The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Congressional candidates put elections on back burner
WASHINGTON — While coronavirus has shut most of America behind closed doors, congressional candidates are juggling the uncertainty of the situation with the electoral reality.
The guidelines from the White House aimed at curbing the spread of the virus makes it virtually impossible for candidates to fundraise and campaign in the way they normally would.
“The character of our district and neighborhood is one of social interaction. We don’t have large living rooms, homes and yards to spread out,” Suraj Patel, a Democrat who is challenging Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney for her deep-blue, New York City seat, told NBC News.
Patel told NBC that his entire campaign staff has shifted to remote and digital work, focusing on community service, holding virtual town hall meetings with those affected by the economic slowdown, and releasing policy proposals aimed at recovery.
Meanwhile, he said his staff has used telephone canvassing software to check in with seniors, delivering supplies and handmade cards across the district.
Maloney told NBC her campaign shifted quickly to remote work too, suspending its attempts to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot and pledging not to challenge any opponents’ signatures so that they could keep all staff safe. The primary for the seat is on June 23, and New York has not yet announced if any of their primaries will be moved because of coronavirus.
With her team contacting constituents to keep them informed about the crisis, she said she's remained “laser-focused on taking action to alleviate the suffering that people are experiencing during the crisis, passing bills that will help everyday Americans get through the challenges of the coming months, and holding the administration accountable.”
Another elected official balancing a run for Congress during the crisis is Republican New York State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis — she represents a coronavirus hotspot and is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Max Rose in New York’s 11th district.
But Malliotakis says her priority is no longer her congressional campaign.
“The campaign’s on the back burner. I’m 100 percent focused on doing my job as an Assembly member, making sure that we do important things that need to be taken care of in Albany,” Malliotakis said.
She also said this has been a time to work across party lines — she’s been in constant contact with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as Rose too.
“We may be adversaries often times when it comes to policy,” Malliotakis said of Democrats, but noted that in New York, “we are working together really closely.”
And Rose is on the same page.
“All I care about is addressing the incredibly serious public health crisis,” Rose told NBC. “Elections be damned, we’ve got lives on the line.”
Rose added that when it comes to elections, there is “no balance” with campaigning until this pandemic subsides, and that politics has no place in current conversations.
“Right now, nobody should be talking politics in any way, shape or form. Nobody. Now, the only thing that anybody should be concerned about is saving lives,” Rose said.
On that front, challenger candidates like Malliotakis are hoping that focusing on their current jobs will end up as their biggest campaigning tool.
“Quite frankly, if I don’t do a good job in the position that I’m elected right now, I wouldn’t deserve to be elected to Congress,” Malliotakis said.
Malliotakis’ focus on her current position is similar to that of another state Assemblywoman, Christy Smith in California. Smith and Naval officer Mike Garcia are facing off in the CA-25 special election, currently slated for May 12.
Smith told NBC in a statement that she is “focused on my work as this community’s public servant, ensuring state response to my local constituents and connecting people with essential information, services, and resources.” She added that she’ll “revisit campaign-related issues” after the crisis is at bay.
While Garcia doesn’t hold public office, he told NBC he’s prioritizing getting accurate information out to his would-be constituents, primarily through his website, which includes a list of local and small business resources as well as official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This coronavirus is a serious challenge. We are taking it seriously,” Garcia said “We have no choice. We have to do it with class, we have to do it with grace.”
Sanders campaign ramps up virtual organizing ahead of potential New York primary
BURLINGTON, VT — Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has shifted to entirely virtual organizing while Americans socially distance due to the coronavirus outbreak but the campaign put out a release Tuesday touting New York state staffing and volunteer organizing. While some states have moved their primaries due to the outbreak, New York's Democratic Primary is still set for April 28.
The Sanders campaign says they hosted a volunteer call with thousands of New York supporters this week, signing up more than 1,300 call and text shifts. The campaign is using their proprietary "BERN" app and old-fashioned phone banking, as well as organizing "Digital house parties," while New Yorkers are holed up at home.
