GOP narrowly averts defeat in NC special election

North Carolina 9th district Republican congressional candidate Dan Bishop celebrates his victory in Monroe, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Conservative Republican Dan Bishop won a special election for an open House seat in North Carolina, averting a demoralizing Democratic capture of a district the GOP has held for nearly six decades. But his narrow victory didn’t erase questions about whether President Donald Trump and his party’s congressional candidates face troubling headwinds approaching 2020.

Bishop, a state senator best known for a North Carolina law dictating which public bathrooms transgender people can use, defeated centrist Democrat Dan McCready on Tuesday. Bishop tied himself tightly to Trump, who staged an election eve rally for him in the district, and Tuesday’s voting seemed no less than a referendum on the Republican president, who quickly took credit for the triumph.

“Dan Bishop was down 17 points 3 weeks ago. He then asked me for help, we changed his strategy together, and he ran a great race. Big Rally last night,” Trump tweeted. No polling has emerged publicly that showed Bishop with a deficit of that magnitude. Operatives from both parties and analysts had long said the race was too close to call.

The results in the district underscored the rural-urban split between the parties, with Bishop, 55, running up substantial numbers in outlying areas and McCready eroding GOP advantages in suburban areas. McCready’s moderate profile resembled that of many Democrats who won in Republican-leaning districts in the 2018 midterms and, even with the loss on Tuesday, showed the durability of that approach.

Bishop’s margin — a little more than 2 percentage points — was far less than the 11 percentage points by which Trump captured the district in 2016. And it was only slightly greater than when then-GOP candidate Mark Harris seemed to win the seat over McCready, 36, last year — before those results were annulled after evidence of vote tampering surfaced and a new election was ordered.

Republicans have held the seat since 1963, and its loss would have been a worrisome preface to the party’s presidential and congressional campaigns next year.

“I think it means Trump is going to get a second term, and Republicans will retake the majority,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in an interview with The Associated Press. Many analysts think a GOP takeover will be difficult.

Special elections generally attract such low turnout that their results aren’t predictive of future general elections. Even so, the narrow margin in the GOP-tilted district suggested that Democrats’ 2018 string of victories in suburban districts in red states including Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas could persist next year.

Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who runs House Democrats’ political committee, said the close race showed her party is “pushing further into Republican strongholds” and was in a “commanding position” to do well next year.

Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, said the narrow margin suggests that the country’s other closely divided swing districts “could be still up for grabs.”

There is almost no pathway to Republicans regaining House control next year unless they avoid losing more suburban districts and win back some they lost last year.

The district stretches from Charlotte, one of the nation’s financial nerve centers, through its flourishing eastern suburbs and into less prosperous rural counties along the South Carolina line. More than half its voters were expected to come from the suburbs.

Since Trump became president, voters in such communities — particularly women and college-educated voters — have abandoned Trump in droves over his conservative social policies and vitriolic rhetoric on immigration and race.

Suburban defections would also jeopardize the reelection prospects of Trump, who’s already facing slipping poll numbers. Limiting the erosion of those voters will be crucial for him to retain swing states like North Carolina, which he won by less than 4 percentage points in 2016.

But Tuesday’s vote showed that Bishop benefited from the district’s conservative leanings.

“Bishop, his policies follow my convictions — after hearing Bishop, knowing that he’s for the Second Amendment and he’s against illegal immigration,” said Susie Sisk, 73, a retiree from Mint Hill. The registered Democrat said she voted for Bishop.

Along with a GOP victory in a second vacant House district in North Carolina, Republicans pared the Democratic majority in the House to 235-199, plus one independent. That means to win control of the chamber in 2020, Republicans will need to gain 19 seats, which a slew of GOP retirements and demographic changes around the country suggests will be difficult.

In the day’s other special election, Republican Greg Murphy, a doctor and state legislator, defeated Democrat Allen Thomas — as expected — to keep a House district along North Carolina’s Atlantic coast.

That seat has been vacant since February, when 13-term GOP Rep. Walter Jones died, and Trump won the district handily in 2016.

The bathroom law that Bishop sponsored was repealed after it prompted a national outcry and boycotts that the AP estimated cost North Carolina $3.7 billion.

Bishop bound himself tightly to Trump, backing his proposed border wall with Mexico and accusing Trump critics of being intent on “destroying him.”

“The voters said no to radical, liberal polices pushed by today’s Democratic Party,” Bishop said in a victory speech.

