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Poll shows Ohio special election deadlocked days before Trump visit

Ohio's 12th Congressional District special election is a toss up in a new poll that dropped hours after President Trump announced a trip to help the GOP hold onto the district. 

Monmouth University's new poll finds the race within the margin of error no matter how the pollsters modeled the electorate. 

GOP state Sen. Troy Balderson holds a slim lead with standard midterm turnout and low turnout models, while Democrat Danny O'Connor is up one point if projecting for a surge in Democratic votes. 

That represents a tightening from Monmouth's polling last month, which showed Balderson with the edge, thanks in part to a boost in O'Connor support from independent voters. 

The poll exemplifies the concerns for Republicans, who fear that an embarrassing loss in a district long-held by the GOP could deal a blow to the party going into the November midterms. 

Trump's Saturday rally is part of the GOP's full-court press in the Columbus-area district. 

Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in the district for Balderson this week, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich endorsed the GOP candidate in a show of party unity. 

National Republicans have also boosted Balderson by spending more than $3.3 million on television ads.

In the final days, Republicans have leaned on a familiar playbook, tying Democrat Danny O'Connor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. While O'Connor has said from the start of his campaign he wants new leadership in both parties, he admitted during an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews last week that he'll support whoever the Democratic Party coalesces around for speaker. 

Republicans are accusing O'Connor of going back on his word down the stretch and tying him to Pelosi while Balderson's own closing ad is a positive spot meant to push back against Democratic attacks.

But Democrats are brushing aside the attacks, with O'Connor standing by his call for new leadership in his own closing ad and Democrats hammering Balderson with messaging on health care and retirement.

Chuck Grassley files FEC paperwork for possible 2022 re-election bid

WASHINGTON — Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission Wednesday morning, setting up a possible re-election bid for the 2022 cycle.

Grassley, elected to Congress as a member of the House of Representatives in 1974 and then the Senate in 1980, is the oldest Republican currently serving in the Senate and would be 89 by Election Day of 2022.

The Iowa senator filed a new statement of candidacy with the FEC on Wednesday for the 2022 cycle, which allows him to kickstart his fundraising for a potential bid. Though the paperwork makes him an official candidate in the eyes of the FEC, it doesn't guarantee he'll actually run for an eighth term. Former Georgia GOP Sen. David Perdue, who in January lost his Senate seat in a runoff to now-Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff, announced last week he wouldn't launch another campaign just days after he filed paperwork with the FEC and tweeted he was considering a 2022 bid

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2021.Mandel Ngan / Pool via Reuters

Grassley has told reporters he'll make a decision "sometime in September, October or November," according to the Des Moines Register.

Grassley tested positive for Covid-19 in November but reported his case was asymptomatic and he recovered.

A handful of senators have already announced plans to retire at the end of 2022, with more potentially on the way. 

Alabama’s senior GOP Sen. Richard Shelby announced last month he won’t seek re-election in 2022 after serving in Congress for over 40 years. And Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina have also said they won’t pursue re-election bids in 2022.

Two other Republican senators have not said if they'll run again in 2022: Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Johnson said in 2016 he would only serve two terms in the Senate but has not recently addressed whether he would seek a third one. Blunt told POLITICO earlier this year he had no timetable on deciding whether to run again. 

Hawley ends his confirmation no-vote streak by backing Biden's pick to chair Council of Economic Advisers

WASHINGTON — After voting against all 12 of President Joe Biden's previous Senate-confirmable nominees, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., backed his first nomination on Tuesday, Cecilia Rouse, who the Senate confirmed as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers by a wide margin.

Hawley's vote makes Rouse the first of Biden's nominees to win the senator's support, as he had previously opposed Biden's whole slate of nominees, including about half that passed with support from at least 80 senators. 

He told NBC News last week that he didn't have an explicit strategy of opposing nominees, adding his test is that he hopes Biden "will nominate folks and pursue policies that will be good for working Americans and good for the middle of the country." 

