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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Election Day in America; Key Races Too Close to Call; Minimum Wage Up for A Vote; Setback in the Fight Against ISIS; The Controversial No-Fly Zone Over Ferguson

Aired November 04, 2014 - 04:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, polls opening in just hours. Voters set to cast ballots in hard fought midterm elections that could drastically change the make up of Congress. Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate, but races across the country too close to call this morning. Some candidates neck and neck and, in the end, it could come down to the unlikeliest of states deciding it all. We're breaking it all down right now.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. It is Election Day -- Tuesday, November 4th. 4:00 a.m. in the east.

And here we go, 2014. The big prize this morning, the U.S. Senate. Will the Republicans pick up the six seats they need to control the chamber? A lot of late polls give them reason to hope, but there are at least a half dozen races within the margin of error, essentially tied. And there is even a good chance that, after Election Day, the Senate will still hang in the balance with runoffs leading to a political overtime that could last into January.

So the man that wants to be the next Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, on the trail for last minute campaigning in Kentucky. Polls show him inching ahead of his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. Well, McConnell attended only one event and expressed confidence that he will win. Grimes barnstormed the state and compared herself to David fighting Goliath.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTCUKY: We have a unique opportunity here, with the extraordinary partner of mine in the Senate, to be an enormously influential position not only for the state, but for the country. We could have, for the second time in our history, the majority leader of the Senate setting the agenda for America and taking us in a new direction.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (D), KENTUCKY SENATE CANDIDATE: You know after 30 years, three decades, of Mitch McConnell, we deserve better. We're coming down the home stretch and let me tell you, this strong independent Kentucky woman, I got kick left still in me. I'm not giving up.


ROMANS: One of the tightest and most unpredictable races in Kansas. Republican senator Pat Roberts and Independent Greg Orman are virtually tied in the latest polls. Orman accusing his three-term opponent of spending too long in Washington while Roberts links Orman to President Obama even though Orman has refused to say which party he'll vote with if elected.


GREG ORMAN (I), KANSAS SENATE CANDIDATE: We feel really confident that the voters of Kansas are going to take this historic opportunity to send a message to Washington, that you can't just go and hide behind your party label. You actually have to roll up your sleeves, go to work, and get things done for the people of Kansas.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R), KANSAS: We're going to win this race and we're going to win it because people know the difference. It's so much more than about me. It's about getting a Republican majority in the United States Senate and saying whoa to the Obama agenda.


BERMAN: Kansas to New Hampshire where there is a razor close margin separating Democrat incumbent Jean Shaheen and former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown. They are more or less tied in recent polls, although most prognosticators still say this state leans Democratic. In his campaign to return to the Senate from a different state, Scott Brown has tried to tie Jean Shaheen to President Obama just like many other Republicans this election cycle. He has also run ads highlighting the threats from ISIS and Ebola.

ROMANS: Also too close to call is this U.S. Senate race in Colorado. A Qunnipiac poll released Monday shows the Democratic incumbent Mark Udall seemingly making a last minute comeback against Republican challenger Cory Gardner. Last Thursday, the same pollster had Garnder up by 7 points. On Monday, he was only ahead by two. With the poll's 3.5 margin of error, Udall now seems to have a chance at keeping his seat.

BERMAN: All right, one of the tightest races in the country is in Iowa. So tight that even Taylor Swift is now an issue. Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley are slugging it out for the seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Tom Harkin. And Harkin injected some unintended controversy into the race over the weekend.

CNN's Pamela Brown in Iowa with that.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John and Christine, the stakes are very high for the Senate race in Iowa, because whoever wins today could tip the balance of power in the Senate.

It's been a very tight race. Extremely competitive, neck and neck, and it remains a toss up. In fact, a record number of Iowans have voted early this year, more than 400,000. The Democrats have had a steady advantage, but not as much as they would like. At last check, they were up around 7,000, but to put it in perspective, in 2010 midterm, they had tripled that lead over the Republicans. It's important for them, with the early voting numbers, because Republicans typically have more votes on Election Day.

When talking to both camps, it's very clear that they're confident each side is going to win, that their candidate is going to cross the finish line as a winner. The polls have consistently showed them pretty close, except one this past Saturday. It was a bombshell from "The Des Moines Register", showing the Republican candidate, Joni Ernst, up seven points over her contender, Bruce Braley, the Democrat in this race. Democrats looked at that poll as an outlier, but Republicans say that gave them the most momentum they need heading into this election today.

