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New poll shows Keith Ellison trailing in Minnesota attorney general race

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the current Democratic National Committee deputy chairman, trails his Republican rival in the race for the state's attorney general post in a new poll released Tuesday. 

Ellison sits 7 points behind Republican Doug Wardlow in the new poll commissioned by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio, as Wardlow leads 43 percent to 36 percent among likely voters. 

Once seen as on a glide-path for the attorney general post, Ellison has been dogged by an ex-girlfriend's allegation that he abused her while they dated. Ellison has vehemently denied that accusation and an outside investigation by the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party could not substantiate the allegation

Still, the lackluster polling for Ellison suggests the accusation may be dragging his poll numbers down. The plurality of voters, 49 percent, are not sure whether they believe the allegation. Thirty percent believe it while 21 percent do not. 

That question divides voters on clear partisan lines, with Republicans more likely to believe the allegation than Democrats. But a majority of both Democrats and independents are not sure whether Ellison committed the abuse in question. 

Wardlow's 7-point lead in the poll comes one month after the same poll found Ellison with a 5-point lead. His campaign celebrated the lead in a statement from general consultant Kory Wood that says "the more closely Minnesotans look at Keith Ellison, the more disturbed they are by what they see."

Ellison's campaign hasn't released a public statement on the poll. 

The Star Tribune/MPR poll also found Democratic Rep. Tim Walz with a slim, 6-point lead, in his gubernatorial bid against Republican Jeff Johnson. It also showed Democratic Sen. Tina Smith leading Republican Karin Housley by 6 points too. 

Those margins were far closer than the NBC News/Marist poll from earlier this month, which found double-digit leads for both Walz and Smith while not polling on Ellison's race. 

The Star Tribune/MPR poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling surveyed 800 likely voters between Oct. 15 and Oct. 17. It has a margin-of-error of 3.5 percentage points. 

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Mark Murray

Kamala Harris: 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses in presidential bid

With Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announcing her presidential bid on Monday, she has three strengths and three weaknesses in the emerging and growing 2020 race for the Democratic nomination.

Strength #1: As an African American (and Indian American), Harris has the potential to replicate the path that helped Barack Obama win the 2008 Democratic race: Win – or overperform – in Iowa, use that as a springboard to win the African-American-dominated South Carolina primary, and then run up the score in the early primaries in the South.

Strength #2: With California moving up its primary to March, Harris has the ability to rack up a significant number of delegates in her home state. The South + California strategy could be a potent combination in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Strength #3: While not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Harris has solid progressive credentials – she supports Medicare For All, said in 2017 that she wasn't going to vote to keep the government open unless Congress protected the DACA recipients, and was on the front lines opposing Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination. Bottom line: No one would mistake her as a centrist.

Weakness #1: Where progressives have taken aim, however, is Harris's record as a prosecutor in California. "Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state's attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent," law professor Lara Bazelon recently wrote in the New York Times.

Weakness #2: When Harris was on the statewide ballot in California in 2010, she underperformed former Gov. Jerry Brown (who won his race by 13 points) and former Sen. Barbara Boxer (10 points) by winning by less than a percentage point, 46.1 percent to 45.3 percent. But in 2016, Harris beat fellow Dem Loretta Sanchez by 20-plus points in the state's Top 2 race for Senate.

Weakness #3: As a progressive Democrat from California, Harris might *not* have the ability to have an appeal to independent and swing voters as potential 2020 Dems from other states might (Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar and Texas' Beto O'Rourke).

Biden: "I haven't always been right" on criminal justice

Former Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged Monday that his record on criminal justice issues hasn’t always been perfect, addressing, albeit briefly, a key aspect of his long career in public office that could be a liability if he runs for president.

“You know I’ve been in this fight for a long time,” Biden said in remarks to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Washington. “I haven’t always been right, I know we haven’t always done things the right way. But I’ve always tried.”

Biden made no mention of the 1994 crime bill he authored, a law that's sparked criticism from progressive activists for its strict sentencing requirements. Biden had long touted his work on the issue, even recently as vice president since the legislation included gun control measures that have since expired.

