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As polls show Iowa tightening, Trump campaign and outside group spending goes in different directions

WASHINGTON — Three recent polls released this week show Iowa a toss-up race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. But the Trump campaign and its aligned outside groups are moving in different directions as far as spending. 

Trump led Biden by 3 percentage points, 49 percent to 46 percent, in Monmouth University's new poll of likely voters; Biden led Trump by 3 percentage points with likely voters in the New York Times/Sienna College poll released this week, a margin of 45 percent to 42 percent; and both candidates were tied in the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll at 47 percent among likely voters. 

The Trump campaign hasn't spent any money on television or radio in the state since July 28, according to Advertising Analytics. 

But one Republican outside group, Preserve America PAC, has been spending heavily in the state since the start of September in the hopes of filling that spending gap — it's spent almost $4.2 million over that span, more than 90 percent of the total money spent on TV and radio since the Trump campaign went dark. 

Many of Preserve America's ads have centered on either criticizing Biden by linking him to the "Defund the Police" movement that some Democrats are supporting, or saying that Biden can't lead the military. 

The Democrats had largely stayed quiet on the airwaves too, but there's been a more recent shift. After not spending a dime on TV or radio in Iowa the entire campaign, Biden's campaign has spent about $280,000 since Sept. 15. 

Biden's top spots focus on health care, telling a personal story about the crash that killed his first wife and daughter as well as on the importance of health care during the pandemic. 

Maura Barrett contributed

Pennsylvania Republicans seek to reverse mail-in ballot deadline decision in battleground state

READING, Penn. — After a state Supreme Court ruling last week allowed Pennsylvania ballots to be counted up to three days after the election, as long as the ballots are postmarked by Nov. 3, NBC News has learned the Republican Party intends to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The GOP argued extending the deadline “creates a serious likelihood that Pennsylvania’s imminent general election will be tainted by votes that were illegally cast or mailed after Election Day,” according to court documents.

The move follows several key decisions last Thursday which ruled in favor of extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to the Friday after Election Day and allows the use of ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania, two measures seen as wins for Democrats.

The expected petition comes just days ahead of President Donald Trump’s announcement of his Supreme Court Justice nominee, which is expected Saturday, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.

State Republicans are also seeking a stay in the commonwealth’s highest court to stop last week’s ruling from taking effect.

In a statement to NBC News, Pennsylvania’s Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said, “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an openly partisan decision ignoring the federal and state constitutions that jeopardizes the security and integrity of our elections and will potentially put Pennsylvania in the middle of a disastrous national crisis as the world awaits for our Commonwealth to tally election results days or weeks following Election Day.”

A Supreme Court confirmation weeks before Election Day would be first in modern history

WASHINGTON — As the rhetoric over the push by Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump’s to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg escalates into a series of arguments over historical precedence, one thing is sure: No president has seated a Supreme Court nominee within three months of a presidential election, according to Senate historical records dating to 1900. 

The closest comparison to the current landscape would be President Woodrow Wilson’s successful confirmation of John Clarke in July of 1916. 

On Monday, Trump said he wanted a vote on his nominee — who he says will be announced on Saturday — to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before Election Day on Nov. 3.  While there’ve been a number of confirmations to the high court in election years, including several in lame duck sessions after an election, none of them have taken place weeks before an election, according to Senate historical records reviewed by NBC.

During the tumultuous election year of 1968, President Lyndon Johnson did attempt to replace retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren by elevating Associate Justice Abe Fortas to be chief justice and naming Homer Thornberry, an appeals court judge, to the high court.

After a filibuster of the Fortas nomination over ethical questions, however, Johnson withdrew those and declined to nominate a new justice, saying then that, “in ordinary times I would feel it my duty now to send another name to the Senate for this high office. I shall not do so."  He added that "these are not ordinary times. We are threatened by an emotionalism, partisanship, and prejudice that compel us to use great care if we are to avoid injury to our constitutional system.”

Johnson by then had already declared his intention not to seek re-election and the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, subsequently lost to Republican Richard Nixon.

“He didn’t try to do something quickly in the fall,” said presidential historian John Meacham of Johnson. “The moment we’re in," he added, "is about the acquisition and use of power. It’s not driven by constitutional principle or practice. The more honest we are about that better.” 

Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are defending the push to hold a vote prior to the election on the premise that control of the White House and Senate constitutes a mandate from the voters. In 2016, when he blocked President Barack Obama’s election-year nominee, Merrick Garland, McConnell argued that the “people” should decide in an election year.  

