Biden remains focused on COVID, economy amid SCOTUS battle

▶ Watch Video: Biden campaigns in North Carolina following Cindy McCain endorsement

New polls today show Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Trump in a tight race or virtually tied in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, and Georgia.

CBS News political correspondent Ed O’Keefe reports that while Mr. Trump has turned his campaign’s attention to the Supreme Court and is set to announce what his administration has promised will be an anti-abortion, conservative female nominee on Saturday, Biden and his campaign are keeping laser-focused on the economy, coronavirus, and race relations, which he discussed today with Black businesses and educators during a campaign visit to North Carolina.

During his first in-person visit to the tossup state since becoming the nominee, Biden said, “We have a gigantic opportunity, a gigantic opportunity to fundamentally change the systemic racism and the systemic problems that exist in our system.”

Some Democrats are pushing to add seats to rebalance the Supreme Court. Biden has repeatedly opposed the idea — called “court packing” — in the past, but this week conceded to a local Wisconsin television station, “It’s a legitimate question, but let me tell you why I’m not going to answer that question. Because it will shift all the focus — that’s what he wants; he never wants to talk about the issue at hand and he always tries to change the subject.” Biden added, “The discussion should be about why he is moving in a direction that’s totally inconsistent with what (the) Founders wanted.”

With the Supreme Court set to hear arguments on a case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on November 10, health care and abortion rights are poised to take center stage in the weeks leading into the presidential election. Although he didn’t proactively address the Supreme Court vacancy, since his campaign is trying to keep the focus on Mr. Trump and his handling of the coronavirus, when asked by reporters today, Biden warned that a more conservative Supreme Court could spell the end of the ACA.

According to pool reports, Biden said, “What is about to happen is Republicans, if they vote for the nominee, what’s going to happen is, women’s rights as it relates to everything for medical health care, is going to be gone…Women will be charged more than men for the same procedures again, pregnancy will be a pre-existing condition again. We should go to the American people and make the case why this is a gigantic mistake, and an abuse of power. “

As CBS News political producer Rebecca Kaplan reports, while Mr. Trump and Republicans have repeatedly promised that they will protect preexisting conditions, they haven’t offered a plan to show how they would do so while also keeping costs down. The Republican repeal-and-replace bill that came close to passing during Mr. Trump’s presidency made it easier for states to waive federal requirements that insurance plans cover certain types of care, maternity care included, and to the extent that preexisting conditions would still be covered, the Congressional Budget Office said health care premiums would rise without the individual mandate.

A new Cook Political Report and Kaiser Family Foundation analysis out today found that more suburban voters in the key swing states of Arizona, Florida and North Carolina favor Biden’s approach on the ACA and maintaining protections for people with pre-existing conditions over Mr. Trump’s. The polls were conducted before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.

FROM THE CANDIDATES

BIDEN-HARRIS CAMPAIGN

During an in-person campaign event with Black community members in Charlotte on Wednesday, CBS News political unit broadcast associate Aaron Navarro reports Joe Biden said that while the coronavirus itself is not Mr. Trump’s fault, “the way he handled [it] has been close to criminal.”

Biden also brought up comments Trump made at his Ohio rally on Monday, where he said COVID-19 “affects virtually nobody” since most young people haven’t died from it. “So you go home, and your mom’s gone, your dad’s gone, he’s a virtual nobody?” Biden said.

The Democratic nominee also addressed criticisms about his tax plan, saying that taxes on corporations and billionaires would help fund his proposals for recruiting and increasing teacher salaries.

“All this stuff about ‘Biden is going to bankrupt the country, and is going to spend $400 billion dollars and is going to raise your taxes’ — not true. We can all do by just paying your fair share. And giving people who need a break, a break,” he said.

Earlier in the day two Senate committees released a report stating that Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine while his father was vice president was “problematic” since Biden was leading policy discussions on Ukraine, but there was nothing in the report that verified President Trump’s claim that Biden fired a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect his son, Hunter Biden, reports CBS News political unit associate producer Eleanor Watson.

In response to the report, the Biden campaign released a statement criticizing the Republican-led committees for releasing the report just six weeks before the election “to bail out Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.”

BATTLEGROUNDS IN THE BATTLEGROUNDS

GEORGIA – *ATLANTA*

It’s been nearly three decades since Bill Clinton won the state of Georgia in the 1992 general election. With more than one million votes — or 43.37% — of ballots cast in favor of the Democratic candidate, he beat out George Bush by 13,000 votes and the historically conservative state hasn’t elected a Democrat for president since.

Even before the state came to be considered a toss-up in the upcoming general election, Campaign reporter LaCrai Mitchell reports that the capital, Atlanta, has served as a Democratic stronghold for decades. And though the growing city is surrounded by suburbs that have historically been more conservative, political campaign strategists say the expansion of both Atlanta and the suburbs have caused those areas to trend more Democratic.

