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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  The Game of Debt-Ceiling Chess Is in Full Swing
      •  Sununu for President?
      •  What, Exactly, Is DeSantis' Plan?
      •  Trump Continues to Keep the Courts in Business
      •  Senate Judiciary Committee Expects to Probe Durham Probe
      •  If at First You Don't Succeed...
      •  Setec Astronomy, Part I

The Game of Debt-Ceiling Chess Is in Full Swing

On one hand, the U.S. has already reached its debt ceiling, and so the time to talk about it is now. On the other hand, the Treasury Department won't actually be in a position of having to make tough decisions until June, so it's possible to postpone substantive action for weeks and months, if necessary. Add it up, and it's no surprise that we're getting lots and lots of posturing, but nothing that brings the country so much as a micrometer towards a resolution.

To start with, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), apparently trying to get out ahead of potential attacks on his conference, has been telling anyone who will listen that his real goal with all of this maneuvering is to cut government spending so that Medicare and Social Security can be saved without having to reduce benefits. He's either stupid or lying, and the smart money is on lying. House Republicans are already on record as saying they won't support tax increases and they won't support cuts to defense spending. That means that McCarthy cannot plausibly accomplish what he claims he's trying to accomplish. There just isn't enough non-defense spending to cut.

Meanwhile, Republicans in both chambers have joined with their (one-time?) allies on Wall Street to insist that the U.S. will not default on its debt, because there will always be enough money coming in to pay off bondholders. That is a dubious proposition on a number of levels. First, paying bondholders and stiffing other people might please Wall Street, but it would be pretty sleazy when it comes to, say, people who are depending on their federal paycheck. Or their food stamps. Or their healthcare. Further, it's not clear that the economic sector would regard "Hey! We're still paying our bonds off!" as "not a default." Finally, nobody is certain that the government has the legal authority, or the technical tools, to prioritize one obligation over another. In any case, the White House says the whole proposal is "intellectually bankrupt" and is a nonstarter.

And finally, in a reminder that the House does not have a monopoly on fire-breathing Republicans, 24 Senators announced yesterday that they will not support a debt ceiling increase without cuts in spending. This was done in the form of an "open letter" to the White House, and the signatories included all the usual suspects—you know, your Rand Pauls and your Ted Cruzes and your Mike Lees. However, it's really just an empty gesture. Undoubtedly, every Republican senator was given an opportunity to sign, and nearly two dozen of them—including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—said "No, thanks!" So, there are clearly more than 10 Republicans available to break a filibuster, if the circumstances call for it.

The bottom line, from our vantage point, is that Congressional Republicans—well, the MAGA types—are digging in for an ugly fight. However, they know full well they are at risk of getting flambéed by voters, so they are trying their very best to get their messaging out there early and often. We shall see how well that works. Perhaps the Democrats should start using the slogan MAGDA: Make a Great Depression Again. (Z)

Sununu for President?

Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) has just commenced his fourth term in office, which ties the record for 2-year terms set by John Lynch (D) from 2005-13 (a couple of New Hampshire governors served more than four terms, but those were one-year terms many years ago). There are no gubernatorial term limits in the Granite State, so Sununu can keep getting himself reelected, if that's what he wants. However, it's gotta get tiresome when you are essentially always campaigning, plus there is a certain point at which a person has accomplished whatever he set out to accomplish.

Given these circumstances, it would not be terribly surprising if Sununu was thinking about a promotion. And indeed he is; during an appearance on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday, Sununu was asked if he was pondering a possible presidential bid, and said "yes," while adding: "I really don't have a timeline. I'm spending a lot of time naturally trying to grow the party as Republicans, talk to independents, talk to the next generation of potential Republican voters that right now no one is really reaching out to."

We think there is absolutely a lane for someone like Sununu, if 2024 turns out to be the mirror image of 2016. Recall that back then, there was an absolute stampede of normal (and semi-normal; ahem, Ted Cruz) Republicans bickering with each other while Donald Trump had the crazy lane to himself. By the time the normal (and semi-normal) Republicans realized what was going on, Trump had momentum and a delegate lead, and there was no catching him.

