Early voting is changing Election Day, campaign dynamics

(MCT) — The midterm election may be weeks away, but tens of thousands of ballots have already been cast in a reprise of an increasingly powerful political tool: early voting.

In North Carolina, which has a pivotal U.S. Senate contest at the top of the ticket, voting began Sept. 5 when absentee ballots were mailed to voters. As of Friday, about 15,000 voters — the majority of them Democrats — had requested ballots ahead of Nov. 4.

On Thursday, Iowans, who will choose between Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst in a competitive race for an open Senate seat, began to vote both in person and through early absentee ballots. Already, more than 145,000 voters have requested absentee ballots, with Democrats outpacing Republicans by about 38,000 requests, according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office. In 2010, Democrats in the Hawkeye State cast 19,000 more early ballots than did Republicans.

In September, states including Georgia and Minnesota allowed voters to cast ballots early. California and Arizona offer similar voting options in early October.

From Maine and Florida to Wisconsin and Alaska, 35 states allow voters to fill out ballots at polling stations or mail them prior to Election Day.

“In reality, the days of an actual election ‘day’ are long gone,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who specializes in elections and voter turnout. “It’s a solid election month, if not more in some places, and will continue to expand.”

Indeed, McDonald, who oversees the United States Elections Project, which closely tracks voting statistics, has found that ballots cast before Election Day increased from 4 percent in 1972 to 25 percent in 2010.

In Colorado, a new law instituting all-mail elections will receive its first major statewide test as Democratic Sen. Mark Udall looks to stave off a challenge from Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in a marquee race. The Colorado governor’s race is also the focus of intense attention, as Democrat John Hickenlooper faces Republican Bob Beauprez. And the Denver suburbs feature a tight congressional race.

Last year, the Democrat-controlled legislature passed the all-mail ballot rule, which requires a ballot to be mailed to every registered voter, arguing it would ensure more voter participation. Republicans strongly opposed it, saying it was unnecessary for a state with traditionally high turnout. In 2010, about 51 percent of those eligible to vote cast ballots — among the highest turnout percentages in the country.

Colorado, which mails ballots in mid-October and has been an epicenter for media ad buys this year, joins Washington and Oregon as states with all-mail elections.

“When you know ballots are all by mail, it makes the ground game of a campaign that much more important, because campaigns have to chase those ballots and try to get them turned in,” said Eric Sondermann, a Denver-based political analyst.

Moving up the timing of the vote has forced campaigns to change. Ads and arguments that once were saved for right before Election Day are now unleashed earlier, in many cases. Gardner and Udall went on air with TV ads before Labor Day — rare moves for Colorado campaigns, which have traditionally waited until mid-September, Sondermann said.

Both state parties say they’ll adjust to the all-mail rule.

“We’ll have a strong get-out-the vote effort to chase ballots … one that rivals a presidential year effort,” said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call, who noted that the party has opened more than a dozen field offices in the Denver suburbs to target unaffiliated voters, who often decide the outcomes of statewide elections.

Rick Palacio, the state’s Democratic chairman, said his party will build off the ground game laid by President Barack Obama, who won the state in 2008 and 2012.

“Everyone has a chance to vote early and encourage others to vote early,” Palacio said. “We’ll get ballots and drop it off for people. It’s as if Nov. 4 is just really a deadline for Coloradans to get in ballots into the clerk and recorder offices.”

New voting laws in some key battlegrounds are also being closely watched. In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is facing Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis; the seat is one of six Republicans would need to pick up to gain control of the Senate.

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature enacted stricter elections laws that, among other things, eliminated same-day voter registration and reduced the early on-site voting period from 17 days to 10. The laws have been upheld through several court challenges from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

–Kurtis Lee
Los Angeles Times

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Attorney general confirmations are often partisan clashes

WASHINGTON (MCT) — President Barack Obama hasn’t named a replacement for outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., but that future nominee can count on a contentious Senate confirmation process, whether it happens in the November lame-duck session or next year.

