White House: Steve Bannon Is Out

President Donald Trump has decided to part ways with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. The former Breitbart executive infused his campaign and presidency with nationalist rhetoric and policies.

“White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”

Bannon is just the latest senior Trump White House official or Cabinet member to leave the administration.

He follows the departures or firings of national security adviser Michael Flynn, FBI Director James B. Comey, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, and Anthony Scaramucci, at the time the incoming communications director.

Bannon has been a controversial figure since he first appeared at Trump’s side, but the president has been under increased pressure to dismiss him in the wake of last weekend’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, during protests organized by white supremacist groups.

Bannon raised eyebrows — and the ire of Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans — with elated comments Tuesday evening to an American Prospect reporter after the president earlier that day appeared to give cover to white supremacist groups for the second time since Saturday afternoon.

“The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” Bannon told the publication. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

The conservative media mogul and unapologetic nationalist leader-turned-White House chief strategist clearly was welcoming the ongoing debate over race spawned by the deadly Charlottesville protests.

Though Trump on Tuesday told reporters he had not spoken to “Mr. Bannon” about Charlottesville, many senior Democratic members partially blamed Bannon for Trump’s embrace of the far-right supremacist groups — and the president’s apparent attempts to change the conversation to one about whether to take down Confederate statutes across the country.

“President Trump and Steve Bannon are trying to divert attention away from the President’s refusal to unequivocally and full-throatedly denounce white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of bigotry,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “While it is critical that we work towards the goal of Senator Cory Booker’s legislation [to remove statutes in the Capitol], we must continue to denounce and resist President Trump for his reprehensible actions.”

The first signs Trump was mulling the move came during that same impromptu and combative Tuesday press conference during which he stopped short of giving Bannon a full endorsement.

“Mr. Bannon came on late,” he said. “We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.” He refused to rule out firing his chief strategist. (The president also contended Bannon is “not a racist.”)

But some critics have suggested otherwise, pointing to Breitbart headlines and articles — and Bannon’s own statements — promoting some far-right and white supremacist views.

Bannon had riled even some congressional Republicans.

“The only time I ever interacted with Steve Bannon, he was yelling at me, so I’m not going to shed a tear,” Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Garrett said Friday during a radio interview.

Garrett is a member of the House Freedom Caucus who represents Charlottesville. He was informed of Bannon’s firing during a live interview on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

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While many Republican lawmakers have privately grumbled over President Donald Trump’s response to the violence that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, most stopped short of calling out the president by name.

Not Rep. Paul Mitchell, who tagged Trump’s @POTUS account on Twitter Tuesday to tell the president, “You can’t be a ‘very fine person’ and be a white supremacist.”

You can't be a "very fine person" and be a white supremacist @POTUS

“We need to be careful how we express things,” Mitchell told CNN’s “Outfront” on Wednesday night.

“The KKK, neo-Nazis, are fundamentally opposed to what our Constitution is about, which is equality of all men, so it’s pretty simple to call them out.”

And Mitchell disagreed with Trump’s assessment that “very fine people” were involved in the originally scheduled protests.

“I don’t believe you can be a fine person and a white supremacist,” he said. “They’re mutually exclusive, can’t use them in the same line.”

The way he sees it, Mitchell said, “fine people... get out of Dodge” when they see others holding swastika-emblazoned flags and objects and yelling Nazi slogans.

“They leave, they get out of the area,” he said. “You don’t stick around to see what happens. So, unfortunately, I don’t buy the argument that somehow fine people got caught up in this.”

After Charlottesville police on Saturday declared an unlawful assembly and cleared the area around the statue, skirmishes broke out between pockets of protesters and counter-protesters. They carried shields and clubs, hurled rocks, and unleashed strings of obscenities at each other.

James Alex Fields, Jr., 20, of Ohio, was arrested for allegedly plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and sending 19 people to the hospital.

Fields was charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of a crash that resulted in death.

The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the incident.

In his interview Wednesday, Mitchell called for more civility in the political arena and warned that violence was counterproductive to achieving results.

