Menendez leads GOP challenger by 17 points

Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez may have slogged through a lengthy federal corruption trial, but he's well-situated against his Republican challenger in blue New Jersey for now, a new Quinnipiac poll finds. 

While about four-in-ten New Jersey voters — 38 percent — say that they believe Menendez was involved in "serious wrongdoing," Menendez leads deep-pocketed Republican contender Bob Hugin 49 percent to 32 percent. 

And voters approve of the job Menendez is doing 46 percent to 39 percent. That's his best score in more than a year. 

Hugin, a pharmaceutical executive, announced his run last month. 

Menendez was indicted on corruption charges in 2015, but after a hung jury in the trial last year, the Justice Department dropped the charges against him in January.

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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.

Carrie Dann

Christine Quinn criticizes 'unqualified lesbian' Cynthia Nixon

We’re just about 24 hours into Cynthia Nixon’s New York gubernatorial primary run, and the headlines are already getting, well, pretty contentious.

Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is openly gay, said this of Nixon in an interview with the New York Post: “Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City. Now she wants to be an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York. You have to be qualified and have experience. She isn’t qualified to be the governor.”

Nixon endorsed Bill de Blasio over Quinn in the 2013 NYC mayoral Democratic primary.

Nixon responded that “her being a lesbian and my being a lesbian” is not the issue, according to the Post.

Here’s the full story.

*** UPDATE: Quinn has apologized for the remarks on Twitter, saying "I would never, EVER, criticize someone because of their identity." She reiterated that she was making a comparison between her own experience and qualification and Nixon's. 


Looks like we know who'll be appointed to Thad Cochran's Senate seat

The Courier-Journal reports that Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to pick Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to replace outgoing Sen. Thad Cochran.

Hyde-Smith would be the first female senator in Mississippi history. If she decides to seek the seat permanently in November, she'd likely face a challenge from the right from conservative Chris McDaniel, who has said he will seek the seat as well. 

Here's more from the Courier-Journal's report: 

Some state GOP sources are questioning whether Hyde-Smith, who in served in the state Senate for years as a Democrat, would be vulnerable to a far-right challenge from McDaniel. Others say that as a Democrat she had a conservative record and she has been a leader in the state and national GOP as agriculture commissioner. She has a strong base among rural conservatives.

And more: 

McDaniel, who's already running a conservative and tea-party fueled campaign, is likely to try to make hay of Hyde-Smith being a Democrat until 2010. The race, which will be a free-for-all with no primaries, already also has a serious Democratic contender, former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Espy, raising concerns of splitting the Republican vote.

Mark Murray

A few of the TV ads in Illinois

As we wrote in First Read this morning, it’s Primary Day in Illinois, and here are some of the eye-catching TV ads that have been on the airwaves in the state. 

Jeanne Ives is challenging Gov. Bruce Rauner from the right in the GOP gubernatorial primary, and she aired this HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL TV ad, with a male actor dressed like a woman thanking Rauner for “signing legislation that lets me use the girl’s bathroom.” 

A whopping $65 million has been spent on TV and radio ads in the IL GOV primaries, including $33.5 million by Democrat J.B. Pritzker. Here's Pritzker hitting Kennedy and Biss. And here's Biss hitting Rauner/Pritzker/Kennedy for their wealth.

And the Democratic Governors Association is airing an TV ad calling Ives “too conservative” for Illinois – reminiscent of how Democrats played in the 2012 Missouri GOP primary that produced Todd Akin.


Kasie Hunt

Costello says he'll file to run again in new PA-6

After the GOP lost court challenges to the new Pennsylvania congressional district map, Republican Rep. Ryan Costello tells NBC News plans to file to run for re-election in the new version of his PA-6 district.

He represents an already-swing district in the Philadelphia suburbs that’s becoming distinctly more Democratic under the new map. He’s facing a top challenger in veteran Chrissy Houlahan.

Still, Costello isn’t yet firm in his plans to campaign for re-election, so stay tuned.