Ethics watchdog says Rep. Palazzo may have improperly spent campaign, official funds

WASHINGTON — The Office of Congressional Ethics found there is "substantial reason to believe" Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., improperly gave special favors to his brother and misused campaign and official funds on a variety of expenses, including renovations to a riverfront home, according to a new report released Monday. 

The nonpartisan OCE, an independent group that advises the House Committee on Ethics, voted unanimously to recommend lawmakers continue an investigation into Palazzo.

In a 47-page report, the OCE board laid out allegations of wrongdoing by Palazzo that mainly fall into two tranches — improper conduct related to Palazzo's brother, who worked for his campaign, and spending related to a river home he owned and listed as his official campaign headquarters. 

Palazzo's office denied the allegations in a statement, arguing that his conduct was proper and that he will cooperate with the investigation. 

While the board found that Palazzo's brother "provided at least some bona fide services to the campaign committee," it also alleged that "the work Kyle Palazzo performed may have not justified the salary he received." Campaigns must pay employees fair market value, and a failure to do can be seen as receiving (or giving) an improper campaign contribution. CQ Roll Call first reported on the potential wrongdoing in December. 

The congressman's office is also accused of special treatment in helping his brother attempt to update his re-enlistment code with the Navy.

The home in question has been owned by Palazzo's family for about 20 years, the OCE board said. Palazzo himself bought it from his mother and a business associated with her in 2017. The report found the congressman's campaign paid Palazzo's LLC $60,000 in rent for the property, as well as another $22,000 in expenditures for things like landscaping and utilities.

The report claims there's "substantial reason to believe there was not a bona fide campaign need for the space and that the campaign committee did not pay fair market value for its actual use of the property" and that the upkeep expenses "more accurately represented campaign-funded improvements to Rep. Palazzo's personal property." 

There are also other allegations related to Palazzo's use of his staff — that his congressional staff ran personal errands or campaign work during their official work hours.

Colleen Kennedy, Palazzo's communications director, said in a statement that he "welcomes the opportunity to work through this process with the House Committee on Ethics and will fully cooperate with the Committee to show that he has complied with all relevant rules and standards."

She called the matter "a direct result of false allegations made by a primary opponent and the Campaign Legal Center," the campaign finance watchdog group that first raised questions about Palazzo's spending. 

Former Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., a former House Committee on Ethics member, is representing Palazzo, she added. 

"Congressman Palazzo will continue to serve his constituents with honor and integrity, and he looks forward to having this matter concluded as soon as possible," Kennedy said. 

In a statement, House Ethics Committee Chairman Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., acknowledged the referral from the OCE and noted that "the mere fact of conducting further review ... does not itself indicated that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee."

McConnell says Senate GOP campaign arm will back Murkowski despite Trump's criticism

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Monday that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official Senate GOP campaign arm, will back Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, for reelection in 2022 despite former President Donald Trump's push for the party to oppose those who voted against him during his second impeachment. 

McConnell told the Congressional press pool in brief comments that the NRSC will "absolutely" back Murkowski's reelection and that he's not concerned Trump's opposition could hurt her ability to win another term. As the Senate GOP leader, McConnell plays a large role in setting the party's political strategy. 

The NRSC's long-standing policy has been to support incumbents. But Trump has regularly threatened members of his party that he felt were not loyal enough to him, a dynamic that doesn't appear to have changed now that he's out of the White House. 

During a Sunday speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual event in Florida, Trump criticized Republicans who are "attacking me, and more importantly the voters of our movement," before 

"The Democrats don't have grand-standers like Mitt Romney, Little Ben Sasse, Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Pat Toomey," Trump said of Republican senators who voted for his conviction. 

It's far from the first time Trump and Alaska's senior senator have locked horns. She called on him to resign in the wake of the attack on the Capitol earlier this year, questioning whether she wanted to continue in the Republican Party if it's "become nothing more than the party of Trump."

And last June, she applauded former Defense Secretary James Mattis' criticism of Trump, prompting the then-president to tweet that he would endorse any candidate with a "pulse" to run against her. 

Murkowski has deep roots in Alaska politics. She has served in the Senate since 2002, winning three elections to the seat after being appointed that year to fill her father's term when he left to serve as governor. 

