READ IN: Thursday, July 24, 2014: Israel signals escalation in Gaza, Social Security’s IT ‘boondoggle,’ apparent plagiarism in Sen. Walsh’s thesis, Gov. Walker tied with Dem opponent, FBI donates to S.F. mayor

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A1: The stories you need to read before your first conference call.

-- Pro-Russian separatists claimed credit for shooting down two Ukrainian fighter jets amid intense fighting near Donetsk. Rebels claimed to have used shoulder-fired missiles, but Ukraine said the planes were flying higher than shoulder-fired rockets could reach. Australia said it would send a team of 50 officers to London to prepare for deployment to the site where the Malaysia Airlines 777 crashed, about 40 miles east of the contested city. (Associated Press)

-- Israel signaled it will broaden its air and ground offensive in Gaza beyond finding and destroying Hamas rockets and tunnels, even as Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond worked to broker a deal that would stop the violence. More than 700 Palestinians and 32 Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting. The FAA lifted its ban on commercial air travel to Israel after about 36 hours. (Washington Post, twice)

-- The Social Security Administration has spent nearly $300 million on a plan to replace outdated computer systems to handle disability claims. A McKinsey and Co. report shows the replacement is still two to three years from completion, five years after it began. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is looking into what some Republicans on the Hill are calling an IT "boondoggle." (Associated Press)

-- President Obama has dispatched a team to Texas to assess whether deploying the National Guard would help officials handle the flood of young migrants crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley. Earlier this month, Obama ordered Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to send the DOD/DHS team to the border. Obama has meetings scheduled Friday with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to discuss the crisis. (Reuters)

-- A convicted murderer in Arizona took nearly two hours to die on Wednesday, gasping for breath 640 times, according to a reporter who witnessed the execution. State officials used a two-drug cocktail that has caused extended executions in other states. A U.S. District Court judge required the state to preserve physical evidence, and Gov. Jan Brewer (R) directed the Department of Corrections to review the state's execution process. (Arizona Republic)

-- The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously approved the nomination of former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Committee chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he expected the full Senate to vote on McDonald's nomination before it leaves for August recess next week. (Washington Post)

-- Front Pages: WaPo leads with violence in Ukraine and fronts a moving photo of hearses carrying remains of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight down a highway in the Netherlands. NYT leads with a look at life inside a rebel-controlled city in Syria. WSJ and USA Today lead with ongoing violence in Gaza. The LA Times reports on an ongoing investigation of county jails, a case that's caused a big rift between L.A. County Sheriffs and the FBI.

National Roundup: What's happening outside the Beltway.

-- WH'16: Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is returning to Iowa Aug. 9-12 to participate in a Family Leader forum and to appear at fundraisers for state and federal candidates. (Des Moines Register)

-- Montana: At least a quarter of Sen. John Walsh's (D) master's thesis from the U.S. Army War College appears to have been borrowed, in some cases word for word, from other authors with no attribution. The 14-page thesis on the Middle East includes passages lifted from scholars at the Carnegie Endowment and Harvard. A campaign spokesperson said Walsh was going through a tough time in 2007, when he wrote the paper. (New York Times) Walsh later said his mistake was caused in part by post-traumatic stress disorder. (Associated Press)

-- Wisconsin: A new Marquette Law School Poll shows Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Madison school board member Mary Burke (D) in a statistical dead heat. Walker leads 46 percent to 45 percent among registered voters, while Burke leads 47 percent to 46 percent among likely voters. Burke wins women by 7 points, while men favor Walker by 10. Walker's fav/unfav ratings are close to even. (Marquette) Walker was up 7 in a March Marquette poll, but that was before most of the John Doe investigation story came out.

-- Hawaii: President Obama cut a radio ad this week on behalf of Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), who's locked in a tight bid for re-election against state Sen. David Ige (D). Abercrombie's poll numbers aren't good, both among Democrats and the electorate at large; the winner of the Aug. 9 primary will face former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (R) and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, running as a member of the Hawaii Independent Party, in November. (Associated Press) Back in 1961, Abercrombie represented the state Senate district that included the hospital where Obama was born.

-- Nevada: State Sen. Lucy Flores (D), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hand-picked candidate for lieutenant governor, has hired former Obama field organizer Kristina Hagen as her new campaign manager. Hagen managed a Henrico County ballot initiative campaign in 2013. (Ralston Reports) A reminder, this is the most important race no one is talking about. Background here. No pressure, Kristina, it's only Harry Reid's job at stake.

-- Mississippi: State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) lost his runoff election to Sen. Thad Cochran (R) by 7,600 votes. He finished the race with $386,000 in the bank. A spokesman said McDaniel had already spent around $100,000 on attorneys as he considers challenging the results. (Roll Call) Oops.

-- California: The FBI tried, unsuccessfully, to ensnare San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (D) as part of the sweeping sting operation that eventually led to an indictment against state Sen. Leland Yee (D). The Bureau went so far as to donate $20,000 to Lee's mayoral campaign in 2011. (San Francisco Chronicle) Bet Lee's not going to refund that contribution.

