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Establishment Republicans Beat Back Tea Party Challengers; U.S. Fears Al Qaeda Gaining Strength; Deadly Attack in Nigeria; White House to Release Secret Memo; GM Issues More Recalls; Target to Release Earnings Today; Day Two of Martial Law in Thailand

Aired May 21, 2014 - 04:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight. So, is the Tea Party over? Establishment Republican candidates beating back Tea Party challengers in key primary races overnight and this could mean big problems for Democrats come November. We are breaking down all the big overnight race results and we have it live.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: A growing new threat from al Qaeda this morning, the terror group gaining strength across the Middle East. The latest, what does it mean for the world, for America? That's straight ahead.

BERMAN: A deadly attack in Nigeria. More than 100 people killed. This assault linked to the same terrorists responsible for kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls. We are live in Nigeria with the latest.

Good morning, great to see you today. Welcome to EARLY STTART, I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow. Good to be with you. It is Wednesday, May 21, 4:00 a.m. here on the East Coast.


HARLOW: Of course, we begin with big political news breaking overnight. Voters in six states have said no to Tea Party challengers and some big name Democrats making their choices for who they want to run in November from Congress to the state capitol.

BERMAN: Big results to tell you about. By far the biggest race of the night was in Kentucky where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was facing off against conservative favorite, Matt Bevin. The businessman was expected to mount the strongest challenge, but McConnell ran hard in the end. He easily held Bevin off. So now the five-term senator faces a pretty tough fight against the Democratic secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes. She won her primary thanks in part to strong support from the national Democratic Party, something that Senator McConnell made clear he will make it a central part of his campaign.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: My opponent is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her to be in this race. There's a reason, my friends, a reason, every Hollywood liberal is sending her a check.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (D), KENTUCKY SECRETARY OF STATE: Together, we will take this fight to Mitch McConnell and hold him accountable for his 30 years of failed leadership.


HARLOW: And in Idaho, CNN now projects Republican Congressman Mike Simpson has won his primary, one of many establishment candidates to turn aside Tea Party-backed candidates there. The House Appropriations Committee chair faced a pretty tough battle against lawyer Bryan Smith, and the primary there was billed as a critical test in the party's internal fight between conservative groups. As for the governor's race there, Governor Butch Otter appears to be on track to defeat state Senator Russ Fulcher, who ran as a more conservative candidate.

BERMAN: This fall, a Senate election in Oregon will pit incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkely against Republican Monica Wehby now that both have won their primaries. She is a pediatric neurosurgeon whose campaign was really rocked in recent days by revelations of harassment complaints from an ex-husband and a former boyfriend. She topped a conservative, more conservative opponent in that race.

HARLOW: And the Republican Senate primary Georgia heading for a run- off. We expected this. The two establishment candidates holding off the conservative-backed secretary of state in that state. CNN projects businessman David Perdue and Congressman Jack Kingston were the top two finishers in that race but did not get enough votes to break the 50 percent threshold. Secretary of state Karen Handel is set to finish third it looks like, despite her backing from Sarah Palin.

Whoever wins the run-off in July will face Michelle Nunn in the fall. She's a non-profit executive; also the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, and national Democrats call her their best chance for retaking that seat he once held.


MICHELLE NUNN (D-GA), CANDIDATE FOR U.S. SENATE: I believe that change is possible and we can do it. So, as I have been traveling across the state of Georgia, I have been highlighting what Washington can learn from Georgia. And you know what? I think that Washington is going to learn a thing or two from our campaign.



HARLOW: In the governor's race in Georgia, former President Jimmy Carter's grandson, Jason, will face incumbent Republican Nathan Deal in the fall. Jason Carter is currently a state senator there. BERMAN: Two former Congressmen are now set to face off in the race for the governership of Arkansas. Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson both handily won their primaries, as did incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, who will face Congressman Tom Cotton in the fall for the right to represent Arkansas in the Senate.

HARLOW: And in Pennsylvania, this one very closely watched because there were some big names were involved. Chelsea Clinton's mother-in- law has lost her bid to run for Congress. Former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies picked up only about a quarter of the vote in her suburban Philadelphia Democratic primary. That despite last minute campaigning by both Bill and Hillary Clinton. She was defeated by opponent Brendan Boyle for that seat in Pennsylvania's 13th congressional district.

And then, in the gubernatorial race there, CNN projects businessman Tom Wolf has won the Democratic primary after pumping millions of his own dollars into that race. He will face incumbent Republican governor Tom Corbett in the fall. And he is seen as vulnerable.

