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Microsoft executive says three 2018 campaigns have been targeted by phishing attacks

ASPEN, Colo. — The campaigns of three candidates in the midterm elections were targeted in a phishing attack similar to the ones targeting the Clinton campaign in 2016, a top Microsoft executive said Thursday.

Microsoft could not identify the campaigns targeted and said no individuals were infected by the attack. The tactics were similar to those outlined in the indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller against Russian GRU operatives.

“They were all people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint as well as an election disruption standpoint,” Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer security and trust, said during a panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum focused on election security issues.

The attempted hackers registered fake Microsoft web domains to serve as a landing page for phishing attacks. Similar tactics were used in 2016 during the Republican and Democratic conventions, though the company did not identify them as being orchestrated by the Russian government, Burt said.

Microsoft has made it a priority to identify such phishing attempts and used a novel legal strategy to prevent them from being successful, quickly seeking court orders to transfer the fake domains to what Burt called a “Microsoft-controlled sinkhole.” He said Microsoft has been working with other large technology firms to share intelligence about such threats.

In the same panel, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Jeanette Manfra, whose portfolio includes election security issues, said that while there has been a “concerning increase” in attempts by foreign states to infiltrate critical U.S. infrastructure, there were no indications that it included elections infrastructure.  

“While we see Russians continuing to attempt to influence and undermine our democracy, we’re not seeing the targeting of the actual state and local elections systems that we saw in 2016 right now,” Manfra said.

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Mark Murray

Florida, California home to most expensive Senate and House races ahead of 2018 midterms

In addition to our look at the top media markets of 2018, we also have data for the Top 10 most expensive House and Senate races.

Not surprisingly, Florida tops the Senate list, thanks to the millions that Republican Rick Scott has pumped into that contest (as well as the millions that Democrats have responded with).

And the most expensive House contents have been the special elections in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Here are the ad-spending numbers from Advertising Analytics as of August 13:

Advertising Analytics
Vaughn Hillyard

Stormy Daniels's lawyer releases policy position paper as he teases 2020 presidential bid

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, released an outline of general policy positions on Tuesday after opining in Iowa this weekend that he may seek a run at the presidency.

The Democrat, in a document titled "What I Believe," outlined his support for Medicare for all, the path to citizenship for DREAMers, workers' "right to organize and bargain collectively," the federal decriminalization of marijuana, the establishment of "background checks and bans on assault weapons," and opposition to the construction of a border wall. Avenatti also called for an infrastructure plan that he would label the "Real Deal."

In an interview last weekend with NBC News, Avenatti also rejected others' calls to abolish the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

"I do not believe ICE should be abolished under any circumstances -- that's similar to telling people that we should abolish the police force," he said. "However, we need to curtail what ICE's policies and procedures are, and the way they conduct themselves."

When asked in that same interview what missteps, if any, the Obama and Trump administrations had made in Syria, Avenatti responded: "There's no question that the U.S. should play a larger role in the Middle East. I think that the U.S. has to be a stabilizing force."

But he also acknowledged needing to understand past U.S. policy in the country more, noting: "As it relates to the particular missteps of the Obama administration or more recently in Syria, I haven't educated myself admittedly enough on that topic to be able to speak intelligently about it. But what I do know is that certainly what has been done in the past has not worked."

Avenatti also stated in his policy paper that he would reject all corporate PAC money and called on candidates for the Democratic nomination to "refund all corporate PAC money" that they have received since 2016.

In a tweet, Avenatti said more "details will follow" on his positions, and added: "Most importantly, I didn't have to hire a pollster or political consultant to tell me what to say or what to believe."

--Mike Memoli contributed.

Carrie Dann

Poll: GOP incumbent Tom MacArthur in tight race in NJ-03

Another incumbent Republican House member in a district that favored Donald Trump in 2016 appears to be in a very tight race against a Democratic challenger.

