Trump critic Hurd keeps Texas US House seat for Republicans
By PAUL J. WEBER
Monday, November 19
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Rep. Will Hurd, one of few Republican critics of President Donald Trump in Congress, narrowly won his re-election bid Monday in a sprawling Texas district that has been a perennial battleground.
Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones conceded Monday, nearly two weeks after Election Day, ending what had been one of the few remaining unresolved races of the 2018 midterm elections. It now leaves only four congressional elections nationally where The Associated Press has not declared a winner, in some cases because officials are still counting votes.
Jones was trailing Hurd by about 1,100 votes in the 23rd Congressional District, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso. Democrats had intensified efforts to flip the seat this year after Hillary Clinton carried the district in 2016.
But Hurd has proved durable in a district that he has now narrowly won for a third consecutive time. The former CIA officer criticism of Trump included this summer, when he accused the president of “standing idle on the world stage” and being manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“While we came up short this time, we ran a race of which we can be proud,” Jones said in a statement. “I remain committed to serving my community and country, and I wish Will Hurd the courage to fight for TX-23 in the way in which our district deserves.”
Jones, an Air Force veteran, was aiming to make history as Texas’ first openly gay and Filipina-American member of Congress. Last week, she had attended orientation in Washington for new members of Congress and had asked a judge to extend a deadline to correct provisional ballots. But she conceded after election results were canvassed in recent days.
Hurd, who has previously already declared victory, thanked Jones in a statement and said he would need everyone’s help whether they voted for him or not.
Democrats flipped two Republican-held districts in Texas this month, one in Dallas and another in Houston.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber
For the AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics
In defeat, Abrams emerges as leading voting rights advocate
By BILL BARROW
Monday, November 19
ATLANTA (AP) — Stacey Abrams broke the rules of politics until the very end.
The Georgia Democrat who came about 60,000 votes shy of becoming America’s first black female governor refused to follow the traditional script for defeated politicians who offer gracious congratulations to their victorious competitor and gently exit the stage. Instead, Abrams took an unapologetically indignant tone that established her as a leading voting rights advocate.
“I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election,” Abrams said in a fiery 12-minute address. “But to watch an elected official … baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.”
“So let’s be clear,” Abrams concluded, “this is not a speech of concession.”
Pointedly refusing to concede would typically risk drawing a “sore loser” label that would be impossible to shake in any future political campaign. But Democrats and even some Republicans say she is likely to emerge from the closely fought governor’s race with her political future on solid ground.
“There was a time when this may have been a bad look, but I’m not sure that’s where we are in politics anymore,” said Jen Palmieri, who served as communications director for President Barack Obama’s White House and for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“For many years, people have been too concerned about the optics of their actions as opposed to the impact of their actions,” Palmieri added, saying that addressing some voters’ lack of faith in the system is “more important than worrying what might offend people who may or may not vote for you four years from now.”
Republican Rick Tyler, a top adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said “botched concessions have hurt people before,” but he said it’s too simple to say Abrams “botched” anything because some of her criticism has merit.
“I wish we could all have faith in the system and the process,” Tyler said. “Then we could count votes, listen to gracious concession speeches and all just move on. That’s not where we are.”
Abrams cited a litany of problems that she said add up to systemic voter suppression. She specifically pointed to absentee ballots thrown out by what she called “the handwriting police,” a shortage of paper ballots to back up broken-down voting machines and Georgia’s so-called “exact match” voter registration rules that require information on voter applications to precisely match state and federal files.
While state law allows “no viable remedy,” she said she plans to file federal legal action challenging various aspects of the electoral system Kemp oversaw until he resigned as secretary of state two days after the Nov. 6 election. She also launched the new nonprofit group “Fair Fight Georgia” to advocate for changes.
In an interview Sunday, she confirmed the federal lawsuit would be filed this week. “We are going to ask the court to use all the legal remedies possible to force reform in our electoral system,” she told The Associated Press.
Some Republicans rebuked her approach.
“She seems to think there are only two branches of government: executive and judicial,” said Debbie Dooley, a Georgia-based activist who was among the early national tea party leaders. “I’m just disappointed that her immediate adversarial response is to file lawsuits when there are a lot of people on the Republican side who see a need for some of the reforms she wants.”
For starters, Dooley cited an absentee ballot process that varies from county to county and Georgia’s reliance on electronic voting machines with no paper trail, a system a federal judge already has harshly criticized in a separate case.