“People can disagree without throwing punches, using clubs, and when you get to that, it’s destructive,” he said.

“I serve in Congress with people across the aisle. I don’t agree with them and some of them are my good friends. Even when we have heated debates, I certainly wouldn’t punch them. Let’s be adults here and make a difference. That’s why I went to Congress.”

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Heard on the Hill

Murphy Walks Across Connecticut to Packed Town Halls

By Alex Gangitano
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Each time President Donald Trump makes an inflammatory comment, on the campaign trail or in the White House, it feels like what could be a breaking point for Republicans. But it never is.

With Trump doubling down on his comments effectively defending some white supremacists on Tuesday, could this be it?

“It could be,” said Doug Heye, a veteran GOP communicator, who’s been a longtime critic of then candidate and President Trump.

“Given not just what he said, but how it was handled; the fact that it was so easy to get right and so hard to get wrong,” Heye said.

And yet, he added, “We have been saying for two years, ‘Something’s got to give,’ and nothing’s given yet.”

Congressional Republicans made clear their disapproval of Trump’s comments Tuesday. But observers are skeptical that this represents a larger break from the president.

Although some Republicans directly criticized the president for his remarks, many side-stepped calling out Trump directly and instead only affirmed their rejection of white supremacists, bigotry and racism.

“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan tweeted Tuesday.

Ryan’s “milquetoast” comments were indicative of many Republicans not being willing to call out Trump categorically, said Gautham Rao, assistant professor of history at American University.

“Put simply, these denunciations strike me as GOP lawmakers trying to protect the Republican brand from being tainted by Trump’s professed sympathies for white supremacists,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institute.

There’s the fear, which many Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have frequently acknowledged, that Trump’s antics and the Russian investigation will prove a distraction from the party’s legislative priorities.

If the GOP has control of all branches of government and can’t get anything done, members facing re-election next year have nothing to show.

At the same time, these lawmakers know they need Trump’s help to achieve their legislative priorities. That means they generally do not have strong incentives to break with Trump, Binder said.

Some voters don’t either. Heye referred to this as the “yeah, but” attitude, where voters may disapprove of Trump’s more controversial comments, but still believe in his professed agenda, whether that’s pushing for a tax overhaul or repealing the 2010 health care law.

“If that attitude remains — we’ll start to see this when the next poll comes out — that influences members’ behavior as well,” Heye said.

Especially during a midterm election year, Republicans need their base to turn out.

“The [2018] election will be a referendum on the Trump presidency” even though he will not be on the ballot, Binder said.

For that reason, Trump’s comments are still complicating the day-to-day lives of GOP campaigns.

“There’s no question that’s emboldening the Democrats,” said Brian J. Walsh, a GOP Capitol Hill veteran.

“And otherwise good candidates might take a second look at running this year,” Walsh said, suggesting an initially favorable 2018 map for Republicans could end up being a disappointment.

A longer-term fear, Heye said, is if there’s no immediate political implication, and Trump — and Republicans who have stood with him — don’t learn their lesson.

He likened it to the 2013 government shutdown, which Republicans in House leadership circles referred to as the “touch the stove moment.”

“Members had to touch the stove and realize it’s hot and realize not to do that again,” Heye said. But the shutdown was more than a year before the 2014 midterms, which proved to be a good year for Republicans.

“So what lesson did we learn? None. I am concerned that that could happen,” Heye said.

When Republicans have criticized Trump in the past, most of them have then been quick to forgive — or at least forget — his actions or remarks.

“This is a pattern that we see with the relationship between Trump and congressional Republicans going back to the campaign,” American University’s Rao said.

Republicans distanced themselves from Trump after the “Access Hollywood” recording leaked last fall, but when it became clear on election night that Trump would become president, GOP leaders were quick to fold and start moving closer to him.

That doesn’t mean the GOP is giving Trump a “blank check,” as Ryan said during the campaign, to say or do whatever he wants.

