BREAKING OVERNIGHT — BBC: “Ukraine has called for a meeting with Russia and other members of a key European security group over the escalating tensions on its border. Foreign Minister DMYTRO KULEBA said Russia had ignored formal requests to explain the build-up of troops. He said the next step was requesting a meeting within the next 48 hours for transparency about Russia’s plans.” More on Russia/Ukraine below …
BULLISH REPUBLICANS — A week ago, we laid out the thinking of some top Democratic strategists who are suddenly imagining a scenario in which the party defies history and holds Congress in the midterms. Over the past few days, we checked in with an array of Republican operatives about whether they think the GOP could actually blow this.
Even after the RNC’s “legitimate political discourse” debacle two weekends ago, the answer almost across the board was an adamant “no.” The anxiety level was virtually nil among MAGA and establishment types alike — and whether they were speaking on the record or granted anonymity to talk frankly. Their overriding point: The backlash against President JOE BIDEN is real and not going away. Some even said that DONALD TRUMP’s ongoing outrages might help the party’s chances — by keeping his base engaged and motivated to turn out.
“Intensity is at an all-time high on the Republican side, independent voters are breaking away from the president and Democrats by double-digit margins, fundraising records are being broken by the campaign committees … the president’s approval rating is low … and Republicans maintain the edge on the generic ballot,” said KEN SPAIN, who was at the NRCC in 2010 when the GOP flipped 63 seats. There are “eerie similarities” between the current election cycle and that one, he said.
Here are some of the arguments we heard from eight Republican operatives, which we’re not endorsing but rather presenting as a glimpse at what the strategic braintrust of the GOP is thinking at this moment:
1. DEMS AREN’T ADDRESSING VOTERS’ TOP CONCERNS: And one in particular: inflation. Republicans are baffled but grateful that Biden still doesn’t have a good answer to spiraling inflation. Several of them pointed to the president’s interview over the weekend with Lester Holt: When the NBC anchor pressed Biden about his prediction last year that inflation would be “temporary,” Biden called him a “wiseguy” in response.
CORRY BLISS, who led the Congressional Leadership Fund in 2018, said one of the most “amazing” things about this cycle is that the issues driving voters aren’t partisan. “When I fill up my car for gas and pay more than I’ve ever paid in my life, that pisses me off,” he said. “When I go to the grocery store and everything is more expensive than it was a year ago, that pisses me off. That’s not a Republican issue. It’s a normal personal issue.”
SARAH CHAMBERLAIN of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership said suburban women are most concerned about not only inflation but crime and the mental health of their kids who are just now getting back to school. Republicans are hammering away at all three problems; Democrats, she argued, are generally not.
“They’re not addressing issues that keep people up at night,” agreed KELLYANNE CONWAY, a former top adviser to Trump.
2. SWING VOTERS AREN’T BUYING WHAT DEMS ARE SELLING: For a year, Democrats have been beating a drum on voting rights and a nearly $2 trillion social spending package, while turning up nugget after nugget in the Jan. 6 investigation. Every Republican we spoke to was confident that those issues are making swing voters’ eyes glaze over.
Most, though not all, also weren’t concerned about the recent spat between Senate Republicans and the RNC over the censure of Reps. LIZ CHENEY (R-Wyo.) and ADAM KINZINGER (R-Ill.), which had some Democrats salivating about the prospects of Republicans undercutting themselves with infighting.
“That means nothing,” said WARD BAKER, one of the most sought-after Senate strategists and a longtime MITCH MCCONNELL ally. “No one on the ground in Georgia, in North Carolina is worrying about what’s going on in the Salt Lake meeting.”
3. RUNNING AGAINST TRUMP WON’T WORK: A contingent of Democratic strategists want the party to talk more about Trump to motivate base voters who are uninspired by Biden’s performance. But Republicans we talked to said they’re confident that tack wouldn’t hurt them in swing districts, and might even help.
“The more he’s involved, the better,” Bliss said. “Midterms are about turnout. And having him turn out the Trump voter is a huge help.” Said Baker: “I think people miss Trump’s policies. If you can get Trump’s endorsement, you should take it. Every Republican wants it.”
Even Chamberlain — who in the past sounded alarms about Trump’s rhetoric repelling suburban women — said it no longer concerns her.
“The suburban women have moved on from Donald Trump,” she said.
4. THE POLITICS OF THE PANDEMIC HAVE CHANGED: While Covid-19 was an albatross around Trump’s neck in 2020, Republicans remain confident that Biden and his party will pay this time around. They promised a return to normalcy, but his time in office has been anything but.
Conway said she’s been conducting polling asking voters if their pandemic-related concerns center more on health issues, or infringement of civil liberties, specifically mandates and school and business closures. Independents are increasingly frustrated with the latter, she said.