GOP Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey’s 3rd District is running neck-and-neck with Democrat and former national security adviser Andy Kim, according to a new Monmouth University poll.

The poll finds that, among a traditional model of likely voters, Kim gets 45 percent support, compared with 44 percent support for MacArthur. A model assuming a surge of Democratic turnout puts Kim up 46 percent to 43 percent.

Among all potential voters in the district, it’s also a tight race, at 41 percent for MacArthur, 40 percent for Kim and 15 percent undecided.

The district, which encompasses the south central part of the state, voted for Trump by a 51 to 45 percent margin in 2016. That was a swing to the right from 2012, when it picked Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a five point margin.

The Monmouth poll finds that Trump’s approval rating now stands at 46 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove.

Voters are also about evenly split on who they’d like to see in control of Congress after November. Thirty-eight percent say they would prefer Democrats, while 36 percent say they’d favor Republican control of Congress.

The Monmouth University Poll of 401 NJ-03 voters was conducted by telephone from August 7 - 9, 2018. The margin of error for the full sample is +/- 4.9 percentage points. The margin of error for the likely voter models is +/- 5.7 percentage points.

Mark Murray

Chicago remains top midterm media market for ad spending

Chicago — thanks to the billionaire-versus-billionaire gubernatorial race in Illinois between Republican Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker — continues to be the most expensive midterm media market in terms of TV and radio ad spending, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

And the state of Florida is home to four of the other Top 10 markets, including the second- and third-most expensive markets.

Here’s the total TV and radio ad spending per market as of August 13. (The number in parenthesis is the ranking from last month.)

1. Chicago, IL: $57.4 million (1 last month)

2. Orlando/Daytona Beach/Melbourne, FL: $38.6 million (3)

3. Tampa/St. Pete/Sarasota, FL: $34.8 million (4)

4. Los Angeles, CA: $32.6 million (2)

5. Detroit, MI: $22.1 million (unranked)

6. Pittsburgh, PA: $18.3 million (5)

7. Las Vegas, NV: $18.2 million (7)

8. St. Louis, MO: $18.2 million (8)

9. West Palm Beach/Ft. Pierce, FL: $16.3 million (unranked)

10. Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, FL: $16.0 million (unranked)

Sherrod Brown touts 'dignity of work' in new ad

Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown's campaign is out with a new ad praising the "dignity in work" and evoking his blue-collar message in his reelection bid.

In the new spot shared with NBC News, Brown is heard talking about the importance of treating American workers well over video of line cooks, teachers, barbers, electricians and other workers.

"There is dignity in work. Whether you collect minimum wage, punch a clock or earn a salary, your hard labor should pay off in fair wages and benefits, affordable health care, in overtime pay when you earn it," Brown says.

"Because patriotism demands investing in American workers. And if you love this country, you fight for the people who make it work."

The Brown campaign confirmed the new spot will be part of a new seven-figure buy starting on Tuesday.

The campaign already has more than $6 million booked on air from early September through Election Day, data from Advertising Analytics shows.

The spot exemplifies how Brown is looking to win again in a state in which he's served for decades, but one that  President Trump won by 8 points in 2016.

Democrats have sought to find a way to win back many of the blue-collar voters that Trump wooed away from the party in 2016, with some looking to red-state Democrats like Brown as an example. He's strung together a successful career in the state while leaning on his populist, pro-worker message that is front and center again in this reelection campaign.

Brown's campaign has made that pitch with issues like the economy and trade. Exit polls from the 2016 presidential race showed the majority of Ohio voters most concerned about the economy and a near-majority preferring Trump's economic message to Clinton's. That polling also found that 46 percent of Ohio voters said trade with other countries took away American jobs.

Renacci, Brown's opponent, has targeted the Senator's progressive record and has argued that Ohioans want a senator more in line with Trump. His campaign's first ad included video of Trump lauding Renacci during a February trip to Ohio and argues that Renacci "knows the Trump agenda works for Ohio."

