The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Trump campaign renews focus on Hunter Biden in controversial China ad
WASHINGTON — As President Trump's campaign gears up for a general election face-off with apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden, it's also reintroducing attacks against the former vice president’s son and his business dealings with China.
In a new digital ad released on Thursday, the president’s re-election team is attempting to paint Biden as lenient on China when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and travel ban, and specifically highlights a trip to Beijing that Hunter Biden joined his father on in 2013. The two-pronged approach is an effort to weaken Biden, while using his son’s work with overseas companies to create a perception of corruption.
“During America’s crisis, Biden protected China’s feelings or perhaps China’s investment?” the text on the screen reads, spliced between news reports of the visit and Biden praising various Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping.
Beyond the 60-second online spot, the Trump campaign and its allies have started to highlight more news reports about the former vice president’s trip, which came under scrutiny again as the impeachment investigation began last fall after the president tried to dig up damaging information against the Bidens amid unproven allegations related to Hunter’s work with a Ukrainian energy company.
Almost immediately, reporters and the Biden campaign noticed that the commercial on China featured an image of Biden and former Washington governor and Commerce Secretary, Gary Locke, who was also on the 2013 trip. The photo appears in a montage with other Chinese officials, implying that Locke was among them. Locke is Chinese-American and also served as ambassador to China.
“The shot Biden’s campaign is complaining about is relevant because it’s Joe Biden standing in front of Chinese flags during his 2013 trip to Beijing — the trip where Hunter accompanied him and met with Chinese business partners. It’s immaterial who else is in the shot with Biden,” Trump communications director, Tim Murtaugh, said in a statement to NBC News.
The Biden campaign is now calling for the spot to be removed.
“This is utterly disgusting and should be pulled immediately,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates tweeted.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang also condemned it, tweeting: "Gary Locke is as American as the day is long. Trump rewriting history as if he effectively responded to the virus is utter garbage."
As coronavirus spread across the country, Asian-American lawmakers have spoken repeatedly about a rise in xenophobia and discrimination directed at them, warning of the dangers of linking blame for the respiratory illness to any group of people.
Murtaugh says the campaign has no plans to take the ad down or re-edit it to make clear Locke is not a Chinese official. It will also continue to highlight questions about Hunter Biden’s business activity while his father was vice president, much as Trump’s defense team did during the impeachment trial.
The focus on China and Biden comes as the White House continues to argue Trump was tough on China when the coronavirus outbreak began spreading beyond Wuhan, specifically pointing to travel restrictions on foreign nationals traveling from China to the United States in late January.
A recent New York Times investigation found, however, that 430,000 people have flown from China to the U.S. since the outbreak started with as many as 40,000 arriving since the rules went into effect.
The ad implies that Biden linked the travel limitations to “Trump’s record of hysterical xenophobia,” but there is no proof that the former vice president was referring to the new guidelines when he delivered those remarks.
Still, the bite is used repeatedly in the spot, followed later by a clip of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, praising the decision as “a very smart move.”
Calls mount for Postal Service investigation into Wisconsin absentee ballots
WASHINGTON — Wisconsin Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin are calling for a formal investigation by the U.S. Postal Service into its handling of absentee ballots for Tuesday's election, ballots that many voters say they never received in the first place.
The Republican Johnson and the Democrat Baldwin made the request in a Thursday letter where they cited widespread reports of concerns from across the state. They cited one report that three tubs of absentee ballots were discovered at a USPS center after polls closed, and concerns from the Milwaukee Election Commission about voters saying they'd never received the ballots they requested.
"Unfortunately, there have been numerous accounts from the state that USPS failed to fulfill that critical function for some voters," the senators wrote.
"We are concerned there may be more examples, and request that you promptly open an investigation to determine the cause of these failures, which appear to have disenfranchised many Wisconsin voters. As the COVID-19 crisis continues and as more voters are likely to request to vote by mail where available, this year’s forthcoming elections will require that USPS’s existing vote-by-mail procedures are strictly and effectively followed. It is critical that you quickly identify what has gone wrong and propose solutions that USPS can swiftly implement."