Also, some controversy has been brewing between Senator Tom Harkin, the Democrat who is vacating the Iowa Senate seat, and Joni Ernst. Take a listen to this.


SEN. TOM HARKIN (D), IOWA: In the Senate race, I have been watching some of the ads. And there's sort of this sense that, well, you know, I heard so much Joni Ernst. She's really attractive. And she sounds nice. I got to thinking about that. I don't care if she is as good- looking as Taylor Swift or as nice and Mr. Rogers; but if she votes like Michele Bachmann, she's wrong for the state of Iowa.


BROWN: In response to those comments from Tom Harkin slat week, Joni Ernst said that she was offended, that if she were a man, he would never have said that. And she also said, just like Taylor Swift, too, he compared her to, she's going to shake it off.

But bottom line here, you can feel the intensity heat up between the two camps on this Election Day. It's going to be a nail biter. Christine and John.

ROMANS: It will. Pamela Brown in Des Moines for us this morning.

The Senate race in Louisiana complicated for incumbent Demcorat Mary Landrieu by the fact that she must get 50 percent of the vote to keep her seat. Tea Party candidate Rob Maness drawing enough votes from Landrieu and the leading Republican Bill Cassidy that the race could be thrown into a runoff election next month. Cassidy doing his best to highlight the national implications of this race, while Landrieu trying to keep the focus local.


REP. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: Louisiana may determine which party controls the United States Senate.

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D), LOUISIANA: This is about who is going to be the senator leading Louisiana for the next six years.


BERMAN: Neck and neck in North Carolina. Democratic senator Kay Hagan clinging to a two-point lead in recent polls. She and her Republican challenger, Tom Tillis, have spent tens of millions of dollars on television advertising. But in the last few day of the campaign, like any campaign, these candidates have been emphasizing their ground game.


SEN. KAY HAGAN (D), NORTH CAROLINA: I've got 100 locations across North Carolina right now with 10,000 volunteers -- hitting the pavement. Knocking on doors. Reminding people the difference in this race and the importance of exercising our constitutional right to vote.


ROMANS: All right, in Alaska, tight race between incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Dan Sullivan, drawing so much money from both sides. It's likely to break records for outside spending in Alaska. An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice pegs spending by groups unaffiliated with either campaign at $39 million so far.

BERMAN: It's like $1 million per voter.

ROMANS: It's a state with a tiny population and relatively inexpensive media. That's a lot of money. It makes it the sixth most expensive Senate campaign in history for outsider spending.

Now, the stakes have drawn big names to campaign for the candidates in the far-off state. Mitt Romney made his pitch on Monday.


MITT ROMNEY (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This state matters. It makes a big deal for people here in Alaska and people frankly all over this country. Because of the impact of what happens in this Senate race.


ROMANS: CNN's Drew Griffin is in Anchorage with more on that race.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT REPORTER: John and Christine, good morning from a cold but at least clear Anchorage, Alaska. The big race of course here is the U.S. Senate race, the Senate race between the Democratic incumbent Mark Begich and his Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. And right now this appears to be the Republican Sullivan's race to lose. He's up in most of the polls. Turnout shows that it should be favorable to at least his positions.

And we expect that this race will be decided. There's not going to be a runoff. The question is when. The polls close here in Alaska at 8:00 local time, which is midnight back on the East Coast. They won't be counting the ballots until 1:00 a.m. So it's going to be a very, very long day of voting and long, long night of waiting while the whole nation waits to see if this is one of those pivotal Senate races that could flip the Senate.

The big issue here also in Alaska is the governor. It looks like the incumbent governor is in trouble. He was facing a big challenge from an independent, but Republican-leaning challenger. And also we have two ballot measures, one which would raise the minimum wage up $2 over the next two years. That seems like it's headed for passage. And a much tighter race over whether or not Alaska should allow recreational use of marijuana.

All that to be decided today, a very long cold but clear day in most of Alaska. Back to you guys.

BERMAN: You know, six years ago in Alaska, it took days and days and days and days for all those votes to come in, so that could happen again here.