Brown led Renacci by 13 points in a June NBC News/Marist poll of registered voters.

Tom Steyer announces $10 million get-out-the-vote effort

Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund manager now spending millions of his personal fortune on a push to impeach the president, announced a new $10 million drive aimed at turning out Democratic voters in the midterms.

Delivering what his "Need To Impeach" operation billed as a major announcement from Michigan on Monday, Steyer said the new infusion of money would go toward television and digital ads, and on-the-ground organizing of the thousands of activists who have signed on to his impeachment petition.

"The people we elect in November will enter office knowing that they won in part because the American people want this president held to account and they want a Congress that will stop posturing and will start to address our real problems," he said during the announcement.

Some prominent Democrats have questioned whether elevating the impeachment issue would only serve to galvanize dispirited Republican voters to turn out this fall. But the potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who will appear in Iowa on Tuesday, appeared to be setting himself up to claim a share credit if the party succeeds in winning back the House this fall.

He said his grassroots campaign has already delivered results for the party, citing the election of Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania's GOP-leaning 18th district last March. He said four of five voters in the district who had signed his impeachment petition turned out in the election, double the rate of all Democrats. Steyer's Need To Impeach says it has 5.5 million members.

Vulnerable Senate Democrats embrace Trump's wall

Several vulnerable 2018 Democrats are signalling an openness to more funding for President Donald Trump's long-promised border wall, a way to both avoid a possible government shutdown and to show voters in their states that they can cross party lines on even the most hot button of issues.

The president has tweeted that he's willing to shut down the government over the issue in the next round of government spending negotiations this September.

Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly is up with a new ad bragging that he has voted three times to fund "Trump's border wall" and he told Politico last week that he's "fine with $3[billion], $3.5, $4 or $5" billion for the project in spending negotiations coming up next month.

And Donnelly isn't the only senator battling for his seat in a pro-Trump state who's bucking their party on the issue.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin would support $5 billion in border wall funding, a spokesman for his office told NBC News last week. And while fellow "Trump Country" Democrat Heidi Heitkamp allowed that the "devil is always in the details" of these spending fights, she said in a statement that she's "always supported increased and enhanced border security along" the Mexico border — "yes, wall funding as well."

"Shutting down the government is never the way to go," Heitkamp's statement continued, urging bipartisanship on the immigration issue.

Finally, a spokeswoman for Montana Senator Jon Tester told Politico that he "is willing to make responsible investments in manpower, technology, fencing and, in places, a wall. However, he has concerns about the cost of the wall to American taxpayers."

The emphasis this week comes as these red-state Democrats look to burnish their reputation among conservative votes. Both Manchin and Heitkamp gave pro-border security statements to the conservative Breitbart News last week.

These statements buck the position of Democratic Party overall and will likely frustrate party faithful who see the wall as a symbol of the immigration policies they oppose. But it may be a worthwhile price to pay if it means retaining crucial Democratic seats in the Senate.

But the push is opening the candidates up to criticism from Republican rivals who see the rhetoric as disingenuous. In Heitkamp's case, both the North Dakota Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee pushed back her by pointing to comments from 2017 when she said during a hearing that she wished "we could get beyond" a fully concrete wall across the border because no one brought in front of her Senate committee made such a recommendation.

"No matter how hard she tries, Heidi Heitkamp can't shake her liberal voting record," NRSC spokesman Michael McAdams said in a statement last week. "After continuously failing to support President Trump's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration and tough border security measures, North Dakotans aren't falling for Heitkamp's desperate campaign stunts."

Ex-Speaker Boehner stops by Iowa State Fair

DES MOINES, Iowa — Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner said that it’ll be a “pretty close call” for the GOP to maintain control Congress in the fall, and urged caution as President Donald Trump escalates his trade war.

"They've got their hands full," Boehner told NBC News.

