First Thoughts: America, the not-so-exceptional?

By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, Brooke Brower, Jessica Taylor and Natalie Cucchiara.

The latest U.S.-Russia spat is only the tip of a frustrating year for Obama on the foreign policy front…..Terrorists think they’ve achieved some of their goals by at least frightening the U.S…..How McAuliffe is like ‘junk food’ in the Virginia gubernatorial race…And our breakdown of the 2014 maps for governor.

Obama, Putin face-to-face through the years 1:44

****American exceptionalism, not so accepted? Our country’s ongoing spat with Russia is the latest in what’s been a frustrating year on the foreign policy front for the White House and President Obama specifically. From Egypt to Syria to Russia and China, there have been more setbacks than successes. While we like to think other countries once quaked in the face of U.S. power, but that hasn’t been the case since, well, the Iraq war. More recently, the Edward Snowden saga highlighted just how hard it is for the U.S. to get China and Russia, specifically, to bend. The limits of U.S. power in this flatter world are becoming more noticeable by the day. Egypt might be the best example of that, as the administration has tried many avenues to try and get the country’s current leadership to back off on its split with the Muslim Brotherhood. As for Russia, specifically, let’s remember that the tension is more personality driven. When President Obama was dealing with former Russian Medvedev in his first term, things like Russia in the WTO and a New Start agreement got done. Russia even supported tougher sanctions against North Korea and Iran. But ever since Putin came back into the presidential seat, the relationship changed significantly. From the small to the large, Putin at just about every turn poked his finger in the president’s eye. It started with the adoption ban, then Syria and now Snowden. Is it Cold War level tensions? No. And there’s clearly decent dialogue taking place below the presidential level. But if there is one thing Putin cares about, it’s world prestige and it’s possible this high profile presidential snub which comes just six months before Putin’s Russia is on the world stage for the Olympics could actually motivate Putin to soften some of his stances. Don’t be surprised if a surprisingly more humble Putin shows up at the G20, attempting to mend fences.

***Scared ya? Have terrorist attacks, or even real or perceived threats of attacks, shaken our core? On Tuesday on Jay Leno, Obama tried to push back on that, and we like to think of threats bringing us more together, but even the psychological impact is being seen as a victory for U.S. enemies. The New York Times has more this morning, describing al Qaeda supporters celebrating over such “psychological warfare” and the sheer cost and logistical nightmare after the U.S. evacuated overseas embassies in the wake of threats. The Times: “The Obama administration’s decision to evacuate so many diplomats on such short notice — however justified by the seriousness of the threat — has upset some of its foreign partners, who say the gesture contributes to a sense of panic and perceived weakness that plays into the hands of the United States’ enemies, and impedes their efforts to engage with people in their countries.” As we wrote yesterday, the Obama administration felt they were hamstrung and almost had to respond, even over-respond, to these threats, still spooked by last year’s Benghazi attacks. But even now, the ability to scare the U.S. is seen as a victory. Will it happen again? NBC’s Ted Koppel adds his voice to this debate in an op-ed yesterday in the Wall Street Journal: “We have created an economy of fear, an industry of fear, a national psychology of fear. Al Qaeda could never have achieved that on its own....nothing would give our terrorist enemies greater satisfaction than that we focus obsessively on that remote possibility, and restrict our lives and liberties accordingly.”

***Big Whopper in Virginia. Earlier this week, we noted that the premier election of 2013, the Virginia governor’s race, was a race to the bottom, where every week there was a different candidate on the ropes. For most of July, the candidate on the ropes was the GOP nominee, Ken Cuccinelli, who was seemingly hamstrung by the Bob McDonnell scandal, among other things. But this month, the candidate on the ropes is the Dem nominee, Terry McAuliffe. This SEC investigation into his car company couldn’t have come at a better time for Cuccinelli who has been trying to paint McAuliffe as a sham of a business man. Republicans believe it’s a tipping point type of development, Democrats are still cautiously confident that once they paint Cuccinelli as too conservative on social issues, they’ll get their mojo back. But McAuliffe’s problems may be harder to overcome for this reason -- he’s simply less well-known by voters, and this is becoming the defining issue for him. One of the sages of Virginia politics, Richmond Times Dispatch columnist Jeff Shapiro, captures McAuliffe’s problems in a very unflattering way that is likely going to be revived in ads: “Like junk food, Terry McAuliffe is a lot of flash and sizzle; a shock to the palate; filling, not satisfying. Too much is bad for you....The Republicans’ own deeply flawed nominee for governor and the scandal that keeps on giving — Giftgate — are aligning to provide McAuliffe a clear shot at victory. But McAuliffe keeps stumbling over the same obstacle: himself.”

