Cameron_joseph_profile2

Cameron Joseph

Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.

Articles by Cameron

Former FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell memos on his private conversations with President Trump and top White House staff are public for the first time. While most of what they contain closely matches what Comey has already shared publicly, there are some rather interesting nuggets of exactly what Trump allegedly said at the time — and some news about how his then-underlings acted.

Here’s what stood out:

Reince Priebus Asked About Whether There Was A Flynn FISA Warrant

Then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, after asking Comey if they were having a “private conversation” in a one-on-one meeting on February 8th, asked if there was a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on Flynn. Before the question, he told Comey to let him know if that was an inappropriate question.

Comey, after a pause, answered (what he said was redacted from the release), then told Priebus to go through official channels in the future for questions like that.

The timing of that conversation is as notable as the question itself. It came five days before Flynn was fired from his post as National Security Advisor, but a full 13 days after then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned the White House that Flynn had lied about the contents of his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.

A full week after that (and two days after Flynn resigned), Priebus reportedly requested that Comey and other senior FBI officials go public to dismiss media reports about possible contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian leaders during the 2016 campaign.

“The Golden Showers Thing”

Trump directly denied “the golden showers thing,” according to Comey in exactly those words, in a late January meeting with Comey where he demanded loyalty from the then-FBI director. Trump called it “fake news” and said it bothered him that there was even a 1 percent chance his wife, first lady Melania Trump, believed the accusations, asking Comey to investigate it to help him prove the claims wrong.

He brought up the same phrase in a February meeting.

Trump: Michael Flynn “Has Serious Judgment Issues”

Comey said in the same meeting that Trump told him that he had serious reservations about then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s judgment. To illustrate that, Trump told a story about Flynn interrupting him when he was saying British Prime Minister Theresa May had called him first to congratulate him on the election to say another world leader had called first, and that he’d called back six days later.  Trump berated him for not responding to the call faster. He concluded by saying, according to Comey, that Flynn “has serious judgment issues.”

“The Hookers Thing”

During a February meeting, Trump said “the hookers thing” claim from the Steele dossier about his his visit to Russia wasn’t true — but said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told him in an earlier conversation that “we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.” That’s notable given Trump’s previous denials that he’d talked to Putin during the campaign, though it’s unclear when exactly this comment was supposed to have been made.

 

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Former FBI Director James Comey took assiduous, contemporaneous notes during his private meetings with President Trump and close associates, documenting the details of what was allegedly said almost immediately after they occurred. Talking Points Memo has obtained a copy of the notes themselves.

The memos, which the Justice Department gave to various Capitol Hill committees Thursday evening after House Republicans have threatened to subpoena them, closely match Comey’s public testimony on the topics in Congress and in recent interviews: That Trump demanded his loyalty, wanted to protect then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn from investigation, and that he wanted to end the Russia investigation.

TPM independently obtained the full memos and published them shortly after the Associated Press uploaded them.

Read them below in full:

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Arizona Republicans appeared to back off their efforts Wednesday to rig the rules to keep Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) seat in their column, pulling from the state Senate floor a proposed change in state law that would have guaranteed a lengthy appointment from the GOP governor should the ailing senator leave office in the coming weeks.

Statehouse Republicans seemingly tried to pull a fast one on their Democratic counterparts, quietly adding an emergency clause to a bipartisan bill to clean up special election laws in the state that would have handed Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) assurance that he’d get to appoint a replacement for McCain through 2020.

There’s a bit of disagreement between experts on current state law. There’s general consensus that if McCain’s seat comes open before June 1, a special election will be held to fill his seat this fall — greatly improving Democrats’ chances of winning at least one Senate seat and cracking the door for them to win both. If McCain’s seat doesn’t come open until after June 1, most (but not all) experts think that means Ducey would get to appoint a replacement for more than two years.

McCain is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, and underwent surgery for a digestive issue in recent days.

