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Here are the top 10 most expensive midterm races so far

Earlier this morning, we looked at the ad spending in the top Senate battlegrounds across the country.

But what is the most expensive race of 2018 so far? Try the gubernatorial contest in Illinois between wealthy Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and wealthy Democratic opponent J.B. Pritzker, where a whopping $66 million has already been spent on TV and radio ads, per Advertising Analytics. 

Here are the most expensive contests of 2018 in terms of ad spending through May 13: 

  1. Illinois Governor: $66.3 million
  2. Indiana Senate: $16.0 million
  3. Florida Governor: $15.2 million
  4. Wisconsin Senate: $14.2 million
  5. Ohio Governor: $12.9 million
  6. PA-18 race: $11.9 million
  7. Georgia Governor: $10.5 million
  8. West Virginia Senate: $9.6 million
  9. Florida Senate: $8.9 million
  10. Pennsylvania Governor: $8.9 million 

SOURCE: Advertising Analytics

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Ben Kamisar

As Gabbard eyes the White House, she gets a challenge back home

Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard already has her work cut out for her as she tries to wade through the crowded presidential primary field. 

But the congresswoman may have to face another challenge back home if she decides to run for reelection as well—a primary bid for her congressional seat. 

State Sen. Kai Kahele announced his primary bid over the weekend, evoking civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.'s calls to help others, as well as lessons imparted on him by his father, the late former state Sen. Gil Kahele. 

Hawaii law allows Gabbard to run for both the presidency and reelection at the same time. But Gabbard hasn't explicitly committed to running for reelection, briefly addressing the possibility during CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. 

"We will cross that bridge when we get there," she said when asked if she'd seek reelection if she doesn't win the primary. 

"I haven't heard from Sen. Kahele. But whatever he decides to do, I wish him well."

The primary obviously will not be an issue if Gabbard wins the presidential primary. But if not, her bid could have mixed effects on her reelection chances. 

Her increased national profile could help her convince Hawaiians she'd be a powerful steward for them in Washington while also increasing her fundraising base. But national ambitions always open up a politician from attacks that they're leaving their constituents behind, a dynamic Kahele alluded to in an interview with Hawaii News Now. 

“This is not about Tulsi versus Kai. I respect Tulsi and she’s made her decision to run for president. But Hawaii’s challenges don’t stop and we need somebody to represent the district in Washington D.C. if she is successful," he said. 

"I'm looking forward to debating anyone that is on the ballot for the Second Congressional District in the 2020 election. And if it's Tulsi, I'm looking forward to debating and talking about the issues that we face her in Hawaii." 

Hawaii's primary isn't until August 8, giving Gabbard significant time to pivot back to a reelection race if she's not successful during the presidential primary. 

 

Ben Kamisar

Bernie Sanders: President Trump is a 'racist'

Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders blasted President Trump as a "racist" during an event commentating Martin Luther King Jr. Day in South Carolina. 

The possible presidential candidate candidate pivoted from a discussion about the holiday to his feelings on Trump. 

"Today we talked about justice and today we talked about racism. And I must tell you it gives me no pleasure to tell you that we now have a President of the United States who is a racist," Sanders said. 

"We have a president intentionally, purposefully trying to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion."

Sanders went on to argue that it's "remarkable" that America is still fighting for equality more than 50 years after Civil Rights movement, and framed Trump's presidency as a step in the wrong direction. 

"We say to President Trump today: this country has suffered too long from discrimination. We are not going backwards, we are going forwards to a non-discriminatory society," he said. 

Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel criticized Sanders in a response over Twitter. 

"Absolutely disgusting and wrong. [Trump] has brought African American and Hispanic unemployment to record lows, passed historic criminal justice reform. Even worse that Bernie is using MLK Day to make an incendiary comment like that," she said. 

Ben Kamisar

Giuliani in new statement: Any comments about Trump Tower Moscow timeline 'hypothetical'

In a statement to NBC News Monday, President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said he was being “hypothetical” when he said a day earlier that the president had discussions about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow as late as November, 2016.

“My recent statements about discussions during the 2016 campaign between Michael Cohen and then-candidate Donald Trump about a potential Trump Moscow ‘project’ were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the President," Giuliani said in a statement to NBC News. 

"My comments did not represent the actual timing or circumstances of any such discussions. The point is that the proposal was in the earliest stage and did not advance beyond a free non-binding letter of intent.”

During a Sunday interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Giuliani said that President Trump wrote in response to questions from special counsel Robert Mueller that he remembers having conversations about the project well into 2016.

When pressed on how late in 2016 the Trump Organization had designs on building the project in Moscow, Giuliani said he couldn't be sure. But kept the door open to the prospect of negotiations up Election Day.

