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The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:

Iowa will test whether Steyer's spending strategy works

DES MOINES, Iowa — With voting set to start in the 2020 Democratic presidential contests, billionaire Tom Steyer is about to face a critical test: whether the prodigious spending that has thus far buoyed his candidacy will win over enough voters to propel it into the next phase of the contest.  

The 62-year old former hedge fund manager is also sharpening his message, casting himself as an uncompromising progressive in hopes of capitalizing on the distaste and discomfort a distinct coalition of voters feel toward the political establishment. But Steyer, well behind in most polls both nationally and in early voting states, needs to turn out more than just a handful of voters tired of the political system. 

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer exits after a campaign stop at the The Living Room on Jan. 31, 2020 in Clinton, Iowa.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By portraying himself as a leader with experience outside the Beltway, Steyer, in the final to sprint through Iowa and other early states, aims to turn out voters who don’t always participate in elections — highlighting his investment in commonly overlooked communities.

He’s also contrasting himself with other 2020 contenders like former Vice President Joe Biden who are leaning into their willingness to work across the aisle if elected — touting their relationships with Republicans. Steyer argues that the other side isn’t interested in compromise. 

“There’s no point in talking to someone who refuses to talk,” Steyer recently told a group of voters in Clinton, Iowa, referencing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Have you seen any give? Did he ever compromise with Barack Obama?”  

It’s a message that seems to be resonating voters who say they are fed up with the political system in Washington. One voter at a recent town hall in Burlington, Iowa said he’d never caucused before but liked Steyer because he wasn’t a political insider.

On his last bus tour through Iowa, Steyer drew in larger crowds. More than 120 voters showed up to the Clinton town hall — double the number the campaign expected — and a few of his audiences have topped Biden’s in size.  

In Iowa, where Steyer has spent nearly $16 million on TV and radio ads, the campaign has focused on barnstorming corners of the state not traditionally considered Democratic strongholds — like Storm Lake, where Steyer is one of only four candidates with an operating field office.    

And it’s not just where or who the campaign is targeting but about the message to these voters, too. 

Steyer regularly highlights the need for congressional term limits on the trail. He also touts his investments in rural communities and his long history of fighting climate change.

“There’s something about Tom and his message — being that outsider on traditional messaging — that appeals to rural Iowans,” Ben Gerdes, Steyer’s senior press secretary, told NBC News. 

Looking past Iowa, Steyer has rapidly staffed up in South Carolina. With 92 paid staffers, his presence is the largest in the state —and roughly double that of Biden’s. Formerly incarcerated men make up a large portion of that number and have been tasked with campaigning for Steyer in their neighborhoods.  

In New Hampshire, where he’s made a total of only six trips, Steyer also highlights his outsider status and regularly brings up climate change on the stump. He’s made targeted outreach efforts to areas like the Seacoast, where the risks and impacts of rising tides hit closest to home. 

Steyer maintains his status in the race doesn’t necessarily depend on the results Monday night in Iowa. 

When asked for a best-case scenario, Gerdes was optimistic, but also realistic: “Our belief is, even just beating expectations, showing some momentum here where no one expects us to do anything ... then the whole dynamic of the races changes.”  

Bernie Sanders raised more online from Iowans than rest of Dem field

DES MOINES, Iowa — As the clock ticks closer to Monday night's Iowa caucuses, new federal election filings from the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue provide the latest glimpse as to each candidates' financial strength in the Hawkeye State. 

That new data shows that Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders raised more money online from Iowans, $703,000, than his Democratic presidential rivals in all of 2019. 

Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised the second most with $519,000, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's $418,000, former Vice President Joe Biden's $251,000,  Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar's $185,000 and businessman Andrew Yang's $142,000. 

No other active presidential candidate raised more than $100,000 in Iowa online donations, according to ActBlue data. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a campaign field office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 2020.Mike Segar / Reuters

ActBlue processes all virtually every online donation to Democratic candidates and is required to itemize every single donation in its report to the Federal Election Commission, unlike campaigns that aren't required to disclose information for donations under $200. 

So its semi-annual filing journalists, campaigns and data-nerds the ability to comb through those online donations for analysis. 

Click here for more coverage from the latest federal election filings. 

For Warren, 'unity' is more than a talking point

IOWA CITY, Iowa — As she makes her closing pitch to Iowa voters, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has increasingly stressed the need for party unity.

