitted that calling the move a "coup" might be "strong," Evers agreed with Democratic criticism that the effort is a partisan power grab done in direct response to Republicans losing those top statewide offices. He repeatedly argued that the legislature wouldn't be pushing these laws if Walker won re-election.

But Republican lawmakers have brushed aside any criticism, arguing that the legislature simply wants to correct the balance of power in the state government. 

A similar effort is occurring in Michigan, where Republican lawmakers are also scrambling to limit the power of state executives before Democrats are sworn in to replace the state's governor- and secretary of state-elect. 

Vaughn Hillyard

Karen Pence stays away from politics to focus on her initiatives

Heading into her third year as second lady, Karen Pence says she will continue to focus on and expand the art therapy initiative she launched upon moving to Washington, telling NBC News that she wants to “elevate the profession” as she travels domestically and abroad alongside the vice president. 

“It’s an opportunity to make the most of these four years and make a difference wherever I can as Second Lady,” Pence said about her efforts in an interview with NBC News on a recent trip alongside Vice President Pence to Singapore.

“A lot of people don’t understand it. They think it’s arts and crafts, or therapeutic art, or it feels great to get the paints out. But it’s more of a mental health profession, and I wanted to elevate that profession and make people more aware.”

Over the last two years, Pence has frequented trips with the vice president, often separating herself from his work on the ground and, instead, visiting hospitals or military units with her staff to engage in art therapy programs and talk with service members and their spouses.

Last month, while in Tokyo, the second lady helped announce a new art therapy program grant out of the U.S. embassy in Japan after initially visiting the country in April 2017, when she met Cheryl Okubo, a U.S. citizen and permanent resident of Japan. As part of the announcement, Okubo, a board-certified art therapist, will launch the two-year pilot art therapy program at Tsukuba University, the first of its kind in the country.

As Karen Pence publicly focuses her attention on these initiatives, she has keenly separated herself from the political fray since moving to the Naval Observatory, declining to weigh in, publicly, on major policy efforts of the administration or controversies.

When asked by NBC News about President Trump’s numerous offensive statements about particular women, including the characterization of some as crazy and as having low IQ, Karen Pence sidestepped characterizing the president’s comments, but said the public should know that Trump “does feel very strongly about the role that women can play, especially in politics.” She noted Trump’s deference during the campaign to one of her daughters, Charlotte Pence, asking for her opinion on issues the then-campaign should address concerning millenial women.

“I don’t usually get involved in what the president does and what he says,” Karen Pence responded. “I think the American people elected him to be their president, and so I stay away. He certainly doesn’t need to ask me for my advice. But I do think -- one thing I do know about the president is that he does feel very strongly about the role that women can play, especially in politics.”

She continued: “This president does care about women. He cares about issues that are dear to them.”

NBC News

Tweet the Press: Leigh Ann Caldwell discusses election fraud allegations in North Carolina

This week on "Tweet the Press," NBC News Capitol Hill reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell joined us from North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, where election fraud allegations have roiled the district. 

There, Republican Mark Harris appeared to have edged out Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes.

But the state election board has refused to certify the election after concerns about irregularities related to absentee ballots. 

That decision has thrown the race into uncertainty, without a clear answer to what will happen next

Much of the scrutiny is centered on Bladen County, a rural county where Harris won the absentee votes by a significant margin. Nonpartisan analysts have raised questions about the absentee margin there. 

The election board is slated to meet sometime this month to dig deeper into the allegations. And meanwhile, the Charlotte Observer editorial board wrote Wednesday that there should be a new election entirely

That would include a redo of the Republican primary, where Harris defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger. 

Read more from Leigh Ann below about the various twists and turns, as well as the timeline for the next steps. 

New Hampshire secretary of state survives challenge, reelected to 22nd term

Overcoming his most serious challenge in decades, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner was narrowly elected to a 22nd term to the post that oversees the nation’s first presidential primary.

