TIME Military

Fissure Opens Between Pentagon and White House Over Assad’s Fate

WASHINGTON (Oct. 30, 2014) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel holds a press briefing with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey at the Pentagon Oct. 30, 2014. DoD Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that internal Administration debate over what to do in Syria must be "honest" and "direct." DoD Photo / Sean Hurt

Hagel told Rice a lack of clarity is complicating U.S. efforts to combat ISIS

President Barack Obama declared in August 2011 that Syrian leader Bashar Assad must “step aside” for the good of his country after his forces had killed nearly 2,000 fellow citizens. More than three years later, with Assad still in power, the Syrian civil war has killed some 200,000 people and given Islamic extremists territory to occupy. That has led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to warn the White House that the U.S. has to stop ignoring the Syrian dictator.

In a two-page memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice two weeks ago, Hagel said the lack of clarity is complicating U.S. efforts to combat the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, Pentagon officials say. The memo’s existence was first reported in the New York Times on Thursday.

It’s no secret that there’s much teeth-gnashing inside the Pentagon because of a belief that U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS have transformed the U.S. military into a Syrian air force, of sorts. And after more than three years of increasing violence—including Assad’s brazen use of chemical weapons against his own people that Obama vainly warned was a “red line” that he’d better not cross—frustration is mounting among the U.S. military.

They say plans to train 5,000 “moderate”—i.e., non-ISIS—Syrian rebels annually to fight the militants is complicated by the civil war inside Syria, even if much of the training is slated to take place outside the country. So long as Assad remains in power, they fear the moderate rebels’ attention could be diverted from fighting ISIS to battling Assad.

Hagel wouldn’t say much about his concerns. “This is a complicated issue,” he told reporters Thursday. “We are constantly assessing and reassessing and adapting to the realities of what is the best approach.”

Such internal debates are the “responsibility of any leader,” he added. “And because we are a significant element of this issue, we owe the President and we owe the National Security Council our best thinking on this. And it has to be honest and it has to be direct.”

Unsurprisingly, a White House spokesman agreed. “The President wants the unvarnished opinion of every member of his national-security team,” Josh Earnest told CNN on Friday. “That’s the way he thinks we are going to reach the best outcomes.”

TIME 2014 Election

Straw Into Gold: Candidates Trade Leadership PAC Dollars for Campaign Cash

Senate contenders find mutual benefit by shuffling money back and forth between accounts

With just a few days remaining in the first quarter of 2014, Mary Landrieu did something generous: The embattled Democratic senator from Louisiana, herself in the midst of an exceedingly tough re-election race, used her leadership PAC to give $5,000 to the campaign of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who at the time expected a competitive race of his own and had won in 2008 by just 312 votes.

The contribution from Landrieu’s Jazz PAC came on March 28, three days before the Federal Election Commission’s filing deadline for candidate campaign finance reports, and plumped up Franken’s fundraising numbers — figures that would be seen as an indication of the former Saturday Night Live star’s ability to attract the money he needed to win.

Landrieu’s action looks less altruistic, though, considering what happened next: Franken’s leadership PAC, Midwest Values PAC, gave $5,000 to Landrieu’s campaign on March 31 — the very last day of the reporting cycle. As with Franken’s, Landrieu’s fundraising numbers were goosed just a bit as a result.

The trade appears to have been no coincidence. Landrieu engaged in 21 such exchanges through Sept. 30 of this midterm election cycle, giving $96,000 from Jazz PAC to other candidates’ campaigns. Within seven days before or after each donation, she received exactly the same amount back from the leadership PACs of those same candidates. Most of the activity occurred shortly before an FEC reporting deadline. Some of the trades happened within the very same day.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has boosted her campaign account by nearly $100,000 using an increasingly popular maneuver involving leadership PACs. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

And she’s not the only one. Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mark Udall (Colo.) also all had at least 20 such swaps, each of which took a week or less to complete. All are in squeaker elections. Other Democrats who had more than 10 transactions: Sens. Franken, Chris Coons (Del.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Tom Udall (N.M.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mark Warner (Va.), and Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Gary Peters (Mich.), both of whom are running for Senate seats.

On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky engaged in 14 of these exchanges, transferring $70,000 out of his Bluegrass Committee PAC to other GOP candidates who then used their PACs to donate $67,500 to his campaign, all within seven days. Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) did the same thing 11 times in this cycle using his Preserving America’s Traditions PAC.

