POLITICO Playbook: Dems seethe over Saudi oil slash
With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wants the U.S. to seriously consider cuts in military assistance to Saudi Arabia — or at least use the threat in a carrot-and-stick approach to convince the Saudis to change course. | Mariam Zuhaib/AP Photo
BREAKING THIS MORNING — “BANGKOK (AP) — More than 30 people, primarily children, were killed Thursday when a gunman opened fire in a childcare center in northeastern Thailand, authorities said. … A spokesperson for a regional public affairs office said 26 deaths have been confirmed so far — 23 children, two teachers and one police officer.”
TIME TO TURN THE SCREWS? — For months, aides to President JOE BIDEN have been backchanneling to keep OPEC from cutting oil exports and, in turn, raising oil and gas prices around the world.
So much for all that.
On Wednesday, OPEC+ announced that it will cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day starting next month — a move that “sharply undercuts President Biden’s effort to avoid an increase in gas prices ahead of the midterm elections, while setting back his push to constrain the oil revenue Russia is using to pay for its war in Ukraine,” write NYT’s David Sanger and Ben Hubbard.
“It also exposes the failure of his fist-bump diplomacy over the summer with [MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN,] the crown prince of Saudi Arabia,” they added.
The news was met with outrage in Washington, as a growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol seethed about what they described as an increasingly one-way U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis will “do what we let them get away with doing,” Rep. TOM MALINOWSKI (D-N.J.) told Playbook on Wednesday night. “We have to stop acting like the suckers in this relationship, and reestablish that the services we provide to these countries require them to take our legitimate interests and concerns into account. And if they’re not willing to do that, then they should find another friend.”
Toward that end, Malinowski says he will introduce a bill to “mandate the removal of U.S. troops and missile defense systems” from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly enough, the legislation is essentially copied and pasted from a 2020 proposal that congressional Republicans introduced — an effort to make it uncomfortable for GOP lawmakers to vote no.
Sen. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-Conn.), meanwhile, wants the U.S. to seriously consider cuts in military assistance to the kingdom — or at least use the threat in a carrot-and-stick approach to convince the Saudis to change course.
“There still is, in my view, an opportunity to persuade the Saudis that you’re making a gigantic mistake here — and I hope the administration will be aggressive about it,” Blumenthal told Playbook on Wednesday. “We have an opportunity and an obligation to use the leverage available. We have agency here. And we should use it.”
Nothing is off the table, per an administration official — though they cautioned that while the White House is willing to be aggressive, it will look to Congress to take the lead. “We will assess what other measures make sense on the breadth of our relationship [with Saudi Arabia],” the official said. “We want to see what Congress can pass … and, we’ll go from there.”
More immediately, there’s an election four weeks away, and these “new developments threaten to disrupt what had been Democrats’ growing optimism about how voters are perceiving gas prices, especially among independents who are key in swaying the outcome of tight races,” writes Josh Siegel.
While gas prices have gone down for months, they have begun to tick up — largely on the West Coast, “where six oil refineries in California and Washington reduced output because of maintenance,” Josh writes. (On Wednesday, the average price of gas in Los Angeles County hit a record high: $6.494 a gallon, per the L.A. Times.)
Everyone we spoke to agreed that the trend is politically advantageous for Republicans. But Malinowski, who has already begun outreach to GOP lawmakers, sees a chance to turn the tables — morphing a geopolitical loss into a messaging victory: “I hope that Republicans will join me in supporting that kind of response rather than wishing high gas prices on the American people so they win an election,” he said.
Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event in Gwinnett, Ga., on Friday, Sept. 9. | Megan Varner/Getty Images
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER WALKER BOMBSHELL — Two days after setting the political world aflame with its report that in 2009, HERSCHEL WALKER — who is running for Senate in Georgia while touting his opposition to abortion rights — paid for his then-girlfriend to obtain an abortion, The Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberger lit more kindling on Wednesday night: “She Had an Abortion With Herschel Walker. She Also Had a Child With Him.”
Ever since the Beast’s initial report — which POLITICO has not independently verified — Walker has denied the underlying claim.
“I never paid for an abortion, and it’s a lie,” he told SEAN HANNITY on Monday night.
