The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
White House quietly sets up panel for possible Biden transition
WASHINGTON — Mark Meadows will helm the White House panel, required by law, to begin planning for a possible transition of power to a new Democratic administration, the Trump administration informed lawmakers on Wednesday.
A memo to House and Senate committee leaders from a representative in the General Services Administration was the first public acknowledgment by any administration official that the White House was fully complying with legal deadlines, only recently established, to ensure a smooth transfer of power in the executive branch.
Meadows, the new White House chief of staff and a former North Carolina congressman, will serve as chair of the White House Transition Coordinating Council. Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, will serve as vice chair.
The panel will also include Office of Management and Budget Director Russel Vought, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and other West Wing officials. There will also be a “transition representative for each eligible candidate” — this is likely to be former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee.
Four years ago, the Obama administration repeatedly touted the steps it was taking to help guide a new administration into office. In March 2016, then-chief of staff Denis McDonough convened a Cabinet meeting to outline the transition process and the steps agencies would be required to take throughout the year. The White House announced on May 6 that Obama signed an executive order establishing his White House Transition Council, two days ahead of that year’s initial deadline.
More than two weeks ago, after NBC News first reported concern among Democrats about whether the administration would comply with both the letter and spirit of legal transition requirements, Vought issued a memo asking executive departments and agencies to identify senior career officials who would serve on a separate Agency Transition Directors Council.
That council is led jointly by the Federal Transition Coordinator, Mary Gibert, and Michael Rigas, the acting deputy director of OMB, as specified under law.
Vought’s memo said the first meeting of agency council would occur on May 27. It is unclear yet if the White House council would also meet, or whether President Trump has played a role in creating the panel. None of the 20 executive orders published in the Federal Register this year relate to the transition process.
Biden said last month that he has already begun transition planning along with one of his closest and longest-serving aides, Ted Kaufman. Kaufman, who was appointed as a senator to fulfill the last two years of Biden's term in 2008, helped write the legislation that now guides these transition procedures.
“You can't wait until you win if you win. You've got to start right now,” Biden told donors last week during a virtual fundraiser. “How do we go out and find 2,800 employees, 2,800 employees that need to be filled right away?”
There are no immediate deadlines for the Biden campaign to meet under law. But come September, Biden would be offered more robust government resources to aid its own preparatory work, including office space near the White House for a designated transition team to begin work.
The GSA memo on Thursday identified the Department of Commerce headquarters as the location for such offices and said upgrades are now underway to the physical and IT infrastructure of that space.
The memo also said that the GSA is “preparing to convene meetings” with the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to begin transition planning, which would include the facilitation of security clearance requests for key Biden advisors who would need access to classified information. In 2016, the Obama administration began providing intelligence briefings for Trump and Hillary Clinton representatives after the nominating conventions.
The next legal deadline for the Trump administration will come after the parties’ nominating conventions, scheduled for August, when the administration has to enter into a formal memorandum of understanding with the Democratic nominee’s representatives, and also identify succession plans for federal agencies.
New Planned Parenthood ad campaign seeks to show coronavirus’ abortion access impact
WASHINGTON — Planned Parenthood Action Fund is launching an “accountability” campaign across eleven states, highlighting efforts to roll back, or expand, American’s access to reproductive healthcare during the coronavirus pandemic.
The $5 million buy, reported first by NBC News, includes digital, radio, mailers, and online organizing events in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Almost all of these states are battlegrounds in the coming November election. Some of the ads laud politicians for the work they’ve done; others urge voters to call their representatives to push back.
The awareness project is the first of several steps Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and political arms will undertake in the next several months, Rachel Sussman, Vice President of State Policy and Advocacy for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told NBC News, calling it “a starting point to help connect the dots for people” about actions taken in their states during the pandemic.
Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, blue and red states have, unsurprisingly, responded to questions of reproductive health access in non-uniform fashion.
Some states, including Iowa, Ohio and Texas, classified abortions as non-essential procedures, counting them among the elective procedures suspended until the public health crisis abated. Activist groups challenged these decisions in court, resulting in varying rulings and appeals. But those states stand in contrast to rules set by governors in states like New York, Virginia, and Washington, where abortion was deemed essential and allowed to continue during the pandemic.
Other states have tried to legislate around reproductive issues during the pandemic, something PPAF and their state partners are seeking to highlight in the campaign.