Gardner, 70, was reelected on the second ballot during a joint session of the New Hampshire legislature Wednesday, defeating fellow Democrat Colin Van Ostern, 209 to 205 in the second round of voting.

Gardner was actually an underdog heading into the vote. The 39-year-old Van Ostern announced he would challenge Gardner earlier this year and raised more than $200,000 for his campaign, according to the Associated Press. He hoped to seize on growing discontent in his party with Gardner over his support of GOP-backed voting laws, but more significantly, Gardner’s decision to serve on President Trump’s “voter fraud” commission in 2017. A straw poll among Democrats in the New Hampshire House last month was lopsided in Van Ostern’s favor.

But Gardner and several longtime allies in both parties made a furious last-minute bid to keep him in office, a case largely based on his ability to protect New Hampshire’s first in the nation status and his reputation for non-partisan handling of the office.

There was some unexpected drama in the voting. Despite only two candidates being on the ballot, the initial vote failed to produce a winner. Gardner initially received 208 votes, Van Ostern 207, with one ballot listed as “scatter.” The rules – which came to be the source of some debate – require a majority of ballots cast-plus one to win, meaning Gardner was initially one vote shy of staying in office.

As secretary of state since 1976, Gardner has not only been singularly empowered to decide when the presidential primary will be, but also has overseen the process in which candidates for president file to get on the ballot.

Gardner has welcomed many candidates to his office when they came to file in person, including future President Obama in 2007, future President Trump in 2015, and Hillary Clinton four times – twice when she filed for her husband, and twice when she filed for herself.

Deval Patrick to announce he will not run for president in 2020

Deval Patrick, the former Democratic governor of Massachusetts and a longtime ally of former President Barack Obama, has told friends and advisers he is not planning to run for president and will soon formally announce his decision, a source familiar with his thinking told NBC News.

Patrick has been weighing a 2020 White House bid for months and received encouragement from top former aides to Obama and other national Democrats. His advisers formed a PAC this summer help him explore re-entering politics and to promote Democrats running in this year’s midterm elections.

Some thought Patrick, one of the most prominent African-Americans in the Democratic Party, could be a strong contender for his party's 2020 nomination, in part since the nominating process favors a candidate of color given the prominence of southern states with large black populations early in the primary calendar. 

But Patrick, who has worked for Bain Capital since leaving office in 2015, also publicly voiced concern that he could stand out in such a crowded field as 2020 is shaping up to be.

Politico first reported Patrick's plans

“It’s hard to see how you even get noticed in such a big, broad field without being shrill, sensational or a celebrity -- and I’m none of those things and I’m never going to be any of those things,” Patrick told David Axelrod, a former advisor to both him and Obama, for an interview on his podcast in September.

Patrick grew up in difficult circumstances on the South Side of Chicago, but a scholarship to a prestigious prep school near Boston, Milton Academy, helped set his life on a course that led to Harvard, Bain, and two terms as Massachusetts’ first African-American governor.

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Avenatti says no to presidential bid

After months of publicly teasing a presidential bid, Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for porn actress Stormy Daniels, says he'll skip a 2020 run

Avenatti made the announcement on Twitter, citing his family, even as he's spent the past few months gearing up for a bid. He had traveled to Iowa, created a political action committee and laid out his argument for why Democrats needed his brand of politicking to defeat Trump. 

The decision comes after a rough stretch for the lawyer, who was arrested after allegations of domestic violence (which he's denied) and criticized by Daniels for filing a defamation lawsuit against Trump that she claims was done without her agreement. 

But while the sun may be setting on "Avenatti 2020," there are dozens of other Democrats who are just gearing up. One of them is Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has made no secret about his interest in a potential bid. 

As he considers his options, some of his allies are looking to urge him to move forward. 

Rolling Stone reports that a group of Sanders's 2016 campaign staffers are starting "Organizing for Bernie," a group meant to draft Sanders into running again.

Draft groups help to mobilize supporters to help a candidate if they flip the switch and start running. Supporters of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton started "Ready for Hillary" shortly after the 2012 presidential election to promote her likely bid.

