The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
High profile exit boosts Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Arkansas gubernatorial bid and cements Trump’s influence on GOP
WASHINGTON — A decade before becoming Arkansas’ lieutenant governor, Tim Griffin served as the Republican Party’s research director during George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
After that, Griffin worked in the Bush White House under Karl Rove, was appointed by Bush as an interim U.S. attorney and then ran for Congress and won – all impressive credentials for any emerging Republican politician, particularly one looking at higher office.
But with his announcement Monday that he was ending his gubernatorial bid in Arkansas and running for attorney general instead, it more than further cleared the field for GOP gubernatorial frontrunner (and former Trump White House Press Secretary) Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
It showed how today’s Republican Party continues to be remade in Trump’s image, even three months after the former president’s defeat and as he stands trial for an unprecedented second presidential impeachment.
That someone with Griffin’s resume – and ties to the last GOP president before Trump – has less political currency than Trump’s former press secretary underscores how loyalty to Trump beats everything else in today’s Republican Party.
To be sure, Huckabee Sanders has a political identity outside of Trump. She’s the daughter of the state’s former governor, Mike Huckabee, who worked at high levels on her father’s past presidential campaigns.
And the field isn't completely clear for her, either — Arkansas' current attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, is also running for governor.
But Huckabee Sanders' most prominent, and recent, job was as Trump's White House press secretary, with Trump endorsing her last month.
And in her statement welcoming Huckabee Sanders to the race last month, Rutledge in part celebrated her own support for the Trump agenda, a reminder of his standing in the party, even as she argued that the race "is about Arkansas's future and who has a proven record and not merely rhetoric."
Loyalty to Trump trumping experience among GOP primary voters isn’t anything new.
In the 2018 cycle, then Rep. Ron DeSantis beat Adam Putnam in Florida’s GOP gubernatorial primary due in large part because DeSantis was seen as a more loyal Trump ally. Putnam had spent a decade in the House (including a stint in leadership) and two terms as the state's agriculture commissioner before his 45th birthday, a resume that had him seen as one of the state GOP's rising stars.
In 2020, former college football coach Tommy Tuberville defeated Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the runoff for Alabama senator – because Trump had grown dissatisfied with his former Cabinet official. Tuberville had never held a job in politics, while Sessions sat in that Senate seat for two decades.
And now in 2021, weeks after he left office, loyalty and service to Trump — like Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ work for the former president — trumps everything else.
In first interview since Senate announcement, John Fetterman promises to be 'sedition-free'
WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman announced his run for Senate on Monday morning. Fetterman, a Democrat, is running for the seat of retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn.
In his first TV interview since announcing his candidacy, Fetterman echoed language that gained him national attention in the wake of the 2020 election: attacking former President Trump's false claims of voter fraud in Pennsylvania and responding to the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
"I would promise to the people of Pennsylvania, I plan to be 100 percent sedition-free if I'm elected," Fetterman said on MSNBC. "There's already too many sedition-curious members of the United States Senate and I would never be one."
During his Monday interview, Fetterman said he supported ending the Senate filibuster, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and legalizing marijuana.
"In order to get those kind of important things passed, whether it's climate change or things like that, you need to get rid of the filibuster," Fetterman said. "This idea that some random senator from a state with 600,000 people can holdup the democratic will and the sense of urgency that these policies are coming from — I don't think that's very democratic at its core."
Fetterman also said that he agreed with Biden's decision to end construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline, but supported maintaining the balance between "transitioning away from fossil fuels, but also safeguarding and holding the union way of life sacred."
"We had a president who was actively tearing up the Paris Accords and other agreements, and throwing environmental concerns away. And now you have a president who's building that back and making decisive actions like canceling the Keystone Pipeline, which some people don't support, and I think he made the right call," Fetterman said.
Why Democrats and Republicans are competing to throw cash at you
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants to send up to $300 a month per child next year to families as part of his Covid-19 relief bill. Now Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah. wants to up the number to $350 and make it a permanent child allowance for nearly all Americans.
The proposals are the latest sign of a sweeping change in the policy conversation, one in which prominent Republicans and Democrats are increasingly competing to offer benefits to families that previous generations of politicians would have dismissed as welfare for the undeserving poor.
Romney’s specific plan is unlikely to get traction with Democrats, since he proposes offsetting its cost by eliminating or scaling back similar antipoverty programs and ending a deduction on state and local taxes that’s popular with Democrats.
On both sides of the aisle, there’s more appetite for simply sending Americans cash rather than routing aid through more complicated programs.
“There’s a new generation of policy thinkers on both the left and the right who have a different set of experiences than those who were around during welfare reform,” Samuel Hammond, one of the co-authors of the Niskanen Center’s analysis, said. “It brings together anti-poverty values on the left and pro-family values on the right and unites them in a really nice way.”
Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Mike Lee, R-Utah have pushed for larger child tax credits and got a pared-down version of their proposal into the GOP tax bill, for example. And Biden’s Covid-19 relief plan is similar to a bill championed by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Democratic presidential candidates, including Vice President Kamala Harris, proposed an array of new cash benefits and tax credits during the 2020 campaign while Andrew Yang ran on a universal basic income of $1,000 per month.
In the last year, the pandemic turbocharged the conversation, setting the stage for the ongoing debate over $2,000 relief checks that’s produced an odd alliance of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. on the left and former President Trump and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. on the right.
Republicans have gone through a transformation since the days when Romney himself bemoaned in 2012 that the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax are “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims."
Now conservatives may have a tougher time making that case due to political changes wrought by Trump.
While Trump’s economic team was driven by mostly conventional conservatives, his political rhetoric swung 180 degrees from the tea party’s “47 percent” talk. Instead of bemoaning Americans who don’t pay income taxes, he proposed sending them a tax return with “I WIN” printed on it.
He also dropped the tea party’s obsession with deficits, and his push for pandemic checks have gotten Americans in both parties more used to the concept. Trump's success with working class voters has made some social conservatives argue that the party's business wing is too focused on corporate tax cuts, and not enough on benefits for families.
Democrats have gone through their own transformation. The party’s rising left wing, led by figures like Sanders, emphasized universal benefits in contrast to more limited programs designed to stave off accusations that aid would go to freeloading “welfare queens” or higher incomes who don't need it.
For more traditional Republicans who are worried that expanded benefits might discourage recipients from working, there’s some concern that the party is losing its identity.
If conservatives want to stop it, though, they may have to re-educate their base. Millennials are now the largest share of the electorate, and many have no memory of either the 1990s-era battles over work requirements or the deficit fears that drove calls for scaling back benefits.
First on NBC: 62 progressive groups pressure Democrats to kill the filibuster
WASHINGTON — In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Friday, 62 progressive groups called for him to abolish the filibuster to give Democratic priorities a chance in Congress. It's the latest signal that the filibuster issue isn't fading despite some vocal holdouts in the caucus.
"We urge Senate Democrats, under your leadership, to take speedy action to fix the broken Senate and make progress possible by changing the rules to end the gridlock and dysfunction," the groups wrote in the letter, first obtained by NBC News. "The best way to restore a functioning Senate is to eliminate the filibuster as a weapon the minority can use to block an agenda that a majority of Americans have just embraced at the ballot box."
Signatories include March For Our Lives, MoveOn Civic Action, Communications Workers of America, Voto Latino, Greenpeace, Demos, Demand Justice, Indivisible and Our Revolution. The groups represent causes ranging from gun control, climate action, a minimum wage hike, liberalizing immigration and others that are likely to be hindered by the 60-vote rule in a split Senate.
Fix Our Senate, an umbrella group for the campaign against the filibuster run by former Senate Democratic leadership aide Eli Zupnick, led the letter effort. Zupnick praised Schumer for rejecting Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell's demand to preserve the filibuster. But he signaled that activists are expecting Schumer to persuade holdouts like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to help turn the chamber into a majority-rule body.
Schumer is up for re-election in New York next year.
"We know some Democrats are still reluctant to eliminate the filibuster, but we're going to keep making the case that the promises Democrats made to deliver results must be prioritized over an outdated and abused Senate rule that is no longer working and can easily be changed," Zupnick said.
Tweet the Press: Garrett Haake reports on the GOP's Cheney vote, Marjorie Taylor Greene decision
WASHINGTON — House Republicans voted to keep Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in her leadership position on Wednesday night after several Republicans called for her expulsion because of her vote to impeach former President Trump.
NBC's Garrett Haake reports on what that vote means for the caucus and how Republican leadership has responded to Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's controversial comments on conspiracy theories.
Click here to read the full conversation.
Moderate GOP group plans to spend $25 million on midterms in fight for future of the party
WASHINGTON — The Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP group that has supported efforts to repudiate the party's fringe before, is making its pitch in the fight for the future of the party with new plans to spend $25 million on congressional races this cycle
The group is also releasing its post-election examination of the 2020 cycle to members and allies — an assessment that lays out its argument for a post-Donald Trump GOP as a party that can harness the frustration of some voters while attracting suburban and minority voters in the process.
“The Republican Party is not dead. We have a chance to come back stronger than ever if we give the voters what they are looking for,” Sarah Chamberlain, Main Street’s executive director, told NBC News in an interview.
“We had the Jan. 6 situation, now we have the congresswoman from Georgia, we have [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy flying down to see Trump. I get a lot of questions from voters around the country about: ‘What’s happening? Where is my party?’”