McCready, a former Marine who started a firm that’s financed solar energy projects to cast himself as a job creator and environmental champion. He also focused on containing health care costs and ran a spot featuring his trademark promise to prioritize “country over party.”

In his concession speech, McCready referred to the ballot fraud investigation that led to Tuesday’s special election.

“When the people in power sought to silence the voices of the voters, stole their ballots, forged signatures from them, filled in vote choices for them,” McCready said, “we fought back and we won.”

At a rally Trump staged for Bishop in July, Trump said four Democratic women of color should “go back” to their home countries, though all but one was born in the U.S. The crowd began chanting “Send her back!”

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Associated Press writers Emery P. Dalesio and Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.
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Trump bypasses Senate while Republicans say nothing

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

President Donald Trump’s latest anointment of an acting head of a major federal agency has prompted muttering, but no more than that, from Republican senators whose job description includes confirming top administration aides.

Their reluctance to confront Trump comes as veterans of the confirmation process and analysts say he’s placed acting officials in key posts in significantly higher numbers than his recent predecessors. The practice lets him quickly, if temporarily, install allies in important positions while circumventing the Senate confirmation process, which can be risky with Republicans running the chamber by a slim 53-47 margin.

The latest example is Ken Cuccinelli, who last week was named acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He is an outspoken supporter of hard-line immigration policies and his appointment was opposed by some key Senate Republicans.

Definitive listings of acting officials in Trump’s and other administrations are hard to come by because no agency keeps overall records. Yet Christina Kinane, an incoming political science professor at Yale, compiled data in her doctoral dissertation, “Control Without Confirmation: The Politics of Vacancies in Presidential Appointments.”

Kinane found that from 1977 through mid-April of this year — the administrations of President Jimmy Carter through the first half of Trump’s — 266 individuals held Cabinet posts. Seventy-nine of them held their jobs on an acting basis, or 3 in 10.

Under Trump, 22 of the 42 people in top Cabinet jobs have been acting, or just over half.

And though Trump’s presidency has spanned only about 1 in 20 of the years covered, his administration accounts for more than 1 in 4 of the acting officials tallied. Kinane’s figures include holdovers from previous administrations, some of whom serve for just days.

“This is not a new thing,” Kinane said of presidents’ use of acting officials. “It is, however, a considerably higher number” under Trump, she said.

While Republicans widely blame Democratic opposition to Trump’s nominees for his use of acting officials to fill some posts — a characterization Democrats reject — many also say his reliance on that alternative is costly.

“It has the potential to spill over into other nominations that the president’s prioritized,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said of Cuccinelli’s appointment. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said acting officials have “tenuous footing” for overseeing their agencies, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she wants confirmed department chiefs because she “wants to know who’s on point” for the administration on issues.

Yet no Republicans said they had challenged Trump’s use of acting officials. Many of them complained openly when President Barack Obama named special White House advisers informally called czars. And a year after President Bill Clinton named civil rights lawyer Bill Lann Lee acting attorney general for civil rights in 1997, Congress passed a law limiting the time acting officials can serve, generally to no more than 210 days.

“I don’t know who spends their day worrying” that their acquiescence was fraying the Senate’s constitutional power to advise and consent on nominees, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Democrats and experts disagree on the importance of the Senate’s role.

“They’re almost like they’re willing to act as staff members (of the White House) rather than independent senators,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a senator since 1975.

“They’re not standing up for their own institution,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution who has studied White House staffing.

Cuccinelli, a former attorney general of Virginia, has taken hard-line positions on immigration, such as opposing citizenship for American-born children of parents living in the U.S. illegally. He once led a conservative group that considered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., too moderate, and many Republicans doubt Cuccinelli could win confirmation.

“That’s probably the only way they could get him in there,” the No. 2 Senate GOP leader, John Thune of South Dakota, said of Trump’s naming Cuccinelli acting director.

Also in an acting position are two Cabinet secretaries, Kevin McAleenan of the Homeland Security Department and Patrick Shanahan at the Defense Department. Others in the acting roles are Director Russell Vought of the Office of Management and Budget, U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. All but Mulvaney would need Senate approval to become permanent, and Trump has sent the Senate a nominee for just one of those jobs: Kelly Craft to be the ambassador to the U.N.

