The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Independent Alaska Senate candidate looks to beat the odds
WASHINGTON — Al Gross is a political neophyte. By trade, he’s a fisherman and orthopedic surgeon who says he once killed a grizzly bear that was sneaking up on him.
Now, he’s trying to take down even bigger game, looking to oust Alaska incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan in 2020, and doing so as an independent. If Gross succeeds, he'll be the fourth senator to be first elected as an independent.
Since 1913, only 17 senators served while not a member of one of the two major parties. Of those, only 8 were technically "independents." The others have served as members of minor parties — Progressive, Farmer-Labor and Conservative — or have loosely aligned with a major party, styling themselves "Independent Democrats". For example, Washington's Miles Poindexter and Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette, Jr. they both left the both left the Republican Party to joined the more liberal splinter group, the progressives. Eventually both men rejoined the Republican Party.
Most U.S. senators who have been elected and served as independents were first elected within the two-party structure, but later left their parties over ideological disagreements.
Take Nebraska’s George Norrisand Oregon’s Wayne Morse. They were both elected as Republicans but were far more left-leaning than their colleagues. Norris served five terms as a Republican in the House and then another four terms as a Republican in the Senate. But he supported President Franklin Delano Rooselvelt's New Deal and won his final term in 1936 as an independent.
Morse, elected in 1944, often clashed with his party on labor issues and disaffiliated in 1952. For two years he served as an independent but was left without a side in the Senate to sit on, so he once put a folding chair in the chamber's center aisle. In 1955 he became a Democrat and served for another two terms.
Perhaps the most notable recent example of a consequential Senate independent was Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords. After two terms in the Senate, he broke with Republicans in 2001 over the party's lack of support for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. When he chose to be an independent who caucused with Democrats, he gave the Democrats a 51-49 majority in the chamber.
If Gross succeeds in his independent bid, he'll join the ranks of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maine Sen. Angus King who all won their first senate election as independents. However, Thurmond, a well-known segregationist who had previously ran for president as an independent, won his first senate campaign by waging a write-in campaign in protest of Democratic state officials who didn't hold a primary in a special election. He promised to caucus with Democrats if elected. He later served as both a Democrat and then a Republican.
Gross' trajectory could mirror Sanders' in his first Senate win in 2006. Sanders won but declined the Democratic nomination, so he only had to run against the Republican candidate. Gross has already won the endorsement of the Alaska Democratic Party and the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
While Gross out-raised Sullivan in the last quarter, he faces an uphill climb in the conservative state. But, if another independent senator can join the Senate's ranks, Alaska may be the place to do it. The state has an unusually high tolerance for unorthodox political arrangements. Alaskans elected an independent governor in 2014, and the state’s lower house is currently controlled by a bipartisan coalition and an independent speaker.
In 2010 the state was the site of only the third successful write-in Senate campaign in history, when Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski eked out a victory in the three-person general election with less than 40 percent of the vote. Six years later, she won another term with under 45 percent in an election that saw four candidates with double-digit vote counts.
If there’s anywhere Al Gross can make history, it might just be there.
Warren releases health records from yearly physical
PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released the results of her latest yearly physical Friday, along with a letter from her longtime doctor stating that the Massachusetts senator is in “excellent health” and “there are no medical conditions or health problems that would keep her from fulfilling the duties of the President of the United States.”
In addition to the letter from Dr. Beverly Woo, Warren’s campaign released results of blood work and routine lab tests. Dr. Woo points out that the 70 year-old's only medical condition is hypothyroidism, common in millions of Americans. The results are from Warren’s latest physical — done earlier this year, in January.
While Warren’s clean bill of health may help reassure voters about her transparency and physical condition, it’s also likely to re-ignite calls for her fellow septuagenarian contenders to release their own health-related materials.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, 77, has promised to release his medical records to the public “before there’s a first vote.” Asked back in September about concerns of his acuity, Biden replied: “What the hell concerns?” before asking the reporter who made the inquiry if he wanted to wrestle.