Attorney general nominations and confirmations — like everything in Washington — have become highly partisan clashes in recent years. Janet Reno, in 1993, was the last attorney general to be confirmed without any “no” votes. (Of course, her pathway to the job was anything but smooth. She was Bill Clinton’s third choice, after it was revealed that his top pick, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird, and his second, federal judge Kimba Wood, both had employed illegal immigrants as nannies.)

Among the most contentious nomination fights in recent years:

Edwin Meese, 1985

The longtime adviser and aide to Ronald Reagan was nominated for the job in 1984, but wasn’t confirmed for 13 months.

Senate Democrats, led by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio, delayed the confirmation amid ethics complaints about the nominee. “I don’t believe the nominee in this instance meets the standards of this office,” Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia said at the time.

Meese was confirmed, 63-31, on Feb. 23, 1985, with all of the “no” votes coming from Democrats. That vote was the most opposition shown for an attorney general nominee since 1925, when President Calvin Coolidge’s pick, Charles B. Warren, was rejected 39-46.

John Ashcroft, 2001

The former Missouri senator was confirmed, 58-42, on Feb. 1, 2001, after weeks of bitter debate. That was when 50 Republicans joined with eight Democrats who broke ranks. Despite having just served a term in the Senate, George W. Bush’s attorney general nominee was fiercely contested by former colleagues concerned about Ashcroft’s opposition to gun control and abortion.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle echoed the concerns of many Democrats who questioned whether the longtime conservative could be trusted to protect civil rights and enforce the assault weapons ban. “I don’t believe that he is capable of changing his philosophy in the magnitude required to fulfill his obligations as attorney general,” Daschle told NPR then. “I don’t think he can do it even if he wants to have the responsibility.”

Alberto Gonzales, 2005

Gonzales, the first Hispanic to head the Justice Department and Bush’s second attorney general, won confirmation on Feb. 3, 2005, by a 60-36 vote (the “nays” were all Democrats). The tight vote came after a contentious nomination fight that became, in part, a referendum over the administration’s use of waterboarding in the war on terror. As chief counsel to the White House, Gonzales had helped draft the legal foundations for much of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Kennedy said it was “a sad day for the Senate” to confirm “a person who was at the heart of the policy on torture that has so shamed America in the eyes of the whole world,” according to The New York Times.

Less than three years later, Gonzales, who had become a lightning rod for critics of the Bush administration, resigned under pressure from lawmakers in both parties upset about the attorney general’s role in the authorization of warrantless wiretaps and the firings of U.S. attorneys.

Michael Mukasey, 2007

Bush’s nomination of Mukasey in September 2007 to replace the scandal-dogged Gonzales was originally welcomed even by Democrats — the respected former federal judge had once been touted by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as a possible Bush Supreme Court appointee.

But by the time he was confirmed seven weeks later, 53-40, Mukasey, like Gonzales in 2005, had become a political punching bag.

Leading Democrats such as Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin urged colleagues not to support Mukasey unless he took a stand against waterboarding.

Still, six Democrats, including Schumer and California’s Dianne Feinstein, voted with Republicans to confirm. Feinstein told The Washington Post that Mukasey was the best possibility for change at the Justice Department. “This is the only chance we have,” she said.

Eric Holder, 2009

Obama’s choice to head Justice became the country’s first black attorney general after winning confirmation in the Senate, 75-21, on Feb. 2, 2009. His is the fourth-longest tenure as attorney general in the nation’s history, but it’s a tenure marked by controversy, including a June 28, 2012, vote in the House finding him in contempt of Congress.

Many of the 21 Republicans who voted against Holder’s confirmation zeroed in on his role as a deputy attorney general, under Reno, who signed off on President Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

“Holder’s judgment and record on pardons and clemency during the Clinton Administration are … unsettling,” read a statement from Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). “He chose to circumvent the standard process by which all pardons are granted. … In voting against Eric Holder’s confirmation, I am putting the values of Oklahomans first. Be assured that during his time as U.S. Attorney General, I will hold Eric Holder accountable.”

