* Those initial "cease fire" reports were premature: "On the eve of a NATO summit focused on Russian aggression, President Vladimir V. Putin unveiled on Wednesday a seven-point peace plan for Ukraine while President Obama and other Western leaders tried to keep the spotlight on the Kremlin's role in stoking the conflict there and the penalties it should suffer for doing so."
* POTUS in Estonia: "President Obama vowed on Wednesday to punish the Sunni militants whose videotaped beheadings of two American journalists he said had 'repulsed' the world, saying the United States would lead a regional and international coalition to beat back the terrorists. 'Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy ISIL so that it's no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States,' Mr. Obama said."
* NATO: "When leaders of NATO's 28 member nations gather at a resort in the lush hills of Wales on Thursday, they will set the course for a military alliance that has long seemed adrift and archaic but has lately been given new vitality by an old foe: Russia."
* Important: "Responding to international pressure, France suspended the delivery of a warship to Russia at least until November amid security concerns over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis, officials said Wednesday."
* Iraq: "President Obama on Tuesday authorized sending some 350 additional U.S. military personnel to protect diplomatic facilities and personnel in Baghdad. The troops will not play a combat role, the White House said."
* Biden: "Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the United States will follow militant group ISIS 'to the gates of Hell.'"
* Ebola: "The death toll from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has surpassed 1,900 people, the World Health Organization's chief said Wednesday. Less than a week ago the death toll stood at 1,552 people. More people have now died in the 2014 Ebola epidemic than in all previous outbreaks combined (1,590, according to the WHO)."
* Related news: "With the Ebola outbreak threatening to spiral out of control, U.S. officials unveiled a multimillion-dollar plan Tuesday aimed at getting a promising drug out of American research labs and into African hospitals and clinics more quickly."
* Ferguson: "Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) on Wednesday canceled the state of emergency he issued more than two weeks ago when protests over Michael Brown's death erupted. The governor's decision to lift the warning signals the situation in Ferguson, Mo., has calmed after weeks of turmoil consumed the community."
With just nine weeks until Election Day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) campaign manager felt compelled to resign late last week. Jesse Benton was accused of possibly playing a role in a bribery scandal during the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses when he was a top official on Ron Paul's team.
A criminal investigation into the 2012 incident is ongoing, forcing Benton to step down from Team McConnell, saying he didn't want to be a "distraction." But five days after the unexpected resignation announcement, it's clearly become a distraction anyway.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined Tuesday to discuss the resignation of his former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, who quit last week as questions swirled about his role in a federal bribery case in Iowa.
McConnell and his camp had reportedly avoided questions about the issue over the weekend, but McConnell stopped to talk with reporters Tuesday afternoon after a speech to the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.
The senator refused to go into any details about what he knew about Benton's 2012 work. Rather, McConnell told reporters, "Yeah, we're moving on.... We're talking about the future and not the past.... We're moving on.... I think it is time to move on."
When one Kentucky reporter asked a McConnell spokesperson to speak on the record about the campaign manager's resignation, she hung up rather than comment.
That said, behind the scenes, Team McConnell has come up with a new pitch.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last year, proponents of marriage equality started an ambitious campaign: file suits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. The effort was a remarkable success -- over the course of roughly a year, state and federal courts nationwide have ruled against gay marriage bans from coast to coast.
It was an uninterrupted streak of success for civil-rights proponents, spanning more than two dozen courts, though it came to an unexpected end last month with a state court ruling in Tennessee.
Today, the streak in the federal courts came to an end, too. Emma Margolin reports, "For the first time since last year's historic DOMA ruling, a federal judge has ruled against marriage equality."
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, a President Reagan appointee, upheld Louisiana's same-sex marriage ban on Wednesday, finding that the plaintiffs failed to prove either an equal protection violation, or a First Amendment violation (in that married same-sex couples have to write "single" on their tax returns). The decision breaks a 20-plus string of federal courtroom victories for same-sex couples hoping to either marry, or have their out-of-state marriages recognized at home.
"[It] is not for this Court to resolve the wisdom of same-sex marriage," said Feldman in his 32-page opinion. "Federalism is not extinct. Federalism remains a vibrant and essential component of our nation's constitutional structure."
