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Why the GOP Should Be Worried About Last Night’s 2016 Debate

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Tom Brokaw: The country needs to 'take a hard look' at how we elect a president 3:09

Why the GOP should be worried about last night's debate

LAS VEGAS -- For Republicans Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell -- who are looking to hold on to their congressional majorities in November as Donald Trump sinks in the polls -- the first 15 to 20 minutes of last night's presidential debate couldn't have gone any better. Donald Trump, unlike in his first two debates, played the part of a generic GOP presidential candidate, talking up his support for gun rights and his opposition to abortion. But the debate went off the rails for the GOP when Trump refused to say that he would accept the election results. "I'll look at it at the time," Trump said, adding: "What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense." Down the ballot, Trump's statement could potentially hurt Republicans for two reasons. One, it's going to force fellow Republicans to respond to Trump -- and break with him -- on this issue, exposing yet another fissure inside the GOP. (See our list below.) Remember, a party's that divided never helps up and down the ticket. And two, all of this talk about a "rigged" election could depress Republican turnout, which isn't a good thing for vulnerable House and Senate GOP candidates.

GOP reaction (so far) to Trump's refusal to accept election resultsIt's worth pondering: How would have last night's debate played WITHOUT Trump's comment about the election results? After all, it was one of his better debates, though Clinton still got the best of him in many exchanges. But here is the GOP reaction so far to Trump's statement about accepting the election results:

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham: "Mr. Trump is doing the party and country a great disservice by continuing to suggest the outcome of this election is out of hands and 'rigged' against him. If he loses, it will not be because the system is 'rigged' but because he failed as a candidate."

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo (who's running in a competitive House race): "Peaceful transfer of power & acceptance of election results is fundamental to our democracy & Constitution. This cannot be undermined ever."

  • VP nominee Mike Pence to NBC's Hallie Jackson: "I know he'll absolutely accept the outcome of this election... If the vote is fair, I'm confident that we'll accept it."

  • RNC Chair Reince Priebus to Jackson: "I think he's gonna accept the results because he's gonna win."

Two key voices we're all waiting for this morning -- Ryan and McConnell. How Trump handles criticism here (from both Republicans and Democrats) will set the tone for the rest of the week and maybe even the rest of the campaign.

Fact-checking last night's debate

Here are some of the key claims we heard last night, and the truth behind them:

  • "There's no quote. You're not going to find a quote from me" -- Trump on whether he ever advocated countries like Japan, South Korea, or Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons. In fact, here' what Trump told the moderator of last night's debate in an earlier interview: "So North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea." When Fox News' Chris Wallace clarified "with nukes?" Trump responded, "Maybe they would be better off -- including with nukes, yes, including with nukes." (Fox News Sunday, April 3, 2016)

  • "She has no idea whether it's Russia, China, or anybody else... And our country has no idea" -- Trump on whether Russia is behind the email hacks. In fact, the U.S. intelligence community pointed the finger directly at Russia earlier this month. Also, NBC News has reported that Trump has been told about Russia's involvement during his national security briefings.

  • "I also will not add a penny to the debt" -- Clinton on saying that her spending proposals are paid for. But that's an exaggeration, as the Washington Post has reported. "Under Clinton's policies, the national debt held by the public would increase from roughly $14 trillion today to more than $23 trillion in a decade, according to an analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. That's an increase of $9 trillion."

Don't miss Jane Timm's exhaustive fact-check of last night.

Early in-person voting begins in North Carolina

The key battleground state of North Carolina (which also features an extremely competitive gubernatorial race and Senate contest) begins its early in-person voting today. And Tim Kaine holds two events in the Tar Heel State to coincide with this. Here's our calendar for the states holding early in-person or no-excuse absentee voting:

  • Sept. 23: Idaho (thru 11/4), Minnesota (thru 11/7), South Dakota (thru 11/7), Vermont (thru 11/7), and Wyoming (thru 11/7)

  • Sept. 24: New Jersey (thru 11/7)

  • Sept. 29: Illinois (thru 11/7), Iowa (thru 11/8)

  • Oct. 9: Maine (thru 11/3)

  • Oct. 10: California (thru 11/8), Nebraska (thru 11/7)

  • Oct. 11: Montana (thru 11/7), New Mexico (thru 11/5)

  • Oct. 12: Arizona (thru 11/4), Indiana (thru 11/7), Ohio (thru 11/7)

  • Oct. 17: Georgia (thru 11/4)

  • Oct. 19: Kansas (thru 11/7), Tennessee (thru 11/3)

  • Oct. 20: North Carolina (thru 11/5)

  • Oct. 22: Nevada (thru 11/4). DC (thru 11/5)

  • Oct. 24: Alaska (thru 11/8), Arkansas (thru 11/7), Colorado (thru 11/8 mail), Massachusetts (thru 11/4), Texas (thru 11/4), Wisconsin (thru 11/4)

  • Oct. 25: Hawaii (thru 11/5), Louisiana (thru 11/1)

  • Oct. 26: Utah (thru 11/4), West Virginia (thru 11/5)

  • Oct. 27: Maryland (thru 11/3)

  • Oct. 29: Florida (thru 11/7)

  • Nov. 3: Oklahoma (thru 11/5)

Battleground ad spending

Team Clinton $197 million, Team Trump $74 million: Earlier this week, we noted how Team Clinton (campaign + outside groups) has spent more than 70% of the total money spent on TV and radio ads in the 2016 presidential race - Team Clinton $227 million, Team Trump $83 million. Well, here is the battleground state breakdown:

Top 10 advertising markets

In our regular look at the Top 10 advertising markets in the 2016 presidential race, Florida again grabs the top two spots, as well as #9.

  • 1. Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, FL: $26,868,457
  • 2. Tampa-St Petersburg-Sarasota, FL: $22,297,526
  • 3. Cleveland-Akron, OH: $16,603,330
  • 4. Las Vegas, NV: $16,253,382
  • 5. Charlotte, NC: $13,779,752
  • 6. Philadelphia, PA: $13,325,197
  • 7. Columbus, OH: $11,327,641
  • 8. Boston, MA: $10,799,583
  • 9. West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce, FL: $9,700,349
  • 10. Denver, CO: $8,785,047

First Read's downballot race of the day: Pennsylvania Senate

This Senate race pits a Republican elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave against a Democrat with a solid resume but sometimes underwhelming political skills. Incumbent Republican Pat Toomey, whom Democrats have worked to portray as too conservative for this light blue state, has dealt with the Trump phenomenon by refusing to endorse or completely disavow the GOP nominee. Democratic candidate Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, had to battle through a Democratic primary, and she hasn't always connected well with voters on the stump. It's looking like an exceptionally close right now.

On the trail

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump speak at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner in New York City… Before that, Trump holds a rally in Delaware, OH at 12:30 pm ET… President Obama campaigns for Clinton in Miami at 1:00 pm ET… Vice President Joe Biden is in New Hampshire… Tim Kaine is in North Carolina as early voting begins in the state… And Mike Pence stumps in Nevada and New Mexico.

Countdown to Election Day: 19 days