But candidates sometimes let their draft committees down, like when former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden chose not to run for president and left his supporters and their "Draft Biden" committee without a candidate. 

Ben Kamisar

Biden muses about possible 2020 bid in latest appearance

Former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden continues to make no secrets about his flirtations with a 2020 presidential bid, and argued the point on Monday night during a book tour stop in Montana. 

NBC News's Mike Memoli has a full report on the appearance here, but here are a few key quotes: 

  • "I think I’m the most qualified person in the country to be president. The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that I’ve worked on my whole life — the plight of the middle class and foreign policy."
  • "My family and I need to decide as a unit whether we’re ready — we do everything as a family."
  • "I may be a gaffe machine, but my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth."

It's true that as a former Senate committee chairman, two-time presidential candidate and vice president, he has more experience in politics than virtually anyone eyeing a bid. But as Democrats saw in 2016, that designation doesn't necessarily guarantee a candidate the presidency. 

GOP state lawmakers in Wisconsin, Michigan look to curb power of incoming Democratic officeholders

Less than a month after key statewide losses, Republican legislators in Wisconsin and Michigan are taking steps to strip the powers of the incoming Democrats.

In Wisconsin, state lawmakers held a hearing Monday on their package of efforts to weaken Governor-elect Tony Evers — who beat Republican Scott Walker in November, 49.6 percent to 48.4 percent. Per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, those proposals include: 

  • making it difficult for incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to withdraw from the GOP lawsuit challenging Obamacare
  • eliminating Evers’ ability to choose a leader of the state’s Economic Development Corporation
  • limiting early voting in elections (a similar effort was found unconstitutional in 2016)
  • moving the state’s 2020 presidential primary from April to March, to potentially reduce the turnout for a state Supreme Court contest set for April
  • requiring Evers to get permission from state lawmakers to ban guns in the state Capitol.

In Michigan, the Detroit Free Press reports that the lame-duck Republican legislature has introduced bills that would transfer some powers from the attorney general or governor's office to the legislature and remove the secretary of state's office from overseeing the state's campaign finance laws in favor of a six-person commission appointed by the governor with nominees chosen by state parties. 

In both states, Democrats are decrying the moves as last-minute power grabs with partisan intent, even as Republicans claim their lame-duck efforts are about good governance. 

It's not the first time Republican legislators worked to curb the powers of an incoming Democratic administration—Republicans in North Carolina introduced a series of bills in the 2016 lame duck before Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took power that shifted the balance of power toward the GOP-controlled legislature.

Ben Kamisar

John Kennedy decides not to run for Lousiana governor

In a surprise twist, Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy said will not run for governor in 2019, a move that deprives the GOP of another top recruit in the red-leaning state.

Kennedy announced his decision to forego a bid to dethrone Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in a statement Monday morning.

"I love being in the United States Senate. I will not be a candidate for governor in 2019," he said.

"I hope someone runs for governor who understands that Louisiana state government does not have to be a big, slow, dumb, wasteful, sometimes corrupt, spend-money-like-it-was-ditchwater, anti-taxpayer, top down institution. I love Louisiana as much as I love my country, and the people of my state deserve a state government as good as they are.”

The good news for Bel Edwards deals another blow to Republicans looking to flip the seat—both Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and GOP Rep. Steve Scalise said in November that they weren’t interested in running.Kennedy had been seen as the highest-profile Republican still weighing a bid in a red state that President Trump won by about 20 points in 2016. So the decision opens up a clear path for another candidate like GOP Rep Ralph Abraham, who told the Monroe News Star last month that he’s leaning toward a bid.

Republicans have been looking forward to challenging Bel Edwards ever since his upset win in 2015 over Republican Sen. David Vitter, who had been seen as the clear favorite until he the relitigation of his prostitution scandal turned his campaign upside-down.

Whoever does decide to run against Bel Edwards will dive into the jungle primary, where all of the candidates face off in an open primary in October. The top two candidates, regardless of party, will move onto the general-election round on Nov. 16.