“The question if you’re part of the president’s team is: Are these problems going to get deeper over time, meaning, will these periodic attempts at distancing from the president grow more substantial?” Rao said. “Will people take longer to come back home to the president?”

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President Donald Trump has been busy on Twitter criticizing the removal of monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders and praising their beauty.

Trump said it was “sad to see the history and culture” being “ripped apart with the removal of beautiful statues and monuments.”

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....

...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also...

...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!

The president ended his remarks by saying that “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

The tweets come after a number of local leaders, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have proposed removing statues of Confederate leaders

The proposals were in response to racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia., when neo-Nazis, white supremacists and members of the Ku Klux Klan protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

After initially saying there was blame on “many sides,” on Monday, Trump singled out neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

But by Tuesday, Trump walked back his remarks by saying that there was blame on “both sides” and remarking that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protest.

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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Heard on the Hill

Word on the Hill: Peters’ Motorcycle Ride

By Alex Gangitano
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Politics

Denham Gets 24-Year-Old Challenger

By Eric Garcia
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Matt McLaughlin hasn’t always been a fan of political ads. For a long time he thought most campaign videos were “horrible.”

But it was his distaste with the status quo that led the 31-year-old filmmaker to translate his storytelling techniques from consumer brand commercials to political campaigns.

Teaming up with Bill Hyers, a campaign strategist, McLaughlin said the duo have “set out to do something different, do something new, and make better ads.”

Instead of relying on polling to create “extremely message-heavy” ads, McLaughlin and Hyers prefer to let their subjects talk freely about what matters to them.

“They communicate with people instead of speaking at people,” McLaughlin said of his videos. “Honest stories work.”

While the team has created content for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, it was their video for Democrat Randy Bryce that caught the public’s attention, with more than half a million views on YouTube alone so far.

The video brought national recognition to the unknown steelworker in his quest to unseat House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District. Bryce, who came to be known as the “Iron ’Stache” on Twitter for his definitive facial hair, raised more than $430,000 in 12 days after the video’s release.

Now, McLaughlin and Hyers are back with another video that has the same potential.

An introduction video the two produced for Boyd Melson, a Democratic candidate in New York’s 11th District, racked up 100,000 views in under an hour, according to the campaign. The video is similar to McLaughlin’s previous work with emotional music and dramatic shots.

New Yorkers need a true fighter to KO the opioid epidemic. That's why I'm running for Congress in NY-11. #InBoydsCorner pic.twitter.com/9A4Ghl97n7

But for McLaughlin, having an “amazing human character” was the most important factor, something he said he found in Melson.

McLaughlin said the former professional boxer and West Point graduate has a story people can connect with.

“He really embodies someone who fights for other people,” McLaughlin said.

And finding inspiring characters is what McLaughlin and Hyers have set out to do.

The duo started a political media company called WIN, with a focus on creating “video-centric campaigns that engage audiences, drive action and create change.”

Their goal is to turn standard political advertising on its head and take a “drastically different approach,” McLaughlin said.

“We’re not making ads,” he said. “We’re making short films. We are making pieces that are honest.”

McLaughlin said the success of the videos can be credited partly to the current political environment, in which people are “looking for new solutions.”

“Traditional political media strategy is not working,” he said.

While Hyers had a background in politics, McLaughlin came to the field with experience in consumer brand strategy and commercial production.

It is the duo’s knack for storytelling that makes them stand out, McLaughlin said, adding that he and Hyers are “constantly honing in on how to tell a story.”

Part of that comes through the production process. Instead of going into filming with a script, McLaughlin and Hyers have long conversations with their subjects. From these filmed talks, the duo shapes a narrative for their videos.

“The whole point is that they are honest,” McLaughlin said.

As for his own future in political campaigns, McLaughlin said he and Hyers have been swamped with interest from potential candidates since the Bryce ad went viral.

But McLaughlin said making videos is only half the battle — the candidates he works for still need donations and for people to come out to vote.

Most of all, McLaughlin said he wants to change the direction of political advertisements in the Democratic Party.

“We hope that the party as a whole pays attention to some of the things we are doing,” he said.

