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Nebraska Just Nixed the Death Penalty. Here's Why That's a Big Deal

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: Restraints are shown on a table inside the death chamber of a new lethal injection facility.
Restraints are shown on a table inside the death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Sept. 21, 2010.Eric Risberg / AP file

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Why Nebraska eliminating the death penalty is a big deal

Maybe the most significant political story in the country over the past 24 hours didn’t take place in Washington, DC, or on the 2016 campaign trail. Instead, it’s what happened yesterday in Nebraska, which repealed the death penalty in the state after Republican and Democratic lawmakers overrode -- barely -- the GOP governor’s veto. “In the most suspenseful decision to play out in Nebraska’s one-house Legislature in years, lawmakers voted 30-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of Legislative Bill 268. Without a vote to spare, the override replaced lethal injection with life in prison,” the Omaha World-Herald notes. This is a big deal for three reasons. One, Nebraska becomes the first red state in the country to repeal the death penalty in 40 years (after North Dakota did it in 1973). Two, it comes after at least one national poll (Pew) had found a drop in support of the death penalty. (If you don’t think that public opinion on a social issue can change in a hurry, just look at gay marriage.) And three, it comes in the midst of a bipartisan effort -- even among Dem and GOP 2016ers -- to overhaul the nation’s criminal-justice system.

The ‘80s and ‘90s vs. now

Indeed, just compare the 1980s/1990s with now. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the conversation was titled to “three strikes and you’re out,” stiff drug penalties, and the death penalty. Bill Clinton, in fact, used his support of the death penalty to prove his tough-on-crime credentials in 1992. But now? We’re seeing a backlash to that era. For all the divide that we highlight on cultural issues in this country which usually gets amplified by partisan media, this shift on crime and punishment is even more remarkable. Is there a single moment that triggered this change in the American psyche? Hard to find one but between DNA testing raising doubts about some convictions which sparked the initial public questioning of the death penalty (see Illinois and George Ryan) to the fact that crime didn't rise but dropped during the last recession, there is simply a sea change in how society views these issues. And as for the implementation of the death penalty, as more doubts are raised about whether lethal injection is humane, and it's possible we are less than a generation away from the death penalty becoming nearly obsolete. As we noted above, cultural shifts on issues happen much faster in today's world.

Why are so many Republicans running for president?

Turning to the 2016 race, former New York Gov. George Pataki today becomes the latest GOP candidate to enter the presidential race. And it now looks like Ohio Gov. John Kasich is a sure bet to get in, too. So why are there so many Republicans -- as many as 18 (!!!) -- running in the 2016 race? Here are two obvious answers: 1) It’s an open seat with history on the GOP’s side (only once since Truman has a party held on to the White House for more than two terms), and 2) Jeb Bush isn’t intimidating anyone. But it’s more than that. Another answer is the Santorum Effect -- as 2012 proved, anyone has the ability to be the last man standing against the eventual nominee. There’s also the Huckabee Effect -- a strong presidential performance can win you a TV contract. Then there is this fact: There are so many political reporters that almost ANY candidate can get some kind of coverage and find oxygen to justify an existence. And finally, in the Super PAC Era, all it takes is for one political sugar daddy/momma to keep you in the game.

Jindal takes aim at Paul

Is it possible that the criteria for the first Republican debate in August -- taking the Top 10 from the national polls -- will force GOP candidates to begin fighting against each other a bit earlier than expected? Just look at what happened yesterday between Rand Paul and Bobby Jindal. The dispatch from NBC's Andrew Rafferty: “Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal went after Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul on Wednesday, releasing a statement saying Paul is "unsuited to be commander-in-chief" for saying foreign policy hawks in the GOP led to the rise of ISIS. ‘This is a perfect example of why Senator Paul is unsuited to be commander-in-chief. We have men and women in the military who are in the field trying to fight ISIS right now, and Senator Paul is taking the weakest, most liberal Democrat position,’ Jindal said in a statement.” More: “Paul's chief strategist Doug Stafford responded Wednesday afternoon: ‘It's ironic Gov. Jindal would level such a charge when he flip-flops on crucial issues like Common Core and national security, and he has cratered his own state's economy and budget.”

The GOP’s “Game of Thrones” is only going to help Hillary

If the GOP contest turns into a survival-of-the-fittest competition to get on the debate stage, that’s probably going to help Hillary Clinton. One, these candidates will seek to goose the conservative base as much as possible. And two, having the intramural attack season take place from June through April -- instead of the usual December through April -- will lengthen the amount of time we’ll see Republicans attack each other instead of Obama or Clinton.

Your Top 10/11 Republicans, per a new poll

Speaking of the polls and that GOP debate criteria, here are the Top 10 (or 11, due to a tie) Republicans, according to a new national Quinnipiac poll:

  • Jeb Bush 10%
  • Ben Carson 10%
  • Mike Huckabee 10%
  • Marco Rubio 10%
  • Scott Walker 10%
  • Rand Paul 7%
  • Ted Cruz 6%
  • Donald Trump 5%
  • Chris Christie 4%
  • (tie) Carly Fiorina, John Kasich 2%

Here are the folks who don’t make that Top 10/11: Rick Santorum (who announced his presidential bid yesterday), Bobby Jindal (mentioned above), Rick Perry (who is set to announce next week), Lindsey Graham (who also announces next week), and George Pataki (who announces today). Meanwhile, the national Quinnipiac poll also shows Hillary leading the GOP competition: Hillary 46%, Paul 42%; Hillary 45%, Rubio 41%; Hillary 47%, Bush 37%; Hillary 46%, Walker 38%.

Be careful what you wish for, Carly Fiorina edition

In South Carolina yesterday, Carly Fiorina -- fighting to be in that Top 10/11 -- trolled Hillary Clinton by holding a press conference just outside where Clinton was on the same day. But be careful of getting what you wish for. The New York Times: “Unlike Mrs. Clinton, [Fiorina] pointedly assured reporters, she would take their questions. And she did – saying, for example, that she did not regret appearing at one Clinton Global Initiative event herself, despite the controversy recently over foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. ‘Last year we didn’t know all the things that we now know about the Clinton Foundation,’ Ms. Fiorina said. Would she go back? ‘Well, that was a hypothetical,’ she said. ‘My guess is, they won’t invite me again.’ But Ms. Fiorina quickly grew discomfited when the questions seemed to treat her more as a heckler pulling a stunt than as a formidable candidate making an otherwise significant campaign stop.” What Fiorina is doing is good for her in the short run. But remember: This is the big leagues.

Santorum’s 2012 Iowa staffers are working for other Republicans

Here’s another 2016 story to read: NBC’s Andrew Rafferty writes that none of Santorum's 2012 Iowa staff is currently working for the forthcoming campaign. “Two of the three main architects of his successful caucus game plan -- Deputy Campaign Manager Jill Latham Ryan and Nick Ryan, who ran the pro-Santorum super PAC -- are now working for Mike Huckabee. The other, former Iowa State Director Cody Brown, is running a consulting firm in Austin, Texas.”

Putin says FIFA arrests are U.S. effort to take away Russia’s World Cup

Finally, don't miss this AP piece: “Russian President Vladimir Putin says the United States is meddling in FIFA's affairs in an attempt to take the 2018 World Cup away from his country. Putin said in televised comments Thursday that it is ‘odd’ that the probe was launched at the request of U.S. officials for crimes which do not involve its citizens and did not happen in the United States. Two of the 14 people charged by U.S. prosecutors have U.S. citizenship.”

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