Did he know the identity of the anonymous woman? Fox News host BRIAN KILMEADE asked Walker on Wednesday morning. “Not at all,” Walker said. “It’s sort of like everyone is anonymous, or everyone is leaking, and they want you to confess to something you have no clue about.”
Then came Sollenberger’s Wednesday night report: “[T]here’s a good reason the woman finds that defense highly doubtful: She’s the mother of one of his children.”
— AN EYE-POPPING QUOTE: “‘Sure, I was stunned, but I guess it also doesn’t shock me, that maybe there are just so many of us that he truly doesn’t remember,’ she said. ‘But then again, if he really forgot about it, that says something, too.’”
Earlier Wednesday, the Walker campaign released a new direct-to-camera ad, in which the candidate tells viewers he’s a changed man, “saved by grace” from mental illness.
The spot was filmed as a rejoinder to Democratic Sen. RAPHAEL WARNOCK, whose campaign has run ads highlighting Walker’s history of violent behavior, including repeatedly threatening to kill an ex-wife, choking her and holding a razor to her throat.
But the specter of the abortion story hangs over the ad, especially given Walker’s invocation of Christianity in telling his redemption story. (Worth noting: “Breaking Free,” Walker’s memoir chronicling his struggles with mental health and how his faith saved him, came out in April 2008; his relationship with the woman whose abortion he reportedly paid for was in 2009.)
In Sollenberger’s piece, the woman at the center of the story addressed that posturing. “Asked about the role faith played in Walker’s life, the anonymous woman, who identifies as a Christian herself, said even though Walker often talked about Christianity, he uses it ‘when it works for him.’ …
“‘He seemed pretty pro-choice to me. He was pro-choice, obviously,’ she said. ‘I don’t think there’s anywhere in the Bible where it says … that an abortion is an OK thing to do when it’s not the right time for you, but a terrible thing for anyone else to do when you are running for Senate. He picks and chooses where it’s convenient for him to use that religious crutch,’ she said.”
AND YET … an observation from our Natalie Allison: “The latest Herschel Walker abortion scandal is on CNN and yes, all the DC folks are aware. But 11 Alive in Atlanta tonight led with crime, followed by more crime — so until Democrats take out ads about it, don’t assume voters in Georgia are aware or actively thinking about this.”
NEW FROM NATALIE THIS MORNING — “Walker’s Christian fans unfazed by abortion revelations”
Good Thursday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.
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As Democrats go about trying to defend their Senate majority, only a few states are on the radar as potential pick-up opportunities: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, maybe Ohio, North Carolina or Florida.
One state generally ignored: Iowa.
Among Democrats in the state, there’s a sense that “the big moment could finally be here,”Lyz Lenz reports for POLITICO Magazine. “An unpopular Supreme Court ruling, combined with an aging incumbent senator, has given Dems the first chance in a long time to flip a Republican seat in Iowa.”
But those hopes have mostly extinguished, Lenz writes, a casualty of (1) a Democratic Party hobbled by “years of under-investment in rural Iowa,” and (2) a candidate, MIKE FRANKEN, “just barely holding it together” — and that was before his former campaign manager alleged that he’d kissed her without her consent (an accusation Franken has steadfastly denied).
— About Dems’ rural problems: The underinvestment problem is “common when it comes to Democrats and rural states,” Lenz writes, walking through more than a decade’s worth of national Democratic snubs.
— About Franken: “Franken isn’t particularly slick. And at times, that can look like an asset,” Lenz writes. “It’s also a liability. Franken is usually ready to tell an off-color story and often unfiltered to the point of concerning aides.” He tells Lenz about how, after getting arrested at 14, he managed to sneak four cans of beer into a holding cell.
It all adds up to a bleak electoral landscape for Democrats, Lenz writes — one where the party is “clinging to a swiftly crumbling center, instead of changing,” is “equipped with a less-than-stellar bench,” and has few positive prospects on the horizon.
DEMS FOCUS ON ABORTION RIGHTS —Elena Schneider reports from Macomb County, Mich., where Democrats are looking for a “silent group” of women voters to have a major impact on the election next month both in the Great Lakes State and beyond. “The campaigns in Michigan show Democrats are not just leaning on abortion policy to juice turnout amongst the party’s base, especially the large portion of it composed of college-educated women. Abortion is also a key part of the effort to persuade blue-collar women to switch sides, particularly in states where their Republican counterparts advocate a ‘no exceptions’ approach to abortion access.”