In the upcoming election cycle, there is going to be no shortage of candidates in the GOP crazy lane. And even if only a couple of the nutters stay alive—say, Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL)—then those two might spend all their time damaging each other and splitting the MAGA vote (say, 40-60% of Republican voters) while the non-crazy Republican has the sane GOP vote to himself. Recall that, given the Party's general preference for winner-take-all contests, laying claim to 40% of the vote in a three-way contest is enough to win a huge chunk of delegates.

It would also work to Sununu's advantage that, barring a change, the first three states to cast primary-season ballots for the Republicans are Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The Governor would win his own state, of course, and the other two states on the list have lots and lots of sane Republicans. There would be a couple of majority-nutter states (South Carolina and Wyoming) thereafter, but three wins and momentum could allow Sununu to pick off one of those. That's doubly true if some Democrats cross the aisle in the primaries in hopes of exorcising the MAGA influence from the country. After that, it's Super Tuesday, which features a lot of large states with a lot of non-MAGA Republican voters.

So, a Sununu run could make sense, and it could make some noise. But it only works if the sane Republicans coalesce around one candidate. If there are multiple people in the non-crazy-Republican lane, they'll split the sane GOP vote, and that will likely allow a MAGA candidate to win most of the delegates.

Incidentally, tomorrow we'll run the first set of results in our tracking poll. If you haven't cast your votes, you can do so until tonight at 8:00 p.m. PT. (Z)

What, Exactly, Is DeSantis' Plan?

As long as we are speculating way too far in advance about the 2024 Republican field, we are left to wonder exactly what Ron DeSantis' grand plan is when it comes to dealing with what we might call the "Trump problem."

As we noted yesterday, Donald Trump returned to holding rallies this weekend, and he took the occasion to say many and varied nasty things about DeSantis. The Governor, who is certainly willing to crawl into most gutters, is not willing to crawl into that one, and so has not responded to the attacks.

DeSantis' thinking here is very clear. He knows full well that while much of the Republican establishment is looking to move on from Trump, a large segment of the base remains loyal to the former president. And that loyalty is often akin to cultishness. So, if DeSantis attacks the Dear Leader, then it could alienate many of the voters that the Governor will need if he's going to be elected president. And many devoted Trump voters, as you might have noticed, do not forgive or forget.

On the other hand, one of the main reasons that the MAGA Republicans love Trump is that he's unfiltered and he says whatever is on his mind. If DeSantis acts like the politician that he is, and chooses his words and his battles carefully, it's not likely to play well with the MAGA voters. That will not only make the Governor look weak and/or unmasculine, it will also make it seem like he's not really a "straight shooter" who "tells it like it is." Trumpy Republicans are very sensitive to, and very disdainful of, politicians behaving like politicians.

So, DeSantis can't afford to attack Trump, but he can't afford to not attack Trump. Maybe. If Trump is indicted, and has to drop out as a result, then that would, somewhat ironically, give the Governor a Get out of Jail Free card. Trump would be eliminated without DeSantis ever having opened fire. But that presupposes not only that Trump actually is indicted, but also that being indicted causes him to drop out, and that DeSantis can afford to take whatever damage is done to him while he bides his time. Neither of those latter two things are a certainty.

That said, there was a bit of good news for DeSantis/bad news for Trump on Monday. It was reported by CNN that two of the people who searched Mar-a-Lago (and other locations) for classified documents have now testified before a Washington, DC, grand jury. Special Counsel Jack Smith is also trying to lay hands on at least one laptop computer owned by a Mar-a-Lago staff member, trying to piece together an electronic paper trail. Smith does not talk to reporters, and has no duty to explain himself to anyone but the court, but these things are clearly signs of an investigation that is in full swing and is not letting up. (Z)

Trump Continues to Keep the Courts in Business

As long as we are on the topic of Donald Trump's legal situation(s), there were two other developments on that front on Monday. First, we bet you haven't thought about Trump's dalliances with porn stars Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal in many months. Certainly, we hadn't. However, the former dalliance just reared its ugly head once again.