The move suggests Republicans are nervous he might not be able to run out the clock and guarantee their party a longer appointment to the seat. That could be disastrous: Not only would it open up another Senate seat in a year that’s shaping up to be a terrible one for their party, but it could hurt their chances in both races depending on what candidate jumps into each contest.

Republicans say either former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) or former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) would likely move over to the other race, and nominating either would be devastating to their chances at holding that seat. Right now the two are splitting the hardline conservative vote and giving Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), the establishment favorite, the edge in their three-way primary for retiring Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) seat. If one moved overMcSally could be in real trouble, and both hardliners could be the favorite for the nomination. If McSally survives her primary she’s in for a tough race against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).

There’s bipartisan agreement that state laws on open seats need to be clarified, after a chaotic process to fill the seat of disgraced former Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ). But Republicans quietly added an emergency clause to a bill on Tuesday that would change future election rules to make it immediately applicable.

If it had passed, the bill would have given Ducey the power to appoint a McCain replacement through 2020 whether he leaves before or after the end of May.

But Democrats caught the change and raised the alarm, all but killing the effort since emergency clauses need two-thirds support and the party has 13 of the state senate’s 30 seats. Republicans responded by canceling plans to put the bill on the state Senate floor on Wednesday, delaying then canceling a vote.

It’s fairly clear the emergency clause is done. … The crisis is probably over,” Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley (D) told TPM. “I’m not sure they thought this through terribly well.”

A spokeswoman for Arizona state Sen. Sonny Borelli (R), who was involved with the effort, claimed the bill had been pulled to make room for school safety and budget meetings that needed to take place.

Farley said he wasn’t sure who was behind the efforts, but speculated Ducey’s office may have had a hand.

Ducey adviser Daniel Scarpinato denied that charge.

We haven’t really been involved with this,” he said.

Farley said the GOP could try to resurrect the efforts at the end of the term a month from now, but it wouldn’t have any more chance of success. It also would be a curious move since at that point they wouldn’t need to wait long for the issue to be moot.

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is clinging to a narrow lead in his race for reelection, according to a new poll.

Cruz leads Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) by just 47 percent to 44 percent, according to the survey from the well-respected pollsters at Quinnipiac University.

His narrow lead, within the poll’s margin of error, is the latest sign that Cruz is in for a tough fight for reelection in the GOP-leaning state.

Texas has been heavily Republican for two decades, Trump carried it by nine points in 2016, and any Democrat running statewide faces a steep uphill battle. On top of that, in the state’s March primary Cruz won double the number of votes O’Rourke did, a sign that the congressman still has a long way to come in getting his name out around the state.

But O’Rourke has been posting huge fundraising numbers — including a stupendous $6.7 million haul in the most recent quarter — and stands poised to be the first well-funded Democrat to run for the Senate since Texas’ changing demographics opened the door a crack to making the state competitive in recent years.

The poll also showed that President Trump is no help to his former primary rival.

Just 43 percent of Texans approve of the job Trump is doing to 52 percent who disapprove, according to the poll — weak numbers that are actually slightly better than some other pollsters have found for the president in the red but blue-trending state.

O’Rourke remains the clear underdog in this fight, but it appears he has a real shot. And if he can pull off a shock victory, he would give Democrats a real boost in their uphill fight to retake the Senate.

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Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) seems to have gone too far in his attempts to embrace President Trump in Rokita’s GOP primary.

Trump’s campaign has demanded that Rokita pull down lawn signs that arguably suggest that the president has endorsed him in the heated Indiana Senate primary, where fealty to Trump has become the common denominator between the three candidates.

The signs say Rokita is “Endorsed by: Trump/Pence.” In smaller letters on the next line, it makes clear who’s actually supporting him: “2016 team leaders.”

That refers to Rex Early and Tony Samuel, Trump’s 2016 state campaign chairman and vice-chairman. Both endorsed Rokita earlier this year in his race against Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) and former state legislator Mike Braun.