"Probably could be up to as far as October, November — our answers cover until the election," he said.

"So anytime during that period they could've talked about it. But the president's recollection of it is that the thing had petered out quite a bit.”

Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer who helped to spearhead the Russia negotiations, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the timing of the project. He initially told Congress the project was scuttled in January of 2016, but admitted to working on it as late as June. 

Mark Murray

Kamala Harris: 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses in presidential bid

With Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announcing her presidential bid on Monday, she has three strengths and three weaknesses in the emerging and growing 2020 race for the Democratic nomination.

Strength #1: As an African American (and Indian American), Harris has the potential to replicate the path that helped Barack Obama win the 2008 Democratic race: Win – or overperform – in Iowa, use that as a springboard to win the African-American-dominated South Carolina primary, and then run up the score in the early primaries in the South.

Strength #2: With California moving up its primary to March, Harris has the ability to rack up a significant number of delegates in her home state. The South + California strategy could be a potent combination in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Strength #3: While not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Harris has solid progressive credentials – she supports Medicare For All, said in 2017 that she wasn't going to vote to keep the government open unless Congress protected the DACA recipients, and was on the front lines opposing Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination. Bottom line: No one would mistake her as a centrist.

Weakness #1: Where progressives have taken aim, however, is Harris's record as a prosecutor in California. "Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state's attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent," law professor Lara Bazelon recently wrote in the New York Times.

Weakness #2: When Harris was on the statewide ballot in California in 2010, she underperformed former Gov. Jerry Brown (who won his race by 13 points) and former Sen. Barbara Boxer (10 points) by winning by less than a percentage point, 46.1 percent to 45.3 percent. But in 2016, Harris beat fellow Dem Loretta Sanchez by 20-plus points in the state's Top 2 race for Senate.

Weakness #3: As a progressive Democrat from California, Harris might *not* have the ability to have an appeal to independent and swing voters as potential 2020 Dems from other states might (Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar and Texas' Beto O'Rourke).

Biden: "I haven't always been right" on criminal justice

Former Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged Monday that his record on criminal justice issues hasn’t always been perfect, addressing, albeit briefly, a key aspect of his long career in public office that could be a liability if he runs for president.

“You know I’ve been in this fight for a long time,” Biden said in remarks to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Washington. “I haven’t always been right, I know we haven’t always done things the right way. But I’ve always tried.”

Biden made no mention of the 1994 crime bill he authored, a law that's sparked criticism from progressive activists for its strict sentencing requirements. Biden had long touted his work on the issue, even recently as vice president since the legislation included gun control measures that have since expired.

Both Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised King’s legacy at the breakfast as the two potential hopefuls zeroed in on a critical voting constituency in the Democratic nominating contest – African Americans.

Bloomberg reminded the audience he spent heavily already to help elect Democrats in Congress and across the country in 2018, and focused his remarks on two issues that have been a focus of his three terms as mayor and more recently his philanthropic life: education and gun violence.

“Dr. King would have been the first to say we still aren’t moving fast enough,” Bloomberg said. “In fact I think if he had seen the little progress we’ve made in giving all minority children a sufficient education to succeed over the past four years he would be shocked at how little has changed.”

Bloomberg, who spoke first, teased one Biden about their looming decisions, saying that while he hadn’t had time to speak yet with him, he looked forward to getting some tips from him about living in the nation’s capital.  

“Whatever the next year brings for Joe and me, I know we’ll both keep our eyes on the real prize and that is electing a Democrat to the White House in 2020 and getting our country back on track,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg left before Biden addressed the audience. The former vice president did not name Trump but blasted him for helping provoke a resurgence in racism in the country.

“We’ve learned in the last two years it doesn’t take much to waken hate, to bring those folks out from under the rocks,” he said. “They have been deliberately reawakened again … Something I thought I would never live to see again, having a president of the United States make a moral equivalence between those who are spreading the hate and those who are opposing it.”

In their own ways, Biden and Bloomberg candidacies would be game-changers in the nascent Democratic contest, which took on new shape Monday with the official entrance by California Sen. Kamala Harris.

In Biden, the field would add a candidate with perhaps the deepest political resume and highest name identification in the party. The entrance of a two-term vice president and seven-term senator could crowd out some of the more than dozen other lesser-known contenders considering the race.

Bloomberg would bring a willingness to spend heavily from his personal fortune to try and win the nomination, as some other leading contenders are pressuring the field to focus on small-dollar donations from grassroots supporters. A former Republican and independent, Bloomberg would be running to the right of others at a time the Democratic Party is seen as tracking further left.

