The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Mississippi Dem Senate hopeful Mike Espy raises $4 million in Q3
WASHINGTON — If Mike Espy loses his longshot bid to become Mississippi’s first Democrat elected to the Senate since 1982, it won’t be for a lack of cash. The campaign exclusively tells NBC News it raised $4 million dollars in the third quarter of 2020, six times what he raised the previous quarter.
The former Congressman and Agriculture Secretary now goes into the final month of the campaign against Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith with some $3 million cash on hand, according to the campaign. In addition to the money raised between July 1 and Sept. 30, the campaign also says they raised an additional $1 million in just the first two days of October.
Hyde-Smith has so far not released her third-quarter fundraising report, which is common as candidates have until Oct. 15 to file those reports with the Federal Election Commission. A Hyde-Smith campaign official tells NBC news her numbers are still be calculated and will be made public “soon.”
The incumbent senator trailed Espy in campaign fundraising last quarter, raising $210,000 to Espy’s $610,000. At the end of the second quarter, Hyde-Smith led the overall fundraising race by about $700,000.
Espy is still climbing a steep hill in the hopes of an underdog victory. But national Democrats have recently joined him in that climb. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is now providing organizational help in the state, including phone banking, and gave his campaign $49,000, the maximum donation the organization can give to him. Espy was also endorsed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden last week.
This 2020 race is a rematch of a 2018 special election, when Espy ran against Hyde-Smith to fill the seat left vacant by the late Sen. Thad Cochran (who died after his resignation).
Hyde-Smith won that race by 8 points, which was still the closest a Democrat has come to winning a modern-era Senate seat in Mississippi.
Biden campaign hits new weekly spending highs across battleground states
WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign has long had the TV and radio spending advantage over President Trump. But while Trump has increased his spending in a handful of key states, Biden's campaign is hitting new, weekly spending highs across the map.
The Biden campaign spent more in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin during the week spanning Sept. 22-28 than it had in those states in any previous week, according to Advertising Analytics data analyzed by NBC News.
Some of those increases were dramatic — Biden went from spending $3.3 million in Arizona the week of Sept. 15 to $5.5 million the week of Sept. 22, from $651 to $600,000 in Iowa, and from $5.8 million to $7.8 million in Pennsylvania.
The Trump campaign hit new, weekly spending highs in four states during the week of Sept. 22 — Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. But even so, Team Trump still spent millions less than Biden in all but Georgia.
It's another data point that shows the broad breadth of Biden's TV/radio spending advantage over Trump — the Democrat spent more than double Trump's total in Arizona last week; more than triple Trump in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; almost eight-times as much as Trump in Nevada; and at least $2 million more in Florida, Michigan and North Carolina.
The only key state where Trump outspent Biden over that week was Georgia, where Trump spent $1.4 million to Biden's $223,000
Senate debate round up: Big Monday night in key races
WASHINGTON — With most of the political world focused on Tuesday' night's first presidential debate, some of the nation's top Senate candidates — in Iowa, Montana and Maine— squared off in key debates Monday night.
Here are some key moments:
The Supreme Court
President Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court loomed large on Monday night.
Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock criticized Republican Sen. Steve Daines for supporting Coney Barrett, saying he "flip-flopped" from his position four years ago that the Senate should "not confirm a new Supreme Court justice until the American people elect a new President and have their voices heard." Daines said that it's up to the Senate whether to confirm or reject the president's nominee — and they rejected it in 2016.
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who has opposed Trump filling the seat before the election, criticized her Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, for not completely swearing off packing the court and that the court needs to be less political.
Gideon countered by pointing to Collins' votes for Trump's past judicial nominees, and said that she wants to see a judiciary that is "independent." She didn't specifically rule out adding justices to the court but made a broad denouncement of "the proposals coming forward" because those changes wouldn't help make the court more independent.
Masks and fighting COVID-19
In one of the stranger moments in recent memory, Maine independent Senate hopeful Max Linn cut up surgical masks in opposition to government mask mandates.