“If they try to do it all through the federal courts, it’s going to end up with people resenting her,” Dooley predicted.
In her speech Friday, Abrams said “pundits and hyper-partisans” would object to her flouting “normal order” for losing candidates. “I should be stoic in my outrage and silent in my rebuke,” she said of conventional expectations. “But stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people.”
She told AP her goal with Fair Fight Georgia “is to make sure that when the next campaign happens, there is a clear understanding of what occurred” in her loss to Kemp.
Georgia Democrats said Abrams has little choice but to continue highlighting problems.
“The middle ground here is simple: ‘Count every vote,’” said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, Abrams’ campaign chairman.
Buddy Darden, a former congressman who chaired the campaign of Abrams’ Democratic primary rival, agreed. Darden, who is white, said Abrams proved wrong the “old dinosaurs like me” who thought a black woman couldn’t compete in a general election in the Deep South. “She did it by getting folks out that no one else could,” Darden said. “Now she has their back, and that’s a good thing for the party, a good thing for the state.”
Palmieri, the former Obama and Clinton adviser, said Abrams can fill an important national void. Republicans, she said, have spent a generation focused on passing GOP-friendly voting rules, redrawing district boundaries and electing like-minded secretaries of state like Kemp. The left has answered with a less-effective patchwork of lawyers and think tanks. “She would be a formidable force on that front,” Palmieri said.
Abrams did not say what her next bid for public office would be, but makes clear she’s not bowing out. Her next chance in Georgia would be to challenge for Republican Sen. David Perdue’s seat in 2020.
“My mission is to take a little bit of time to decompress, and then No. 1, file this lawsuit, get this organization off the ground, get a little bit of rest and then get to work figuring out what we can do to not only help Georgia but help the United States,” she told the AP.
History offers some parallels.
Democrat Al Gore fell just short of the presidency in 2000 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed Republican George W. Bush’s victory in Florida. Gore never returned to politics, but he established himself as a leading advocate for addressing climate change.
Republican Richard Nixon lost a bitter presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960, then followed with a loss in the 1962 California governor’s election, prompting a bitter concession speech in which he declared himself done with politics. Six years later, he was elected president, capitalizing on Democrats’ Vietnam-era disarray.
Cruz found himself in Republican crosshairs in 2016 when he spoke at the Republican convention but notably refused to endorse nominee Donald Trump for president. Weeks ago, Trump and Cruz embraced on a Texas campaign stage, helping Cruz to a hard-fought re-election victory to the Senate.
The lesson, Palmieri said, is that “voters let these things play out.”
Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .
This story has been corrected to show a judge harshly criticized the electronic voting system but hasn’t ordered state officials to change it.
Man who strangled wife, killed his 2 girls sentenced to life
By KATHLEEN FOODY
Monday, November 19
GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — A man who strangled his pregnant wife and suffocated their two young daughters wanted to escape his marriage and growing family, prosecutors said Monday as a judge imposed a sentence of life without parole after a plea deal kept the killer from facing the death penalty.
Christopher Watts, who pleaded guilty two weeks ago, did not speak during the hearing. One of his attorneys said Watts was “sincerely sorry.”
As Watts listened with his head down, Shanann Watts’ parents detailed their ongoing struggle to understand how he could murder the three people who considered him a hero — Shanann, 34, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3. Frank Rzucek said he was disgusted by the way his son-in-law took his wife and two daughters “out like the trash” and dubbed him an “evil monster.”
“Prison is too good for you,” Rzucek said. “This is hard to say, but may God have mercy on your soul.”
Prosecutors have said Shanann Watts’ relatives, who live in North Carolina, asked them not to seek the death penalty when defense attorneys made the proposal.
Watts, 33, was formally sentenced to consecutive life sentences for the murders. He also received a 48-year sentence for unlawful termination of a pregnancy and 12 years each for tampering with a corpse, totaling 84 years.
The girls’ bodies were found submerged in separate oil tank on property owned by the company Watts worked for. His wife’s body was found in a shallow grave nearby.
As a prosecutor detailed the injuries found on the bodies, Rzucek leaned forward, gasping. Michael Rourke said Shanann Watts was strangled, but her lack of significant injuries suggested that her death came slowly.
The girls were smothered, and Rourke said there were signs Bella “fought for her life.” Celeste had no visible injuries, he said.
Christopher Watts’ parents, Cindy and Ronnie Watts, were permitted to speak as the girls’ grandparents.