“I've been building a campaign from the beginning that's not a campaign that's narrow or not a campaign that says us and nobody else," Warren said at a rally in Cedar Rapids Saturday. "It's a campaign that says, 'come on in because we are in this fight together. This fight is our fight.'”

Jonathan Van Ness, of the Netflix series Queer Eye, introduces Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Jan. 26, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Her comments come after a surrogate for Bernie Sanders pointedly joined in with a group of the Vermont Senator's supporters to boo Hillary Clinton Friday night.

But Warren's push is more than just a reactionary move, there's some data behind it as well. 

A Warren aide tells NBC News that among people they’ve identified as planning to caucus for Warren who also caucused in 2016, there’s a 50-50 split between those who supported Sanders and Clinton. 

That means unity isn’t just a messaging point, it’s borne out in who the campaign sees its attracting at this point. It’s why they weren’t (and aren’t) directly attacking Sanders and why she doesn't directly engage on questions about Clinton. 

In fact, speaking to reporters on Saturday, Warren skirted questions on both of those issues — re-emphasizing that message of needing to come together.

What we learned from the Q4 candidate filings

DES MOINES, Iowa — Friday’s new batch of campaign finance reports gave us one more look under the campaigns’ hoods before Monday’s Iowa caucuses. 

Some candidates already pushed out their top-line numbers from the fourth fundraising quarter, but the full reports give a comprehensive look at the financial health of these campaigns.

Here are some takeaways from the NBC Political Unit: 

Bloomberg’s self-haul 

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is running an unprecedented campaign as the richest presidential candidate in modern history. And the FEC reports show it. 

Despite refusing to take individual donations, Bloomberg spent $188 million in the six weeks his campaign was active in the fourth fundraising quarter — more than every other active Democratic presidential candidate combined (except for fellow billionaire Tom Steyer). 

He spent $132 million on television advertising; $757,000 in airfare; $3.3 million on polling; and $8.2 million on digital advertising, for example. 

And while he closed the quarter with about 145 people on the payroll, a campaign aide said he’s expanded to more than 1,000 since. 

One of the wealthiest people in the world, Bloomberg can afford it. But it’s still a risky bet, as Bloomberg isn’t on the ballot in any of the first four states. 

Fellow billionaire Tom Steyer is taking a similar path — he spent $154 million of largely his own money last quarter. But while his wealth isn’t as large, he’s competing in the early states. 

Money in the bank 

Sanders ended 2019 with the most cash on hand in the field, with more than $18 million in the bank. That’s more than his rivals at the top of the polls — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren finished with $13 million, and former Vice President Joe Biden trailed behind them both with only $8.9 million in cash.

It’s no surprise to see candidates spending big right before the start of voting. That’s part of the bet — spend big and hope to see it reflected in the polls and when voters cast their ballots. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, speaks at a presidential campaign event in Perry, Iowa, on Jan. 26, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Sanders’ big spending came as he rebounded in the polls. And his massive $34.6 million fundraising haul to close 2019 shows he’s not likely to struggle for cash. 

But others are hoping that a big spend can help turn around a slide at the polls and put them in good shape once votes are cast. 

That’s the case with former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Buttigieg spent almost $9 million more last quarter than he took in, amid a fall at the polls. So his campaign is looking for that investment to pay dividends in the early states.  

Battle of the Progressives 

Sanders and Warren have been fighting for the progressive vote the entire presidential cycle. But when it comes to the money fight, Sanders is winning. 

Take their total individual contributions: Sanders brought in over $34 million dollars in the last quarter of 2019, while Warren brought in just over $21 million. That’s a turn around from the third quarter when Warren’s fundraising skyrocketed. In the third quarter, Sanders just barely outraised Warren that quarter, $25.2 million to $24.5 million. 

Sanders’ deep pockets have allowed him to outspend Warren when (and where) it matters: The lead up to Iowa and the other early state contests. 

Since the start of the fourth fundraising quarter (Oct. 1, 2019), Sanders has spent more than $16 million on television and radio ads, compared to $7.4 million for Warren, data from Advertising Analytics shows. 

Even so, they’re spending at similar rates to each other and the rest of the field. 

