The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Leading gun control group warns candidates 'mandatory buybacks could be dangerous' politically
One of the nation's leading gun-control groups is warning presidential candidates that mandatory gun buybacks are not especially popular, even as that debate percolates within the Democratic field.
A memo sent to the 2020 Democratic campaigns by Giffords, an advocacy group named after former Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in 2011, warned that "Democratic candidates for president benefit among primary voters by focusing on background checks and extreme risk protection orders, not the mandatory buyback of assault weapons."
The memo, from Giffords' political director Joanna Belanger, was sent Friday and shared new polling data commissioned by the group.
"When primary voters are presented with a series of hypothetical profiles for candidates, they overwhelmingly prefer a Democrat who focuses on background checks to one who simply mentions guns or one who focuses on mandatory gun buybacks," the memo, which has since been made public, continued. "Voter skepticism about mandatory buybacks is fueled by the belief that we need to focus on solutions that are proven to work and have broad agreement across party lines."
The group's pollster, Global Strategy Group, added in polling summary: "Supporting background checks is the key to winning over persuadable voters whereas mandatory buybacks could be dangerous."
Mandatory buybacks drew virtually no support from any major gun safety groups or national Democrats until recently, when presidential candidates like former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke embraced the concept and raised its profile.
The policy would not only ban assault weapons but take the extra step of requiring gun owners to sell existing assault weapons back to the government. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," O'Rourke said in the last Democratic debate.
In an interview with NBC News, Giffords Executive Director Peter Ambler stressed the unity in the 2020 Democratic field around major gun issues, saying the disagreement on buybacks "is a side story playing out at the margins."
But he added that Democrats will be best able to take on the National Rifle Association if they remain united around consensus issues like background checks and red flag laws.
"Something that candidates should take note of is that what voters want, even in the primary, is not for candidates to do the most extreme thing just for the sake of doing the most extreme thing," Ambler said.
Established gun safety groups, like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, have still largely backed alternative approaches, but at least one major new player in the debate has come out for mandatory buybacks.
March For Our Lives, the gun safety movement launched with student survivors of the Parkland shooting, made it a part of their comprehensive policy plan in August. The group co-hosted a candidate forum on gun safety issues last month with Giffords, which was broadcast on MSNBC.
Democrats get punchy ahead of debate
WASHINGTON — It's time for another Democratic debate, and the candidates have already been laying the groundwork in the days leading up to Tuesday's big event.
Recent days have been filled with candidates taking shots at their rivals as they look for a shot of momentum.
Here are a few of the more notable examples:
Buttigieg takes on all comers
South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been criticizing several of his fellow candidates. He hit Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's decision to shy away from big-dollar fundraisers for her campaign (but not for the party), telling Snapchat's "Good Luck America" that Democrats can't win with "pocket change."
His campaign is also taking on Warren and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders for their support for Medicare-for-All, which Buttigieg has referred to as a "my-way-or-the-highway" approach, with a new digital ad that contrasts his plan with theirs.
And he's been at the center of a spat over former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke's plan for mandatory buybacks of certain semi-automatic weapons.
O'Rourke has been criticizing Buttigieg for not supporting his plan, saying during a gun violence town hall sponsored by MSNBC that the mayor is someone who is "worried about the polls and want[s] to triangulate or talk to the consultants or listen to the focus groups."
Buttigieg swiped back during the Snapchat interview, calling O'Rourke's plan confiscation. But that prompted criticism from both Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
Candidates pile on O'Rourke over church and state
O'Rourke sparked a kerfuffle last week when he told CNN that churches and religious organizations should lose their tax-exempt status for opposing same-sex marriage.
Buttigieg told CNN on Sunday that O'Rourke's idea would "deepen the divisions" on the issue and Massachusetts Warren's campaign put out a statement Monday disagreeing with O'Rourke, but not mentioning him by name.
O'Rourke and his campaign have since walked away from those comments, and he now says his main concern was about discrimination by institutions providing public services.
Read more from NBC's Benjy Sarlin on the blog.
Sanders knocks Warren on capitalism
There's fighting along the left flank too, with Sanders knocking Warren during a recent ABC interview.
When asked why candidates should choose him over his fellow Medicare-for-All, big-money blasting progressive, Sanders responded by arguing that "Elizabeth, as you know, has said that she's a capitalist through her bones. I'm not," adding that the "greed and corruption" in the country requires a fundamentally different approach.