It certainly seemed, by all indications, that Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg just wasn't interested in going after Trump. He kinda backed off on the financial crimes investigations, leaving the ball primarily in the court of New York AG Letitia James. As it turns out, however, Bragg might be very interested after all. He has recently impaneled a grand jury to look into whether the former broke the law with his payments to Daniels. He is also negotiating with former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who was party to the transactions. Pecker was once a close Trump ally, but he's also someone who puts his own skin ahead of anyone else's. So, he's apparently willing to spill his guts. You might say that if Trump faces off in court against the porn star, he'll have to do it without help from his Pecker. And that's really a terrible place to be.

Of course, Trump is also the plaintiff in plenty of lawsuits, and he just added a new one to the list. His target is Bob Woodward, and the claim is that Woodward damaged Trump by releasing audio tapes of the interviews conducted for Woodward's book Rage. Trump is demanding $49 million.

We are not experts in the law, particularly such a nuanced corner of it. However, we are inclined to suspect that Trump gave up any rights to confidentiality when he consented to be recorded. We further suspect that's doubly true because he's a public figure. And we are absolutely certain that Woodward and his publishers consulted with many highly paid lawyers before releasing a single second of audio so as to make sure that no laws were being broken.

In other words, this sure looks like another Trump nuisance suit. He surely can't win, and he may well be at risk of getting fined again, apparently not having learned much from the fine that was assessed against him and his lawyer a couple of weeks ago. Then again, maybe it's worth it. If he can fleece his supporters for $2 million by kvetching about a lawsuit that ultimately costs him $1 million in fines, then he's profited to the tune of $1 million. Which would probably be in the top 10% of Trump's business transactions, all-time, when it comes to profitability. (Z)

Senate Judiciary Committee Expects to Probe Durham Probe

Last week, we took note of The New York Times' report on the probe of Russiagate undertaken by special counsel John Durham. The executive summary: It was a sh**show, and one that was pretty clearly governed by political considerations, rather than the search for the truth.

As it turns out, we're not the only ones who read the Times. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) reads it, too. And yesterday, he issued a statement in which he said that his committee would likely take a long look at the matter. "These reports about abuses in Special Counsel Durham's investigation—so outrageous that even his longtime colleagues quit in protest—are but one of many instances where former President Trump and his allies weaponized the Justice Department," the statement reads, in part.

Undoubtedly, this will be interpreted by many—particularly in the right-wing media—as part of a pi**ing contest, in which House Republicans announce that they are looking into Democratic "weaponization" of the Department of Justice, so Senate Democrats counter by announcing that they are looking into Republican "weaponization" of the Department of Justice. And it might be, in part. But from the Times' reporting, it's pretty clear there is some substance here, and some questions that need to be looked at. It's possible that AG Merrick Garland is looking at those questions, too, but of course he does not comment on such things, so there's no real way to know.

Meanwhile, when we wrote up that Times report, we observed: "It is at least possible that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and his brand-spanking-new subcommittee will actually come up with something of substance as they put various Democrats, and family members of Democrats, under the microscope. We think that is unlikely, but you never know for sure." We probably should have added our follow-up thought (even though it would have interrupted the flow of the piece) that we'd have considerably more regard for the possibility of substance if the subcommittee was looking at all potential abusers as opposed to just Democrats.

It would seem that NBC's Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, feels similarly. He invited Jordan on the program this weekend, and said:

Many of the things you want to investigate, when I look at them in isolation, I think they're fair targets. I think they're fair things for you to be questioning. The problem that when you look at it is you want to talk about the weaponization of the Justice Department, you don't want to look at anything that happened during the Trump years.

Jordan dodged that particular remark, and hopped and skipped and jumped as he tried to avoid the withering series of questions that Todd posed regarding House Republicans' investigative work. If you want to see what it looks like when a journalist tries to hold a politician accountable, you might want to click on the link above and read the article or watch the video. In any event, we already pretty much knew that Jordan's only interest is pursuing partisan witch hunts, and the interview did noting to dispel that impression. (Z)

If at First You Don't Succeed...

In the 2022 U.S. Senate primaries, Pennsylvania Republicans had a choice between former Trump administration official David McCormick and crudité-loving quack Mehmet Oz. They went with Oz, of course, and he went on to an ignominious defeat at the hands of Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA).