In an era of multimillon-dollar donations to outside spending groups, the sums involved here may seem like small potatoes. But for candidates forced to gather contributions under hard-money limits — they can take no more than $2,600 per election from individual donors — every little bit counts. And if the contributions are the larger sums that PACs can give, so much the better. For an indication of how anxious candidates are to scoop up every dollar, look no farther than the desperate emailed fundraising appeals they send out as, each quarter, reporting deadlines approach.

“The totals aren’t huge, but this is an example of the ‘leave no stone unturned’ principle of campaign finance,” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics and a 30-year veteran of the FEC. “This is going to pretty amazing lengths.”

And some think the swaps are little more than an attempt to evade legal limits, since leadership PACs can give no more than $5,000 per election to their own sponsor’s campaign.

CPI_1

“What you’re looking at clearly strikes me as an abuse of leadership PACs that undermines the integrity of basic contribution limits,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. The transactions — even though they don’t involve exactly the same dollars circling back to the original donor — could be considered a form of money laundering, he added.

Said another campaign finance lawyer who asked not to be named: “This appears not to be happening by spontaneous combustion.”

Landrieu and the others have also used their leadership PACs to support candidates who did not partner with them in quick-turnaround reciprocal contributions. Her Jazz PAC has given a total of $266,500 to House and Senate Democratic candidates, for example. But a substantial portion of that has come back to her in the form of contributions from the leadership PACs of the recipients of her donations.

Neither Landrieu’s campaign press office nor the campaign’s attorney responded to multiple requests for comment.

These are the top 2014 cycle practitioners of exchanges within one week, through Sept. 30:

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Building goodwill — and more

Leadership PACs date back to the late 1970s, when Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) set one up, with a nod from the FEC, and used it to win the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health by giving out tens of thousands of dollars to his committee colleagues. This cycle, with Waxman retiring, two lawmakers who want to fill his slot as the top-ranking Democrat on Energy and Commerce are using their PACs to woo support from other members of the panel.

And supporting endangered members of their own party is certainly another way that lawmakers use these structures. Landrieu has hauled in more leadership PAC money than any other candidate this cycle, receiving a total of $446,500. Also among the top 10 are Pryor, Hagan, Warner, Shaheen and Mark Udall — all Senate Democrats whose re-election bids are no walk in the park. Below are the top 10 recipients of leadership PAC funds this cycle:

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The win-friends-and-influence-people model of the leadership PAC isn’t always the one that’s followed, though. In fact, there are few restrictions on how a leadership PAC’s sponsor can spend its cash. Sometimes they’re used as little more than slush funds, taking in contributions of up to $5,000 per year from lobbyists and special interests who have already maxed out to a lawmaker’s campaign committee and spending the money on travel, greens fees or nice meals for that same lawmaker – at times in the company of the very interests that donated the loot in the first place.

Most leadership PACs don’t donate to their own sponsor’s campaigns. That may be because, even though they may do so within the limits, the FEC hasn’t made the rules easy to discern. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is one of the few senators to have done so in the 2014 cycle, and he did it big, giving his campaign the maximum $5,000 permitted for each of his races: primary, general and — a special circumstance — his primary runoff contest. He sent another $5,000 to his legal fund to help fight his primary opponent’s challenge to Cochran’s victory.

Other than those outright, strictly limited donations, though, campaign activities can’t be paid for by a candidate’s PAC. According to the FEC, a leadership PAC financed and controlled by a candidate or officeholder is “neither an authorized [campaign] committee nor affiliated with the candidate’s authorized committee.”

But the swaps appear to be a way to work around the limits. “The net effect is to turn leadership PAC money into campaign money, campaign finance lawyer Kenneth Gross, a former head of the FEC’s enforcement division.

More money each cycle

In this election cycle, 531 leadership PACs — most of them associated with current lawmakers but some linked to former members or candidates — have raised a total of $144.7 million, giving about 36 percent of it, or $52.4 million, to candidates and party committees.

As leadership PAC wealth has grown with every election cycle, so has the rate of short-term exchanges between candidates. During the 2008 cycle, 32 candidates made a total of 71 trades that were completed within seven days. So far this cycle 170 of them have occurred among 56 candidates.

The amount of money changing hands has increased sharply over the past four elections cycles as well — growing from $674,400 in 2008 to $1.28 million so far this cycle. The 2014 number expands to $1.7 million when the lens is widened to look at exchanges within 30 days, rather than seven. But the overwhelming number of such round trips — 75 percent of the ones that occurred within 30 days — have happened within a week.