She also has experience weathering a divided party — after losing the Republican primary in 2010, she won a write-in campaign to secure reelection. 

Plus, Murkowski is running in a non-traditional style of primary next year, a ranked-choice vote where all candidates will be on the same ballot, regardless of party, and the top-four candidates move on to a general election. 

Elizabeth Warren and two House Democrats introduce wealth tax bill

WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., rolled out a wealth tax bill on Monday with two House Democrats, aimed at raising trillions of dollars to help finance investments in infrastructure, clean energy and other Democratic priorities.

The bill would impose an annual 2 percent tax on households with a net worth above $50 million, and an additional 1 percent annual tax on assets above $1 billion.

Warren, who was recently added to the Senate Finance Committee, unveiled her legislation with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks about a proposed Ultra-Millionaire Tax Act on Capitol Hill on March 1, 2021.Susan Walsh / AP

"It is time for a wealth tax in America," Warren told reporters on Monday. "A two cent wealth tax would just help level the playing field a little bit, and create the kind of revenue that would let us build back better, as Joe Biden says."

The Massachusetts senator made the wealth tax a primary issue in her 2020 presidential campaign. 

Warren said she has spoken to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., about the legislation but wouldn't say if they support her bill.

"You should ask them," she said. "I don't want to speak for them."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred Monday when asked if President Joe Biden favored a wealth tax. Psaki said his priority now is Covid-19 relief and that he has "a lot of respect for Sen. Warren" but will consider how best to tax the wealthy at a later time.

Cruz received a special ‘welcome back’ message in Senate gym

Sen. Ted Cruz’s colleagues had a little fun at the Texas Republican’s expense when he returned to Washington this week following his infamous trip to Cancun.

When senators arrived at the Senate gym on Wednesday morning, they found that one of them had taped memes on the lockers welcoming Cruz home and showing him in the short-sleeve polo shirt, jeans and Texas-flag mask that he had at the airport, according to two people familiar with the prank. “Bienvenido de Nuevo, Ted!” was the “welcome back” message typed at the top of the color printouts, one of which was viewed by NBC News.

The rendering featured a manipulated photo of Cruz from his well-documented trip to Mexico, dragging his luggage across an arctic landscape while holding a tropical cocktail garnished with a slice of fruit in his other hand. He is shown walking toward an image of a masked Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. with his arms crossed and wearing striped, knitted gloves — a pose famously captured during January’s inauguration.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, carries his luggage at the Cancun International Airport before boarding his plane back to the U.S., in Cancun, Mexico on Feb. 18, 2021.via Reuters

The memes were taken down sometime Wednesday, according to the people familiar with them.

It's unclear whether Cruz saw the memes and a spokesperson for the senator did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate gym is only used by current and former senators. The Senate Rules Committee hadn’t received a complaint about the prank, according to a committee aide.

Cruz has been widely mocked on social media — and criticized in his home state — for hopping on a plane last week to Cancun for a family trip while millions of Texans were without water and power in frigid temperatures. He returned to Texas after the controversy erupted and said the trip was a “mistake.” 

Mike Memoli contributed to this report.

Meet the Republican senator who's voted against every Biden nominee so far

WASHINGTON — Just one Republican senator has voted against each of President Biden's Cabinet nominees so far: Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley. 

And Hawley's "nay" voting record on each of the 10 nominees who have had a vote is particularly visible given how bipartisan the majority of the confirmations have been. 

Hawley was just one of:

  • Two senators who voted against Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's confirmation
  • Seven senators who voted against Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
  • Seven senators who voted against VA Secretary Denis McDonough
  • 10 senators who voted against the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines 
  • 13 senators who voted against Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg 
  • 15 senators who voted against Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen 

Biden's four other confirmed Cabinet members (Secretary of State Antony Blinken, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm) were all confirmed with closer margins. 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks at the confirmation hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, nominee to be Attorney General, on Feb. 22, 2021.Drew Angerer / AP

Hawley may be one of many Republicans eyeing a potential 2024 presidential bid. He told NBC News' Frank Thorp and Garrett Haake that he didn't have a strategy of opposition. 