Still, other Republicans were optimistic about the former federal judge and prosecutor’s prospects at the Justice Department. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) predicted that Holder would be “a responsible legal officer and not a politician.”

With Senate control in the balance during the Nov. 4 midterms, it’s a safe bet Obama’s next nominee will not be coasting to the office.

–David Eldridge
CQ Roll Call

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Suspect in Oklahoma workplace beheading charged with murder

(MCT) — Authorities in Oklahoma have filed charges against a man they say beheaded a co-worker and tried to behead another before he was stopped by the bullet of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy.

Alton Nolen, 30, faces charges of murder, assault and battery with a deadly weapon, and assault with a deadly weapon, said Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn.

If convicted, Nolen could face the death penalty for the murder charge, and life in prison for each of the assault charges, Mashburn said.

Nolen is accused of beheading Colleen Hufford, 54, and then attacking Traci Johnson, 43, last Thursday at the Vaughan Foods processing plant in Moore, Oklahoma. Nolen was allegedly trying to behead Johnson when he was shot by a company executive.

Mark Vaughan, the company’s chief operating officer and a reserve deputy for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department, fired three shots. He hit Nolen with a single bullet that traveled through his arm and hit his abdomen, stopping the attack before police arrived, Mashburn said.

Despite reports from witnesses that Nolen had tried to convert several co-workers to Islam, Mashburn said Tuesday that the dispute that led to his suspension “had more to do with race than it did him trying to convert anyone.”

According to Mashburn, Johnson, the surviving victim, had complained that day to the company’s human resources department that Nolen had made some statements about “not liking white people.”

Company officials suspended Nolen that day. He went home, got a knife and came back to the front office seeking revenge against “certain people he felt responsible for getting him suspended and who had wronged him,” the district attorney said.

Johnson was one of those people, but Mashburn said the three people Nolen intended to target were of different sexes and races.

Mashburn said it is “highly likely” that his office will pursue the death penalty in Nolen’s case, but that he will make a final decision after meeting with Hufford’s family.

Nolen is still recovering in the hospital and is expected to be arraigned once he is released. Johnson was released from the hospital over the weekend after being treated for serious cuts to her neck and face, authorities said.

The FBI is assisting in the investigation, looking into Nolen’s background and whether he has any ties to terrorist organizations. Authorities said Nolen had uttered Arabic sayings during the attack, and that Facebook posts from him suggest he had an “infatuation with beheadings.”

–Christine Mai-Duc
Los Angeles Times

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Air traffic meltdown puts FAA vulnerability in spotlight

CHICAGO (MCT) — Demands for answers and promises of technology breakthroughs bounced across Washington on Monday as the nation’s air traffic control system continued its gradual recovery from the fire at an Aurora, Ill., radar facility that has grounded thousands of flights since Friday.

And while experts commended the Federal Aviation Administration for launching an investigation into the alleged act of arson at the agency’s Chicago Center facility, some also threw cold water on claims made Monday that a next-generation, satellite-based radar system could stifle another rogue attack.

“NextGen is new technology replacing old technology. If someone is determined to take out NextGen, they will be able to take out NextGen,” said Sid McGuirk, associate professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The debate about security and vulnerability at the nation’s air traffic control facilities came amid ongoing efforts to repair the damage done at the Chicago station, which handles high-altitude air traffic in seven states.

The FAA’s goal is to get Chicago Center fully functional by Oct. 13.

The FAA did not release a damage estimate, but the first shipment of replacement equipment and cables were installed Monday, officials said.

In the meantime, controllers at facilities in four other states are picking up the slack.

They have received reinforcements. Some Chicago Center controllers were flown out to those facilities over the weekend to help at radar scopes and to share some of the tricks of moving planes in the highly congested Chicago-area airspace, officials from the controllers union said.

It appeared to help. By noon, more than 80 percent of the “average Monday traffic” was flying in and out of O’Hare International Airport, the FAA reported. The rate hit 90 percent at Midway Airport, according to the federal agency.