While more candidates, 92, conducted these exchanges during the 2012 cycle, this cycle’s top traders appear to have perfected the process. Prior to the 2014 races, no candidate made such an exchange more than 14 times. There’s also more money involved this time; the 2012 total was $1.07 million.

Senate Democrats seem to have dominated the practice this cycle, but during the 2010 midterms it was GOP Senate candidates making the majority of short-term exchanges. Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and John Thune (S.D.) topped the list as the Republicans picked up six seats in that election.

Same-day turnarounds

Democrat Coons is not in a competitive race, but he has been party to 18 transactions with a round trip time of less than seven days during this cycle — shelling out $55,000 from his Blue Hen PAC and receiving $58,000 in return.

When reached for comment, Coons’ campaign dismissed the possibility of quid pro quo.

“Senator Coons has supported Democratic candidates, including a number of his colleagues in the Senate, through his campaign account and leadership PAC,” campaign spokesman Jesse Chadderdon said in an email. “Many of his colleagues have been supportive of his re-election campaign as well. Whether or not another candidate has supported him or will support him down the road just isn’t part of the evaluation process. It’s about helping the best people win difficult elections.”

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has the most single-day turnarounds of leadership PAC exchanges. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Even though it’s not surprising to see candidates showing good will for their party colleagues by way of their checkbooks, this explanation seems to fall short of clarifying exchanges made between candidates in the same 24 hour span.

During the 2014 election cycle, candidates have traded leadership PAC funds for campaign cash on the same day 37 times using this mechanism; 28 of them involved the exact same amount coming and going. The sum exchanged most frequently was the maximum allowable $5,000, though lesser amounts that nevertheless matched up also went back and forth.

Shaheen is the leader in this category, sending money from her A New Direction PAC to colleagues’ campaign coffers and receiving leadership PAC checks in her campaign account on the same day on eight occasions. On June 24 of this year alone, Shaheen managed to complete this cycle twice — with Coons and Reed.

Her campaign did not respond to OpenSecrets Blog’s request for a comment or explanation of the acitvity. Nor did more than a dozen other campaigns that were called and emailed.

Several campaign finance experts we asked about the pattern of activity mentioned former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) conviction for taking corporate contributions raised by a state-level PAC and sending them through the Republican National Committee, which then contributed to state candidates named on a list that was given to the national group along with the money; Texas law prohibits corporate money from going to candidates, and the GOP leader was charged with money laundering. His conviction was ultimately overturned.

While the leadership PAC exchanges differ in many ways from the activity DeLay orchestrated, the transactions similarly feature attempts to replicate the peculiar talents of the fairy-tale Rumpelstiltskin.

“Moving money around to try to change it from cash that isn’t useful, into cash that is, has always been part of the fundraising game,” said Biersack. But the leadership PAC-to-campaign committee swaps, he said, are “an illustration of how to game the system in every conceivable way.”

CRP researcher Andrew Mayersohn contributed to this story.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: October 31

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Campaign Countdown

Millions of votes have been cast, the last ads have been cut and there’s barely a household that remains blessedly untouched by the fight for the U.S. Senate. Here are four things to watch four days before the midterm elections

Milk Might Not Save Your Bones

A new study suggests the bone-strengthening powers of milk may not be true, finding that high intake doesn’t appear to protect against bone fractures

Ebola Nurse Remains Defiant

Kaci Hickox continued to defy Maine’s isolation order after her Thursday bike ride, as talks between the nurse and Governor Paul LePage broke down

Accused Cop Killer Eric Frein Arrested

Eric Frein, 31, who is accused of shooting dead state trooper Bryon Dickson and seriously wounding another trooper, is now in the custody of Pennsylvania police after a seven-week manhunt. The FBI had named him on its 10 most wanted list

Apple CEO Tim Cook Is ‘Proud to Be Gay’

Tim Cook announced Thursday that he’s gay, in an essay that puts him among the highest-profile publicly out business leaders in the world. “I’m proud to be gay,” he said, “and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me”

Heavy Security as Israel Reopens Jerusalem Holy Site

Israel deployed security personnel amid rising tensions on Friday as Muslim worshippers — men must be over the age of 50 — made their way through a welter of Israeli checkpoints to the site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary

LeBron James Loses Homecoming Game to Knicks

The New York Knicks held the Cavs off with a shocking 95-90 win on Thursday that ruined James’ homecoming. He did not play a good game, or even an average one, writes Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, but that won’t matter for long

Final Episode of The Colbert Report to Air in December

Stephen Colbert has announced that the last The Colbert Report will air on Dec. 18. Colbert, who is expected to replace David Letterman as host of The Late Show in 2015, revealed the date during Thursday’s show. A date has not been set for Letterman’s exit

Kleenex Maker Faces $500 Million Suit Over Ebola Gowns

Kleenex tissue maker Kimberly-Clark Corp. is being sued for more than $500 million by a California law firm that alleges the company falsely claimed their MICROCOOL Breathable High Performance Surgical Gown protected against Ebola

Starbucks Announces Plans for Coffee Delivery Service

If you’re one of those people who can’t start their day without a cup of Starbucks coffee, you may soon have to go no farther than your front door. During the company’s earnings conference call on Thursday, CEO Howard Schultz outlined plans to begin a delivery service next year

Hawaii Enlists National Guard in Volcano Threat

A delegation of 83 National Guard troops headed to Hawaii on Thursday to prevent looters ransacking evacuated houses in the Big Island community of Pahoa, as a river of molten lava from the Kilauea volcano continues to creep toward the small town

Ukraine, Moscow Reach Deal on Russian Gas Supply

Moscow and Kiev on Thursday reached a multibillion-dollar deal that will guarantee that Russian gas exports flow into Ukraine and beyond to the E.U. throughout the winter despite their intense rivalry over the fighting in eastern Ukraine

We will hold an #AskTIME subscriber Q&A today, Friday, October 31, at 1 p.m., with TIME political columnist, Joe Klein. This week he has written about 5 things to watch for in the midterm elections.

Please submit your questions beforehand on Twitter using the #AskTIME hashtag or in the comments of this post. We depend on smart, interesting questions from readers.

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TIME 2014 Election

These 6 States Could Expand Medicaid After the Elections

Governor Rick Scott And Challenger Charlie Crist Hold Second Debate
Former Florida governor and Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist speaks during a televised debate at Broward College in Davie, Fla., on Oct. 15, 2014 in Davie Joe Raedle—Getty Images

New governors in Maine, Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, Alaska and Georgia could give new life to the Medicaid expansion

The 2014 midterms have been called the “Seinfeld election” and the “meh midterms” — because they’re supposedly about nothing and nobody cares. But while congressional races have failed to capture voters’ imaginations, the campaigns for governor may have a major effect on at least one group of Americans.

Depending on who wins next Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans could get access to health insurance under the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act.

When the Supreme Court made the Medicaid expansion optional in 2012, many Republican governors and legislators opted out. Today, 27 states and D.C. have accepted the federal money, including a handful led by Republicans, but 21 states are not currently making an effort to do so.

That could change after next week’s elections. There are more than a dozen gubernatorial races considered toss-ups going into the final days of the campaign, and in at least half a switch from Republican control of the governor’s mansion could give new life to the debate over taking the Medicaid money.

In Florida, Alaska, Maine, Wisconsin, Kansas and Georgia—all of which have previously rejected an expansion of Medicaid—Republican incumbents are facing Democratic (and in Alaska’s case, Independent) challengers whose prospects look promising just five days out from Election Day.

In each of those six states, the challengers have openly mulled passing an expansion of Medicaid if they were to win. And the move would generally be popular with voters. According to a recent poll by the Morning Consult, more than 6 in 10 voters—and 62% of all voters in states that have not expanded Medicaid—think that all states should expand coverage to low-income people who are currently ineligible.

Still, roadblocks remain.

“The problem is that there are states where it’s not just a question of what the governor wants,” says Stan Dorn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “Even if the governor’s office changes hands in Georgia the legislature has to agree.”

Apart from the turnover due to elections, governors in a number of states, including Utah and Tennessee, are considering expanding Medicaid over the next year as well.

Here’s a look at the six states where the issue is in question next week.

Florida

The background: Republican Gov. Rick Scott initially opposed the Affordable Care Act flat out, but he later changed his tune slightly and came out in support of the Medicaid expansion “if it did not cost Florida taxpayers.” The state legislature, however, remains staunchly against it.

What could happen: Democrat Charlie Crist has said he’ll go over lawmakers’ heads and approve it with an executive order.

Where does the race stand: A recent Quinnipiac University poll has Crist leading Scott by 3 points.