"I just I hope that he will nominate folks and pursue policies that will be good for working Americans and good for the middle of the country," Hawley said. "So, that's my only test."

Hawley said he was undecided on how he'd vote on Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland.

New York Democratic Senator and former presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand boasted of having “the best voting record against Trump nominees of anyone else running for president” on the trail in 2019. She voted against 20 of 22 nominations for former President Trump's original Cabinet. She casted the only "no" vote against former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.  

Five other Democratic senators voted against at least 80 percent of Trump’s original Cabinet nominees, and four of those senators also sought the Democratic presidential nomination: Sens., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and now-Vice President Kamala Harris.  

Several of Biden's Cabinet nominees are still awaiting a vote: 

  • Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland
  • HHS nominee Xavier Becerra 
  • Interior nominee Deb Haaland 
  • Education nominee Miguel Cardona
  • Commerce nominee Gina Raimondo
  • Labor nominee Marty Walsh
  • HUD nominee Marcia Fudge
  • EPA nominee Michael Regan
  • SBA nominee Isabel Guzman
  • U.S. Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai 

And of course embattled OMB Director nominee Neera Tanden. 

Virginia Republicans decide on drive-up convention to pick 2021 statewide nominees

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party of Virginia on Tuesday night approved a plan to nominate its gubernatorial candidate by a convention – instead of a primary – in what’s shaping up to be the marquee general-election race of 2021,

The convention will take place on May 8 at conservative Liberty University, whereby convention delegates will drive up and cast their pick for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general under ranked-choice voting

By contrast, Democrats will be selecting their nominee at the ballot box, through a statewide primary contest on June 8. 

This drive-up GOP convention at Liberty University is the same process that took down then-incumbent Congressman Denver Riggleman, R-Va., who lost the GOP nomination last year to conservative Bob Good; Good ended up winning the general election and now represents Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. 

But this time around, the conventional wisdom is that this convention process is a bad outcome for the most controversial GOP candidate in the field: state Sen. Amanda Chase. 

Chase denounced the process after its approval, arguing relying on a process that relies on people driving from all over the state to Lynchburg will disenfranchises voters. 

“I would like the VA GOP State Central Committee to answer a question. 1,962,430 voters voted for President Trump in Virginia. How are you going to accommodate these people who will want to cast a vote for our statewide candidates?” she tweeted

The assumption in this multi-candidate GOP field — which not only includes Chase, but also House Delegate Kirk Cox, businessman Pete Snyder and former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkim — is that the percentage of the field a candidate needs to win could be as low as 25 or 30 percent. That could leave the door open for someone like Chase if the rest of the field splits the vote. 

But it will likely be more difficult for Chase to win a process where she’ll need more than 50 percent, even at a convention at Liberty University, where the former university president has been a stalwart backer of former President Donald Trump and has hired a handful of Trump allies in recent months. 

But the convention process also has a downside for Republicans trying to win back the governor’s mansion: It encourages less participation. And since Virginia is an open-primary state – where primary voters can request either a Democratic or Republican ballot – the only option that primary voters will have on June 8 is on the Democratic side.

Perdue opts out of 2022 Senate race after runoff loss

WASHINGTON — Former Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., announced Tuesday he will not join the field for the 2022 Senate race in the state — a surprising move coming a week after he publicly signaled he was considering a run. 

Perdue told supporters in an email that he and his wife, Bonnie, "have decided that we will not enter the race for the United States Senate in Georgia in 2022." He called the decision "personal," not "political," and said he plans to "do everything" to help the eventual Republican nominee defeat Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., in the fall. 

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks at a campaign event in Milton, Ga., on Dec. 21, 2020.Al Drabo / Reuters file

There were two runoff elections for Georgia's Senate seats in January because Georgia election law mandates runoffs between the top-two vote-getters if no candidate wins a majority of the vote on Election Day. Perdue lost his runoff to now-Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., by just over 1 percentage point in January. 