Samuel told TPM he got a text message from a senior Trump campaign official (he declined to say who it was) complaining about the signs, and pointed them to the Rokita campaign to hash things out.

This is the Messer campaign concerned with our endorsement and trying to push back and putting heat on this person from the campaign who felt the pressure to text,” Samuel said. “The wording on the yard sign is consistent with our endorsement, we have every right to make endorsements as the former state chairman and vice chairman of the 2016 campaign.”

Messer has a lot of overlapping supporters with Vice President Mike Pence, and Rokita’s team believes Messer’s campaign pressured Trump’s staff into the complaints.

Trump campaign chief operating officer Michael Glassner didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the signs, and the conversation.

The AP first reported the kerfuffle, and has a photo of the yard sign here.

Rokita’s team refused to say whether it will comply and pull down the signs, or discuss the contents of the call with Trump’s team, before taking a swipe at Messer.

“The record shows that Rex Early and Tony Samuel, the chairman and vice chairman of the 2016 Trump campaign in Indiana, have endorsed Todd Rokita because he stood with President Trump while Luke Messer sided with the Never Trumpers who disdain President Trump and gave aid and comfort to Hillary Clinton,” Rokita spokesman Nathan Brand said in a statement after declining to say whether the signs would come down.

Braun’s team was quick with a swipe of its own, labeling him “Todd the fraud” in a statement.

All three candidates have raced to embrace Trump in the primary, name-checking him in ads. But Rokita has gone the furthest, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in one of his recent ads.

The primary is May 8, and strategists say all three have a real chance at winning the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) in one of the GOP’s best chances to pick up a Senate seat this cycle.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has hired a powerful firebrand conservative to be his new chief of staff, a sign he wants to renew his position on the right with an eye on his political future.

Rubio announced Tuesday afternoon that he was bringing on Michael Needham, until recently the head of the powerful Heritage Action for America, to run his Senate office.

That’s a somewhat surprising pairing, given Rubio’s establishment-leaning reputation. Needham has long been a thorn in the side of GOP leaders, cheerleading for the 2013 government shutdown and rabble-rousing against congressional Republicans from the right on a host of issues throughout his career.

The hiring signals that Rubio may be looking to reestablish his once-strong credentials with talk radio conservatives after losing those bona fides by backing bipartisan immigration reform efforts in recent years and emerging as an establishment favorite in the 2016 presidential election before stumbling out of the race.

“Mike brings a wealth of policy, political and management experience that will greatly complement our office’s mission of serving the people of Florida and leading the effort to modernize the conservative movement in the 21st century. Mike understands and shares these goals, and I look forward to his contributions,” Rubio said in a statement.

The two do have some overlapping history. Heritage was a major backer of Rubio back when he was a Tea Party darling in 2010 and forced then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist from the party. So was then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who went on to head Heritage and work closely with Needham (sources differ on whether Needham supported DeMint’s ouster at the organization last year).

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The super-PAC tasked with keeping the House in GOP hands is making a big bet on what the House map will look like this fall, plunking down $48 million in advertising reservations across 30 districts.

The Congressional Leadership Fund’s reservations include $38 million for TV ads in the 20 districts the group seemingly sees as the most likely to decide the House majority next fall, as well as an additional $10 million on digital ads spread across 30 districts.

The list mostly follows most prognosticators’ views of which districts are vulnerable, and groups can always change early reservations and add other targets. But the list is notable for who’s on there — as well as who was left out.

One name that’s glaringly missing from the robust list: Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), a very vulnerable member in a Democratic-trending Northern Virginia district. Reps. Rod Blum (R-IA) and Jason Lewis (R-MN), two other members in tough swing districts viewed as vulnerable by strategists in both parties, also didn’t make the cut. The group also didn’t commit any early resources to open seats vacated by retiring Reps. Darrel Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce (D-CA) that Democrats have been bullish about picking up.

