On Monday, Sarah Palin endorsed Kelly Ayotte, the leading candidate for the GOP nomination for Senate in New Hampshire. In many ways, this is good news for Ayotte. Despite her political stature (she was the state's attorney general), she's faced an unexpectedly tough primary, with six opponents. (The nominee will be decided on September 14.) Over at Blue Hampshire, Ray Buckley speculates that Ayotte was seeking Palin's aid as far back as May, when she traveled to Washington to attend a fundraiser for the anti-abortion rights Susan B. Anthony List that featured Palin as the keynote speaker. 

But although there's some evidence that Palin endorsements help in Republican primaries, Palin's support could end up being a decidedly mixed blessing for Ayotte. Palin is very popular among GOPers, but her overall favorability numbers are not high. Only 39 percent of voters surveyed in a recent Pew poll viewed the former Alaska governor positively, while 52 percent had negative opinions. It's not like Palin is particularly familiar with New Hampshire, either—when she was there in 2008, she called it the "great Northwest." 

Rep. Paul Hodes, the presumptive Dem nominee, is certainly pleased that his rival has Palin's backing. "We couldn't be more thrilled that Sarah Palin chose to endorse Kelly Ayotte," Hodes' campaign communications director told reporters on Tuesday. The Hodes campaign even sent out an email explaining that they "hope" Palin comes to New Hampshire to campaign for Ayotte. And Palin's endorsement isn't popular with New Hampshire's most important newspaper, either. On Wednesday, Joseph McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, slammed the endorsement:

The race will be won by the candidate who impresses New Hampshire voters, and New Hampshire voters are rarely impressed by what outsiders have to say....

Palin isn't making these endorsements because, as she claims, she has spent time in New Hampshire and thus knows that the people here are a lot like Alaskans. She spent a few hours here on one day during the 2008 Presidential election. That's still more time than she spent getting to know Ayotte, but it takes quite a bit longer to know New Hampshire.

McQuaid says that Palin's endorsement shouldn't reflect poorly on Ayotte. But she embraced it, and perhaps even sought it out. She must think that New Hampshire voters are "impressed by what outsiders have to say." Shouldn't that reflect on her?

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and 20-some other House Republicans launched their newly formed Tea Party Caucus with a meeting Wednesday morning in the House Armed Services Committee hearing room—a seemingly appropriate nod to the movement's hopes for political insurrection. The Tea Party Caucus has now turned the anti-government uprising into part of the Washington apparatus itself, becoming the latest litmus test for whether House Republicans have opened their arms to the activists. But it's still unclear what the caucus will actually do for the movement, because members insist that the group will not represent or speak for tea partiers—merely listen to their concerns.

At the press conference that followed the caucus' first session, Bachmann spent more time explaining what the group wasn't, that what it was. "We are not the mouthpiece of the tea party," Bachmann told reporters. "We are not taking the tea party and controlling it from Washington, DC. I am not the head of the tea party. We are also not here to vouch for the tea party, or to vouch for any tea party organizations… we are here to listen and to be a receptacle." When a reporter pointed out that she was, in fact, the titular head of a caucus named after the movement, Bachmann simply added: "This is a listening post...I'm the chairwoman of the listening ear, I'm not speaking on behalf of the tea party."

And the Tea Party Caucus insists that the movement it's based on certainly isn't racist. At the press conference, Bachmann paraded out a whole roster of minority tea party members to counter the mounting accusations that the movement is biased and hateful. First up was Danielle Hollars, a black stay-at-home mother of five from Virginia, who clutched her 9-month-old infant while she denounced accusations that tea partiers were "terrorists" and "racists." Next came Ana Puig, a immigrant who declared that America "was going down the same path to 21st century Marxist dictatorships" that has supposedly taken hold in President Lula's Brazil and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

Congress.org reported this week on bills recently introduced in both houses of Congress. The Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety (PUPS) Act (S 3424 and HR 5434) would “amend the Animal Welfare Act to provide further protection for puppies.”

The bills, from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), were introduced at the end of May and tail a Department of Agriculture inspector general report regarding federal investigations of breeders.

The IG report, released May 25, says large breeders who sell animals covered under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA, PL 89-544) online are exempt from inspection and licensing requirements “due to a loophole in AWA.” The IG says there are “an increasing number” of these unlicensed, unmonitored breeders.

