READ IN: Thursday, August 7, 2014: New VA Sec. heads to Phoenix, McDaniel will take challenge to court, Montana Dems review their options, Koch brothers big on Wehby in Oregon, and Booker only up 10?

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

-- Russia has banned importing food and agricultural products from Europe and the United States, including beef, pork, fruit, vegetables and dairy products, a response to sanctions from Western countries that have targeted gas and oil industries. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Russia is also considering banning flights over Siberia. Ukrainian airlines have been banned from Russian airspace, too. Russia imports about a quarter of the food it consumes. About 75 percent of imports come from the U.S. and Europe. (New York Times)

-- ISIS militants have exchanged fire with he Lebanese Army in a fight for control of a border town, their first effort to cross into Lebanon. (New York Times) Sunni and Kurdish forces are fighting over control of two towns just 20 miles outside Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital in northern Iraq. (New York Times)

-- Nigeria's health minister has declared a state of emergency after five more people tested positive for Ebola in Lagos, Africa's largest city. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also declared a state of emergency to curb the virus's advances; Ebola has killed at least 282 people in Liberia alone. (Washington Post, Associated Press)

-- New VA Secretary Robert McDonald will visit Phoenix on Friday, his first stop at a VA medical center since being confirmed. The Phoenix center was the first indication of the crisis that forced McDonald's predecessor, Eric Shinseki, to step down. (Arizona Republic)

-- House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) had GOP lobbyist John Feehery sit in on several interviews of potential staffers last month as Scalise set up his expanded press shop. Feehery, a former communications director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), heads Quinn Gillespie & Associates; Scalise paid the firm $5,000 to review his communications operation, USA Today reported in May. (Politico)

-- Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell's chief of staff testified Wednesday that McDonnell would sometimes yell at her so loudly that Gov. Bob McDonnell's security detail would rush over to see if everything was okay. Mary-Shea Sutherland testified there was no romantic relationship or feelings between Maureen McDonnell and former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, undercutting a defense theme. (Washington Post)

-- Front Pages: WaPo leads with the massive rebuilding process that lies ahead in Gaza. LA Times reports a temporary fix to the Veterans Administration could become permanent. NYT leads with massive spending on high-speed rail (see The Buried Lede, below). WSJ reports on Bank of America's likely settlement (see B1, below). USA Today fronts a look at schools preparing for an influx of new immigrant students.

National Roundup: What's happening outside the Beltway.

-- WH'16: Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is hiring staff in key early states, funded through a nonprofit called Americans for Economic Freedom, run by his top political advisor. RNC member Henry Barbour is helping Perry prepare for a possible second White House bid. Mike Dennehy, the former John McCain advisor, is helping lay the groundwork for Perry in New Hampshire. (Associated Press)

-- Mississippi: The state Republican Party has refused to hear a challenge to the June 24 runoff election results from state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R). In a letter to a McDaniel attorney, state chairman Joe Nosef (R) said state law would not allow the party enough time to consider evidence, and that McDaniel should take his challenge to court. McDaniel's camp said they would "move forward with a judicial review." (Jackson Clarion-Ledger)

-- Montana: State Democrats are reviewing their options if Sen. John Walsh (D) decides to drop off the ballot in November. Walsh has spent the last two days at his home in Helena. Party rules require a nominating convention made up of about 175 local officials, but they would only have until Monday to decide on a replacement. A spokesman for Gov. Steve Bullock (D) said he hadn't spoken with Walsh since the New York Times story came out last month. (Associated Press)

-- Kansas: Standard & Poor's on Wednesday became the second ratings agency this year to slash Kansas's bond rating after Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) tax cuts went into effect. S&P said the state faces an estimated $333 million budget deficit at the end of this fiscal year. Moody's cut Kansas's bond rating in May. (Kansas City Star)

-- North Carolina: Art Pope, the billionaire activist who helps fund conservative causes around the state, will step down as North Carolina's budget director at the end of the month. Pope's departure isn't unexpected, but it comes after nasty budget negotiations in which he feuded with state legislators. Pope has spent some of his money funding Americans for Prosperity, among other causes. (Washington Post, Charlotte Observer)

-- Missouri: Voters on Tuesday rejected a statewide sales tax to pay for transportation projects, leaving the state without the revenue necessary to rebuild or create new infrastructure. Legislators will consider raising the state's gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the country, or toll roads. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

-- New Jersey: Huh? Sen. Cory Booker (D) leads political strategist Jeff Bell (R) by a 47 percent to 37 percent margin, and by only 8 points among independent voters. Booker's favorable ratings are only 47 percent, while 27 percent see him unfavorably. (Quinnipiac) Why? Because New Jersey voters hated their politicians before hating politicians was cool. How much did Republicans waste on efforts to boot Robert Torricelli or Frank Lautenberg?