The agency, which rarely discusses security, also disclosed Monday that additional guards have been assigned to the shuttered Aurora facility and other, unidentified facilities.

But the vulnerability of the airlines to a single broken link in the air traffic control command chain had some public officials thinking about more aggressive, longer-term changes to the nation’s air traffic control system.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) questioned whether contract employees at FAA facilities should be allowed to work alone and unsupervised, as was the case with Brian Howard, of Naperville, Ill., an eight-year Chicago Center contract employee who was arraigned Monday on federal charges in the Aurora incident.

Durbin and five other Democratic members of the Illinois delegation called on the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate the FAA’s procedures in emergencies, in order to prevent future incidents.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said the FAA should have more of a fail-safe, “Department of Defense philosophy” in its daily operations.

“We ought to have alternatives at (FAA) headquarters to instantly transfer command and control in case we ever have a fire or a terrorist attack,” said Kirk in an interview with the Tribune. “This is the beating heart of the U.S. economy right at O’Hare.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta responded to the mounting criticism Monday, apologizing to the flying public and ordering a 30-day review of both facility security and the failure to swiftly transfer air traffic control functions to other facilities.

“If we need to make changes as a result of what happened … we will not hesitate to do so,” Huerta vowed in a speech at an air traffic conference in Maryland.

He also spoke at length about the benefits of the NextGen navigation system, which he said would have been able to let controllers from neighboring states “reach into Chicago Center’s airspace and take control of all of the radios used to control aircraft there.”

But several aviation experts said it is not realistic to think the FAA could ever essentially flip a switch to compensate for the loss of a critical link, like Chicago Center, in the aviation system.

They cite factors such as the complexities of moving airplanes through distinct areas of congested airspace where customized rules and procedures mastered by local controllers are in effect, as well as the sheer task of processing and transmitting voluminous amounts of flight data to other FAA facilities, which already have a full workload, the experts said.

“There is a huge learning curve for controllers,” said David Cushwa, an assistant professor of aviation technology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage who previously worked as a controller at O’Hare and the FAA’s terminal area radar facility in Elgin.

Cushwa agreed with Huerta’s comments about the value of NextGen in an incident like the Aurora fire, noting that some of the technologies are mounted onboard airplanes and data related to navigation is broadcast down to the ground, instead of the current ground-based radar system.

However, the myriad technologies involved in NextGen could take many years to fully implement nationwide, in part because the FAA neither perfected the emerging system nor persuaded the airlines to invest in it.

A veteran FAA staffer who has worked at airport towers and radar facilities in the Chicago area and did not want to be identified because he does not have agency clearance to comment said, “To think that traffic would still flow seamlessly (if a key cog were missing), we all know that that is not going to happen.”

–Jon Hilkevitch
Chicago Tribune

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FCC votes to end sports blackout rule over NFL’s objection

WASHINGTON (MCT) — The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday unanimously voted to end its nearly 40-year-old sports blackout rule, saying the provision, which now applies largely to NFL games, is outdated in an era when professional football has become a multibillion-dollar enterprise no longer mainly dependent on ticket sales.

The NFL, which strongly opposed the change, still can enforce its own policy that prevents games from being broadcast locally if they are not sold out.

But the FCC said it would repeal its rule that gave regulatory cover to the NFL by prohibiting cable and satellite TV providers from airing blacked-out games in the home team’s market.

“It is the leagues that control where sports fans can watch the games they want to watch,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“If there are blackouts next weekend or Monday night or Thursday night, let alone on Sunday, it will be the decision of the league and its team owners … without the participation of the federal government,” he said.

The FCC’s decision will not affect blackouts that occur because of disputes between professional sports teams and broadcasters or TV providers, such as the one that has left most Los Angeles households from being able to watch Dodgers baseball broadcasts.

In that dispute, Time Warner Cable, which owns the local TV rights to Dodgers games, has failed to reach deals with other cable and satellite providers to carry the new SportsNet LA channel that airs the games.