On the flip side, the group shows it’s legitimately concerned about holding a pair of Kansas House seats by reserving nearly $3 million to protect Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and a GOP-leaning open seat in the state, as well as protecting Reps. Andy Barr (R-KY) and Tom MacArthur (R-NJ).

The reservations come about a month after the House Majority PAC, the group’s Democratic counterpart, plunked down $43 million in its own early bets.

“CLF’s historic and aggressive fundraising pace has allowed us to place larger advertising buys earlier than ever,” CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss said in a statement. “Today’s announcement demonstrates CLF’s continued commitment to doing things differently. By reserving advertising early, investing unprecedented resources in digital, and running the country’s only House-focused national field program, CLF is prepared to lead the way in defending the House Republican majority.”

Here’s the full reservation list as provided by the group:

Television Reservations ($38 million in 20 districts)

  1. CA-10 (Denham), $2.35 million
  2. CA-25 (Knight), $2.1 million
  3. CA-45 (Walters), $2.3 million
  4. CO-06 (Coffman), $2.3 million
  5. FL-26 (Curbelo), $1.67 million
  6. IL-12 (Bost), $2 million
  7. KS-02 (Open), $1.25 million
  8. KS-03 (Yoder), $1.7 million
  9. KY-06 (Barr), $1.8 million
  10. ME-02 (Poliquin), $1.2 million
  11. MI-08 (Bishop), $2.2 million
  12. MN-03 (Paulsen), $2.3 million
  13. MN-08 (Open), $2.6 million
  14. NE-02 (Bacon), $1.6 million
  15. NJ-03 (MacArthur), $1.4 million
  16. NY-22 (Tenney), $900,000
  17. PA-01 (Fitzpatrick) $1.4 million
  18. TX-07 (Culberson), $2.45 million
  19. TX-23 (Hurd), $2.1 million
  20. WA-08 (Open), $2.1 million

Digital Spending ($10 million in 30 Districts)

  1. CA-10 (Denham)
  2. CA-21 (Valadao)
  3. CA-25 (Knight)
  4. CA-45 (Walters)
  5. CO-06 (Coffman)
  6. FL-18 (Mast)
  7. FL-26 (Curbelo)
  8. IA-01 (Blum)
  9. IL-06 (Roskam)
  10. IL-12 (Bost)
  11. KS-02 (Open)
  12. KS-03 (Yoder)
  13. KY-06 (Barr)
  14. ME-02 (Poliquin)
  15. MI-08 (Bishop)
  16. MN-03 (Paulsen)
  17. MN-08 (Open)
  18. NC-13 (Budd)
  19. NE-02 (Bacon)
  20. NJ-03 (MacArthur)
  21. NJ-07 (Lance)
  22. NY-22 (Tenney)
  23. NY-24 (Katko)
  24. PA-01 (Fitzpatrick)
  25. PA-17 (Rothfus)
  26. TX-07 (Culberson)
  27. TX-23 (Hurd)
  28. VA-02 (Taylor)
  29. WA-05 (McMorris Rodgers)
  30. WA-08 (Open)

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National Republicans are quietly making a major push to block controversial coal baron and ex-con Don Blankenship from becoming their party’s nominee in the West Virginia Senate race, amidst growing fears that he could cost them a shot at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

A newly minted super-PAC with national GOP ties, Mountain Families, has unleashed a TV campaign attacking Blankenship for poisoning local drinking water with “toxic coal slurry” even as he built a separate water system for his own mansion, the opening salvo in what will likely be a furious effort to keep him from winning the GOP nomination May 8.

The attacks come amidst building GOP panic that the self-funding Blankenship will spend his way to the nomination in spite of his massive political baggage, as his two main opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), haven’t laid a finger on him with just weeks to go until the election.