A White House spokesman did not provide a list of acting officials or comment on why Trump was relying on them, despite requests over several days. Trump has said he likes naming acting officials, telling reporters in January, “It gives me more flexibility.”

But one explanation is that under Trump, the process of filling jobs has been slow and riddled with missteps.

Trump has withdrawn 63 nominees so far, doubling the 31 Obama retracted at this point in his first term, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which studies ways to improve government effectiveness. He’s also decided against nominating some candidates after realizing the GOP-led Senate would reject them, including two would-be picks for the Federal Reserve: businessman Herman Cain and conservative commentator Stephen Moore.

In addition, Trump’s 568 nominations during his first year in office were more than 100 fewer than Obama submitted during that period, partnership figures show.

Max Stier, the group’s president and CEO, said Trump’s use of acting officials is partly because his campaign’s preparations for its transition into power were “the worst of any recent president.” But he said a desire to avoid difficult or rejected Senate confirmations “does appear to be one element, and the most obvious example of that is Ken Cuccinelli.”

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AP news researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report.

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Kushner runs into Senate GOP skeptics over immigration plan

President Donald Trump’s senior adviser, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, departs the Capitol after a meeting with Senate Republicans, in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

An attempt by presidential senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to win support for a White House immigration plan produced uncertain results Tuesday as Republican senators raised questions.

After Kushner and others described the proposal at a Capitol Hill lunch with GOP lawmakers, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters that White House officials seemed “well on their way” to winning consensus for a plan that would unite Republicans on the contentious issue. But he added, “Whether it will or not, I don’t know.”

Kushner has been describing his proposal to Republicans even as the approaching 2020 presidential campaign makes a solution to what has long been an intractable issue even harder to resolve. President Donald Trump has made hard-line policies a staple of his presidency as conservatives push to reduce legal immigration.

Democrats want an easing of restrictions that have prevented many from obtaining citizenship, including for hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. They’ve been allowed to temporarily live and work in the U.S. under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump has tried to terminate.

Kushner won a positive reception for his proposal last week from about a dozen of the Senate’s more conservative Republicans. It features a bolstering of security measures, such as improved screening at southwest border ports of entry, and an increased preference for immigrants with strong job skills over relatives of migrants already in the U.S.

Graham, who is close to Trump, said that while Kushner’s plan focuses on people with high-end job skills, “We need workers across the board.”

Moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Kushner about protections for DACA recipients but received no specific answer, Republicans said.

“They cannot be excluded from any immigration package,” Collins said afterward.

One Republican official briefed on Tuesday’s meeting said Kushner provided few details and said senators did not seem overly impressed with the plan. Another said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not offer his views of the proposal. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private session.

Senators said Trump was expected to deliver a speech on immigration in coming days.

Kushner did not include DACA protections in his proposal. Republicans say the plan is designed to give their party a starting point for talks and a stance they can carry into next year’s elections.

“I don’t think it’s designed to get Democratic support as much as it is to unify the Republican Party around border security, a negotiating position,” Graham said.

“There was a lot of encouragement today for the work they’ve done,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

Graham planned to unveil his own proposal Wednesday for revamping laws that affect Central American migrants seeking asylum to enter the U.S. Growing numbers of them have been trying to get asylum status in recent years.

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro and reporter Matthew Daly contributed.
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Socialism: Real threat or political propaganda?

Rhett Lucero, 40, an auto body shop in Pueblo, Colo. (AP Photo/Alan Fram)

In this scruffy, high-desert town encircled by prairies and potato farms, Sen. Cory Gardner drew shouts of approval last week for his message that Democrats are shoving the country toward socialism.

“That’s not what government is or what it should be,” he told about 200 Alamosa County Republicans at a barbecue fundraiser in a National Guard armory. “We have to stand up and fight. Are you going to join me in this fight?”

For Gardner and other Republicans making the same pitch , including President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the key question is whether it will attract moderate voters, not just their conservative stalwarts. Based on interviews with over three dozen Coloradans last week from Denver’s suburbs south to this town in the flat San Luis Valley, the argument has yet to take root, though the GOP has 18 months to sell it before Election Day 2020.

Few volunteered a drift toward socialism as a major worry, with health care and living costs cited far more frequently. Several said capitalism was too embedded in the U.S. to be truly threatened and Republicans were using socialism to stir unease with Democrats by raising the specter of the old, repressive Soviet Union and today’s chaotic Venezuela.