Sanders’ burn rate (which means the amount of money he spent divided by the amount of money he brought in) was over 144 percent, while Warren’s burn rate was just a bit higher at 155 percent.

So while Warren continues to have the resources to mount a strong campaign, it’s Sanders who has the fundraising edge among the progressive candidates.

Boots on the ground 

Of the three top-polling candidates, Warren almost doubled her staff in the fourth quarter – ending 2019 with over 1,100 staff members on her payroll. 

Sanders ended the quarter with about 850 people on his staff payroll – about 300 more than the last quarter, and Biden’s staff on payroll stayed nearly stagnant even despite an uptick in fundraising: In this quarter he had about 488 people on payroll, in quarter three he had about 446.

While the candidate makes the headlines, it’s the staff on the ground across the country who helps convert support into ballots cast, particularly once the calendar opens up on Super Tuesday and campaigns require a larger footprint across the country. 

Campaigns that ended in Q4 

FEC reports aren’t just useful for active candidates, those reports can help shed some important light on campaigns who have closed up shop. 

Take California Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out in early December. When she suspended her campaign, she said her “campaign for president simply does not have the financial resources to continue.” 

And now we know what she meant. 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta.John Bazemore / AP

Harris raised just $3.9 million in the fourth quarter, but spent $13.1 million.

It was a similar story for former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who raised $966,000 and spent $3.9 million. 

Both ended with little left in their bank accounts — O’Rourke had just $361,000 cash on hand to close the year, while Harris had $1.4 million left in the bank but with $1.1 million in debt. 

Warren surrogates preach party unity

DES MOINES, IOWA — At around the same time that Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., booed Hillary Clinton at a Bernie Sanders campaign event on Friday, Elizabeth Warren’s surrogates here were pitching a different message: Party unity.

Warren “is the person who can unite our party,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who joined Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Katie Porter, D-Calif.

“We deserve a person who will listen,” Pressley added. “Elizabeth hears all of us.”

All three were stumping for Warren on Friday night with the senator stuck in Washington, D.C., as a juror in President Trump’s impeachment trial — just as Tlaib and Reps. Ilan Omar, D-Minn., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., were campaigning for Sanders. 

Warren ultimately made it into Iowa late Friday night, while Sanders called into his campaign's event in Clive, Iowa before traveling to the state for events this weekend. 

For all of the similarities of Warren’s and Sanders’ messages — attacking corporate power, decrying income inequality, eliminating college debt — the biggest difference between the two campaigns might be Sanders’ insurgency versus Warren’s unity.

Tlaib did walk back her boo comments on Saturday morning. And importantly, Sanders wasn’t present to hear them.

But judging from the polls two days before the Iowa caucuses, Sanders’ insurgency — at least on the Democratic left — appears to be a more powerful force than Team Warren’s call for unity.

Michael Bloomberg releases tax plan

DES MOINES, Iowa – Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg released his tax plan on Saturday. The plan lays out seven key objectives to generate $5 trillion in revenue. 

The plan's main focus is the 2017 tax reform legislation signed by President Trump which cut taxes for large corporations and high-income individuals. Bloomberg, who made his billion-dollar fortune by launching his financial software company Bloomberg L.P., says in the plan that the tax cuts on companies were too big.

Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a campaign event on Jan. 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

"Trump’s tax reform cut business taxes too much – giving U.S. businesses a bigger tax cut than they had even asked for. While our tax code needs to ensure that our producers stay competitive with foreign companies, they can and should contribute more," the plan states. 

Furthermore, the Bloomberg campaign said that the current tax law is "deeply unfair" because it "allows accumulated wealth to pass from generation to generation with little or no tax due, and provides countless loopholes that the rich can exploit to reduce their taxes still further." 

The main objectives of Bloomberg's plan are: 

  • Raise rates for high-income taxpayers, restoring the top rate on income from 37 percent to 39.6 percent.
  • Set capital gains tax at the same rate as income for taxpayers above $1 million and implement policies to curb avoidance and deferral for the wealthiest Americans.
  • Impose a 5 percent surtax on incomes above $5 million a year to pay for improvements in the country’s infrastructure, education and health care systems.
  • Lower the estate-tax threshold and ensure protection of family-owned farms and small businesses. 
  • Close loopholes, including the “pass-through” 20% deduction, the “like-kind” provision and the carried-interest loophole.
  • Raise the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent.
  • Provide necessary resources to the IRS.

