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First Thoughts: Fired up and ready to go?

Are we seeing a fired-up Democratic base?... Analysis after yesterday’s Voting Rights Act decision: Still divided over race… Our political questions after the decision… Supreme Court to issue its final rulings today -- on gay marriage… Timing on the Senate’s immigration bill… Obama heads to Africa… Obama gets praise, criticism after climate-change speech… Markey beats Gomez… Another example of low turnout… Last night’s Lone Star filibuster… And poll: Weiner now in first place. 

*** Fired up and ready to go? If there was one overarching theme to yesterday’s big news events -- the Voting Rights Act decision, President Obama’s climate-change speech, and Wendy Davis’ filibuster in Texas -- we saw key portions of the Democratic base as fired up as we’ve seen them since the Nov. 2012 election. Taken together, this COULD be the beginning of how the Democratic Party attempts to nationalize the midterms and figure out how to motivate its base. And while some of these issues may not appeal to some swing voting groups, remember this: Midterms are about base enthusiasm. Now turning to these stories individually…

*** Still divided over race: If you want evidence about how matters of race continue to divide this country -- just like they have throughout its history -- look no farther than reactions to yesterday's 5-4 Supreme Court decision that essentially gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Supporters of the majority opinion cited President Obama's election and re-election, as well as increased minority turnout, as proof that parts of the law were antiquated. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” “What it tells me is after 45 years, the Voting Rights Act worked,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) added. “And that’s the best I can say. It just proves that it worked.” On the other side, critics of the decision pointed to the emergence of voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect minority communities) and the long voting lines in 2012 (ditto) are evidence that discrimination still exists when it comes to voting. Said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT): “As we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington, it is especially compelling to remember that his dream has not yet been achieved… I fear [the] decision will make it more difficult for racial minorities to have their right to vote fully protected.”

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., joins Morning Joe to share his thoughts on the Supreme Court's ruling on Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

*** Questions after yesterday’s decision: The aftermath of yesterday’s 5-4 decision raises a few questions. Can Congress pass a law to revise the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance formula? (Doubtful as it stands right now.) Will the decision benefit the Republican Party in the short term? (Hotline's Reid Wilson makes a convincing case that it will, especially in local races more so than in federal ones.) Will it help the GOP in the long run? (Ron Brownstein makes an equally convincing argument that it will allow the party to deflect its problems with minority voters rather than confront them, which could hurt it in future presidential contests.) The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin notes that -- over time -- the force of demographics could eclipse yesterday’s Supreme Court decision. “While most experts expect battles over voting restrictions in the coming years, they say that ultimately those efforts cannot hold back the wave of change that will bring about a multiethnic South. ‘All the voter suppression measures in the world aren’t going to be enough to eventually stem this rising tide,’ said Representative David E. Price, a veteran North Carolina Democrat and a political scientist by training. As the region continues to change, Republicans who control legislatures in the South will confront a basic question: how to retain political power when the demographics are no longer on your side.” And that raises a question for Republicans: While few expect congressional GOPers to take up re-writing the Voting Rights Act, do they pass something simply to not alienate minority voters? Doing nothing could be a bad long-term play, because an unintended consequence of yesterday’s decision could be fired-up minority voters come 2014 (think in Louisiana and North Carolina). Before yesterday, many Democratic strategists were wondering how to motivate minority voters without Obama’s name on the ballot. That may not be an issue anymore. And no two senators may be MORE thankful for that than Sens. Landrieu and Hagan, both who won in 2008 thanks to Obama’s help.

James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

A demonstrator (back) waves a flag while awaiting decisions in two cases regarding same-sex marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, June 26, 2013.

*** The court’s final decisions -- on gay marriage: While critics of yesterday’s Voting Rights Act decision saw it as a blow to civil rights, the court today will rule on two more civil-rights cases -- on California’s Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban and on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing gay marriages in states that allow them. As NBC’s Pete Williams noted on “TODAY,” it’s very possible that the court might dispose of Proposition 8 on a technicality (because petitioners didn’t have the standing to bring the case to the Supreme Court), while it strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act. But Williams adds that if it does strike down DOMA, that likely will have no impact the states where gay marriage isn’t legal. While it’s always hard to predict the court, it will be interesting if the Roberts Court keeps up its reputation for defying conventional wisdom on certain issues -- and gay marriage might just be one of those issues.

*** Immigration timing: Meanwhile, the Senate continues to work on the “Gang of Eight” immigration legislation. NBC’s Carrie Dann reports that the schedule, per a Democratic aide, would be to hold a cloture vote (needing 60 to pass) on the overall legislation by Thursday morning. And a vote on final passage (needing a simple majority) would take place 30 hours after that -- so on Friday. However, Dann adds that a unanimous consent agreement could move up that final vote to Thursday. By the way, there are a few other amendments that supporters hope will pass in order to secure the support of at least three more Republicans: Rob Portman and the two Georgia senators, Isakson and Chambliss.

