By Toula Vlahou

It’s the not-so-secret secret about serving in Congress: No members attend all the hearings for the committees on which they serve.

But every two years, Republicans and Democrats suspend that common knowledge and attack incumbents for poor committee attendance.

Senators miss a lot of hearings and briefings, often for legitimate reasons, like attending another hearing that’s happening at the same time. But in a political world driven by optics, the legitimacy of these attacks isn’t what matters.

Just because it may be a bogus attack doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. After prevalent use in 2014, it’s back this year in at least six competitive Senate races.

The latest instance is from Indiana, where former two-term Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh wants his old job back.

Bayh missed 92 percent of hearings held by the Special Committee on Aging during his 12 years in the Senate, ending in 2010, according to a Republican review of hearing transcripts. And he attended no hearings for the committee during the last five years he was in Senate, according to GOP operatives who reviewed official committee transcripts.

Allies of Rep. Todd Young, Bayh's Republican challenger, plan to use those statistics “to very aggressively highlight Bayh's own record and hypocrisy on Social Security and Medicare,” according to one Republican with knowledge of the race, who was granted anonymity to discuss not-yet-apparent campaign tactics.

Bayh’s Aging panel attendance record may sound egregious.

But the context voters likely won’t hear in any forthcoming advertising is that there are three levels of committees in the Senate based on importance. This particular committee is a B-level committee, and it doesn’t have legislative authority. It can submit recommendations for legislation to the Senate, and it has conducted oversight of Social Security.

At the time Bayh left the Senate, he served on four A-level committees, including Armed Services, Banking, Energy and Natural Resources, and Intelligence. Bayh’s campaign points out that for 21 of about 85 Aging Committee hearings the senator missed during the last five years of his tenure, he was attending Banking, Armed Services or Intelligence hearings.

“It's pretty rich for Congressman Young to attack Evan Bayh for doing his job by attending classified intelligence and armed services hearings, or focusing on the economy two days after Lehman Brothers fell, when he has been silent in the majority of his Armed Services hearings — when he bothers to show up,” Bayh campaign spokesman Ben Ray said.

Young served on the Armed Services committee during his first term in the House, from 2011 to 2012.

Since missed hearings are a daily occurrence on the Hill, there’s no shortage of these attacks. For every punch one campaign throws, the opposing campaign can often come up with an attack on their opponent’s attendance at a different committee. But they are not always comparing apples to apples.

[Why Senate Attendance Attacks Are Usually Bogus]

For starters, House and Senate committees treat attendance differently in the public record. Senate Aging employs a clerk to record attendance. But on House Armed Services, no attendance is taken. The only way to ascertain whether a lawmaker showed up is to search the transcript for a verbal comment or screen video footage.

Democrats concluded that Young was silent on Armed Services by reviewing committee transcripts. But just because Young, a junior member, didn’t ask a question, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. He also could have submitted a written question.

Indiana is hardly the only place where absenteeism attacks have come up. Republicans effectively used them against North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, among others, in 2014.

But this year, Democrats are on offense and they’ve been launching similar attacks on Republicans — some in paid media, and some just in earned media.

Just last week, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s Democratic opponent, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, accused Paul in a press release of being “AWOL from his Senate responsibilities” since the Senate returned from its summer recess because he had missed committee hearings.

The day before, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party had this to say about GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey showing up at Banking Committee hearing on Iran: “No, it wasn’t a unicorn.”

The state Democratic Party reviewed his attendance records this summer, alleging that Toomey had missed seven of eight hearings or meetings on Iran that the Banking Committee held between 2011 to 2014.

Toomey's campaign said he was attending other meetings, including one with Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, and a Finance Committee markup.

Democrats have also attacked Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte for missing Homeland Security hearings.

In the rare race where both candidates have Senate records, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold have both been criticized for their committee attendance — Johnson for missing Homeland Security hearings and Feingold for missing Foreign Relations hearings.

Attendance attacks have dogged Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for much of the year, going back to his failed GOP presidential bid. He’s missed nearly half the Foreign Relations hearings that dealt primarily with Iran in the 114th Congress, according to a recent Miami Herald report. Democrats pounced on him for missing a hearing to announce his belated decision to seek re-election.

Rubio has argued that his staff briefs him on missed hearings, and that most intelligence information he needs to know is communicated through reports rather than at the hearings. But his Democratic opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy, has used Rubio’s missed hearings and votes to paint a broader narrative about Rubio not showing up for work.

"It’s really surprising that so many Republican senators couldn’t be bothered to show up to hearings, if not to actually do their jobs, then because they saw the issue used against Democrats recently," said a Democrat involved with Senate races.

When attacked, Republicans frequently counter with the same defense that Democrats have used: They were attending other, potentially more important, hearings and meetings.