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

-- President Obama heads to Fort Belvoir today to sign the Department of Veterans Affairs overhaul bill. He spends the afternoon in meetings at the White House.

-- Vice President Biden is in Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming. What a nice way to spend an August day.

-- Quote of the Day: "I just want you to take me a little bit more seriously." -- Former city councilmember Carol Schwarz (R), turning in 6,500 signatures to make a fifth run for D.C. mayor. (Washington City Paper)

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

-- Oregon: The Koch brothers' big-spending Freedom Partners is investing in physician Monica Wehby (R). The group kicked off a $725,000 ad buy on Tuesday, and they plan to be up through Election Day. The total buy so far: $2.3 million.

-- Iowa: Former state Sen. Staci Appel (D), running to replace retiring Rep. Tom Latham (R), is up with her first ad, a bio spot running on Des Moines broadcast and cable. Appel faces former Chuck Grassley chief of staff David Young (R) in November. (Roll Call)

-- Colorado: The DSCC is going on air earlier than previously announced. Democrats have bought a little over $200,000 a week in Denver and Colorado Springs television time beginning Aug. 26. That brings their total investment in the race between Sen. Mark Udall (D) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R) to $5.2 million. Freedom Partners is running $100,000 in ads today, with nearly $500,000 set to drop next week.

The Buried Lede: The nuggets that deserve the spotlight.

-- The Obama administration has spent nearly $11 billion since 2009 on high-speed rail projects without much to show for it. Critics say the administration wasted the money by spending it on upgrades to existing Amtrak service, rather than refreshing service in the Northeast corridor. Building Japanese-style bullet trains that could travel 220 mph would take $150 billion and 26 years to complete. (New York Times)

B1: Business, politics and the business of politics

-- The DCCC has 444 field staff on the ground in 48 districts, with another 219 scheduled to hit the ground later this month. (Roll Call) We're not saying the renewed focus on GOTV is a silver bullet, but this underscores a point we've made for a long time: No matter how advanced targeting technology becomes, it's all in service of that oldest of political traditions, door-to-door campaigning.

-- Bank of America is nearing a $16-$17 billion settlement over its role in selling mortgage-backed securities before the 2008 financial crisis. It would be the largest settlement between a bank and the Justice Department for actions relating to the crisis; the Justice Department would receive $9 billion in cash, while the rest would go to consumer relief. (Associated Press)

-- Markets are trading higher before the bell this morning after gaining fractionally on Wednesday. World markets were mixed Wednesday. (CNN)

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

-- Iraq has asked for emergency international assistance for thousands of members of the minority Yazidi sect stranded on a mountaintop amid a sea of ISIS rebels. An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 Yazidi have sought refuge on Mount Sinjar, in the Kurdish region in northwest Iraq. (Washington Post)

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

-- "Watch great white sharks trying to eat an underwater robot." (Christian Science Monitor) *Click*. Shark Week begins Sunday. It's never too early to start celebrating.

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

-- City-by-city fights over Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services are examples of government overregulation, the RNC says, and the party is launching a petition drive to allow those companies to continue expanding -- and appealing to younger voters with a libertarian streak, to boot. Other Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have made a point to spotlight Uber's fight with local unions. (Politico)

Attn HuffPo: What outrages liberals today

-- A Kansas Republican Party official said on Twitter last month that "offending Muslims is the duty of any civilized person." Just to keep it classy, he added: "Especially with a .45." (Kansas City Star) And the treasurer of the Virginia Republican Party, who questioned whether Muslims had made any positive contributions to society, resigned under pressure from the state party chairman. (Washington Post)

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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