But the rest of the candidates across the three debates took the question seriously.
All three Republican candidates, Collins, Daines and Ernst spoke out against mask mandates— Ernst and Collins agreed that masks help slow the spread of Covid-19 while Daines said that it should be a personal choice and focused his answer primarily on parents' frustration with not being able to watch their kids play sports outside because of restrictions.
Greenfield supports a statewide mask mandate, while Gideon focused her answer on how masks are effective in fighting the pandemic and Bullock pointed to the effectiveness of masks while saying he doesn't want to see people fined for not wearing masks.
Collins also touted her work on the Paycheck Protection Program while Gideon criticized the Senate for not making a deal once pandemic aid lapsed this summer.
Ernst focused a question on how to solve systemic racism specifically in an attack on Greenfield’s comments about law enforcement: “Theresa Greenfield has stated that our law enforcement system is systemically racist, meaning that our law enforcement officers are racist. I don't believe that. And I believe that our communities can work together.”
Greenfield pushed back, saying systemic racism is more than just bias in policing, detailing: “we need to work together like we did in this state to pass the plan for the more perfect union, where we attack this kind of racism, requiring racial bias training, requiring de-escalation training, a ban on chokeholds.”
DNC hits the streets around debate site
The Democratic National Committee is hitting the ground with mobile billboards aimed at countering President Donald Trump during Tuesday night's presidential debate.
The Biden campaign's rapid response team and over 30 staffers from the DNC War Room will be remotely fact-checking the president and posting their responses on three driving billboards circling the perimeter of the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion debate hall in Cleveland.
The joint effort was launched after both rapid response teams wanted to try and alert as many battleground voters missing the debate while driving or walking around the debate hall about Trump’s record.
"On the debate stage, Trump will continue to lie to the American people about his failed response to the coronavirus, so we're going to hold him accountable in real time,” DNC War Room senior spokeswoman and advisor Lilly Adams said in a statement to NBC News. “The truth is that Trump lied to the country about the severity of the coronavirus and failed to ever come up with a strategy to confront the pandemic.”
During the day ahead of the evening debate, the billboards will flash statistics showing statistics about the 200,000-plus coronavirus deaths in the U.S. and more than 7 million cases so far as passerby’s hear Trump saying he “wanted to always play [the coronavirus] down” and how he “still like playing it down,” remarks he made to famed journalist Bob Woodward at the onset of the pandemic.
The driving billboards will also play up the importance of the Supreme Court vacancy, noting that if a majority of justices find the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional in a hearing set for a week after the election, as many as 133 million Americans with preexisting conditions are at risk of losing protections and 21 million would become uninsured.
Following the debate, the DNC will organize a light display outside the debate hall that will read “Trump lied, 200,000+ died.”
Voter interest surges after Ginsburg death and National Voter Registration Day, group says
WASHINGTON — Voter registration and mail ballot request numbers have surged after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, coupled with National Voter Registration Day.
Vote.org CEO Andrea Hailey told NBC News that the nonpartisan get-out-the-vote technology platform saw an immediate spike the weekend following Ginsburg's sudden passing with a total of 139,046 registration verifications that Saturday and Sunday — a 118 percent increase from the weekend prior. The group also received nearly 41,000 new voter registrations (up by 68 percent) and approximately 35,000 mail ballot requests (up by 42 percent) that weekend.
“I think it means that people are paying attention, that there's a younger generation that's definitely paying attention,” Hailey said in a phone interview. “With 30 some-odd days left to go, people are connecting these major moments in American history with action at the ballot box.”
“I think these terrible losses are translating for people into action, or taking that and doing something and connecting the dots between the world they want to create and voting,” she said.
Vote.org saw a surge in interactions last Tuesday too, which was National Voter Registration Day. The day brought Vote.org the most traffic ever for the holiday, doubling the number of users visiting the site from roughly 304,000 in 2018 to 730,000 in 2020. That day also doubled the number of registrations (from about 62,000 in 2018 to 135,000 in 2020) and voter registration verifications (from approximately 268,000 in 2018 to 473,000 in 2020).