Wheeler and the four other FCC commissioners agreed that the agency’s sports-blackout rule was outdated and harmed consumers.

The FCC adopted the rule in 1975, when ticket sales were the primary source of revenue for NFL teams and the league was concerned that fans would not buy tickets if games were broadcast locally for free on TV.

In 1975, nearly 60 percent of NFL games were blacked out, the FCC said. Last year, just two of 256 games were blacked out. In recent years, blackouts have been limited to a handful of markets, including San Diego, Buffalo and Cincinnati.

In addition, the main source of revenue for the NFL now comes from television rights, lessening the need to protect ticket revenue, the FCC said.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that when the agency first adopted the rule, the Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Colts and St. Louis Cardinals had won their respective NFL division titles. Those teams have long since moved to other markets.

“Revenues today for professional sports teams are a multibillion-dollar mix of television rights, stadium naming rights, merchandise, licensing, corporate sponsorships and luxury suites,” she said. “For the life of me, I do not understand why this commission still has rules in the middle of this mix. They are a vestige from a bygone era. It is time for us to retire them.”

The NFL, backed by the National Association of Broadcasters, warned that eliminating the rule could force the league to move its games solely to cable or satellite.

“There are 60 million people and growing, including a lot of minorities, that are watching NFL football on free television and we want to keep it that way,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last month.

“We are concerned that a change in this area … could have an impact on the overall business model for free television,” he said.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said after the vote that the league was committed to trying to avoid blackouts.

“NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts,” he said. “The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television. The FCC’s decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future.”

–Jim Puzzanghera
Los Angeles Times

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White House security lapse ‘unacceptable,’ Secret Service chief says

WASHINGTON (MCT) — The head of the Secret Service took responsibility Tuesday for the Sept. 19 security breach at the White House, when a man with a pocketknife scaled a fence and ran deep into the White House before he was stopped.

“This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility … and will make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Secret Service Director Julia Pierson told lawmakers, who went on to grill her about how and why the agency failed to stop the intruder, and why alarms did not work as intended.

Pierson promised a follow-up investigation and a review of White House security policies, and acknowledged that the recent security lapse “did not occur in a vacuum,” referring to the series of mishaps and scandals that have plagued the agency under President Barack Obama.

During the breach on Sept. 19, authorities say, Omar Gonzalez, 42, of Copperas Cove, Texas, climbed over the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the White House, ran across the lawn and dashed through the unlocked front door.

White House officials initially had said Gonzalez was stopped as soon as he got inside. But a federal law enforcement official confirmed Monday that Gonzalez pushed past a guard at the front door and made it about 100 feet inside, past stairs leading to the Obama family quarters, before he was tackled.

White House breach: updatePierson also revealed Tuesday that Gonzalez knocked back an agent at the front door who was trying to lock it. The two wrestled through the hallway leading to the East Room, where another agent finally tackled Gonzalez.

At that time, Pierson explained, the front door was not equipped with an automated locking mechanism and had to be locked by hand. Such automatic locks have since been installed, she said.

Gonzalez was carrying a 3-inch serrated knife in his front pocket, according to a Secret Service affidavit filed after his arrest.

The case is the latest blow to the Secret Service under the Obama administration.

In 2009, a pair of uninvited guests managed to attend an official state dinner hosted for the Indian prime minister. In 2011, Secret Service officials took five days to confirm that a gunman had fired multiple shots at the White House from his car, according to a recent Washington Post report.

In 2012, the agency was embarrassed by a scandal over agents soliciting prostitutes in Colombia while preparing for a presidential trip there.

Representatives from both parties pressed Pierson on prior law enforcement contacts with Gonzalez, including an arrest in Virginia in July for reckless driving in which police found 11 weapons and a map of Washington with lines indicating the White House. He was released on bond.

“I hate to even imagine what Gonzalez would have done if he had burst into the White House with a gun rather than a knife,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Pierson defended the Secret Service’s handling of that case, saying that he told police that the map was intended for sightseeing and that he did not, at that time, show signs of mental illness.

