The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Early voting starts in Virginia after expansion of options
RICHMOND, Va. — With over six weeks until Election Day, early voting kicked off Friday in Virginia and the state began mailing out absentee ballots to voters who have requested them.
As voters showed up for early in-person voting in the state Capitol, it resembled any normal Election Day but with Covid-related safety measures: voters checked their registration by speaking to a worker behind a plastic divider, used paper ballots that they filled out behind a cardboard privacy screen, and then inserted their ballots into a machine to be scanned and counted.
“We've had a lot of changes with our voting laws in Virginia,” Gov. Ralph Northam told NBC News after he cast his own ballot early in Richmond. “We now have no-excuse absentee voting, early voting. This is such an important election. All of our elections are important but this this is especially important, rather than wait till November the third."
Long a Republican stronghold, Virginia has become a more reliable Democratic state. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump here by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin in 2016. Still, the state's 13 electoral votes remain an important part of the presidential contest.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a law that went into effect July 1 allowing voters to request an absentee ballot without a reason for not being able to vote in-person.
And Virginians have options when it comes to voting early — they can cast their ballots ahead of the election in-person, through curbside drop-offs for absentee ballots if they don’t feel comfortable going inside buildings, or by mailing in their ballots.
The in-person early voting period in Virginia runs from Friday, Sept. 18 through Saturday, Oct. 31. Early voting is available for Virginians at their local registrar’s office or a satellite voting location in their city or county.
“In Virginia we don't register by party, so what we've seen is excitement all around,” Christopher Piper, Commissioner for The Virginia Departments of Elections, told NBC. “We've got more than 800,000 requests for absentee ballots through yesterday. We're seeing this huge line here today. Our goal with the Department of Elections is to ensure that anybody who's eligible to vote has the opportunity to vote and this shows that that's working for us today.”
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine also came out to cast his ballot early in Richmond on Friday, telling NBC after his vote that he feels confident that voters have enough information to make decisions about how best and safely to vote during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The good news is Virginia is finally committed so we want to make it easy for people to vote, not harder.”
At the Richmond registrar’s office, a new building location that opened publicly just days ago in anticipation of voters coming in-person, Virginians that spoke with NBC overwhelmingly expressed confidence in the safety precautions in place to vote in-person on day one.
One early voter, Ramona Taylor of Richmond, told NBC that she had some concerns about voting by mail so decided to come in person for the first day.
“I do have a lot of concern about the fact that the ballot will be received on time, you just never can tell the way things are because this is one of the largest voting elections that I've ever experienced,” Taylor said. “So, I just feel like I'm able bodied and able to come out and vote in-person and that's what I'm going to do.”
“My husband has medical issues and so it was easier to take advantage of this,” said Diane Jay, who along with her husband Jim opted for the curbside drop-off option for voting. Jim was on oxygen in the car when NBC spoke with them about their voting decisions.
“We didn't do absentee, just knew we were gonna do in person,” Diane said. “And so what happened was we saw this and drove up and they said they could take care of us curbside.”
Senate GOP group jumping into Alaska Senate race with $1.6 million in ads
WASHINGTON — Senate Leadership Fund, the top super PAC aligned with Senate Republicans, is making its first ad investment in Alaska, a state that's seen a recent influx of Democratic spending aimed at taking down Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.
SLF will spend $1.6 million on TV, radio and digital ads there to start on Wednesday and run for 18 days, the group confirmed to NBC News.
Sullivan is facing off against Al Gross, an Independent who is being backed by Democrats and won the state's Democratic primary.
In a statement to NBC along with the announcement of the ad buy, SLF President Steven Law took aim at Gross' independence from Democrats.
“Chuck Schumer and DC Democrats are quietly pouring millions into Alaska, trying to pull one over on voters and buy this seat for far-left fake independent Al Gross. That’s not going to happen on our watch," he said.
It's an argument Sullivan's team has tried to make, focusing in ads on how Gross plans to caucus with Democrats.
But Gross, a physician whose family has deep ties to the state, has been working to stake out that independence, including in a recent ad where he opposes the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
Groups aligned with Gross have been jumping onto the airwaves in recent weeks — 314 Action has spent more than $530,000 this month, according to Advertising Analytics. A group with Democratic ties launched this month and has already run more than $100,000 in ads in Alaska and Vote Vets, which is backing Gross, started running ads attacking Sullivan.