Meacham called both those arguments “invented,” but they are heightening political tensions around the nomination.

“Perhaps more than any other single issue,” McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday, “the American people strengthened this Senate majority to keep confirming this President’s impressive judicial nominees who respect our constitution and understand the proper role of a judge.”

Democrats are quick to point out that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by 3 million votes. And Democrats picked up 40 House seats in 2018, their biggest House gain in 40 years.

But the House doesn't have a say in the judicial confirmation process, and Republicans expanded their Senate majority during those same midterm elections, a point that GOP senators have said re-enforces their argument.

Of nominations made during presidential election years since 1900 in which a vacancy existed, five were made during years when a President was running for reelection—1912 (Taft/confirmed in March), two in 1916 (Wilson/confirmed June & July), 1932 (Hoover/confirmed February), and 1940 (Roosevelt/confirmed January).

Democratic Pennsylvania election official warns state Supreme Court ruling could lead to 100,000 rejected ballots

READING, Penn. — Philadelphia’s top election official issued a warning Monday that thousands of ballots statewide could be rejected during the November 3rd election, following a recent state Supreme Court decision that required county boards of elections to throw out absentee and mail-in ballots that arrive without a so-called secrecy envelope in the battleground state.

Lisa Deeley, the Democratic chairwoman of the city commissioners, predicted that could mean more than 30,000 voters in Philadelphia and 100,000 across Pennsylvania could see their ballots rejected this November. She warned this could “set Pennsylvania up to be the subject of significant post-election legal controversy, the likes of which we have not seen since Florida in 2000.”

“When you consider that the 2016 Presidential Election in Pennsylvania was decided by just over 44,000 votes, you can see why I am concerned,” Deeley wrote. 

In a letter to leaders in the Republican-controlled state legislature, Deeley urged, "while everyone is talking about the significance of extending the mail-ballot deadline, it is the naked ballot ruling that is going to cause electoral chaos.”

Sixteen states require the use of secrecy envelopes, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, which require voters to place their ballots into an extra envelope before it’s inserted into a larger one to mail back - preventing officials from seeing how a ballot’s been cast.

Counties were not required to disqualify ballots returned without the added envelope in June’s primary.

Republicans maintain the use of the secrecy envelopes is an important step in ensuring the privacy of voters, and the practice has been in place in Pennsylvania since before the expanded vote-by-mail bill was passed last fall. Deely claims such use of the envelopes is a “vestige of the past” and is not needed because the speed at which ballots are now processed by machines maintains the anonymity of a ballot.

Her letter follows several key decisions late last week which ruled in favor of extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to the Friday after Election Day and allows the use of ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania. 

In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler, said, “The state Supreme Court was very clear in its ruling last week that the law requiring a proper secrecy envelope is clear and fair.”

“This is not a partisan issue,” Deely said, “we are talking about the voting rights of our constituents, whether they be Democrats, Republicans, independents, whose ballots will be needlessly set aside.”

Biden has big cash on hand advantage over Trump

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign says its campaign effort ended August with $466 million in cash on hand, exceeding President Donald Trump’s re-election for the first time since Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee in April.

The Biden campaign, the DNC, and Biden’s joint fundraising committees managed to end August with $466 million cash on hand. The New York Times reported Sunday night that the Trump campaign, RNC and its committees ended the month with $325 million in cash-on-hand. 

That difference — roughly $140 million between the two sides — is striking. It shows that while the Biden campaign was criticized heavily for not spending much during the spring and early summer, they have now flipped the script on the Trump fundraising behemoth. And the Biden cash advantage comes as the campaign announced Monday that they're expanding their paid ad strategy, going up with television and digital ads in the red-leaning states of Georgia and Iowa.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Hermantown, Minn., on Sept. 18, 2020.Carolyn Kaster / AP

Heading into April, the GOP effort had an about $182 million cash-on-hand advantage over Biden and the DNC.

But that gap continued to shrink as Democrats began to donate more to Biden and the Biden Victory Fund’s virtual fundraisers. Trump and the RNC have largely opted to hold in-person fundraisers during the pandemic. 

By the end of July, the Biden-effort claimed to have $294 million in cash-on-hand, while the Trump campaign claimed its combined effort had an “over $300 million war chest.”

While campaigns and national party committees have to report their fundraising monthly, their affiliated committees do not have to report as regularly, which is why the campaigns are self-reporting their total cash-on-hand at this time. Since those joint fundraising committees file quarterly, September's Federal Election Commission filings will include the full picture from all the relevant committees. 