Democrats may be in awe of how they could possibly lose to as polarizing and as conservative a candidate as Ken Cuccinelli, but the GreenTech scandal and investigations into whether it used visa programs to lure foreign investors is now trumping any Jonnie Williams headlines Democrats had hoped would tar the GOP nominee. McAuliffe hasn’t answered any of the questions head on, giving convenient yet not fully explained answers. On Wednesday, the latest shoe to drop was that McAuliffe had met with White House officials in October 2010 over the company. Cuccinelli may not win this race, but right now, McAuliffe is certainly doing everything he can to lose it.

***To the states! Yes Virginia, there are other governor’s races next year -- though the Old Dominion contest will certainly continue to zap up the attention and money through November. The commonwealth is tough, but winnable, for the GOP -- but their path after that gets even harder. In 2010, it wasn’t just the House that saw huge turnover, so did governor’s mansions, helped by the GOP wave. Four years later, they’re in much tougher positions -- and they don’t have the luxury like their House counterparts of running in friendlier, gerrymandered districts. Here’s how we see the breakdowns:

  • The status of Republican governors in Obama-won states: There were a handful of Republicans elected in 2010 in states that Obama won in 2008 and again in 2012. Three of those appear most vulnerable in 2014: Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Paul LePage in Maine, and Rick Scott in Florida. In all three places, Democrats like (or sorta like) their candidates -- even if there will likely be a primary in Pennsylvania. Democrats worry about a primary in Florida between Charlie Crist, Sen. Bill Nelson, or 2010 candidate Alex Sink because Scott has pledged to spend $25 million in the first few months of 2014 to define a potential opponent. Rep. Mike Michaud is likely to be the Democratic candidate in Maine. But LePage could benefit from a third party candidate on the ballot, which helped him in 2010.
  • Others to mention: John Kasich in Ohio, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Rick Snyder in Michigan. Kasich has insulated himself a bit, rehabilitating his image (and his approval ratings) of late and the Republican leanings in a midterm could help. Democrats think Cuyahoga executive Ed Fitzgerald has a great profile – FBI agent who wants to clean up government. The key will be if he can raise money. Why is Florida a better target than Ohio? Obama spent lots of money touting the improved economies in both states. And Kasich’s numbers improved, but Scott’s didn’t. In Michigan, Democrats have a candidate in Mark Schauer. Snyder’s approval has fallen into the 30s, and the wild card is how the Detroit bankruptcy plays. In Wisconsin, Walker’s approval has slipped below 50%, but Democrats have no candidate yet. Businesswoman Mary Burke’s name has been mentioned in local press, someone Democrats would be happy with.
  • On the bubble: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley won just narrowly in a great 2010 year, and she’s battled unflattering headlines and dropping approval ratings since. Democrat Vincent Sheheen is back for a re-match, and this one may be closer than Republicans want to believe even in the solidly red state. Whether Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is able to run again or not, Arizona will be a serious Democratic target. She’s likely to lose her lawsuit to run again and the history in Arizona is that open-seat governor’s races are very competitive.
  • Dems on the defense: Arkansas represents the best opportunity for Republicans to flip a Dem-held state, with popular Mike Beebe term-limited. They have a good moderate Dem running, and former Rep. Mike Ross’s path got a lot easier when former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter dropped out of the primary. But Ross has heavily outraised Republican Asa Hutchinson, and it will be a close contest. There’s possible, but longer shot, opportunities in Illinois, but Pat Quinn is more likely to go down in a primary. Republicans would also like to make New Hampshire, where Democrat Maggie Hassan, is seeking another two-year term, into a contest, but it’s certainly not there yet. Then there’s Massachusetts, a messy Democratic primary could give potential GOP nominee Charlie Baker an opening.
  • Longer shots for Democrats and pay attention to who’s NOT vulnerable: Iowa’s a longer shot for Democrats with the economy doing better than many places and with incumbent Gov. Terry Branstad a household name. The Democratic candidate is fresh-faced state Rep. Tyler Olson, 37. The former state party chairman announced in early July and is running on a turn-the-page platform. But money will be a question mark. By the way, check out who’s not on the list of vulnerable Republicans in Obama-won states -- Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico. Both are popular (Martinez’s ratings are sky high) and Hispanic, a demographic Republicans have struggled with, yet neither have gotten serious national attention.

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