Pennsylvania, for instance, has seen what once was a bipartisan push for expanded tele-health access grind to a halt because of the addition of an amendment that would prohibit doctors from prescribing certain kinds of pills used to induce abortion. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Tom Wolf recently vetoed the bill, saying the added language “interferes with women’s health care and the crucial decision-making between patients and their physicians,” while Democrats and Republicans continued to spar over the inclusion of the amendment.
On the other end of the spectrum, Michigan’s Health and Human Services Department has taken steps to increase access to reproductive health tools — including a campaign where condoms can be mailed to Michiganders who request them via email.
House Republicans balk at idea of giving Steve King back his committee assignments
WASHINGTON — Top House Republicans are voicing opposition to allowing Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King to get his committee assignments back, including the highest-ranking Republican woman.
King was stripped of his spot on House committees last year after he made controversial comments about white supremacy and Western Civilization to the New York Times, which he claims were taken out of context by the newspaper.
A spokesperson for Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney told NBC News “Cheney does not support” giving King back his committee assignments. She was the first Republican leader to condemn King’s comments and even called for him to resign from Congress.
At a forum on Monday night in Spencer, Iowa, King claimed that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was going to advocate for giving him his committee assignments back, as first reported by the Sioux City Journal.
“On April 20, Kevin McCarthy and I reached an agreement that he would advocate to the steering committee to put all of my committees back with all of my seniority because there is no argument against my fact-check document, I have disproven all of those allegations," King said at the republican forum Monday.
“When Congress comes back into session, when the steering committee can get together, I have Kevin McCarthy’s word that then, that will be my time for exoneration."
In response, a McCarthy spokesperson told NBC News that "Congressman King’s past comments cannot be exonerated." But the spokesperson added that "committee assignments are determined by the steering committee and he will have the opportunity to make his case."
Former NRCC Chairman and Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, a current member of the Republican Steering Committee that controls the House GOP committee selection, wrote on social media Wednesday that he opposes restoring King to House committees.
"As long as I am a member of the Steering Committee, I will not allow that type of person or that type of ideology to influence the legislation passed by Congress. He will not be serving on any committee. Steve King does more to hurt Republican and conservative caucuses than help.”
King criticized Stivers in a statement to NBC News, calling him "only one vote on Steering" and a "Never-Trumper."
King is facing a competitive primary in Iowa on June 2nd following his controversial comments. His opponents are running ads pointing to his absence from committees, arguing that means he can't properly serve the district.
Michigan's Peters drops TV spot touting tough-on-China approach
WASHINGTON — Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is up with two new TV ads that highlight the unique position he's in as one of the few Democratic incumbents facing a tough challenge this cycle.
The first spot emphasizes Peters’ call for increased testing, employment protection and a focus on American manufacturing as he plans to get “Michigan back to work.” It's a message that's right in line with how Democrats are framing their priorities for a pathway forward as states push to re-open.
But the second is focused entirely on China.
In it, Peters calls for a reopening that “puts Michigan first.” And he goes on to tick through how he’s “always been tough on the Chinese government, supporting the China travel ban, demanding the truth about the spread of COVI-19” as well as a push to move drug manufacturing from China to America.
That kind of messaging stands out amid the GOP's push to shift criticism surrounding the crisis toward China and away from President Trump. Peters' spot doesn't mention the president's name or litigate the debate over his response to the crisis, but it still highlights areas where they agree, all while embracing the "tough-on-China" approach.
The new ads come days after Peters' likely Republican challenger, John James, released a bio ad of his own.
The seat is considered "lean Democrat" by the non-partisan election handicappers the Cook Political Report, the most competitive race featuring an incumbent Democrat outside of Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones is trying to win reelection in very-Republican Alabama.
There's already been a boatload of television spending in the state as both sides gear up for the fall, with Democrats having already spent almost $7.7 million on TV and radio to the GOP's $2.7 million, according to data from Advertising Analytics.
Democrats lay the groundwork for possible virtual convention
WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee moved Tuesday to allow for a virtual 2020 convention if the party determines that to be necessary as the coronavirus continues to claim American lives.
A resolution approved by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee lets delegates vote and “participate in the Convention in person or by means that allow for appropriate social distancing.”
DNC Chairman Tom Perez said he still expects and hopes to see a full convention in Milwaukee, and that a “precise format” has not been decided.
“This will give the convention team the tools necessary to adapt and plan in order to ensure that every delegate is able to accomplish their official business without putting their own health at risk – whether that be participating in person or by other means to allow for social distancing,” he said.