The Reagan-appointed judge wasn't especially subtle about his ideological predispositions, referring in the ruling to same-sex unions as "lifestyle choices" and concluding that no "fundamental right" was at issue in the case. "Public attitude might be becoming more diverse, but any right to same-sex marriage is not yet so entrenched as to be fundamental," Feldman wrote.
The real drama this election cycle is focused almost entirely on one institution: the U.S. Senate. The Democratic caucus has a five-seat majority -- a majority status it's enjoyed for a decade -- and a net gain of six seats would give Republicans control. Is that likely to happen? It's a distinct possibility. How likely is it?
That depends on which measurement you're inclined to believe.
There was a day last week in which a New York Times analysis gave Republicans a 65% chance of winning the Senate majority, while Sam Wang's analysis at the Princeton Election Consortium gave Democrats a 70% chance of keeping their majority. Both reports were based on reliable data, both used credible statistical models, and both were prepared by credible professionals.
The Upshot has a table that shows six competing Senate forecasts, and there's a fair amount of disagreement among them. It doesn't include the Daily Kos model, which is also good, and yesterday Huffington Post entered the fray with a forecast model of its own.
Clarity, however, remains elusive. Today, the New York Times' latest forecast gives Republicans a 66% chance of being in the majority, while the Huffington Post's latest forecast gives Democrats a 57% chance of being in the majority.
Jonathan Bernstein is asking the same question on the minds of many: which is the most trustworthy forecast?
[W]e shouldn't trust any single model, or even a single average of the various models. Instead, the best way to read all of this is to focus on the range, both in individual models when supplied by the authors, and across models. That's going to give smart readers uncertainty, and that's exactly what we all should be experiencing right now. [...]
[F]or now, the right attitude isn't to try to figure out which model to trust; it's that we're better off the more we know, and each reasonable model adds to our general sense of how things are going.
That sounds about right to me. None of the forecast models can be dismissed as "wrong," necessarily, and all of the models can tell the public something useful, even when they disagree.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* It didn't take long for Alison Lundergan Grimes' (D) Senate campaign in Kentucky to turn the Jesse Benton story into a campaign ad against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). For now, however, the push is a web ad, not a television ad.
* On the other hand, VoteVets Action Fund is also targeting McConnell in Kentucky, and the veterans' group is airing a hard-hitting television spot featuring Vietnam veteran Charles Erwin. "Senator McConnell ... I did my duty. But after 30 years in Washington ... you've failed to do yours," Erwin says. "It's time for you to go."
* Following up on Rachel's segment from last night, the big switch in Alaska's gubernatorial race is complete -- Democrat Byron Mallott has ended his campaign, and will instead be the running mate for independent Bill Walker, who's dropped his Republican affiliation.
* In Georgia's closely watched statewide races, a new WRBL News 3 poll shows Michelle Nunn (D) with a narrow lead over David Perdue (R) in their U.S. Senate race, 44.74% to 43.09%. In the gubernatorial race, the same poll shows Gov. Nathan Deal (R) leading Jason Carter by about two points.
* In Pennsylvania, the latest Robert Morris University Polling Institute poll shows Gov. Tom Corbett (R) trialing Tom Wolf (D) by a whopping 31 points.
* On a related note, Corbett's campaign manager dismissed recent independent polling showing the governor losing as "gossip." (via Jamison Foser).
* Though some recent polling showed Massachusetts gubernatorial hopeful Martha Coakley (D) slipping, a new UMass Lowell/7News poll shows her with a commanding lead in the Democratic primary with just a week to go.
In February, CVS Caremark made an unexpected announcement: by October, its stores will no longer sell tobacco products. The news was so significant, even President Obama issued a statement applauding the news, hailing the move as setting "a powerful example" that will help "reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs."
As of midnight on Tuesday, all 7,700 CVS locations nationwide will no longer sell tobacco products, fulfilling a pledge the company made in February, as it seeks to reposition itself as a health care destination.
The rebranding even comes with a new name: CVS Health.
I was eager to see how much the shift affected the company's bottom line -- CVS estimated a loss of about $2 billion in annual sales by removing tobacco products from its shelves -- and so far, the results have been relatively promising. Jason Millman reported this morning, "CVS reported last month that front-of-store sales dropped .4 percent in the second quarter, an indication of lower tobacco sales as the products have been gradually removed from stores over the past few months. But the company reported second-quarter profits rose 11 percent, particularly on the strength of its pharmacy business."
The next question has been evident since February: what do CVS's competitors intend to do next?
As governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie (R) doesn't have much use for foreign policy. That's not a criticism -- governors occasionally make overseas trips to promote trade, and border governors sometimes talk with foreign counterparts, but as a rule, this just isn't a responsibility for most state chief executives.
Christie, however, is nevertheless eager to demonstrate an interest, if not a competence, in international affairs. Michael Barbaro reported this week on the governor's recent remarks to Republican activists at an event held a few days after Russian forces invaded Crimea.
It was not, according to several of those in attendance, a tough or unexpected inquiry. But Mr. Christie, usually known for his oratorical sure-footedness, offered a wobbly reply, displaying little grasp of the facts and claiming that if he were in charge, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, would know better than to mess with him.
According to an audio recording of the event, he said Mr. Putin had taken the measure of Mr. Obama. "I don't believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment," Mr. Christie said. "Let's leave it at that."
One attendee described Mr. Christie's answer as disturbingly heavy on swagger and light on substance. Another called it "uncomfortable to watch."
In 2008, one of the more common complaints about then-candidate Barack Obama was the notion that Obama thought every problem could be solved with a great speech. There's nothing to suggest the Democrat ever believed this, but the argument was intended to remind voters that the power of personality has its limits -- effective leaders also need sound policies and judgment.
Ironically, Chris Christie, who still believes the myth about Obama, is inviting similar criticisms of himself now. As the New Jersey governor readies his national campaign, he genuinely seems to believe every problem can be solved with bravado and tough-guy posturing.
This Crimea example illustrates the problem nicely. Did Putin's incursion have anything to do with the U.S. president? Of course not. But for Chris Christie, there's a misplaced confidence predicated on ignorance -- Russia won't do anything provocative because Putin would be too intimidated by Christie's persona.
Look out, Moscow. You've got bridges and Team Christie knows how to use them.
Last year, we helped uncover an unfortunate pattern: at least nine congressional Republicans voted against the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), but after President Obama signed its reauthorization, these same lawmakers issued statements suggesting they supported the law.
This year, the problem hasn't gone away.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) recently unveiled a remarkably deceptive campaign ad about his record on VAWA, and as Samantha Lachman reported, the Kentucky Republican isn't alone.
Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), who faces a strong challenge from Democrat Gwen Graham, released a new ad [late last week] in which a campaign supporter says Southerland "is advocating for things like the Violence Against Women Act." A banner in the ad says "Southerland: Voted for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act."
But the ad doesn't tell the full story. Southerland voted for the House GOP's version of the reauthorization, which left out expanded protections for LGBT, Native American and undocumented immigrant victims of domestic violence. He did not vote for the Senate's bipartisan version of the bill, which passed the Senate by a 78-22 vote and eventually became law.
It was the Senate bill that the Republican-led House eventually passed, which Southerland voted to kill, and which President Obama ultimately signed.
In other words, when it came to the Violence Against Women Act, there was one bill, which Southerland joined many other conservative Republicans in opposing. When his ad says the congressman supported "things like" VAWA, it's obviously misleading.
Which leads to the larger question: if all of these Republicans are so embarrassed by their vote, why didn't they just support the Violence Against Women Act in the first place?
In the 2012 presidential race, Democrats were eager to paint Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch elitist incapable of understanding the challenges facing working families. The Republican candidate had a habit of making the Dems' job easy -- the $10,000 bet, the car elevator, the Cadillacs, etc. -- before Romney's "47 percent" video effectively sealed the deal.
Two years later, Romney is apparently still in demand in some GOP circles, but it's Democrats who are eager to put his legacy to use. In Georgia's U.S. Senate race, for example, David Perdue has been targeted with very familiar criticisms that come straight from the anti-Romney playbook.
Similarly, in Illinois' gubernatorial race, Republican Bruce Rauner -- by some measures, the frontrunner -- is also being labeled as a Romney clone. Yesterday's developments seemed to drive home the point quite well.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner is known for wearing an $18 watch in TV campaign ads. But when it comes to wine, he's not exactly popping open bottles of "Two-Buck Chuck."