“When you have the chairman of the DCCC saying that it’s time to move away from mask mandates, it tells you that even in some of the most entrenched Dem districts, the conversation is getting away from them,” Spain said.
5. THE (POLL) NUMBERS DON’T LIE: Some Democrats have suggested that Biden’s poll numbers could improve if inflation eases and pandemic restrictions recede. But Republicans counter that their opponents are swimming against an impossible undertow. One pointed to a recent story by Roll Call’s elections analyst Nathan Gonzales: Not a single president in the past seven decades has “substantially improved” his approval numbers between the beginning of a midterm year and the midterm election, he wrote, citing Gallup polling.
6. GOP ENTHUSIASM IS REAL: You can see it in the fundraising numbers and the candidates, Republicans say. For years, Democrats have significantly outraised the GOP campaign committees. This time, the GOP committees are in the lead, or nipping at the heels of Democrats who’ve outraised them cycle after cycle.
Republicans also point to the sheer number of GOP candidates running this cycle as an indication of enthusiasm on their side. In 2010, 851 Republicans had filed to run by this point. Currently, that number is more than 1,220. Compare that with the huge number of Democrats deciding to retire — 29, the most since 1996.
Good post-Super Bowl Monday morning. Our verdict: a good game, a great halftime show, and some very funnysnackcommercials. More important, Happy Valentine’s Day, especially to Playbook valentines Alex, Nate and Olivia. We couldn’t write this every day without you. Drop us a line and tell us where we should take them for dinner tonight: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.
— 10:30 a.m.: The Bidens will arrive at the White House from Camp David.
— 11:30 a.m.: Biden and VP KAMALA HARRIS will receive the President’s Daily Brief.
Principal deputy press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE will brief at 2:30 p.m. (to let press secretary JEN PSAKI recover from the Bengals’ loss, we presume).
HARRIS’ MONDAY — The VP will also deliver remarks about the bipartisan infrastructure law’s investments in high-speed internet at 2:50 p.m.
THE SENATE will meet at 3 p.m. to take up the Postal Service Reform Act, with a cloture vote on the motion to proceed to the bill at 5:30 p.m.
THE HOUSE is out.
BIDEN’S WEEK AHEAD:
— Tuesday: The president will speak at the National Association of Counties 2022 Legislative Conference.
— Thursday: Biden will head to Cleveland and Lorain, Ohio, to tout the bipartisan infrastructure law.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
NEXT UP — The U.S. is planning to pull out all personnel from Kyiv within the next 24 to 48 hours, CBS’ Margaret Brennan and Christina Ruffini reported Sunday night.
A CRUCIAL WEEK — AP’s Matthew Lee and Vladimir Isachenkov report, “Even if a Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t happen in the next few days, the crisis is reaching a critical inflection point with European stability and the future of East-West relations hanging in the balance.”
On tap in the coming days:
— “Washington and NATO are expecting Moscow’s formal response after they rejected its main security demands.”
— “[M]ajor Russian military drills in Belarus, conducted as part of a deployment near Ukraine, are to end. The fate of the Russian troops now in Belarus will be key to judging the Kremlin’s intentions.”
— “[T]he Winter Olympics in China, often cited as a potential deterrent to immediate Russian action, will conclude Feb. 20. Although U.S. officials have said they believe an invasion could take place before then, the date is still considered important.”
— “[A]n important international security conference is taking place in Munich next weekend, with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN and top European officials planning to attend.”
— German Chancellor OLAF SCHOLZ visits Kyiv today and Moscow on Tuesday. Hans von der Burchard reports, “German officials have sought to lower expectations that Scholz — who has been in office for just over two months — could strike any sort of deal with [Russian President VLADIMIR] PUTIN and said the main goal is to keep Russia engaged in international peace talks.”
— Biden and Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY spoke Sunday for some 50 minutes. The White House readout offered only generic details of what was discussed: “Biden reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. President Biden made clear that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, together with its Allies and partners, to any further Russian aggression against Ukraine. The two leaders agreed on the importance of continuing to pursue diplomacy and deterrence in response to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.”
— NYT’s Andrew Kramer in Kyiv takes stock of the unenviable position of Zelenskyy, who invited Biden to visit in their call but now faces “a tiny selection of uncertain options.” Though Zelenskyy, who’s long been good about message discipline, continues to caution against panic, Kramer portrays him as “seeming nearly delusional about the grave risks his country faces. From early in his presidency, Mr. Zelensky was seen as a novice playing a high-stakes game with a shrewd and experienced opponent.”