“We love you,” Cindy Watts said into a microphone before turning to look directly at her son. “And we forgive you, son.”
Watts wiped away a tear with his shirt after his parents left the podium. He kept his head down for much of the hearing, speaking only once to confirm that he did not want to make a statement before Judge Marcelo Kopcow imposed his sentence.
Friends of Shanann Watts lined up inside the courthouse Monday morning. More people filed into an overflow room to watch a video stream.
The killings captured national media attention and became the focus of true crime blogs and online video channels, which showed dozens of family photos and videos that Shanann Watts shared on social media showing the smiling family.
Prosecutors said the images belied a hidden truth, that Christopher Watts was having an affair.
A friend asked police to check on Shanann Watts on Aug. 13 after not being able to reach her and growing concerned that the expectant mother had missed a doctor’s appointment.
Rourke said police later found that Watts spoke to a real estate agent about selling the family’s home and called the girls’ school to report that they could not be present when fall classes began.
Investigators quickly became suspicious of him after he was unable to square his claims that his family had disappeared from a tightly secured home in a busy subdivision.
Meanwhile, Watts spoke to local television reporters from the front porch of the family’s home in Frederick, a small town on the plains north of Denver where drilling rigs and oil wells surround booming subdivisions.
He pleaded for his family’s safe return, telling reporters their house felt empty without Bella and Celeste watching cartoons or running to greet him at the door.
Within days he was in custody, charged with killing his family.
Rourke said Watts has never discussed a motive for the killings with police, but investigators could find no explanation other than his ongoing affair with a co-worker.
“I can’t speak as to why anyone would take the steps that he did … we couldn’t find anything else that was a significant enough motive to annihilate your family,” he said.
Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed.
In threat to Pelosi, 16 Dems say they’ll back new leadership
By ALAN FRAM
Monday, November 19
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sixteen Democrats who’ve opposed Nancy Pelosi’s quest to become speaker released a letter Monday saying they will vote for “new leadership” when the House picks its leaders in January, underscoring a significant threat to her effort to lead her party’s House majority in the next Congress.
The letter’s release suggests that rather than spending the next six weeks focusing on a fresh agenda to present to Americans, House Democrats could be consumed with a bitter and attention-grabbing internal leadership fight.
The battle pits the party’s largely liberal and diverse membership backing Pelosi, D-Calif., against a small group of mostly moderate male lawmakers. Of the 16 Democrats who signed the letter — which stops short of explicitly saying they will vote for an opposing candidate for speaker — all but two are men: Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York and California’s Linda Sanchez.
“We promised to change the status quo, and we intend to deliver on that promise,” the authors wrote, referring to campaign pledges to back new House leaders made by a number of Democratic candidates. “Therefore, we are committed to voting for new leadership in both our Caucus meeting and on the House Floor.”
Pelosi has activated an aggressive campaign for the job involving House colleagues, prominent outside Democrats and party-aligned interest groups. She is known as a precise vote counter with a keen sense of her caucus’ leanings and is aided by the lack of a declared opponent and many weeks during which she can dangle choice committee assignments, rules changes and other goodies to help attract support.
“Leader Pelosi remains confident in her support among Members and Members-elect,” spokesman Drew Hammill said in a written statement. He said 94 percent of House Democrats declined to sign the letter, though Pelosi opponents said they expect others who didn’t sign to vote against her.
Though the mavericks’ numbers represent a handful of the 232 House Democrats elected — with a handful of races still undecided — they could still garner enough opposition to thwart her.
Pelosi seems certain to have enough support to become her party’s nominee for speaker when House Democrats hold a secret ballot election on Nov. 28. She will need only a majority of Democrats in that contest.
But when the full House elects its new leaders Jan. 3, the speaker will need a majority 218 votes, assuming that no one votes “present” or misses the vote and Republicans oppose her en masse, as seems likely. At 232 seats, Pelosi could afford to lose just 14 Democrats and still become speaker.
The rebels’ letter to their Democratic colleagues praises Pelosi, 78, for her long career and calls her “a historic figure” who helped the party win major victories. Pelosi was speaker from 2007 through 2010 when Democrats briefly held the majority and has been the party’s leader since 2003.
“We also recognize that in this recent election, Democrats ran and won on a message of change,” they wrote. “Our majority came on the backs of candidates who said that they would support new leadership because voters in hard-won districts, and across the country, want to see real change in Washington.”