The bills would require licensing and inspection of dog breeders that sell more than 50 dogs per year to the public (including online) and would also outline additional exercise requirements for dogs at facilities – such as having sufficient, clean space and proper flooring.

According to a press release, Durbin said he would work administratively with the USDA to fix problems at its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, and then introduce addition legislation if needed.

Supporting humane treatment of puppies would seem like a political no-brainer, right? As Liliana Segura pointed out on Twitter earlier today, what could be better in the upcoming midterm elections than “to be able to say ‘our opponents HATE puppies’”? Mainstream groups like the Humane Society have been pushing for legislation action on puppy mills for years, to little avail. (Click here to see video of a Humane Society raid on a massive puppy mill in Tennessee, and here to read some gruesome details from the USDA’s report on puppy mills.) Yet the bills are not exactly barreling their way through Congress; both are waiting for attention from agricultural subcommittees, and after two months, the Senate bill has only seven co-sponsors.

In addition, when it comes to animals routinely used in cosmetic testing, and animals (including puppies and dogs) treated cruelly in drug testing and medical research, the federal government has pretty much sat on its hands–or worse. To take one particularly galling example, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine last year exposed an effort on the part of the National Institutes of Health to sell young constituents on the idea of animal experimentation. As Stephanie Ernst wrote on Change.org:

Conservatives may complain bitterly about “Obamacare,” but they “are winning more than even they may realize in the current health care equation.” That’s the point made by Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, in a recent column.

[F]or all of the frustration and even anger within the conservative movement about where health care is headed, the fact of the matter is that they are winning more than even they may realize in the current health care equation. That’s because the nature of health insurance itself is being redefined and moving gradually but seemingly inexorably in the direction conservatives have long advocated: more consumer “skin in the game” through higher patient deductibles.

Item: In our recent survey of people in the non-group insurance market, we found that the average deductible for an individual policy is now $2,498, and for families it’s $5,149. These are very high thresholds by any standard. Consider, for example, that a family with median income facing such a deductible would be spending almost 10% of their annual income just for their deductible before their insurance kicked in.

Item: The percentage of workers facing high deductibles — $1,000 or more for single coverage –  has been growing rapidly. It doubled from 10 percent to 22 percent between 2006 and 2009, and increased from 16 percent to 40 percent in small firms.

Item: Indications are that the share of workers with high deductibles is continuing to grow, a trend I expect our 2010 employer survey to confirm when we release it in September as we have every year for more than a decade now. And a substantial number of these high deductible plans are paired with tax-advantaged savings accounts, which conservatives have long advocated. Facing cost pressures without alternative answers, employers are moving to plans with less comprehensive coverage to reduce their expenses for employee benefits.

Item: Health reform is unlikely to reverse these trends. Large employers will continue to look for ways to address the rising cost of health care. And, for the basic “bronze” insurance plan that people will be required to buy, deductibles could run several thousand dollars for individuals and double that for families. To be sure, other aspects of health reform cut the other way. For example, there will be no cost sharing for preventive services in newly-purchased plans, and insurers will be required to cap consumer out-of-pocket costs at defined levels. And, of course, there are substantial subsidies to reduce premium and out-of-pocket costs for lower-income people. But, for the first time, the government will be defining the threshold that decent insurance must meet, and that minimum coverage will have the kind of high deductibles that conservatives favor.

There’s still another facet to all of this: While many of the effects of health care reform may actually suit a conservative agenda, Republicans will use this self-same health care reform as a “socialistic” bogeyman to help them win the 2010 Congressional elections.

This post also appears on James Ridgeway's blog Unsilent Generation.

Rep. Michele Bachmann's newly formed Tea Party Caucus met for the first time on Wednesday morning.

The group, which Bachmann describes as "a listening ear to tea parties," is now comprised of 24 33 House Republicans. A write-up of the press conference will come shortly (you can now read the full post here), but below is the starting line-up of members to whet your appetite.

Update: FrumForum reports that not all of Republicans listed as members appear to have actually joined the caucus. Staff members for Rep. John Mica (R-Fl.) and Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said Wednesday afternoon that they didn't believe their bosses had joined. And the press secretary for other members said they were not aware that the roster would be publicly released today. The list has since been pulled from Bachmann's website, and the names below are from a list that Bachmann's press secretary had distributed at a press conference earlier Wednesday morning.