SLF's investment will help to narrow the pro-Gross ad-spending advantage. As of Thursday evening, pro-Gross groups have spent $1.53 million on television and radio advertising compared to $740,000 for pro-Sullivan groups, per Advertising Analytics.
Progressive groups highlight pandemic death toll with comparisons to U.S. cities in new ads
WASHINGTON — As the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. approaches 200,000 — equivalent to the entire population of some major U.S. cities, including Tallahassee, Florida, Tempe, Arizona or Grand Rapids, Michigan — the grim milestone is being noted by two major Democratic-aligned groups with an ad campaign in presidential swing states.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund and Priorities USA have partnered to purchase full-page ads to run Friday depicting gravestones etched with reminders of the death toll. The ads will appear in 11 newspapers in five states: Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The groups are also running digital ads on newspaper websites serving presidential swing state cities with populations of approximately 200,000, including Warren and Pontiac, Michigan; Port St. Lucie, Florida; Allentown, Bethlehem and Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Green Bay, Appleton, Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin.
The ads call for a national plan to address the pandemic. And while President Trump isn’t mentioned, the intention is clear.
“We have a president who has given up on fighting the coronavirus,” Jesse Lee of the CAP Action Fund said in a statement. “Not one more day should go by without a real national plan, and none of us can become numb to the tragedy that is unfolding day after day.”
The 200,000 number is greater than the populations of 670 major U.S. cities, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. With the exception of Spain, the U.S. is alone in the Western world when it comes to the number of COVID deaths per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Worldwide, only Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil have higher deaths per 100,000 population.
While President Trump has defended his record, insisting his policies have kept the US death toll from climbing even higher, a Columbia University study found 84 percent of deaths and 82 percent of cases could have been prevented if the U.S. had instituted social distancing measures on March 1, just two weeks earlier than many cities instituted lockdowns.
From January to early March, Trump consistently downplayed the threat of the virus. Journalist Bob Woodward recently released audiotapes of Trump privately acknowledging, in early February, that the virus was “deadly stuff.” Days later, on Feb. 10, Trump publicly insisted that “a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat.”
It wasn’t until March 15 that Trump said “this is a very contagious virus” that amounted to a “pandemic.” Around the same time, in mid-March, Woodward privately taped Trump acknowledging he liked to “play it down” when it comes to the virus in order to prevent “panic.”
In response to the ads, Trump 2020 communications director Tim Murtaugh told NBC News that “Americans have seen President Trump out front and leading the nation in the fight against the coronavirus. The President’s task force began meeting in January and he restricted travel from China, and then Europe, early on. At the time, Joe Biden criticized the decision, calling it ‘hysterical xenophobia’ and ‘fear-mongering,’ so we know Biden would not have done it. We would be in far worse position today if Joe Biden had been president in January."
Biden tells Democratic senators he takes 'nothing for granted' during caucus call
WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called into the Senate Democrats’ daily caucus meeting Thursday afternoon and reassured members that he would mount a vigorous effort in the final stretch of his campaign to be more physically present — particularly in key swing states.
During the 20-minute call, Biden said he takes “nothing for granted” and thanked the senators for their help and support.
“Overall uplifting and engaging call. Took a series of questions, he spoke about the theme of the campaign, fighting for the soul of the country. What were the things that made him decide to run, how optimistic he is about the election,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters.
“But he must have said this three times, ‘I take nothing for granted’ — he said, ‘I know the polls look okay right now but I’m working tirelessly ... I was just in Florida, I'm about to go to Scranton, I'm heading to Duluth.’ That kind of stuff," Coons added.
Several vulnerable members up for re-election this year urged Biden to join them on the campaign trail in their home states.
“Just basically making the plea for every state, you know, everybody wants him, ‘Please come to our state you come to our state, okay,’ this and that and everything, that type of a thing,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., explained.
Among those making those requests were Democratic Sens. Tina Smith of Minnesota, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Gary Peters of Michigan.
“You can tell he’s real fired up, he’s working hard, he’s going to be out there and be everywhere as much as he possibly can,” Peters said. “I’ve certainly encouraged him and Kamala to be in Michigan as much as they can.”