Now, Republicans "across the party's spectrum" (according to The Hill) think that GOP primary voters made a big mistake, and that McCormick was the smarter choice all along. So, there is now a "draft McCormick" movement underway, with an eye toward 2024, when Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) will be up. McCormick is quite clearly interested in another go-round; he's traveling around right now promoting his book, and has refused to say "I'm not running" when asked directly.

It's understandable why Republican operatives think McCormick might be their white knight. He's Trumpy, by virtue of having worked for the former president, but he's got a bit less baggage than Oz did, and has some chance of appealing to moderate voters. Further, because he's already run a campaign, he's battle-tested and has high name recognition. Implicit in potentially recycling McCormick off the scrap heap, even if GOP pooh-bahs don't say it openly, is that the Republican bench in the Keystone State is pretty thin.

All of this said, there are some pretty serious obstacles between McCormick and a U.S. Senate seat. To start with, he's not really that battle-tested. He hasn't been put under the microscope in an aggressive manner, and he didn't have 4-5 months of general-election campaigning to insert his foot into his mouth. Recall that nearly all of the embarrassing, out-of-touch things that Oz said and did came during general election season, not primary season.

McCormick also shares one of Oz's biggest weaknesses, namely that they are both carpetbaggers. Oz is really from New Jersey and McCormick is really from Connecticut. Some voters do not care for interlopers, particularly if those interlopers don't fully grasp local issues, and tend to screw up when it comes to local institutions (Redner's? Wegmans? Wegners?)

In addition, it's all well and good to be the candidate of the fellows in the smoke-filled room. But the party doesn't decide anymore, and by all indications, it's MAGA voters who call the shots in Pennsylvania primaries these days. There's nothing to stop Doug Mastriano (or someone like him) from jumping in to the Senate race, and given the lessons of the past few years, we would have to assume that person would be the favorite, or at least a serious contender.

Finally, 2024 is a presidential year and Casey is an incumbent. Both of those things are serious problems for a Republican challenger, as both of those things will tend to give the Senator a built-in advantage. Add it all up, and we wonder if McCormick won't take a long look at the contest and decide he doesn't want to put himself through the ringer again. (Z)

Setec Astronomy, Part I

Is the reference in the headline recognizable anymore? If not, it's from a key scene in the 1992 movie Sneakers, wherein the characters realize the mysterious phrase "Setec Astronomy" descrambles to "too many secrets." If you haven't seen the film, you should really consider it; even if it's three decades old, it's a great popcorn movie with a stellar cast (Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix, etc.). And yes, we know that Setec Astronomy is also referenced in Ready Player One.

We bring this up as entree to our ongoing discussion of classified documents. It would seem that we are not the only ones who think that maybe the federal government has too many secrets. Or, perhaps more precisely, too many things being treated as secrets that really don't need to be. There was an effort during the George W. Bush administration to cut back on overclassification that went nowhere. Now, there is some momentum in that direction once again. It's too early to say if anything will come of it, but at least people are talking. Of course, people also talk after mass shootings, and look how much that's accomplished (Hint: zero).

Last week, we asked for readers with expertise greater than ours to weigh in on the subject, and we were not disappointed. We're going to run some of the interesting responses here, and we'll run some more tomorrow:

  • S.K. in Atlanta, GA: I was flooded with memories when you opined on the possibility that there's simply too much classified information. In my 4 years' experience in Navy Intelligence, that is an accurate assessment, especially at the Secret level. The vast majority of the work we did was at that level (much less was Top Secret or Classified) and was platformed on a network called SIPR. The problem lies in the fact that anything that touches SIPR instantly became classified Secret due to guilt by association for having been on the SIPR network. This makes sense given the fact that you wouldn't want data or programs removed from SIPR to the unclassified side of things that potentially now contain Secret material.