Boehner unexpectedly turned up at the Iowa State Fair Friday, happening upon a former Democratic House colleague and now presidential candidate John Delaney as he addressed fairgoers. The Ohio Republican said he is 15 days into a 35 day road trip as he campaigns for the party ahead of the midterms.

As ever, Boehner was short in his answers, especially about the current political scene. Asked to describe the state of nation, Boehner simply offered: “It’s a little messy.” Asked how he would have fared as the House speaker under a Trump presidency, he simply said: “Fine.” He offered the same answer when asked how Speaker Paul Ryan has managed the job, and wouldn’t weigh in on whom should replace him after he retires this fall.

“I don’t have a vote. So we’ll let the members decide that,” he said.

But he did offer advice to President Trump just as he announced a new round of steel and aluminum import tariffs, this time on Turkey. “Let’s get this issue resolved,” Boehner urged the president. “Get to the table."

"I think I would do this a little differently. I always thought you caught more bees with honey than you do vinegar,” he said. 

After noticing Boehner milling about the crowd as he spoke, Delaney quipped: “I appreciate you coming out and supporting me, I really do."

Carrie Dann

Republicans outspent Democrats by 3 to 1 margin in contested special elections

This week's House special election in Ohio's 12th Congressional District only added to the extreme spending gap between Republicans and Democrats in contested special elections. 

The Republican Party and its major outside groups have now spent about $41.7 million during the key special elections this cycle, compared to $12.3 million in Democratic spending. 

How did we get that figure? 

We counted independent expenditures and coordinated campaign expenditures (and compared them with Advertising Analytics data) from the Republican National Committee, the NRCC, the NRSC and the two major super PACs affiliated with the House and Senate GOP (the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Senate Leadership Fund). In total, Republicans spent at least $41.7 million on the special elections in AL-SEN, GA-6, MT-AL, SC-5, KS-4, PA-18, AZ-8 and OH-12.

For Democratic spending, we included the Democratic National Committee, the DCCC, the DSCC, the House Majority PA, and Highway 31, a group backed by top Democratic super PACs that became the party's main outside-spending vehicle during the Alabama Senate special election. 

It's worth noting that the tallies of these expenditures — which include funding for spending on television and radio ads, mail and phone banking — don't capture the full amount of party investment in each race, since both parties also support candidates financially in other ways not captured by the FEC records, such as transfers to state parties, polling and field staff.

But the vast disparity shows just how much Republican outside groups were spending to help prop up their candidates in these specials, and how untenable that model will be for November. 

That dynamic is why Corry Bliss, the head of the Congressional Leadership Fund, issued a warning after the tight Ohio race calling on GOP candidates to shape up their fundraising. 

Carrie Dann

Kaine leads Stewart by huge margin in new Virginia Senate poll

Corey Stewart, the controversial Republican nominee in Virginia's Senate race, trails incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine by 23 percentage points and garners just 26 percent support from voters, according to a new poll.

The poll from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University found Kaine winning 49 percent support, with 26 percent for Stewart, five percent for Libertarian Matt Waters and 20 percent undecided.

Republicans despaired when Stewart, who is known for his vociferous defense of Confederate symbols and his caustic descriptions of immigrants, won the June primary to take on Kaine in what has traditionally been a swing state but has trended increasingly blue in recent years.

The poll shows that 66 percent of the state's Republicans back him, while 10 percent are backing the Libertarian candidate, three percent are backing Kaine (who was Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016) and one-in-five is undecided.

While Kaine has been considered a shoo-in for reelection, the dismal numbers for Stewart may be particularly alarming for Republicans because of the impact depressed GOP turnout could have on the state's contested House races. The Cook Political Report ranks four seats in the state as competitive in November, including three held by incumbent Republicans.

And Virginia voters appear to be largely inclined not to send Republicans back to Washington, according to the poll.

Asked which party they would prefer to control Congress after the election, just 32 percent said the GOP, while 51 percent preferred Democrats.

The telephone poll of 802 respondents was conducted July 10- July 30 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.49 percentage points.