Obama administration vet Psaki to lead Biden’s Senate confirmation team

WILMINGTON, Del. — President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team is formally unveiling a team put in place to sherpa nominees through Senate confirmation processes.

The team is being led by Jen Psaki, a former top Obama White House and State Department official, who was part of the communications team at the start of the Obama administration and has experience from Obama’s transition. Others on the team include his Senate aides and former 2020 campaign staffers for Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Psaki is overseeing the nominations team, with Olivia Dalton, a Democratic consultant and former Biden Senate aide who also served in senior Obama administration and campaign roles, running point on communications.

Jen Psaki during an interview in Washington on Dec. 18, 2015.Drew Angerer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Additionally, Stephanie Valencia is handling outreach and Louisa Terrell will run congressional affairs for the transition, helping to support the nominations team. 

Reema Dodin, the floor director for Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, will oversee legislative strategy. Jorge Neri, a former senior advisor to the campaign, will be the deputy outreach director for Confirmations. 

Andrew Bates, the rapid response director from the Biden campaign will also serve in a leadership role, as will Saloni Sharma, who was most recently Warren’s deputy communications director, and Sean Savett, formerly press secretary to Illinois Democratic Sen. Senator Tammy Duckworth and rapid response director for Buttigieg. 

The confirmations team will expand over the coming days with additional positions. 

The Biden transition team said that they believe there will be substantial pressure on the Senate, which right now stands to be controlled by Republicans unless Democrats can sweep both Georgia Senate runoffs in early January, to act fast in the midst of the pandemic and concerns about the economy. 

The transition added that they also want to “introduce nominees to the American people,” which would mean “throwing away the old playbook dictating that nominees say nothing in public until their hearings.” 

In an earlier interview, a senior transition official told NBC News that the team learned from the 2008 transition that it needed to build out an infrastructure to prepare to support nominees similar to the ones built out for a presidential nominee’s vice-presidential pick or a president’s Supreme Court nomination. 

“We built a more robust apparatus ready to tell the story of our nominees post-election, once we start having nominees in November, in a more robust theory of the case then I think has just been done in prior transitions,” the official said. “You need infrastructure. You need really clear process and infrastructure the way a White House has but a transition doesn’t have the benefit of having.”

Here are the two Wisconsin counties where the Trump campaign wants a recount

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has requested — and paid for — a partial recount in the state of Wisconsin. But rather than a statewide recount, which would have cost the campaign about $7.9 million, they’re zeroing in on two vote-rich, heavily Democratic counties: Dane and Milwaukee. (The partial recount still will cost them $3 million.)  

Biden currently leads Wisconsin by 20,565 votes, and the two counties are where the Democrat racked up his biggest leads. As in other states, Biden’s huge vote margins in urban and suburban Democratic strongholds offset Trump’s strong performances in more rural counties. 

Together, the two counties alone account for about a quarter of the statewide vote cast.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 2, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters

Biden won Milwaukee County, 69 percent to 29 percent. (That’s 317,270 votes for Biden to Trump’s 134,357.)

Biden won Dane 75 percent to 23 percent. (That’s 260,185 votes for Biden to Trump’s 78,800.) 

According to Census data, Milwaukee County is about 51 percent white alone, 27 percent Black, 16 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian.

For Dane County — home to Madison and the University of Wisconsin — it’s 79 percent white alone, 6 percent Black, 7 percent Latino and 6 percent Asian. Dane also has a population of about 51 percent of residents who have bachelor’s degrees or more, a rate far higher than the national average. 

Loeffler, Warnock will debate ahead of Georgia runoff, Perdue and Ossoff will not

ATLANTA — After a debate over having runoff debates, there will be at least one ahead of Georgia’s Senate runoff elections. The Atlanta Press Club told NBC News Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., has agreed to debate Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock on Dec. 6.

“Georgians need to know who he is and I welcome that chance to debate him as many times as he wants,” Loeffler said during a Fox News interview before her participation was announced.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler R-Ga., arrives for the weekly Senate Republican caucus policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on Nov. 17, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

GOP Sen. David Perdue declined APC’s invitation to debate Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff. Ossoff will still appear during the debate time slot but will be besides an an empty podium representing Perdue.

Perdue’s campaign manager Ben Fry said in a statement, “We’ve already had two debates in this election,” and added, “We’re going to take our message about what’s at stake if Democrats have total control of Congress directly to the people.” 

“That is not our preference,” the APC wrote in a release, adding the organization will hopes Perdue changes his mind and will “leave the door open” for him to participate.

“The Atlanta Press Club works hard to provide a platform for all candidates running for public office. We believe it is an essential part of the democratic process for voters to have an opportunity to hear an exchange of ideas from the candidates so they can be better informed when they cast their ballots.”

Ossoff attacked his opponent for refusing to debate ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff election.

“If Senator Perdue doesn’t want to answer questions in public, or debate his opponent that’s fine, he just shouldn’t run for re-election to the United States Senate,” Ossoff told reporters on Tuesday.

Ossoff and Perdue debated prior to the Nov. 3 election, but Perdue backed out of the third general election debate against Ossoff in October. 

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. 

Nov. 17, 202001:33

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. 

Nov. 16, 202001:55

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.  

A man walks past a closed business on May 2, 2020, in New York.Noam Galai / Getty Images file

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. 

President-elect Joe Biden listens as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris addresses the media about the Trump administration’s lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act on Nov. 10, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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. 

Rita Hart speaks with a reporter at her farm in Wheatland, Iowa, in 2019.Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

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. 

Nov. 11, 202006:08

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. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses the 2020 election, in Oakland, Calif. on Nov. 3, 2020.Noah Berger / AP

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.

 

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks on Capitol Hill after the Republican Conference held leadership elections on Nov. 10, 2020.Erin Scott / Reuters

“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). 

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaks during a protest at PortMiami by workers in the cruise ship industry wanting to return to work on Oct. 21, 2020, in Miami.Lynne Sladky / AP file

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.