— A group of experts including a former Ukrainian defense minister have an interesting new analysis out via Ukrainska Pravda and The Kyiv Independent that takes a different tack from some of the most dire warnings: “At present, the accumulated forces on the border are insufficient for a large-scale operation aimed at capturing all or a significant part of Ukraine,” they write. More likely are “aggravation in eastern Ukraine” and “[s]cenarios of various kinds of hybrid invasion without a military component,” they assess.
BEYOND THE BELTWAY
LATEST AT THE NORTHERN BORDER — After almost a week, Canadian police regained control of the Ambassador Bridge to Michigan from the truckers and other protesters who took it over, The Detroit News reports. The bridge reopened late Sunday night.
THE DEMOCRACY PITCH — Vulnerable swing-state Democrats are increasingly warning that electing Republicans risks the very integrity of American elections and democracy, NBC’s Henry Gomez and Jane Timm report. It’s a departure from kitchen-table issues, but the message is aimed at an electorate newly prioritizing voting rights and election integrity in polls.
TRUMP’S NEW FIXATION — The former president has his sights set on Major League Baseball scion who hails from one of the country’s richest families — and who, unlike most other Republican Senate candidates, isn’t bowing to Trump, Alex Isenstadt reports. “During meetings, phone calls and impromptu chats, Trump has been peppering top aides and allies with questions about MATT DOLAN, a wealthy Ohio Republican who accused the former president of ‘perpetuat[ing] lies about the outcome’ of the 2020 election and called the pro-Trump Jan. 6 Capitol riot ‘a failure of leadership.’ … The candidate is spending $10 million-plus out of his pocket, is slowly rising in polling and is poised to benefit from a raft of Trump-aligned primary rivals splintering the vote among themselves.”
DEMS’ 2022 GAMBIT — Sen. GARY PETERS (D-Mich.), the DSCC chair, is facing an uphill battle to keep the Senate in this year’s midterms — and he knows it. But that’s not stopping him from setting high expectations. “It’s a sense of mission for me to get to 52 or more” Senate seats, Peters told our colleague Burgess Everett in an interview. “Picking up two seats might not sound like a Herculean task, but it would make him a near-legend in Democratic Party lore. … Peters’ own resume of racking up wins in Michigan is giving Democrats hope for a fighting chance. The former Michigan lottery commissioner’s probably gotten a little luck along the way, but his personal political story is one of survival by any means necessary.”
THE NEW GOP — Virginia Gov. GLENN YOUNGKIN ran for office toeing the line between emulating Trump and distancing himself from him. A month into his tenure, “the duality is a feature, not a bug,” WaPo’s Gregory Schneider and Laura Vozzella report from Richmond. People in the state capital have taken particular note of the way Youngkin preaches civility in the state but gets more fiery when directing his message at a national audience, they write; his substantive policy moves, meanwhile, have cut both ways.
HOT NEW SWING GROUP — Soccer moms, NASCAR dads, Obama-Trump voters. Pollsters and pundits race every election to identify and brand the key voting group that captures the political zeitgeist.
The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter writes about one such attempt by GOP strategist LIESL HICKEY, who “has dubbed 2022 the year of the angry K-12 parent,” voters who “feel as if their kids have been forced to ‘shoulder the pandemic’ even as adults have been able to enjoy dining out, attend sporting events, and essentially going back to living their normal lives.”
2024 WATCH — A new CNN poll found neither Biden nor Trump dominating the parties they respectively command: Just 45% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters want the president to go up for a second term, while 50% of Republicans and Republican learners said the same for Trump, Ariel Edwards-Levy writes. But in each case, the hesitation comes more from electability and other worries than antipathy toward the guy.
TWO AMERICAS — Surging prices are hitting low-income people the hardest, wiping out wage gains and exacerbating inequality, WaPo’s Rachel Siegel and Andrew Van Dam report. The categories seeing the most inflation right now are disproportionately tied to lower-income households’ spending habits, while the wealthy are shielded not only by their money but by the relative protection of savings accounts and mortgages from inflation. “We haven’t been able to enjoy life, but are rather in survival mode,” one laid-off hotel worker tells them.
BIDEN ON THE NFL — In his pregame interview with Holt, Biden weighed in on the NFL’s recent racial hiring scandal: “I think it should be held to a reasonable standard. And, you know, the commissioner pointed out, they haven’t lived up to what they committed to, they haven’t lived up to being open about hiring more minorities to run teams.” Watch more here
TRUMP ON THE NFL — Trump was miffed by BILL BELICHICK’s decision not to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom after the Jan. 6 insurrection, saying the coach “chickened out,” according to Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns’ new book, “This Will Not Pass” ($29.99). Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, who got an excerpt, writes that Trump said Belichick “hugged me and kissed me” on a golf course, which Martin and Burns note is tough to believe “for anyone familiar with Belichick’s gruff persona.”
