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On the roster: Can GOP do the Pennsylvania Polka? - FBI contradicts White House on domestic abuse claims - Cotton says no negotiations on immigration - Coats says skyrocketing debt top security issue - Soul to squeeze


One month from today, we will get our next useful insight on the shape of the 2018 midterms.

Voters in suburban Pittsburgh are already acutely aware of just how much emphasis is being placed on the race to replace disgraced former Rep. Tim Murphy in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Seemingly no time in front of a screen nor any trip to the mailbox can avoid the race.

The hatchet-shaped district runs from the beautiful Laurel Highlands east of the city across and down to the cornerstone of Pennsylvania’s remaining coal country in Greene County on the border of West Virginia. But the heart of the district are the southern suburbs of the Steel City in Allegheny and Washington counties.

The district itself is a very useful reflection of the Republican Party’s national coalition in a nutshell: A mix of blue-collar, small-town white voters and affluent mostly white suburbanites who over the past 20 years have reached consensus on the GOP.

While the suburbs always leaned Republican, residents of coal and factory towns like Donora, Carmichaels and Greensburg were among the nation’s most reliable Democrats. The intensity of that Democratic support, in fact, is why Republicans didn’t do much good in Western Pennsylvania until about the turn of the last century.

But, the very kinds of voters that Barack Obama once pitied as bitterly clinging to their guns and religion in the face of a changing economy and culture, are now most certainly clinging to their support for President Trump and his message of economic nationalism and populist revolt on social issues.

These new Republican voters in coalition with the established suburban supporters of the GOP helped turn Pennsylvania from blue to red, and not just with the surprise victory for Trump in the Keystone State in 2016.

Today, only five of Pennsylvania’s 18 House members are Democrats – just a bit more than a quarter of the seats. Twenty years ago, Democrats held 11 of 21 seats. This explains the intense efforts by Democrats to get courts to toss the map drawn by Republicans in Harrisburg that leaves the Blue Team gerrymandered into districts tighter than the Steelers’ defensive line.

Given that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf today refused an effort by Republicans in the state legislature for a new congressional map, Republicans have every reason to expect that Pennsylvania’s congressional districts are going to become less friendly before November. Democrats might even consider it no coincidence, in fact, that the rejected map would have taken the Democratic candidate in this special election right out of his district.

That knowledge, combined with the fact that the GOP House majority could hang on just a seat or two, has both parties acutely interested in the race to replace Murphy, who flushed his one-promising career over a sex scandal. A pro-life stalwart, Murphy was accused of asking his mistress to have an abortion.

But why the parties really care about the race is for the same reason that all of us should: The Republican coalition in the era of Trump will be put to an almost perfect test in a district like this.

The district is wealthier than most, with a median income over $60,000, a fairly even split between office workers and those in blue collar jobs and a population that is about 93 percent white. Not surprisingly, Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016.

Once Democrats dreamed of recapturing the union-proud residents of smaller communities to restore their New Deal-Era coalition in the state. But rather than trying to dynamite down to that seam of electoral anthracite, Democrats are looking to flip the suburbs.

Democrats have chosen Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former federal prosecutor who served in the Marines and, while part of a well-connected political family, has never run for office himself. But most importantly, they chose a son of the suburbs, who went to local Catholic schools in and around his hometown of Mt. Lebanon.

Republicans have tapped Rick Saccone to try to hold the seat. Saccone, 59, has represented key parts of the district in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives since 2010 and boasts that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” Saccone, who spent much of his career in Korea first with the Air Force and then with various organizations, is known for his pugnacious approach at the statehouse.

Saccone is taking a different approach than Murphy used in turning and keeping the seat red in the first place. Murphy cultivated support from industrial unions to bolster his support outside of the leafy lanes of South Hills and also moderated on some key points to attract independent suburban voters. Saccone is going right into the teeth of those structural disadvantages, pushing hard as a more conservative version of Trump.

The president has already campaigned for Saccone once with a district visit last month and will hold a rally for Saccone next Wednesday at a venue just beyond the district’s border.

Lamb, meanwhile, is putting his best foot forward as a moderate, emphasizing his independence in saturation advertising aimed at persuadable suburban voters. “Because he’s rejecting every single dollar of corporate PAC money, he will be working for the people of Pennsylvania, not the special interests,” a mailer from his campaign reads.

