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9:53 AM PT: IA-Sen: Democrats have landed their top choice to succeed Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who announced last month that he would not seek re-election: 1st District Rep. Bruce Braley, who has served in the House since 2007. Braley, 55, emailed supporters Thursday morning to say he was "ready to go," making him the first major candidate to enter the race.

Braley had long been close with Harkin, and both local and national Democrats have viewed him as the strongest and most likely candidate to replace Harkin, in the event of a retirement. Braley first won an open seat in 2006, when GOP Rep. Jim Nussle made an unsuccessful bid for governor. Braley survived a serious scare in 2010, escaping with a two-point victory in the Republican tidal wave that year, but all the while he continued to move up the leadership ranks among House Democrats, eventually becoming a vice-chair of the DCCC.

More recently, Braley held out the possibility he might run for governor next year, but the Senate always seemed like a better fit, and Democrats have to be excited to be getting an early start on holding this seat. Republicans, meanwhile, could be on track for an extremely bruising primary between wingnut standard-bearer Steve King and establishment choice Tom Latham, both, like Braley, members of the House.

No Republicans have yet declared, though a recent PPP poll had Braley leading both King (49-38) and Latham (44-41). Undoubtedly, Braley would prefer to face the much more incendiary King, but he starts off in a good position even if he faces Latham, who is the GOP's top choice.

Braley's decision will also set off a great deal of interest in his House seat, a blue-leaning district that went 56-43 for Barack Obama last year. That's probably out of reach for Republicans, but the NRCC probably won't want to give Dems a free pass, though that may be easier said than done. As always, we'll be covering future developments in both contests closely. For now, as far as the Senate battle is concerned, Team Blue is off to a good start.

10:53 AM PT: Congress: This is an awesome piece from New Republic reporter Marin Cogan, on how difficult it can be to tell certain members of Congress apart. You really need to click through to appreciate it fully, because it's illustrated with all sorts of photos (as well as several funny anecdotes), but here's just one example:

Reps. Tom Graves and Kevin Yoder
Got any idea who those two fellows are—without mousing over to see the image filename or alt text? And even if you do, which one is which? Good luck! (And now you know what it's like to be a reporter on Capitol Hill!)

11:05 AM PT: IL-02: I am definitely enjoying watching ex-Rep. Debbie Halvorson squeal like a stuck pig as she unexpectedly is forced to pay the price for years of sucking up to the NRA. From her recent interview with the Chicago Tribune editorial board:

"Obviously Mayor Bloomberg and his billions have decided he wants to come buy an election in Illinois. It's quite over the top," said Halvorson, of Crete. "I think it's probably done wonders not only for my name ID but the support people have for me."

Halvorson remained adamant in her opposition to an assault weapons ban and prohibition on large-size ammunition magazines as President Barack Obama is seeking. She has backed a universal background check for gun buyers and tougher penalties on straw purchases, and on Tuesday said she backs a gun registry.

"I believe the law-abiding citizen should be supported and protected. I haven't changed my position on that," said Halvorson, who added that she plans to take training on using a concealed firearm next weekend in anticipation that under a court order, Illinois will legalize so-called concealed carry.

At one point, though, the weight of the gun issue on Halvorson surfaced. "This is the thing everybody wants to take out on me," she said. "You don't know how frustrating this is… when this is the only thing people want to talk about with me."

Translation: Everyone stop giving me hell for out-of-step views I haven't changed! I'm actually quite surprised that Halvorson even sat down with the Trib editors, though: Last year, in her failed attempt to primary then-Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., the paper called her "alarmingly unqualified to represent the district." Plus ça change....

11:57 AM PT: PA-Gov: I really don't like polls that divide job approval ratings into four categories—"excellent," "good," "fair," and "poor"—because really, what does "fair" mean? "Fair" doesn't sound all that bad to me, but inevitably it gets lumped in with "poor," while "excellent" and "good" get combined, making pols look like they're performing worse than they actually are. But (and this is an important "but") trendlines do matter, which is why this new Franklin & Marshall poll (PDF) is worth taking note of. Get a load of this:

[Republican Gov. Tom] Corbett’s job performance ratings are the lowest for a sitting governor in the history of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll.
That history goes back to at least 1995, when another Republican, Tom Ridge, first took office. For what it's worth, just 2 percent of voters say Corbett is doing an "excellent" job, while 24 say "good," 41 "fair," and 26 "poor." Again, not a fan of that framing, but no incumbent ever likes hearing "lowest in history" unless you're talking about unemployment statistics.