Blankenship would be a nightmare of a nominee for the GOP. He’s been out of prison for less than a year after serving a sentence for willfully violating safety regulations at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine, leading to an explosion that killed 29 employees — the worst mining accident in the U.S. in four decades. The incident was the latest in a string of Massey safety violations, leading Rolling Stone to dub him “the dark lord of coal country” in a 2010 story.

His shocking rise has Republicans in West Virginia and D.C. worrying he could triumph next month and cost them another winnable race in the fall while embarrassing the state.

If the election was held today, Don would win,” one plugged-in West Virginia Republican told TPM late last week. “Alabama gave us Roy Moore. Now West Virginia’s saying ‘hold my beer.'”

Blankenship has sought to turn his conviction into a positive in the race, painting himself as a political prisoner and arguing that the conviction was a set-up by the Obama Justice Department, Hillary Clinton and Manchin, who was governor at the time of the 2010 accident and said Blankenship had “blood on his hands.” In Blankenship’s version of the story, the Mine Safety and Health Administration forced his company, Massey Energy, to use a defective ventilation system, then turned him into a convenient political scapegoat after the disaster.

There’s scant evidence that’s true. A jury trial found Blankenship and Massey systematically refused to follow safety regulations at the mine, leading to a buildup of methane gas and coal dust that caused the deadly explosion, and multiple independent investigations have found no evidence of Blankenship’s claims.

But Blankenship has pushed hard on that tale with $2 million in TV ad spending, a 67-page manifesto and regular speeches across the state in his affectless drawl. And he’s got a seasoned campaign staff around him — many of the same people who helped him flip the state from blue to red in the last 15 years as the state’s largest GOP donor, and essentially buy a state Supreme Court seat a decade ago.

His anti-Obama conspiracy theory plays well in a state where the former president is so hated that a convicted felon nearly beat him in the Democratic primary in 2012. And it’s compelling even to some who back his opponents.

“There’s a feeling among some in the state that he got a raw deal in being sent to jail, that the government was involved rather than Massey Energy,” former West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney told TPM.

McKinney, who backs Jenkins, nonetheless said he believed Blankenship.

Don has stated unequivocally that they made them change the airflow in that mine and that’s what led to that tragedy. I’m not a coal miner, I’m a urologist, but he makes a very convincing argument about it,” he said.

Views like McKinney’s help explain how Blankenship has shocked local and national observers with a solid showing in the few public polls of the race.

In internal surveys Jenkins and Morrisey released more than a month ago, Blankenship was within striking distance of first place (though each candidate’s poll had him in the lead). No numbers have been released since, and most West Virginia Republicans believe he has the lead right now after vastly outspending his two opponents on the airwaves.

National Republicans have signaled they won’t lift a finger to help Blankenship if he wins, while imploring voters not to pick him.

I’m not sure if he can even vote. Do they let ankle bracelets get out of the house?” quipped National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) when TPM asked about Blankenship’s chances. “West Virginia will do the right thing and send someone who can actually win.”

The White House has sent similar signals as to its preferences — President Trump recently had both Morissey and Jenkins sitting nearby at a recent official trip to the state, while Blankenship’s invitation was lost in the mail.

But Gardner told TPM that the NRSC wouldn’t get directly involved, conserving its own limited resources and looking to avoid another anti-establishment backlash like the one that helped Moore clinch the nomination in Alabama last fall.

The last thing West Virginians want is the senatorial committee telling them what they should want,” he said.

In spite of Blankenship’s rise, neither of his opponents have leveled any real attacks against him, focusing instead on using their much more limited resources to tout their own credentials and tear each other down. That puzzling pattern comes in spite of his own ads attacking Jenkins for his Democratic past and Morrisey for being a carpetbagger with a D.C. lobbyist wife.

The pair seemed caught off-guard by Blankenship’s rise, but in recent weeks it’s been unclear why they were still holding their fire — whether they were worried that a shot at the deep-pocketed and ruthless Blankenship would trigger a heavy barrage of attacks in response, or whether they were simply waiting for outside help.