–Matt Hansen
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Analysis: Shutdown as a campaign issue? That was so last year

WASHINGTON (MCT) — Even before the government started shutting down, one year ago Tuesday night, it seemed a sure bet that throughout the coming campaign congressional Republicans would be made to rue the political consequences of their showdown strategy.

Ample evidence to support that theory cropped up all over the country by the middle of October, a barrage of attack ads that started airing right after the GOP sued for peace and normal federal operations resumed.

But, five weeks before Election Day, that budget standoff has all but vanished as a polarizing issue. Democrats — once giddy at the prospect of riding a wave of voter antagonism toward Republicans for pushing their confrontational approach so far — are now counting on an almost entirely different set of issues and arguments to drive their base to the polls and hold off gains by the other side.

“The government shutdown cost America $24 billion,” declared the narrator in a TV spot shown across Arkansas last fall by Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who was already gearing up to defend his seat against an intense challenge from Rep. Tom Cotton, a freshman Republican. “Cotton and a small group of reckless congressmen took our country to the brink of default. His irresponsible actions weakened our credit and damaged our economy.”

But these days, that line of attack is wholly missing from Pryor’s multifaceted campaign playbook. Recent ads have explained the senator’s support for the 2010 health law, touted Democratic efforts to spur job creation, chided Cotton for backing “tax cuts for billionaires.” He even has lambasted Cotton for a tangential budget vote two years ago “against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola.”

As of the end of last week, at least, the shutdown also was missing from the quiver of attack ads created by the other two Democratic senators at great risk of losing their seats to incumbent House Republicans.

Both Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cory Gardner of Colorado voted to maintain the regular flow of federal money to departments and agencies only on the condition that the Affordable Care Act be delayed, defunded or repealed — positions that also pushed the government close to a default on its debt. But neither of their opponents is mentioning the issue on TV these days. Sen. Mark Udall’s campaign spent a day in August talking about how Gardner’s support for the shutdown delayed flood relief to their state, but in his advertising, the senator has focused on the Republican’s opposition to abortion rights. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu has been taking Cassidy to task for his votes on immigration and taxes.

For the House Republicans in the most re-election jeopardy at the moment (there are only 14, all of whom joined the budget blockade), the shutdown has become fodder for their opponents in a handful of early candidate forums. But it’s only been featured prominently in one race — and in a way that’s distant from the expected Democratic thrust about GOP hostage-taking and obstructionism.

Although Rep. Lee Terry’s vote “delayed the opening of a new veterans’ hospital in Omaha,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in an ad that began airing in Nebraska last week, there’s an even bigger reason he should be denied a ninth term and replaced with state Sen. Brad Ashford. “When asked if he’d take his government salary during the shutdown, Terry replied, ‘Dang straight … I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college.’ ”

The shifting emphasis is remarkable given how, just after the budget impasse ended, polling showed that congressional Republicans were bearing most of the blame — with 75 percent of adults saying that, in evaluating their lawmakers’ suitability for re-election in 2014, “his or her position on the debt ceiling and government shutdown position” would matter somewhat or a great deal.

The reason for the change appears driven by the public’s short attention span, which fuels the peripatetic nature of political campaigns, combined with a Congress that long ago sealed its reputation for doing nothing better than gridlock.

Given how congressional approval ratings have been at record lows for most of the past four years, it may be little surprise that voters seem minimally interested this fall in debating the blame for a somewhat abstract and distant crisis that was manufactured at the Capitol and didn’t seem to do much harm to everyday people.

–David Hawkings
CQ Roll Call

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(Senior Editor David Hawkings writes the Hawkings Here blog for rollcall.com.)

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Supreme Court grants Ohio’s request to shorten early-voting period

WASHINGTON (MCT) — The Supreme Court ordered a halt Monday to early voting in Ohio that was scheduled to begin this week, clearing the way for the state to close polls on the Sunday before Election Day, when African-American voter turnout has been heaviest.