According to reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the past 28 mayors of the city have been Democrats and the last six have been African American — including the current, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Serving as the county seat for the state’s largest county, Fulton County, Atlanta is critically important for either political party for a variety of reasons, including the reach of its media market.

Though Atlanta’s population makes up just 4.7% of the entire state, the city’s media market reaches an estimated 60% of the entire state. According to Kantar/CMAG data, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) bought more than $22,000 worth of ads to be aired on local cable television throughout the state for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District race, where Democratic incumbent Lucy McBath will run against Republican challenger Karen Handel whom she defeated in 2018 to win the seat.

To emphasize the margins of victory and losses within the state, a look at Fulton County records shows that in the highly-publicized 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, Stacey Abrams came within 1.39 points — or 54,723 votes — of beating out Brian Kemp to become governor of Georgia, but clinched upwards of 90% of the vote in the metro Atlanta area, where she had served in the Georgia House of Representatives for a decade representing District 89, which encompasses Metro Atlanta. In addition to its political power, Atlanta is the economic engine of the state, accounting for more than 2.7 million jobs as of July 2020. Political strategists insist that the economic impact of the capital city is inextricably linked to its political power and sometimes manifests in power struggles between local and state government.

ISSUES THAT MATTER

BREONNA TAYLOR

More than six months after emergency medical worker Breonna Taylor was shot dead by police in her Louisville home, a grand jury has indicted one officer in relation to shooting into her neighbor’s apartment — but no officers were charged for their role in Taylor’s death. Former officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment and two other officers who opened fire were not indicted, CBS News digital reporter Erin Donahue reports.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced the results of the grand jury proceedings in Frankfort following months of rallies, with protesters demanding that the officers involved in Taylor’s death be charged. Two of the officers who opened fire, Jon Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, have been placed on leave. Hankison has been fired.

CBS News campaign reporter Nicole Sganga says President Trump deferred comment as the news broke Wednesday afternoon, but told reporters, “My message is that I love the Black community, and I’ve done more for the Black community than any other president. And I say – with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln – I mean that.” Later, he praised Kentucky’s handling of the case and said he would be speaking to the governor “shortly.”

SCOTUS APPOINTMENTS

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, one of the leading contenders to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said in 2016 that she did not think precedent “establishes a rule for either side in the debate” over replacing Supreme Court justices during an election year.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Senate is willing to push a president’s nominee through in an election year when they share the same political affiliation,” Barrett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School at the time, told CBSN in February 2016.

CBS News assistant managing digital politics editor Stefan Becket reports Barrett, now a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, was speaking shortly after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s most conservative member for whom she had clerked. After his death, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly vowed not to consider then-President Obama’s nominee to fill the seat before the 2016 presidential election.

Barrett was asked whether prior Supreme Court vacancies provided any guidance for approving a nominee during an election year.

“I gather that there have been six in the 20th century, and 11 if you go back to the Civil War, of confirmations that happened during presidential election years,” Barrett said. “But I think the question is, what does this precedent establish? And I don’t think it establishes a rule for either side in the debate.”

The battle over Scalia’s replacement now serves as the backdrop for the debate over whether the Republican-controlled Senate should confirm Ginsburg’s replacement so close to November’s election. Democrats accuse McConnell and GOP leaders of hypocrisy for moving forward with a nomination, arguing the winner of the presidency in November should select the next justice under McConnell’s own reasoning. Republicans say the precedent against filling Supreme Court vacancies during election years only applies when different parties control the White House and Senate, and they are now gearing up to quickly confirm Mr. Trump’s eventual nominee. In the 2016 interview, Barrett noted the differences between the confirmation of Anthony Kennedy in 1988 — the last nominee to be confirmed by a Senate controlled by the opposing party during an election year — and the dynamics surrounding Scalia’s replacement.

“Justice Kennedy, you know, the arguments will be that that situation was distinguishable,” Barrett said. “The vacancy did not arise in the presidential election year. It arose the year before, in June, when Justice Powell retired. And Justice Kennedy was nominated in November of the prior year. Moreover, he was nominated after Bork’s nomination failed and [Judge Douglas] Ginsburg withdrew his nomination.”

Barrett also pointed to the drastic shift in the court’s ideological makeup that would result if a Democratic president replaced Scalia with a more liberal justice, noting that Kennedy replaced a justice of the same ideological bent. “Moreover, Kennedy is a moderate Republican and he replaced a moderate Republican, Powell. We’re talking about Justice Scalia, you know, the staunchest conservative on the court, and we’re talking about him being replaced by someone who could dramatically flip the balance of power on the court,” she said. “It’s not a lateral move.”