Biden digital ads target Puerto Rican voters with Marc Anthony

In a continued effort to win over Latino voters with about a month left until Election Day, Joe Biden's presidential campaign is calling on the Puerto Rican community to remember the devastation of the Island caused by Hurricane Maria three years ago Sunday.

The new English and Spanish-language digital ads features singer Marc Anthony, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, saying that it is “Prohibido Olvidar” or “forbidden to forget” how President Donald Trump failed to adequately provide help to the island in the weeks after the hurricane decimated their communities.

“Remembering is not easy for everyone. It’s difficult to relive the destruction of our homes, the crying of those who lost a loved one and the terrifying uncertainty when thinking ‘what will my children eat tomorrow,’” Anthony said referencing the continuing hardships pain Puerto Ricans have endured since Hurricane Maria. “However forgetting is forbidden.”

While the ad never mentions Trump, it does show him at the Oval Office’s resolute desk when Anthony reminds voters how “it’s forbidden to forget that in moments of true darkness, when the cries for help fell on deaf ears.” Anthony notes that the only the community can rely on itself to rebuild and fight for a better future in a get-to-vote message to defeat Trump at the ballot box.

The over one-minute digital ad is targeting Puerto Ricans living in Florida and Pennsylvania, two states that saw thousands relocate from the territory to the mainland following the hurricane.

It makes for a ripe set of voters to convince heading into the election in a community that already leans more Democratic. Just last week Biden kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month in Puerto-Rican rich Kissimmee, Fla. while his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, spoke to Hispanic leaders at a Puerto Rican cultural center in Philadelphia, Penn. They both pledged to uplift the community and support their decision for self-determination. 

“The way Donald Trump botched Maria was a terrible precursor to Covid-19: He failed to prepare, failed to respond like a president, and failed to protect American citizens from harm,” Biden said in a statement commemorating the anniversary of Hurricane Maria. “We all deserve better. Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans deserve better. There is no place in the United States to ever treat any of our own citizens as second-class.”

Early voting starts in Virginia after expansion of options

RICHMOND, Va. — With over six weeks until Election Day, early voting kicked off Friday in Virginia and the state began mailing out absentee ballots to voters who have requested them.  

As voters showed up for early in-person voting in the state Capitol, it resembled any normal Election Day but with Covid-related safety measures: voters checked their registration by speaking to a worker behind a plastic divider, used paper ballots that they filled out behind a cardboard privacy screen, and then inserted their ballots into a machine to be scanned and counted. 

“We've had a lot of changes with our voting laws in Virginia,” Gov. Ralph Northam told NBC News after he cast his own ballot early in Richmond. “We now have no-excuse absentee voting, early voting. This is such an important election. All of our elections are important but this this is especially important, rather than wait till November the third."

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam feeds his ballot into the counting machine in Richmond, Va., on Sept. 18, 2020.Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

Long a Republican stronghold, Virginia has become a more reliable Democratic state. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump here by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin in 2016. Still, the state's 13 electoral votes remain an important part of the presidential contest.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a law that went into effect July 1 allowing voters to request an absentee ballot without a reason for not being able to vote in-person.

And Virginians have options when it comes to voting early — they can cast their ballots ahead of the election in-person, through curbside drop-offs for absentee ballots if they don’t feel comfortable going inside buildings, or by mailing in their ballots.

The in-person early voting period in Virginia runs from Friday, Sept. 18 through Saturday, Oct. 31. Early voting is available for Virginians at their local registrar’s office or a satellite voting location in their city or county.  

“In Virginia we don't register by party, so what we've seen is excitement all around,” Christopher Piper, Commissioner for The Virginia Departments of Elections, told NBC. “We've got more than 800,000 requests for absentee ballots through yesterday. We're seeing this huge line here today. Our goal with the Department of Elections is to ensure that anybody who's eligible to vote has the opportunity to vote and this shows that that's working for us today.” 

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine also came out to cast his ballot early in Richmond on Friday, telling NBC after his vote that he feels confident that voters have enough information to make decisions about how best and safely to vote during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The good news is Virginia is finally committed so we want to make it easy for people to vote, not harder.”

At the Richmond registrar’s office, a new building location that opened publicly just days ago in anticipation of voters coming in-person, Virginians that spoke with NBC overwhelmingly expressed confidence in the safety precautions in place to vote in-person on day one.

One early voter, Ramona Taylor of Richmond, told NBC that she had some concerns about voting by mail so decided to come in person for the first day.

