The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Graham denies Georgia Sec. State charge he inquired about tossing ballots
WASHINGTON — South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham denied that he asked the Georgia secretary of state about throwing out mail-in votes in certain Georgia counties, an allegation made by Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger earlier this week.
Graham told NBC News the allegation was "ridiculous" and said that he called Raffensperger, a top election official in a state Graham doesn't represent, because "the future of the country hangs in the balance." He added he’s spoken to Arizona GOP Gov. Doug Ducey as well as “people in Nevada.”
"That's ridiculous. I talked to him about how you verify signatures. Right now a single person verifies signatures and I suggested as you go forward can you change it to make sure that a bipartisan team verifies signatures and if there is a dispute, come up with an appeals process," Graham said.
In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday, Raffensperger sad that Graham had inquired as to whether the election official could toss ballots in counties that had higher-than average rates of ballot signatures that didn’t match the voter signature on file. He told the paper it seemed that Graham was suggesting throwing out legal ballots.
Raffensperger doubled down on the accusation in an interview on "CBS This Morning."
"Senator Graham implied for us to audit the envelopes and then throw out the ballots for counties who had the highest frequency error of signatures," he said.
And in an interview with NBC News, he criticized Republicans for making "bold-faced lies" as they seek to discredit the results of the state's presidential election and said he agreed that former Vice President Joe Biden appears to be the president-elect.
—Garrett Haake, Josh Lederman and Julia Jester contributed.
Small businesses are suffering from the pandemic amid stalemate on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON — Amid an ongoing explosion of Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths, it’s important to remember that some of the damage of the coronavirus is entirely self-inflicted.
For six months, the White House and leaders of both parties in Congress have failed to reach an agreement on more emergency relief, with each side holding out at various points for a better deal. The political calendar has made things harder — Democrats assumed their leverage would increase post-election with a Biden win, Republicans now have a stronger hand with down-ballot victories — as well as Trump’s chaotic approach.
There’s a severe human cost to the failure to pass even a nominal emergency package, however, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent in American neighborhoods where beloved small businesses are going bankrupt waiting for relief from Washington.
NBC News viewers submitted over a hundred names of their favorite local establishments that had gone under recently, including beloved barbershop in New York City to a quirky boutique in Lincoln, Nebraska, and their owners were acutely aware that of the congressional inaction.
“I just sort of saw the writing on the wall, that we weren't going to get any money in the near future,” said Jason Rudofky, who closed his family's Jewish deli in Denver, Zaidy’s, after 35 years. “They cared more about the election and they don't realize what’s happening in America.”
These dilemmas are also exacerbated by the ongoing lack of aid for jobless Americans, whose emergency unemployment benefits expired months ago, for school districts waiting for long-promised funding to help them function in extreme circumstances, and for health care workers trying to fight the pandemic and prepare for vaccination programs. And because state and local governments can’t deficit-spend the way the federal government does, only Washington can fill in the gaps.
“If we're going to control this virus out in our communities right now, we're going to have to support those who are going to be suffering economically,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and an adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, said on Meet The Press. “You know, you have a choice: do you want to have schools open, or do you want to keep bars and restaurants open?"
Biden transition boasts majority-female staff, 40 percent people of color
WILMINGTON, Del. — Women make up the majority of staffers on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, and people of color are more than 40 percent of the total transition workforce, according to new diversity data obtained by NBC News from the transition.
Biden has promised that his administration will “look like America,” as well as the broad coalition of voters who boosted him into the White House. The diversity data released Sunday shows similar levels of gender parity and racial diversity on his transition staff as he had on his presidential campaign staff. And it comes as speculation ramps up about Biden’s Cabinet picks and staffing decisions throughout the administration.
More than half — 52 percent — of Biden’s transition staff are women, with 53 percent of senior staff identifying as female. And the transition's advisory board is also majority female.
Five of the thirteen members of Biden's recently-announced COVID task force of public health experts and doctors are women.
People of color make up 41 percent of transition senior staff, and 46 percent of transition staff overall. They’re also 43 percent of the transition advisory board and nearly 70 percent of the 13 person COVID task force.
The data comes as Biden has promised his administration will reflect the nation's diversity — “from the vice president straight down through Cabinet members to major players within the White House, and the court,” as Biden has said.
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris made history upon winning the election, becoming America’s first woman, first Black, and first South Asian person elected to that office.