BERMAN: Oh my goodness, there is so much to talk about this morning. So many election results to pore over so let's bring in CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser. And, Paul, the word we keep saying over and over and over again is establishment. A big, big night for the establishment.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Yes, you remember that Star Wars movie, "The Empire Strikes Back"? Well, this year it's the establishment that strikes back. You saw it last night in that marquee race you mentioned in Kentucky. You saw it in Georgia in the Senate battle there on the Republican side. You saw it in Oregon in the Senate contest there. And in Idaho, you mentioned Mike Simpson in the House race. All these cases are where the establishment won over the Tea Party groups.

How did they do it? Well, they ran smart campaigns and, guess what? They got a lot of outside help in a bunch of those contests. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they spent $4 million to back the establishment candidates. We saw this already play out in primaries in Texas and North Carolina and we'll probably see it play out as we continue into the primary calendar.

What does it mean? Hey, you both know, remember in 2010 and 2012, Tea Party candidates won some big contests in the primaries. But come November, they lost to the Democrats. The Republicans argue they arguably lost five Senate seats because of that. This time, things seem to be different, and that can make the difference in November.

Remember, here is the lay of the land. The Democrats have a 55/45 majority in the U.S. Senate. But guess what? They are defending 21 of the 36 seats up for grabs in November. With the establishment set of candidates on the Republican side winning out so far in the primaries, it sure gives the Republicans better odds of recapturing the Senate in the midterms in November. Guys?

HARLOW: And let's talk about Kentucky. Because obviously a number of big races last night but everyone was focused on Kentucky. You've got Senator Mitch McConnell there winning I think a little more handily than people had expected. But now it's already all about November when he'll face off against his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. And a lot of people are talking about, Paul, the big elephant in the room there -- both of them addressing a key figure in their statement last night.

STEINHAUSER: Oh, they sure are. That key figure is the man who's not on the ballot in Kentucky, Barack Obama, the president. Listen, Mitch McConnell in this race is going to frame it all about the president and his agenda and Obamacare and he's going to try to tie Grimes to the president. We heard it in those speeches last night. Take a listen.


MCCONNELL: My opponent is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her to be in this race. A vote for my opponent is a vote for Obamacare and the president who sold it to us on a mountain of lies.

GRIMES: Mitch McConnell would have you believe that president Barack Obama is on Kentucky's 2014 election ballot. Well, let me set the record straight tonight for our senior senator who is out of touch with the Commonwealth of Kentucky. President Obama is not on Kentucky's 2014 election --


STEINHAUSER: Just a taste of things to come. And guess what? Starting this morning in Kentucky, one of those pro-McConnell super PACs, those outside groups, is going up with what they say is half a million dollars in ads attacking Grimes, tying her to the president. Guess what? This race could eventually end up being the most expensive Senate contest ever. The record, two (ph) years ago, was $82 million. This one could top it by November when it's all over.

BERMAN: Paul, it's a great time to be a political consultant right now, making campaign ads, right? It's going to be helping the economy big time right there.

HARLOW: Appreciate it, Paul. Thanks for coming in on little sleep. I know it was a late night for you.

BERMAN: We'll talk to you again because there's just so much more to discuss with these elections, but there is a lot of other news this morning at 9 minutes after the hour.

Including a new warning this morning about possible new terror threats against the United States. CNN has learned U.S. intelligence officials are seeing an uptick in the so-called threat stream that could point to al Qaeda planning operations inside the United States. Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has the very latest.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, John, a senior U.S. official tells m,e over the last six months, they have seen a series of al Qaeda-based threats suggesting the possibility of U.S. and Western targets overseas and U.S. targets even here at home. None of the threats have been validated. They don't think that there are operational al Qaeda cells here in the United States, but they are very concerned about what this may mean about the growing strength of al Qaeda.

One place they are looking is right back in Pakistan where al Qaeda began. They believe there are operatives there potentially planning attacks against U.S. and Western interests. They also believe in Syria. This is now a place where there are a growing number of Americans, perhaps 70 to 100 who have gone there to fight. And al Qaeda operatives in Syria have been aiming to try to get those people back into the United States or into Europe.

There is also the situation in Yemen. The U.S. embassy has been closed there for several weeks, and it looks like it's going to remain closed for several more days due to what officials are saying is an active threat stream. Poppy? John?

HARLOW: Thanks to Barbara Starr for that.

Meantime, happening today, Congress is set to discuss the threat of Boko Haram. They're going to hear from one of its victims, a 15-year- old girl named Deborah Peters. She will talk to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about what it was like for her to survive an attack by that terror group, the same one responsible for killing of thousands and abducting hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria.

This, a day after suspected terrorists blasted a city in Nigeria leaving at least 118 people dead. That was in the Nigerian city of Jos.