That cavalry has finally arrived, though it’s unclear if it’ll be enough. Mountain Families, a shadowy group run by former RNC senior staffer Ben Ottenhoff, who last fall worked with a super-PAC associated with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to try to stop Moore, has dropped $650,000 in the initial ad buy, a heavy rotation for the next week-plus in the inexpensive state. Ottenhoff didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Blankenship moved to turn those attacks to his advantage.

“The Republican Party swampers in Washington have come to the surface to oppose my candidacy for the U.S. Senate. They are swamp creatures who pretend to be conservatives but are instead liberal big spenders. We welcome the fact that they are showing themselves to be what they truly are,” he said in a Monday statement.

Trump won the state by a whopping 42-point margin in 2016, his second-largest advantage of any state in the country. And while Manchin’s strong personal brand and the promise of a good year for Democrats make him a tough out, recent polls suggest he’s slipped some at home and could be vulnerable in a race against Jenkins or Morrisey.

Manchin refused to say who he’d prefer to face in the fall — “Whoever the Republicans put up is who we’re going to run against, I’m not getting involved in their primary at all,” he told TPM — but Democrats and Republicans agree that Blankenship and his baggage would obviously give Manchin a huge boost in what would otherwise be a tough race.

“It should be the easier race for Joe” if Blankenship emerges, former Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) told TPM. “We’re talking about people’s lives here in Blankenship’s case, people’s lives that were lost, for which he was convicted of being the guilty party.”

Morrisey has looked to position himself as the right-wing outsider in the campaign — his latest ad features a literal West Virginia mountain dropping on the U.S. capitol.

“When you look at Don Blankenship’s record there’s the obvious prison record. When you look at Evan Jenkins you can see his years as a Democrat,” said Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. “And when you look at Patrick Morrisey you can look at his six years as attorney general. … He’s really been there on the front lines of every major conservative battle.”

Jenkins has also on bear-hugged Trump, while touting his social conservatism and blasting Morrisey as a carpet-bagger.

Jenkins spokesman Andy Sere said his boss still leads, arguing he’s “the only person in this race who has supported President Trump since day one, and is actually working with the President to drain the swamp and protect our West Virginia values.”

He’s expected to do particularly well in his congressional district in the southern part of the state, the heart of coal country — and the site of the UBB accident. Observers say that that Morrisey and Blankenship share an anti-establishment base, and if one drops the other will benefit, and could win. If they stay roughly equal, Jenkins could pull off a victory with more moderate votes.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told TPM it was a “very competitive race” that any of the candidates could win.

And that could lead to disaster for the GOP.

Former Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie (R), a Jenkins supporter, told TPM he’d gladly vote for Morrisey if he prevails — but would vote for Manchin if Blankenship is the nominee. And he thinks many others would follow suit.

“He has a checkered past, at best,”  he said. “The race is over if he wins the primary. The Republicans can basically concede to the Democrats.”

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A group of heavy-hitting Democratic former lawmakers are banding together to help their party try to recover a foothold in the rural areas they once represented.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), former Agriculture Secretary and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and former Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) are launching Rural Forward, an organization to advocate progressive ideas in rural communities and rebuild Democrats’ standing in parts of the country where they’ve been decimated over the last decade.

The organization, first unveiled to TPM, will be helmed by Etheridge, with the others serving as honorary co-chairs. Brad Woodhouse, a former Etheridge staffer who went on to serve as communications director of the Democratic National Committee and run American Bridge, will serve as senior adviser, with former Iowa state Rep. John Whitaker (D) as executive director and John Davis, a veteran of a number of Iowa races as well as the John Edwards presidential campaign, pitching in as well.

Those involved recognize it’s a steep challenge for Democrats to recover in rural areas – and that the group’s launch is a small first step towards meeting it.