12:44 PM PT: IL-02: Former state Rep. Robin Kelly, whose campaign has been boosted by a recent infusion of cash thanks to a Daily Kos endorsement that's netted more than $50,000 in small donations so far, is now the first candidate up on the air in the IL-02 Democratic primary. Her spot, as you'd expect, is about guns, the issue which has come to dominate this race:

In the ad, the narrator says that Kelly "has spent her career fighting to get deadly weapons off our streets"—and then smartly adds: "In the legislature she worked with Barack Obama to crack down on illegal gun sales" while flashing a picture of the president on screen. (I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Obama's approval rating in this district is extremely high.) There is no word yet on the size of the buy, and Chicago is of course an extremely expensive media market, but Kelly had led the pack in fundraising even before the grassroots spigots opened up, so there may be some decent coin backing this spot.

1:58 PM PT: AK-Sen: I'm gonna guess that freshman Sen. Mark Begich, running for re-election in quirky red Alaska, has got to like PPP's newest poll numbers. Begich has a pretty solid 49-39 job approval rating, including positive marks from 24 percent of Republicans; given the circumstances he faces, I think that's actually quite good. His head-to-heads against a bevy of potential challengers are also decent:

• 48-48 vs. Gov. Sean Parnell

• 47-41 vs. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan 47/41

• 47-39 vs. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell

• 50-40 vs. ex-Lt. Gov. Loren Leman

• 54-38 vs. ex-Gov. Sarah Palin

• 58-30 vs. 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller

While Republicans will probably find succor in the fact that their most popular would-be contender, Parnell, ties Begich out the gate, there isn't much reason to expect him to run for Senate. That's because Parnell is also up for re-election (more on that in a bit), and he'd almost certainly cruise to a second term. (Alright, really, second-and-a-halfth term, since of course Sarah Palin bugged out halfway through her tenure.)

Palin's obviously not going to run, either; at this point, Miller and Treadwell look to be closest to making the race, though Sullivan, Leman, and others may also take the plunge. Of course, those Miller numbers look awfully delicious, but unfortunately for Democrats, Republicans seem to hate him, too. Tom Jensen also tested a hypothetical GOP primary (leaving out Parnell and Palin), and Miller, sadly, brings up the rear:

Sullivan: 29
Treadwell: 23
Leman: 20
Miller: 19

Alaska is a notoriously difficult state to poll: In 2008, the last time it saw a competitive race (when Begich knocked off the late Ted Stevens and Ethan Berkowitz put a serious scare into Rep. Don Young), polling tended to badly over-state Democratic chances. Part of that may have been the unpredictable Palin effect, and part of it may just be that it's difficult to get a proper handle of the electorate in far-flung Alaska.

But if these numbers are accurate, then the question is whether Begich will be able to make it from around the 47 percent mark all the way up to that magical 50. I think he can, since he's a strong campaigner and also won't have to contend with a presidential election—and Sarah Palin—at the top of the ticket.

The governor's race, though, looks like the wipeout you'd expect. Here's how Parnell fares against some possible challengers (none of whom have actually expressed any interest in running):

• 50-41 vs. 2008 AK-AL nominee Ethan Berkowitz

• 52-34 vs. 2010 Senate nominee Scott McAdams

• 51-29 vs. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre

• 51-25 vs. state Sen. Joe Paskvan

All of these guys except Berkowitz are unknown to more than half the populace (even McAdams, who ran some memorable ads three years ago), and Parnell doesn't put up dominant figures of his own, but seeing as he starts off at 50 percent, it's hard to imagine him losing. I'd actually call that good news, since it makes it more likely Parnell will stay put—which means someone of lesser stature will have to take on Begich. And Democrats can definitely be glad of that.