While the Sanders campaign shifts resources to future states, the campaign continues to say nothing has changed since last week's statement that the candidate is assessing the status of his campaign and having conversations with supporters on a path forward.
Sanders has been focused this week on coronavirus, holding multiple campaign live-streams on the topic with experts and congressional colleagues, raising millions for charities involved in coronavirus aid, and releasing a $2 trillion plan of his own.
Biden edges out Trump in new national poll
WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a narrow three-point lead on President Trump in a new national presidential race poll from Monmouth University. Forty-eight percent of registered voters prefer Biden, while 45 percent prefer the president — however that lands within the poll's margin of error. The poll did not release data on how Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fared in a general election stand-off with Trump.
The picture changed slightly when the poll shifted to key state voters. According to the poll, 50 percent of voters in 300 "swing counties" — counties in which less than 10 points separated Trump and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — back Biden while just 41 percent support the president. Trump and the leading Democratic candidate essentially split the current vote for Independents — Trump edges out with 45 percent, and Biden garners 44 percent.
While the possible general election contest is extremely close, some key questions could end up affecting whether voters change their allegiances. Twenty-five percent of registered voters said their current financial situation was best described as "struggling", and just 12 percent of registered voters said their financial status was improving. That could magnify as the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has some experts saying unemployment could reach 20 percent in a worse-case scenario situation.
However, it's not clear that Americans blame the Trump administration for their financial situations. Fifty-two percent of registered voters said the federal government had "no real impact" on their finances, and 29 percent said the government "helped" their financial situation. The Monmouth University poll was conducted between March 18 and March 22.
Both candidates have also seen upticks in their favorability since February. Forty-six of registered voters view President Trump either very or somewhat favorably, up two points since February, and 43 percent of registered voters view Biden very or somewhat favorably, up three points from the last poll.
Trump re-elect effort campaigns virtually as coronavirus outbreak pauses normal voter interaction
WASHINGTON – Since the coronavirus pandemic has essentially brought the 2020 race to a halt, President Trump's campaign and Republican National Committee have pivoted to a fully virtual outreach plan as millions of voters are confined to their homes.
On Saturday, the Trump re-election effort made a record 1.5 million calls, marking the first time this kind of voter contact has been done purely remotely by the party, according to the RNC. Volunteers highlighted the administration’s response to the current health crisis, while encouraging supporters to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for their own safety.
“With our ability to engage with voters virtually and digitally, Trump Victory is not missing a beat, and we continue to be full steam ahead to November,” RNC Chief of Staff Richard Walters told NBC News in a statement.
After President Trump announced strict new social distancing rules last week, the campaign and RNC had to convert all their in-person campaign events into virtual interactions, including fundraisers. Earlier this month, the campaign had to postpone several high-profile surrogate events, including a multi-day, high-dollar swing for Ivanka Trump and a California trip for first lady Melania Trump.
Since then, Trump Victory – the joint operation between the campaign and the RNC – has held hundreds of volunteer trainings in virtual settings, including using an application called “Trump Talk.” Nearly 50,000 people signed up to use it and make calls from the comfort of their own homes in the last week alone, the RNC said.
This past weekend, during a designated “day of action,” volunteers were provided with scripts that touted the president’s “bold leadership” on the coronavirus that has infected more than 46,000 people in the country and left at least 561 dead, according to data from Johns Hopkins as of Tuesday morning. They were instructed to highlight the “unprecedented, comprehensive, and aggressive whole of America approach,” as the administration faced some criticism from medical professionals that not enough was being done to combat the virus.
To that point, the talking points included that Trump took “quick and decisive action” back in January to restrict entry into the U.S. from foreign nationals who had visited China. If voters didn’t answer, they were left with a voicemail from senior adviser Lara Trump which included information about “how to help slow the spread” of the deadly respiratory illness.