Back in 2014, GOP consultant Paul Shumaker was looking for a good hit on Hagan, who’d been pummeling his client, then state House Speaker Thom Tillis, on education — an issue that resonated with the white female voters both candidates needed.

What else was a top issue for that demographic? Foreign affairs.

Shumaker heard that Hagan had missed an Armed Services briefing on ISIS to attend a fundraiser. He didn’t have confirmation, but his team developed an ad to test the message with a focus group of suburban women. When the spot made women who’d been leaning toward Hagan doubt her, Shumaker knew he’d found his issue.

Pressed on the issue at a post-debate press conference, Hagan admitted that she had missed one hearing to attend a fundraiser because the hearing was postponed. Crossroads GPS followed up with its own ad using Hagan's comments.

From Shumaker’s perspective, the incident was the turning point in the campaign. But it wasn’t simply that Hagan had missed a hearing that made the attack effective. It was the entire “mixed cocktail,” he said, that tapped into voter anxiety about ISIS and antipathy toward fundraising.

“It’s not just attendance records and how many missed,” Shumaker said, “but what did they miss?”

Attacking a senator for missing a Commerce Committee hearing, for example, may resonate less with voters than a hearing on a specific national security issue, said one Democratic operative who’s worked on Senate races.

And in an era when skepticism of the Washington establishment is already high, attacking senators for shirking their official duties may not be as potent a hit as it once may have been, Republican strategist Steve Gordon suggested.

“The average guy or gal on main street says, ‘Are you kidding? Most of those meetings aren’t worth a tinker’s damn anyway so why would anyone want to go?” Gordon said.

Being highly engaged back home can help mitigate those attacks, too.

“If Incumbent X is known for being present in his or her district, holding town meetings, and delivering some results from Washington, an attack on missing committee votes is likely to fall flat,” Democratic media consultant J.J. Balaban said.

Voters deserve some credit for understanding how busy their lawmakers are and that they can’t possibly get to everything, Democratic strategist Rick Ridder said. “We see it in our own lives. We don’t always make it to every kid’s soccer practice, every game, every meeting.”

He said voters are more sympathetic to missed committee hearings than they are to missed votes in the chamber, another frequent political attack point.

“But the real question is, is the committee absenteeism indicative of other forms of negligence?” Ridder said.

Operatives from both parties agree that when the attacker can establish a pattern, either about misplaced priorities or hypocrisy, these criticisms can stick.

Democrats, for example, are using missed committee hearings to go after Republicans’ perceived strength on national security. Since they're largely on offense this year, they can point to incumbents’ absenteeism to call into question just how seriously they take Iran or ISIS.

And next cycle, when Republicans are again on offense, look for them to do the same.

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Heard on the Hill

Take Five: Sen. Jim Risch

By Alex Gangitano

It’s hard to pick the worst moment for Donald Trump on a night during which he flailed trying to find balance. But an early gaffe largely lost in the cross-talk indicated that he was more easily baited, and thirstier for blood, than he was prepared for a presidential debate.

And it smacked of a mistake that helped cost Gerald Ford a return engagement as president in 1976.

“You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do,” Trump said in a familiar criticism of Clinton’s plan for dealing with the Islamic State. Then he deviated: “No wonder you’ve been fighting — no wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.”

Back in 1976, Ford said “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” which, of course there was. Trump placed the birth of ISIS in 1965, about six decades too early.

It’s not that Trump really thinks ISIS formed when Clinton was 18, or that she’s only been an adult for the last several years. But Clinton was under his skin, and he reacted like a child by simply blurting out the first attack that came to mind.

[Five Objectives for Hillary Clinton in the Debates]

Clinton called for fact-checkers to take a look at that one as the candidates and moderator Lester Holt grappled for control of the debate. In any normal year, such a wild claim might be disqualifying — it displayed a lack of knowledge of ISIS far worse than Rick Perry’s inability to name a Cabinet department on command. But in a year when facts don’t seem to matter, the truth was far less important than what the response said about Trump’s temperament.

He couldn’t keep his cool in a pressure-packed moment. Clinton had just countered a Trump attack on her ISIS proposal by taunting him. “At least I have a plan,” she said.

Then, Trump lost his composure. In doing so, he underscored the marquee phrase of her Democratic convention speech, when she said “a man you can bait with a Tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

After that, Trump never recovered for long. And that must have been very frustrating for his fans — especially after he effectively crushed Clinton on trade in the debate’s opening moments.

But the ISIS exchange set the table for Clinton to calmly prosecute her case against Trump on taxes, foreign policy and criminal justice. She was so much better on substance that Trump quietly agreed with her at least three times.

[Hillary's Honesty and Trump's Temperament]

Holt countered Trump when he lied about his pre-war support for the Iraq invasion and his role in promoting what Clinton called the “racist birther lie.”