Another Update: Bachmann's staff re-posted the caucus list on their website. Two members on the original list, Rep. Mica and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fl.) have been removed. But five more have been added: Rodney Alexander (R-La.), Rob Bishop (R-Ut.), Tom Graves (R-Ga.), and Denny Rehberg (R-Mt.), and Adrian Smith (R-Neb.).

Todd Akin (MO-2)
Michele Bachmann (MN-6)
Roscoe Bartlett (MD-6)
Joe Barton (TX-6)
Gus Bilirakis (FL-9)
Paul Broun (GA-10)
Michael Burgess (TX-26)
Dan Burton (IN-5)
John Carter (TX-31)
John Culberson (TX-7)
John Fleming (LA-4)
Trent Franks (AZ-2)
Phil Gingrey (GA-11)
Louie Gohmert (TX-1)
Pete Hoekstra (MI-2)
Walter Jones (NC-3)
Steve King (IA-5)
Doug Lamborn (CO-5)
Cynthia Lummis (WY)
John Mica (FL-7)
Gary Miller (CA-42)
Jerry Moran (KS-1)
Mike Pence (IN-6)
Tom Price (GA-6)
Pete Sessions (TX-32)
Lamar Smith (TX-21)
Cliff Stearns (FL-6)
Todd Tiahrt (KS-4)
Joe Wilson (SC-2)

The tempest in a tea pot surrounding the firing of Shirley Sherrod, a United States Department of Agriculture official in Georgia, looks set for a new twist today. If you caught so much as a glimpse of the news yesterday, you heard about Sherrod's story: how she was forced to quit by USDA officials, including secretary Tom Vilsack and under-secretary Cheryl Cook, after a video surfaced purportedly showing Sherrod, who is black, talking about how 24 years ago she "withheld help from a white farmer seeking the [USDA's] help in saving his farm." The video showing Sherrod's "racism" went viral, even though, as it turned out, the video had been selectively edited, had taken Sherrod's comments completely out of context, and had flipped Sherrod's remarks on their head. When interviewed by CNN, the white farmers whom Sherrod had supposedly wronged and discriminated against said the opposite: that Sherrod, their "close friend," had helped save their farm. 

Now that the truth has trickled out in this mini-controversy, the USDA is reviewing the rash decision to fire Sherrod. And they should, given the dubious source of the edited video—namely, Andrew Breitbart's conservative Big Journalism website. Our own David Corn probably hits it on the nail:

In other words, the truth doesn't matter. If right-wing demagogues make a stink, we'll crucify the victim. This was a shameful statement.

Let's go back to Cook's remark to Sherrod about Glenn Beck, and flip the script. If a left-wing website had set up a Bush administration official during the Bush-Cheney years, can you see an overheated department functionary saying, "We have to get this person out before it's on Maddow"? (Rachel, excuse the comparison.) Of course not. The Bush-Cheney folks would have battled back. You don't allow ideological enemies -- who want you to fail -- to define the terms. That Beck figured into Vilsack's and Cook's calculations for a nanosecond is a tremendous defeat for the administration -- and an undeserved victory for Beck and his Tea Party followers. It ought to make supporters of the Obama administration sick. The White House, as could be expected, ran from this mess. On Tuesday, a White House official told CNN that it was not involved in forcing Sherrod out.

The NAACP, which at first supported the decision to bounce Sherrod, reversed course on Tuesday, saying, "We have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart," who runs BigGovernment.com. Snookering can be undone -- and it should not be tolerated. The only decent course for Vilsack was to review the case and, if there are no new incriminating facts, offer Sherrod an apology and her job back. If the administration -- in the face of a relentless attack from the right -- doesn't fight for its own, how can voters count on it to fight for them? This is not about Beck-bashing. It's about taking charge and doing the right thing. All that is necessary for the triumph of blogging demagogues is that good people do nothing. Didn't a conservative once say that?

Everyone knows the Democrats are facing a tough November. But some Dems will have it harder than others. Rep. Dina Titus, a freshman from Nevada, has a particularly tough race. A recent Mason-Dixon poll shows her leading former state Sen. Joe Heck, 42-40. That's actually somewhat good news for the congresswoman, who trailed Heck (that's "Dr. Joe Heck" to you) in Mason-Dixon's last poll of the race back in April. The excellent Swing State Project has the details:

Pollster Brad Coker claims Heck got a bounce last time around (which, you'll note, was all the way back in April) thanks to Titus's support for the just-passed healthcare reform bill. Color me skeptical. I'll note that M-D seemed to alter its methodology in the interm, apparently prompting now for "other" and "none." All of Heck's shrinkage can be attributed to the appearance of these alternate options. Once again, it looks like Nevada's quirky none-of-the-above feature might wind up doing Dems a big favor here.