That messaging comes as a Democratic super PAC is launching ads that criticize Trump's response to the virus, arguing that he did not take the virus seriously enough.
The major societal changes that have forced millions to work from home in recent days has also contributed to a surge in online traffic for GOP websites such as Vote.GOP and TrumpVictory.com, nearly doubling their normal visitors, per the RNC. The campaign has also directed supporters to go to ArmyforTrump.com, a tool that allows volunteers to sign up for various outreach opportunities and become “digital activists.”
So far this cycle, Trump Victory has outpaced its 2016 and 2018 voters contacts, boasting 9 million to date. The number of calls made on Saturday alone was bigger than any total week of calls made ahead of the last midterm elections, the group highlighted.
Though fundraising in March may be hampered by the pandemic’s restrictions, the re-elect effort raked in $87 million in February and has more than $231 million in the bank.
Dem super PAC launches ads hitting Trump on coronavirus response
WASHINGTON — Priorities USA Action, the biggest Democratic super PAC working to deny President Trump re-election, is out with a new ad campaign that criticizes the president's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The group released two television ads Monday — one on coronavirus and one aimed at contrasting Trump with former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading the Democratic primary race.
The first spot includes various comments of President Trump talking about the virus over a span of months run one after another as a graphic shows the number of coronavirus cases in America rising exponentially.
"The coronavirus...this is their new hoax...we have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China...One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear...When you have 15 people...and within a couple of days, it's going to be close to down to zero," Trump can be heard saying in those spliced-together comments.
The spot then ends with video of Trump telling reporters on March 13 that "I don't take responsibility at all" when asked about the delays in testing.
The second television spots paints a dismal picture of the current situation, "Thousands infected, an economy in free fall, and government unprepared," before showing that same clip of Trump saying he doesn't take responsibility for the test-kit shortage.
The ad then shows Biden's address on coronavirus from earlier this month, where he said "I can promise you this: When I'm president, we will be better prepared, respond better, we'll lead with science."
The Trump administration, his campaign and his allies have been on the defensive as to its response to the coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks, arguing that the administration has taken action that has stopped the pandemic from getting worse.
They've also accused Democrats of misrepresenting at least one comment, arguing that he said "this is their new hoax" in referring to Democratic criticism of his administration's coronavirus response, not about the virus itself.
Priorities will run the first TV ad that solely criticizes Trump as part of a $6 million TV and digital campaign across Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the Biden contrast ad could also hit the airwaves after that ad runs, but the timing for that is not clear. The two digital ads will begin running online starting Tuesday.
The group has said it plans to spend $150 million before the Democratic convention, much of it on the airwaves.
“From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Donald Trump has repeatedly misled the American people and exposed us to unnecessary danger. His failure to lead continues to have real life and death consequences as hospitals, local and state governments, small businesses, and millions of Americans are left without the tools and information they need,” Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said in a statement.
“Tens of thousands of people are sick, hundreds have already died, and millions are losing their jobs. We simply cannot allow Donald Trump to continue to lie and spread misinformation unchecked."
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign's communications director, criticized the Priorities ads in a statement to NBC News.
"It used to be that Americans faced national adversity with unity, but Joe Biden and his allies have abandoned that principle in favor of rank, despicable politics. They offer nothing but partisan sniping from the sidelines and seek to undermine the federal response to the crisis by misinforming and frightening people," he said.
"All Joe Biden knows about handling a public health crisis is that the Obama White House had to apologize for his irresponsible remarks during the swine flu outbreak in 2009. Americans can see that President Trump is out front and leading this nation and is the clear choice to see us through the crisis.”
UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Trump campaign said it sent television stations cease and desist letters calling on the stations to stop running the ad, arguing that the "hoax" comment from Trump was falsely represented in the ad.