    That groundwork being laid, readers may be shocked to learn what sorts of things end up on SIPR and are thus considered Secret material. Some of this was a bit understandable; e.g. I had a report about cruise ship activity in the Mediterranean as part of an exercise and used some screenshots from Royal Caribbean. Alas, since it was on SIPR, those screenshots of a public website were now classified Secret and subject to all the rules and laws regarding handling Secret material. What gets more interesting is the amount of personal and, shall we say, extra-personal, things that Sailors and Marines end up storing on SIPR for easy access. A stash of digital pornography was a common find on SIPR. If the uploading service member was identified, they would be subject to moderate punishment, however that doesn't change the fact that the Navy now has a stash of officially Secret pornography.

    All that to say, there is a ton of technically Secret material that the public would be amazed at—photos from a command picnic, Wikipedia articles, yo-mama jokes, credit card statements, and on and on.

  • C.L. in Concord, NH: In your quest to be enlightened about security around classified documents, I'm happy to share my experience. I work for a large U.S. government DoD contractor supporting the Air Force and hold an active clearance. One of the annual trainings that we have to take like clockwork involves handling classified information, and the common theme in that training is "if you cause a breach, it's a serious offense and you could go to jail... blah blah blah." However, there is very little actual physical security involving these documents. If someone really wanted to stuff a classified document in their briefcase, unless someone watched them do so, there are no security guards on the way out searching said briefcase. I never thought I'd agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), but I would absolutely say that there's a process issue here and the government needs to revamp how they deal with this, because it's a scary thought that if it took years for former VPs to find documents at their residences. Imagine what the damage a random person could do with defense secrets.

  • M.M. in Leonardtown, MD: I'm an agency civilian and military reservist. This is what I've seen re: classification:

    • Too much is classified. As you wrote, the tendency to err on the side of caution has led to classification of items that do not need to be. Additionally, declassification requires a review to determine if the material no longer requires protection. This leads to a vicious cycle where more and more becomes classified just due to volume and inertia.

    • Too many people have clearances and/or classification authority. A consequence of so much being classified is that many more people "need" a clearance just to do their jobs. If the classification process was more stringent (both on what is classified and who can make the determination), fewer people would require clearances.

    • Actual access to information is too easy. With so many people and so much information, it's very easy for people to become inured to the handling of classified information. More release of classified information is due to accidental mishandling (misplacing a flash drive, using non-classified hardware to access classified data, etc.) than malicious actions.

    • Disproportionate punishment for breaches. I understand that the DoJ has limited resources and must prioritize criminal investigations/trials. However, punishing only low-level employees and officials for breaches is a bad look when trying to stress the importance of information security.

    I'll leave the notion of solutions to others, not least because potential options are likely to be expensive and unpopular.

  • J.G. in Chantilly, VA: I've held a security clearance for most of my adult life, having served in a foreign affairs agency as an employee or contractor. The dirty secret is that proper document security depends heavily upon the conscientiousness and personal organizational habits of the user. Classified documents are not sacred scrolls or even library books. They are generated electronically with multiple hard and soft copies distributed to several agencies and persons. At the staff level (anything below Cabinet), most people are careful to avoid incurring a security violation. Security or Marine guards circulate after hours and inspect work spaces. Even so, errors happen and security violations are issued. But the most senior officials deal with a lot of very sensitive documents and issues, and do so around the clock. I am fairly certain that nearly every former president, veep, or foreign affairs Cabinet official has at one time or another accidentally mixed classified documents with other papers. Allegedly, Jimmy Carter mixed up the nuclear codes in his dry cleaning. Stuff happens. I also suspect a few have done so intentionally, though not as egregiously as Trump did.

    The chronic problem of overclassification will not go away, but I think it's separate from the real problem of getting the most senior officials of the government to act more carefully. Overclassification usually affects working documents that agencies want to restrict, not the kinds of documents or issues that concern the White House or the NSC, which really do need to be classified. I do not see any easy solution or system to prevent mishandling of lower-level classifieds by senior officials, and I'm not terribly worried about it, since that kind of information usually goes stale after a few months (or is reported in the press anyway). On the other hand, the highest level information, (e.g., at the TS/SCIF or similar levels), needs better control because leaks can be truly damaging, and can even get people killed. One solution is to have cleared staff regularly sweep the personal files of their bosses, especially before and after a transition. But again, that depends upon the cooperation of the official. If you have someone with a very large ego and an aggressive personality, they will likely resist any inspections and their underlings will dare not cross them.