DC Digest: What's on tap today in DC.

-- President Obama wakes up in Los Angeles today, his third day fundraising on the West Coast. He'll attend a DNC fundraiser this morning before delivering remarks on the economy at the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. Obama leaves Los Angeles at 3 p.m. Pacific Time and lands at Andrews at 10:35 p.m. this evening.

-- Vice President Biden spent the night in Cincinnati, and this morning he delivers remarks at the National Urban League's annual conference. He'll return to D.C. this afternoon, where he's got meetings scheduled at the White House.

-- The House meets at 10:00 a.m. to debate an education bill sponsored by Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) and a tax cut bill proposed by Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.). First votes are expected at 2:00 p.m., last votes by 7:00 p.m.

-- The Senate continues debate over Sen. John Walsh's jobs repatriation bill, with a vote on a motion to proceed scheduled for 1:45 p.m. After that vote, the Senate will vote on cloture on Pamela Harris's nomination to become a Fourth Circuit Court judge, and to confirm Lisa Disbrow as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.

TV Time Out: Our exclusive look at who's advertising, and where.

-- Iowa: Senate Majority PAC will kick off a week-long $235,000 ad flight hitting state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) on Friday as Democrats grow increasingly concerned about her prospects against Rep. Bruce Braley (D). The DSCC began advertising for Braley this week. Developing (and surprising) CW: Iowa is a more likely GOP pickup at this point than North Carolina.

-- Tennessee: If any incumbent in the Volunteer State is likely to lose his job in the Aug. 7 primary, it's not Sen. Lamar(!) Alexander (R), it's Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R). State Sen. Jim Tracy (R) has outspent DesJarlais about four-to-one over the last several weeks. This week, Tracy is spending $125,000 on Chattanooga and Nashville television, while DesJarlais begins a $30,000 flight today. That's 700 gross ratings points versus just 165 per market.

The Buried Lede: The nuggets that deserve the spotlight.

-- Alabama has shelled out $75,000 for the right to include the phrase "Sweet Home Alabama" on signs welcoming visitors at the state line. The state paid Universal Records, which owns the trademark on the Lynyrd Skynyrd song. "Sweet Home Alabama" was released 40 years ago this year. (Montgomery Advertiser)

B1: Business, politics and the business of politics

-- About three-fifths of the top 100 lobbying entities in D.C. spent less in the second quarter than they did over the same time period in 2013, a dip attributed to Congress's focus on getting re-elected. Some of the few groups that spent more than last year, including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors, dropped most of their cash into voter education campaigns. (Center for Public Integrity)

-- Nice work if you can get it: Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) has paid his son $55,900 over the last year and a half to serve as his campaign treasurer. The campaign also pays Elliott Peterson's cellphone and internet bill. A report by CREW found 82 members paid family members through their campaign, PAC or congressional offices. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

-- Stock futures are trading higher this morning after the Dow slid slightly lower on Wednesday. Asian markets were mixed on Thursday, but European markets are trading higher. (CNN)

C1: The long reads you'll need to check out before tonight's cocktail party.

-- A Koch brothers-affiliated group of tech-savvy developers who adhere to what they call "conservatarian" principles are sponsoring hackathons around the country to develop The Next Great App to help Republicans get elected. The events have been held in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Miami. If the GOP suddenly closes the technological gap with Democrats, remember the name Lincoln Labs: They were probably behind it. (Yahoo)

C4: The comics page, fun things to read when you're bored at work

-- In 2008, 500 million people worldwide had mobile phones. Today, that number is just south of 2.5 billion. The number of landlines has dipped slightly, to just over 1 billion. And more people in the developing world have fixed broadband subscriptions than those in the developed world. About 711 million people have broadbad access. (Brookings)

-- Tennessee officials have signed a five year, $60 million contract with a new ad firm to handle the state's tourism campaign. The campaign's slogan: "Made in Tennessee." The ad firm, VML, is based in Kansas City. (Associated Press)

Attn Matt Drudge: Things conservatives will get outraged by today.

-- The President who took such a bold stand against super PACs, before advocating for his own super PAC, doesn't want anyone to know what he says to super PACs. While most fundraisers President Obama attends are at least partially open to the media, fundraisers held for the Senate Majority PAC outside Seattle and the House Majority PAC in San Francisco have been off-limits to reporters. (Politico)

-- Related question: How much are these super PAC fundraisers costing taxpayers? Party committees routinely shell out the cost of a first-class airline ticket to bring a president to a fundraiser, but no one has enumerated what super PACs must pay. A spokesman for Senate Majority PAC told us the group reimburses the federal government for travel, without elaborating how much, or whether the PAC and the DNC split the cost. The White House refused to comment.

Attn HuffPo: What outrages liberals today

-- Center for Immigration Studies analyst Stephen Steinlight told a Florida tea party group earlier this month that "being hung, drawn and quartered is probably too good" for President Obama. Steinlight was last seen advocating a ban on Muslim immigration. (Think Progress) MSNBC bonus: There's video.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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