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11:40 AM PT: PPP's new MA-Sen poll is out.

11:53 AM PT: MA-Sen: With John Kerry now confirmed as Secretary of State, Dem Gov. Deval Patrick has selected his former chief of staff, Mo Cowan, to serve as Massachusetts' interim senator until a replacement is chosen in a special election in June. Cowan is a well-connected attorney who worked for Patrick for many years before returning to the private sector last November. He will become the second African American member of the Senate, along with Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was appointed to fill a vacancy earlier this month. (This is the first time in American history that two black senators have served simultaneously.)

Cowan said he would not run in the special (even though he is allowed to by law), saying that he is not a "candidate today or any time in the future." However, he's only 43 years old, so that's the kind of thing that could always change.

12:11 PM PT: Meanwhile, PPP is out with their first poll of the election to succeed Kerry. In short, it contradicts all the Tom Menino-style anti-progressive "conventional wisdom" that seems to have congealed about this race. Not only is Ed Markey a stronger candidate against Scott Brown than Stephen Lynch, he also crushes Lynch in a hypothetical Democratic primary. Here are the numbers:

Brown: 48
Markey: 45

Brown: 48
Lynch: 39

Markey: 52
Lynch: 19
While Brown retains a 50-43 favorability rating, Markey has better numbers than Lynch, 38-35 versus 26-31, which helps explain the difference in their performance. Among Democrats, though, Markey really crushes, with a 58-13 score versus an underwater 27-28 for Lynch. That's a pretty lousy place to be with members of your own party, and while I'm sure his internal polling shows something different, Lynch may want to pause and seriously reconsider whether he wants to go this route.

As for the general election, Tom Jensen points out that the undecideds in the Brown-Markey matchup voted for Elizabeth Warren by a 69-17 margin last year. That means that while Brown is close to 50 percent, actually getting there will be a serious slog. Indeed, that's why many observers think Brown's better bet is the 2014 governor's race, which PPP also polled. Here's how Brown stacks up against some possible Democratic contenders:

• 48-37 vs. state Treasurer Steve Grossman

• 49-32 vs. former Medicare administrator Don Berwick

• 49-32 vs. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz

I'm surprised, though, that Jensen describes Brown as a "pretty strong favorite" in a hypothetical gubernatorial contest, seeing as he's still stuck just shy of 50 percent, much as he is in the Senate head-to-heads. And even the best-known Democrat, Grossman, is still unknown to over half of all respondents (by contrast, as I alluded above, Markey's name is unfamiliar to only a quarter). So I think this would be a difficult race for Brown as well. Easier, perhaps, and if he's going to run for office at all, I'd prefer it be for governor so as not to put this Senate seat at risk, but ultimately, this is still Massachusetts and recreating what happened to Brown in the 2010 special will be no easy feat.

12:50 PM PT: AR-Gov: With former frontrunner Dustin McDaniel now out of the field, it's no surprise that more Democratic names are coming forward as possible gubernatorial contenders. The newest belongs to state Sen. Keith Ingram, who says he won't decide until after the end of the legislative session (a very common approach among state government officials). Ballotpedia has a great list of every state's session dates for 2013; you can see that Arkansas' is very short, ending on March 21, so we should have an answer from Ingram some time around then.

12:55 PM PT: AZ-Gov: That was quick: Former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman only began circulating his name as a potential GOP candidate for governor a couple of weeks ago, but now he's already made it official by filing paperwork with the Secretary of State. One person who's probably glad is freshman Dem Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, seeing as Hallman was mentioned as a possible contender last year in the new AZ-09. The GOP will probably be eager to make a play for that seat next year, but this takes one of their better possible recruits off the table.

1:02 PM PT: Data: A potentially useful effort from the Huffington Post for the 2012 elections:

The Huffington Post collected county-level election results from the websites of the election authority in each state, parsed the data and converted them into a common format. [...]

The repository currently includes county-level results from every state except Massachusetts and Alaska. It also includes results for the District of Columbia and town-level results for Rhode Island.

The original source files are available as well.