A lot of the states that have gone bright red used to be bright purple, and we want to make them purple again and we think there’s an opportunity to do that. But we need an agenda, we need candidates, we need just about everything to rejuvenate the party in these places,” Daschle told TPM. “This isn’t going to happen overnight, although Mr. Trump may be helping us more than we realize.”

The group’s initial goals are fairly modest, in keeping with their limited resources: organize town halls, help communicate how Democratic priorities like infrastructure investment and rural broadband expansion help rural communities, partner with local advocates to provide them with organizing tools. Its early efforts will be focused in states where the organizers have personal ties, like North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota.

We’re doing this right now with duct tape and baling wire. We’ve raised thousands of dollars, this isn’t going to be in the millions, it’s going to be earned media and educational as opposed to ads,” said Woodhouse. “We want to get the ball rolling. We’re taking the long view of this work.”

They’re betting that a renewed focus on pocketbook issues can help lead a Democratic recovery in rural areas across the country, even as culture wars burn as hot as ever in the political sphere due to Trump.

The organization is a 501(C)4, so can’t directly focus on elections. But whether they can have some success is critical for 2018, as well as going forward. Democrats will need to pick up some rural House seats to capture control of the lower chamber, and are defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won that have large rural populations, including Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.

“These members from Montana or North Dakota, they’re flying by themselves, there’s very little infrastructure to help them trumpet their values. We want to help provide whatever it is, talking points and fact sheets, policy material and analysis,” said Woodhouse.

The group’s leaders share one thing in common: They’ve all won tough races in rural-heavy states and districts. But with the exception of Vilsack, the rest eventually lost reelection as their party brand was too much to overcome in tough Democratic years.

Democrats’ rural erosion has been happening for decades, but accelerated in the Obama era. Etheridge, a former part-time farmer, was one of many rural House Democrats to get wiped out in the 2010 wave. Landrieu was one of many rural-state Democratic senators who faced a similar fate in 2014. Trump’s election marked a new low for rural Democrats, who got shellacked in parts of the country like the Upper Mississippi River Valley in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin where they’d long had strong support, as well as rural areas across the nation.

As Democrats have been washed out of those areas, the party has become increasingly dominated by coastal, urban and suburban leaders who haven’t tried as hard to work the heartland for support.

It’s going to be hard. The trend is the other way, the party committees have really gone in the other direction too, in some places by necessity,” said Woodhouse.

But with Trump’s numbers sagging across the board (even though they’re not nearly as bad in less populated areas), Democrats see an opportunity to bounce back. And they think he’s giving them opportunities with things like his trade war with China, which risks badly hurting farmers who would face the brunt of retaliatory tariffs, or the GOP push to end Obamacare, which would have put rural hospitals in a bind.

We think the longer he has the opportunity to show his true priorities, the more likely it is that we’re going to one again demonstrate a resurgence and a real opportunity to develop a strong two-party system,” Daschle said.

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House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said he won’t run against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to become House speaker, lowering the likelihood for a direct conflict between the House’s top two remaining Republicans for the top slot.

“I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” Scalise said when asked on Fox News Thursday afternoon. “He and I are good friends.”

Those remarks suggest there won’t be all-out war between the two powerful Republicans in the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) sudden decision to announce his retirement on Wednesday.

The comments don’t necessarily take Scalise out of the running to lead the party, however. McCarthy, if he takes another shot at becoming speaker, still needs to lock in the votes of the vast majority of his conference – and if he falls short, Scalise could be the backup option for a number of lawmakers. Both have been quietly working hard to see where they stand with the conference, and shore up support in case of a leadership battle.

It appears at this point as though the next leader won’t be chosen until after the November election. At that point, the calculus would be quite different depending on how things go for the GOP this fall. If Republicans lose the majority, that likely means many of the moderate members who would be more likely to back McCarthy will be gone. On the other hand, winning the position of minority leader only needs the support of more than half the conference, rather than the near-unified party support needed to become speaker that McCarthy failed to garner when he tried to take that job when Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) retired.

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