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Politics

Democrats Seize on Tom Garrett’s Meeting with Kessler

Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett says he didn’t know who Jason Kessler was when the white nationalist leader met with him in his Capitol Hill office in March.

Democrats aren’t buying it.

Kessler organized the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday that led to the death of one person and many more being injured. Charlottesville is in Garrett’s 5th District.

Some liberals are hopeful that Garrett, a freshman in a lower-tier race next year, now has a tougher re-election on his hands.

“It’s an opportunity to put a race in play that wasn’t last week,” said Jon Soltz, chairman and co-founder of VoteVets, the Democratic PAC that recruits and supports veterans running for Congress.

VoteVets is raising awareness about Garrett's meeting with Kessler — which the congressman has since dismissed as an “occupational hazard” — and about his Democratic challenger, a Marine veteran.

VoteVets sent out a fundraising email to its supporters on Tuesday about Democrat Roger Dean Huffstetler, whom it wasn’t planning to officially endorse until later this summer. Within the first six hours, the group had raised $10,000 from 365 donors. (Contributions were split between the Huffstetler campaign and VoteVets.)

“Do you want to strike a blow against white supremacy? Let’s defeat one of the leaders who has coddled the modern day leaders of that movement,” the email reads.

Virginia’s 5th District is rated solidly Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. National Republican made a late investment in the district last year, with Congressional Leadership Fund pouring in nearly $1 million to shore up the open seat. But President Donald Trump and Garrett easily won the district by 11 and 17 points, respectively.

The last time a Democrat won the seat (former Rep. Tom Perriello in 2008), the district voted for the GOP presidential candidate by just 3 points.

But Democrats already included Garrett, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, on their target list earlier this year. Since violence broke out in Charlottesville on Saturday, Democrats pounced on Garrett’s connection to Kessler.

“It is up to every American to stand up to this bigotry and hate, but particularly Congressman Tom Garrett, who represents this district and appears to have helped legitimize these groups by meeting with the event’s organizer Jason Kessler,” said Cole Leiter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a midday Saturday statement. The DCCC called on Garrett to take a “strong and immediate stand against these protests” and said he wasn’t fit to serve in Congress if he didn’t. The DCCC's communication director tweeted about Garrett: “Let’s keep our eye on the prize, Dems: beating House Republicans.”Since the rally, Garrett has been outspoken against this weekend’s violence and Kessler. In an interview Sunday with Fox News’ America’s News Headquarters, Garrett's message for Kessler was, “Go away.”

When asked if his meeting with Kessler “mainstreams” his views, the congressman agreed.

“Oh I do think it does. ... but what I’m telling you is I didn’t know who that cat was at that point in time,” Garrett said. “I know who he is now, and I don’t like him any more than anyone else does.”

Garrett added that he’s been condemning Kessler’s actions and views since May and that he regrets the meeting.

Garrett said he regularly takes meetings with constituents, but it’s not clear how his office missed who Kessler was. Neither his campaign nor his office responded to questions about the meeting.

For Democrats, defeating Garrett also means building up his challenger. Soltz suggested this is an opportunity for Huffstetler to raise money and his profile, similar to how some Democratic challengers this cycle have been able to raise money from campaign videos that have gone viral.

“This is a huge opportunity for RD and his team to demonstrate the fact they have unique, fresh leader who is a young Marine who served people of all colors and religions.That’s the contrast in this district,” Soltz said.

Huffstetler spoke with MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Sunday, but he didn’t mention the congressman. In the days since the rally, he’s attended community discussions about the violence.

“The community here is still reeling from the events from this weekend and are working toward rebuilding and healing,” campaign spokesman Kevin Zeithaml said Tuesday.

“At some point before we are able to move past this, the Congressman must be held accountable for meeting with the white supremacist who brought this hatred to our city,” he added.

Talk of campaign politics around any incident of violence can be touchy. The Virginia Republican Party accused the DCCC of trying to score political points with their attacks on Tuesday.

But Soltz says it’s Garrett, not VoteVets or the Democrats, who have made this a political issue.