So while control of the U.S. Senate is the bog prize in this midterm election, some of the closest contests are among the 36 governors races. And heading into Election Day, nearly a third are considered too close to call. And that, too, brought out the star power.

In Florida, the Democratic challenger, the former Republican governor Charlie Crist -- you need a chart to keep track of that one -- he is in a virtual dead heat with the incumbent Republican governor Rick Scott. Crist brought in the big dog, the biggest gun in the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton was there for a final rally with Charlie Crist. They appeared in Orlando Monday night. And you can see the Democratic crowd there truly loved it.

ROMANS: All right, New Jersey's Chris Christie in Connecticut and Michigan Monday to support fellow Republican governors in some closely contested races. At a rally for Michigan's incumbent Rick Snyder, Christie says he's been transformational for the state. Christie chairs the Republican Governors Association; he's been crisscrossing the country in campaign mode. Michigan was the 16th state he has visited in the last week.

BERMAN: And the Republican Governors Association is often a platform, seen as a platform for running for president yourself later on down the line.

In Maryland, First Lady Michelle Obama was giving Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown's campaign a last-minute boost against Republican Larry Hogan at a rally in Baltimore. The First Lady praised Brown for work on education. She said the governor's race is close and told Brown's supporters to take nothing for granted.

ROMANS: And as this critical midterm election unfolds today, President Obama expected to be nowhere. The president has no public events on his schedule. His sagging approval rating both nationally and in key states has seen Democratic candidates avoiding the president. Now whether that is an effective campaign strategy, we will see. That is what today is for.

BERMAN: The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.

ROMANS: Yes, you're absolutely right.

BERMAN: Turnout will be crucial. It all comes down to crucial. As many election cliches --

ROMANS: We have to avoid the election cliches like the plague, John Berman. At all costs.

BERMAN: You can say that again.

ROMANS: All right, minimum wage up for a vote right now. Voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota voting on a hike. Those states are typically red states and minimum wage has been a Democratic priority, but looks like those hikes are going to pass. Illinois has a non-binding vote on the ballot. Some cities are voting as well, including San Francisco. San Francisco already has a minimum wage well above the federal level. It is $10.74 in San Francisco. The vote today is for $15 an hour. 142,000 people in San Francisco. About -- almost a quarter of the work force would receive a raise if this passes today. So far, 26 states and D.C. have approved a minimum wage hike higher than the federal standard of $7.25. That number likely to rise today.

More on your money today, U.S. stock futures up slightly this morning, very close to all-time highs. Oil prices are falling. $77 a barrel right now, John. $77 a barrel, the lowest in four years. Of course, that means lower gas prices for you.

BERMAN: I've seen $75 or $70 as that target where it becomes a problem for oil producers in North Dakota and Texas. So watch this; it's very interesting.

13 minutes after the hour. Happening right now, tragic setback for the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We are live with latest next.


BERMAN: All right. New this morning, the brutality of ISIS on display in Iraq. More than 300 members of a Sunni tribe slaughtered in recent days. Women and children among the dead. Many of the victims lined up in a village north of Ramadi and shot publicly one by one.

The Obama's administration Syria strategy also suffering a major setback. Extremist fighters overwhelmed U.S.-backed rebels near the northern border with Turkey.

Want to bring in Nick Paton Walsh right now, who is live in Southern Turkey. Nick, what's the latest this morning?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATINOAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you mentioned, this is a small issue but it's potentially largely symbolic for U.S. policy. Two key groups backed by the United States, given supplies by them, and some suggest by Arab allies, even heavy weapons too. The Hazem Movement and Syrian Revolutionary Front have some areas near Idlib, a big city in the northwest of Syria, that they control.

Now, the Nusra group, that's the al Qaeda affiliate that's considered a terror organization by the United States, pretty much have always been the big military figure around there, but they tolerate these groups in their midst, so to speak. What's happened in the last week is Nusra has moved against them to push them out of some of the towns they consider to be their strongholds. Many say that's Nusra really trying to clean up town there, get a clear grasp on that sway of territory. Some suggesting 70 percent of territory controlled by moderates has now gone over to Nusra.