Across the nation, Democrats are deploying ads in every possible medium in an effort to keep the abortion issue top of mind for voters as they try to head off Republicans’ efforts to center races on the economy and crime as more time passes since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, WaPo’s Annie Linskey writes. “Nationally, recent Google News searches for inflation have run about even with inquiries on abortion. And in Senate battleground states such as Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia, that has also been the case.”
GOP FOCUSES ON CRIME — “In key battlegrounds, GOP onslaught of crime ads tightens Senate races,” by NBC’s Adam Edelman, Natasha Korecki and Henry Gomez: “Although Republicans have long turned to a playbook of attacking Democrats for not being tough enough on crime, pollsters … and strategists interviewed by NBC News said the strategy seems particularly effective this year, amid rising crime rates across the U.S., and elevated voter concerns about the issue.”
What’s eating Dairy State Dems: “Several Wisconsin Democrats said in interviews that [MANDELA] BARNES knew the attacks were coming and are concerned the campaign hasn’t done more to keep it from becoming a defining aspect of the race.
“‘It’s been frustrating,’ said one of Barnes’ primary opponents, TOM NELSON. Nelson, along with two other Democrats, dropped out of the race early to clear a path for Barnes, who consistently polled ahead of him and other Democrats. … Another Wisconsin Democrat who asked not to be named for fear of political retribution shared Nelson’s concerns.
“‘Why has it taken so long to figure out an answer to this crime messaging?’ the Democrat said. ‘Why does it feel like RON JOHNSON had like a month to hammer away at Mandela unanswered?’”
BATTLE FOR THE SENATE
CALLING IN BACKUP — “Jill Biden to visit Tacoma and Seattle, speak at Murray fundraiser,” by the Seattle Times’ Jim Brunner
— “Donald Trump Jr. sweeps Ohio to rally GOP voters behind J.D. Vance in Senate race,” by the Columbus Dispatch’s Haley BeMiller
WHO’S FUNDING RYAN? — “Drug companies in opioid crisis donated $27K to Ohio’s Ryan,” by AP’s Julie Carr Smyth: “The contributions to Ryan from AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health, the three biggest drug distribution companies in the U.S., came in between 2007 and August of this year. … The trio’s combined giving to [Democratic Rep. TIM] RYAN of $27,000 represents a fraction of the $50 million he has collected over the course of his career. Still, contributions from those donors are notable as Ryan hammers the spotty record of the anti-opioid nonprofit started by his Republican opponent, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author J.D. VANCE.”
BATTLE FOR THE STATES
THE NEW GOP PLAYBOOK —Alex Isenstadt reports from Phoenix on Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate KARI LAKE’s unconventional campaign that has “ripped out almost every page in the well-worn playbook” of how to run. Lake’s gambit to keep the governorship in the hands of Republicans for the 14th straight year “highlights how aversion to old ways of doing business within the Republican Party is animating a new class of candidates after [DONALD] TRUMP’s presidency.”
What it looks like: “She ignores advice from the Arizona political class and says she’s not a ‘huge believer’ in running TV ads, where campaigns typically spend most of their budget. Her ‘body man’ works full-time as a realtor, her husband is her videographer and, until a few days ago, she had an old-school website that looked like it was designed during the early days of the Internet. And while other candidates use polling data to shape their strategy, Lake hasn’t commissioned a single private survey since she won the primary— choosing instead, she says, to go with her instincts and interactions on the campaign trail.”
ELSEWHERE IN ARIZONA — “Cheney warns Arizona voters that the GOP nominees for governor and secretary of state are threats to democracy,” by NBC’s Allan Smith in Tempe: “I don’t know that I have ever voted for a Democrat,” Cheney said. “But if I lived in Arizona now, I absolutely would … for governor and for secretary of state.”
— “In Queen Creek, Ted Cruz rallies support for Ariz. Republicans Blake Masters and Kari Lake,” by the Arizona Republic’s Stacey Barchenger and Alison Steinbach
— “Mark Finchem, Arizona GOP secretary of state nominee, still won’t say Biden was legitimately elected,” by CBS’ Kathryn Watson
THREE-WAY RACE IN OREGON — “Betsy Johnson has raised $2 million more than previously reported; Drazan and Kotek receive big checks from party governor associations,” by The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg
DEEP IN THE HEART — “Beto O’Rourke, Texas Democrats stress gun restrictions, Uvalde as election nears,” by Dallas Morning News’ Robert Garrett
— Pennsylvania: Democrat JOHN FETTERMAN leads Republican MEHMET OZ 48% to 43%, according to a new Monmouth University poll.