A central theme of the group’s autopsy is a focus on traditional GOP bread-and-butter issues like the economy, foreign policy and national security. The group also wants to rebuild the party’s “ethics and moral standing” in a way that looks nothing “like the family values, Moral Majority” politics of the past, while offering solutions on issues like Covid-19 and mental health, according to the report.
To keep Trump voters on board, which the plan makes clear constitutes an “important wing of the party,” the group argues that the way forward is connecting to them through a populist pitch that skips the “vulgar and disrespectful” rhetoric that could alienate more voters than it brings in.
"We have to make a decision: Do we want to be a party of 180 bright red congressmen and women? Or do we want to have 240 and 250 where there are purple districts that we hold," Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a Main Street member, asked on Wednesday's "MTP Daily" on MSNBC.
Even though Trump lost his re-election bid, many Republicans saw a silver lining in November’s election results as the party narrowed the Democratic House majority with swing-seat wins, leading to hope voters were open to distinguishing between Trump and other Republicans.
But then Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to halt the Electoral College certification in an attack where five lost their lives. Virtually all Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans blamed the attack on the president himself, and the House voted to impeach Trump over it. Shortly after, 147 Congressional Republicans voted to object to the Electoral College certification.
And now Republicans are facing pressure to punish freshman Rep. Green for espousing conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric.
Democrats have quickly moved to marry the two controversies to define the GOP. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running TV and digital ads Tuesday accusing Republicans of refusing to stand up to extremists by not voting to impeach Trump.
“Trump may have been malignant, but now it's metastasized,” DCCC chairman and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said Tuesday on “Morning Joe.”
“If they want to deny the pandemic or throw out the election, they certainly cannot be trusted with power.”
The Republican Main Street Partnership operates as an outside group that has a membership of lawmakers who align with its goals.
Nine out of the 60 Main Street members voted against the Electoral College certification, Chamberlain told NBC, quick to note that she had 51 members vote to certify the presidential election. Weeks later, eight of the 10 GOP votes for Trump’s impeachment came from Main Street members.
While Main Street helped to knock off disgraced Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King last cycle, Chamberlain said that the group has no current plans to try to unseat another incumbent Republican.
Instead, the group’s priorities are protecting its incumbent members, as well as recruiting like-minded candidates to help win control of the House for Republicans, while growing Main Street’s political and policy clout.
The internal fight within the GOP is still in the early stages, and Trump is still looking to wield significant influence in the party. But pointing to trends in states like Arizona, which has seen both Senate seats flip to Democrats in the past two election cycles, Chamberlain is throwing down the gauntlet.
“We can’t lose a generation of 18-to-21-year-olds right now who register as Democrats because they’re watching what’s going on and say they can’t relate to that. We can’t afford to lose these suburban areas because they can swing House seats and Senate seats, she said.
“If they leave, we may not get them back.”
Progressive group takes on Manchin, Sinema
WASHINGTON — A new progressive group co-founded by former aides to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., announced Tuesday that it was recruiting primary challengers against Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., over their opposition to eliminate the Senate’s legislative filibuster.
Neither Manchin nor Sinema are up for re-election until 2024.
The campaign by this group, No Excuses PAC, against these two moderate Democratic senators was first reported by POLITICO.
“Democrats have a couple years, max, to improve the lives of the American people. If they blow it, Republicans take back over, and then we’ll get another Trumper back in the White House — maybe Trump himself,” said Corbin Trent, the president of No Excuses PAC, who worked for Ocasio-Cortez, as well as for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
“Senators like Sinema and Manchin seem to think we need more talk and less action in the Senate. If they are dictating the agenda, it’ll be hard to hold on to the majority,” Trent added.
No Excuses PAC has already aired radio ads against both Manchin and Sinema.
It’s unclear, however, how effective this progressive campaign will be against these two senators in these two states.
In addition to both not being up for re-election for another three years, Manchin easily bested a liberal primary challenger in 2018 on his way to a narrow re-election victory — in a state Donald Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points two years later.
Sinema, meanwhile, faced no primary opposition in her 2018 Senate bid, and won the general election with 50 percent of the vote.
But one political observer believes the campaign will be beneficial — for both the progressive group’s coffers, and for Manchin’s and Sinema’s moderate credentials in these two states.
Republican campaign groups ask for campaign funds to be used for personal security
WASHINGTON — The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee asked the Federal Election Commission to amend campaign finance rules to allow senators and House members to use campaign funds to pay for personal security for themselves and family members.
In a letter submitted on Jan. 27, the NRSC and NRCC listed "current events involving concrete threats of physical violence" as the reason for the FEC to allow members to pay for bodyguards from campaign contributions. The FEC currently doesn't allow members to use campaign funds for personal uses that aren't connected with the duties of holding office. The NRSC and NRCC argue in their request that the use wouldn't be personal because the threats are being made based on the members' status as a federal lawmaker.