Biden campaign releases new Iowa ad, Super Bowl ad before caucuses

NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa – With just two days before the Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Joe Biden is rolling out two new ads in Iowa markets to make his final pitch to Iowans. 

The first ad, entitled "Right Here", emphasizes Biden's key campaign point that the next president won't have time for "on the job training." The ad also revisits Biden's campaign announcement video. It begins with images of the Charlottesville clash in 2017 and warns that America is at risk of losing its democratic values if President Donald Trump is re-elected.  

"We’re being reminded every day there’s nothing guaranteed about democracy, not even here in America. We have to constantly earn it, we have to protect it, we have to fight for it," Biden says in the ad. 

"Right Here" will run in the top two Iowa markets: Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. 

In addition, the campaign will also be cutting a new version of an ad that's been running in Iowa for the Super Bowl, called "Character." airing a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl, entitled "Character" in the same two markets. The ad begins with images of former President Barack Obama, before turning to President Trump. 

These ads come amid the Biden campaign ramping up its Iowa airwaves presence. Two other ads have been on the air, and will continue to run through the caucuses on Monday. 

 

Sanders surrogate Rashida Tlaib says she erred by booing Clinton

DES MOINES, Iowa — Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., apologized Saturday for joining supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders Saturday night in booing when the name of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton came up at a campaign event in Clive, Iowa.  

The moment happened during a panel discussion where Tlaib and other surrogates were campaigning for Sanders while he remained in Washington, D.C. for President Trump's Senate impeachment trial.

The moderator, Sanders supporter and Des Moines, Iowa school board member Dionna Langford invoked  Clinton when discussing those who didn't support Sanders. Immediately, the crowd began to boo, and Langford pleaded with the crowd to stop. 

“Remember last week when someone by the name of Hillary Clinton said that nobody — We’re not gonna boo, we’re not gonna boo,” Langford said. “We’re classy here.”

However, Tlaib disagreed with Langford's call. 

“No, I’ll boo. Boo!” Tlaib said. She continued, “You all know I can’t be quiet. No, we’re going to boo. That’s alright. The haters, the haters, will shut up on Monday when we win.”

On Saturday morning, Tlaib apologized for her comments, saying in a tweet thread that, "I allowed my disappointment with Secretary Clinton's latest comments about Senator Sanders and his supporters get the best of me. You all, my sisters-in-service on stage, and our movement deserve better. I will continue to strive to come from a place of love and not react in the same way of those who are against what we are building in this country."

FEC reports bring new details about pro-Biden super PAC

DES MOINES, Iowa — Friday's campaign finance deadline helps to shed new light on the super PAC that's boosted former Vice President Joe Biden's television advertising footprint. 

The end-of-year fundraising report from Unite Our Country, the group backing Biden, raised $3.7 million from 71 total donors. That report includes information from the second half of 2019. 

Because super PACs can take unlimited contributions from donors (unlike candidates, that can only take a maximum of $2,800 per person per cycle), the group was able to rack up big money quickly. 

One giver, longtime Democratic donor George Marcus, gave Unite Our Country $1 million. Marcus, a prominent Democratic bundler, hosted a fundraiser for Biden in Palo Alto, Calif. in October. Marcus is also listed on the Biden campaign's list of individuals who have bundled at least $25,000 for the campaign (bundlers help collect donations to the campaign from other donors). 

The pro-Biden super PAC also received two checks of $250,000 each and 21 checks of at least $100,000, including from former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian. 

It also received a $75,000 check from Boston Red Sox Chairman Thomas Werner. And as the New York Times' Shane Goldmacher points out, despite Biden's pledge to not personally take any contributions from fossil fuel company executives, one fossil fuel executive donated $50,000 to the super PAC. 

The new reports filed with the Federal Election Commission do not include money raised and spent since the start of 2020. Those transactions won't need to be filed with the FEC until July. 

Unite Our Country has been an important ally for Biden, particularly on the airwaves. 

Since the start of the campaign, it's spent $4.4 million on television ads, according to data from Advertising Analytics. Combined with the $4.2 million Biden's own campaign has spent on television and radio ads, the combined effort puts Biden in fifth place in overall television and radio advertising spending nationwide. 