“I do have a lot of concern about the fact that the ballot will be received on time, you just never can tell the way things are because this is one of the largest voting elections that I've ever experienced,” Taylor said. “So, I just feel like I'm able bodied and able to come out and vote in-person and that's what I'm going to do.”

“My husband has medical issues and so it was easier to take advantage of this,” said Diane Jay, who along with her husband Jim opted for the curbside drop-off option for voting. Jim was on oxygen in the car when NBC spoke with them about their voting decisions.

“We didn't do absentee, just knew we were gonna do in person,” Diane said. “And so what happened was we saw this and drove up and they said they could take care of us curbside.”

Senate GOP group jumping into Alaska Senate race with $1.6 million in ads

WASHINGTON — Senate Leadership Fund, the top super PAC aligned with Senate Republicans, is making its first ad investment in Alaska, a state that's seen a recent influx of Democratic spending aimed at taking down Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan. 

SLF will spend $1.6 million on TV, radio and digital ads there to start on Wednesday and run for 18 days, the group confirmed to NBC News. 

Sullivan is facing off against Al Gross, an Independent who is being backed by Democrats and won the state's Democratic primary. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, leaves a Senate Republican policy meeting on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

In a statement to NBC along with the announcement of the ad buy, SLF President Steven Law took aim at Gross' independence from Democrats. 

“Chuck Schumer and DC Democrats are quietly pouring millions into Alaska, trying to pull one over on voters and buy this seat for far-left fake independent Al Gross. That’s not going to happen on our watch," he said. 

It's an argument Sullivan's team has tried to make, focusing in ads on how Gross plans to caucus with Democrats. 

But Gross, a physician whose family has deep ties to the state, has been working to stake out that independence, including in a recent ad where he opposes the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. 

Groups aligned with Gross have been jumping onto the airwaves in recent weeks — 314 Action has spent more than $530,000 this month, according to Advertising Analytics. A group with Democratic ties launched this month and has already run more than $100,000 in ads in Alaska and Vote Vets, which is backing Gross, started running ads attacking Sullivan. 

SLF's investment will help to narrow the pro-Gross ad-spending advantage. As of Thursday evening, pro-Gross groups have spent $1.53 million on television and radio advertising compared to $740,000 for pro-Sullivan groups, per Advertising Analytics. 

Progressive groups highlight pandemic death toll with comparisons to U.S. cities in new ads

WASHINGTON — As the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. approaches 200,000 — equivalent to the entire population of some major U.S. cities, including Tallahassee, Florida, Tempe, Arizona or Grand Rapids, Michigan — the grim milestone is being noted by two major Democratic-aligned groups with an ad campaign in presidential swing states. 

The Center for American Progress Action Fund and Priorities USA have partnered to purchase full-page ads to run Friday depicting gravestones etched with reminders of the death toll. The ads will appear in 11 newspapers in five states: Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  

The groups are also running digital ads on newspaper websites serving presidential swing state cities with populations of approximately 200,000, including Warren and Pontiac, Michigan; Port St. Lucie, Florida; Allentown, Bethlehem and Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Green Bay, Appleton, Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin.

The ads call for a national plan to address the pandemic. And while President Trump isn’t mentioned, the intention is clear. 

Democratic groups are running ads in some U.S. cities where the pandemic death toll has surpassed the population, such as this one in Tallahassee, Fla.Center for American Progress Action Fund

“We have a president who has given up on fighting the coronavirus,” Jesse Lee of the CAP Action Fund said in a statement. “Not one more day should go by without a real national plan, and none of us can become numb to the tragedy that is unfolding day after day.”

The 200,000 number is greater than the populations of 670 major U.S. cities, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. With the exception of Spain, the U.S. is alone in the Western world when it comes to the number of COVID deaths per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Worldwide, only Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil have higher deaths per 100,000 population.

While President Trump has defended his record, insisting his policies have kept the US death toll from climbing even higher, a Columbia University study found 84 percent of deaths and 82 percent of cases could have been prevented if the U.S. had instituted social distancing measures on March 1, just two weeks earlier than many cities instituted lockdowns.

From January to early March, Trump consistently downplayed the threat of the virus. Journalist Bob Woodward recently released audiotapes of Trump privately acknowledging, in early February, that the virus was “deadly stuff.”  Days later, on Feb. 10, Trump publicly insisted that “a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat.” 

It wasn’t until March 15 that Trump said “this is a very contagious virus” that amounted to a “pandemic.” Around the same time, in mid-March, Woodward privately taped Trump acknowledging he liked to “play it down” when it comes to the virus in order to prevent “panic.”