Notably, policy barely came up during the short call — no talk of the filibuster, election security, and “no time talking about Trump,” per Coons, a longtime Biden ally.
“We are happy that even in some states that aren’t traditional battlegrounds where there are Senate races that are important, I mean he and his team are very aware of that and that they're being helpful,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said.
“I said Joe, people need to know that you recognize the dignity of the work that people have built this country and I said the coal miners that have been left behind all the hard factory workers that are left behind,” Manchin told NBC News. “He's very, very, just appreciative. It was just Joe. If you don’t like Joe, you don’t like yourself.”
Battleground voting update: A mail-in voting extension in Pennsylvania and a warning in Wisconsin
WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania's Supreme Court issued a handful of rulings Thursday shifting the contours of the vote-by-mail fight in that state, as officials in Wisconsin are warning they likely won't know the state's final results by the night of Election Day.
Pennsylvana's high court ruled Thursday that election officials cannot discard mail ballots solely because of questions about the authenticity of a voter's signature; that ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Friday, Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. will be counted; that third parties cannot deliver people's ballots; and that counties can use dropboxes or other official addresses for voters to return ballots to, among other decisions.
The state also kicked the Green Party presidential and vice-presidential candidates off the ballot for failing to follow the necessary procedures to make the ballot. In 2016, about 49,000 Pennsylvanians voted for Jill Stein, and Democrat Hillary Clinton lost the state by about 44,000 votes.
The news out of Pennsylvania wasn't the only notable tidbit to come from the swing states on Thursday.
During a virtual forum hosted by Marquette Law School, officials warned that the "unprecedented volume" of absentee ballots, paired with the statutory restrictions in processing these ballots until election day, will result in a delay in posting results.
Municipal clerks started sending out ballots on Wednesday, and the state election commission says more than 1 million voters have already requested absentee ballots.
It's "a volume that's much different than what we've seen in the past," Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said Wednesday.
Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg said that "we are not anticipating that we will be done and have results right at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. but I’m hopeful that by the time the sun comes up on Nov. 4th we will be finished and have election results."
But she cautioned that "a delay does not mean any cause for concern or invalidate the entirety of the election results whatsoever on election night."
Mike Bloomberg funds Dem super PAC's $5.4 million Florida ads to boost Joe Biden
WASHINGTON — Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is bankrolling a new, $5.4 million television ad campaign by a Democratic super PAC, the first part of the $100 million Bloomberg says he'll spend to support Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Florida.
The spots will begin running across the state on Friday, Priorities USA super PAC announced Thursday. The group says the ads will be "updated versions of ads" it's already running in other states.
One of those spots includes a super-cut of President Trump's comments about the coronavirus, including recent ones he made to journalist Bob Woodward about how he wanted to "play it down," with a graphic showing the rising deaths from the virus in America.
The new buys are the first round of Bloomberg's planned spending in Florida — a new release from Priorities USA says that the former mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful will spend on more ads, voter turnout, as well as a "strategy to reach Black and Latino voters."
Last week's NBC News/Marist University poll found Trump and Biden tied at 48 percentage points, and some Democrats have raised concerns in recent weeks about Biden's underperformance with Hispanics, particularly in Florida.
—Ben Kamisar contributed
Former State Department official who cast doubt on Burisma claims to testify in GOP probe
WASHINGTON — A Republican-led Senate investigation of Joe Biden and his work in Ukraine as vice president will hear testimony Thursday from a former official who has told colleagues that an energy company at the heart of the inquiry was a nonfactor in U.S. policy toward Ukraine, NBC News has learned.
The man, Amos Hochstein, a former Biden adviser who was a State Department energy envoy in President Barack Obama's administration, is scheduled to testify behind closed doors Thursday in the Senate Homeland Security Committee's investigation. The committee is chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a close ally of President Donald Trump's.
Hochstein is the only witness called by the committee known to have discussed Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, with Biden during his vice presidency. Biden is now the Democratic presidential nominee, and his son's ties to Burisma have been at the center of the committee's monthslong probe.
Hochstein will be among the final witnesses ahead of an interim report the committee is expected to release in late September. Johnson has considered Hochstein's testimony crucial — along with that of Tony Blinken, a top Biden aide who was deputy national security adviser under Obama, who will also testify Thursday. Johnson had considered subpoenas for the two before they agreed to appear before the committee voluntarily. Politico first reported that Hochstein would testify.
