PA-18 results a troubling sign for GOP ahead of midterms

Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent victory in Pennsylvania's special congressional election has left Republicans struggling to explain how the party lost a seat in a district President Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

Here’s a roundup of NBC News’ analysis of what the race means for Democrats, the midterms, and beyond.

  • From First Read: Why the Pennsylvania special election was a gut punch for the GOP. Democrats have been over performing strongly in elections since 2016, and neither Trump nor GOP money save Republican Rick Saccone.
  • Democrats now have a national model for victory in the midterms, NBC News' Jonathan Allen writes
  • Pennsylvania result is another blow to GOP’s November House prospects, Cook Political Report and NBC News election analyst David Wasserman writes. There are 118 GOP-held House districts that are more Republican than the one Lamb appeared to win Tuesday, according to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index. That could spur some more Republicans to take a hard look at retirement. 

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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 Rep. 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. 

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.”