The Milwaukee convention had already been pushed from July to the week of August 17.
Also on Tuesday, the DNC panel approved waivers by states seeking to move their primary dates as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Nebraska Democratic House primary pits Medicare-for-All candidate against one calling for more 'realistic' plan
WASHINGTON — Voters are voting Tuesday (or, in many cases, have already sent in their mail-in ballots) in special elections in California and Wisconsin, but also in an interesting primary in Nebraska.
That state's 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary features two top candidates who both have a history in the district.
Ann Ashford is the wife of Brad Ashford, the former congressman who flipped the seat for Democrats in a 2014 midterm election year that was otherwise tough for the party. Brad Ashford served for just one term before losing to Republican Don Bacon in 2016, who still holds the seat to this day.
The former congressman tried to win the seat back in 2018, but lost to Democrat Kara Eastman in the primary — and Eastman went onto narrowly lose to Bacon that fall.
So this Tuesday's Democratic primary pits Eastman against Ann Ashford, who despite considering a run in 2018 has never run for federal office before.
Eastman and Ashford represent two different wings of the Democratic Party.
Eastman supports Medicare-for-All and has the backing of prominent progressive Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and both co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
And she's running an ad arguing she's not "afraid of a fight."
Ashford's endorsements include two former Nebraska Democratic Senators, Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey. And she's been running ads attacking Eastman both for her loss in 2018, arguing Eastman's loss proves she can't win. And Ashford has criticized Eastman's health-care stance as unrealistic (Ashford supports expanding coverage through a public option but not universal government coverage).
Trump slightly outraises Biden in April, maintains large cash on hand
WASHINGTON — President Trump, apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden and the umbrella of party organizations backing them raised over $60 million in April, according to the two campaigns. The Trump team reported a $61.7 million cash haul, while the Biden camp brought in just slightly less with $60.5 million.
On top of money raised by their campaigns, the pro-Trump effort includes fundraising from the Republican National Committee as well as other groups affiliated with his re-election effort. And Biden's effort includes the Democratic National Committee as well.
This is the first monthly filing period in which both teams are reporting their fundraising from their joint fundraising committees. April is also the first month in which Biden was the sole Democratic candidate for the majority of the reporting period. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the primary race on April 8.
While Biden and the Democratic National Committee have not released their cash on hand numbers, the president's campaign says it has over $255 million in the bank — and that juggernaut may be Biden's greatest financial weakness. The last officially reported numbers, filed for March, showed Biden and the DNC with just over $62 million on hand.
The two campaigns have had to shift their fundraising appeals due to the coronavirus pandemic. Biden and his surrogates have been holding virtual fundraisers — one held by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar brought in $1.5 million in one night. And according to Trump's campaign manager Brad Parscale, since shifting to virtual efforts, "Trump Victory, the joint field effort between the RNC and the campaign, has added over 300,000 new volunteers and made over 20 million voter contacts."
Both campaigns will report their full fundraising filing for April on May 20.
First competitive special House elections in coronavirus age set for Tuesday
WASHINGTON — With the coronavirus pandemic forcing candidates off of the traditional campaign trail, the 2020 election season gears up Tuesday when the first competitive House special elections since the start of the crisis will take place and produce two new members of Congress representing Wisconsin and California.
Facing off in California’s now-empty 25th House District, where the GOP hopes to reclaim the seat won by Democratic Rep. Katie Hill in 2018, are Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith and former Navy pilot, Republican Mike Garcia.
In Wisconsin's 7th House District, a historically Republican district that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016, Democrat Tricia Zunker and Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany are vying for the seat vacated by GOP Rep. Sean Duffy.
For more about the two races and what they could could mean for effectively campaigning and winning elections in the coronavirus era, read the breakdown from NBC News' political unit here.
Also check out the First Read analysis of how the scandal surrounding former congresswoman Katie Hill could increase Republican chances of taking back the district by looking at the history of scandal-induced special elections.
Lamar Alexander: DOJ argument to repeal Obamacare 'flimsy'
WASHINGTON — Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said Sunday he was disappointed with President Trump's decision to move forward with a lawsuit aimed at dismantling the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Last week, Trump reiterated his administration's support for a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the landmark health-care law. The federal government has joined a group of states arguing that Congress rendered the entire legislation unconstitutional in 2017 when the GOP-led Congress effectively removed the "individual mandate" that taxed anyone who did not have health insurance.