And the effort has been important in Iowa too, ahead of next week's pivotal caucus. When the campaign's Iowa spending is combined with the super PAC spending, Biden's campaign leapfrogs businessman Andrew Yang and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren into fourth place in Iowa ad spending. 

Klobuchar holds first N.H. tele-town hall amidst impeachment

WASHINGTON — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., held her first New Hampshire tele-town hall while in Washington, D.C. this morning for the impeachment trial. In the forty-minute call, Klobuchar made the case for her candidacy and discussed her experiences campaigning across ten counties of the Granite State.

After ticking through her presidential agenda, Klobuchar indirectly called out her fellow presidential candidate, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently announced a major ad buy set to air during the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar boards her campaign bus after a stop in Humboldt, Iowa, on Dec. 27, 2019.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

“It's not always the richest candidate,” she said. “[A]nd no you won't be seeing my ad in the Super Bowl but you will know that I'll be out there in my green bus, getting votes the right way.”

She also said on the call that she “can’t think of a better group of people right now" than those in New Hampshire who understand that it’s not always the most famous candidate who is best to lead the ticket.

Klobuchar plugged her two newspaper endorsements from the N.H. Union Leader and Keene Sentinel, and added that voters in New Hampshire and other early voting states “have this obligation ... a history of picking people ... that maybe other people didn't think we're going to win.”

According to the Klobuchar campaign, over eight thousand people were on the call.

Voters on the call asked a range of questions about the candidate’s plans for tackling climate change and how she’ll protect Social Security.

Klobuchar was also pressed on how she’ll unify the country after Trump’s presidency and responded that she’ll be transparent and truthful. 

“I also think the first day after I got elected I would start calling every governor in this nation, Democrat or Republican to get their ideas, I would work with leadership in both houses ... and then act on it,” she said. 

The penultimate question of the tele-town hall was about the impeachment trial, to which Klobuchar responded that she was heading to the Senate right after the tele-town hall ahead of a potential vote on witnesses. 

Klobuchar’s closing pitch was that she’s not just making an anecdotal plea for support but rather, that facts matter in New Hampshire.

While she wishes she could be in the state, she underscored that she must fulfill her constitutional duty as a senator to act as a juror in the impeachment hearing

“My ask of you is to run for me, to help me, to make sure that I don't lose ground or lose time,” she said, “because I have been doing my important work.”

-Liz Brown-Kaiser contributed.

McConnell opponent Amy McGrath endorses Joe Biden

BURLINGTON, Iowa — Former Vice President Joe Biden often tells his audiences that the best way to beat Republicans — in the White House and in Congress — is at the polls. And he now has the endorsement of another Democratic candidate trying to do just that. 

Amy McGrath, a Marine combat veteran and rising star in Democratic politics, is the favored Democratic candidate challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for Senate in Kentucky and announced her endorsement of Biden on Friday.

McGrath said she’s backing Biden because she believes he will bring back “honor and integrity” to the White House. Moreover, she cites Biden’s ongoing commitment to the working class in Kentucky as an example of how Biden could unite the entire country.

Joe Biden and democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath shake hands during a campaign event in Owingsville, Ky., on Oct. 12, 2018.Bryan Woolston / AP file

“While some Democrats believe the challenges we face as a nation demand revolutionary action, others — like me — believe the best path forward is to start by unifying our country and delivering results for American families,” McGrath said in a campaign release.

McGrath is facing a tough race against McConnell, who is slightly out-raising her in the race. Her endorsement echoes what many first-term House Democratic candidates are stressing when making their pitch to voters for supporting Biden: they need a candidate at the top of the ticket that appeals to Republicans, independents and Democrats alike to help them win their races.

Biden is making that same pitch for himself on the trail. 

"One of the reasons why I am running is to take back the United States Senate. We are not going to get a whole lot done if we don't not only win the presidency [but] if we are not able to go out and win back the Senate," Biden said in Iowa on Sunday. "That depends a lot on the top of the ticket." 

McGrath's endorsement for Biden is not surprising — Biden stumped for McGrath during the 2018 midterms when she ran for the House. While she lost her race for Congress, many other moderate candidates were able to flip GOP seats.

Biden touted her endorsement at his event in Burlington, Iowa Friday, pointing out how sharp she is as a candidate to go against McConnell.

“This woman knows how to shoot. this woman knows how to play,” he said.