“I think we've gotten to a point in our country where it's not about parties anymore it's just about people who believe in a true and inclusive democracy, and people who don't,” Hailey said. “I do think that there's a younger generation at least what we're seeing on the site that is awake and getting election information. We've had 2 million people register through the site so far this year.”
This past weekend, Vote.org saw 188,009 registration verifications, 53,817 new voter registrations and 40,164 mail ballot requests.
“What we're seeing is people really wanting just like a lot of information about what their choices are,” Hailey said of people's interests in learning about their state’s different voting options. “The tools for vote by mail and the registration tools on our site are running about even to each other.”
Booker: Supreme Court could be "delegitimized" if Coney Barrett doesn't recuse from a potential 2020 election case
WASHINGTON — New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker said Sunday the Supreme Court could be "delegitimized" if President Trump's court pick doesn't recuse herself from potential rulings related to November's presidential election.
During an interview on "Meet the Press," Booker said he'll ask Judge Amy Coney Barrett whether she will commit to recusing herself given the political debate around her confirmation. He added that he does plan to meet with Coney Barrett, unlike other Democrats who say they will not out of protest over the timing of the pick in light of how Republicans blocked then-President Barack Obama's election-year nomination.
"One of the things I want to ask her is: Will she recuse herself in terms of any election issues that come before us. Because if she does not recuse herself, I fear that the court will be further delegitimized," he said.
"President Trump has said: 'I will not accept the result of the election unless I win, I'm going to push it to the Supreme Court, and oh by the way, during the election, I’m going to put someone on the court as well."
Trump officially nominated Coney Barrett on Saturday to fill the seat left vacant by the late-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death earlier this month. For weeks, he's argued that Democratic nominee Joe Biden wouldn't be able to beat him unless the election is "rigged" and recently said that he wants to have a full court in case it needs to decide any cases related to the election.
Democrats have cried foul over the nomination, put forward with weeks to go before Election Day and after some states have already allowed early voting, and have pointed to the GOP decision to block Obama's nomination in March of 2016.
But Republicans are defending their move, pointing to the fact that the Senate and White House are of the same party, unlike in 2016.
Absentee voting kicks off in battleground Michigan with high volumes expected
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Absentee voting kicked off in battleground Michigan Thursday, and multiple clerks across Kent County spoke to NBC News as they worked to mail out the first big batch of absentee ballots.
This year marks the first presidential election in which Michigan voters don't need an excuse to vote absentee. This change, combined with safety concerns due to Covid-19, has resulted in an unprecedented number of absentee ballots in the state — approximately two million so far.
Voters can also pick up their absentee ballot in-person from their local clerk's office, where they can fill it out and return it rather than sending it back by mail.
Clerks in the cities of Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Walker, and Byron Township gave NBC an inside look at the process and the challenges they face unique to this presidential election.
The biggest challenge: volume.
“It's really putting a strain on resources. We can do it. It's just to a whole different level than we're accustomed to.” said Kelly Vanderburg of Wyoming. This week her office issued 12,000 absentee ballots. They expect to issue between 16,000 and 18,000 before Election Day.
Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp issued 46,000 absentee ballots this week, and he had dozens of people working from 8 a.m to 9 p.m through the weekend to make the Thursday mailing deadline.
Aside from the number of ballots, Hondorp also said the constant changes to this year's voting protocols make his job more difficult.
“We're 40 some days out and we're still changing rules and changing laws. And that just gives a lot of frustration to clerks as we're trying to prepare,” he told NBC. “We had a plan back in January of how we were going to run the 2020 elections that basically got thrown out the window on March 10th here in Michigan when it was presidential primary day and we had three cases of Covid announced in Michigan.”
Just last week, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens ruled that mail-in ballots postmarked as late as Nov. 2 must be counted even if they arrive after Election Day. If the ruling stands, clerks will have to count mail-in ballots that arrive up to 14 days after the election.