“I mean there’s no reason for me not to release my medical records,” Biden said at the time.
Senator Bernie Sanders, 78, suffered a heart attack in October and has similarly promised to release his medical records at some point. “I want to make it comprehensive,” he told the Associated Press in late October. “The answer is I will, probably by the end of the year.” Sanders’ campaign manager later specified that the Independent Vermont senator would release his medical records by the end of December.
During his 2016 bid, Sanders did release a letter from his doctor that deemed him “in overall very good health.”
Cory Booker pushes need for diverse coalition in 2020 race
DES MOINES, IA — Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., warned Democrats in a speech Thursday that the struggles of minority candidates are "a problem" that could hurt the party's ability to engage the voters it needs to defeat President Trump in 2020.
Praising California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out of the presidential primary this week, Booker argued that the issue goes deeper than just one candidate.
“It is a problem that we now have an overall campaign for the 2020 presidency that has more billionaires in it than black people,” Booker said during one of his first more formal speeches Des Moines Thursday morning.
“This is not about one candidate. It is about the diverse coalition that is necessary to beat Donald Trump."
“That is the story of how we beat bullies and bigots and demagogues and the powerful, the so-called powerful in every generation. It's the story of America," he added.
The audience cheered on Booker as he echoed a famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote, modernizing the context to his typical message of unity.
“We're all in this together; injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Booker said. “In America, there is not a black destiny or a white destiny or rural destiny and a suburban destiny, there is one American destiny.”
While Harris had qualified for this month's debate, her departure means that the six candidates who have already qualified are all white.
Booker is the top-polling black candidate in the race right now — Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick recently entered the race, but has so far gained little traction — but he's still on the outside looking into the December debate. He's hit the party's donor threshold, but still needs to hit 4 percent in four qualifying polls or 6 percent in two qualifying early-state polls.
Businessman Andrew Yang and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are each one poll away from qualifying, while the rest of the field has a long way to go.
During a conversation with reporters after the event, Booker expressed that a successful candidate needs to engage African American, Latinx, and Asian American voters.
“We need to make sure that we have a person that can inspire a coalition,” he said, “where everybody feels energized and excited. And if you can’t do that, please get out of this race.”
And he expressed frustration with polling, noting that he’s often just one percentage point from reaching qualifying polls for the debate stage (which equates to just a handful of people) and expressed that the success of a campaign shouldn’t be based on “a 400 person sample size and three people,” but that the national press should be looking at his energy on the ground in Iowa.
John Kerry endorses Joe Biden's presidential bid
WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of State and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry is throwing his support behind former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential bid.
Kerry praised Biden in a statement released by the Biden campaign on Thursday, where he said "there’s never been a time more urgent for leadership at home."
“I believe Joe Biden is the President our country desperately needs right now, not because I’ve known Joe so long, but because I know Joe so well. I’ve never before seen the world more in need of someone who on day one can begin the incredibly hard work of putting back together the world Donald Trump has smashed apart," he wrote.
"Joe is uniquely the person running for president who can beat Donald Trump and get to work on day one at home and in the world with no time to waste."
Kerry will campaign with Biden on Friday in Iowa and then travel with the former vice president to New Hampshire on Sunday.
The endorsement comes as Biden has amplified his qualifications to be commander-in-chief given his extensive experience in foreign policy. On Wednesday, his campaign released a video hitting President Trump on foreign policy and arguing "the world is laughing at President Trump."
Kerry has a long history with Biden — both not only served together in the Obama administration, but in the Senate, both on the Foreign Relations Committee. When Biden left the Senate to join the White House, Kerry succeeded him as the chairman of that committee.
With his deep relationships on Capitol Hill, Biden is outpacing his Democratic peers in endorsements from sitting lawmakers too. He's backed by 22 congressional representatives, five senators and three sitting governors — more of each category, and more endorsements in total, than any other candidate in the race.