Pelosi’s critics say the party’s long-serving top leaders must make room for younger members. They say years of Republican ads portraying her as an out-of-touch liberal have made it hard for moderate Democrats to win elections in swing districts.
Pelosi allies counter that despite that, the party just won House control with their biggest gain of seats since the 1974 post-Watergate election. Many bristle at dumping her at a time when President Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement have helped attract female candidates and voters to the party.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland has been No. 2 House Democrat since 2003 and South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn has been No. 3 since 2007. Both are in their late 70s and are running, unopposed so far, for those posts once again.
Of the letter’s signees, five are incoming House freshmen or hope to be. Two of them — Anthony Brindisi of New York and Ben McAdams of Utah — are in races in which The Associated Press has yet to call a winner.
Pelosi critics assert there are several more Democrats who’ve not signed the letter who are prepared to vote for a candidate opposing Pelosi. That includes Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, who has said she is considering running for speaker.
Trump has tweeted his respect and support for Pelosi and even offered to round up GOP votes to help elect her speaker. Pelosi’s office has said she will win with Democratic votes, and it seems a stretch to expect Republicans to help elect her speaker — a vote that could open them up to primary challenges in 2020.
Others signing the letter were incumbents Jim Cooper of Tennessee; Bill Foster of Illinois; Brian Higgins of New York; Stephen Lynch and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts; Ed Perlmutter of Colorado; Tim Ryan of Ohio; Kurt Schrader of Oregon; and Filemon Vela and Texas. Incoming freshmen were Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Max Rose from New York and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey.
Frantic search goes on for missing after California wildfire
By SUDHIN THANAWALA and JANIE HAR
Monday, November 19
CHICO, Calif. (AP) — Desperate families posted photos and messages on social media and at shelters in hopes of finding missing loved ones, many of them elderly, nearly two weeks after the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. The death toll stood at 77 Monday, with about 1,000 people unaccounted for.
“I have an uncle and two cousins that I have not been able to make contact with. Paul Williams, in his 90’s, his son Paul Wayne Williams, in his 70’s, and his daughter Gayle Williams in her 60’s,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “Any info would be appreciated.”
Hundreds of searchers continued looking for human remains in the ashes in Paradise and outlying areas ravaged by the blaze Nov. 8, with the body count increasing daily.
Rain in Wednesday’s forecast added urgency to the task: While it could help knock down the flames, it could hinder the search by washing away fragmentary remains and turning ash into a thick paste.
The sheriff’s list of those unaccounted for dropped dramatically Sunday from nearly 1,300 to 1,000 as authorities continued to locate people. Social media pages gave updates on who was dead and who was safe.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has said he released the rough and incomplete list in hopes that many people would contact authorities to say they are OK. More than a dozen people are listed as “unknowns,” without first or last names. Some names are duplicated.
“We put the list out. It will fluctuate. It will go up. It will go down because this is in a state of flux,” Honea said Monday. “My view on this has been that I would prefer to get the information out and start working to find who is unaccounted for and who is not. I would put progress over perfection.”
He said his office was working with the Red Cross to account for people entering and leaving shelters. Evacuees also helped authorities narrow the list.
Robert James Miles, who lost his Paradise trailer in the blaze, was staying at a shelter in Chico, where people posted names of those they hadn’t heard from. Miles said he alerted a Red Cross worker Saturday that he recognized eight names on the board as friends and knew they were OK.
“Two of them were in the shelter,” he said with a chuckle.
Ellen Lewis, whose home in Paradise was destroyed, went to a Federal Emergency Management Agency center for help, and a FEMA representative showed her the list of the missing. She recognized the names of two people from her archery club.
“I’m going to have to contact other people to see if they’re OK,” she said. She said she would call the sheriff’s office if she confirmed they were safe.
The fire, which burned at least 234 square miles (606 square kilometers) and destroyed nearly 12,000 homes, reported was two-thirds contained on Monday.
Meanwhile, Alcatraz Island, San Francisco’s cable cars, the Oakland Zoo and other San Francisco Bay-area area attractions were closed Monday because of smoke from the blaze some 180 miles (290 kilometers) away. Several San Francisco museums over the weekend offered free admission to give people something to do indoors.
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said it is “way too early” to estimate the damage done by the wildfire. But for perspective, he said the fires that gutted 6,800 homes last year resulted in $12.6 billion in insured losses.
“It’s going to be a long and painful process,” he said.
Har reported from San Francisco.
Associated Press journalists Christopher Weber and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.