Iowa Democratic House candidate calls for recount as she trails by razor-thin margin
WASHINGTON — Iowa Democrat Rita Hart announced Thursday her campaign would seek a "complete recount" of Iowa's 2nd Congressional District race as results show her narrowly trailing Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.
The Iowa Secretary of State's unofficial results show Miller-Meeks ahead by just 47 votes (NBC's Decision Desk has the race at virtually the same margin). The Hart campaign pointed to two reporting errors (which local counties and the Secretary of State caught and are fixing) as part of its reasoning to request the broader recount.
On Monday, Miller-Meeks issued her own statement after counties certified their count, a count that left her narrowly ahead (the state doesn't officially certify until the end of the month).
If the result holds through the recount, Iowa's 2nd District would be yet another Republican flip in a seat previously held by the Democrats (Rep. Dave Loebsack chose not to run for re-election in 2020). Democrats outspent Republicans on the TV and radio airwaves there, $10.3 million to $8.2 million, according to ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
Big money rolling into Georgia ahead of marquee Senate battle
WASHINGTON — Georgia Senate hopefuls have already begun booking millions of dollars on the television airwaves ahead of the likely two runoffs there in early January that could decide the balance of power of the Senate.
Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic Rev. Raphael Warnock are slated for a runoff after neither cleared the 50 percent threshold needed on Election Day to win the race outright.
And in the state's other race, GOP Sen. David Perdue sits at just 49.7 percent to Democrat Jon Ossoff's 48 percent. While NBC News' Decision Desk hasn't yet called the race, the Associated Press and other media outlets have projected it will head to a runoff.
As of Wednesday, Warnock has $2.6 million booked on the airwaves for the runoff, according to data from the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Loeffler just started booking TV time on Wednesday — about $200,000 with more expected.
In the other race, Perdue has already booked a whopping $10.6 million to Ossoff's $1.6 million.
TV spending is not the be-all, end-all — Democrats (or in the case of Alaska, the independent candidate backed by Democrats and his allies) outspent Republicans in Senate races this cycle in Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, winning just two of those races.
In Georgia, Republicans significantly outspent Democrats in the race for Loeffler's seat (that race included two high-profile GOP candidates), while Democrats narrowly outspent Republicans in the Perdue race.
But with more money set to flood the race with the battle of the Senate up for grabs (and Loeffler potentially able to help fund her campaign with millions of her own, like she did in the primary), the runoff (or runoffs, if Perdue falls short of 50 percent) are already shaping up to be quite expensive.
Newsom in no rush to choose Kamala Harris' Senate successor
NEW YORK — With Kamala Harris’s ascension to the vice presidency on Jan. 20, a coveted California Senate seat is about to open up. And that means all eyes are on the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, who will choose Harris’ successor.
But don’t expect an answer anytime soon.
The timeline to choose a replacement for Harris is “truly fuzzy,” according to one California Democrat with knowledge of Newsom’s thinking. The fact that there is no rush to name a candidate ahead of Jan. 20, along with Newsom’s inclination to be a “careful process person” as this person calls him, means that a decision could take some time.
Newsom also wouldn't entertain much serious talk about naming a replacement for Harris prior to the election, this person added.
And he bristled a bit Monday when asked by reporters about a timeline, saying the surging coronavirus pandemic in the state was his major concern.
“My weekend was not focused on that. It was focused on seeing these new case rates go up,” Newsom said.
But even as he takes his time weighing his options, Newsom is facing considerable pressure from competing interest groups about who to select.
Many Latino activists are pressing Newsom to choose the state’s first Latino senator. Names under consideration are California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office has tangled frequently with the Trump administration, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, former California Senate president Kevin De Leon, who challenged Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018, Long Beach, Calif. Mayor Robert Garcia. Garcia would be the first openly gay senator from California, and he’s become a visible activist around efforts to contain Covid-19 after losing his mother and stepfather to the virus earlier this year.
Newsom may also want to replace Harris with another woman, particularly a woman of color. Some of those under consideration include Rep. Karen Bass, whom Biden considered for vice president, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Rep. Barbara Lee and State Controller Betty Yee. Rep. Katie Porter, a progressive favorite and proven fundraiser, may be considered as well.
The California Democrat with knowledge of the process said Newsom has not yet spoken to Harris about who she’d like to see succeed her.
Newsom is also weighing whether to name a placeholder to fill the seat, leaving others to mount a full-blown campaign in 2022 when Harris would have faced re-election. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown would likely be under consideration in that case.
