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First Thoughts: Huckabee falls into the contraception trap

Another Republican falls into the contraception trap … Remember, Huckabee was an Aiken defender. … Contraception talk only hurts the GOP with suburban women, closing them off to listening on other issues … RNC weighs calendar changes … Justice Department investigation into Menendez … The McDonnells in court … McDonnell turned down plea deal that would have spared his wife.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee talks Thursday in Washington, D.C., at the RNC Winter Meetings.

*** Huckabee falls into the contraception trap: At yesterday’s RNC meeting, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stepped right into controversy when he decided to talk about women’s “libido” and birth control. "If the Democrats want to insult women by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it," he said, per NBC’s Carrie Dann. Yes, he was referring to Democrats. And yes, the quote -- taken as a whole -- doesn’t make a lot of sense. But if Republicans should have learned anything from the 2012 election cycle, it should be that GOP politicians, especially male ones, should tread very carefully when talking about birth control and women’s rights. Indeed, here is the recommendation from the RNC’s post-election autopsy last year: "When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues." And yet, the same RNC invited Huckabee to talk about this issue…

*** When the debate turns from trimesters to contraception: According to the Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson, RNC Chair Reince Priebus responded to Huckabee’s comments this way: “I don't know what he was talking about. Sort of a goofy way of using some phrases. Not the way I would have phrased it.” But here’s the thing: The RNC knew exactly what they were getting with Huckabee addressing their crowd. Remember, he was one of Todd Akin’s biggest defenders in 2012 -- pretty much the ONLY national Republican who stuck by Akin. So Priebus should NOT have been surprised to hear something “goofy” coming out of Huckabee’s mouth on this issue. Yet here is the bigger story: Republicans keep taking the bait when talking about contraception. It wasn’t too long ago when Democrats found themselves playing defense on third-trimester abortions and so-called partial-birth abortions; Republicans were winning the abortion argument more often than losing it back then. But now it’s Republicans playing defense when the terrain becomes about contraception. At this point, the GOP should realize, if you are talking contraception, you don’t have a chance to convince some suburban and independent women to listen to your messages on other issues like the economy and education. It’s just like the problem the GOP has with Hispanics. They can claim Hispanics are more likely to be with them on issues like education and social policy but because of the rhetoric on immigration, many Hispanics are simply tuning out the GOP and not listening to them on the other issues.

*** RNC to vote on 2016 calendar changes: Also at yesterday’s RNC winter meeting in DC, Republicans advanced a package of rules changes that would shorten the GOP’s 2016 primary calendar, as well as punish states (outside of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) that hold their nominating contests before March 1. Among the changes that the full RNC will vote on today: With the Republicans set to hold their convention earlier in either June or July, Republicans want to essentially hold their primaries from February through May; states that hold contests from March 1 through March 15 will have their delegates awarded proportionally, and those after March 15 can award them either proportionally or winner-take-all; and states that go before March will lose A LOT of delegates. Bottom line: Republicans are trying to avoid what happened in 2012 -- a long primary season, created in large part because Florida moved up its contest. But there is a danger in fighting the last war. "I think that there is a tendency to always look at the last loss and make changes based on that,” Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR) tells National Journal. "Sometimes that brings a good result, sometimes it doesn't."

*** Justice Department opens new investigation into Sen. Menendez’s activities: We have to ask: What is in the water in New Jersey? Here’s the report by WNBC-New York’s Jonathan Dienst: “News 4 has learned the U.S. Justice Department is investigating Sen. Menendez's efforts on behalf of two fugitive bankers from Ecuador. This as the senator who is already under criminal investigation for his involvement with a big campaign donor from Florida. For this story, News 4 has spoken with dozens of current and former officials from the Justice Department, State Department, Homeland Security, and Congress. We also spoke with lawyers and people who have been contacted by the FBI in this investigation -- many who have raised serious questions about the Senator's actions.” Essentially, this new angle in the investigation comes out of the original investigation. Here’s the central question: Did Menendez go too far in trying to help the family of some major donors? And also troublesome, donations made by these wealthy Ecuadorians to the DNC, which is another part of this investigation.

*** Menendez response – ‘Outlandish allegations’: Menendez fired back after the report was released, professing his innocence. "A year after a false smear campaign was launched against Senator Menendez, once again we see anonymous sources making outlandish allegations,” he said in a statement. “Our office works each year with literally hundreds of individuals and families from across the country who are seeking help with the immigration process.  We review each and every request we receive, and if we feel any inquiry is appropriate, we make it. In this particular case, Senator Menendez believed the Isaias family had been politically persecuted in Ecuador, including through the confiscation of media outlets they owned which were critical of the government. We are not aware of any inquiry into the Senator's actions on this matter."

*** McDonnells to appear in federal court: By the way, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and wife Maureen make their first appearance in federal court in Richmond at 10:00 am ET and 11:00 am ET, respectively. The Washington Post reports that McDonnell rejected a plea deal that would have spared his wife of any charges. Last year, “[A]uthorities proposed that then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell plead guilty to one felony fraud charge that had nothing to do with corruption in office and his wife would avoid charges altogether. The governor rejected the offer, the people with knowledge of the conversations said,” the Post reports. The couple now faces 14 counts of conspiracy and fraud charges stemming from what prosecutors allege were the McDonnells doing favors for gifts from a wealthy donor. More: “The failed behind-the-scenes plea discussions underscore the former governor’s strong assertion that prosecutors have stretched the law to ensnare a high-level official through the actions of his wife.”  One has to ask, if this truly was the deal that was offered, it’s kind of surprising McDonnell turned it down.

*** OFA highlights health-care success story: President Obama's Organizing for Action has released a new video highlighting Americans who have benefited under the new health-care law -- this one from California resident Amy Zock. "When I was one year's old, I was diagnosed with a coarctation of my aorta -- it means my aorta is really narrow. I tried to get health insurance through the private market, and it said right there in bold letters, 'You are denied because of your pre-existing heart condition.'" Zock adds, "Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I am no longer denied coverage based on my pre-existing condition." After the Obama administration worked to (mostly) fix its federal health-care website, the fight over the president's health-care law has largely turned into a battle over anecdotes. Republican opponents have highlighted stories about Americans who have seen their premiums increase and their access to doctors narrowed, while Democrats have featured stories like Zock's.

*** On “Meet” this Sunday: NBC’s David Gregory will interview Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), as well as Sen. Dick Durbin.

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