Republicans have much more to lose in this race since a defeat in such a safe district would intensify doubts raised by several recent Democratic victories and close calls. And though Democrats are devoting considerable resources to the race, forcing the GOP and the White House to commit so much to one seat is somewhat of a victory itself.

But, if Saccone, who is taking a strongly negative approach as the campaign has intensified, can just hold on, it will be evidence that even under adverse conditions – mismatched candidates, the lingering effects of a scandal and a difficult national political climate – that the GOP can fight its way to obtain the House majority.

If Democrats pull off this stunner, however, then we may have the best indication yet that the bottom is dropping out for the GOP.

“The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable.” – Alexander HamiltonFederalist No. 6

Christians worldwide today celebrating Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, or in the Francophone world, Mardi Gras – a final blowout before the Lenten season of atonement begins on Ash Wednesday. One of the great shows is in a small Belgian city. Atlas Obscura: “Tracing its roots back beyond writing to a long tradition based in oral folklore, the city of Binche does Carnival like nowhere else on the planet. … Nearly 1000 ‘Gilles,’ traditionally male and ranging in age anywhere from toddler to elder, appear in a heavy overstuffed, vibrant costume consisting of clogs and bells. In the morning they wield sticks to ward off evil while donning a disconcerting wax mask with green glasses, the latter of which is swapped for hats decorated with towering white ostrich plumes in the afternoon. Oranges are handed out as tokens by the Gilles to spectators. By nightfall, the oranges frequently end up being thrown about, occasionally resulting in nearby buildings suffering collateral damage…”

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Trump job performance 
Average approval:
 39.6 percent 
Average disapproval: 54.8 percent 
Net Score: -15.2 points
Change from one week ago: down 0.4 points 
[Average includes: Gallup: 40% approve - 57% disapprove; Marist College: 39% approve - 56% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 40% approve - 55% disapprove; IBD: 35% - 58%; Monmouth University: 44% approve - 48% disapprove.]

Control of House
Republican average: 40.4 percent
Democratic average: 47 percent
Advantage: Democrats plus 6.6 points 
Change from one week ago: Democratic advantage down 1 point 
[Average includes: Marist College: 49% Dems - 38% GOP; Quinnipiac University: 49% Dems - 40% GOP; IBD: 46% Dems - 41% GOP; Monmouth University: 47% Dems - 45% GOP; Fox News: 44% Dems - 38% GOP.]

WaPo: “White House officials said that they were first contacted in the summer by the FBI about senior aide Rob Porter’s clearance. They also said the investigation was never completed and they did not know the extent of the allegations against Porter. He stepped down last week following accusations of spousal abuse by two of his ex-wives. But [FBI Director Christopher A. Wray], testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the FBI submitted a partial report on his clearance in March and that the investigation was completed in July. Soon after, he said, the FBI received a request for a follow-up, which the bureau completed and provided in November. The FBI closed the file in January and then earlier this month, Wray said, the bureau received additional information and ‘we passed that on as well.’”

Kelly carries blame of Porter scandal - Politico: “In the hours immediately after the Daily Mail published a photograph of Porter’s first ex-wife with a black eye, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hastily arranged an off-the-record meeting in the West Wing with Porter and four reporters: The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Axios’ Jonathan Swan and The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender. In that meeting, which hasn’t previously been reported, Porter relayed his version of events and fielded questions from the group. [John Kelly] told staff two days later that once he’d been briefed on the allegations of abuse against Porter by his two ex-wives, ‘he was gone 40 minutes later.’ The White House declined to comment on Porter’s meeting with reporters, including whether Kelly was aware it took place. But two White House officials said the mixed messages are symptomatic of the extent to which the White House has left Kelly to shoulder the blame for the Porter mess.”

Trump turnover rate makes history - NYT: “More than a year into his administration, President Trump is presiding over a staff in turmoil, one with a 34 percent turnover rate, higher than any White House in decades. He has struggled to fill openings, unwilling to hire Republicans he considers disloyal and unable to entice Republicans who consider him unstable. Those who do come to work for him often do not last long, burning out from a volatile, sometimes cutthroat environment exacerbated by tweets and subpoenas. To visit the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the granite, slate and cast iron edifice across West Executive Avenue from the White House where most of the president’s staff works, at times feels like walking through a ghost town. The hallways do not bustle as much as in past administrations.”