Buttigieg is up in the polls, but lagging in endorsements
WASHINGTON — While South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has won a few notable endorsements in recent days (from progressive veterans group Vote Vets and a few former Obama administration officials), he’s so far struggled to gain support from prominent members of his party.
Buttigieg has picked up endorsements from just three House Democrats, and no U.S. senators or governors have publicly said they stand behind him. For months, Virginia Rep. Don Beyer was Buttigieg’s lone congressional endorsement – until last week, when Indiana Rep. Peter Visclosky and New York Rep. Kathleen Rice backed the mayor for the Democratic nomination.
After surging in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, Buttigieg is now among the top four contenders in the crowded primary race, but his fellow frontrunners have continually outpaced him in endorsements.
Former Vice President Joe Biden leads the field, with 30 total endorsements from House members, senators and governors, according to NBC News’ tally of FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker. Meanwhile, the other members of the Top 4 – Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – clock in at 12 and six major endorsements, respectively.
Before she dropped out of the race Tuesday, California Sen. Kamala Harris had racked up 19 major endorsements, putting her in second place. With 13 endorsements, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker actually leads both Warren and Sanders.
The only candidates who made the board but have fewer congressional endorsements than Buttigieg are former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney – with two apiece.
Here’s how Buttigieg’s endorsements stack up against those of his competitors:
Biden video chides Trump after NATO leaders' hot mic moment
WASHINGTON — Almost as soon as President Trump returned from his overseas trip, Joe Biden tweeted out a new video pointing to Wednesday's hot-mic moment with NATO leaders to argue that the world isn't taking Trump seriously.
The video includes footage from a Wednesday hot-mic moment with NATO leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron referencing Trump's long press conferences, as well as 2018 footage of the United Nations General Assembly laughing after Trump touted his achievements.
“The world sees Trump for what he is — insincere, ill-informed, corrupt, dangerously incompetent and incapable, in my view, of world leadership,” Biden says in the video.
“And if we give Donald Trump four more years, we’ll have a great deal of difficulty of ever being able to recover America’s standing in the world and our capacity to bring nations together.”
The ad closes with pictures of Biden, as the words "We need a leader the world respects" flash on the screen.
Shortly after the Biden campaign released the video, Trump's campaign said in a tweet that: "Of course the leaders of foreign countries wish Joe Biden were president — they'd love to continue ripping off our country!"
Reporter's Notebook: President Trump's scrapped NATO press conference
LONDON — President Donald Trump’s oversees travels are never short on unscripted moments. But the president's decision to scrap a scheduled press conference, after NATO meetings ended, with reporters waiting in the room for it to start was a surprising move, even for Trump.
Early in the morning Wednesday, dozens of reporters were bused out by the White House to the location of the NATO gatherings being held more than an hour from London to attend the event.
Two hours before the press conference was scheduled to start, television crews were in place and dozens of reporters were seated in the room where the event would be held when the president, unprompted, suggested he might not have a press conference.
“We will go directly back, I think we have done plenty of press conferences unless you’re demanding a press conference, but I think we’ve answered plenty of questions,” President Trump told the traveling press pool, the small group of reporters that travel with him, during a photo opportunity with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Trump had spent about two hours over the course of the previous day taking questions from the press pool. But that small group consisting of about 13 journalists is no substitute for the full White House press corp which includes hundreds of reporters from a range of media outlets.
The president’s remark about the press conference set off mass confusion for the next hour among White House staff, both with the president and with the press, who didn’t know whether he was serious about the change of plans. Reporters were sent scrambling to figure out what was happening and sources were unreachable.
Even after Trump had suggested the press conference was off, NATO staff on-site and security continued to prepare for the president’s arrival, at one point setting up a rope line for additional security in front of the stage where he was set to speak.