And as recently as Thursday, lawmakers approved a bill allowing clerks to begin opening (but not counting) absentee ballots a day earlier than they are typically permitted — Election Day morning. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign it.
The bill comes as election officials have been trying to manage expectations for when election results will be announced. A significant amount of the process is done by hand. But even with the extra day, clerks are asking for patience as they work to process ballots safely and securely.
How Democrats are trying to win over Trump-skeptical veterans
WASHINGTON — Democrats think President Donald Trump has created an opening for them to win over veterans and military families, and one liberal veterans group is running what they say is the largest-ever effort of its kind to do so on the Democratic side.
Military voters have traditionally leaned conservative, but have been trending away from the GOP during Trump’s almost four years in office, with a recent Military Times poll showing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden edging ahead of the president 43-37 percent among active duty service members, while another 13 percent chose a third-party candidate.
VoteVets, the Democratic veterans group founded during the height of the Iraq War in 2006, has been spending millions of dollars working to identify and mobilize 250,000 veterans in key states, assembling what they say is a first-of-its kind voter file of persuadable veterans.
The list, cobbled together from a wide range of data, includes both Democratic-leaning veterans who might not turn out without a push as well as those who voted for Trump or third-party candidates in 2016 but are now open to voting for Biden.
“If you look at the polling data, this is one of the groups that’s moving away from Trump,” said Jon Soltz, a former Army officer who co-founded VoteVets. “The guy didn’t serve, he doesn’t respect service, and he continually attacks veterans and service members from John McCain to [former Defense Secretary James] Mattis and on and on.”
Once the group has identified persuadable veterans, the group’s members, many of whom retired from military careers themselves, reach out via text message to targeted voters, sending up to 60,000 peer-to-peer texts a day drawing on their shared experiences in the military (in-person canvassing is on hold during the coronavirus pandemic.) Direct mail and other messages follow.
Soltz said engagement rates shot up to “astronomical” levels after The Atlantic reported earlier this month that Trump had disparaged service members.
The program is modeled in part on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, with two former Sanders officers, Chuck Rocha and Blake Silberberg, helping run it for VoteVets.
“In my 31 years, I’ve never seen anyone do this for veterans,” said Rocha. “There’s never ever been one-on-one organizing vet-to-vet inside the presidential campaign.”
The Biden campaign has also been focusing on military outreach, featuring a wounded combat veteran in ads that began airing in battleground states Thursday.
Obama puts political heft behind Democrats in key races up and down the ballot
WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama announced a final round of 2020 endorsements Friday, backing not only a handful of Democratic challengers in Senate races that could tip control of the chamber next year but also dozens state legislative candidates that could shape redistricting for the next decade.
Most notably, in a key battleground where Democrats see two potential pickup opportunities, Obama announced support for candidates in both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate races — Jon Ossoff, the party’s nominee against first-term Republican David Perdue, and Raphael Warnock, the leading Democratic hopeful in a more crowded “jungle” primary.
Top Democrats have ramped up pressure on another Democrat in that race, Matt Lieberman, to drop out in hopes of ensuring Warnock advances to a January runoff with polls showing Warnock neck-and-neck against appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Republican Rep. Doug Collins.
In total, the former president is throwing his support behind an additional 111 candidates up and down the ballot, as he urges voters to consider both the near — and long-term stakes this November.
In a statement, Obama says the candidates “will work to get the virus under control, rebuild the economy and the middle class, and protect Americans’ health care and preexisting conditions protections from Republican assault.”
“They’re dedicated to shoring up and strengthening our democracy, a project that’s going to take time and require all of us — but it begins by electing Democrats right now,” he said.
While Obama is urging voters across the country to back Democrats up and down the ballot, his formal endorsements are meant to help draw attention — and potentially boost fundraising and local coverage — for targeted races.