How many people would be eligible: An estimated 800,000 to 1 million Floridians would gain coverage.

Alaska

The background: Republican Gov. Sean Parnell opted against expanding Medicaid in his state in 2013 and he remains opposed to it today.

What could happen: Independent candidate Bill Walker said in a recent interview with KTUU, “why would we not when it helps up to 40,000 Alaskans, creates up to 4,000 new jobs in Alaska, brings down overall health care. I just can’t say no.”

Where does the race stand: Walker has a slight lead over Parnell, according to Real Clear Politics.

How many people would be eligible: An estimated 43,000 Alaskans.

Maine

The background: Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said expanding Medicaid coverage in Maine could be “ruinous” and vetoed five previous expansion attempts. His challenger, Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, has vowed to accept the expansion.

What could happen: Because the legislature remains on board with the idea, it’s likely that Maine would accept the federal money if Michaud wins.

Where does the race stand: LePage is up by nearly 2 percentage points, according to a Real Clear Politics analysis of recent polls.

How many people would be eligible: An estimated 70,000 Maine residents.

Wisconsin

The background: Republican Gov. Scott Walker also turned down the Medicaid expansion, opting instead to push more low-income residents into the insurance marketplaces.

What could happen: Democrat Mary Burke has made a forceful push for the state to expand.

Where does the race stand: The final Marquette University Law School poll has Walker leading Burke among both registered and likely voters.

How many people would be eligible: FamiliesUSA estimates about 274,000 people would benefit from expansion.

Kansas

The background: Republican Gov. Sam Brownback didn’t just reject the expansion, he also signed a law revoking any future governor’s authority to act alone on the Medicaid question.

What could happen: Even if Democrat Paul Davis were to unseat Brownback, though, he’d still have to persuade the Republican-controlled legislature to change its mind.

Where does the race stand: A Real Clear Politics average of polls has Davis ahead by one percentage point.

How many people would be eligible: About 170,000 people, according to the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities.

Georgia

The background: Republican Gov. Nathan Deal also rejected the expansion and signed a law making it harder for his successor to accept it.

What could happen: Even if Democratic challenger Jason Carter were to win, he’d have to win over a Republican-controlled legislature.

Where does the race stand: Deal currently leads Carter by over 2 percentage points, according to an average of polls.

How many people would be eligible: Over 600,000 lower-income Georgians would be eligible.

TIME 2014 Election

Obama Campaigns in Maine, Away From the Spotlight

President Obama at Portland Expo
President Barack Obama and Democratic Representative Mike Michaud raise their hands at the Democratic candidate's gubernatorial-election campaign rally in Portland, Maine, on Oct. 30, 2014 Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

Rally for gubernatorial candidate is a far cry from campaign moments of yesteryear

Five days before voters go to the polls to determine the outcome of the Senate, President Barack Obama was in the 41st most populated state wading into a contentious three-way race for governor. But even before he left, the modest nature of the trip on behalf of Democrats was readily apparent.

The airport was small, so Obama was relegated to a comparatively teeny modified Boeing-757 serving as Air Force One.

If any campaign swing captured the sorry state of the President before next week’s election, it was his five-hour exile to Maine on Thursday afternoon.

Obama’s first event was a private fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at a remote mansion accessible only by a 10-minute drive down a one-lane gravel road. Inside 25 donors paid at least $16,200 to meet with Obama away from the scrutiny of the media. It was a familiar scene for the President who has devoted most of the year to raising money in private.

He followed it with a rally in a stuffy Portland gymnasium for Democratic Representative Mike Michaud, who is neck and neck in his challenge of Republican Governor Paul LePage.

Obama told the crowd he was “a little wistful” because “this is the last election cycle in which I’m involved as President, because I do like campaigning. It’s fun.”

The event was a far cry from the Obama campaigns of yesteryear, in which his soaring rhetoric and voter enthusiasm combined to cinematic effect. There were no stops for ice cream or coffee with candidates, or impromptu visits to local landmarks. Instead he delivered a rote speech highlighting his economic record and lambasting Republicans for failing to compromise. The message clashed with that of Michaud, who devoted his remarks introducing Obama to criticizing the state’s economy under LePage.

It was just Obama’s fourth rally for Democrats this cycle, with only a handful more planned before polls close on Tuesday.

“He has done everything we’ve asked,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Guy Cecil said of the President on Thursday. They just haven’t asked for much other than to get out of the way.