"I thought the Justice Department argument was really flimsy," Alexander said when asked about the case.
"What they're arguing is that when we voted to get rid of the individual mandate we voted to get rid of Obamacare. I don't know one single senator that thought that."
The Supreme Court has said it would hear the case in its fall term, which begins in October.
Debate over reopening gets heated in a key 2020 county
WASHINGTON — The debate over how quickly to reopen businesses without accelerating the spread of coronavirus is happening in every part of America — and it’s gotten heated in one of the key places where the 2020 election could be decided: Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
The county, which sits northwest of Pittsburgh and borders Ohio, is one of five that NBC’s "Meet the Press" is tracking as part of its County-to-County project. There, President Trump’s reelection campaign will aim to turn out the high share of blue-collar voters who charged to the polls for him in 2016, lifting him to a 19 point victory in a county Mitt Romney only won by 8 points in 2016.
According to new guidance from the state’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, Beaver County will remain in a locked-down “red” phase next week despite neighboring counties being moved to a less stringent “yellow” classification. In the red phase, only “life-sustaining businesses” can remain open and stay-at-home orders remain in place.
But local officials are bristling at the decision, with the county’s district attorney saying Friday that his office will not prosecute businesses that reopen despite the governor’s order. And County Commissioner Daniel Camp called the governor's move “unwarranted and irrational.”
As of Friday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 479 confirmed cases in the county and 78 deaths. But local officials argue that the governor’s office is unfairly targeting the entire county based on nursing home outbreaks, where the lion’s share of those cases are.
In Beaver County, where the median income was significantly lower and unemployment has already been higher than national numbers, anger at a Democratic governor over the economy may prove difficult for Joe Biden to navigate as Trump touts his party’s efforts to reopen the country quickly.
“From Day One, nursing homes across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were set up to fail by this administration and its Department of Health,” Camp said Friday. “Because of these failures, Beaver County residents, workers and businesses are being sucker-punched — and being sentenced to economic punishment — not for anything done by the great people of this county.”
Dante Chinni contributed.
How Michigan could affect the 2020 battle for the Senate
WASHINGTON — In some of the most competitive Senate races across the country, Democratic candidates — both incumbents and challengers — have outraised their Republican opponents, often by significant margins.
But one exception is in Michigan, where GOP challenger John James has raked in more money in the past three fundraising quarters than incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.
In the first quarter of 2020, from January to March, James raised $4.8 million to Peters' $4.1 million – both campaigns including committee transfers. However, Peters has slightly more in the bank: $8.8 million to $8.6 million.
Republicans face a difficult election map this cycle as they cling to their three-seat Senate majority. Plus, most of the competitive races in the 2020 Senate fight have a Republican incumbent.
However, Democrats have to hold on to their most vulnerable Senate incumbents like Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones and win in battlegrounds like Michigan if they want to take control of Congress' upper chamber. And as of now, Peters may be able to hold on to his Democratic seat in Michigan.
An April Fox News poll found Peters ahead of James by 10 points (46 percent to 36 percent), and that's up from a February Quinnipiac University poll which showed Peters with a 6-point lead: 45-39 percent. And the Cook Political Report dubbed the race a "lean" Democratic contest.
But Republicans see James — an army veteran who, if elected, would become the second African-American Republican in the Senate — as a star candidate.
James first stepped into politics in 2018, when he ran to unseat Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. He lost to the Democratic incumbent by 6 points, but it was Stabenow's closest margin since she first won her seat in 2000.
“Without question, this is a competitive race,” said James' campaign spokesperson Abby Walls. “John has outraised the incumbent three quarters in a row.”
“It’s obvious that Democrats are worried,” Walls added.
However, Peters' campaign is pointing to the senator's track record of winning tough elections to show he's able to pull off another win. In 2014, Peters was the only non-incumbent Democrat to win his seat while the party lost its Senate majority.
“Gary Peters has a clear record of delivering results for Michigan, and working in a bipartisan manner to get the job done,” Dan Farough, Peters' campaign manager, said in a statement.
Of course, a major factor in this race, that Stabenow didn't contend with against James in 2018, is the President Trump's name at the top of the ticket — Trump won Michigan in 2016, but recent polling shows former Vice President Joe Biden ahead. In 2018, aside from keeping their Senate seats blue, Democrats picked up two House seats in Michigan and won the governorship.