Vladimir Duthiers is live for us in Aboja, Nigeria. First, tell us what we know about these explosions. I'm wondering if anyone claimed responsibility. Some were thinking that this was being attributed to Boko Haram. But, at this point, do we know?

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Morning, Poppy. No. No one has claimed responsibility for this latest attack. But this is the state that Nigerians in the northeastern part of the country, and now it appears in central Nigeria, are living under. Almost weekly, Poppy, we report on bombings that happen across the northeastern part of the country. And now, even here in the capital of Abjoa. Just last month, there were two separate bombing attacks that left over 75 killed and dozens more injured.

This is a sad reality. And what I think is happening is, as international spotlight is focused on Nigeria, a lot of people are taking a look and saying, "What is going on in this country?" This is a country that has rebased (ph) its economy to become the largest in Africa. They want to be on the U.N. Security Council. They want to be taken seriously as a major player not just in the continent but around the world. But people are asking,what is happening that there are weekly attacks that have left, just this year alone, Poppy, more than 1,500 people have been killed in Boko Haram-related violence. Poppy? HARLOW: It's such a good point. I mean, the World Economic Forum just held a big meeting there within the last few weeks. Their economy has been really a leader for Africa, as you say, but then they are battling this.

I know, in terms of the hunt for the girls, it is still going on. And I was just looking at some of the numbers, and they said -- the Nigerian government saying that they have 20,000 troops. They also have planes in the air looking for more than 200 missing schoolgirls. Have they found anything yet? Any signs, any progress?

DUTHIERS: Absolutely none. They say, as you report, that there are 20,000 Nigerian soldiers actively engaged in this search. They also say that now, based off of this meeting they had in Paris, that one battalion from the neighboring countries, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Benin, will be put on the borders to try and beef up the search for these girls.

But the president, Goodluck Jonathan, here has also admitted they have absolutely no idea where these girls are. And U.S. intelligence reports suggest, Poppy, that several of these girls may have been split up into -- and sent and trafficked into those neighboring countries.

So a real tough search. And the parents that we've spoken to on the ground, they say they haven't seen any kind military or police presence suggesting that there's an active search is going on. Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes, unbelievably frustrating and heartbreaking for them. Appreciate the update this morning, Vlad. Thank you.

BERMAN: 13 minutes after the hour right now. The Obama administration has now agreed to release a secret memo outlining its legal rationale for killing U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism overseas. Last year, the White House acknowledged the killings of four Americans in drone strikes since 2009. Critics have called for the memos release ever since. Meanwhile, a Senate vote is expected concerning one of the memo's authors nominated to a federal appeals court by President Obama. That is really the reason this memo is getting released.

HARLOW: Also today, a top White House aide assigned to look into the Veterans Affairs scandal is headed to Phoenix. That is where dozens of veterans may have died waiting for care. The facility there is accused of doctoring records to conceal deadly, long wait periods. This week, the White House -- the House, rather, will vote on legislation to try to do something about this.


REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: We also are going to be bringing up a bill this week having to do with the mess at the Veterans Administration and to try and provide the tools to the administration to hold senior managers accountable. I mean, the American people are frustrated, especially when those who served our country in uniform have been treated the way they have. And, God forbid, who have perished because of the mess at the V.A.


HARLOW: Well, that mess is only growing. Officials do confirm to CNN that 26 medical facilities are now under investigation.

BERMAN: A warning from General Motors -- don't put passengers in front of your 2015 Cadillac Escalade, at least until it can be repaired to fix a problem with the passenger side air bag. The auto giant is recalling another 2.4 million cars, including those Escalades, for a variety of problems. All told, GM has now recalled more than 13 million vehicles in the U.S. this year. You've been covering this.

HARLOW: Yes, it's a very big story. And this is a company that has been fined and has a criminal investigation now because they didn't tell people about a deadly defect for a decade. So now, they are getting far, far out in front.

BERMAN: Yes, they're recalling like everything.

HARLOW: A lot, a lot. And they also told us yesterday, there are two more recalls ahead. We don't know how big yet but expect that news to come as well.

Meantime, quick check of the markets this morning. Stocks just opening in London slightly higher. Stocks in Germany turning higher as well this morning. One stock you're going to want to watch today -- Target. This company still recovering from that massive data hack last year. It affected up to 110 million customers. Their profit plummeted 46 percent last quarter after that breach. Same store sales fell 2.5 percent. So far this year, Target has fired its CEO, Gregg Steinhafel. He walked out with a nearly $60 million severance deal as well as they've also let go the head of their Canada stores. Canada was their first attempt to go international. It's been a massive challenge. They have lost almost $1 billion in the last year in Canada.