From delaying promised executive action on immigration reform under pressure from vulnerable Senate Democrats to holding off on nominating a replacement to Attorney General Eric Holder, Obama has spent much of the past several months trying to avoid saddling members of his party with more baggage.

Earlier in October Obama unwittingly did just that, declaring, “I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.” The line, uttered about Democrats’ policy proposals, not specifically his, quickly became campaign fodder for Republicans.

Obama has been essentially sidelined to a dual role of brining in donations and turning out a less-than-enthusiastic Democratic base, as his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden have vigorously stumped for candidates.

His only event on behalf of a Democratic Senate candidate this cycle will be this weekend in Michigan for front-runner Representative Gary Peters.

— With reporting by Alex Altman / Washington, D.C.

TIME 2014 Election

2014 Election: Four Things to Watch

Kay Hagan, Thom Tills
Sen. Kay Hagan, left, D-N.C., and North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis greet prior to a live televised debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Gerry Broome—AP

The keys to Tuesday's Senate elections, according to the two parties' top strategists

Millions of votes have been cast, the last ads have been cut, and there’s barely a household that remains blessedly untouched by the fight for the U.S. Senate. At some point, there is nothing left to do but wait. So with Election Night days away, the two parties’ top Senate strategists gathered Thursday in Washington to preview the drama that will unfold.

Much of the sparring between Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Guy Cecil, his counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, involved the ritual scramble to manage expectations. (Yes, we know both sides are optimistic about their chances—at least publicly, anyway.) But some big-picture themes emerged from the spin session between two parties’ top strategists. Here are four takeaways:

A tale of two frames

If Republicans retake the Senate, they have Barack Obama to thank. The GOP’s strategy in the battleground states was to make each election a referendum on the President, tying vulnerable Democratic incumbents to the policies of a chief executive whose approval ratings have sagged into the low 40s. “We have framed it through the prism of a group of incumbents voting with the President more than 90% of the time,” Collins said.

In contrast, Democrats have sought to localize these races, framing the contests as a choice between two candidates. “It’s clear the Republicans want to nationalize” the elections, Cecil said. “And it’s clear the Democrats want to make it about the two people on the ballot.”

Candidates matter

Inside the party committees and out, Republicans are gushing about their slate of Senate candidates this cycle. For the first time since 2008, no incumbent GOP Senator was toppled in a primary this year. That means no Todd Akins, no Sharron Angles—no challengers whose verbal missteps or outré positions dented party candidates up and down the ballot. “This is the best recruiting class in 30 years,” Collins said. Democrats are enthused by some of their recruits as well, especially Georgia’s Michelle Nunn, whom Cecil cited as the cycle’s best candidate.

And then there are the duds. Cecil called Nunn’s opponent, Republican businessman David Perdue, perhaps this year’s worst Republican candidate. Perdue’s competition for the ignominious title is Sen. Pat Roberts, the three-term GOP incumbent whose listless campaign cracked open the door for an unknown independent in blood-red Kansas. As for weak Democrats, Collins cited North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan as a candidate whose shortcomings were “hidden behind a big pile of money.”

The bellwethers say plenty about each side’s path to victory

On Election Night, Collins said, the GOP will be looking at North Carolina and New Hampshire as harbingers. Both are close states where the Democratic incumbents—Hagan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, respectively—have led the whole way, only to see Republican challengers surge at the finish line. In contrast, Democrats are watching states like Alaska, Colorado, Iowa and Georgia. Democrats are even or behind in all of those contests, and just one—the Peach State—is a pickup opportunity for the President’s party. The bellwethers underscore just how much the map favors the GOP this year.

The money involved is massive

The two parties and their allied outside groups have carpet-bombed North Carolina, forking over more than $100 million on the Tar Heel State’s Senate contest. More than $55 million has been dropped on Alaska, a staggering sum in a state with cheap media markets and just 735,000 residents. And if Louisiana and Georgia go to runoffs? Expect the two sides to shell out another $35 million to $45 million apiece, Cecil predicted, if control of the Senate hangs in the balance. The DSCC has already reserved $10 million in television time in Louisiana. Which means the ad blitz may not let up until January after all.

TIME Israel

Sen. Ted Cruz: Obama’s Unprecedented Attack on Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, Oct. 13, 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, Oct. 13, 2014. Menahem Kahana—EPA

Cruz is the junior U.S. Senator from Texas.