In case you missed that, SSP is pointing out that Nevada's ballot features an option to vote for "none of the above." That could end up helping Titus—in fact, I'll bet it probably helps incumbents in general. Anyway, both campaigns are raising money off the latest poll. "Dr. Joe" is aiming to "double our poll percentage by November 2"—good luck with that—while Titus claims "the momentum is on our side." The two campaigns do agree on one thing: This is going to be a hard-fought race. President Barack Obama has already campaigned for Titus (while passing through the area in support of Sen. Harry Reid), and Heck spends about half his email on invective directed at the "liberal machine," "liberal agenda," and, of course, Nancy Pelosi. We'll keep an eye on this one.

US Army 1st Lt. Nick Eidemiller, left, communicates with his platoon by radio while his interpreter stands next to him during a mission in Jaghato District, Wardak province, Afghanistan, on July 8, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Russell Gilchrest.

While the mainstream media was somewhere inside the Beltway, wringing its hands over a USDA bureaucrat and some emails by "liberal" journalists, some actual stuff happened in Florida. Gov. Charlie Crist had been calling for months for a special legislative session to address offshore drilling in the state. It finally came on Tuesday, lasting just over three-quarters of an hour. And if the Republican majority in Florida's House and Senate had their way, it wouldn't even have lasted that long.

Crist (the former Republican), Florida Democrats, and a crowd of demonstrators outside the Tallahassee statehouse wanted only one thing out of legislators: to let Floridians vote on a constitutional amendment in November that would ban future drilling within 10 miles of the Sunshine State's shores.

GOP lawmakers didn't have to be in favor of the amendment. They only had to give state voters an option at the polls. All it took was a simple up-or-down vote on the ballot issue. Republicans used to like those kinds of votes.

Instead, they voted to leave:

What in the world are these Republicans thinking? Let's see if we can parse it out:

Tomorrow morning at the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana, the Rally for Economic Survival, a gathering featuring everyone from Governor Bobby Jindal to citizen activists, intends to give "a united voice to Louisiana citizens impacted by the federal moratorium on deepwater drilling." Rally organizer Gifford Briggs, a vice-president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), says the idea for the rally came from regular folks. "A group of concerned citizens came to us talking about their concerns with what's going on with the moratorium," he told me. "They didn't necessarily have the financial capability or the organization to be able to orchestrate and make it happen, and that's where we came in."

Yet Briggs was hard-pressed to elaborate on the rally's grassroots ties. At first he said the idea had come from "an engineer and his wife and family" and Ewell Smith, the Executive Director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. But when I called Smith, he gave me a different story. "The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association approached me," he said. "A friend of mine did an introduction to some of the folks in the industry, and the next thing you know they were reaching out to me to speak at this event and asked me to coordinate putting it together."

"Well, I mean, you know, that may have been the case," Briggs replied when I called him back.  "It happened sort of so fast." He added that the idea for the rally came out of a meeting with 30 people held at LOGA's Baton Rouge office. But he was still confident that the petroleum engineer, CJ McDonald, and somebody named Becky Plummer had raised the idea of a rally before LOGA did. I was unable to reach either of them for comment.

Perhaps not coincidentally, LOGA's rally looks a lot like the "citizen" rallies against climate change legislation that the American Petroleum Institute organized last year through its front group, Energy Citizens. The Energy Citizens website promotes the Rally for Economic Survival and ties the Gulf spill to the threat of higher taxes on oil companies.  "[T]his tragedy is being exploited to undermine realistic energy policies that would benefit our nation," says an Energy Citizens email sent to its followers last week. "As only one example, some policymakers are attempting to levy billions of dollars in new taxes on America's energy companies—taxes that could impact every American industry employee, and every American energy consumer."

That LOGA sees the need to cover its tracks in Louisiana, a black-blooded oil state where even fishermen oppose the drilling moratorium, illustrates the unprecedented unpopularity of the oil industry. If it's going to win over national politicans and media, it'll need to do more than throw a party for itself.