“They’re preying on fear,” said David Kraemer, 67, a financial adviser who’s not registered with a political party and lives in the Denver suburb of Westminster.

Yet when asked directly whether socialism was a concern, many expressed a wariness of injecting more government into people’s lives. Rather than naming policies that troubled them, many mentioned two self-proclaimed democratic socialists: Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s seeking the Democratic presidential nomination , and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The comments suggested that Republicans might be tapping into unease over letting either party go too far.

“Checks and balances are what make this country so great,” said Steve Lajoie, 46, a self-employed carpenter from Denver and independent voter.

Gardner, 44, who’s expected to face a tough re-election fight next year, has been repeating his argument for months. He cites liberal Democrats’ “Medicare for All” bills for government-provided health care and a Green New Deal proposal for aggressively cutting carbon emissions.

Sanders has sponsored Medicare for All legislation that’s been embraced by many of his Democratic presidential rivals. Ocasio-Cortez is an architect of the Green New Deal, which remains a concept, not proposed legislation. Many Democrats, especially moderates, have kept their distance from both plans, divisions Republicans are happy to exploit.

Democrats reject the socialism assertion as a distraction from Trump’s unpopularity and the issues they will emphasize, especially improving health care and protecting jobs and income. They say efforts to make health care more available and combat global warming have nothing to do with limiting individuals’ rights.

Democrats note that voters gave them total control of Colorado government in November despite GOP attempts to pin the socialism label on former U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who was elected governor. They say growing numbers of younger, urban and Hispanic residents are steadily making the state more liberal.

GOP cries of socialism are “Cold War stuff” that’s irrelevant to most voters, said Morgan Carroll, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

“I think that probably does fire up their base, but you cannot win an election in Colorado with the Republican base alone,” Carroll said.

Republicans see a powerful argument in telling voters they need a GOP-controlled Senate for protection against Democrats who are coming after their current health insurance, their energy sector jobs and more.

“I think we’re running to be the firewall that saves the country from socialism,” McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters recently.

Republicans say the anti-socialism message will prove powerful in a state that overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative creating single-payer health care and where registered unaffiliated voters, often with libertarian leanings, outnumber both Democrats and Republicans.

The GOP hopes the appeal will win over suburbanites whose distaste for Trump helped Democrats capture the House in the fall. They note that public opinion polls find socialism is especially unpopular among older voters, Republicans and moderates.

Avery Jones, of Westminster, is one potential target.

“Taxes kill,” said Jones, 27. While she’s eager to improve her family’s health coverage, she sees “some merit” to checking Democrats from pushing toward universal health care because “it would just drive up taxes.”

But for every Jones, there’s a Rhett Lucero. Lucero, 40, eating lunch at the Riverwalk park that winds through the city of Pueblo, says Democrats’ efforts to expand health coverage and curb global warming make sense.

“It’s helping each other out,” said the auto body mechanic, who, like Jones, is an unaffiliated voter. “It’s putting our taxes to a real good use.”

Not all Democrats are dismissive of the socialism strategy.

Eva Henry, a commissioner of Adams County outside Denver, says her community’s blue-collar families might buy the GOP argument if they believe Democrats’ proposals would drive up taxes. “Our Democrats can vote Republican because they vote their pocketbooks,” the Democrat said.

Pueblo Mayor Nicholas Gradisar said he doubts the argument will sway many Democrats but warned, “Democrats have to be wary of it and they have to respond” by telling voters the party “will give you a fair shake.” Pueblo County, south of the economically surging corridor that runs from Boulder to Colorado Springs, leans Democratic but backed Trump in 2016.

Republicans, who’ve already cast Democrats as socialists this year with digital videos and roadside billboards, tried the theme in several states in November to little effect. It wasn’t new: Actor Ronald Reagan and GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater castigated Medicare as socialist in the 1960s, yet it’s now a cherished medical lifeline for millions of older Americans.

Republicans say this time will be different. But one Coloradan’s comments suggest that past GOP warnings about Democrats may haunt Republicans.

“Every time a Democrat gets elected, they say, ‘We’re going to lose our guns,’” said Marc O’Leary, 48, of Westminster. “It never happens.”