The two senators are not the only ones raising concerns about absentee ballots after an election upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
In a letter to the United States Postal Service on Wednesday, Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht said that the city had received a "high volume of communication from voters that had never received ballots that had been mailed, or were waiting for ballots that had been mailed more than 10 days prior."
The commission narrowed down the complaints primarily to ballots sent on March 22 and March 23 — the return rate for ballots sent on those two days was under 25 percent, compared to a city-wide rate the commission expects to be above 65 percent once all votes are counted. And Albrecht wrote that more than 1,000 people who were sent ballots on those two days reached out to the commission to say the ballots never came.
"Due to the severity of this situation, and the number of Milwaukee voters that have been prevented from voting while waiting for their ballots, I am asking for a formal investigation by the United States Postal Service into the whereabouts of these ballots and a report back to me as to the outcome of this investigation," Albrecht wrote.
While a rash of other states moved quickly to postpone their elections in light of guidance to avoid public gatherings as a way to slow the spread of the virus, Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has said the election would go on as scheduled, initially calling on the Republican-led legislature to approve a plan allowing all voters to be sent an absentee ballot so they could still vote even if concerned about leaving their home.
But just one day before the election, and after imploring the legislature to postpone the election, Evers issued an executive order of his own postponing in-person voting.
However, courts directed that the election would go on as scheduled. Voters, particularly in Milwaukee, had to wait on long lines in order to cast their ballots for both the presidential primary as well as general elections for some down-ballot races.
—NBC's Shaquille Brewster and Nadine Comerford contributed
Environmental group bets $14 million on moving swing voters against Trump
The League of Conservation Voters, a deep-pocketed environmental group, is preparing a $14 million ad campaign against President Donald Trump, targeting a relatively narrow band of swing voters that the league believes can be moved by environmental messages, the group told NBC News.
Based on polling and analytic modeling, the group identified 1.5 million voters in six battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — who it thinks could be persuaded to vote in November in part, they hope, based on messages about clean water and air or the climate.
LCV Victory Fund, the league's super PAC, will inundate those voters throughout the late spring and early summer with recurring digital ads and direct mail literature — the literature will arrive at voters’ mailboxes over six times before the parties’ national conventions in August.
Pete Maysmith, who runs LCV's campaign operations, says the idea is to expose these voters to potentially new information about what the Trump administration has done to roll back environmental protections and then “burn that in over a relatively long period of time."
Maysmith also said that they believe these issues can move people because their views on green issues are less hardened since they've flown under the radar during Trump's administration. According to Maysmith, the relatively unknown Trump policies on climate make it easier to persuade people to change their opinions — unlike something such as President Trump's border wall.
"People already know that’s happening," Maysmith said of the wall. “It doesn’t really move vote choice in the same way as when you tell that same swing voter about clean water protections that have been torn apart. Because they don’t know that, it’s new information.”
LCV’s digital ads will be run in partnership with the massive Democratic super PAC Priorities USA in four states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. Maysmith said these ads and their direct mail are "an opportunity to educate."
Research from Democratic pollster Geoff Garin found only 33 percent of potentially persuadable voters in those key states were familiar with what they say is “Trump’s actual environmental record” and that when those voters were told about Trump's record, their support for Democrats grew by 20 points.
Other recent research has also found that climate could be a surprisingly effective message in trying to peel voters away from Trump.
Sanders to keep staffers on health care plan through November
Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders will cover the costs of health care for everyone on his campaign staff through the end of October, campaign manager Faiz Shakir told staff Thursday afternoon on a conference call.
The approximately 500 Sanders staffers now looking for employment after the senator suspended his presidential bid Wednesday will continue to be covered through COBRA on the campaign's dime
A campaign spokesperson explained that while the Sanders campaign staff won't be paid their salaries alongside their health care, they will receive severance checks on May 1.
Staffers who were with the campaign for more than six months will receive two pay-periods worth of pay. Staffers who were with the campaign for less than six months will receive one pay-period of pay.