Voters should challenge the administration's views on Election Day

This week, the world was treated to yet another embarrassing display of the Obama administration’s incompetent foreign policy.

According to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, various anonymous officials referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as both “a chicken****” and “a coward.” While these indefensible comments have received the lion’s share of media attention, the substantive remarks about Iran were even more troubling. Goldberg wrote that another senior official claimed that due to their pressure on Netanyahu, it is now “too late” for Israel to stop Iran from amassing an “atomic arsenal.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told the White House press corps on Tuesday that the President likely does not know who did this, and there is no effort underway to find out. Other officials have signaled that these persons may be disciplined in ways that are have not been disclosed. But, regardless, they will continue to serve at the pleasure of the President because, as Earnest said, such things happen almost every day in this administration.

In other words, this is no big deal.

With all due respect, this is a very big deal. This is an unprecedented attack on a critical ally of the United States at a moment of international crisis. It is a de facto admission to the mullahs in Tehran that the Obama administration thinks it is too late to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is an inexcusable betrayal of the national security of the American people.

Do the Democrats agree with what Obama administration officials are saying about Israel and its leaders? Do they also concede that a nuclear Iran is inevitable? If not, will they call on the President to identify and fire the persons making these assertions? These questions should be asked—and answered—before Americans head to the polls next Tuesday.

It is my hope that Congress can unite to reverse this administration’s approach by defending our allies and standing up to hostile actors in the world. When the White House acts recklessly, Congress should swiftly act to defend our nation. We will not be able to do so if the Senate is led by Harry Reid acting as a rubber stamp for President Obama. Either the Democrats should denounce the Obama Administration’s dangerous policies or the voters should send them home in November.

As disgraceful as these comments were, at least they bring crystal clarity to the choice we face as a nation on November 4th. Choose wisely.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME golf

Michael Jordan Doesn’t Think Much of President Obama’s Golf Skills

Milwaukee Bucks v Charlotte Hornets
Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets, watches on during their game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Time Warner Cable Arena on October 29, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Streeter Lecka—Getty Images

His Airness thinks he would destroy Obama on the green

Basketball great Michael Jordan has never played golf with President Barack Obama — but if he ever does, he thinks it would be a walk in the park.

“I’d take him out,” Jordan said Thursday, in a video interview with sportscaster Ahmad Rashad. “He’s a hack. It would be all day playing with him.”

When asked if he could play golf with anyone in the world, Jordan chose golfing great Arnold Palmer and the President. Though he’d likely struggle against Palmer, he had no such worries about Obama. “I never said he wasn’t a great politician,” Jordan went on to say. “I’m just saying he’s a s*** golfer.”

Those are some bold words about POTUS. But the 14-time NBA All-Star is known for his hyper-competitive streak on and off the golf course. Sports Illustrated‘s Rick Reilly once reported that after Jordan lost a game of golf to U.S. Olympic coach Chuck Daly, he got up the next morning and pounded on Daly’s hotel room door until the Dream Team coach agreed to a rematch. Jordan won.

TIME Election 2014

These Hail Mary Ads Show What Desperate Candidates Will Try

When candidates are headed for defeat, they put out some desperate ads

There’s a certain type of campaign ad that candidates hope they’ll never have to run. It typically airs in the final days before the elections, when the polls aren’t looking good and they decide to try for a Hail Mary pass to shake things up.

With the midterm elections just days away, these ads are surfacing now. Here’s a look at four long balls thrown by despairing candidates.

As the Texas gubernatorial race has slipped through her fingers, Democrat Wendy Davis reached for a new attack against Republican Greg Abbott. In a move that caused voters and pundits alike to shake their heads, she decided to criticize Abbott — who has used a wheelchair since a 1984 accident left him paralyzed — for not supporting the disabled.

Tom Corbett, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, has long been the most likely incumbent to go down to defeat on Tuesday. So with the sense of a man with nothing to lose, he released an ad attacking Democrat Tom Wolf for supporting a hike in the income tax. That’s a pretty standard hit, but the visuals — chainsaws, demonic twins and evil clowns — are anything but routine.

In Virginia, Republican Ed Gillespie may have taken the Hail Mary metaphor literally. In a recent ad, he linked Democratic Senator Mark Warner to a recent push to force the Washington Redskins football team to change its name. The real chutzpah of the ad, though, comes when Gillespie argues that the fight, which Warner has mostly sat out, is a distraction from the real issues.