CNBC: “A Republican senator asserted Tuesday that President Donald Trump's immigration plan is the only measure that could pass Congress. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas spoke as the Senate was scheduled to start an open debate on how to proceed. Bipartisan senators will continue contentious discussions on the best measure to protect up to 1.8 million young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and boost border security. A measure drafted by GOP senators including Cotton aims to mirror Trump's immigration proposal, which calls for restrictions on legal immigration that Democrats consider unacceptable. ‘The president's framework bill is not an opening bid for negotiations. It's a best and final offer,’ Cotton told ‘Fox and Friends’ on Tuesday morning.”

GOP immigration plan begins to gain traction - WaPo: “The showdown began with no sense of what might ultimately pass the closely divided Senate and could be sent to the House before reaching Trump for his signature. … [Mitch McConnell] endorsed a sweeping GOP plan that fulfills Trump’s calls to legalize the status of 1.8 million ‘dreamers,’ spends at least $25 billion to bolster defenses along the U.S.-Mexico border, makes changes to family-based legal migration programs and ends a diversity lottery system used by immigrants from smaller countries. The Secure and Succeed Act is ‘the only piece of legislation that can get through the Senate, through the House of Representatives, most importantly signed by the president,’ said its lead sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).”

Trump says no delay in deadline for DREAMers - Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “On Tuesday morning, the President turned up the heat another notch – casting [in a tweet] the next few weeks as a last opportunity for Democrats to get a deal to help as many as 1.8 million illegal immigrants – brought here by their parents – to stay in the country. ‘Negotiations on DACA have begun. Republicans want to make a deal and Democrats say they want to make a deal. Wouldn’t it be great if we could finally, after so many years, solve the DACA puzzle. This will be our last chance, there will never be another opportunity! March 5th.’”

Flake shows change of heart in negotiating on immigration - Politico: “Sen. Jeff Flake is trying to meet President Donald Trump halfway on immigration. … It will go further than some Democrats would like in tweaks to legal immigration and not as far as some border hawks will prefer, according to a summary provided to POLITICO. … The legislation will provide Trump's requested $25 billion for a border trust fund, allowing $1.8 billion in annual border improvements. It also will give a 10- to 12-year pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants, harmonizing with the number the president has proposed. And the bill makes major changes to legal immigration, though it doesn't go as far as what Trump's framework envisions. The bill would make major changes to the legal immigration system, limiting family-based immigrant visas to spouses and children.”

And Heller is close behind - Politico: “Sen. Dean Heller said on Monday that ‘overall’ he was inclined to support President Donald Trump’s immigration framework, the latest sign that the vulnerable incumbent is siding with the president in the legislative trenches of Congress. While the Nevada Republican did not outright say he would vote for the president’s proposal, he said in an interview that it was his ‘starting point’ going into the immigration debate in the Senate. The move to support Trump will probably nullify some of the criticism from his conservative primary opponent, Danny Tarkanian, though it’s likely to be panned by Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is challenging Heller.”

Calif. threatens lawsuit against citizenship question on 2020 census - San Diego Union-Tribune: “California Attorney General Xavier Becerra threatened another lawsuit against the Trump administration if the federal government follows through on a proposal to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census. Becerra, along with attorneys general from New York and Massachusetts, led a coalition of 19 colleagues that sent a letter to the U.S. Commerce Secretary on Monday arguing that a question about citizenship would have a chilling effect on immigrant participation in the official population count. That would be harmful to states like California that have large immigrant communities, the letter says.”

Debt lift may cost Ryan with conservatives on immigration - The Hill: House conservatives are warning Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to take a hard line on immigration or else risk facing a revolt in his own ranks. While no GOP lawmakers are calling for a leadership change, frustrated conservatives are pressuring Ryan to put a hard-line immigration bill authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) on the House floor in the coming weeks. The growing calls underscore how Ryan, who has not yet announced whether he plans to run for reelection, is walking a political tightrope after passing a massive budget deal that was unpopular with conservatives. ‘The [budget] bill that passed last week wasn’t consistent with what we told the voters we were going to do. We had better get it right on immigration,’ Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a House Freedom Caucus leader, told The Hill.”