Both Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised King’s legacy at the breakfast as the two potential hopefuls zeroed in on a critical voting constituency in the Democratic nominating contest – African Americans.

Bloomberg reminded the audience he spent heavily already to help elect Democrats in Congress and across the country in 2018, and focused his remarks on two issues that have been a focus of his three terms as mayor and more recently his philanthropic life: education and gun violence.

“Dr. King would have been the first to say we still aren’t moving fast enough,” Bloomberg said. “In fact I think if he had seen the little progress we’ve made in giving all minority children a sufficient education to succeed over the past four years he would be shocked at how little has changed.”

Bloomberg, who spoke first, teased one Biden about their looming decisions, saying that while he hadn’t had time to speak yet with him, he looked forward to getting some tips from him about living in the nation’s capital.  

“Whatever the next year brings for Joe and me, I know we’ll both keep our eyes on the real prize and that is electing a Democrat to the White House in 2020 and getting our country back on track,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg left before Biden addressed the audience. The former vice president did not name Trump but blasted him for helping provoke a resurgence in racism in the country.

“We’ve learned in the last two years it doesn’t take much to waken hate, to bring those folks out from under the rocks,” he said. “They have been deliberately reawakened again … Something I thought I would never live to see again, having a president of the United States make a moral equivalence between those who are spreading the hate and those who are opposing it.”

In their own ways, Biden and Bloomberg candidacies would be game-changers in the nascent Democratic contest, which took on new shape Monday with the official entrance by California Sen. Kamala Harris.

In Biden, the field would add a candidate with perhaps the deepest political resume and highest name identification in the party. The entrance of a two-term vice president and seven-term senator could crowd out some of the more than dozen other lesser-known contenders considering the race.

Bloomberg would bring a willingness to spend heavily from his personal fortune to try and win the nomination, as some other leading contenders are pressuring the field to focus on small-dollar donations from grassroots supporters. A former Republican and independent, Bloomberg would be running to the right of others at a time the Democratic Party is seen as tracking further left.

Neither man appears ready to join the field imminently. Biden has said he would spend the holidays discussing the race with his family with the goal of reaching a final decision in January. He has been privately meeting with top Democrats and allies as his team continues to lay the groundwork for a campaign, even as they know the operation may never launch.

Ben Kamisar

Kamala Harris dives into presidential race

California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris made her presidential bid official Monday morning, announcing her intention to run during an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Alongside the interview, her campaign rolled out her slogan "Kamala Harris For the People," a nod to her time as a prosecutor. And her press secretary tweeted that her campaign raised money from donors in all 50 states in the first 30 minutes after she announced. 

Harris is the seventh candidate to either file paperwork or announce presidential bids, with more likely on the way. 

Read more from NBC News' Lauren Egan and Benjy Sarlin about Harris' announcement here

Ben Kamisar

Rep. Cheney: Steve King's comments were 'racist'

Wyoming Congresswoman Elizabeth Cheney, one of the top members of House Republican leadership, blasted Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King's recent comments as "abhorrent" and "racist" as she brushed aside King's attacks on her. 

Republicans in Congress united around condemning him after a New York Times article quoted him saying "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization— how did that language become offensive?" before adding "Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization." 

Cheney and House Republican leadership quickly rushed to condemn King for his comments, a fact that prompted King to strike back at Cheney during a Tuesday appearance on "The Ed Martin Movement" radio show. On the show, King said that Cheney's criticism of her should strip her of her conservative credentials. 

When asked about that statement, Cheney reiterated her criticism. 

"I think I was pretty clear, and our entire House leadership was very clear last week. His comments were abhorrent. They were racist. We, under the guidance of Leader McCarthy, stripped him of his committee assignments. And I think there's simply no place for that language in any of our national discourse," she said. 

While she wouldn't answer whether the House will formally censure King, she said "I think he ought to go find another line of work." 

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 "RetireSteveKing.com" 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.