Trump and his Republican allies, including Johnson, have argued that U.S. policy toward Ukraine under Obama may have been colored by Biden's desire to protect Burisma — specifically, by advocating for the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor with ties to the Kremlin who had investigated the company. Biden's son Hunter was a member of the Burisma board part of the time that Biden served as the administration's point person on Ukraine, but he was not associated with Burisma during the prosecutor's probe.
Hochstein has told associates that he never changed U.S. policy because of Burisma and was never asked to do so and that Burisma never factored into any policy decisions around energy or Biden's advocacy for a new Ukrainian prosecutor general.
In fact, according to a former Obama administration official, Hochstein has told colleagues that the Obama administration sought to punish Burisma rather than protect it.
Hochstein met with Ukrainian officials in 2015 to urge them to cooperate in the prosecution of Burisma founder Mykola Zlochevsky as the Obama administration sought to clamp down on corruption rampant among Ukrainian oligarchs. That's the same year Trump and other Republicans have alleged Biden was trying to help Burisma.
Democrats have criticized the committee's investigation as overly political, diverting the Senate's most powerful oversight body from issues like the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also criticized the investigation as a "political exercise" during a committee meeting Wednesday after Johnson pulled a planned vote on a subpoena related to the investigation.
Critics also argue that the investigation has been premised on Russian disinformation provided to the committee by people including Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who worked with Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Last week, the Treasury Department said Derkach "has been an active Russian agent for over a decade" in announcing sanctions against him.
In a memo to the FBI, Democratic lawmakers said in July that the investigation has become a vehicle for "laundering" a foreign influence campaign to damage Biden.
Derkach has held a number of news conferences in Ukraine in which he has made unproven corruption allegations against Biden and other officials, including Blinken and Hochstein, using heavily edited tapes. Contacted by NBC News in July, Johnson's office wouldn't say whether it had received "materials" on the Bidens from pro-Kremlin Ukrainians.
The Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump late last year over allegations that he improperly pressured Ukraine to manufacture damaging information about Biden to boost his chances of re-election. The Republican-led Senate acquitted him in February.
Johnson has made it clear that his committee's investigation is intended in part to help Trump, who is trailing Biden in national and many battleground state polls with less than seven weeks left before the election. Johnson has repeatedly acknowledged that the investigation is in sync with the presidential election calendar, including at least twice this week.
The committee is preparing to release its report days before the first presidential debate on Sept. 29.
"We are working to get [the report] out as quickly as possible," Johnson told reporters at the Capitol on Monday.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said the investigation amounts to "an attack founded on a long-disproven, hard-core, right-wing conspiracy theory."
Democratic super PACs support Biden with Florida and Arizona Latinos
WASHINGTON — As some Democrats sound alarm bells about Joe Biden's strength with Latino voters, the Democratic presidential nominee is getting some help from outside groups in the key battleground states of Florida and Arizona.
The major Democratic super PAC Priorities USA and the American Federation of Teachers union, are partnering to spend $1.9 million on Spanish language TV in Miami. Priorities USA and Latino Victory Fund are also running $726,000 worth of radio ads in the Phoenix, Tucson, Arizona and Orlando, Florida, which Priorities says is part of a larger $6.8 million campaign focused specifically on Latinos.
“Florida and Arizona each have a huge role to play in Joe Biden’s path to victory, and Latino voters are an essential part of a winning Democratic coalition in these crucial battleground states,” said Guy Cecil, Chairman of Priorities USA.
Recent polls show Biden may be underperforming 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton in the Miami area, where he made his first trip of the campaign Tuesday, especially with Cuban-Americans and others who fled Latin American dictatorships and are now receptive to Republicans' message that Biden is aligned with socialists.
"To win, we need to be vigilant at GOP leadership’s ongoing attempts at voter suppression targeting communities of color, particularly the Latino community. This campaign in Arizona and Florida is a strong reminder to our Spanish-speaking neighbors about the importance of voting in this historic election," said Luis A. Miranda Jr., Chairperson of the Latino Victory Fund.
Billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced he will spend up to $100 million in Florida to support Biden.
