Bipartisan Ballot Busters

Susan Walsh/AP Photo

By RICK KLEIN ( @rickklein )

His story was our story, from Kennedy through Obama. And yes, we'll remember more than a handshake from President Obama's tribute to Nelson Mandela Tuesday morning, a celebration of "a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world."

More local matters are top of mind in Washington - and not just the storm that's shutting the federal government down Tuesday. (This being the real kind of storm…)

Two down-ballot developments, one inside each party, display the challenges that both parties face as the calendar is set to flip to an election year.

In Nebraska, a Democrat embarrassment: A top recruit is out of the House race he was barely in - and that he got in by citing the government shutdown as motivation. The short congressional candidacy of Pete Festersen, the president of the Omaha City Council, lobbied by Vice President Joe Biden on down, is a bookend to an extraordinary two months that have seen both parties' prospects shifting wildly.

(Festersen was never going to have an easy road… but will be the last Democratic star reassessing his candidacy this month? Will Democrats be playing everywhere they need to be in 2014? And is DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz still confident of what she said last week: "All of our candidates will be able to use Obamacare as an advantage"?)

In Texas, a Republican mudfight in the making. Sen. John Cornyn will be getting a serious primary challenge after all, from a member of the state's congressional delegation who has no great love for the establishment, ABC's Arlette Saenz reports.

Rep. Steve Stockman - last noted for inviting Ted Nugent to the State of the Union Address, and for coming out in favor of impeaching President Obama - made a last-second decision to give up his House seat to challenge Cornyn, the senior senator from Ted Cruz's home state.

Cornyn joins Mitch McConnell, Thad Cochran, Mike Enzi, and maybe still Lindsey Graham, Pat Roberts, and Lamar Alexander in facing aggressive primary fights next year. The tea party is also shaking up races without Republican incumbents, in states including Alaska and Georgia.

(For Cornyn, is even Cruz control enough? Will The Nuge scratch for Stockman? And/but - does Stockman realize the Texas primary is the first week in March??)

Getting ready to face it all is a new White House face who looks like an old White House face: John Podesta, the senior Democratic strategist and former Clinton chief of staff, is coming back to the big building to serve as President Obama's counselor, ABC's Jonathan Karl reports.


  • PRESIDENT OBAMA, remembering Nelson Mandela Tuesday morning: "It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection - because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried - that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood - a son and husband, a father and a friend. That's why we learned so much from him; that's why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well."
  • MORE OBAMA: "He taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts."
  • AND: "While I will always fall short of Madiba's example, he makes me want to be a better a man. He speaks to what is best inside us."
  • THE HANDSHAKE. Yes, that was President Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro on his way to the podium at the memorial service. (But let's be honest here - did he have any choice? How would a public snub have played on the world stage, at this gathering?)
  • BACK HOME - NEBRASKA NO-SHOW . "He's out of the race - again," reports ERIN GOLDEN of the OMAHA WORLD-HERALD. "Democrat Pete Festersen is ending his campaign for Republican Lee Terry's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Omaha City Council president told The World-Herald on Monday that he's been unable to balance his work, family and council responsibilities with the demands of a high-profile congressional race."
  • LISTS MATTER . "Festersen, 42, had been a highly touted Democratic recruit. He launched his campaign amid a government shutdown that badly bruised the Republican Party," POLITICO's ALEX ISENSTADT reports. "He had been wooed by the likes of Vice President Joe Biden, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had placed him in a program for top recruits."
  • IN TEXAS - STOCKMAN SPEAKS . "I don't know that I can beat him, but I am sure going to try," Rep. Stockman, Sen. Cornyn's new challenger, told "In Texas, conservative policies win over stabbing fellow Republicans in the back."
  • THIS WON'T BE BORING. Cornyn "was poised to escape any serious challenge until Stockman sprung his last-minute move, giving up his safe Houston-area seat to take aim at Republicans' deputy leader in the U.S. Senate," TODD J. GILMAN writes for THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS. "A handful of other little-known challengers also are aiming at Cornyn, painting him as insufficiently confrontational or conservative. Each is hoping to tap the tea party ardor harnessed last year by freshman Sen. Ted Cruz. Voters turned Stockman out of office after one term in 1994; he drew widespread ridicule by claiming that the Branch Davidian siege near Waco was a pretext for widespread gun confiscation. After a comeback last year, he brought rocker Ted Nugent to the State of the Union address, to dramatize his views on gun rights. And he's called for Barack Obama's impeachment."
  • BIG DAY IN TEXAS. "It was a stunning capper for a day that included a last-minute party switch by Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence 'Larry' Meyers of Fort Worth, a Republican-turned-Democrat who filed his candidacy for a seat on the Supreme Court, and brought Texas Democrats close to filling a full slate of statewide candidates for 2014," JONATHAN TILOVE reports in the AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN.
  • THE DUAL. The National Republican Senatorial Committee plans to back Cornyn's bid, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ reports. "We are proud to support Sen. Cornyn and while this primary challenge is quite the head scratcher, it will be defeated," Tweeted Brad Dayspring, the NRSC's communications director.
  • TEA, ANYONE? Daniel Horowtiz, policy director of the Madison Project (which helped make Cruz's candidacy viable last year): "On issue after issue, Cornyn has failed to whip votes against the Democrats, effectively handing Senator Harry Reid a supermajority. Texans are starving for two fighters, and news of a primary challenger is quite welcome. The Madison Project hasn't met with any challengers yet, but we are hopeful that someone will emerge as a viable and consistent conservative alternative."
  • NEW FACES, OLD FACES. John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, is returning to the White House. A senior White House official confirms Podesta will serve as counselor to President Obama, ABC's JONATHAN KARL reports. This is the second big hire for a White House that is seeking to get back on track after the troubled health care rollout helped send President Obama's approval ratings to record lows. Late last week, Phil Schiliro, who was White House liaison to Congress during the first two years of Obama's first term, returned to work on health care implementation.
  • OUTSIDE/INSIDE. "Mr. Podesta, who has agreed to serve as counselor for a year, led Mr. Obama's presidential transition in 2008 and has been an outside adviser since then. He also has occasionally criticized the administration, if gently, from his perch as the founder and former president of the Center for American Progress, a center-left public policy research group that has provided personnel and policy ideas to the administration," JACKIE CALMES writes in THE NEW YORK TIMES.