Garrett politicized it when he met with a white nationalist Nazi,” Soltz said. “We didn’t start that, Congressman Garrett did.“I don’t care if he apologized. It’s not going away,” Soltz said. “You can’t apologize for meeting with Nazis.”

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GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold said Wednesday that he would run for re-election in 2018, even though his southern Texas district might need to be redrawn.

A federal panel ruled Tuesday that the boundaries for Farenthold’s 27th District and the 35th District, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The court ruled that the districts were drawn primarily on the basis of race. The Republican-controlled state government signaled it would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

“I believe the court errored in its decision and I trust the Supreme Court will get it right,” Farenthold said in a statement. “No matter what the Supreme Court decides, I plan to run for re-election.”

Doggett said Tuesday night that he also planned to run for re-election. He said the court’s decision showed that “[w]hat Republicans did was not just wrong, it was unconstitutional.”

The court concluded that Hispanic voters were placed into an Anglo-majority 27th District, and those Hispanic voters “were intentionally deprived of their right to elect candidates of their choice.”

In the 35th District, the court affirmed an earlier decision that voters were moved into the district “to intentionally destroy an existing [neighboring] district with significant minority population (both African American and Hispanic) that consistently elected a Democrat.”

Redrawing the lines to accommodate the court’s concerns could affect their partisan leaning and shift the lines in nearby districts. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales currently rates the 27th as Solid Republican and the 35th as Solid Democrat.

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Greg Pence starred in a recent candidate announcement video, but it wasn’t for his own campaign — at least not yet.

The older brother of Vice President Mike Pence is the finance chairman of Indiana Rep. Luke Messer’s Senate campaign, and on the day Messer tweeted he was getting in the race, Greg Pence was the one who addressed the camera.

The eldest of the six Pence siblings has political ambitions of his own. He’s widely expected to run for Messer’s seat, in Indiana’s now-open 6th District, though he won’t yet talk publicly about those intentions.

If he were to enter that primary, he’d start with an advantage, given his last name. It’s the same congressional seat his younger brother held for 12 years before being elected governor.

At 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 9, Greg and Denise Pence hosted their family in a room at the Hilton Midtown in Manhattan. Mike Pence had just been elected the 48th vice president of the United States.

Hours earlier, before going to watch election returns with Donald Trump, the vice presidential candidate was, again, with his older brother and sister-in-law, who had hosted a rally back in Indiana for the GOP presidential ticket at their antique mall the week before the election.

Greg Pence has been a frequent presence at his brother’s side, through congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, and then the presidential campaign last year. On the trail in Indiana, Greg, who has the same white hair, would sometimes be mistaken for Mike.

“I am the brother of the vice president of the United States,” Greg said at Messer’s annual family barbecue on Saturday, where the congressman officially launched his Senate bid. “And no, I do not look like him, he looks like me. I’m the oldest.”

When Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, a Hoosier political commentator and writer, spotted a white-haired man at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis years ago, he thought it was Mike Pence. But it couldn’t be. He was drinking a beer.

That was the first time he meet Greg, whom he described as more relaxed than his brother, mostly because he’s not in the spotlight — not yet, anyway.

Greg doesn’t have any electoral experience himself. Friends and observers couldn’t recall any specific policy expertise or campaign advice he gave his brother. His counsel was best described as the kind of candid advice only a brother could give, and he has always been the most active volunteer in the family for his more famous sibling.

Denise was an early Trump supporter and a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Their son, John, is the deputy executive director of Trump’s re-election campaign.

Hoosier politicos have been surprised by just how active Greg has been in Messer’s campaign. Finance chairman is usually just a “name on a letterhead,” as one Republican in the district put it. But not for Greg, who’s been going to Lincoln Day Dinners and played a public role in the rollout of Messer’s Senate bid.

No one doubts his dedication to helping Messer; but high visibility also serves a potential congressional candidate well.

Greg is about three years older than the vice president. His friends describe him as a dedicated family man with a sharp sense of humor, who can make fun of his younger brother like no one else can.