1:10 PM PT: FL-26: Roll Call's Joshua Miller gives the Great Mentioner treatment to potential GOP candidates who might seek to take on freshman Dem Rep. Joe Garcia in 2014. If a lot of the names sound familiar, it's because they also came up last cycle, when Republicans openly contemplated trying to oust David Rivera in the primary—something I'll be everyone listed here wishes they had. Anyhow, here's who we've got:

Jeb Bush, Jr., the son of former Gov. Jeb Bush
state Sen. Anitere Flores
state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla
state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz
former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla
Miami Dade School Board Member Carlos Curbelo
strategist & CNN talking head Ana Navarro

According to Miller's unnamed sources in the legislature, Flores says she won't run; meanwhile, Navarro doesn't sound enthusiastic but isn't ruling it out. As for the rest, we'll just have to see, though Garcia will definitely have a target on his back as he attempts his first re-election campaign.

1:41 PM PT: FL-Gov: Well, the scandal over the pooch named Pluto (f/k/a "Reagan") has claimed its first victim: After just five months on the job, Florida GOP communications director Brian Burgess is out. Now, Burgess long had a reputation as a total dickhead, but earlier this month, he refused to answer questions about what had happened to the rescue dog prominently adopted by Gov. Rick Scott during his 2010 campaign and, in a move designed to tickle conservative erogenous zones, renamed "Reagan."

After five days of stonewalling, Scott himself addressed reporters' queries, and it turns he gave up on the pup, literally sending him to a farm upstate (whereupon he happily returned to his given name of Pluto). Now it's time for Burgess, who did Scott no favors by refusing to jump on this doggie grenade, to get packed off for somewhere else—though hopefully Scott himself will be next in line.

1:50 PM PT: GA-Sen: This is definitely one of the more unusual campaign rollouts I've seen, but I'm excited anyway: Lunatic GOP Rep. Paul Broun's wife announced at a meeting of a conservative group on Tuesday that her husband would indeed run for Senate. In response, Broun's office merely said they expected a formal declaration "within the next week." This is fantastic news for Democrats, since Broun is easily the craziest member of Georgia's Republican delegation—an acerbic iconoclast who could definitely ride movement conservative enthusiasm to his party's nomination. And if he does, that would give Dems a fighting chance for this open seat.

Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Jack Kingston, who was overseas when the news of Saxby Chambliss's retirement broke, confirms in an email that he's looking at the race. In the same post, Jim Galloway also discusses a very unexpected possibility: Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream and a major GOP donor. There's no indication that she's interested, but she definitely has a different profile than your typical Republican candidate. On the other hand, wealthy white person, so maybe not that different.

2:23 PM PT: But it sounds like Brown may take the more challenging route: A new AP report says he's "leaning strongly toward running" according to unnamed "GOP officials close to" him. Hang on, though: WCVB says a Brown spokesman, Colin Reed, told them the report was "incorrect" but offered no further details.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski lays out the progressive case against Lynch, and he wastes no time getting right to it in the lede:

Will the next Democratic Senator from Massachusetts be a pro-life, Iraq War-supporting, ObamaCare-fighting Congressman who once opposed an assault weapons ban and gay rights?
Kaczynski goes into great deal on all of Lynch's apostasies, but this one vignette stands out:
When Lynch first ran for office in 1994 and was successfully elected to the Massachusetts House he challenged his opponent that year as "the conservative candidate."

Lynch hit his opponent for supporting the request of a gay and lesbian group to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Boston saying it showed "a lack of leadership from the office of the state representative" according to local news reports.

2:46 PM PT: MI-Gov: This is unexpected—and unfortunate. State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, who said in November she was considering a run for governor, will not challenge Republican Rick Snyder next year. Whitmer had served as a very prominent critic of Snyder's radical legislative agenda, including his appalling role in passing "right-to-work" legislation in last year's lame duck session. She's not ruling out other possible statewide bids (such as for AG, which she briefly ran for in 2010), so I have to wonder whether she thinks Snyder is too tough to beat, despite his huge crater in recent polling.