In other Senate races, Obama announced new endorsements for Democratic nominees in Texas and Arizona — seen as battlegrounds — but also Adrian Perkins in Louisiana, one of several Democrats in another multi-candidate field. The only incumbent in the Senate group is Sen. Gary Peters, who is aiming to fend off a serious challenge in battleground Michigan.
Obama is also backing 29 congressional candidates, a mix of incumbents and challengers, and two Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls who are currently underdogs in their races — Dan Feltes in New Hampshire, and Nicole Galloway in Missouri.
The Obama team is also working closely with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to focus on races that could tip the balance in control of state legislatures with an eye on redistricting.
In a video posted Thursday, Obama said people “don’t completely appreciate how much gerrymandering affects the outcome,” noting how top priorities in his administration, immigration reform and gun control, were stymied by Republicans who benefited from post-2010 redistricting.
Eleven of his legislative endorsements were in Arizona, 10 in Georgia and Wisconsin, eight in Michigan, seven in Minnesota and four in Kansas. Democrats see all as potential opportunities to flip control of one or both chambers, or narrow the gap to gain influence in redistricting.
Of 229 total candidates Obama has now officially endorsed, nearly two-thirds are women. A number are also alumni of his administration, something that has been a priority for the president.
Obama advisers are working with the Biden campaign and other key campaign committees to sketch out a robust campaign schedule for the closing month of the campaign. His team expects most events will be virtual, but in-person events are also possible including for his former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris. Next Friday, he’ll join the California senator for virtual fundraisers, after a similar event in June with Biden raised $11 million.
“President Obama is going to be out in a full-throated way for him,” one official said.
As polls show Iowa tightening, Trump campaign and outside group spending goes in different directions
WASHINGTON — Three recent polls released this week show Iowa a toss-up race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. But the Trump campaign and its aligned outside groups are moving in different directions as far as spending.
Trump led Biden by 3 percentage points, 49 percent to 46 percent, in Monmouth University's new poll of likely voters; Biden led Trump by 3 percentage points with likely voters in the New York Times/Sienna College poll released this week, a margin of 45 percent to 42 percent; and both candidates were tied in the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll at 47 percent among likely voters.
The Trump campaign hasn't spent any money on television or radio in the state since July 28, according to Advertising Analytics.
But one Republican outside group, Preserve America PAC, has been spending heavily in the state since the start of September in the hopes of filling that spending gap — it's spent almost $4.2 million over that span, more than 90 percent of the total money spent on TV and radio since the Trump campaign went dark.
Many of Preserve America's ads have centered on either criticizing Biden by linking him to the "Defund the Police" movement that some Democrats are supporting, or saying that Biden can't lead the military.
The Democrats had largely stayed quiet on the airwaves too, but there's been a more recent shift. After not spending a dime on TV or radio in Iowa the entire campaign, Biden's campaign has spent about $280,000 since Sept. 15.
—Maura Barrett contributed
Pennsylvania Republicans seek to reverse mail-in ballot deadline decision in battleground state
READING, Penn. — After a state Supreme Court ruling last week allowed Pennsylvania ballots to be counted up to three days after the election, as long as the ballots are postmarked by Nov. 3, NBC News has learned the Republican Party intends to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The GOP argued extending the deadline “creates a serious likelihood that Pennsylvania’s imminent general election will be tainted by votes that were illegally cast or mailed after Election Day,” according to court documents.
The move follows several key decisions last Thursday 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, two measures seen as wins for Democrats.
The expected petition comes just days ahead of President Donald Trump’s announcement of his Supreme Court Justice nominee, which is expected Saturday, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.
State Republicans are also seeking a stay in the commonwealth’s highest court to stop last week’s ruling from taking effect.
In a statement to NBC News, Pennsylvania’s Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said, “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an openly partisan decision ignoring the federal and state constitutions that jeopardizes the security and integrity of our elections and will potentially put Pennsylvania in the middle of a disastrous national crisis as the world awaits for our Commonwealth to tally election results days or weeks following Election Day.”