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — North Carolina: The Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC swoops into the 13th Congressional District with a new ad attacking Democrat WILEY NICKEL for his law firm’s clientele. Styled as a low-rent lawyer’s cable-TV spot, it draws on the fact that the firm once advertised criminal defense services for a host of unsavory offenses: “Wiley Nickel will represent the worst in society — don’t let him add you to the list,” the voiceover says. CLF follows the NRCC into the newly drawn district, where Republican BO HINES is locked in a tight race with Nickel.
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10 a.m.: The president will depart the White House en route to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he is scheduled to arrive at 11:40 a.m.
1:20 p.m.: Biden will tour IBM, where he will deliver remarks on jobs at 2 p.m.
3:05 p.m.: Biden will depart Poughkeepsie en route to Red Bank, N.J., where he will arrive at 3:55 p.m.
5 p.m.: Biden will participate in a DNC reception.
6:15 p.m.: Biden will depart Red Bank en route to New York City.
8 p.m.: Biden will participate in a DSCC reception.
9:10 p.m.: Biden will depart New York City to return to the White House, where he will arrive at 10:50 p.m.
Press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE will gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Poughkeepsie.
VP KAMALA HARRIS’ THURSDAY — The VP will ceremonially swear in ARATI PRABHAKAR to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at 4 p.m.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
President Joe Biden talks with people affected by Hurricane Ian on Wednesday in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo
’TIS THE SEASON — “The lame-duck grinch that might steal Congress’ Christmas,” by Sarah Ferris, Burgess Everett and Caitlin Emma: “Thanks to hurricane relief, government spending and more, this year’s lame duck is shaping up as Congress’ busiest and most intense since the bipartisan ‘fiscal cliff’ deal inked 10 years ago after a session that stretched through the caroling season. Senate Minority Whip JOHN THUNE (R-S.D.) drolly predicted days filled with ‘what everyone wanted to do during the Christmas holidays: watch C-SPAN.’”
BEYOND THE BELTWAY
WHAT BIDEN SAID IN FLORIDA — Appearing in Florida with GOP Gov. RON DeSANTIS, Biden “was profuse in his praise for DeSantis during his remarks after a Wednesday briefing on the storm,” our colleagues Matt Dixon, Kelly Hooper and Olivia Olander write, noting that Biden’s words are “likely to help insulate DeSantis from critics who have suggested the governor didn’t do enough to warn residents” ahead of Hurricane Ian’s arrival.
But it wasn’t all warm for the two political adversaries: At a solo news conference, DeSantis quipped of the damage: “You can go over it in a helicopter, and you can see damage, but it does not do it justice until you are actually on the ground,” per NYT’s Katie Rogers, alluding to the fact that Biden took a helicopter to survey the area. Biden responded later: “I’m sure it’s much worse on the ground. But you can see a whole hell of a lot of the damage from the air.”
THE DEVASTATING TOLL — “Ian is probably Florida’s deadliest hurricane since 1935. Most victims drowned,” by WaPo’s Danielle Paquette and Meryl Kornfield: “State authorities have documented 72 deaths thus far — slightly under Hurricane Irma’s toll in 2017, according to the National Hurricane Center. County sheriffs have reported dozens more, pushing the total to at least 103.”
THE RIPPLE EFFECT — “Hurricane Ian worsens Florida’s housing crisis,” by NBC’s Janelle Griffith
THE POLITICAL EFFECT — “Ian destroyed parts of GOP-leaning Lee County. But Republicans are confident ahead of November,” by Matt Dixon in Tallahassee: “Republicans in Lee County are assessing how the catastrophic storm will affect turnout, and hope Ian isn’t an October surprise that could give underdog Democrats a boost. The county provided 62,000 voters for Gov. Ron DeSantis four years ago, and neighboring Collier County delivered another 50,000, the governor’s third biggest margin of any county in the state.”
