CAMPAIGN OVERNIGHT: Christie's return

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) exoneration in an internal review of the George Washington Bridge scandal appears to have given him license to return to the place where he’s always seemed most comfortable: the national stage.

In an interview set to air on ABC this evening, Christie says the past few months have been taxing. He says he’s had trouble sleeping and eating, and that the period has been “not the toughest time in my life, but certainly the toughest time in my life professionally."

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Indeed, the ongoing investigations tainted his administration, crippled his presidential prospects and dimmed his rising national star some, and he’s spent the months since the emails and texts linking his staff to the lane closures emerged with his head down and blinders on.

Christie’s been raising funds for the Republican Governors Association and holding town halls in New Jersey to talk Hurricane Sandy recovery, but rarely has sought out the national spotlight beyond what was necessary.

The ABC interview indicates Christie, buoyed by the report, could be starting to orchestrate his renaissance — and just in time to begin preparing for the 2016 presidential primary. 

 

SENATE SHOWDOWN

IA-SEN (OPEN): Republicans launched a number of paid attacks hitting Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) for his recent “farmer” gaffe. The conservative group Priorities for Iowa is up with a TV ad accusing Braley of "putting Iowa's Senate seat up for sale," while the National Republican Senatorial Committee is making robo-calls in the state attacking Braley for his comments. 

Braley’s headaches continued on Thursday, as news outlets pointed out that a press release touting his ties to farmers contained misspellings of farming terms and a photo of a farm in England, not Iowa.

SD-SEN, IA-SEN (OPEN): Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) threw her support behind Rep. Bruce Braley in the Iowa Senate race and behind Rick Weiland in the South Dakota Senate race. Both are the only Democratic candidates running for the seats, but while Braley might have a slight edge over his GOP opponents in Iowa, Weiland remains a long-shot candidate. The Warren endorsement could provide him some much needed fundraising support.

SD-SEN (OPEN): The South Dakota Senate air war is heating up, with Republicans and the Democratic candidate in the race all reserving air time for the coming months. Former Gov. Mike Rounds, the GOP front-runner, has placed a $500,000 statewide media buy to start mid-April and run through the primary. One of his opponents, physician Annette Bosworth, is planning to reserve time in the next two months, and Democrat Rick Weiland has reserved at least $38,000 in ads for April. 

LA-SEN (LANDRIEU): Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), the GOP front-runner to take on Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) this cycle, clarified comments he made characterizing the uninsured as “relatively less sophisticated, less comfortable with forms, less educated.” He made the comments last week during his keynote address to the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association while criticizing ObamaCare as being inaccessible for exactly the people who need it most. Cassidy drew fire from Democrats, later responding in a statement that he understands the uninsured come from a varied swath of society and that’s precisely why the Affordable Care Act is flawed.

GA-SEN (OPEN): Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) endorsed former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R), the only woman in a crowded Republican Senate primary. 

But an automated poll of the GOP field showed Handel lagging far behind. Businessman David Perdue topped the field with 21 percent support, followed by Reps. Jack Kingston and Paul Broun tied at 15 percent apiece. Rep. Phil Gingrey took 13 percent, and Handel came in last with 10 percent. 

MI-SEN (OPEN): Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) is launching the first ads of his Senate campaign, positive spots that tout his middle-class roots and military service. 

OK-SEN (OPEN): Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon picked up the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund in the Oklahoma Senate Republican primary, the latest indication he’s emerging as the conservative pick over the other two Republicans in the race, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and former state Sen. Randy Brogdon.

KY-SEN (MCCONNELL): Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) primary challenger, Matt Bevin, is doing all he can to make sure voters don’t forget about the flubbed video from the Senate minority leader's campaign earlier this week that featured a shot of the Duke basketball team — fierce rivals of the University of Kentucky — celebrating their 2010 championship win. Bevin’s new ad features a cardboard cutout of McConnell wearing a Duke jersey.

VA-SEN (WARNER): Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) leads former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (R) by 46 percent to 31 percent in a new poll from Quinnipiac University. 

 

BATTLE FOR THE HOUSE

FL-19 SPECIAL (OPEN): Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto in the GOP primary to replace resigned Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), splitting with the Tea Party Express, which backed businessman Curt Clawson in the primary.

VA-10 (OPEN): Republican Howie Lind (R) is out with a radio ad accusing House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) of “rolling over while Barack Obama destroys our nation." Lind is the underdog in a crowded GOP House primary for retiring Rep. Frank Wolf’s (R-Va.) seat.

 

2016 WATCH

CHRISTIE: An internal review ordered by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) released Wednesday absolved him and most of his senior staff of direct involvement in the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last year. Prior to its release, however, Christie had insisted that it wouldn’t affect his decision on whether to run for president. “There's certainly nothing that's happened in the last number of months, since we talked about this the last time, that would make me think any differently about my ability to pursue” the presidency, he told a local radio station

PAUL: The Washington Post reported that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has become the first 2016 GOP hopeful to assemble a political network in all 50 states, in looking to build a more successful coalition than his father’s, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). 

HUCKABEE: Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) told a gathering of 70 House GOP members he’s considering a White House bid in 2016, but that cash is one of his top concerns in mounting another bid. 

CRUZ: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) will headline the Free Enterprise Foundation dinner at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., in April — his third visit in two years to the early primary Southern state. 

MARTINEZ: There’s no love for a presidential bid for Gov. Susana Martinez (R-N.M.) even in her own state. An automated poll from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed just 22 percent of Republicans say she should seek higher office, while 59 percent of GOP voters think she shouldn’t. 

RICE: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (R) pushed back against her party's right flank in her keynote speech to the National Republican Congressional Committee Wednesday night, warning against libertarian isolationism and advocating for immigration reform.

 

Please send tips and comments to Campaign Editor Jessica Taylor, jtaylor@thehill.com; and Campaign Staff Writers Cameron Joseph, cjoseph@thehill.com; and Alexandra Jaffe, ajaffe@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @JessicaTaylor @cam_joseph and @ajjaffe.  

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