Trump and his spinners can insist he won, but they know in their hearts that Clinton, who wasn’t even at her best, wiped the floor with him. Trump’s ISIS gaffe was that of a bush-leaguer stepping to the plate at Yankee Stadium and buckling at the sight of his first big-league curve.

Indeed, Clinton’s missteps might have stood out more against a more seasoned debater who was positioned to take advantage of them rather than turning focus back on his own shortcomings. But in the end, Trump lied, denied and bullied his way to the worst debate performance since the advent of television.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.

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To hear Donald Trump tell it for the last year, Senate Republicans were weak, dumb losers, and not just the ones he ran against for president. He infamously called Sen. John McCain “not a war hero” and tweeted that Sen. Jeff Flake was “a very weak and ineffective senator … Sad!” He lambasted Sen. Mark Kirk as “dishonest” and a “loser,” and told an Atlanta rally that he wished Republican leaders in Washington would “just please be quiet” so he could win the race by himself.

He tagged Sen. Lindsey Graham “a disgrace” and “one of the dumbest human beings I have ever seen.” Sen. “Little Marco” Rubio was “just another Washington, D.C., politician” with “the biggest ears I’ve ever seen.” Sen. Rand Paul was “truly weird” and Sen. “Lyin'” Ted Cruz was not only dishonest, but by Trump’s suggestion, his father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

So imagine the irony if those useless slobs in the upper chamber, 22 of whom will share the ballot with Trump in November, actually help him win the White House on Election Day. That emerging possibility is a reversal from the assumption leading up to this point in the cycle, which said that Trump’s coattails would determine the fates of Senate Republicans, and not the other way around. If Trump did well, the thinking went, they would do well. If he tanked, he would take them down with him like passengers on the Titanic.

But as Trump’s poll numbers tumbled through the summer, the Republicans running for re-election worked to build their own brands, with their own paths to victory, independent of their erratic nominee. The result is now a class of Republican Senate candidates who are nearly all more popular than Trump, with many who have built robust campaign operations of their own, above and beyond Trump’s scattershot approach to Election Day.

[The Down-Ballot Shuffle, a Ticket-Splitting Revival]

An analysis last week by The Washington Post showed Senate Republican candidates overperforming Trump by an average of 4 points in competitive states. Only Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Rep. Todd Young in Indiana are polling worse than Trump.

In critical swing states like Arizona and Florida, “Not a War Hero” McCain and “the Biggest Ears I’ve Ever Seen” Rubio are not only pulling ahead of their Democratic rivals, they’re also outpolling Trump by double digits. So is Rob Portman in Ohio, where Portman has built a massive turnout operation to get his own voters to the polls, no matter what the Trump campaign does or does not do on Election Day. Ohio is now tied for Trump and Clinton, but a major Portman victory could deliver just enough persuadable voters to the polls to give Trump a margin of victory.

In Georgia and Utah, two states that should be easy wins for Trump but are dangerously close contests instead, Sens. Johnny Isakson and Mike Lee are way out ahead of their rivals. If Trump wins those states, he may have them to thank for bringing Republicans to the polls who might not have bothered otherwise.

So how would a Trump White House work with a Republican Senate if the party defied expectations and won them both? It’s hard to imagine President Trump being able to bury the hatchet with senators he maligned along the way, who could then chair committees, allocate funds, and hold the votes for whatever agenda Trump has in mind. They might not forgive him for the things he said, and he might not forgive them for some insults they hurled in the heat of the campaign.

[Senate Republicans Leave Trump Meeting With Little to Say]

After months of being called “Little Marco,” Rubio snapped and called Trump a small handed, orange-hued “con artist.” Sen. Ben Sasse described Trump as one half of “the dumpster fire” that the election has become. Mike Lee said Trump “scares me to death,” while Ted Cruz, after the Your-Father-Helped-Kill-Kennedy bit, called Trump a “sniveling coward” and “a narcissist the likes of which I don’t think this country has ever seen.”

But it’s possible that all of those insults and nasty words about Trump during the primary were just politics masquerading as conviction.

On Friday, Ted Cruz endorsed Trump after declaring at the Republican convention that he was “not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and father.” But Cruz apparently is in the habit of supporting people who could be in power in the near future.

Even if Republican senators hold their own, the question remains whether voters who come out for their senators will also vote for Trump, split their ticket or skip the top line altogether. Ticket-splitting reached a 92-year low in the 2012 elections, but as Walter Shapiro pointed out here this summer, ticket splitting may not be dead, it might just be sleeping. The 2016 election will answer that question once and for all.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Monday that Donald Trump is a racist, and lambasted the media for not labeling the Republican presidential nominee as such.