—Benjy Sarlin, Melissa Holzberg, Ali Vitali, Ben Pu and Deepa Shivaram contributed
Tom Steyer gets his first shot to make a second impression
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer will get his first shot on the national debate stage Tuesday, alongside 11 other contenders. His face has been seen on TV screens in living rooms across the country, thanks to an about $20 million ad campaign aimed at boosting his own bid, on top of a series of ads aimed at impeaching President Trump prior to his announcement.
But now Steyer is hoping voters will re-imagine his billionaire persona and see him as an “outsider” far removed from the world of Washington D.C.
“It's an unusual thing for people, to meet somebody who's described as a billionaire,” Steyer said. “Let me tell you who I think I am, because I think people don't really understand that.”
What people may not understand, according to Steyer, is that he doesn’t travel in private planes — in fact he flies commercial “100 percent” of the time — and gold faucets aren’t a staple in his bathroom. Steyer argues that his work with environmental advocacy group Next Gen America and other grassroots organizations puts him at odds with the wealthy class to which he belongs.
“I actually have a record for 10 years of organizing people against those elites,” Steyer said. “Do I think I'm not lucky? You know, extraordinarily lucky and have advantages? No, I do. But take a look about how I’ve used it.”
Even so, the candidate at times seems disconnected from issues impacting average Americans.
At a house party in Iowa, the key first in the nation caucus state, one elderly man asked the candidate about robocalls that often target senior citizens. In the scenario, a caller, claiming to be an official from the IRS, tells the person on the line that he or she owes the government money. Upon hearing this, Steyer raised his eyebrows in shock, responding “Is that right?” The rest of the attendees nodded in agreement, pointing out that the caller was a fraud.
“Oh, it’s a scam?” Steyer asked, “I didn’t know that.”
Legislative efforts have been underway in both the House and Senate to crack down on robocalls for years, after the Federal Trade Commission received more than 3.7 robocall complaints in 2018 alone — but Steyer seemed unfamiliar with the issue.
At another event, a voter from western Iowa expressed concern about the impacts of ethanol waivers. The waivers, issued by the Trump administration, allow oil companies to opt-out of blending ethanol into their fuel, thus eliminating demand for the bushels of corn that Iowa farmers produce for this purpose. This comes amid a trade war that's also affecting local farmers’ bottom line.
As the potential caucus-goer described the waivers as “turning it all upside down,” Steyer interrupted. “What are the oil waivers? I’m not familiar. What exactly does that refer to?” asked the man running for president, who touts that he’s been organizing in Iowa for the past seven years.
Steyer doesn’t deny that he faces a learning curve. “There are things in this world that I don’t know,” he said.
Despite his lack of knowledge on the intricacies of some issues, Steyer argues that is less important than listening to voters' concerns and being able to respond in real-time.
“When someone explains that to me? Do I have a framework for thinking about what I think about that? Yes,” Steyer said.
The next morning, while answering questions from caucus-goers, he’d clearly done his homework. Steyer spun an inquiry about agriculture and trade into questioning the President’s move to issue waivers to 81 ethanol plants, “Does he know anything about ethanol? Here’s a guy that doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The disconnect could become concerning for voters as they consider which candidate to support in the caucuses because some doubt that Steyer will be able to expand beyond the issues that he’s invested in.
“He already had Next Gen out doing advocacy for the environment, and then he decided to say [Trump] is a fraud. He riled up his Next Gen audience, so he already has that support cooked in, and that’s what you’re seeing right now,” Tony Currin of Johnson County told NBC News.
Others, including 68-year-old Al McGaffin a retired teacher in Iowa who attended a meet-and-greet with the candidate, say Steyer has no problem connecting with audiences and would bring a fresh perspective to the presidency.
“His expertise, his ability to understand economics, his ability to understand people and the world, I think he can handle it, I think he’s got the experience,” McGaffin said.
Still, Steyer acknowledges he still has much to learn.
“You don't start at the finish line. The process is super important. You’ve got to think about the processes being a learning experience,” Steyer said. “And that learning experience is important and not threatening.”
“I'll try and say what I think try to be myself and try to present myself as a different candidate from everybody else, which is true, and try and be straightforward about it.” Steyer said. “It's really introducing myself and honestly, that's how I see it.”
Andrew Yang wants tech companies to pay users for their personal data
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Presidential candidate Andrew Yang wants your data to be just that: yours.
As a presidential candidate, Yang recently released a proposal establishing data as a property right, meaning users should have control over their personal data — and get paid for it.
“Right now we have this lack of data dignity, there's a tyranny of the tech companies and then we're just looking up and hoping for the best. We can change that,” Yang told NBC News. “And there is more value to be generated if we buy in and accept because right now a lot of the data that's getting sold and resold is anonymous.”