Not every Hail Mary ad is thrown by a candidate. In the Colorado Senate race between Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Republican Cory Gardner, NARAL Pro-Choice America tried a last-minute turnaround by arguing that a Gardner win would lead to the outlawing of birth control and a run on condoms.

And then there’s whatever the opposite of a Hail Mary pass is. (A screen pass?) Republican Senator Mitch McConnell is clearly feeling like he’s going to defeat Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes on Tuesday or he wouldn’t have spent valuable ad money and time on a goofy ad where he giggles and plays with puppies.

TIME Congress

No Good Options for GOP on Obama’s Immigration Move

Immigration Reform Rally / Protest in Tacoma, Washington
With reform stalled in Congress, activists are urging Obama to act on his own. Jason Redmond—REUTERS

Republicans may sue the president, but it's not likely to get far in the courts

When President Obama signs an executive order giving temporary deportation relief and work authorization for millions of undocumented immigrants, Republicans across the country and on Capitol Hill will blow up. But there’s not much they can do about it that will make a difference.

All Republican options have fatal flaws. Pass a bill to overrule the executive action? Obama will veto it. Try to override the veto? Not enough votes in the Senate, even if Republicans control it. Attach a rider to a government funding bill? End up with another unpopular government shutdown. Sue the president? Spend lots of taxpayer money and wait months if not years only to get rejected by a judge.

Still, the last option on the list may be the one Republicans go with.

While they are keeping their options open before the President shows his hand—as my colleague Alex Altman reports, it’s still unclear how big he will go—some have coalesced in favor of a lawsuit as the bare minimum response to what they think will be a monumental case in executive overreach.

This week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said on Fox that his recommendation to the Republican congressional leadership is to “immediately bring suit and seek an injunction restraining the president,” adding that he and his staff have been in “considerable communication” with House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy about how to respond to the President’s actions.

Other Republicans have advocated for a lawsuit, including Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who would “absolutely” support litigation to prevent the President’s executive action, according to spokesman Mike Reynard. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) have supported it in the past. And on Wednesday, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul implied that he would too.

“Our Constitution requires the President to work with Congress to enact laws, not ignore Congress or the will of the people,” said McCaul in an emailed statement. “If the President decides to once again go it alone and grant amnesty through executive order by the end of the year, my colleagues and I will have no choice but to do everything in our power to stop him.”

Over the summer, the House passed a Blackburn-sponsored bill designed to freeze the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—limiting the number of children granted deferred deportation and work permits—and bar the President from taking future executive actions to expand efforts to postpone deportations. But the bill went nowhere in the Democratic-majority Senate and even under a Republican Senate it would face an Obama veto.

A senior House Republican aide familiar with the issue says that expanding the litigation the House authorized in July over the Affordable Care Act is “certainly one option,” although no decisions have been made by the party conference. All that would need to happen to sue the president over his executive order is for the House to take another vote. (One reason, perhaps, why the previous suit has not yet been filed—first pointed out by Washington Monthly—is that the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service agreed with legal experts in that the claim had no legal merit.) “We’ll continue to consult with our members and make a decision if and when the president acts,” says the aide.

The Republicans’ response could very well depend on what the President does, “if and when” that occurs. Expanding DACA to include some family members of those already eligible could provoke a different reaction than smaller measures, such as expanding work permits for those in the agricultural or high-skilled tech sector, which business groups have pushed. Immigration advocates counter that Obama might as well go big—affecting the lives of several million undocumented immigrants instead of around a million—because the GOP response is going to hold the same shrieking tenor no matter what.

A lawsuit may have little merit besides making some noise. Last month, the National Immigration Law Center and the American Immigration Council distributed a letter sent to the White House signed by 136 immigration law experts claiming that the President has the authority to use prosecutorial discretion in preventing large numbers of undocumented immigrants from being deported. In July, one of those experts, Stephen Yale-Loehr of Cornell University Law School, told TIME that the President has “wide discretion when it comes to immigration,” adding that expanding DACA falls “within the president’s inherent immigration authority.” In a one-word statement, distinguished Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence H. Tribe told TIME that the GOP claim was “unlikely” to have standing.

Of course, the legal merit of the lawsuit may not be all that important—simply announcing one could keep GOP Congressmen content with a ready response to constituent and reporter questioning in the immediate term. If and when the conservative backlash dies down, the party will be fully focused on 2016, when the GOP can undo Obama’s legacy by repainting the Oval Office red.

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