It doesn't really change things in Syria, its civil war, because Nusra were always a dominant military power when it came to who was sort of number one in that way. What it does do is significantly undermine the U.S. strategy, because what little strategy there was, was contingent on these moderates getting supplies and somehow being able to military prevalence (ph) against anybody else. Clearly they're losing ground now, potentially weapons, too, say some claims from Nusra. And that's a real setback for Washington's policy here, John.

BERMAN: All right, Nick Paton Walsh for us in Southern Turkey. This battle not getting easier, to be sure. Thanks, Nick.

ROMANS: A Chicago area teenager ordered to remain behind bars for allegedly trying to reach Syria to join forces with ISIS. 19-year-old Muhammed Hamzah Khan will face trial on terrorism charges. Prosecutors say he tried to bring his 17-year-old sister and 16-year- old brother with him to Turkey when he was arrested last month. At a detention hearing Monday, a judge ruled Khan poses a danger to his community and it, quote, "is not stable".

BERMAN: Homeland security officials stepping up screenings of passengers flying to the United States with Western passports. They are concerned about the rising number of Europeans who have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq and may return to launch attacks. Intelligence officials say more than 3,000 Europeans have joined ISIS or other extremist groups since 2011.

ROMANS: All right, Ferguson police now responding to accusations they went to drastic measures to stop the media from reporting on the Michael Brown shooting protests. We've got that for you next.


ROMANS: White House officials are speaking out against a controversial no-fly zone put in place over Ferguson, Missouri. The ban was imposed in the city for nearly two weeks in August. It restricted news helicopters from covering the violent protests in the wake of Michael Brown's death. The Associated Press obtained tapes in which you can hear police working with the FAA to keep media away, something that's not sitting well with Attorney General Eric Holder.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ERIC ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Transparency I think is always a good thing. And the American people need to understand what happened, for instance, what was happening, what is happening in Ferguson. And anything that would artificially inhibit the ability of news gatherers to do what they do I think is something that needs to avoided.


BERMAN: I just want to say, there will be those who criticize or point out that Eric Holder, not always an advocacy of transparency. There have been major leak investigations against reporters in his Justice Department.

ROMANS: St. Louis County police chief saying these safety restrictions were prompted by reports of gunfire. He also said the conversation on the tapes were, quote, "out of context."

BERMAN: So it could be another day or two before the power is back for more than 100,000 people in Maine. A surprise early season snow brought down trees and power lines. Almost 2 feet fell in some areas, prompting Maine's governor, who by the way is up in a tight reelection battle, to declare a state of emergency. A spokesperson for Central Maine Power says electricity may still be out in some polling places today. Election officials say they are ready to improvise with generators and portable heaters where necessary.

ROMANS: It reminds me of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast a couple years ago; that was a presidential election. That was a big election.

BERMAN: You can't cancel an election. You can't cancel an election.

ROMANS: Nope, it still happens.

All right, let's get an early look at your weather this morning. Chad Myers has that for us.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: And good early morning to you. Still a little bit breezy across the northeast today, but not like yesterday. The big story really is the rain that's developing out here in the Midwest for the rest of the afternoon. Any flights over that front could get a little bit bumpy. 72 in D.C. today. Finally back up to almost 70 in Atlanta. It's been a hard freeze down across the deep south the past couple of days. We get to 81 in Tampa and 78 in Miami later on this afternoon.

Now, that front doesn't move very much. And that continues to make the heavy rain in the same spots. So we're not going to get the rain to the northeast, at least for a while. Still, that high pressure kind of keeping it at bay. A stationary front, like a stationary bike, doesn't move very fast. Doesn't move really at all in some spots across the southeast for today or for tomorrow. 61 though, we're talking about Memphis. 73 in Atlanta. And for tomorrow, we'll get to a high of 64 in New York City. Back to you guys up there.

ROMANS: All right, thanks, Chad. BERMAN: Election Day.

ROMANS: It is Election Day?

BERMAN: It is Election Day across the United States of America, this great land of democracy. The fate of Congress up in the air. Republicans perhaps in a good position to take over control of the Senate, but the Democrats with a fighting chance. So many key races too close to call this morning. We will break them all down for you and give you the latest news breaking overnight.

ROMANS: What a beautiful picture of the Capitol dome. A metaphor there somewhere, isn't there?

BERMAN: A metaphor, perhaps. Under construction. We'll be right back.