The emergency order, approved 5-4, is a victory for Ohio Republicans and a setback for civil rights lawyers who had challenged a law that shortened the early-voting period by about a week.

Several other election-year disputes could reach the high court before November. Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina also face pending court challenges to Republican-sponsored voting restrictions that take effect this year.

Ohio had adopted one of the nation’s most generous early-voting policies after what was widely considered to be an Election Day debacle in 2004, when voters waited hours in long lines to cast ballots and many cities did not have enough voting machines to accommodate the turnout.

The state’s remedy was to open polls early and allow voters to cast ballots for the 35 days leading up to Election Day, including on weekends. At least in part because of minorities’ turnout, Ohio went for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

In 2013, the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature canceled the first week of early voting, during which residents could both register and cast a ballot at the same time. In addition, lawmakers canceled early voting on the three days before the election, including on Sunday, when turnout had been heavy.

Lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union sued in May, contending the cutbacks were targeted at the poor and minorities who traditionally vote Democratic. They noted that 157,000 Ohioans had cast ballots in 2012 on the early-voting days that were being eliminated under the new law.

A federal judge agreed with the challengers and blocked the cutbacks. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling last week.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted appealed to the Supreme Court, urging justices to allow the new law to take effect.

“Ohio is a national leader in making voting easy,” he said, noting that polls will still be open on 28 days before the election. He said New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and 13 other states did not open the polls before Election Day.

The Supreme Court issued a brief order Monday in Husted vs. NAACP, granting Ohio’s request and setting aside the rulings that had blocked the cutbacks.

The order was unsigned, but it spoke for the court’s five conservatives: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Four liberal justices dissented and said they would have denied the state’s request. They are Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Husted said he was pleased the law would go into effect. It means, he said, that “Ohioans will have 28 days of early voting, including two Saturdays and a Sunday.”

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said the order was a not a ruling on the legal merits of the issue, but would nevertheless “deprive many Ohioans of the opportunity to vote in the upcoming election.”

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, questioned the legal strategy of voting rights advocates. “I think it was a mistake to bring this Ohio case,” he said. “I’m not convinced that it is a significant burden on voters to cut back a week off early voting, including the last Sunday.

“I’m worried this case will make bad law” and lead to more serious voting cutbacks in other states, he said.

–David G. Savage
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Intruder ran deeper into White House than previously known, official says

WASHINGTON (MCT) — The intruder who entered the White House made it past the front door and all the way through the East Room, much farther than previously disclosed, a federal law enforcement official said Monday.

Omar Gonzalez, 42, of Copperas Cove, Texas, climbed the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue on Sept. 19 and sprinted across the lawn toward the White House, then entered through the unlocked front door. Authorities said they found a folding knife with a 3.5-inch blade on him.

President Barack Obama had left about 10 minutes earlier that Friday night with his family to go to Camp David for the weekend.

The new revelations about how far Gonzalez had made it in the White House were first reported by The Washington Post.

Earlier reports said Gonzalez was stopped by a security guard after going through the front door.

The revelations come a day after the White House defended the Secret Service in the wake of a newspaper investigation detailing how the agency fumbled its response to a gunman firing upon the White House in 2011, while Obama’s younger daughter and his mother-in-law were inside.

In that case, a gunman a few blocks away hit a window on the second floor of the White House very close to the first family’s formal living room. “At least seven bullets struck the upstairs residence of the White House, flying some 700 yards across the South Lawn,” the Post reported.

The gunman was arrested days later, but according to the report, it took the Secret Service five days to acknowledge that bullets had hit the White House. Only after a housekeeper noticed broken glass did the Secret Service realize bullets had hit the residential quarters.

The Secret Service has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. In 2012, some agents were involved in a prostitution scandal in Colombia ahead of the president’s visit there.

–Brian Bennett
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Analysis: Shift in landscape makes bigger GOP house gains possible

(MCT) — Only three times since the Civil War, as any political junkie knows, has the president’s party gained House seats in midterm elections: in 1934, 1998 and 2002. It now seems quite clear 2014 won’t be another exception to that rule.