It wasn’t until the president tweeted an hour later that reporters and staff were told by the president the event was off. At the time, dozens of reporters were seated in the room where it was to be held and others were waiting at a media center for staff to escort them over.
Following the scrapped press conference, Trump was also overheard mocking what he expected the media’s reaction to be during the same meeting where Trump complimented himself on his jab at Trudeau.
“Oh. And then you know what they’ll say?” Trump said. “‘He didn’t do a press conference! He didn’t do a press conference!’”
As Trump was preparing to leave, other leaders, including Macron and Trudeau, held their own press conferences — giving them a moment to look presidential on the world stage that Trump had denied himself of.
Sally Bronston contributed.
Joe Biden says he'd consider Kamala Harris for VP pick
AMES, Iowa — Former Vice President Joe Biden has often said on the campaign trail that he would prefer to pick a woman as his vice presidential pick — on Wednesday he went a step further and said former 2020 competitor Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would be on his list to consider.
“Of course I would. Look Senator Harris has the capacity to be anything she wants to be. I mean it sincerely. I talked to her yesterday,” he said. “She's solid, she can be president someday herself, she can be vice president, she could go on to be a Supreme Court justice, she could be attorney general. I mean she has enormous capability.”
Biden and Harris' relationship became more strained after Harris attacked Biden on his position on busing during the first Democratic debate in June. The pair first met when Biden’s late son Beau was attorney general of Delaware and Harris held the same position in California.
On Wednesday, Biden indicated he has moved past that moment.
“I’m not good at keeping hard feelings,” he said while boarding his ‘No Malarkey’ bus.
Swelling staff size and shrinking media spending predated Harris' exit from presidential race
WASHINGTON — When California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris suspended her campaign on Tuesday, she made it clear she felt her cash-strapped organization could no longer support a bid for president.
"Over the last few days, I’ve come to one of the hardest decisions of my life. So here’s the deal, guys. My campaign for president simply does not have the financial resources to continue — and the financial resources we need to continue," she said in a video posted to Twitter.
"I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it has become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.
There had been signs as of late that Harris' campaign was struggling — she cut staff this fall as her campaign sought to reset by shifting many of its resources to Iowa, and a recent New York Times story cited interviews with "more than 50 current and former campaign staff members and allies" to paint a picture of a floundering operation.
While finances are likely a piece of a larger puzzle (and we won't see Harris' fourth-quarter books until early next year), a look through campaign spending reports sheds light on what Harris meant when she pointed the finger at a dwindling bank account.
Harris jumped into the race as one of the best-funded and highest-polling candidates, an early frontrunner in the months before it was certain that former Vice President Joe Biden would enter the race.
She spent the first three months of her campaign in third place in the RealClearPolitics polling average and raised more money from individuals ($12 million) than any other candidate except Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in the first quarter of 2019.
Harris kept up that pace with a robust fundraising schedule, one that kept her from pivotal early states for significant stretches.
And at her campaign's nadir (after her viral clash with Biden on the June debate stage on the issue of race and busing), she flirted with that second-place spot behind Biden.
That marquee moment helped to fill the campaign's coffers — she raised almost $2 million during just the day after the June debate. And the campaign used those resources to massively expand the number of salaried staff from about 160 by the end of June to about 315 by the end of October, according to an NBC News analysis of FEC reports.
But such a massive staff can be a strain on resources, as indicated by the Harris campaign's late October announcement that it was cutting staff in order to "effectively compete with the top campaigns and make the necessary investments in the critical final 100 days to the caucus," as campaign manager Juan Rodriguez said in a memo.
Another sign of Harris' struggle could be seen in her media spending.
The campaign spent just $562,000 on TV and radio advertising over her entire campaign, millions behind the likes of Biden, Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had at one point been fighting with Harris for a top polling spot.
In fact, her campaign hadn't run a television advertisement since Sept. 6, according to media-tracker Advertising Analytics.