"There's always one word that many in the press conspicuously avoid: racist. … But he is a racist. Donald Trump is a racist," Reid said on the Senate floor. "'Racist' is a term I don't throw around lightly."

Reid has frequently taken to the floor to rail against the real estate mogul, and he recently criticized Trump's reluctance to release his tax returns and he alleged misconduct at the Trump Foundation.

[It's On Between Harry Reid and Donald Trump]

Reid said the media is not holding Trump accountable for his statements. He cited reports that Trump was discriminatory and derogatory toward minority employees, and his role in the so-called birther movement, which raised questions about whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Reid also pointed to Trump's rhetoric about Muslims, and his remarks on a federal judge overseeing a Trump University lawsuit, which Speaker Paul D. Ryan called the "textbook definition of a racist comment." Reid criticized Ryan and and other Republicans for backing Trump's presidential bid.

"Think of the example Republicans are setting for our nation's youth," the minority leader said. "Republicans are normalizing racist behavior."

On Monday, Reid went where he declined to go 10 days ago during an interview on CNN. Asked on Sept. 16 if Trump is racist, Reid said, "I don't know. All you guys have a job to do. You make that decision. I'm not going to. I'm just telling you what he's done and we've seen it. He's a man of no morality."

Reid's comments come hours before Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton face off in the first general election debate.

Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @bridgetbhc.

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Congress Reacts to Shimon Peres' Death

By Christina Flom

For anyone following gun control (or gun safety) as political issue, it would be easy to dismiss 2016 as just another year where a whole lot happened, but nothing changed.

There have been 224 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, including the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the July attack on Dallas police officers. After every major incident, Washington followed the now-familiar script of outrage, calls from Democrats for gun restrictions, denial from Republicans that guns are the problem, and then, as usual, gridlock.

But as Election Day gets closer, an incremental, but important shift has modified gun safety as a usually partisan campaign issue. A handful of Republicans in must-win Senate seats are now running on their willingness to embrace even modest gun reforms, while outside interest groups are crossing the aisle to reward those Republicans for doing it.

The highest profile Republican who may be changing the rules on guns is Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, who is locked in a dead-heat race in Pennsylvania against Katie McGinty. Toomey blazed into the Senate in 2008 as an unapologetic conservative and former president of the Club for Growth with an A rating from the National Rifle Association. So it was striking when he joined Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School to sponsor legislation to expand background checks for firearms purchases.

Toomey joined Democrats this year on a similar bill after the San Bernadino shootings and voted over the summer to cross check gun purchases against the terror watch list.

The Washington politics on guns may be complicated for Toomey, but attitudes on the issue at home in Pennsylvania are unambiguous. A PPP poll of the state in August showed 85 percent of all voters in the state in favor of background checks on all gun purchases, including 80 percent of Republicans.

[Gun Control Meets Congressional Dysfunction]

The issue is usually a potent partisan issue for Democrats, who typically portray Republicans as puppets of the gun lobby, but Toomey's decision to sponsor and vote for gun restrictions has made that almost impossible for Katie McGinty, especially after PACs led by Gabby Giffords and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Toomey in recent weeks.

The Bloomberg PAC, Independence USA, is running nearly $750,000 of ads in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he has to perform well to win reelection. An especially powerful ad features the daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary's principal, who was killed protecting children at her school.

“Pat Toomey crossed party lines to do the right thing," she says.

[Democrats 'Not Worried' About Punishment for House Sit-In, Hoyer Says]

In an op-ed for CNN, Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly praised both Toomey and Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk as principled on the issue that nearly cost her her life when she was shot by a constituent at a town hall meeting.

The endorsement came at a pivotal time for Kirk, who has trailed behind Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth and must have support from cross-over Democrats in the state, which is even more in favor of tougher gun laws than the rest of the country. Kirk has long been on the outs with the NRA. More important for Kirk is Gifford's praise as an independent pragmatist, the brand Kirk has been working to push.

[Gun Compromise Faces Challenges From Right and Left]

In all-important Florida, guns have become a crucial issue in that state's Senate race. Sen. Marco Rubio said the Pulse night club shooting so moved him that he decided to run for another term.

Last week, Eric Garcia reported that Rubio introduced legislation to notify the FBI if the subject of a federal terrorism investigation in the last 10 year tries to buy a gun. Rubio's opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy, dismissed the bill as Rubio's effort "paper over" a weak record, but it's astonishing, nonetheless, to see a conservative Republican introduce a gun bill less than two months before Election Day.

In 1994, the assault weapons ban was blamed as the reason dozens of Democrats lost their seats. In 2016, a similar decision by Republicans may be the reason some Republicans keep their jobs. If that's the result, 2016 will end up being the year the politics of guns changed, no matter what legislation ended up passing on Capitol Hill.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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By Toula Vlahou