"The responsibilities associated with being elected representatives constantly require Members (and their families) to appear in public settings, and in such settings, the most practical and effective solution for protecting the safety of members and their families is the employment of personal security personnel," the letter says.
There's some precedent for campaign funds being used for security payments. After Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise was shot, the FEC issued an opinion that allowed members of Congress to use campaign funds for "costs associated with installing (or upgrading) and monitoring a security system at the members' residences."
The ask comes in the wake of the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Since then, members have asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for more flexibility in their congressional allowances to hire security for their district offices. And members of Congress said they wore body armor to President Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20.
Some lawmakers have even reported being concerned for their safety in the presence of other members of Congress.
The NRSC and NRCC aren't the only groups asking for increased security measures to be made. Last week, the acting chief of the U.S. Capitol Police called for permanent fencing around the Capitol. The barriers originally went up to respond to the Jan. 6 attack and stayed up through inauguration.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn't respond to a request to comment.
The FEC usually responds to written requests within 60 days, but the NRSC and NRCC asked for "expedited consideration" given the "threat environment facing members."
Trump filled political war chest with tens of millions to close 2020
WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump raised tens of millions of dollars to support his political ambitions on the back of his unfounded push to discredit the presidential election results, money that positions him to be a financial force as he looks to wield power over the GOP from Florida instead of the White House.
Trump's political action committee, Save America, raised more than $31 million in the final five weeks of 2020, new filings with the Federal Election Commission show. The group's only spending was on administrative fees, leaving it with with $31.2 million left in the bank at the end of the year.
As Trump spent the weeks after Election Day trying to overturn the presidential election and make unfounded claims of sweeping fraud, his campaign directed supporters to help fund the effort. But the fine print of those fundraising solicitations showed that most of the money would be directed to Save America.
Save America is a Leadership PAC, which is largely restricted from paying a candidate's personal campaign expenses — those expenses need to be paid by the candidate's official campaign account. Instead, Leadership PACs can cover other politically-adjacent expenses like donating to other campaign accounts, or paying for the travel and staff of a politician who doesn't hold office and isn't currently running.
So despite that big fundraising push to Save America, the group didn't spend a dime on anything related to the campaign's election fraud push.
Trump's official campaign committee also filed its report on Sunday, showing that it raised $27 million from Nov. 24 through Dec. 31. It spent about $34.7 million over that time, ending the year with $10.75 million left in the bank and $2.7 million in debt.
That's the primary vehicle the campaign appears to have used for its election fraud push. But while previous reports showed the campaign had spent about $8.8 million on recount related fees, the Trump campaign's largest expenditures in the latest reports are about influencing the court of public opinion instead of a court that would have say on voter fraud complaints.
Between Nov. 24 and Dec. 31, Trump's campaign spent $6.5 million on online and text-message advertising, all through American Made Media Consultants LLC, a media firm with ties to the Trump orbit.
The campaign also paid out about $1.1 million in legal fees, the lion's share ($1 million) to the law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres. One of the firm's named partners, Marc Kasowitz, represented Trump during the Russia investigation and had also previously represented him before he took office.
Even out of office, Trump has not drifted far away from the political arena. His impeachment trial in the Senate will begin next week, and he spent his first days out of office trying to use carrots and sticks to keep his influence up in the Republican Party. And last week, he met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy as House Republicans look to chart a path forward in a Washington controlled narrowly by Democrats.
Republican senators propose slimmed-down Covid relief plan
WASHINGTON — Ten Republican senators wrote a letter Sunday requesting a meeting with President Joe Biden to discuss a slimmed-down coronavirus relief plan they say can win bipartisan support.
The Republicans propose a relief package that is much smaller than Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal. Their offer includes $160 billion for vaccines, $4 billion for health and substance abuse services, the continuation of current unemployment aid and unspecified "targeted" economic assistance and help for schools.
"We recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your Administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID crisis," read the letter, which includes Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and others.
It is a Republican-only proposal at a time when Democrats control the White House and Congress. But it will test Biden’s calls for unity and bipartisanship while promising lofty policy goals.
Republican lawmakers have largely rejected Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan, balking at the price tag. But the new GOP offer is likely to face progressive pushback as Democrats like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., have described Biden’s offer as only a "promising start."
The new letter comes as Democrats are eying a special budget process known as reconciliation to bypass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and approve a larger relief bill without GOP support.
Thousands of Republicans changed voter registration after Capitol attack
WASHINGTON — Since the violent attack at the Capitol on Jan. 6, thousands of Republicans changed their party registration in key swing states.
As of this week, 9,891 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their party registration. In North Carolina, that number was just above 7,400 and more than 9,000 Republicans in Arizona did the same. While Florida statewide numbers aren't available yet, Orange County, Fla. saw over 1,200 Republicans change their party. Just about 100 Democrats did the same in Orange County since Jan. 6.