And the situation on Facebook was dire too. She spent just $32,000 for ads on the platform since early October, virtually disappearing from the platform in her campaign's final weeks. By comparison, billionaire Tom Steyer spent $4.3 million over that span, while Buttigieg and Warren both spent more than $800,000.
Outside allies were moving to give the California senator reinforcements — the pro-Harris super PAC People Standing Strong booked more than $500,000 in pro-Harris ads Tuesday morning.
But by Tuesday afternoon, with their candidate officially out of the race, the group began cancelling those buys.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp taps Kelly Loeffler to fill Sen. Isakson's seat
WASHINGTON — Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp Wednesday tapped business executive Kelly Loeffler as his pick to fill outgoing Sen. Johnny Isakson's seat, angering some of the President Trump's allies who were hoping Kemp would choose Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., instead.
Fox News host and close ally of the president Sean Hannity this week described Loeffler as a "RINO", or Republican In Name Only" while asking why Kemp would appoint Loeffler over Collins who has been a strong defender of the president throughout the impeachment hearings.
Loeffler, however, seems poised to introduce herself as a strong supporter of the president.
In a prepared statement on the appointment, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Loeffler will say, "I’m a lifelong conservative. Pro-Second Amendment. Pro-military. Pro-wall. And pro-Trump." Loeffler has never run for office or served in government.
Collins has not closed the door on running for the seat in 2020 against Loeffler, telling reporters in November he has heard from those "encouraging" him to run for statewide office and he is "strongly" listening.
Loeffler will be only the second female senator from Georgia. The first, Rebecca Latimer Felton, was the first woman to occupy a seat in the Senate but served for just one day.
Senate Republicans have welcomed the pick. Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement, "Ms. Loeffler has an impressive record in business and community leadership. I am confident she is well prepared to continue Sen. Isakson’s historic legacy of advocating for veterans, strengthening our national defense, and fighting for middle-class families."
And the campaign arm of the Senate Republicans, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Loeffler was a "phenomenal pick."
"Her business acumen and leadership gives Georgia a unique and valuable voice in the U.S. Senate who can help President Trump and our Republican majority continue to bolster a record-breaking economy, strengthen our military and confirm Constitutionalist judges," the NRSC said in a statement.
The president has not yet weighed in on the appointment. Isakson is leaving his seat at the end of the month due to health concerns, and Loeffler will be up for reelection next November.
Pete Buttigieg earns endorsement from VoteVets PAC
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg Wednesday received the endorsement of the progressive VoteVets PAC.
“The number one priority has to be beating Donald Trump,” said Jon Soltz, chair of VoteVets. “We need a candidate who will win. Bar none, Pete gives us the best shot at doing just that. It is time to rally around him, and stop the walking, talking national security threat that is Donald Trump.”
Soltz went on to say that a veteran like Buttigieg gives Democrats the best shot to win in 2020 because, "Veterans can win voters in the purple and red areas of the country that other Democrats cannot."
The only other veteran in the Democratic contest is Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
This endorsement means Buttigieg now has the support of a Super PAC behind him to help fund his campaign. Of the four top polling candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is the only one who does not have an outside organization in a position to spend money on her behalf.
VoteVets will immediately cut a maximum donation check to Pete 2020, according to the press release, and will utilize its social media networks and email list to support the campaign’s message.
“Further plans to energize veterans and military families across the country will be unveiled as the campaign moves ahead,” the group said in the statement.
Last month, Buttigieg told NBC News he would not take “corporate PAC money.”
“I also think it is really important that there be transparency in terms of people understanding who your supporters are which the reporting system creates but is why dark money is such a problem when you are looking at what goes on at the Super PACs,” he added.
However in October, Buttigieg said in an interview with Snapchat that he didn't endorse Warren's plan to refuse any money from high-dollar donors in a general election.
"We're not going to beat [President Trump] with pocket change.” Buttigieg said. “I think you need the full spectrum of support in order to compete, especially if we want to go against someone like Donald Trump."