We talked to Target's interim CEO this month. Take a listen.


JOHN MULLIGAN, INTERIM CEO, TARGET: We've seen our guests indicate that they're ready to move on. They want to get back to the relationship they had with Target prior to the breach.


HARLOW: All right, so we'll find out if he's right, if people are spending their money again at Target and trusting the stores. Those numbers come out a little later this morning.

BERMAN: My question, what's Canada's problem with Target?

HARLOW: I don't know. I'm from Minnesota, as you know --

BERMAN: That's like practically Canada. That's the Canadian part of the United States.

HARLOW: Right, I have spent my life going to Target. I don't know what's going on in Canada.

BERMAN: We have a lot of viewers in Canada. If you live in Canada and can explain to me what's wrong with Target there, please e-mail us or tweet us @EarlyStart.

HARLOW: I'm sure that Target wants that answer too.

BERMAN: Yes, send it to Target too.

HARLOW: All right, happening now, on a much more serious note, chaos in Thailand. The military taking over the country there following months of deadly protests. We're going to take you live to Bangkok with exactly what's happening on day two of martial law.


HARLOW: A tense standoff this morning in Thailand where the military is in the streets maintaining martial law. Its leader say this isn't a coup and the government is in charge, but the army seems to be expanding its power, threatening protesters and even censoring the media.

Paula Hancocks is live outside a pro-government camp in Bangkok this morning. What's the situation on the ground there right now?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, there is a small military presence on the streets of Bangkok, but I have to specify that it is very small at this point. The people that you can see behind me, a number of soldiers, a couple of trucks, it's a small contingency and it's pretty much the largest element of military presence that we have seen driving around the capital.

So even though this is day two of martial law, we are not seeing tanks driving down the streets as we have seen in previous years in Thailand. It's certainly what the army chief has been saying so far -- it's not a coup, he said. It's business as normal. And it would appear as thought that is the case.

Now, what we are seeing today is that the leaders of the different political groups that are very diversely opposed, very politically opposed, they are finally meeting in the same room. The two leaders of the two main protest groups are sitting down together. You have to say that that is progress but of course it's very difficult to see how they will be able to agree on a political solution here.

So what the military is doing, at this point in the country, is really taking the lead and the role of a mediator. But, of course, it is a very daunting task, the fact that these two sides are completely opposed to each other. The pro-government, who believe that their government is democratically elected and should stay in power, and the anti-government, who want a new government in place but don't want to go through elections because they say there's too much corruption. So it's very difficult to see how the military will actually manage to make both sides agree. But, at this point, it appears as though this martial law is certainly very low-key. Poppy?

HARLOW: And this coming after the country's Prime Minister was removed from office May 7. You wonder what the long-term game plan here is going to be. Appreciate the update. Thank you, Paula.

BERMAN: 22 minutes after the hour for us. Happening right now, dangerous storms moving across the country. Millions of people in their path. We're breaking down who needs to be on alert this morning right after the break.


HARLOW: Some pretty ominous photos to show you from Denver this morning, those clouds rolling into the city late in the afternoon yesterday, bringing with them very severe thunderstorms, hail, very strong winds. Some of the hail, baseball sized, but no serious damage was reported there.

BERMAN: Yes, what's in store for today? Chad Myers had a look at that.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, John and Poppy. Pretty decent day today across a lot of the country. Damper today in the northeast than we had yesterday. Severe storms, a lot like a couple that we had yesterday evening and overnight, still moving through the Ohio Valley. And then the chance of something popping up around maybe Denver or Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the high plains, those low precipitation. You saw those pictures of that big storm spinning around all by itself, that type of weather out there in the high plains. Not a lot of humidity and not a lot of rainfall but some pretty impressive clouds and maybe even a tornado or two. We'll watch that.

75 Denver today, 88 in Dallas. 87 in Houston. The rain moves really into your area for tomorrow. Very heavy rainfall for Boston, back into Philadelphia, D.C., and for New York City by the afternoon and the severe showers and thunderstorms back out toward the southwestern part of the country.

Highs for tomorrow, not a lot of change compared to today. Just maybe a little bit damper for you in the northeast so not quite as warm, not as many hours in the lack of rainfall. 68 in New York City. 81 in D.C. 88 in Atlanta, and a hot one across the southeast. Back to you guys.

BERMAN: Hot one here this morning. All right, our thanks to Chad Myers for that. We have some breaking news overnight. The Republicans beating back Tea Party challengers in primaries across the country. It's shaping a November general election that could mean trouble for Democrats. We will break down all the late breaking developing election news right after the break.