Neither man appears ready to join the field imminently. Biden has said he would spend the holidays discussing the race with his family with the goal of reaching a final decision in January. He has been privately meeting with top Democrats and allies as his team continues to lay the groundwork for a campaign, even as they know the operation may never launch.

Ben Kamisar

Kamala Harris dives into presidential race

California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris made her presidential bid official Monday morning, announcing her intention to run during an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Alongside the interview, her campaign rolled out her slogan "Kamala Harris For the People," a nod to her time as a prosecutor. And her press secretary tweeted that her campaign raised money from donors in all 50 states in the first 30 minutes after she announced. 

Harris is the seventh candidate to either file paperwork or announce presidential bids, with more likely on the way. 

Read more from NBC News' Lauren Egan and Benjy Sarlin about Harris' announcement here

Ben Kamisar

Rep. Cheney: Steve King's comments were 'racist'

Wyoming Congresswoman Elizabeth Cheney, one of the top members of House Republican leadership, blasted Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King's recent comments as "abhorrent" and "racist" as she brushed aside King's attacks on her. 

Republicans in Congress united around condemning him after a New York Times article quoted him saying "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization— how did that language become offensive?" before adding "Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization." 

Cheney and House Republican leadership quickly rushed to condemn King for his comments, a fact that prompted King to strike back at Cheney during a Tuesday appearance on "The Ed Martin Movement" radio show. On the show, King said that Cheney's criticism of her should strip her of her conservative credentials. 

When asked about that statement, Cheney reiterated her criticism. 

"I think I was pretty clear, and our entire House leadership was very clear last week. His comments were abhorrent. They were racist. We, under the guidance of Leader McCarthy, stripped him of his committee assignments. And I think there's simply no place for that language in any of our national discourse," she said. 

While she wouldn't answer whether the House will formally censure King, she said "I think he ought to go find another line of work." 

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Beto hits the big screen

The "Beto-mania" that captured Democrats during Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke's failed Senate bid last cycle may have died down a bit from its fever pitch, but a new documentary seeks to bring it to the big screen. 

Here's the latest on that effort, as well as another update from the trail: 

  • "Running with Beto," the new documentary about O'Rourke's bid against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz will debut at the annual South by Southwest film festival in Austin. A promotional piece for the documentary says the filmmakers "embedded with Beto for the final twelve months of his campaign," so the film could spark yet another round of headlines about O'Rourke when it debuts in March, around the time he will decide on a presidential bid. 
  • Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader and MSNBC host, is holding an event on Monday to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be attended by a slew of prominent New York politicians, including Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who recently announced she's running for president. 
  • California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris announced Thursday that she's voting against President Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr. "While I respect Mr. Barr’s past public service, I do not believe he will defend independent investigations from attacks, embrace a smart on crime approach to public safety, and  ensure equal protection under the law for every single American," she said in a statement.
Ben Kamisar

Gabbard in new video: 'I’m deeply sorry' about past LGBT comments

Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a newly-minted presidential candidate, is apologizing for her past statements about LGBT rights as she seeks to tamp down criticism from within her own party after those statements surfaced last week. 

In a new Twitter video released Thursday, Gabbard stands in front of a snowy backdrop and directly addresses the backlash. 

"In my past, I said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, hurtful to people in the LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones. I’m deeply sorry for having said and believed them," she says.

"My views have changed significantly since then, and my record in Congress over the last 6 years reflects what is in my heart: A strong and ongoing commitment  to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights."

Gabbard goes on to say that she was "raised to believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman" by a father who was "an activist who was fighting against gay marriage equality in Hawaii," who she wanted to defend. But she adds that she eventually changed her views as she got older. 

Her past opposition to same-sex marriage surfaced quickly after she announced her presidential bid last week when CNN penned stories that brought up her past remarks and support for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. That prompted some criticism from the left, as same-sex marriage is overwhelmingly popular in the Democratic Party

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: It's Sherrod's turn

Another day, another round of Democratic politicians who just so happened to decide to take a winter trip to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina. 

Here's the latest from the trail: 

  • Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown announced his "Dignity of Work" tour that will run through key early primary states, and his home state, which happens to be a pivotal one on the path to winning 270 Electoral College votes. 
  • Fresh off the unveiling of her exploratory committee, New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand held a press conference in Troy, New York where she reiterated her desire to run for president. During a question-and-answer session with reporters, she defended herself from donors who are frustrated she called on Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken to resign after accusations he groped women, she promised not to take money from corporate PACs or lobbyists and spoke out against super PACs. 
  • The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton is heading to New Hampshire in a move that will once again spark questions about whether he's considering a presidential bid. Last month, Moulton was part of a group of House Democrats to withhold votes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership bid in exchange for promises of new blood at the top of the party.