Indeed, PPP found Snyder getting absolutely sandblasted by all comers in a December survey, including Whitmer, who led him by 46-38 margin. Fortunately, the other potential candidates tested by PPP also performed well, so even without Whitmer, someone like Rep. Gary Peters, ex-Rep. Mark Schauer, or 2010 nominee Virg Bernero can most assuredly make a serious race of it. And while we're on the topic, MLive's Jonathan Oosting notes that both Schauer and state Board of Education President John Austin are both considering.

2:51 PM PT: NC-Sen: North Carolina may the most over-polled state in the nation, thanks to Democratic pollster PPP regularly surveying their home state, and conservative think tank Civitas doing the same. Anyhow, Civitas has new job approval numbers for freshman Dem Kay Hagan (via one of their usual pollsters, National Research), finding her with a positive 45-27 score. Funny enough, that's much better than what PPP found: They had Kagan at a mediocre 34-36 (PDF) just a few weeks ago.

2:57 PM PT: NJ-Sen: I really haven't been sure how to handle this story about Dem Sen. Bob Menendez. It originated in the right-wing rag Daily Caller, which makes it instantly suspect, but now it's percolated up into more traditional outlets. I think I'll just let the Newark Star-Ledger's lede do the talking, and you can do with it what you will:

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez today denied any wrongdoing in the wake of allegations that a major campaign donor now under investigation by the FBI provided him with prostitutes and plane flights to the Dominican Republic.

The allegations resurfaced after the offices of Salomon Melgen, a high-profile Palm Beach eye doctor who has given tens of thousands in political contributions to Menendez (D-N.J.) and others, were the target of a late-night raid by the FBI on Tuesday in Florida.

3:16 PM PT: TN Redistricting: It's a rarely-discussed topic on the redistricting front, but Tennessee Republicans are gearing up to redraw the state's judicial map, a task that hasn't been undertaken in nearly three decades. That's because, unlike congressional or legislative maps, judicial districts aren't constitutionally required to be equipopulous. (And that makes sense, too: Even if they're elected, judges aren't "representatives," and you definitely don't want to split counties.)

But Democrats are concerned that the GOP wants to use the opportunity to move the state's bench rightward via gerrymandering. Meanwhile, some local officials and legal practitioners worry that the proposed new districts would actually make the administration of justice more difficult by, among other things, creating oversized rural districts and "smash[ing] relationships forged among court officers, lawyers and police agencies through decades of working together."

Indeed, Republicans seem to have radical designs on several different layers of the state's judicial system (making appellate judges elected instead of appointed, and turning judicial elections from non-partisan contests to partisan affairs) ahead of the 2014 elections. Judges are elected to eight-year terms, so it's the GOP's last opportunity to wreak havoc until 2022. I suspect they'll seize the opportunity.

3:26 PM PT: TX-Sen: It's not like anyone thinks GOP Sen. (and NRSC chief) John Cornyn is vulnerable, but PPP is nothing if not thorough in their polling. So of course, as part of their latest Texas survey, they asked a few Senate head-to-heads. Here's how Cornyn fares against the same set of Democrats PPP tested against Gov. Rick Perry:

• 45-42 vs. former Houston Mayor Bill White

• 48-41 vs. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro

• 47-36 vs. Houston Mayor Annise Parker

• 48-37 vs. state Sen. Wendy Davis

These numbers are pretty blah, but unlike Perry, Cornyn is remarkable little-known in his home state, despite having served in the Senate for a decade. His job approval rating is just 34-36, with another 30 percent having no opinion of the man. Now, that's not particularly remarkable, given how big Texas is (as Tom Jensen notes). But it probably does explain why a Republican senator would peak at 48 percent in a red state. That said, the undecideds are undoubtedly a conservative-leaning bunch, and I can't imagine Democrats ever devoting the resources to trying to unseat him.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this poll is that even Texans favor an assault weapons ban, 49-41. One other thing stood out to me: Barack Obama earns a 47-51 approval score. Tom says this means "Texas voters don't like" the president, and okay, sure, that's definitely not wrong if the only choices are "like" and "don't like." But Tom is also fond of pointing out when the president's approval ratings match his 2012 performance, and in Texas, they are way better: Obama lost the state by 16 points. Go figure.