*** “I bless the rains down in Africa”: As the Senate works on immigration and with the Supreme Court set to issue its gay-marriage decisions, President Obama heads to Africa -- around publication time. He and the first family arrive in Dakar, Senegal later today. Reuters previews the trip. “Obama leaves on Wednesday for his first extended trip to Africa since taking office. It comes as members of Congress are urging his administration to step up engagement with the region in response to increased competition from China. The trip will take Obama to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, all countries with functioning democracies that will help him make the point that democratic institutions are a building block for sustained economic growth.”  

*** Obama gets praise, criticism after climate-change speech: After criticizing President Obama over the last few years (either privately or loudly), environmentalists praised his climate-change speech yesterday. But some red-state Democrats weren’t too happy with the president’s desire to limit emissions from current power plants (read: coal), and they adopted GOP talking points to blast the speech. Said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in a statement: “It’s clear now that the president has declared a war on coal. It’s simply unacceptable that one of the key elements of his climate change proposal places regulations on coal that are completely impossible to meet with existing technology.” Added freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: “I applaud the president’s efforts to address climate change and its effects... However, several of the initiatives introduced today by the president, while not new, amplify the administration’s continuing war on coal and coal-fired power.” This criticism demonstrates why it was always difficult for Obama and Democrats to pass sweeping climate-change legislation, even in 2009-2010. While Democrats are unified when it comes to health care and immigration, they aren’t unified on energy, especially when it comes to coal.  

*** Markey beats Gomez: As expected, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) defeated Republican Gabriel Gomez in the special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. The margin was 55%-45% with 100% of precincts reporting. The results confirm how the GOP’s special Senate victory in 2010 was a perfect storm of events that was nearly impossible to replicate in liberal Massachusetts. And they reflect how difficult it is for Republicans to win federal office in the Northeast, even when they have a candidate who -- on paper -- is a moderate Republican. National Journal adds, “In New England, there isn't a single Republican representative in the House and only two GOP senators remain: Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Susan Collins in Maine. The West Coast is dominated by Democrats, and a winnable open Senate seat in New Jersey this year has been all but conceded to the Democrats. That's handicapped Republicans as they pave their path back to the presidency and, in the short term, hope to win back a Senate majority. The challenges have GOP leaders wondering whether, with a plethora of opportunities during next year's midterm elections, they can crack the blue state code in time.”

*** Another example of low turnout: Here’s one more observation on last night’s race: The turnout was ABSURDLY low. Markey received more than 640,000 votes -- almost half of the nearly 1.1 million votes Martha Coakley got in her losing effort in 2010. And as we’ve pointed out, this low turnout isn’t just in Massachusetts; it has also occurred in Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Virginia. Folks, there’s something happening -- an aggressive passiveness has taken hold with the electorate, at least with semi-casual voters.

*** Last night’s Lone Star filibuster: While the Markey-Gomez race played out as expected, the real political drama of the evening took place in the Lone Star State. Remember from a few months ago when conservatives and libertarians cheered Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) filibuster against drones? Well, Democrats and abortion-rights organizations last night celebrated Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ (D) filibuster against legislation that would restrict abortions in the state. The Austin American-Statesman: “Davis had launched her filibuster of Senate Bill 5 at 11:18 a.m. Wearing pink tennis shoes and a much-debated back brace, she needed to talk for 12 hours and 42 minutes to block a vote on the bill.” Republicans were able to break her filibuster with just minutes to spare before the midnight deadline of the legislative special session. Then there was more drama and allegations of procedural shenanigans. “The Texas Legislative Service, the online presence of the Legislature, originally listed SB5 as having passed on ‘6-26-13,’ or after midnight. Shortly after 1 a.m., however, the listing was changed to reflect passage before midnight.”

*** The victory by Davis and Democrats is probably just temporary: Democrats cried foul. And then late in the morning, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced that anti-abortion legislation didn’t not pass. More from the Statesman: “Speaking to reporters afterward, Dewhurst said he was furious about the night’s events. ‘An unruly mob, using Occupy Wall Street tactics, disrupted the Senate from protecting unborn babies,’ he said. Dewhurst said SB5 passed 19-10, but with all the ruckus and noise, he couldn’t hear the proceedings, and now ‘I can’t sign the bill’ so it can go to Gov. Rick Perry.” The evening’s proceedings put Davis -- a rising Democratic star -- on the national radar, and she joins the Castro brothers as Democrats to watch in the Lone Star State. But victory for abortion-rights supporters will probably be short lived. After all, Perry can call another special session, and the votes are there to pass the anti-abortion legislation. But is this another example of Republican lawmakers going too far on abortion? Even in a red state like Texas, you can see how Democrats can motivate their base on this issue. An when you combine this along with the Voting Rights Act decision, you can see how Democrats could be fired up come 2014, even without a President Obama riding high in the polls.  

*** Poll: Weiner now running in first place: Finally, here’s a new poll from NBC-NY/WSJ/Marist: Former Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner leads City Council Speaker Christine Quinn “25 percent to 20 percent among registered Democrats… That's a flip-flop from the last survey in May, when Quinn, the longtime front-runner, led Weiner 24 percent to 19 percent.”

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