Obama urges young voters to plan how they'll vote
WASHINGTON — If you had time to bake sourdough from scratch and do the “Renegade Challenge,” you have time to plan how you’ll vote. That’s the message from former President Barack Obama in a new video Wednesday in which he urges young voters not to play into “cynical” strategies designed to depress the voter turnout.
"Because young people have always been the ones to make change in this country, making change this fall is once again going to depend on you,” Obama said in the new video, released by ATTN. "Since we're still dealing with a pandemic, we've got approach voting just like we do everything else these days — shopping, ordering dinner, pulling off a surprise birthday party over Zoom. We got to plan.”
Aimed at millennial and Gen-Z voters, Obama laid out the different options available to make sure their votes are counted: Voting early in person where available, voting in person on Election Day, or voting by mail.
“Some places call this absentee voting. You might hear it called voting from home. It's all the same, like Donald Glover, and Childish Gambino,” Obama said. Alluding to some of the concern about voting by mail, Obama urged voters to request a ballot “right now, because it might take a little while to arrive.”
"We're not talking Gmail, we are talking throwback, vintage, O-G mail,” he said.
Obama doesn’t mention Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the video, but both Obama and the former vice president’s campaigns have emphasized educating Americans about their voting options. Former First Lady Michelle Obama participated in a network broadcast about voting this week for her nonpartisan group, When We All Vote.
"There are a lot of people out there trying to confuse and mislead you about this election. They're trying to make you cynical. They're trying to get you to believe that your vote doesn't matter,” Obama said in the video. "Do not let them do that. Our democracy is a precious thing, and it's up to all of us to protect it.”
Obama ended the video by pretending he is about to do his own version of the Renegade Challenge, which was a viral Tik-Tok trend this summer. Renegade, in fact, was Obama’s Secret Service code name.
Pennsylvania lawsuit delays sending out mail-in ballots
PHILADELPHIA — Several legal battles are plaguing Pennsylvania’s election officials as they prepare for the Nov. 3 election, the state's first election processing an expected 3 million mail-in ballots, according to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Katy Boockvar.
Officials across the state had planned to send out mail-ballots this week, but the certification of the ballot has been held up due to a lawsuit from the state Democratic party over whether Green Party candidates can be listed on the ballot. Without an official candidate list, county officials can't print the ballots.
Boockvar told reporters on Tuesday that she expects the case to be decided this week. But one county official told NBC News that even if the decision came through on Tuesday, the county would need at least two weeks before ballots could be sent to voters.
“The circumstances of this election are sure to be unique,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters Tuesday. “What is most important in every county throughout Pennsylvania is that every vote is counted and the results are absolutely accurate even if that takes a little more time.”
Wolf called on the statehouse to consider four actions to alleviate the voting process: Allow counties to pre-canvass and pre-process ballots three weeks before Election Day, rather than begin on Nov. 3; allow counties to count eligible ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by the Friday after Nov. 3; and require counties to send mail-in ballots at least 28 days before the election to give counties more flexibility in appointing poll workers to vacant positions.
“The legal challenges Pennsylvania is facing are frustrating. Earlier ballot processing would be a game changer. Anything would be better than on Election Day,” Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir, who works to run the city’s election, told NBC News.
Op top of the candidate listing complications, the Trump campaign is currently challenging the state’s use of ballot drop boxes.
These setbacks for Pennsylvania are only the first of many hurdles this November's election will include. Sabir told NBC News that given all the challenges this year, he doesn't want an expectation of calling Pennsylvania's results on Election Day.
"Everything's not gonna be done" Sabir said. "I don't even want that expectation set up right now. The elections will not be done tonight."
Pompeo hosts RNC chairwoman at revived Madison Dinners
WASHINGTON — Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was a guest on Monday at the latest installment of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Madison Dinners,” three people with knowledge of the dinner tells NBC News.
The chair of the Republican Party came to the State Department for the taxpayer-funded dinner in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Also at the dinner were UPS executive Laura Lane, who oversees the shipping giant’s government affairs, and India’s ambassador to the U.S. NBC News saw many of the guests arriving in evening wear.
The State Department says the dinners are foreign-policy focused. But they have come under scrutiny from congressional committees over concerns that Pompeo is using government resources to build a political and future donor network. As RNC chairwoman, McDaniel oversees the GOP’s fundraising operations.
The Republican National Committee and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment. The Indian Embassy in Washington and UPS had no comment.