Bloomberg campaign faces potential class action lawsuit for layoffs
WASHINGTON — Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign is facing a potential class action lawsuit for allegedly promising jobs through November to more than a thousand campaign staffers and then laying them off last week.
A former field organizer, Donna Wood, filed the suit today in U.S. District Court, in the southern district of New York, on behalf of herself and others seeking to get it certified by the court as a class action.
NBC News first reported in January that Bloomberg was planning to fund a major campaign effort through November and was committing to pay staff through then, even if he lost the nomination. But Bloomberg reversed course last week and laid off his entire staff. He instead transferred $18 million to the Democratic National Committee and told laid off staffers to fill out a Google form if they were interested in entering a competitive hiring process for a DNC job. The staffers will stop receiving paychecks in the first week of April, and will stop receiving health care benefits at the end of April.
“The Bloomberg campaign had represented to folks they were going to keep people on through November, regardless of his candidacy, which is one of the reasons we think he attracted such talent,” Sally Abrahamson of Outten & Golden LLP, one of the attorneys on the case, told NBC News. “He’s terminating, we believe, over 1,000 people at a time when we believe unemployment is likely going to be 20 or 30 percent, and they’re going to lose their health care.”
The Bloomberg campaign responded by saying that their staffers received severance and extended health care, while other campaigns didn't give those benefits.
"This campaign paid its staff wages and benefits that were much more generous than any other campaign this year. Staff worked 39 days on average, but they were also given several weeks of severance and health care through March, something no other campaign did this year," a Bloomberg campaign spokesperson said. "Given the current crisis, a fund is being created to ensure that all staff receive health care through April, which no other campaign has done. And many field staff will go on to work for the DNC in battleground states, in part because the campaign made the largest monetary transfer to the DNC from a presidential campaign in history to support the DNC’s organizing efforts.”
NBC News obtained a copy of an interview script that was used by the Bloomberg campaign to evaluate potential hires for the campaign. Among the talking points listed under “At a Glance” is “Employment through November 2020 with Team Bloomberg.”
The lawsuit has three components: unpaid overtime compensation for field organizers who would have to pro-actively join the case — attorneys involved in the case tell NBC they are talking to “dozens” of potential claimants, alleged fraudulent inducement and breach of contract, allegedly suffered by those who were promised jobs through November, and it seeks the compensation they would have received through November.
If the case is certified as a class action, it will move forward on behalf of everyone who falls into that category unless they opt-out of the class action.
The Affordable Care Act is turning 10. Where does the landmark law go next?
WASHINGTON — The Affordable Care Act is turning 10 this week, and it's still in the news and still facing an existential threat from Republican critics even as some of its benefits have become widely accepted.
Among the ACA's core features: It barred insurers from turning away customers or charging more based on pre-existing conditions, created a new subsidized market for individual private insurance, expanded Medicaid to higher income workers, eliminated lifetime and annual caps on benefits and allowed young adults to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26.
In many ways, the 2020 election has been a debate about its legacy. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ran on moving all Americans to a Medicare for All system, rather than private insurance, while former Vice President Joe Biden has argued building on the ACA to make its benefits more generous.
On the Republican side, President Trump is backing a lawsuit to overturn the law in its entirety, which the Supreme Court is set to hear this Fall. He reiterated his support for that effort over the weekend, saying it would allow him to "get rid of the bad health care and put in a great health care" even as the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic with a health care system tied to the ACA.
The White House has not announced a detailed replacement plan for the law, and Biden asked Trump and Republican state officials on Monday to drop the lawsuit.
Former Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who shepherded the ACA as chair of the Senate Finance Committee said the law was a “good start” toward universal coverage. The law reduced the number of uninsured by about 20 million people after its implementation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But that number has ticked up under President Trump and the health care system still faces rising costs for hospitals and drugs. That unsteadiness has led Baucus to embrace a single-payer health care system.