The move stands in stark contrast to billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who laid off campaign staffers despite initially saying he would pay staff to mount an effort against President Trump's reelection even if Bloomberg was not the Democratic Party's nominee.
The remaining Bloomberg staffers, many of whom were focused on battleground campaign states before being let go, will receive health care through the end of April, according to a statement from a Bloomberg campaign spokesperson.
The news comes the same day as former Vice President Joe Biden announced he planned to expand access to Medicare and forgive some student debt, seen as a nod to Sanders' supporters because of his focus on both issues.
In nod to Sanders, Biden looks to adopt more progressive policies
WASHINGTON — On his first day as the apparent Democratic nominee, Joe Biden is extending another olive branch to backers of his more progressive rivals, announcing his intent to expand access to Medicare and forgive loan debt for many students.
The former vice president said Thursday that he would seek to lower the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60, and forgive federal loan debt for those making less than $125,000 who graduated from any public undergraduate colleges and universities along with those who attend private Historically Black Colleges and Universities or Minority Serving Institutions.
While Biden cast these announcements as a nod in the direction of Senator Bernie Sanders on key priorities of his movement — saying Sanders and his supporters “can take pride in their work laying the groundwork for these ideas" — the campaign also notes that the policy moves are driven by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Recovery will require long term changes to build a more inclusive and more resilient middle class, and a greener and more resilient economy,” Biden writes in a new Medium post. "We have to think big — as big as the challenges we face. As we start to lay the groundwork for recovery, we have to build back better for the future."
Before Sanders announced the suspension of his campaign Wednesday, Biden had already adopted another piece of Sanders’s platform — to make public colleges and universities free, but only for families whose income is below $125,000. Separately, he had also embraced Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's bankruptcy reform plan, an area where the two clashed in the past.
One of the key differences between Biden and Sanders in the Democratic primary was whether to build on, or overhaul entirely the Affordable Care Act. Biden proposed the former, saying he would add a public option and enhance subsidies for purchasing ACA plans, among other changes. Sanders instead offered voters a Medicare for All program that would move most Americans from private health insurance to a government-run plan.
Sanders said Wednesday he intends to continue pressing for the Democratic Party to embrace Medicare for All in its platform. Sanders’ campaign did not comment on Biden’s announcement Thursday.
Pro-Trump Super PAC commits over $25 million for ads in Florida, North Carolina
WASHINGTON — The official pro-Trump Super PAC, America First Action, committed Thursday to additional broadcast spending of over $25 million in two key presidential battleground states for the fall ahead of Election Day.
According to a statement released by the group this afternoon, America First Action is reserving $26.6 million for pro-Trump advertising set to air from September through November’s general election on Florida and North Carolina’s airwaves. This is in addition to the $10 million it previously said it’s investing in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which will focus on “Sleepy Joe Biden," the now-apparent Democratic nominee after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign Wednesday.
In Florida, America First Action is reserving a total of $18.5 million with about seven million dollars and $11.3 million for the Tampa and Orlando media markets respectively. In North Carolina, the group will commit $3.8 million for ads in Charlotte’s markets and $4.3 million for Raleigh-Durham’s airwaves.
“America First is making the Florida and North Carolina reservations because we are confident we can secure inventory at the best possible rates in these crucial battleground states,” PAC President Brian Walsh explained in the statement. He added that more decisions on spending will be made next month.
The previous investments in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin unveiled last week include pro-Trump digital, cable, broadcast, and mail advertising beginning this month and continuing until late May. Two million dollars will be spent in Michigan’s Traverse City, Flint, and Grand Rapids areas while nearly three million will be spent in parts of Wisconsin including Green Bay’s media markets. In Pennsylvania, $5.5 million will be dedicated to ads in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, among other markets.
The group's latest broadcast buy comes as President Trump's campaign focuses on digital advertising at the moment. America First Action emphasized that its recent spending commitment is just part of its first wave of independent expenditures in the 2020 cycle.
House super PACS announce more than $90 million in early TV reservations
WASHINGTON — The top Republican and Democratic super PACs in the battle for the House majority have announced more than $90 million in initial television ad reservations as they draw the contours of the 2020 battleground.