Matt Viser had the perfect tweet about the Gen X nostalgia of the Super Bowl halftime show.
Jen Psaki, a Bengals fan by marriage, offered solace to Joe Burrow after the big game.
Bernie Sanders, naturally, used the location of the Super Bowl to make a case for canceling student debt.
Mike Lindell is sending his pillows — er, MyPillows — to the Ottawa truckers.
Cory Booker and Rosario Dawson broke up, according to People mag.
SPOTTED at The Commentary in the Arlington Westin for a birthday brunch celebration for conservative activist Carrie Sheffield: Erin Perrine, Aly Beley, Ben Carson Jr. and Merlynn Carson, Jan Jekielek, Tycely Williams, Ameshia Cross, Maria Brazda, Ellie Bartow, Gabriella Hoffman, Justine Murray, Ryan Rhodes and Jason Steinhauer.
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Gary Chambers, the long-shot Louisiana Senate candidate who went viral by smoking a blunt in his first campaign ad, has raised almost $600,000 since, according to his campaign.
— Rosemary Boeglin will be comms director for Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). She previously was director of messaging and advocacy at Building Back Together, and is a Biden White House, transition and campaign alum.
TRANSITIONS — Terra Davis is now president of Terra Davis Consulting, a fundraising firm. She previously was a senior associate at WinCo Fundraising. … MacKenzie Morales is joining the U.S. Chamber as a content manager in the federal relations and political affairs division. She previously was comms director for Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio). … Travis Voyles is now deputy secretary of natural and historic resources for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. He previously was oversight counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. …
… Shira Efron will be director of research at Israel Policy Forum. She previously was a RAND Corporation researcher and special adviser on Israel and a policy adviser to Israel Policy Forum. … RC Di Mezzo is now director of comms for Good Information Inc., Tara McGowan’s civic media company. He previously was national press secretary and senior digital strategist for the Lincoln Project.
ENGAGED — Kristin Flukey, senior legislative assistant for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), and Taylor Fritsch, an account executive at TEGNA, got engaged over the weekend in St. Michaels, Md. They celebrated with friends and their golden retriever, Bailey. The couple originally met through a mutual friend at a happy hour in 2016. Pic … Another pic
WEEKEND WEDDING — Logan Dobson, a managing director at Targeted Victory and an NRSC and Cory Gardner alum, and Emily Taylor, comms director for Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) and a Martha Roby alum, got married Saturday at the Waldorf Astoria in Las Vegas. The couple were introduced by a mutual friend and began dating in 2019. Pic … Another pic … SPOTTED: Martha Roby, Cory Gardner, Torrie and Kyle Matous, Chris Hansen, Jerry Dunleavy, Samantha Helton, Sam Oh, Alex Schriver, Morgan and Daniel Ulmer, Jake Wilkins, Alex Byers, Sam Sutton, Louis and Becky Nelson, Harper Stephens, Abe Adams, Tom Adams, Ryan Meerstein, Erica Arbetter, Sarah Morgan, Chris Hartline, Melissa Carter, Caroline Buyak, Taylor Price, Andrew Callahan, Judd Smith and Jim Bognet.
WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Meredith McPhillips, VP of marketing at Business Roundtable and a POLITICO alum, and Rich McPhillips, SVP at Trammell Crow Company, welcomed Brooke Waverly McPhillips on Feb. 3. Pic … Another pic
BIRTHWEEK (was Sunday): POLITICO’s Daniel Payne and Jamelia Watson
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Mike Bloomberg … Reps. Richie Neal (D-Mass.) and Angie Craig (D-Minn.) … Carl Bernstein … Martha Raddatz … Stephen A. Schwarzman … Oscar Ramirez … Amanda Litman … Ed Patru … former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) … University of Chicago’s Karen Anderson … POLITICO’s Kat McKibben and Oriana Pawlyk … Terry Gross … Scott Will … Caitlin Patenaude Vannoy … Jeremy Robbins … Jon Sawyer … former Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) … Jaime Horn … Ryan Blake … The Hill’s Cristina Marcos … Sir Martin Sorrell … William Beach … Daniel Stublen of Agence France-Presse … Rod Lamkey … Bobby Honold … Mitch Moonier … NYT’s Alan Blinder … Brooke Lierman … Erik Potholm of SRCP Media … Paul Miller of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies … Ann Tait Hall … Rebecca Fertig Cohen of the Legal Services Corporation (41) … Brittany Candrian Richman … Andrew LaCasse … Marty Markowitz … Evan Kraus … Pete Solecki … Hannah VanHoose … Jen Pihlaja … James Cayne … Brandon Renz of Ameren … Eirik Kollsrud of UNRWA
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