    In any case, there is a big difference between mishandling classified documents, versus willfully stealing them, or refusing to return them once stolen. The first is a security violation (leading to a warning), the latter is a crime.

  • B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI: I was classified with a security clearance in the 80s for an industrial contractor building missiles and other avionics electronics. I was glad I wasn't more classified than I was. I understood the rationale for classification, but the whole effort for classifying people was over the top. We had annual meetings with g-men with our passports to describe our vacations/travel. Leaving anything out was grounds for automatic termination. My friends with higher classifications received clicker phones where they had to engage the microphone to talk; no putting the phone down and hearing an errant conversation. Their offices were also sequestered to avoid any potential classified materials release. I have a grand total of one photograph of my years at the operation. Maybe things are more relaxed now given smartphone proliferation, but back then, it was definitely Big Brother. It seems that at the lowest end of the spectrum, there are hard rules—mess up anywhere and it's curtains. But if you make it to the point that processing classified stuff is a day by day thing, maybe people get numb to both using it and tracking it. If Mike Pence or Joe Biden had worked next to me while I was there, they would not be so careless.

Thanks, all! And, as noted, we'll have another batch tomorrow. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan30 Trump Actually Starts Campaigning
Jan30 Trump 1, DeSantis 0
Jan30 Republicans Are Running Away from Their Own Tax Plan
Jan30 Are the Democrats Making a Mistake in New Hampshire?
Jan30 AOC May Become Vice Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee
Jan30 Both Parties Prepare for a Special Election That Probably Won't Happen
Jan30 What's Woke?
Jan30 What about Brian?
Jan30 No National Brands Are Advertising on Truth Social
Jan30 Women Control All the Money
Jan29 Sunday Mailbag
Jan28 Saturday Q&A
Jan27 Schiff's Into Gear
Jan27 The Race for RNC Chair Just Got a Lot More Interesting
Jan27 Say "Hello" to the Congressional Dads Caucus
Jan27 Voters Do Not Like McCarthy or His Conference
Jan27 Speaking of Weaponizing the Federal Government...
Jan27 Americans Do Not Have Freedom of Cake, at Least in Colorado
Jan27 This Week in Schadenfreude: No News(max) is Good News
Jan27 This Week in Freudenfreude: Great Scott
Jan26 McCarthy Picks the Witch Hunters
Jan26 Facebook to Reinstate Trump
Jan26 Santos' (Un)lucky Number: 199.99
Jan26 Senate Republicans Aren't Getting Involved in the RNC Race
Jan26 All Quiet on the Eastern Front
Jan26 What Can the Democrats Do about the MAGA 20?
Jan26 It's Location, Location and Location
Jan26 The Most and Least Popular Senators
Jan26 Debbie Dingell Is Starting a Heartland Caucus
Jan25 A Fly in the Ointment
Jan25 Willis' Judgment Cometh and That Right Soon
Jan25 McCarthy Officially Dumps Schiff, Swalwell from Intelligence Committee
Jan25 As the Senate Turns
Jan25 FiveThirtyEight Could Be in Trouble
Jan25 The Word Cup, Part XI: Group D (Presidential Campaigns, from the Civil War to World War II), Round Two
Jan24 House Committees Continue to Shake Out
Jan24 GOP Senators to McCarthy: You're on Your Own
Jan24 DeSantis Defends Rejection of African-American Studies Course
Jan24 Carlson, et al. Score MMajor TriuMMph in the Culture Wars
Jan24 Mississippi Governor's Race May Get All Shook Up
Jan24 Big House to Become Bigo House
Jan23 Ruben Gallego Is Expected to Announce His Senate Run This Week
Jan23 Democrats Are Putting McCarthy in a Box on the Debt Issue
Jan23 DoJ Tells Jim Jordan Not to Expect Much Cooperation
Jan23 DeSantis Attacks African-American Studies in Florida Schools
Jan23 Republicans Are Now Divided on Abortion
Jan23 Florida Democrats Are in Despair
Jan23 Is Gray the New Blue?
Jan23 Senate Races Are Heating Up
Jan23 Ron Klain is Quitting