But a year and a half ago, that wasn’t a sure thing. In fact, while everyone understood the House playing field would be narrow once again in 2014, questions about the GOP’s political dexterity raised the possibility of small net Democratic gains this cycle.

President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, with Democrats gaining eight seats in the House and two in the Senate. Younger voters turned out in big numbers, and Democratic targeting and turnout efforts got plenty of credit, raising the question of whether the party could repeat that success during the second Obama midterms.

Then, on Dec. 14, 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings took place. Democrats expected gun control finally to become a decisive political issue, especially with suburban women, giving them a new wedge issue for the midterms.

In a February 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the president’s job approval stood at 50 percent. The GOP’s positive rating was 29 percent and its negative was 46 percent. Democrats’ positive image was 41 percent; their negative image was 36 percent. The survey found 46 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, while only 34 percent identified with the GOP.

On most issues, including dealing with taxes and the economy, Obama’s party had the advantage.

The environment looked great for Democrats, who also expected that a year and a half of GOP internecine warfare would produce more weak nominees in the next elections.

In June 2013, my newsletter dismissed the idea Democrats could re-take the House but put the most likely outcome of the fight for that chamber as anywhere “from modest Republican gains to modest Democratic gains.”

Four months later, the partial government shutdown played right into the Democrats’ hands. The GOP was widely blamed for the shutdown, which never really put control of the House in doubt but certainly gave Democrats an important talking point in their effort to make gains in the House — and even the chance of netting five to 10 House seats in the next election.

The botched launch of Obamacare turned the political environment on its head. The shutdown quickly became ancient history, and Obama’s poll numbers plummeted.

Since then, the national mood and the midterm dynamics have combined to put Democrats on the defensive.

Unlike Senate Democrats in competitive districts, who are spending millions of dollars (or are benefiting from the millions of dollars spent on their behalf by outside groups), House Democrats have a tougher time creating identities apart from the president. That makes it more difficult for them to “localize” their contests.

Colorado challenger Andrew Romanoff has a chance to oust Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, but the incumbent still leads; and it’s not clear that Romanoff, a prized Democratic recruit, can win this year.

Martha Robertson, an allegedly strong Democratic challenger against underperforming Republican Rep. Tom Reed, seems to have flopped in what should be a competitive, polarized district in upstate New York.

In Illinois, Democratic challenger Ann Callis, a star recruit against Rep. Rodney Davis, has gone nowhere. The same is true for Democrat Jennifer Garrison against Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson and Democrat Erin Bilbray against Nevada Rep. Joe Heck.

Republican Reps. Dave Joyce of Ohio, Dan Benishek of Michigan and David Valadao of California started among the 10 most vulnerable Republicans in the country, but now look to be headed to re-election.

Yes, a handful of Republican seats are at risk. New York Rep. Michael G. Grimm’s legal problems have him in trouble, and Reps. Steve Southerland II of Florida and Lee Terry of Nebraska continue to struggle. Rep. Gary G. Miller’s open seat looks certain to flip.

Some incumbent Democrats in difficult districts seem to be swimming against the GOP current. Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida is the best example, but California Rep. Raul Ruiz also is showing strength now.

But overall, at this point Republican nominees are looking better in individual House races than expected, and Democratic candidates are not doing as well as party insiders once hoped. This isn’t a coincidence, and there is no reason to believe that it will change before Election Day.

With five weeks to go, Democrats now are likely to swipe between two and six GOP House seats, while Republicans are likely to capture between six and a dozen seats from Democrats. If the breeze at the backs of Republican candidates is strong enough (sweeping in GOP nominees who would not win in a “neutral” environment), then net Republican House gains in the double digits certainly are possible.

–Stuart Rothenberg
CQ Roll Call

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com). Read more on the Rothenblog (blogs.rollcall.com/rothenblog).

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(c)2014 CQ Roll Call

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