Rick Scott to lead GOP Senate campaign arm, as parties elect their leaders
WASHINGTON — While the battle for Senate control remains underway, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer were re-elected unanimously by acclimation to their posts by their respective caucuses on Tuesday.
Republicans kept their party heads the same, re-electing McConnell, Republican Whip South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Conference Chair Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, Policy Committee Chair Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Conference Vice Chair Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott replaced Indiana Sen. Todd Young as the next National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair — the campaign arm for Senate Republicans.
“It’s a hard job — I'm going to take it very seriously. I know the job is to make sure we have a Republican majority in the Senate. First, we've got to go win in Georgia and we're going to win in Georgia,” Scott told reporters on Tuesday.
On the Democratic side, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto were added to Democratic leadership positions on the larger team that includes Schumer, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
While Democrats only picked up two Senate seats in the 2020 election cycle so far, senators said the caucus still has faith in Schumer's leadership.
“I know [Schumer] has that personality that can sit down and work with anybody,” Manchin told NBC News. “But as people have pushed him one way or the other, that sometimes gets you off track.”
Republicans overperforming in House races with more still to be called
WASHINGTON — It's clear the blue wave many Democrats had been hoping for never materialized, and with more than a dozen House races still left uncalled by the NBC News Decision Desk, that has implications for Democratic control of the House.
Heading into the election, Democrats held 235 seats in Congress, compared to 199 for the GOP. And while the party was fresh off a strong 2018 midterm election where it made gains deep into Republican-leaning districts and netted 39 seats, most analysts expected the Democrats to expand their majority.
But with NBC's Decision Desk having called all but 17 House races, Republicans so far have net five seats. And all of the GOP candidates who flipped seats so far are either women or people of color.
Of the 19 NBC-called races characterized before the election by the Cook Political Report as toss-ups, Republicans is projected to win all of them and flipped four seats in the process (IA-01, MN-07, NM-02 and OK-05).
The GOP also swept all 14 of Cook's "lean Republican" seats and is projected to win three seats rated as "lean Democratic" (FL-26, SC-01, and TX-23).
Republicans appear to have picked off one "likely Democratic" seat held by Florida Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala. The GOP was also able to hold all "likely Republican" seats.
Democrats, by comparison, haven't won any "toss-up" districts so far. They are projected to flip two GOP seats in North Carolina rated "likely Democratic," and hold the majority of the seats in which they were favored.
Since several races haven't been called, the landscape is likely to change. A historic amount of mail-in ballots is drawing out the vote tabulation process across the country — in several states, Democrats have outperformed Republicans with those mail-in ballots.
And the majority of "toss-up" seats this year – 17 of 26 – were seats where Republicans were on defense (plus another held by retiring Rep. Justin Amash, who was a Republican before leaving the party this year).
But even though Democrats may go on to win some of those toss-up districts, Republicans are poised to gain seats in a year they were expected to lose seats. And that reality could have an impact on the Democratic majority's governing power, as well as the midterm math in 2022.
Georgia ad wars: The only game in town
WASHINGTON — After an election that spanned dozens of battleground races up and down the ballot, there's now only one game in town, Georgia.
Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed earlier this year to replace GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, will face off against Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate.
While NBC News has not yet projected a winner in Georgia's other seat — a clash between GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff — a runoff there is a serious possibility too, although it's currently too close to call. (Both races were so-called "jungle primaries," which pit all candidates, regardless of party, against each other on Nov. 3. The top two candidates in each race move onto a runoff unless one wins a majority of the vote).
Tens of millions of dollars expected to flood the Peach State in the next eight weeks, with the Senate majority likely hanging in the balance. Here's a look at some of the top ads from each candidate, including new spots hitting the airwaves ahead of the Jan. 5, 2021 runoff.
Georgia Special Senate Runoff — Loeffler v. Warnock
This is the matchup that's already set in stone, and one where the dynamics are about to change, fast.
Loeffler had to jockey for Republican voters with Georgia GOP Rep. Doug Collins, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump's in the House who played a key role in the impeachment hearings. So to counter that, Loeffler hugged Trump tight and repeatedly touted her conservative credentials, to the point that her campaign ultimately turned to humor to prosecute the point.
Outside of her attacks on Collins, Loeffler ads included: an endorsement from Trump supporter and Georgia football legend Herschel Walker, many spots touting her support of Trump and his agenda, and even spots about how she's "more conservative than Attila the Hun."