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THE WHITE HOUSE
WELL-OILED MACHINE — U.S. officials are considering pulling back on some sanctions on Venezuela “to allow Chevron Corp. to resume pumping oil there, paving the way for a potential reopening of U.S. and European markets to oil exports” from the South American country, WSJ’s Patricia Garip, Vivian Salama and Kejal Vyas scooped. “In exchange for the significant sanctions relief, the government of Venezuelan President NICOLÁS MADURO would resume long-suspended talks with the country’s opposition to discuss conditions needed to hold free and fair presidential elections in 2024.”
VEEP FILES — It seemed innocuous enough at first: On Monday, the Secret Service car carrying Harris had a mechanical hiccup that forced her to move to another vehicle. But the full details were a little more serious, indicating that the Secret Service driver had hit a curb while driving, leading to the need for a changed tire and a new car for the veep. The episode “concerned both the Secret Service director and the vice president and revived worries about the agency’s history of concealing its mistakes,” WaPo’s Carol Leonnig reports. “The Secret Service also failed to note key details of the incident in an electronic message formally alerting senior leadership to the motorcade’s delay.”
A FASTER MASTER — “Appeals court expedites DOJ challenge to Mar-a-Lago special master,” by Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney
WAR IN UKRAINE
INTEL INSIGHT — Intelligence gathered by U.S. agencies indicates that “parts of the Ukrainian government authorized the car bomb attack near Moscow in August that killed DARIA DUGINA, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist,” NYT’s Julian Barnes, Adam Goldman, Adam Entous and Michael Schwirtz report, noting that the event is part of a “covert campaign that U.S. officials fear could widen the conflict.” Ukrainian officials denied any involvement.
WHAT UKRAINE WANTS — “Ukraine reworks its weapons wish list as winter approaches,” by Paul McLeary: “At the top of their list is new air defenses, due to fears that VLADIMIR PUTIN will step up missile attacks on civilian targets as his front lines collapse.”
IMMIGRATION FILES — “Court declares DACA program illegal, but leaves policy intact for nearly 600,000 immigrant ‘Dreamers,’” by CBS’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez
MUSK READ — “Three reasons Washington is freaking out about Elon Musk right now,” by Rebecca Kern: “A takeover of Twitter by ELON MUSK could create headaches for Democrats and Republicans alike, with a potential return of Donald Trump and explosion of misinformation.”
Mr. Beast wants to run for president in 20 years.
Dan Diamond did some man on the street — er, plane — reporting.
Haley Stevens and her husband are divorcing.
TRANSITIONS — Eduardo Carrizosa is now deputy press secretary for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). He most recently was press secretary and digital director for Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.). … Sarah Sinovic is now director of public affairs and comms for Rockwool North America. She previously was director of comms and digital strategy for Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.). … Sara Van Driest has been named the first director of pediatrics at NIH’s All of Us research program. She previously was an associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. …
… Tim Granholm and Teal Pennebaker are launching Shallot Communications. Granholm previously was a senior adviser for strategic comms at HHS and is a Boeing and Obama White House alum. Pennebaker is chief comms officer at Capsule and is an Amazon and HHS alum. … Lauren Skowronski is now senior director of internal comms at Snap. She previously was SVP of corporate comms at Snap.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) … Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) and Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) … WSJ’s Eliza Collins … Jonathan Alter … Artur Orkisz of the American Polish Forum and the Norwegian Embassy … Ben Kenney … U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Evan Williams and Patrick O’Connor … Ashley O’Sullivan … NAM’s Aric Newhouse … TIAA’s David Nason … Darrell West … Stephanie Genco of Forbes Tate Partners … The Daily Beast’s Will O’Connor … CBC’s Alex Panetta … Nicole Venable … Kathleen Connery Dawe of Sen. Angus King’s (I-Maine) office … Ruby Mellen … Ansley Lacitis of Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) office … Tracy Sefl … Veronica Smith Wong of Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) office … David Andelman (78) … Kristen Gentile of Sen. Bob Casey’s (D-Pa.) office … Mike Friel of the Alliance Defending Freedom … Shannon Finley of Capitol Counsel … Tara DiJulio … Llewellyn King … E&E News’ Sara Schonhardt … WaPo’s Amy Gardner … Steve Grand … Robert Stacy McCain … Wes Anderson of OnMessage … American Conservation Coalition’s Danielle Butcher … Rowan Bridge … Emily Davis
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