The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Democratic Pennsylvania election official warns state Supreme Court ruling could lead to 100,000 rejected ballots
READING, Penn. — Philadelphia’s top election official issued a warning Monday that thousands of ballots statewide could be rejected during the November 3rd election, following a recent state Supreme Court decision that required county boards of elections to throw out absentee and mail-in ballots that arrive without a so-called secrecy envelope in the battleground state.
Lisa Deeley, the Democratic chairwoman of the city commissioners, predicted that could mean more than 30,000 voters in Philadelphia and 100,000 across Pennsylvania could see their ballots rejected this November. She warned this could “set Pennsylvania up to be the subject of significant post-election legal controversy, the likes of which we have not seen since Florida in 2000.”
“When you consider that the 2016 Presidential Election in Pennsylvania was decided by just over 44,000 votes, you can see why I am concerned,” Deeley wrote.
In a letter to leaders in the Republican-controlled state legislature, Deeley urged, "while everyone is talking about the significance of extending the mail-ballot deadline, it is the naked ballot ruling that is going to cause electoral chaos.”
Sixteen states require the use of secrecy envelopes, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, which require voters to place their ballots into an extra envelope before it’s inserted into a larger one to mail back - preventing officials from seeing how a ballot’s been cast.
Counties were not required to disqualify ballots returned without the added envelope in June’s primary.
Republicans maintain the use of the secrecy envelopes is an important step in ensuring the privacy of voters, and the practice has been in place in Pennsylvania since before the expanded vote-by-mail bill was passed last fall. Deely claims such use of the envelopes is a “vestige of the past” and is not needed because the speed at which ballots are now processed by machines maintains the anonymity of a ballot.
Her letter follows several key decisions late last week which ruled in favor of extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to the Friday after Election Day and allows the use of ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania.
In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler, said, “The state Supreme Court was very clear in its ruling last week that the law requiring a proper secrecy envelope is clear and fair.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” Deely said, “we are talking about the voting rights of our constituents, whether they be Democrats, Republicans, independents, whose ballots will be needlessly set aside.”
Biden has big cash on hand advantage over Trump
WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign says its campaign effort ended August with $466 million in cash on hand, exceeding President Donald Trump’s re-election for the first time since Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee in April.
The Biden campaign, the DNC, and Biden’s joint fundraising committees managed to end August with $466 million cash on hand. The New York Times reported Sunday night that the Trump campaign, RNC and its committees ended the month with $325 million in cash-on-hand.
That difference — roughly $140 million between the two sides — is striking. It shows that while the Biden campaign was criticized heavily for not spending much during the spring and early summer, they have now flipped the script on the Trump fundraising behemoth. And the Biden cash advantage comes as the campaign announced Monday that they're expanding their paid ad strategy, going up with television and digital ads in the red-leaning states of Georgia and Iowa.
Heading into April, the GOP effort had an about $182 million cash-on-hand advantage over Biden and the DNC.
But that gap continued to shrink as Democrats began to donate more to Biden and the Biden Victory Fund’s virtual fundraisers. Trump and the RNC have largely opted to hold in-person fundraisers during the pandemic.
By the end of July, the Biden-effort claimed to have $294 million in cash-on-hand, while the Trump campaign claimed its combined effort had an “over $300 million war chest.”
While campaigns and national party committees have to report their fundraising monthly, their affiliated committees do not have to report as regularly, which is why the campaigns are self-reporting their total cash-on-hand at this time. Since those joint fundraising committees file quarterly, September's Federal Election Commission filings will include the full picture from all the relevant committees.
Biden digital ads target Puerto Rican voters with Marc Anthony
In a continued effort to win over Latino voters with about a month left until Election Day, Joe Biden's presidential campaign is calling on the Puerto Rican community to remember the devastation of the Island caused by Hurricane Maria three years ago Sunday.
The new English and Spanish-language digital ads features singer Marc Anthony, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, saying that it is “Prohibido Olvidar” or “forbidden to forget” how President Donald Trump failed to adequately provide help to the island in the weeks after the hurricane decimated their communities.
“Remembering is not easy for everyone. It’s difficult to relive the destruction of our homes, the crying of those who lost a loved one and the terrifying uncertainty when thinking ‘what will my children eat tomorrow,’” Anthony said referencing the continuing hardships pain Puerto Ricans have endured since Hurricane Maria. “However forgetting is forbidden.”
While the ad never mentions Trump, it does show him at the Oval Office’s resolute desk when Anthony reminds voters how “it’s forbidden to forget that in moments of true darkness, when the cries for help fell on deaf ears.” Anthony notes that the only the community can rely on itself to rebuild and fight for a better future in a get-to-vote message to defeat Trump at the ballot box.
The over one-minute digital ad is targeting Puerto Ricans living in Florida and Pennsylvania, two states that saw thousands relocate from the territory to the mainland following the hurricane.
It makes for a ripe set of voters to convince heading into the election in a community that already leans more Democratic. Just last week Biden kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month in Puerto-Rican rich Kissimmee, Fla. while his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, spoke to Hispanic leaders at a Puerto Rican cultural center in Philadelphia, Penn. They both pledged to uplift the community and support their decision for self-determination.
“The way Donald Trump botched Maria was a terrible precursor to Covid-19: He failed to prepare, failed to respond like a president, and failed to protect American citizens from harm,” Biden said in a statement commemorating the anniversary of Hurricane Maria. “We all deserve better. Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans deserve better. There is no place in the United States to ever treat any of our own citizens as second-class.”
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.