Politico: “Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats used a Senate hearing Tuesday to do something unusual: take a swipe at both the Trump administration and Congress for allowing federal deficits and debt to spiral upward. Just one day after President Donald Trump submitted a budget that fails to balance spending and revenue in the next decade — and less than a week after Congress struck a spending deal that would drive up the national debt by more than $500 billion — the former Republican senator from Indiana said Washington’s lack of fiscal discipline undermines national security. ‘I'm concerned that our increasingly fractious political process, particularly with respect to federal spending, is threatening our ability to properly defend our nation, both in the short-term and especially in the long-term,’ Coats said in his opening statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

Ryan says he wants to cut entitlements, but not yet - Fox Business: “Speaker of the House Paul Ryan Tuesday said the military is a top priority in his 2019 budget plan during an exclusive interview on FOX Business with Maria Bartiromo. … ‘We are very sincere about wanting the cuts. We are sincere about government programs. We are sincere about wanting to cut a lot of foreign aid that goes to people who are actually fighting against America’s best interests,’ he said. ‘At the same time we have a priority to rebuild our military.’ Ryan also pointed out how health-care entitlements are the ‘real driver of debt.’ ‘We have a structural deficit increase because of our entitlement spending. And the biggest driver of it is healthcare entitlements. This is why one of the biggest casualties of a narrow senate, that bill not passing was not getting health care entitlement reform. We have to reform our healthcare entitlements that is why we can never give up reforming health care’ he stressed.”

Trump admin to decide Medicaid limits - The Hill: “The Trump administration is facing a crucial test of how much flexibility they are willing to give states to remake their Medicaid programs. Federal officials have already given the green light to two states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, and at least eight other states are hoping to follow. But a handful of other states want to go even further by putting a lifetime cap on how long people can be enrolled in the Medicaid program. No state has ever put a limit on how long a person can receive Medicaid benefits. But given that the Trump administration has already shown a willingness to approve conservative policies like work requirements, premiums and lockout periods for Medicaid, many experts and advocates think lifetime limits could also win approval.”

NY Post: “Speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee, [Director of National Intelligence] Coats said that Russia, China, Iran and North Korea pose the greatest cyber threats to the nation’s security. ‘Frankly, the United States is under attack,’ Coats said. The hearing featured testimony from Coats and other President Trump’s appointees – including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Chris Wray – on worldwide threats. The intelligence leaders reiterated their support for the intelligence report issued under the Obama Administration that found Putin ordered in influence campaign in the 2016 presidential election to undermine democracy, denigrate Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump win the election. The intelligence leaders said they’ve already have evidence of Putin trying to meddle in the 2018 elections, but declined to go into detail in the open hearing. ‘Yes, we have seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here,’ Pompeo said.”

Page could have put Obama FBI’s foot in the Team Trump door - Fox News: “Former Trump adviser Carter Page acknowledges communicating with Trump campaign contacts after the FBI began spying on him – indicating multiple members of the president’s team likely were caught up in the secret government surveillance which began days before the 2016 election. J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer who is now the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, told Fox News ‘if there was electronic surveillance, there is no chance they weren’t caught up in it.’ ‘You’d normally think that innocent third parties would be protected, but we’ve seen in this mess unmasking of otherwise innocent people and their conversations,’ Adams said.  Page acknowledged to Fox News that he forwarded members of the Trump campaign an Oct. 28, 2016 letter he addressed to a European-based organization where he defended himself after his campaign departure.”

Dem senators introduce resolution on Russia sanctions - Politico: “Three senior Democratic senators on Monday introduced a resolution pushing President Donald Trump to use the new authority over Russia sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly gave him last year. The symbolic measure from Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Robert Menendez of New Jersey marks the latest Democratic effort to pressure the Trump administration on its delay in implementing a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill… Each of the sanctions resolution’s co-sponsors plays a central role in policymaking on the issue: Cardin helped shape last year’s Russia bill as the Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, a post he recently ceded back to Menendez after the Justice Department ended its corruption case against the New Jersey senator. Brown is the senior Democrat on the Banking Committee, which also helped craft the sanctions legislation.”