That race was for a full term, so Ossoff is not on the ballot in 2022. But Warnock, who defeated then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., by 2 percentage points, is on the ballot, because his race was a special election to fill the remainder of the term of former Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who retired in 2019.

On top of Democrats winning both Georgia Senate seats, President Joe Biden won the state narrowly during the presidential election. All of those races saw record-breaking turnout

Perdue declared in his statement that the 2020 election cycle proved that "Georgia is not a blue state" and "the more Georgians that vote, the better Republicans do."

"These two current liberal US Senators do not represent the values of a majority of Georgians," he said. 

Perdue had been publicly weighing a 2022 bid, filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to kickstart a potential candidacy and tweeting last week to confirm he was considering another campaign. 

While Perdue is passing on a bid this cycle, Loeffler continues to float a comeback bid against Warnock. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she's starting a group to mobilize Republican voters in Georgia and that a possible Senate bid is "certainly on the table." 

Manchin undecided on supporting Deb Haaland for Interior

WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is undecided on whether he'll support Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland, Manchin's spokesperson Sam Runyon told NBC News. 

Haaland, a Democratic congresswoman representing New Mexico, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency and will testify before Manchin's committee on Tuesday. Haaland has been a fierce public lands defender, and has been critical of fossil fuel energy development on those lands. 

Manchin “hasn’t made a decision on Haaland yet. He’s looking forward to her hearing tomorrow,” Runyon said.

Manchin's support will be critical for Haaland's nomination, as Democrats can't afford to lose any one of their members' votes before needing Republican Senators to confirm a Cabinet nominee. Manchin flexed his political muscle in the nomination process when he announced he wouldn't support Neera Tanden to be Office of Management and Budget director, likely sinking her nomination. 

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 19, 2020.Joshua Roberts / Getty Images

When Haaland testifies on Tuesday, in addition to Manchin, she will also face a committee stacked with western-state Republicans who strongly support energy development. At least two Committee members, Sens. John Barasso, R-Wyo., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., have expressed reservations about Haaland. 

After Barrasso spoke with Haaland on the phone, Barrasso said, "energy development on our nation’s public lands is essential to Wyoming’s economy and America’s global energy dominance. The United States is a world energy powerhouse. We need to act like one.”

And Daines called Haaland “radical” and pointed to her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and her support of the Green New Deal as likely reasons to oppose her. Daines also threatened to try and block her confirmation.

Senate Parliamentarian to decide if $15 minimum wage can be in Covid-19 relief

WASHINGTON — The Senate Parliamentarian, who officially advises the Senate on Senate rules, could determine as early as Tuesday if a minimum wage hike could be included in the Covid-19 bill, according to a senior Democratic aide. 

The decision by the parliamentarian could come before the House of Representatives completes its work on the $1.9 trillion plan which currently includes an incremental increase to the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next four years. 

If the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, rules that a minimum wage measure can be included in the budget package, Democrats would just need 50 votes with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Budget Committee has repeatedly expressed optimism that the minimum wage would satisfy the budgetary requirements for inclusion. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., participates in a meeting of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Feb. 10, 2021.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file

If she rules that it is acceptable, Democrats will still have to work to ensure all 50 Democrats are on board. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have come out against raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. 

If MacDonough rules that the minimum wage hike isn't germane to the Covid-19 package, Democrats will need to find a new way to get this priority through an evenly-split Senate. Democrats are aiming to pass the Covid-19 relief bill through budget reconciliation to avoid a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. But that would require all 50 Senate Democrats voting together. 

MacDonough will need to determine if a federal minimum wage hike will meet the specific parameters of a budget reconciliation, including if the wage hike has to have significant budgetary impact.  

Update: A meeting with the Senate parliamentarian is now slated for Wednesday, two Democratic aides tell NBC News. 

This meeting will consist of Republican and Democratic staff who will present their cases to the parliamentarian as to why the minimum wage should or should not be allowed to be included in the Covid-19 budget reconciliation bill. 

A decision could come as early as Wednesday night, one of the aides said.