After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees at Loyola University Chicago in the early 1980s, he served four years in the Marine Corps, earning the rank of first lieutenant.

He worked for Marathon Oil and Unocal Corporation, then became vice president of Kiel Brothers Oil Company, the family’s gas station and convenience store business.

The company operated about 200 KB Oil gas stations and Tobacco Road convenience stores in Indiana, southern Illinois and Kentucky. In 2004, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Greg resigned. By 2006, the company owed more than $100 million to creditors, which included $9 million to local and state governments, according to The (Muncie) Star Press.

Pence had a brief, and controversial, tenure in government. In 2005, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed him deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Management — the very same agency that cited Kiel Brothers for environmental violations in the past. Pence was slated to earn $91,000 a year in that job, The Indianapolis Star reported at the time, but he only lasted two and a half months.

He stepped down from his position in March 2005, saying he was no longer needed. “I am the spare groom at the wedding,” Greg said, according to the Star.

Greg and Denise are best known in the business world today for their ownership of the Exit 76 Antique Mall in Edinburgh, a 72,000-square foot space that they purchased in 2006. More recently, they purchased the smaller Bloomington Antique Mall.

The Trump administration remains popular in Pence’s backyard.

“There’s just no real frustration that you read about. That’s not on the ground in the 6th District,” one Republican familiar with the district said.

Greg is from Columbus, a city of 47,000 people in the central part of the district, which covers eastern and southeastern Indiana.

Jonathan Lamb, a Muncie businessman, announced his candidacy for the seat earlier this month. He’s expected to be able to self-fund about $100,000 but doesn’t have a substantial network in the district. State Sen. Mike Crider has said he’s running and Henry County Council President Nate LaMar may do so, but neither is expected to be able to raise much money. The same goes for longtime state Sen. Jean Leising, who was the losing GOP nominee in the old 9th District three times in the 1990s.

Greg’s last name will open doors, Indiana Republicans agree. And because of his work for his brother and with Messer, he’s already well-connected in the district. But Greg has enough credentials on his own merits to make a compelling GOP candidate, Hoosier Republicans say. Party leaders are excited about his business experience and military service.

“If you’re looking for people to go run for office, I’d put him at the top of the list,” said Bob Grand, a big Indiana Republican fundraiser and member of Messer’s finance team.

“He’s not a guy who’s going to coast on his brother’s name,” added another Republican familiar with the district.

When he’s been asked about his own intentions to run, though, Greg pivots to the Messer campaign. An informal adviser said Friday that Greg intends to travel the district on a listening tour with constituents before he makes a final decision.

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Heard on the Hill

Word on the Hill: Volunteers for Tiniest Opioid Victims

By Alex Gangitano
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Carper Flies Drone, Rides a Quadski at August Recess Lab Visit

By Alex Gangitano, Bian Elkhatib, Thomas McKinless
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Gonzales

Merkley’s Mild Town Hall in a Red County

By Nathan L. Gonzales
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Zack Barth was never supposed to be dodging bullets in the outfield.

His job was to feed fly balls back to the infield for Republican lawmakers during an early-morning baseball practice ahead of the annual Congressional Baseball Game against the Democrats.

That all changed when a man in a red shirt wielding an SKS semi-automatic rifle opened fire that June 14 morning in Alexandria, Virginia, wounding five people, including Zack and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

News of the shooting dominated headlines for days and then, as it always does, faded. Zack’s story is a footnote to one of the most high-profile political assassination attempts in years, and now he’s back to a life of relative anonymity.

In the Capitol Hill office of his boss, Texas Republican Rep. Roger Williams, a month and half since the incident, Zack sank into a black leather chair as he talked about what happened. The vibe in the office was casual — staffers wore blue jeans and flip-flops and the lively chatter of interns wafted into the foyer area.

Zack, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015, was in his element here on a damp, early-August afternoon. A blue-and-white-striped polo shirt hung loosely from his shoulders, and the bottom flowed freely below his belt line.