3:36 PM PT: NY-Gov: Look whose polling numbers have started to fall earthward: Dem Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has dropped from a stratospheric 74-13 all-time high last month to an enviable but much lower 59-28 in Quinnipiac's latest. Unusually monocausal explanations are too simplistic in politics, but here, Cuomo's madcap drive to push new gun control laws through the legislature does indeed seem to have hurt him with Republicans. I mean, I don't know how he was ever going to sustain something like his 68-18 rating with GOP voters; now that's a more plausible (but still absurdly good) 44-43.

But Cuomo's standing has fallen with Democrats and independents as well... so maybe that monocausal explanation is still too facile. I could, however, believe that Cuomo's set himself up for ugliness with the Frick & Frack routine going on in the state Senate, and that those stool pigeons are coming home to roost. Quinnipiac does note that Cuomo's standing with Republicans took a hit after he passed gay marriage but later rebounded; this seems a bit different, though, as people across the spectrum appear to be re-evaluating. We'll just have to see where it goes.

3:42 PM PT: Pennsylvania: Not like it'll ever happen with the GOP stranglehold over the state, but Quinnipiac finds that Pennsylvania voters narrowly favor same-sex marriage, 47-43. Actually, it occurs to me that a good test for the Republican Party will be whether a state with a GOP governor and legislature every decides to pass marriage equality legislation on its own. Otherwise, their efforts to reinvent themselves will look about as sincere as their attempts to reach out to black and Hispanic voters—and will be about as successful, too.

4:02 PM PT: VA Redistricting: Unwilling to deal with this political nuclear potato, Republicans in Virginia's state House have once again punted on the redistricting bill their "friends" in the state Senate have dropped into their laps—and there appears to be no clear timetable for the bill to move forward in the chamber. Indeed, it may never: GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell has issued a series of remarks expressing hostility toward the legislation, culminating on Tuesday when he called the measure "very troubling."

Here's something else that's troubling: Two Democrats in the lower chamber are signalling their willingness to support the GOP's re-redistricting scheme. What's so awful about it is that Republicans have a huge majority in the House and don't need any Democratic votes to pass the bill (if they try for passage), but these two delegates will give them political cover and allow them to pretend that there's bipartisan support behind the effort.

There's also a racial angle, though: The two lawmakers in question, Onzlee Ware and Rosalyn Dance, are both African American, and they like the new map because it would create an additional black-majority district. Of course, doing so would come at the expense of their party by turning neighboring seats red. Here's how they're justifying themselves:

"Here's an opportunity where I can actually have a great impact on African Americans, yet at the same time, it doesn't help the entire Democratic party," Ware said. "Should I always have to forgo the interests of black people for the good of the party? . . . I have a real dilemma on my hands right now." [...]

"I don't like the process," Dance said. "But the irony of irony is, it's going to be hard for us [to vote against the plan] as African Americans because they create a minority seat."

This, of course, is a false dilemma: The needs of black voters are not met by helping cement Republican control of the state Senate, even if new district lines might allow for the election of one additional black senator. And indeed, plenty aren't buying this. Another member of the black caucus, state Sen. Louise Lucas, went ballistic upon hearing about Ware and Dance's intentions:
“I’m hot as a pot of fish grease about this,” she said. “I’m hoping that they’re not going to be so naive as to bite that bait.”
No joke. But want to see something truly appalling? Ware is trying to blame the map's passage on Democratic Sen. Henry Marsh, who was attending the presidential inauguration that day—an absence Republicans deliberately took advantage of to sneak the bill through the evenly-divided chamber.
“I understand going to the inauguration, I really do. But I think if you’d have asked President Obama where he should have been, he’d have probably told him, ‘You need to be back down there protecting the interests of the people of Virginia,’ ” Ware said. “And I’m certain that Martin Luther King would have told him that. It’s too important to miss.”
Just think about how wildly inconsistent that is. Ware claims to be "troubled" by the GOP's methods, and (what arrogance! speaking for Obama and MLK!) thinks that Marsh should have been available to "protect" the interests of Virginians instead of skipping town for a day. But Marsh was furious (like all other sane Democrats) about what Republicans had done and would surely have opposed the plan. So Ware is saying he'd have preferred Marsh vote against a map he now says he (Ware) wants to support. That's contradictory bullshit, and once again proves the number one maxim of redistricting: Never vote for the other side's gerrymander.