The idea, he argues, would benefit companies because if users were compensated for their data — from jogging routes to dining preferences — then they would provide more information. The burden would then be on companies to share with each user how they are using, reselling and profiting from that data.
“Right now technology companies are selling and reselling our data and we're none the wiser,” said Yang. “We're seeing none of that value. At this point, our data is worth more than oil. And if that's the case, then we should be benefiting from it, not just the companies.”
“It's our data, it's our value, it's our property and getting us a share of that value will be an immense game changer for many, many Americans,” he added. “It's not just about the money though, it's about the control, it's about the autonomy, it's about the agency. It's our data, we should know what's happening to it, and we should be able to change our preferences.”
Yang views this “data dividend” as a supplement to or part of his signature proposal, the freedom dividend, in which the government would pay each adult citizen $1,000 a month.
Asked what his idea would look like in practice, with companies like Facebook paying users for information shared, Yang said “that’s the fun part.”
“We have to find out how they're monetizing our information and then get a fair share of that,” he said. “Right now it's difficult to determine precisely because we don't know what they're doing with our information.”
Recently, Gigi Sohn, a former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) special counsel under President Obama criticized Yang’s plan, arguing, “it’s impractical and I also think it will only lead to more litigation.”
Asked if his idea would lead to more privacy problems rather than fewer, Yang told NBC News his idea is not unique, citing the European Union’s approach to data protection rules and the recently passed California Consumer Privacy Act.
“If it was on the companies, where we owed them money, then we know there'd be absolutely no issue,” he said. “But because they are taking our data and profiting from it, that it’s somehow an administrative burden? It really doesn't make any sense.”
O’Rourke clarifies position on churches and same-sex marriage as 2020 rivals weigh in
WASHINGTON —Beto O’Rourke clarified his stance on LGBTQ rights and religious institutions as some 2020 Democratic rivals distanced themselves from comments he made last Thursday in which he appeared to back ending tax-exempt status for churches that oppose same-sex marriage. O’Rourke and his staff have since said that was not his intended position.
Elizabeth Warren’s spokeswoman Saloni Sharma put out a statement on Monday disavowing the concept of denying tax-exempt status to churches over marriage rights.
"Elizabeth will stand shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ+ community until every person is empowered and able to live their life without fear of discrimination and violence,” the campaign statement said. “Religious institutions in America have long been free to determine their own beliefs and practices, and she does not think we should require them to conduct same-sex marriages in order to maintain their tax exempt status."
On Sunday, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg criticized O’Rourke’s stance on CNN, suggesting his rival had perhaps misunderstood the implications of his remarks and that his position would “deepen the divisions that we’re already experiencing at a moment when we’re actually seeing more and more people motivated, often by compassion and by people they love, moving in the right direction on LGBTQ rights.”
President Trump also invoked O’Rourke’s comments over the weekend, calling him a “wacko” in a speech to the Values Voters Summit.
However, O’Rourke has since ruled out ending tax-exempt status for churches that refuse to endorse or perform same-sex marriage, with the candidate and his staff saying on Sunday and Monday that they would not look to influence religious doctrine, but instead target specific instances of potential discrimination by religiously affiliated institutions.
“To be specific, the way that you practice your religion or your faith within that mosque or that temple or synagogue or church, that is your business, and not the government's business,” O’Rourke said on MSNBC on Sunday. “But when you are providing services in the public sphere, say, higher education, or health care, or adoption services, and you discriminate or deny equal treatment under the law based on someone's skin color or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation, then we have a problem.”
In the same interview, O’Rourke mentioned a 1983 Supreme Court ruling against Bob Jones University that ruled the religiously affiliated school could be stripped of its tax-exempt status for discriminating on the basis of race. He suggested the Equality Act, a House-passed bill backed by Democratic leadership that would extend civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, would clarify that similar types of discrimination were against the law.
The initial exchange on Thursday with CNN’s Don Lemon at a forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign appeared to go further: O’Rourke was asked whether churches and other religious organizations should “lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage” and answered in the affirmative.
“Yes,” O’Rourke said. “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we are going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
The courts are still sorting out the limits of religious exemptions and LGBTQ protections.
Meanwhile, Republicans and many religious organizations are opposed to new civil rights legislation that they fear could force religious schools, charities, and hospitals to take actions they believe violate their faith. But O’Rourke seems to be getting closer to mainstream Democratic and activist territory now, rather than carving out a new position entirely.
Big ad spending disparity helps Rispone win second slot in LA gov runoff
WASHINGTON — Businessman Eddie Rispone is the GOP's standard-bearer in the Lousiana governor's race after Republicans kept incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards under 50 percent on Saturday. And Rispone punched that ticket thanks in no small part to a massive spending edge over Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham.