2:42 PM PT: VA-Gov: Prepare your hourglasses! Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who has brazenly flirted—hell, more like, made out with—the prospect of an independent bid for governor for months, says he's got a "major announcement" coming up on March 14. Bolling had previously said he hoped to decide by March, but now we have a date certain. Fingers crossed!

2:52 PM PT: NE-Gov: How many races has Republican state Treasurer Don Stenberg lost? It's a lot:

1978 Lt. Gov. primary
1986 AG primary
1996 Senate primary
2000 Senate general
2006 Senate primary
2012 Senate primary

It's honestly amazing that he did win three terms as attorney general in the 1990s, and then made a comeback as treasurer in 2010, but really, shouldn't last year's humiliating third-place finish in the Senate race (with just 19 percent) have been enough? I guess not, because Stenberg has started floating his name for the 2014 governor's race, now that frontrunner Rick Sheehy has bowed out amid scandal. Stenberg said an entry was "unlikely, but possible" for him—and yeah, when it comes to Don Stenberg's willingness to lose, anything is indeed possible.

2:57 PM PT: ME-Gov: Former Dem Gov. John Baldacci, who has been weighing a comeback bid for a while, says he expects "to make a decision in the April timeframe." I thought April was a month, not a timeframe, but hey, even a vague date is better than none at all.

3:11 PM PT: Roll Call's Kyle Trygstad runs down some potential names for Braley's seat; we previously catalogued all of the Democrats he cites, but the Republicans are new, or at least new-ish.

I say that because two of them are retreads: attorney Ben Lange, whom Braley beat in both 2010 and 2012, and businessman Rod Blum, whom Lange defeated in last year's primary by 7 percent. The one bona fide original name is former Cedar Rapids Mayor Paul Pate, but I think the fact that all four top Democrats are sitting legislators tells you something about each party's bench in this district.

3:33 PM PT: IL-13: That was quick. The Office of Congressional Ethics says that freshman GOP Rep. Rodney Davis has not cooperated with their investigation into alleged campaign finance violations by another Illinois Republican congressman, Aaron Schock. Schock seems to be the one in real hot water, since the OCE says there "substantial reason to believe that the alleged violation occurred," but the panel has recommended that the House Ethics Committee subpoena Davis to testify, something you can't really want if you're only in your second month on the job and barely won your seat in the first place.

As for the underlying matter, we've written about it before, but in short, Schock stands accused of trying to raise more than the $5,000 maximum lawmakers are allowed to solicit on behalf of Super PACs. Shock reportedly tried to funnel five times that amount—$25,000—to the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a now-defunct group that targeted former GOP Rep. Don Manzullo for elimination last year. According to the CPA, Davis, then a congressional staffer, was "the contact person for a total of $120,000 in donations from five donors" to the group. Not that I'm in the habit of giving advice to Republicans, but with this sort of thing, it's usually not the crime but the cover-up that sinks you.

3:43 PM PT: Alabama: Roll Call's Abby Livingston has just kicked off a new series that looks like it ought to prove very useful. Her new Thursday column is called "Farm Team," and it offers "a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress." Since she's starting at the top of the list, first up is, of course, Alabama. Most of the scenarios Livingston envisions are off in the future, though, as the state's delegation looks pretty entrenched for now, both in the House and Senate. But hey, there's a shout out to one of the best names in politics: state Treasurer Young Boozer.

4:00 PM PT: Minnesota: Hmm. I can't say I like the way SurveyUSA framed this gay marriage question in their new poll for local news station KSTP. Here's their wording:

Should the Minnesota state law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? Or should it be left as it is?
I'm not too surprised that the anti-marriage equality position leads 54-42, because when you start to ask about whether an existing law should be "changed," you're just going to get some stick-in-the-mud types who simply recoil at the notion of change, even if it's one they might otherwise support. I say that because PPP recently used very different wording (PDF), and got a very different result:
Do you think same-sex marriage should be allowed in Minnesota, or not?
When asked that way, respondents support the notion 47-45, and I think PPP's approach is likely more accurate. Indeed, they did quite well with their final Minnesota poll (PDF) of 2012. They had last year's gay marriage ban failing 45-52. Actual margin: 47-53.

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