Dem Super PAC warns of improved Trump standing with voters McClatchy

Virginia Republicans dump party official over comment construed as swipe at Jewish heritage of Dem candidate - WaPo

Family of Gemmel Moore seeks answers for the escort’s death at Dem donor Ed Buck’s home - Fox News

Tech firm Oracle amps up donations for Nunes - Daily Beast

Tech mogul Steve Poizner to leave Republican party and run as an independent - Politico

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., receives max donations from GOP opponent’s parents - The Hill

How much damage can bots really do during a campaign? - NYT

“I probably could’ve made it balance. But you all would’ve rightly absolutely excoriated us for using funny numbers to do it.” – Budget director Mick Mulvaney
discussing the White House budget proposal released yesterday.

Abe Lincoln did indeed grow a beard on the advice of Grace Bedell. I am a recent transplant to Westfield, NY from the Wheeling, WV area. Abe stopped in Westfield to see Grace in Westfield on February 16, 1861. There is a statue commemorating their meeting near the center of Westfield. After we haul everyone off to experience the local wineries we take them to view the statue of Abe and Grace.” – Heidi Fowler, Westfield, N.Y.

[Ed. note: Thank you, Ms. Fowler! My excuse for leaving my hometown of Wheeling is that they keep the government here in Washington and covering it from the Northern Panhandle would be a tad inconvenient. I hope you have as good a reason for leaving our happy valley! I would imagine, also, that these rounds at the wineries make for very willing audiences, indeed.]

“Chris, Both houses of Congress just can’t restrain themselves when it comes to spending. Can the Executive Branch refuse to spend appropriated funds? If so, President Trump can get spending under control and be a hero of the conservative wing by not spending to the limits of the appropriation authority(s).” – Bob Manuel, Indian Land, S.C.

[Ed. note: Mr. Manuel, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the president not only backs this deal but has laid out a budget that would push spending even further into the red. Like his predecessor, the president has said that he believes the government needs to “prime the pump” for the sake of economic growth. As a result of our political moment, federal government is engaging in both kinds of stimulus: increasing the supply of capital by cutting taxes and trying to increase demand through increased government spending. Both kinds of stimulus have been shown to work, but both come with potential consequences that have to be mitigated and managed by economic policy chiefs. Unfortunately, the available means of tempering the effects of those stimuli are contradictory and pose even more serious threats if applied simultaneously. Creating growth is not complicated. Having that growth be sustainable and not lead to burst bubbles, financial panics, crushing debt or runaway inflation is hard.] 

“256 million vehicles on the road are paying a fed/state combined tax of about 50cents per gallon. This tax is supposed to pay for highways. Where’d it go? Into the social security lockbox?” – Frank Siegler, Farmington, Minn.

[Ed. note: Either that or Al Capone’s vault, Mr. Siegler… Highway spending has been one of the great accounting scams in recent federal history. Here’s the way it works: lawmakers labor for sometimes years to get a project underway, even though there is not enough money in the highway trust fund to pay for it. Once the project is started, lawmakers can elbow toward the front of the line for funding arguing that failing to complete the project would mean wasting the millions, and sometimes billions, already spent. The idea of the trust fund was not just to have drivers pay the lion’s share of road construction costs, but also provide some degree of strategic thinking and long-term planning for new roads and maintenance. But as you slyly point out Congress has, ahem, found plenty of detours for that money and the fund itself becomes a way for powerful lawmakers to obligate the taxpayers for projects without funding.]

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KABC: “Duncan Robb had the best of intentions when he got tickets for his girlfriend's all-time favorite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers; however, in the days before the concert, his other half had a hilarious realization. Unfortunately, Robb didn't buy tickets to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers but the Red Hot Chilli Pipers – ‘the most famous bagpipe band on the planet,’ or so their website claims. … He printed out the tickets and presented them to his girlfriend on Christmas Day, adding that nobody noticed that they would be seeing the wrong band. ‘Fast forward a month and we get the actual tickets through the post… It was only until the Wednesday before when my [girlfriend] wanted to know who was supporting them. She couldn't find anything about the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing in Belfast.’ Once realizing they had flown to Belfast to see the bagpipers, they could do nothing but laugh.”

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.