On Tuesday, Rauner disclosed he belonged to an invitation-only, exclusive wine club that cost upward of $100,000 to join.
"I have many investments, and I am a member of many clubs," Rauner said when asked about membership with the Napa Valley Reserve wine club at a news conference. Pressed further on whether he was a member, Rauner responded: "Yes," without elaborating.
There's apparently some debate about whether membership in the exclusive wine club costs $100,000 or $150,000, but either way, as Philip Bump joked, "Bruce Rauner spends more on wine than average Illinois households spend on everything."
Rauner, who made his fortune during a successful career at a private-equity firm, also spent $100,000 on a parking spot and has described himself as belonging to the ".01 percent."
In other words, say hello to Illinois' Mitt Romney.
More than any other issue, contraception has been a real problem for Rep. Cory Gardner (R). The far-right congressman, running against Sen. Mark Udall (D) in Colorado this year, worked hard to develop a reputation as a culture warrior, including years of championing "personhood" measures that would ban forms of birth control, and he's finding it tough to reinvent himself for his first statewide campaign.
It's left him with a choice: make the campaign about other issues or address his biggest liability. Clearly, Gardner and his team have decided to go with the latter.
Congressman Cory Gardner has borrowed a page from Sen. Mark Udall by unveiling an ad aimed at women -- in this case, the availability of birth control.
"What's the difference between me and Mark Udall on contraception? I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, round the clock, without a prescription -- cheaper and easier, for you," Gardner says in the spot, as various women nod their heads.
"Mark Udall's plan is different. He wants to keep government bureaucrats between you and your healthcare plan. That means more politics, and more profits for drug companies. My plan means more rights, more freedom, and more control for you -- and that's a big difference."
In a press statement, the Udall campaign called Gardner's latest ad "jaw-dropping" and the Democratic incumbent has a legitimate complaint. For Gardner to pretend to be a great progressive champion of contraception access is demonstrably ridiculous.
A week ago today, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal condemning "interventionists," who are quick to use military force abroad "with little thought to the consequences." Over the course of his 900-word piece, the Republican senator was dismissive of the "hawkish members of my own party."
"A more realistic foreign policy would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe," Paul wrote. "Only after recognizing the practical limits of our foreign policy can we pursue policies that are in the best interest of the U.S."
But a few days later, the Republican senator attended the annual summit of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers' main political operation, where Rand Paul took a very different line.
Speaking to a ballroom later, some of the loudest applause for Paul came when he quipped: "If the president has no strategy, maybe it's time for a new president."
In an emailed comment, however, Paul elaborated by saying: "If I were President, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily."
On Wednesday, Paul said he had no use for "interventionists" and the "hawkish members" of his own party who are calling for using force in the Middle East. But just 48 hours later, Paul supports U.S. military intervention abroad to destroy ISIS?
Also keep in mind, less than a month ago, Paul was asked about U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS targets in Iraq. The senator said he had "mixed feelings" about the offensive. Apparently, those feelings are no longer mixed and Paul is now eager to "destroy ISIS militarily" -- says the senator who complained last week about Hillary Clinton being a "war hawk."
At what point do Rand Paul's loyal followers start to reconsider whether Rand Paul actually agrees with them?
Twenty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court was considering a Texas case about capital punishment, and at the time, then-Justice Harry Blackmun made the argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
Justice Antonin Scalia pushed back, highlighting a convicted killer named Henry Lee McCollum as an obvious example of a man who deserved to be put to death. "For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat," Scalia wrote in a 1994 ruling. "How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!"
For Scalia, McCollum was the perfect example -- a murderer whose actions were so heinous that his crimes stood as a testament to the merit of capital punishment itself.
Yesterday, a judge ordered McCollum's release. Scalia's model example was innocent all along.
Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released Tuesday by a judge here.
The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities even though he lived only a block from where the victim's body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time.
McCollum, now 50 years old, had spent 30 years behind bars, most of the time on death row.
It's worth noting that Scalia wasn't the only one who used this case to advance a point. As the New York Times' piece added, as recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party used a McCollum photo on campaign fliers to attack a Democrat as "soft on crime."