“I felt at the time we were not ready for single payer,” Baucus told NBC News. “But down the road we’re going to move in that direction. Why? Because our current system, even under the legislation that passed, is still too inefficient. Too many dollars are being spent that don't provide health care."
While Baucus may agree with Sanders on the broad policy direction, he thinks Biden would be best to shepherd the next health care goal through because the next Democratic administration must seek common ground with Republicans.
“We should try extremely hard for it to be nonpartisan and maybe begin with smaller steps at first,” he said. "Otherwise if you jam something down somebody's throat, it's not durable. The other side will try to figure out how to submarine it or undermine it as they did with the ACA."
There are some signs that the law is becoming more entrenched. The GOP faced a backlash in 2017 when they tried unsuccessfully to partially repeal the law and scale back its benefits. And, while still divided along partisan lines, the latest NBC/WSJ poll found the ACA with its highest net rating: 42 percent of registered voters believe it was a good idea, versus 35 percent who say it was a bad idea.
But the ACA has struggled to meet some of its goals and the way it's been implemented isn't the same as supporters envisioned when it was passed.
The law's regulations on insurers and lack of subsidies for customers making over 400 percent of the federal poverty limit have left many middle and upper income Americans facing premiums that are high or unaffordable.
“If they can’t get coverage through their job, those individuals' premiums have skyrocketed,” said Avik Roy, founder of The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and critic of the law. “It could have been done in a much more effective way that guaranteed coverage for people who were sick, but also made it more affordable to people who are healthy.”
The law has also changed over the years. President Trump's 2017 tax bill zeroed out the ACA's individual mandate — which penalized people for going without insurance. And some sources of funding, like a tax on more generous employer plans, have been eliminated.
The Supreme Court ruled that states had to voluntarily participate in its expansion of Medicaid, but 14 states haven't. The Trump administration has also expanded access to insurance options outside of the law’s regulations, including plans that factor in pre-existing conditions.
Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary under President Obama, told NBC News the law had been undermined but believes its legacy is secure.
“The country has moved to a place where there is a vast majority of people who feel health care is a right,” she said. “I don't think that was a given 10 years ago and it's not just in the Democratic Party. People may have a different idea how to get there, but it's a basic premise that people support."
Biden ally Larry Rasky passes away at 69
WASHINGTON —Larry Rasky, a close ally of former Vice President Joe Biden who played a key role in the super PAC that boosted Biden during the Democratic presidential primary, has died.
Rasky's eponymous public relations firm confirmed his death in a brief statement on Sunday.
"Larry was a giant in so many ways, not just professionally but personally. He loved and was loved by so many. He always treated the company like a family and we are all shocked and saddened by the news of his passing. He has left an indelible imprint on everyone he touched and the company that bears his name will go on in his spirit," the statement from Rasky Partners read.
He was 69 years old, according to the Boston Globe. The paper said the cause of death was not yet known.
Rasky was a longtime public relations professional who worked with a lanundry list of Democratic politicians — including Biden, then-Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey (who is now a senator), former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and President Jimmy Carter.
Having worked as Biden's press secretary during his 1988 presidential bid, he served as Biden's communications director during his 2008 presidential campaign.
This cycle, he served as the treasurer to Unite the Country, the super PAC backing Biden.
Biden remembered Rasky during an interview with the Globe as a "real friend" who gave him "confidence."
“He was also generous and sharp and he just had a spirit about him. His passion for politics was amazing,” Biden told the paper.
"No matter how down I was going into something, that ridiculous laugh of his would always make a difference. He always knew when to kid and when not to kid.”
“I think the reason people loved him was his deep loyalty to his friends and the causes he believes in,” Markey told the Globe. “It’s something that just drew people to him, and it’s why so many people are missing him today.”
Others shared their memories of Rasky on Twitter as the news broke Sunday.
Sanders wins big in Democrats Abroad primary, party says
WASHINGTON — Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has won the Democrats Abroad presidential primary, the contest held by Americans living overseas, according to results announced Monday
Julia Bryan, the group's global chair, shared those results on a Monday morning video conference in part due to the coronavirus outbreak that has paralyzed the world.