Edwards was the clear leader (no other major Democrat was running in the "jungle primary," which pits the whole field against each other regardless of political party) with 47 percent of the vote. Rispone finished with 27 percent, followed by Abraham's 24 percent.
Rispone's camp spent $8.1 million ahead of Saturday's "jungle primary," about as much as Edwards' campaign did and significantly more than the $2 million spent by Abraham. And a healthy chunk of that money went to blistering attacks on Edwards, particularly in the final days.
Out of the $672,000 Rispone spent in the final seven days of the race, more than a third of that was spent on attack ads targeting Abraham, according to data from the media-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
Abraham, by comparison, tried to frame himself as above the fray in the final days. His campaign ran $157,000 worth of ads down that same stretch, the vast majority on a spot that framed him as the candidate who "rose above it all" despite the "noise and negative campaigning."
If the Democrat had won the majority of votes on Saturday, he'd win re-election outright. But instead, he now has to face Rispone in a runoff next month.
Look for some serious spending to come in this race as Republicans and Democrats furiously face off in the battle for one of the few red-state gubernatorial seats held by a Democrat.
Sanders campaign co-chair: Heart attack makes senator's commitment to Medicare for All personal
DOVER, NH — As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) takes time off to recover from his recent heart attack, his surrogates have been out on the trail in full swing. This weekend, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame held five campaign events across the first-in-the-nation primary state, opening field offices and kicking off Green New Deal canvassing with ice cream scoops and energetic speeches.
Cohen, one of Sanders’ four national campaign co-chairs, told a crowd at the campaign’s Dover, New Hampshire field office that Sanders “health-wise is doing great.”
“His people are trying to hold him back, telling him, ‘you ought to rest up for a bit,’ but the plan is that he’s going to be in the debate on Tuesday and after that he’s going to be hitting trail full steam ahead,” he said to dozens of supporters as they sampled Americone Dream and Cherry Garcia ice cream, two of Ben & Jerrys’ signature flavors.
In a one-on-one interview, Cohen said Sanders has always believed health care is a human right and “he feels it more than ever now.”
“He is raring to go, he just can’t wait to get back on the trail,” he told NBC News. “He is more committed than ever to Medicare for All, he realizes that if somebody who didn’t have decent health insurance was in the position that he was in, they’d be saddled with medical debt, medical bankruptcy, for the crime of having a heart problem.”
According to Cohen, the mood of the campaign is an upbeat, revitalized one. Sanders returns to the trail on Saturday with a rally in Long Island City, NY.
“It was kind of like a rallying call — people are more psyched, more motivated than ever,” said Cohen. “There’s a real sense that it’s not about him, it’s about us, and that we all need to rise to the occasion because this is the only presidential candidate in my lifetime who has ever had such a progressive, such a view in favor of regular everyday people.”
To him, voter concerns about Sanders’ health are exaggerated, especially since the Vermont senator has always been active.
“Personally, I had quadruple bypass open-heart surgery. That’s a big thing. This guy had a couple of little stents put in. That is not a big thing,” he said.
“I go out on the campaign trail with the guy, I’m out there three days, and I gotta go home and recuperate and he just keeps on going,” Cohen added.
“He was in good shape before this, I think he’s going to be in better shape because now that he’s got his arteries unclogged, he’s got the energy to go out there and unclog all the corruption in our government.”
Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, plans three-country fundraising tour
WASHINGTON — South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign is turning to Americans living overseas for an extra infusion of campaign cash.
Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Glezman Buttigieg, will embark next week on a three-country European fundraising tour, holding five events over three days, according to invitations obtained by NBC News.
Chasten Buttigieg will be in the U.K. on Oct. 22 for a cocktail party in Hampstead, just outside London, hosted by Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for the film “Milk.” An invitation to the event says it will go “late” into the night.
Earlier that evening, he’ll be in London for a reception hosted by Eric Beinhocker, a University of Oxford professor and alumnus of McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm where Pete Buttigieg once worked. Lia Larson, a managing director for Goldman Sachs in London, is also a host.
Both London-area events are being co-hosted by Kevin MacLellan, chairman of global distribution and international for NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC News.
Then, Chasten Buttigieg will head to France for a reception and a dinner in Paris. He’ll join the campaign’s national investment chair there for a question-and-answer session.
A day later, Chasten Buttigieg will be in Switzerland for a fundraiser at the Geneva home of Ambassador Charles Adams, who was former President Barack Obama’s envoy to Finland and also served on the Obama campaign’s national finance committee.
