Chris McDaniel to run for Mississippi Senate seat vacated by Cochran

Conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel announced Wednesday he will run for the Senate seat being vacated by Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, abandoning his primary challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker.

"By announcing early, we are asking Mississippi Republicans to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats' chances of winning the open seat," McDaniel said in a statement. "If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him."

The move means Wicker will avoid what was already turning out to be a nasty GOP primary battle with McDaniel, and McDaniel will have the chance to compete either for an open seat or against whoever Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant chooses to fill the remainder of Cochran's term. 

McDaniel is an outspoken critic of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is pushing for Bryant to appoint someone who will have a good chance of defeating McDaniel. 

Cochran will step down April 1.  

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New poll alert!

Fresh numbers from our NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll give new insights into gender roles and inequality in the workplace. The results are a mixed bag for working women, who have increasingly become their family's primary earners but continue to face gender discrimination at levels nearly identical to 20 years ago. Read the full story here.  

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Help Wanted: Star in a political ad

In the world of political advertising, what's one way to find out what your opponent is up to?

Search the classified pages.

On March 14, the Koch-backed public relations group, In Pursuit Of, placed an ad on an acting jobs website looking for a Caucasian actress age 50 to 60, white with red hair, light completxon and light eyes, according to a screen shot of the listing sent to NBC News by a source. The actress needed to be comfortable with a political ad about "tax reform and how a politician turned their back on voters." The listing says the actor's face will not be shown.

Less than one week later, another Koch-backed group, Americans for Prosperity, released an advertisement attacking North Dakota Democrat, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, for her vote against the tax bill. Heitkamp is running for her second term in a red state that President Donald Trump won in 2016.

In the ad, a Heitkamp body double, whose face was never fully shown, walked through the halls of the Russell Senate office building. "When Heidi had the chance to help us with real tax cuts, she turned her back, voted 'no,’” the narrator said. 

Advertising for actors for political ads is not an anomaly. And neither is a campaign staffer scouring the classifieds for potential clues about what political ads might be coming down the pipeline. 

The same job listing also is looking for a 50 to 60 year-old white man with a slender body type around six feet tall with “peppered hair, a strong jawline, darker skin tone” for a similar ad. Perhaps it's for an upcoming ad for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia? Or maybe Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey? Maybe even Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Bets are on Manchin. He has the toughest race of the three. 

Carrie Dann

DCCC adds to 'red-to-blue' candidate list

The campaign arm of House Democrats has added nine more candidates to its "red-to-blue" program, which aims to support top candidates running in districts currently held by Republicans.

The DCCC's updated list includes Randy Bryce, the ironworker who's hoping to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as a handful of candidates who led the pack in recent primaries in Illinois and Texas. 

But there's one notable omission in the latter category. While the DCCC is boosting two candidates who still face runoffs against fellow Democrats in Texas — Gina Ortiz-Jones and Colin Allred — they did not weigh in on the contentious primary runoff brewing between Laura Moser and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in the highly competitive TX-7 race to take on Republican John Culberson. 

The DCCC had actively tried and failed to keep Moser, who was quoted in a 2014 magazine piece disparaging a Texas city, from making the runoff.

Here's the full list of the new red-to-blue program candidates. 

  • TJ Cox (CA-21)
  • Nancy Soderberg (FL-06)
  • Betsy Londrigan (IL-13)
  • Lauren Underwood (IL-14)
  • Gretchen Driskell (MI-07)
  • Aftab Pureval (OH-01)
  • Gina Ortiz-Jones (TX-23)
  • Colin Allred (TX-32)
  • Randy Bryce (WI-01)
Chuck Todd

GOP splits with rest of public on Planned Parenthood

In a new TV ad, Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., who is running for governor this year, blasts Planned Parenthood.

"Why should we be giving taxpayer dollars to an organization that is breaking the law?" she says in the ad.

But as our recent NBC/WSJ poll found, Planned Parenthood is one of the most popular institutions or figures the poll measured, with 52 percent of Americans viewing it positively, versus 25 percent who view it negatively (+27).

Yet among Republicans, Planned Parenthood has a 26 percent positive, 52 percent negative rating (-26). That's compared with 73 percent positive, 6 percent negative among Democrats (+67), and 54 percent positive, 20 percent negative among independents (+34). 

Even in the South – where Black is running for governor – Planned Parenthood has a 53 percent positive, 31 percent negative rating (+22). 

So attacking Planned Parenthood remains smart politics in a GOP primary — but not as much in a general election.  

Mark Murray

Firm: Illinois race was the most expensive non-presidential primary in history

The whopping $66 million spent on ads in the Democratic and Republican primaries for Illinois governor made it the most expensive non-presidential primary of all time, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. 

And because of the winners last night — incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner (who spent more than $16 million over the airwaves) and Democrat J.B. Pritzker (who spent more than $33 million on ads) — the general election is likely destined to be the most expensive gubernatorial contest in history.

Advertising Analytics projects total spending could exceed $150 million. 