This week, the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC announced $51 million in early television reservations, while the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund said it will book $43 million for its first wave. Both groups will be advertising through a variety of mediums and are expected to add more money to buys as Election Day draws closer.
The busiest market right now is Philadelphia, where CLF is booking $6.5 million to the HMP's $6.1 million. It's home to a handful of competitive races in 2020 in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including the reelection races for New Jersey Democratic Reps. Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski, New Jersey Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew (a former Democrat), Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, and Pennsylvania Democratic Reps. Matt Cartwright and Susan Wild.
Both sides plan to invest heavily in Minnesota as well — HMP is reserving $7.4 million in the state compared to CLF's $3.25 million. The state is home to four freshmen lawmakers who could face competitive reelection fights (Republican Reps. Pete Stauber and Jim Hagedorn, and Democratic Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips), as well as the long-time Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, who has repeatedly defied the odds and held onto his red district.
The two groups are also investing heavily in Iowa ($8.4 million in TV bookings between the two parties), Atlanta ($7.7 million), Detroit ($6.4 million) and Houston ($5.3 million).
Other big markets for the Democratic group include Las Vegas (HMP is booking $3.5 million there) and Miami ($3.3 million).
Other notable points of emphasis for CLF include Los Angeles (the group is booking $3 million there) and New York's 22nd Congressional District, where CLF says it's booking $2.2 million aimed at dethroning Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi.
Biden holds lead in latest general election polls
Apparent Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is hanging onto his lead in two general election polls against President Trump this week. In the latest Quinnipiac University poll, released Wednesday, and Monmouth University poll released Thursday, Biden leads Trump by eight points and four points respectively — both leads land outside of the polls' margins of error.
The polls were both conducted before Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, ended his presidential campaign on Wednesday.
While Biden maintains a lead against Trump in almost every general election poll, the president's base doesn't look keen to leave Trump. In the Quinnipiac University poll, Republicans back Trump with 91 percent support. And registered voters in the Monmouth University poll show nearly the same favorability toward the president and the apparent Democratic nominee.
Forty-two percent of registered voters said their opinion of the president is "very" or "somewhat" favorable. When asked about Biden, 41 percent of registered voters said they found him very or somewhat favorable, in the Monmouth poll. So Biden's strength may be coming from independents — a group which broke for Trump in 2016.
In the Quinnipiac University poll, independents favor Biden 44-35 percent. And the president's handling of the coronavirus pandemic could strengthen that support for Biden. Fifty-one percent of registered voters in the Quinnipiac poll said Biden would do a better job in a crisis than President Trump. And in the Monmouth University poll, about a third of registered voters said that Trump's handling of the pandemic will make it less likely he'll get re-elected: 31 percent said it makes it less likely, 27 percent think it makes it more likely he'll be re-elected and 36 percent said it will make no difference.
The Quinnipiac University poll was taken between April 2 and 6 with a margin of error of 2.2 points. The Monmouth University poll was completed between April 3 and 7 with a 3.6-point margin of error.
New Trump campaign ad compares Sanders to Biden after Sanders ends 2020 bid
WASHINGTON — Less than two hours after Sen. Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his presidential campaign, President Trump's campaign debuted a digital ad closely comparing him to Joe Biden, the now-apparent Democratic nominee.
The new online spot ties the policies of the Vermont senator and former vice president together on issues including immigration and fossil fuels, and refers to them as “a big government socialist and a big government liberal" respectively.
After listing positions Sanders and Biden both support, the commercial ends by claiming “they’re more alike than you think, but at least Bernie remembers his positions."
President Trump's reelection campaign has invested six figures in the online spot, according to communications director Tim Murtaugh. The 30-second ad makes no mention of coronavirus, which is the main reason the 2020 campaign has been moved from an in-person campaign to a virtual battleground in a matter of weeks.
“With Bernie suspending his campaign, it’s clear that the Dem establishment got the candidate they wanted in Sleepy Joe. But Biden & Sanders agree on all the big issues. They are both the same,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted.