Under U.S. campaign finance law, campaigns cannot accept donations from foreign nationals. But they can raise money from American citizens or green-card holders living abroad, and it's not unusual for campaigns to do so. The invitations obtained by NBC News state that attendees must provide a copy of their passport or green card to attend.
There was no immediate comment from the Buttigieg campaign.
Pro-Trump group targeting vulnerable Democrats on impeachment
WASHINGTON – As the impeachment inquiry enters its fourth week, a pro-Trump policy organization is taking out its first ads of the 2020 cycle looking to damage vulnerable Democrats in their districts, NBC News has learned.
America First Policies, the non-profit arm of the main Trump super-PAC America First Action, will spend more than $1 million to single out 28 lawmakers who the GOP-aligned group believes could face political peril amid the impeachment push.
The 30-second spots, which echo President Donald Trump’s language and accuse House Democrats of launching a “witch hunt,” are set to appear on Facebook, via text message and on cable television.
A narrator asserts “the radical left will stop at nothing” over images of Rep. Adam Schiff, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the so-called “Squad,” all of whom are favorite foils for the president.
The ads all start the same, but end with a focus on the particular representative in their home district, urging voters to call and tell their lawmakers to “end the witch hunt, oppose impeachment, put America first.” The appropriate phone number will flash on the screen as well.
Notably, most of the House Democratic Caucus, which includes the two dozen in districts the president won in 2016, have called for some type of movement on impeachment, according to an NBC News tally.
“The impeachment charade must end, so we can pass better trade deals, strengthen our military, and improve our economy,” said Brian O. Walsh, president of America First Policies. “Congress needs to get back to work for the people they represent, and end these hyper-partisan investigations.”
The seven-figure campaign starts Monday and is expected to run for three weeks. The breakdown includes $283,000 for Facebook advertisements; $530,000 for texts that will urge voters to contact their representatives and $250,000 for the television portion. The broadcast ads will air in Iowa's First District, Virginia's Seventh District and Pennsylvania's Eighth District home to Democratic Reps. Abby Finkenauer, Abigail Spanberger, and Matt Cartwright.
The organization recently conducted polling on the impeachment inquiry in key swing districts and says it found the majority of Americans “oppose impeachment, want Congress to focus on kitchen-table issues and approve of the President looking into 2016 election meddling.”
But a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 55 percent nationally favor the inquiry, versus 39 percent who believe there isn’t enough evidence to impeach Trump.
Vice President Mike Pence, a top surrogate on this issue, started campaigning against susceptible pro-impeachment Democrats across the country last week and will continue to do so throughout the month.
ICYMI: Stories you may have missed
WASHINGTON – Between impeachment and President Trump's decisions to remove troops from Kurdish territory in Syria and sending more troops to Saudi Arabia, some stories got lost in the shuffle. Here are some stories to keep an eye on from the week:
A wind-fueled wildfire in the San Fernando Valley caused 13,000 homes to be under forced evacuation orders on Thursday. By Friday morning the fire ballooned from 60 to 4,700 acres and was still not under control. During the fires, Pacific Gas & Electric decided to cut the power to parts of Central and Northern California as part of fire-prevention even though the fires have not been said to be caused by power lines.
Before taking part in trade talks with the Chinese government this week, the U.S. placed many Chinese surveillance companies on an "Entity List" which is the same restrictive list Huawei was placed on earlier this year. Officials said they made this decision because "these entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups."
Federal judges in California and California blocked a Trump administration policy that would have made it easier for the government to deny legal status to immigrants who use or were deemed likely to need public assistance. The rule was set to go into effect next week.
European Commission negotiators announced they would "intensify discussions" to try and come to an agreement for the U.K. to leave the European Union before a no-deal exit occurs. While the deadline is Oct. 31, British lawmakers passed a law that would force British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to seek an extension if a deal is not reached by next Saturday.
Commission on Presidential Debates announces dates and venues for 2020
WASHINGTON — The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Friday its dates and venues of three general election presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.
The first presidential debate will be held on Sept. 29, 2020 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. That will be followed by the second debate on Oct. 15 at the University of Michigan, and the third on Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
The vice presidential debate will be held on Oct. 2 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is a nonpartisan organization that has produced all general election debates since 1987.
According to the CPD, in order to be participate in the debates, candidates "must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College, and have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination."
The CPD has not yet announced which polling organizations will be accepted, but the organization stated it will announce who will be participating in the first presidential debate after Labor Day in 2020.
This will be the second time Belmont University has been selected to host a presidential debate, the first one coming in 2008. And 2020 marks the first time the commission has selected a school in either Utah or Indiana.