The previous most expensive non-presidential primary of all time was the 2016 New Hampshire Senate primary, Advertising Analytics says.

Andrew Rafferty

Mississippi Senate appointment threatens to complicate already messy campaign

Mississippi agriculture commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith's appointment Wednesday to fill the state's soon-to-be vacant Senate seat threatens to complicate an already messy political environment in the Magnolia State.

Gov. Phil Bryant's choice, who will be the first female to represent Mississippi in Washington, to fill outgoing Sen. Thad Cochran's seat reportedly has members of the GOP-establishment worried.

Hyde-Smith was a Democrat in deep-red Mississippi until 2010, and is expected to run for a special election in November to fill the remainder of Cochran’s term. She already has one prominent GOP primary opponent in conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, who originally announced he would mount a primary challenge to the state’s other Republican senator, Roger Wicker, before switching to run for the vacated seat.

Republicans in Washington, including adviser's to President Trump, still reeling from from Democrat Doug Jones' win in next-door Alabama, privately warned Bryant about the potential headaches Hyde-Smith could cause in the primary. Bryant remained clear that those in Washington would have no say in his appointment. 

Carrie Dann

We now know who'll take on Peter Roskam in IL-6

Earlier this morning, we still didn't know  which of the seven Democrats running in the Illinois 6th congressional district primary would take on vulnerable Republican Peter Roskam in the fall.

Now, the AP has called the primary contest for environmental entrepreneur and scientist Sean Casten. 

Casten narrowly defeated local elected official and breast cancer survivor Kelly Mazeski by about 850 votes after counting was completed in DuPage County, where a technical problem delayed vote tabulation last night.

Mazeski had benefitted from the backing of Emily's List and had gotten national headlines when she declared her run on the day that House Republicans, including Roskam, voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. 

The race is sure to be hotly contested in the general election. Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016 by seven percentage points, and the Cook Political Report rates it as a tossup. 

Here's a look at one of Casten's TV ads during the primary. 

Carrie Dann

A closer look at the drop in the NRA's positive rating

In this morning's First Read, we wrote that the NRA's positive rating has dropped significantly since last year. According to our NBC/WSJ poll, more Americans now have a negative view of the pro-gun organization than a positive one for the first time since before 2000. 

The NRA has notably lost ground among key groups, including white married women and urban dwellers. But it's also seen a dip in popularity among seniors, more moderate Republicans and Americans who live in the western United States.

Here's a closer look at how the NRA's positive rating has fallen since last year. 

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Koch-backed group launches ad attacking Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

Americans for Prosperity, the political group backed by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, has launched its an ad attacking North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp for her vote against tax reform.

The $450,000 ad buy is the latest in a multi-million dollar effort against Democrats running for re-election in states that President Donald Trump won in 2016. 

The narrator in the ad says, "When Heidi had the chance to help us with real tax cuts, she turned her back - voted 'no."

The ad comes on the heels of $8 million worth of advertisements in Indiana and Missouri and is part of the $400 million the Koch network announced they'd spend on politics and policy tin 2018. 

A spokeswoman for Heitkamp's campaign, Julia Krieger, fired back on the ad, saying, "it's unfortunate when campaigns are reduced to flat-out lies from out-of-state billionaires. But North Dakotans know the truth about Heidi: She would never vote for a bill that could jeopardize Social Security and Medicare, or sacrifice the permanent tax cuts working North Dakotans deserve." 

Bipartisan Senate panel sends urgent warning to elections officials

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee made an urgent, bipartisan call for state and federal officials to address vulnerabilities in elections systems that were exposed during the 2016 presidential contest, warning that Russia has not given up in its goal of sowing doubt among voters about the integrity of the ballot box. 

In contrast with a bitterly divided House Intelligence Committee investigation, Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., stood with both Democrats and Republicans on the panel to announce the first phase of findings in their year-long probe, which is ongoing. 

Among the panel’s recommendations: 

  • The U.S. should send a clear message to adversaries about attacks on elections infrastructure.
  • Establishing new international cyber norms with U.S. allies as part of an effort to deter threats.
  • Improving communication between federal officials and the state and local governments that run elections, and establishing a common set “of precise and well-defined election security terms” to help address potential problems.
  • Calling for states to “rapidly replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems” — stressing the need for an auditable ballot trail with an emphasis on use of paper ballots. 

Related: Russians penetrated U.S. voter systems, top U.S. official says

Each of the lawmakers who spoke at a Senate news conference agreed with the conclusion that Russia sought to take advantage of vulnerabilities in U.S. voting systems in 2016. Burr said that 21 states were targeted, with one state election database successfully accessed, but that there was no evidence a single vote was changed. 

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the panel, said members of both parties were disappointed that state and federal officials were “not more on their game” in advance of the 2016 elections, reflecting disappointment even among Democrats in the response of the Obama administration to the Russian threat.  “In the ensuing months, DHS has picked up game, but there's more to do,” he said.