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Lots of rhetoric over socialism claims

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., attends the Alamosa County Republicans Lincoln Day dinner in Alamosa, Colo., on April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Alan Fram)

Republicans such as Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado are arguing the Senate must stay under GOP control in next year’s elections to prevent Democrats from pushing the country toward socialism. A sampling of comments from Colorado residents and others on the subject:

Terry Hammond, chairman of the Alamosa County Republican Party: “People depend too much on government rather than doing for themselves. Next thing you know it’ll be paying off people’s credit cards and mortgages.”

Helen Sigmond, Democrat and member of the Alamosa County Commission: “My goodness, they’re trying to make it sound horrible,” she said of Republican accusations of Democrats’ socialism. “But my goodness, who is Trump’s best friend? Putin.”

Paul Kelly, 64, accountant and unaffiliated voter from Denver suburb of Westminster: “I don’t think they understand where it will lead,” he said of Democrats’ views of socialism. “Democrats are innocents. They think a utopian world exists.”

Nicolette Jones, 20, Democrat, student at Adams State University in Alamosa: “I don’t see the possibility of the U.S. becoming a socialist country as a reasonable fear.”

Angie Horning, 50, Republican, real estate agent from Colorado Springs: “I don’t see socialism as having helped anywhere. It’s a concern. People don’t understand it. It takes freedom away.”

Nick Saenz, 36, Democrat, history professor at Adams State University: Republican warnings about socialism are “a dog whistle” aimed at older voters’ Cold War fears of the communist threat.

David Winston, Republican pollster and adviser to congressional GOP leaders, on next year’s elections: “In most of these states, it’s the political center that’s going to decide the outcome, and the political center is not fond of socialism.”

Geoffrey Garin, Democratic pollster and adviser to congressional Democratic leaders, on GOP attempts to woo suburban voters by warning about Democrats and socialism: “With suburban voters, Republicans are just playing a losing hand” because of issues like battling climate change and improving health care coverage.

Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of Colorado House and candidate for Democratic nomination to oppose Gardner: “People support Social Security and Medicare, public education and infrastructure. That doesn’t make you a socialist. It’s just common sense.”

Gardner, on his claim that the country faces a threat from socialism: “One of the leading candidates of the Democratic Party is a socialist. That’s the threat. One of the leading voices in the House of Representatives is a socialist. That’s not made up. That’s not pie in the sky.” His references were to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a Democratic presidential candidate, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who call themselves democratic socialists.

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Dems to Miller: ‘Make your case’ on immigration

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

A Democratic House committee chairman on Wednesday invited White House aide Stephen Miller to testify before his panel and “make your case” for President Donald Trump’s aggressive policies cracking down on both illegal and legal immigration.

The combative Miller is one of the White House’s most conservative and influential voices in pushing moves that Trump has taken to curb immigration. He engineered Trump’s Muslim travel ban and is widely viewed as the driving force behind the administration’s hardest-line immigration policies.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Past administrations have often refused to send White House aides to testify before Congress, though there have been exceptions.

Should such a session occur, it would be bound to ignite fireworks over an issue that has repeatedly produced heated clashes between Trump and congressional Democrats. Trump has made an immigration crackdown a cornerstone of his appeal to conservative voters, while Democrats — led by liberal and Hispanic lawmakers — have been just as adamant in opposing his moves.

“I understand that you may not want to submit yourself to rigorous questioning,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in his letter to Miller requesting his appearance.

“I want to make clear that I am inviting you to appear voluntarily,” Cummings wrote. “I am offering you an opportunity to make your case to the committee and the American people about why you — and presumably President Trump — believe it is good policy for the Trump administration to take the actions it has.”

Cummings cited the separation of migrant children from detained parents, a policy Trump withdrew under fire last year; Trump’s threat to move detained migrants to “sanctuary cities,” communities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities and that are mostly in Democratic areas; and the removal of top Homeland Security officials, including Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Cummings said he wanted Miller to testify to his committee on May 1 and gave him until April 24 to respond.

Meanwhile, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson said he is working on legislation to help stem the flow of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Johnson, R-Wis., said he wants to toughen the initial standard for asylum seekers to “more than a probable chance” they’ll experience violence or persecution in their home countries. Right now, if people can demonstrate “credible fear,” they’re allowed to stay in the U.S. as their cases progress.

Johnson said in an interview that asylum cases must be adjudicated faster and that asylum seekers should be detained while they wait.

Johnson visited this week with migrants in Border Patrol custody on the southwestern border. He said most were seeking a better life and said that while he’s sympathetic to their circumstances, that doesn’t mean they should be granted asylum.

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