Andrew Rafferty

Tim Pawlenty moves closer to (another) gubernatorial bid

Tim Pawlenty continues to move closer to another gubernatorial run in Minnesota, announcing Monday he will file a campaign committee.

The former two-term governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate stirred speculation about a possible return to public office earlier this year when he announced he would abandon his post as the head of the Financial Services Roundtable. He ruled out a Senate run in January and has been reportedly raising cash this month for a potential return to St. Paul. 

Pawlenty will still need to officially file to enter the race to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. The announcement is expected “soon,” according to a statement.


Carrie Dann

'Sex and the City' star announces primary challenge to NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, best known as one of the stars of HBO's hit series "Sex and the City," is  launching a progressive primary bid against incumbent New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

"I love New York. I’ve never lived anywhere else. But something has to change.," she says in her announcement video. "We want our government to work again, on healthcare, ending mass incarceration, fixing our broken subway. We are sick of politicians who care more about headlines and power than they do about us."

A Siena College poll out Monday showed Nixon as a heavy underdog in the primary matchup, with Cuomo getting 66 percent support among registered Democrats, compared to just 19 percent for Nixon. 

Here's her announcement video: 

Carrie Dann

How a key group — white women with a college degree — view Trump, the GOP and the midterms

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street poll shows that a key group of voters may be poised to play a big role in the upcoming election: White women with a college degree.

And they’re angry. 

White women with a college degree did support Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election, but only by a six-point margin. According to exit polls, just over half supported Clinton — 51 percent — while 45 percent backed Trump and the remainder chose third party candidates.

But that narrow advantage for the Democratic candidate has grown into a gaping divide heading into the 2018 midterms, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll.

President Trump’s positive favorability rating among college-educated white women, which stood just 32 percent when he was inaugurated, is now down even further to an even more dismal 27 percent, with 53 percent giving him a ‘very negative’ score. The Republican Party gets a similarly poor ranking, with just 23 percent within this group of women giving the GOP high marks. (They give Democrats a net positive score, on the other hand — 45 percent positive to 31 percent negative.)

And that ire also appears to be translating into energy against Republicans as the midterms approach.

Among white women with a college degree, Democrats have a 27 point advantage over Republicans on the question of which party they would rather win control of Congress in November.

And unlike some other voter groups like young people or independents, who show a preference for Democrats but don’t express high interest in the upcoming elections, this subgroup of women ranks among the highest when it comes to how closely they are watching the midterms. Six-in-ten report that they have high interest in the elections, one of the most pronounced levels of interest for any subgroup surveyed. 

Mark Murray

Watching enthusiasm and independents in the new NBC/WSJ poll

By now, you’ve probably seen our new NBC/WSJ poll, which finds President Trump’s job approval rating at 43 percent and Democrats regaining their double-digit lead in congressional preference.

But the poll also tells two important stories about 2018 that we’ll continue to track.

1. Democrats hold the enthusiasm advantage heading into the midterms: Sixty percent of Democratic voters say they have a high degree of interest in the upcoming elections (registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale), versus 54 percent of Republicans who say the same thing. In addition, 64 percent of 2016 Clinton voters say they have a high level of interest, compared with 57 percent of 2016 Trump voters.

And there’s this: Among all high-interest voters, 56 percent prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, versus 40 percent who want a GOP-controlled Congress — a 16-point advantage for Democrats.

2. Independents are breaking in favor of Democrats: In the new NBC/WSJ poll, independents prefer a Dem-controlled Congress over a GOP one by 12 points, 48 percent to 36 percent. That’s up from the Dems’ 8-point lead here in January (40 percent to 32 percent) and the party’s 6-point advantage for the average of 2017 (39 percent to 33 percent).

But while independents are increasingly breaking for Democrats, they also crept back into Trump’s column, with 45 percent approving of the president’s job – up from 33 percent in January.

So watch the enthusiasm and the independents.