In response to the ads, Trump 2020 communications director Tim Murtaugh told NBC News that “Americans have seen President Trump out front and leading the nation in the fight against the coronavirus. The President’s task force began meeting in January and he restricted travel from China, and then Europe, early on. At the time, Joe Biden criticized the decision, calling it ‘hysterical xenophobia’ and ‘fear-mongering,’ so we know Biden would not have done it. We would be in far worse position today if Joe Biden had been president in January."

Biden tells Democratic senators he takes 'nothing for granted' during caucus call

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called into the Senate Democrats’ daily caucus meeting Thursday afternoon and reassured members that he would mount a vigorous effort in the final stretch of his campaign to be more physically present — particularly in key swing states.

During the 20-minute call, Biden said he takes “nothing for granted” and thanked the senators for their help and support.

“Overall uplifting and engaging call. Took a series of questions, he spoke about the theme of the campaign, fighting for the soul of the country. What were the things that made him decide to run, how optimistic he is about the election,”  Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks after participating in a coronavirus vaccine briefing with public health experts in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 16, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

“But he must have said this three times, ‘I take nothing for granted’ — he said, ‘I know the polls look okay right now but I’m working tirelessly ... I was just in Florida, I'm about to go to Scranton, I'm heading to Duluth.’ That kind of stuff," Coons added. 

Several vulnerable members up for re-election this year urged Biden to join them on the campaign trail in their home states.

“Just basically making the plea for every state, you know, everybody wants him, ‘Please come to our state you come to our state, okay,’ this and that and everything, that type of a thing,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., explained.

Among those making those requests were Democratic Sens. Tina Smith of Minnesota, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Gary Peters of Michigan.

“You can tell he’s real fired up, he’s working hard, he’s going to be out there and be everywhere as much as he possibly can,” Peters said. “I’ve certainly encouraged him and Kamala to be in Michigan as much as they can.”

Notably, policy barely came up during the short call — no talk of the filibuster, election security, and “no time talking about Trump,” per Coons, a longtime Biden ally.

“We are happy that even in some states that aren’t traditional battlegrounds where there are Senate races that are important, I mean he and his team are very aware of that and that they're being helpful,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said.

“I said Joe, people need to know that you recognize the dignity of the work that people have built this country and I said the coal miners that have been left behind all the hard factory workers that are left behind,” Manchin told NBC News.  “He's very, very, just appreciative. It was just Joe. If you don’t like Joe, you don’t like yourself.”

Battleground voting update: A mail-in voting extension in Pennsylvania and a warning in Wisconsin

WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania's Supreme Court issued a handful of rulings Thursday shifting the contours of the vote-by-mail fight in that state, as officials in Wisconsin are warning they likely won't know the state's final results by the night of Election Day. 

Pennsylvana's high court ruled Thursday that election officials cannot discard mail ballots solely because of questions about the authenticity of a voter's signature; that ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Friday, Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. will be counted; that third parties cannot deliver people's ballots; and that counties can use dropboxes or other official addresses for voters to return ballots to, among other decisions. 

The state also kicked the Green Party presidential and vice-presidential candidates off the ballot for failing to follow the necessary procedures to make the ballot. In 2016, about 49,000 Pennsylvanians voted for Jill Stein, and Democrat Hillary Clinton lost the state by about 44,000 votes. 

The news out of Pennsylvania wasn't the only notable tidbit to come from the swing states on Thursday. 

During a virtual forum hosted by Marquette Law School, officials warned that the "unprecedented volume" of absentee ballots, paired with the statutory restrictions in processing these ballots until election day, will result in a delay in posting results.

Milwaukee resident Jennifer Taff holds a sign as she waits in line to vote at Washington High School in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. "I'm disgusted. I requested an absentee ballot almost three weeks ago and never got it. I have a father dying from lung disease and I have to risk my life and his just to exercise my right to vote" she said, as she'd been in line almost two hours.Patricia McKnight / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Network

Municipal clerks started sending out ballots on Wednesday, and the state election commission says more than 1 million voters have already requested absentee ballots. 

It's "a volume that's much different than what we've seen in the past," Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said Wednesday.

Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg said that "we are not anticipating that we will be done and have results right at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. but I’m hopeful that by the time the sun comes up on Nov. 4th we will be finished and have election results."

But she cautioned that "a delay does not mean any cause for concern or invalidate the entirety of the election results whatsoever on election night."

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