Barrett added that historical parallels were an imperfect way to evaluate current dynamics regarding the Supreme Court, saying that “the reality is, we live in a different time.” Barrett said, “Kennedy was confirmed unanimously. So, incidentally, was Scalia. And this is not the time we live in now. Post-Bork, you know, confirmation hearings have gotten far more contentious.”

She added, “I think, in sum, the president has the power to nominate, and the Senate has the power to act or not, and I don’t think either one of them can claim that there’s a rule governing one way or the other.” A month after her comments, Mr. Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s seat. McConnell refused to move forward with the nomination, and the seat remained vacant until 2017, when Mr. Trump nominated and the Senate confirmed conservative Neil Gorsuch to the high court.

RINGING ENDORSEMENTS

CINDY MCCAIN

Cindy McCain, the wife of late Republican Senator John McCain, has joined the ranks of prominent Republicans flouting their party’s backing of President Trump to endorse former Vice President Joe Biden, reports CBS News campaign reporter Nicole Sganga.

“Joe did not reach out to me. I reached out to him,” McCain said, adding she did not fear potential Republican backlash over the endorsement. “I think a lot of people like me and others, they’re kind of suburban women, are kind of misled a little bit and kind of sad about the direction the Republican Party is going,” she said on CBS This Morning Wednesday. “I will always be a Republican…But right now, I believe that the person in the race that’s the best one that represents me is Joe Biden.”

McCain tweeted her support for Biden, a longtime ally of her late husband during their Senate tenures, in a series of posts on Tuesday evening. Calling Biden a “good and honest man,” McCain tweeted that the Democratic nominee “knows what it is like to send a child off to fight” in overseas war.

CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin reports Biden first announced the endorsement during a virtual fundraiser on Tuesday, citing comments reported by The Atlantic that the president made about McCain and other military veterans and service members. CBS News has not independently confirmed the president’s comments. McCain joins a long list of other former Republican officials endorsing Biden including Former Ohio Governor John Kasich, Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former GOP Senators David Durenberger, Gordon Humphrey, John Warner and Jeff Flake. The president notoriously called John McCain, a POW of the Vietnam War, a “loser” and “not a war hero” while campaigning in 2015. He responded to McCain’s endorsement of Biden on Twitter Wednesday morning, tweeting in part, “Never a fan of John. Cindy can have Sleepy Joe!”

STATE-BY-STATE

ARIZONA

Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly opposes adding justices to the court, says his campaign spokesperson Jacob Peters, after days of Republicans railing against the Senate hopeful over the “court packing” issue.

“The Senate should be focused on passing urgently needed coronavirus relief for Arizonans – something they’ve pushed off for months – not rushing a vote on a lifetime nomination to the Supreme Court or issuing hypothetical threats about what will happen if the vacancy is filled,” Kelly said in a statement.

CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin says Kelly’s opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Martha McSally, last week was among the first to call for the Senate to vote on President Trump’s pick to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. Such a vote could be narrowed if Kelly defeats McSally: as the special election to fill the late Senator John McCain’s seat, Kelly could assume office by the end of the month.

NEVADA

Joe Biden’s campaign says it is still adding staff to its team of “several dozen” in Nevada, outlining its “strong position” to win the battleground state in a press call Wednesday, reports CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin.

Though Biden’s campaign efforts have remained mostly remote amid the pandemic, Democrats in the state recently touted spinning up “distribution centers” for yard signs and campaign literature and claim to have “engaged with 13,000 volunteers” through its virtual campaign.

NEW MEXICO

With just two weeks until mail voting kicks off in New Mexico, the Biden campaign has tapped a former top Democratic Party aide to head its campaign in the state. The former vice president’s team says Raul Alvillar, a New Mexico native who had served as his party’s national political director until the summer of 2016, will serve as their state director. He had earlier served as an advisor on the campaign’s “LGBTQ+ Kitchen Cabinet,” according to the publisher of a recent book penned by Alvillar.

CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin notes President Trump’s campaign has long had a state director and team of its own stationed in New Mexico, though recent polling suggests the president continues to face steep odds in flipping the state.

WISCONSIN

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature is appealing a ruling from a federal judge that would extend the state’s absentee ballot deadline by six days, according to CBS News campaign reporter Adam Brewster. On Monday, Judge William Conley ruled that absentee ballots in Wisconsin should count if they arrive by November 9, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Normally, absentee ballots are due by the time polls close on Election Day.

Back in April, Conley also extended the absentee ballot return deadline by six days. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately left that extension in place but required ballots to be postmarked by Election Day. Conley’s decision also extended online voter registration for another week and ruled that poll workers can serve outside of the county where they live. As of Wednesday morning, more than 1.1 million Wisconsinites have requested absentee ballots. More than 71,000 ballots have been returned.

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