Meanwhile, President Trump is trying to appeal to some of Sanders’ supporters, firing off three messages on the Independent Vermont senator after news broke that he was dropping out of the race.
“This ended just like the Democrats & the DNC wanted, same as the Crooked Hillary fiasco. The Bernie people should come to the Republican Party!” Trump said.
Sanders drops out: How Biden, Sanders (and Obama) got to this point
WASHINGTON — According to multiple sources involved in the process, Joe Biden’s and Bernie Sanders’ teams have been having ongoing conversations since early March, especially once Biden took a more significant delegate lead after Michigan's presidential primary.
Those conversations began initially over process issues – especially about how the campaigns should handle the Arizona debate, which ultimately moved to Washington over the Coronavirus. But lines of communication were then established and conversations continued at a big picture level over how to unite the party and bring this to a conclusion.
President Obama was part of those discussions — he spoke with both Biden and Sanders multiple times over the past month.
Ultimately, they planned out the choreography that's beginning to unfold. But as one source put it, “the dates kept slipping” — in part because Sanders, a member of Democratic leadership in the Senate, was dealing with the congressional response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The sides agreed that Tuesday's Wisconsin primary was an important benchmark — as a Sanders advisor put it, they have been trying to land the plane for some time, but “Wisconsin gave us a natural exit ramp.”
Though Wisconsin’s results would take days to come in, the Sanders team nonetheless knew the trajectory of the race was not changing no matter what the outcome. But he would stay in the race in part to help continue driving Democratic turnout for a state Supreme Court election that was a priority for local Democrats.
Biden’s campaign also made clear that they were eager for that specific date to hold firm, and they were prepared, if it did not, to shift their public rhetoric ever so slightly to turn the heat up for Sanders to take steps to begin uniting the party.
Obama especially emphasized that in his conversations with Sanders, another source involved with the process told NBC. But Obama, and Biden as he has said publicly, never once themselves told Sanders to drop out.
Biden’s team had announced Wednesday's virtual town hall meeting” on unemployment and issues facing working families knowing the timeline in place. That will be Biden’s first opportunity to publicly thank Sanders for moving to unite the party.
Asked about contacts between the Biden and Sanders campaigns, a Biden aide told NBC:
“The two campaigns continue to be engaged on a range of topics that will build on the former Vice President’s existing policy proposals and look forward to furthering our shared goals to move the country forward. We look forward to sharing more on that front in the near future.”
—NBC News' Kristen Welker contributed
Sanders' campaign ends without expanding his 2016 base
WASHINGTON — As Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign Wednesday his ultimate downfall was that he never expanded beyond his progressive base.
In fact, he ended up underperforming from 2016.
That explains how he went from the frontrunner in a still-crowded race of Democratic candidates in February, to someone who couldn't win a single county in Michigan or Florida when the field whittled down a month later.
And while Sanders had to navigate a much larger field of viable candidates in 2020 than he did four years ago, his vote percentages underscore his difficulty in holding onto a sizable number of 2016 supporters who left his camp for other candidates.
Sanders' best showing came in the next nominating race, Nevada, where he got 47 percent of the state delegate equivalents in a field that continued to have six major Democratic candidates (not including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who didn't compete in Nevada).
But after that came another underperformance in South Carolina in late February, when those same six candidates were in the race: He garnered just about 20 percent (was 26 percent in 2016) of the vote.
And then on Super Tuesday — after Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg had dropped out of the race and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden — the trend continued:
- Alabama 16 percent (was 19 percent in 2016)
- California 36 percent (was 46 percent)
- Texas 30 percent (was 33 percent)
- Virginia 23 percent (was 35 percent)
- Vermont 51 percent (was 86 percent)
- Michigan 36 percent (was 50 percent)
- Mississippi 15 percent (was 17 percent)
- Missouri 35 percent (was 49 percent).
After Sanders' exit from the 2020 race on Wednesday, President Trump was blaming Elizabeth Warren for the Vermont senator’s defeat.
But as the numbers show above, Sanders' problem wasn't Warren. Instead, it was his inability to expand beyond his diehard supporters from 2016 — before and after Warren dropped out of the 2020 race.