4:07 PM PT: And here's a good example of why questions about the veracity of the Menendez story have given me the heebie-jeebies:

The head of a watchdog organization who received allegations that U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) had a sexual encounter with an underage prostitute in the Dominican Republic said today she had serious doubts about the anonymous person who made the claim.

"I was concerned about the timing, that this guy had had information regarding Menendez, he said, since as early as 2008 but was only coming forward the spring before Menendez’s election," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

4:19 PM PT: SC-01: Teddy Turner's dialing for dollars must be working, because he's already out with a second ad in the GOP primary, this one saying Barack Obama would "fail" the high school economics class Turner teachers. (What a lame zinger.) According to Morning Score, the buy is for 1,000 gross ratings points, which is a legit sum.

5:33 PM PT: IL-02: There have been a number of key developments recently in the race to succeed ex-Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Most importantly, it seems that the crowded field has largely winnowed down to three serious contenders: ex-Rep. Debbie Halvorson, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, and ex-state Rep. Robin Kelly. Indeed, another candidate, freshman state Sen. Napoleon Harris, just dropped out and threw his support to Kelly on Wednesday, while state Sen. Donne Trotter, a former candidate and well-connected local leader, endorsed her a day earlier.

What I find most remarkable, though, is how the Sandy Hook tragedy seems to have focused this race on an issue that I can't ever recall seeing featured so prominently in a Democratic primary: guns. But this district, centered on some of the most impoverished parts of Chicago's South Side and riven by violence, is certainly one place where this debate has particular resonance. Indeed, on Tuesday, just blocks away from the 2nd's northern edge, a 15-year-old high school student who had just attended the inauguration was shot dead in a park.

And when it comes to gun violence, Kelly is the only member of the trio with the kind of record that's in tune with the voters of this district. She's made gun control a central part of her campaign and says she "could not be more proud" of her lifetime "F" rating from the NRA. Hutchinson and Halvorson, meanwhile, have both earned "A"s from the group, but Halvorson's views are by far the more appalling:

Halvorson, who has supported allowing guns in national parks and opposed legislation to ban large-capacity firearm magazines, is unapologetic about her views on guns. Chicago voters, she said, have no desire for some of the gun control measures being promoted after the Newtown, Conn., massacre.

"I'm not willing to change my stance," Halvorson told POLITICO. "Wherever I go, people beg me to keep my stance, not to give in to public pressure."

That stubbornness has prompted the involvement of NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who used his super PAC last cycle to target anti-gun control candidates and is now doing so again. Independence USA is up with the first ad of the race, reportedly backed by a $375,000 buy, attacking Halvorson over guns:
Halvorson quickly started singing a different tune in response to this development:
"My win will not be a victory for the NRA," Halvorson said. "This will be a big victory for having someone at the table who can speak to both sides of this issue. That's the victory that having me win will be."
She's definitely stung, calling the ads an "act of desperation," but her woes are certainly far from over. Kelly has demanded both Halvorson and Hutchinson release their NRA questionnaires, which Halvorson has refused to do, saying:
"I haven't filled one out in years, so I don't see how releasing one would make a difference," she said. "I'm not even seeking the NRA's endorsement."
But if she hasn't "changed her stance," as she told Politico, then there shouldn't be any problem with releasing those old questionnaires, right? Halvorson is projecting, though, when she accuses her opponents of "trying to change the subject"—guns are the subject, and Halvorson is the one trying to change it. Hopefully she won't be allowed to, because hoever wins this primary will likely do so with a small plurality. Internal polling shows Halvorson could pull this off, tut with her obnoxious attitude, she can't lose fast enough.

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