Warnock, on the other hand, faced no serious Democratic competition and had more room to run.
In his top spots, he ran a voter education effort letting them know that the alphabetized ballot placed him all the way at the bottom, testimonials from Georgians telling the story of his biography and touting him as an everyman, an endorsement from former President Barack Obama and a spot where he backed expanding Medicaid in the state.
Locked in that fight for the conservative base, Republicans allowed Warnock to skate through the primary without facing negative ads. Expect that to change soon. But in the meantime, Warnock is making light of the attacks to come, arguing he's "staying focused" on his message instead of the attacks.
(The possible) Georgia Senate Runoff — Perdue v. Ossoff
While the Associated Press has projected this race will need a runoff, NBC News' Decision Desk still sees it as "too close to call," with Perdue's 49.7 percent just shy of the majority he needs to avoid a runoff.
If that race moves to a runoff, you'll likely see much of the same trends on the airwaves as over the past few months.
The Democrat has already hit the ground running with new ad buys ahead of the likely runoff, and a new spot about his "path to recovery" from the virus. But the Republican hasn't hit the airwaves yet, with the fate of his election still uncertain.
Biden to reach out to state and local officials on mask mandates
President-elect Joe Biden in the coming days will begin calling governors and the mayors of major cities from both parties to encourage them to institute mask mandates as the coronavirus pandemic enters a potentially deadlier phase with winter arriving, according to a senior Biden adviser who briefed NBC News.
"If a governor declines, he'll go to the mayors in the state and ask them to lead," the official said. "In many states, there is the capacity of mayors to institute mandates." Roughly 20 states already have mask mandates, and research suggests that universal use of masks could save more than 100,000 lives.
The conversations follow on Biden's plans to announce the names of scientists and other experts on his coronavirus task force Monday.
The Biden team is also looking at a possible mask mandate for federal buildings, a step the Trump administration has not taken even after the president and a number of his top officials and aides, most recently chief of staff Mark Meadows, have become infected.
The next step, according to the adviser, is to assemble a national testing plan. Biden is directing his team to devise a series of options for both legislation and executive orders to institute a testing plan, given the uncertainty around whether Democrats will be able to get legislation passed.
In late October, Biden laid out a plan to tackle the coronavirus that included testing, contact tracing and vaccines as areas that would be prioritized, while the Biden transition aims to quickly announce picks to run the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One issue is whether Biden will also invoke the Defense Production Act to quickly distribute vaccines.
President Donald Trump notably rebuffed calls by the American Medical Association, among other health groups, to invoke the 1950s-era act, which would have directed U.S. manufacturers to quickly distribute medical supplies to hospitals during the virus's first major surge in the spring.
With the holidays approaching and significant concern among public health officials that indoor gatherings among family members could lead to Covid-19 spread, Biden will use his platform to "fill the void" left by the administration in stressing the need for social distancing and mask-wearing, said the official.
"Daily cases are skyrocketing," Biden said during remarks Friday evening in Wilmington, Del., just before the election was called. "I want everyone — everyone — to know on Day 1, we're going to put our plan to control this virus into action."
A Biden spokesperson said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the coronavirus task force will be led by Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general, and Dr. David Kessler, who led the FDA during the 1990s.
Clyburn jokes Biden 'owes me' — for interrupting golf outing
At the moment Joe Biden was projected as the president-elect, the man whose critical endorsement put him in position for victory was “on the 14th tee box” on a golf course in South Carolina. But aides implored him to interrupt his round once the result came in.
“It was one of the best rounds moneywise I’ve had all year!” Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., joked in an interview with NBC News, saying he was ahead $30 in his round with some friends. “So when I see Joe, I’m going to let him know he owes me some money.”
The South Carolina congressman said he hasn’t spoken yet with Biden, but expects he will soon. They last spoke on election night, when Biden was “in a cautious mood” — unsure yet if he would be able to overcome the early leads President Trump posted in key states like Pennsylvania. “There was some apprehension there,” he said.
But Clyburn said he was elated now at Biden’s victory and eager to get to work with him.
“He gave my kind of speech last night, so I don’t need to tell him anything,” he said. “What he said was pitch perfect.”
Clyburn said he would listen to any entreaties to join the administration but that it wasn't his preference. “I would never say never. But I will say this: I do not aspire to be in the administration.”