As he rolled up the left cuff of his khakis to reveal his gunshot wound, the 24-year-old legislative correspondent’s tone was matter-of-fact.

“I’m very blessed that it happened the way that it happened,” Zack said, fingering a pair of skin-color bandages an inch apart on the outside of his left calf.

He was running toward the first-base dugout after the first shots rang out. A 7.62 mm bullet fired by the shooter, James Hodgkinson, punched through his leg. It missed all major arteries and bones — a flesh wound.

“I was able to get up and run. … That probably saved my life,” he said.

When he reached the dugout, someone used Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks’s belt as a makeshift tourniquet to slow the bleeding from his leg.

After Capitol police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner fatally shot Hodgkinson, Zack was finally able to retrieve his phones from on top of the dugout.

He called and texted his colleagues in Williams’ office to let them know he and Williams, the Republican baseball team’s coach, were OK.

OK was a relative term: Williams had a sprained ankle from careening into the dugout at full speed. Zack had a hole in his leg.

Then Zack called his dad, Tim Barth. He explained what had happened. He was OK, but he’d have to go to the emergency room. And he didn’t know for how long.

As they talked, the gravity of what just happened began to hit Zack, and his dad could tell.

“Zack, do you think I need to come up?” Tim asked.

“Yeah,” he responded. “I think that’d be a good idea.”

By the time his dad arrived at Reagan National Airport later that afternoon, Zack was already out of the emergency room and back at his apartment. So Williams’ office sent a car to pick Tim up from the airport and take him there.

When Tim arrived at the apartment, the two embraced.

“It was pretty emotional,” Zack said. “We’re very similar people, and emotions don’t always get the best of us. But in that situation, it was an emotional time for both of us.”

Nearly two months after the shooting, Zack said he’s doing fine psychologically. He didn’t sleep much that first night — even with his dad in the apartment — and his nerves still quiver if there’s a loud noise.

“I’m probably not the biggest fan of fireworks right now,” he said. “But if that’s [my biggest] concern, then it hasn’t totally wrecked me. … I don’t walk around thinking there’s going to be danger at every turn.”

Zack said he feels especially safe when he’s at work because of the Capitol Police.

“They’re doing a great job of protecting us,” he said. “They create a safe environment here.”

Zack said counseling has helped him cope. Therapists have told him his response to the shooting is quite normal.

And he believes there’s got to be a reason why this happened to him.

“I’m a pretty religious guy,” said Zack, who regularly attends Grace Presbyterian Church in downtown D.C. “Realizing just again that God has a plan and that these things don’t happen by accident, it energizes me a lot in my faith and it energizes me to work harder knowing that he has something great planned for me.”

He doesn’t know what that plan is but he thinks he is on the right track.

“I’m going to continue to remain passionate about what I do, continue to remain passionate about advancing conservative ideals,” he said.

He’s still a baseball fan — despite where he was shot. The Houston native is an Astros lifer.

In March, he and his dad had flown to Palm Beach, Florida, to catch the Astros’ spring training and relax.

Two days after the shooting, at Williams’s insistence, Zack flew home to Houston for a week. Again, the Astros helped him unwind. Zack and his family went to two games at Minute Maid Park.

Zack learned of his shooter’s life and background the same way that most of America did — from news reports that slowly trickled out in the days after the shooting. He read that Hodgkinson had asked if the players on the field were Republicans before he opened fire.

Hodgkinson’s motives don’t matter to him; the only thing that matters is what he did. It’s black and white, good versus bad, the way Zack sees it.

“He’s this evil force that affected me personally,” he said of Hodgkinson. “I don’t even think about him or his motives or anything like that. I just don’t think about it.”

Instead, Zack said the shooting has made him focus more on the things that matter most to him: his faith, his family, and his work as a conservative politico.

To harp on Hodgkinson or let any lingering anxiety from the shooting simmer would be a distraction, he said. And he doesn’t want that.

“I’m not living in fear,” Zack said. “And I think that if I was to be living in fear, then that’s kind of letting that guy win, you know?”

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