She said that Sanders won 57.9 percent of the almost 40,000 ballots, with former Vice President Joe Biden following with 22.7 percent and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren winning 14.3 percent.
"We saw a 15 percent increase in voter participation over our 2016 primary number," Bryan said on the call.
"It's particularly impressive considering the challenges we had with the virus shutting down so many of our centers.”
She added that raw voter turnout was the highest in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, France and Mexico.
NBC's Decision Desk has projected Sanders' victory but has not yet allocated Democratic National Convention delegates based on those results. But Bryan said that per the Democrats Abroad rules, Sanders would receive nine delegates and Biden four based on the results.
Not including the Democrats Abroad result, the Decision Desk projects Biden has won 1,165 delegates so far to Sanders' 851.
Biden calls on Trump to drop Obamacare lawsuit amid coronavirus crisis
WASHINGTON — On the 10th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act being signed into law, former Vice President Joe Biden is calling on President Donald Trump and Republicans to put politics aside during the coronavirus crisis and drop their lawsuit against the landmark health care legislation he helped shepherd through Congress.
In a letter addressed to Trump, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and 18 state attorneys general, Biden is asking them to recognize that the law they are seeking to repeal gives Americans the assurance they need during a public health crisis like the one that has currently paralyzed the country.
“At a time of national emergency, which is laying bare the existing vulnerabilities in our public health infrastructure, it is unconscionable that you are continuing to pursue a lawsuit designed to strip millions of Americans of their health insurance,” Biden writes.
“You are letting partisan rancor and politics threaten the lives of your constituents, and that is a dereliction of your sworn duty.”
Biden has staunchly defended building on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, throughout his campaign. His plan calls for adding a public option like Medicare that would provide coverage to Americans if they do not want to keep their private plan or are uninsured. His position has often come under fire by his most progressive rivals who describe his plan as a moderate approach to reforming the broken system.
The former vice president often tells his crowds how difficult it was to pass President Barack Obama’s landmark legislation to remind them that a complete overhaul of the healthcare system, as proposed in Medicare for All, would be impossible to pass through an already divided Congress.
In his first letter addressed directly to the president as a candidate for his job, Biden said that many Americans can rely on accessing healthcare during the coronavirus scare thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
“It is the reason 100 million people with pre-existing conditions—including conditions like asthma and diabetes that make them at higher-risk for adverse health impacts from the coronavirus—don’t have to worry about being charged more or denied coverage,” he writes.
Biden argues that “no underlying constitutional flaw” exists within Obamacare, citing that the Supreme Court has already upheld the law twice. The only reason Texas v U.S. is being argued, Biden said, is because Congressional Republicans zeroed out the individual mandate statute in 2017, bringing into question its legality.
“History will judge all of us by how we respond to this pandemic,” Biden warned. “The public health imperative we now face is bigger than politics and it requires all of us to summon the courage to lead and to do what is right for the American people.”
Sanders' campaign raises over $2 million for coronavirus charities
BURLINGTON, Vt. — The Bernie Sanders campaign is focusing its resources on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and his supporters appear to be following suit. In the last 48 hours, the Sanders campaign said they’ve raised more than $2 million from 50,000 donations for select charities.
The charities were selected by the Sanders campaign to help those suffering from the outbreak: Meals on Wheels, No Kid Hungry, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, One Fair Wage Emergency Fund and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
In addition to using his campaign to funnel money to charities, Sanders also released a $2 trillion proposal to fight this virus, which would include the U.S. government covering all medical bills accrued during this time period, speeding up testing, invoking emergency powers to scale up production of supplies like surgical masks and ventilators and providing substantial unemployment insurance to those who lose jobs as a result of the outbreak.
The campaign says the last two days are just the start, and they intend to raise money for other charities over the coming days.