ABC's JEFF ZELENY: The surprise primary challenge to Sen. John Cornyn is a Texas-size reminder that the midterm election field is not yet fully set. Many incumbent Republicans have been nervously awaiting filing deadlines in their own districts, keeping their fingers crossed that they wouldn't get Tea Party opponent. It's a tough climb in Texas for Rep. Steve Stockman, who is at a deep fundraising disadvantage to Cornyn. But will his decision to jump into the Senate race inspire other GOP challengers to do the same?


QUITE THE TRIP. "President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were joined by former President George W. Bush, former First Lady Laura Bush, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton for the long flight to Johannesburg to attend a memorial service for the late South African leader Nelson Mandela," ABC's MARY BRUCE reports. "The high-powered travelers and former political rivals caught up and shared memories about the revered statesman and anti-apartheid leader as they sat together around a conference room on the customized 747, with the current president joining them between meetings and other work."

WELCOME, ED. Former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie isn't clearing the field, in Virginia: "I am the Republican front-runner in this race for the nomination and I intend to stay that way," Howie Lind, a former Navy officer who announced his candidacy for Sen. Mark Warner's seat in June, told ABC's ABBY PHILLIP . "It's not a D.C. election, it's a statewide election," Lind said Monday. "We have been all over the state for several months."

WHAT'S SCOTT BROWN RUNNING FOR? "I don't think I ever said I was thinking about running for president," Brown told reporters in Londonderry, N.H., per ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE (at the same event where Brown mistakenly said he was in Massachusetts, before catching himself). He then added "I don't think anything's off the table at this point."

NEWTOWN FAMILIES AT THE WHITE HOUSE TODAY. Reports ABC's MARY BRUCE: Vice President Joe Biden will announce that $100 million will soon be available to increase access to mental health services and improve mental health facilities as part of the administration's ongoing commitment to help individuals experiencing mental health problems. Biden will discuss the new funding during a meeting at the White House with families who lost loved ones during the shooting in Newtown, as well as mental health advocates.

DEFENSE DEAL FIRST, BUDGET DEAL NEXT? With the clock ticking until the House of Representatives departs Washington, D.C., for the holidays on Friday, leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees hammered out a deal to move forward with the defense authorization bill to fund the nation's military next year, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ reports. The chairmen and ranking members of each committee announced that they reached an agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act, which will authorize $552 billion in national defense spending and nearly $81 billion for overseas contingency operations. But notably missing is a controversial measure sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., which would have removed the chain of command from the prosecutions of sexual assault cases in the military. (Look for a vote on that early next year.)

WHO'S PAYING? "Congressional leaders seeking a budget deal look likely to include a measure doubling a tax on U.S. airline passengers, drawing protests from the industry and consumer groups," THE WALL STREET JOURNAL's JACK NICAS reports. "Commercial fliers in the U.S. typically pay $2.50 a flight for a 'September 11th security fee,' instituted about a decade ago to help fund the then-newly formed Transportation Security Administration. Any budget deal will almost certainly increase that fee, according to officials close to congressional negotiations."

WHO'S VOTING? "Democratic congressional candidate Katherine M. Clark, facing three little-known opponents in a special election Tuesday, has all but disappeared from the campaign trail and has already been contacted by the US House clerk about a swearing-in Thursday," MICHAEL LEVENSON reports in THE BOSTON GLOBE .


"Obama First President to Mention 'Area 51,' " by ABC's ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES. "Area 51 was only officially acknowledged this past August in declassified CIA documents that were released following a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Jeffery T. Richelson of the National Security Archives. Richelson confirmed to ABC News that though past presidents had signed waivers referring to Air Force activity in Groom Lake, Obama was the first president to use the phrase 'Area 51' - at least in public."

"Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich Defend Mandela Against GOP Critics," by ABC's NICKI ROSSOLL.

"Sarah Palin to Host New Sportsman Channel Show," by ABC'S SHUSHANNAH WALSHE.


@WilliamsJon : Quite a moment: @Reuters captures handshake between Obama & #Cuba's Castro. #Mandela

@ChadPergram : Senate today votes to confirm Patricia Millett for DC Circuit. Vote postponed yesterday. Would be 1st post-nuclear option confirmation.

@ajjaffe : House Majority PAC's first defense of the cycle goes to Nick Rahall (D-WVa.): Faced $600k in attacks over last wks

@Ginger_Zee : 67.5% of the nation is covered in snow (and more falling now!) Details: