Tonight: Chuck Todd moderates crucial gubernatorial debate in California

The top six candidates running for governor of California will square off Tuesday night in a debate hosted by “Meet The Press” moderator Chuck Todd in San Jose.

The showdown, which will be live streamed here and televised on NBC Bay Area from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. PST/9:30 to 11:00 p.m. EST, will feature four Democrats and two Republicans in what is likely to be the final debate before the state’s June 5 primary. “Meet The Press” will also be live tweeting the event from @MeetThePress

California’s so-called “jungle primary” means the top two vote getters, regardless of party, will advance to the general election in June. State Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has maintained an edge in both polling and fundraising, with former Democratic mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa and Republican businessman John Cox competing for the second slot. But the surveys remain close with less than one month to go. 

Also on stage Tuesday will be Democratic state treasurer John Chiang, GOP assemblyman Travis Allen and former Democratic head of state schools Delaine Eastin. 

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Poll: Democratic voters aren't putting a premium on the diversity of their presidential nominee

WASHINGTON—As former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders continue to hold the top spot in Democratic presidential primary polling, a new national poll shows that Democratic voters aren't placing too much importance on the diversity of their nominee. 

Almost nine in 10 registered Democrats in Monmouth University's new poll said that the race of their nominee doesn't matter in the campaign against Donald Trump. The remaining portion was split between whether Democrats would be better off nominating a candidate of color or a white candidate. 

There's a bit less ambivalence over the gender of the presidential nominee, but not much. More than three quarters of registered Democrats don't believe the gender of the nominee matters, with seven percent believing the Democrats would be better off nominating a woman and 12 percent saying the party would be in a better position with a male nominee. 

That sentiment comes as four white men—Biden, Sanders, former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg—have all spent time toward the top of the polls. 

“This is the most diverse field of presidential candidates in history, but that doesn’t seem to be a major consideration for Democratic voters at this early stage of the campaign. It’s probably a large reason why a couple of old white guys are leading the pack right now,” Patrick Murray, the director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement accompanying the release of the poll.

That same poll showed Biden in first place, followed by Sanders, Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and O'Rourke.

Monmouth polled 330 registered Democrats by telephone (a mix of landline and cell phone) between April 11 to April 15. The poll's margin of error is 5.4 percent. 

MJ Hegar jumps in to face John Cornyn in Texas Senate battle

WASHINGTON—MJ Hegar, the Texan combat veteran who ran a surprisingly strong challenge in a Republican-held House seat during the 2018 midterms, is running for Senate in the hopes of taking on Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

Hegar announced her bid in an online video, a familiar medium for the Democrat. Last cycle, her introductory video detailing her service and challenge to Defense Department restrictions on women in combat went viral and helped her raise more than $5 million over the cycle. 

The new spot recounts her last campaign and the strong challenge former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke ran against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. And Hegar spends the final minute of the video laying into Cornyn as a lackey to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Weakness, partisanship, gridlock. Those are not Texas values, John. But maybe you've been in Washington so long that you've forgotten that," Hegar says.

Hegar's candidacy gives Democrats a candidate with a strong ability to fundraise and someone with experience on challenging political terrain. While Hegar lost her congressional bid last cycle, she came within about 3 points of GOP Rep. John Carter, who hadn't previously faced a competitive election since he entered the House in 2002. 

President Trump won the district by 13 points in 2016. 

But Cornyn is a strong fundraiser himself, with more than $7 million in the bank. He has a deep network of experienced operatives looking to keep him in office. And Republicans are already making it clear they're looking to dust off the same playbook they used against O'Rourke in 2018, framing Hegar as a Washington-backed candidate who is too progressive for the red state. 

“New York liberal Chuck Schumer found his chosen candidate in MJ Hegar. Hollywood Hegar’s support for late-term abortion and government-run health care will play better with progressive Hollywood celebrities than with mainstream Texans," National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Jesse Hunt said of Hegar in a statement.

Hegar so far is the top Democrat in the race, but allies of Rep. Joaquín Castro are encouraging him to run and he has not yet ruled out a bid.

Shaquille Brewster

Sanders releases internal poll showing lead over Trump in PA, WI and MI

WASHINGTON—Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign is releasing new internal polling that shows him leading President Donald Trump in hypothetical matchups in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

According to the internal data released to reporters by the campaign, Sanders is up by double-digits in Michigan and Wisconsin (by 11 points and 10 points respectively), and leads in Pennsylvania by 8 points.

The poll did not measure Democratic candidates against Trump in head-to-head matchups, and it did not include a scenario in which a third-party candidate like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is also on the ballot.

But Ben Tulchin, Sanders' pollster, says that the results still indicate that Sanders is in a uniquely strong position to take on Trump.. 

"I don’t think it’s any generic Democrat fits the mold here,” he told NBC News. “Trump is vulnerable here, but it has to be for the right kind of Democrat who has real strengths and can win these three states.”

"I don’t think any other candidate is as well positioned as Bernie is in these three states.”

Some data points the campaign highlighted include that, across all three states, a majority of voters believe the country is on the wrong track, disapprove of Trump's handling of the job, and support Medicare for All — a platform that's becoming increasingly popular among Democratic presidential candidates. 

The three states were key to Trump's 2016 victory. Before Trump’s success there, the last time a Republican presidential candidate had won any of those states was 1988. 

Sanders' allies believe his message on economic equality helps him connect to the kinds of blue-collar voters that Democrats lost in 2016. Earlier this month, the senator went on a four-day road trip through the Midwest, highlighting his general-election focus on the region.

But while Sanders also says that his identification as a democratic socialist is far more about an embrace of those policies, other polls shows that socialism isn't popular with the electorate. 

February's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 18 percent of Americans view socialism positively, while 50 percent view it negatively. And being a socialist was one of the least desirable characteristics for presidential hopefuls.

That's why Republicans have made attacks on socialism—which evoke Sanders regardless of the distinction between socialism and democratic socialism—a key piece of their message in the early months of the election cycle. 

Tulchin brushed aside the idea that the socialism attacks could damage Sanders in a general election, arguing it has "no significant impact at all" because of Trump's poor standing among these voters.

"Bernie is popular enough and strong enough to withstand that attack," he said. 

2020 roundup: De Blasio continues to tease presidential bid

WASHINGTON—New York Mayor Bill de Blasio once again floated the prospect of jumping into the Democratic presidential race, telling MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday that he'll "make a decision soon." 

The Democrat sounded like a candidate as he laid out his argument that he would "speak about sharp, clear, bold, progressive change and prove you can do it" if he runs.

And he emphasized the importance of what he referred to as New York's "Green New Deal," which includes an idea to heavily fine "inefficient" buildings and "ban" new construction of inefficient skyscrapers. 

Watch de Blasio's interview here, and read on for more from the campaign trail. 

  • Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Seth Moulton is the latest Democrat to announce a presidential bid, pointing to his career as a Marine and his successful 2014 vanquishing of a long-time Democratic incumbent as reasons why he can take on President Trump. Read more from NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald here.
  • NBC's Benjy Sarlin has a deep dive into another climate cause that's dividing Democrats: the push against fossil fuel extraction.
  • Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for more than 40 million Americans, which she would pay for with taxes on the wealthy.  
  • President Trump said Monday that he's "not even a little bit" worried about impeachment, even as Democrats appear more open to the possibility after the release of the Mueller report. 
Leigh Ann Caldwell

Possible 2020 contender Michael Bennet gets clean bill of health after cancer treatment

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is contemplating jumping in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential race, has been given a clean bill of health after undergoing surgery to remove cancer, his office said in a statement.

“(Bennet’s) doctors report the surgery was completely successful and he requires no further treatment,” Bennet’s spokeswoman, Courtney Gidner, said in a statement. “Michael and his family deeply appreciate the well wishes and support from Coloradans and others across the country, and he looks forward to returning to work after the recess.”

Bennet, 54, received the prostate cancer diagnosis earlier this month during a routine physical. He had surgery last weekend to remove the cancer.

Because of the successful procedure, Bennet is moving ahead with plans to enter the presidential race.

“I felt like, you know what, this is something I really want to do,” Bennet said of a presidential run on MTPDaily the day after his diagnosis. “I think I've got something to contribute.”

Bennet, a usually mild-mannered senator, erupted on the Senate floor in January during the government shutdown at Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was decrying the shutdown’s impact on first responders.

“These crocodile tears that the senator from Texas is crying for the first responders are too hard for me to take,” Bennet said. Cruz caused a government shutdown in 2013 over his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Bennet, yelling, said that his state of Colorado was flooded and people were died during the Cruz government shutdown.

Bennet would be one of more than 15 candidates in the presidential field and the seventh senator.

Buttigieg to fundraise in DC with help from bundlers for Obama, Clinton

Major bundlers who raised money for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns are throwing their efforts behind South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who will come to Washington next month for a fundraiser.

An invitation to the May 21 event obtained by NBC News from two sources shows that Steve Elmendorf and Barry Karas are among the hosts. The invite says it will be Buttigieg’s first visit to the nation’s capital since entering the race.

Elmendorf is a lobbyist and former John Kerry campaign official who bundled more than $100,000 in the last election for Clinton. He announced his support for Buttigieg on Sunday, just as the Democrat officially launched his campaign.

Karas raised at least half a million dollars for Obama in 2012 and was later appointed by Obama to the Kennedy Center’s advisory board.

The fundraiser comes as Buttigieg is increasingly attracting interest and enlisting help from major Democratic bundlers, with more than two dozen of the party’s top fundraisers now supporting him, CNBC has reported. Buttigieg has said his campaign isn’t taking corporate PAC money or dollars from the fossil fuel industry.

The invitation says tickets for the Washington fundraiser range between $250 for young professionals and $5,600 for event co-hosts. That’s the legal maximum a person can contribute to a candidate for both the primary and general election.

CNBC’s Brian Schwartz contributed.

Two vulnerable Democratic House candidates return donations from Ilhan Omar

WASHINGTON—Two Democratic House candidates—one a freshman member of Congress— have declined to accept donations from Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has faced criticism from Republicans and some members of her own party over comments regarding the American relationship with Israel. 

Dan McCready, the Democrat running in a special election in North Carolina that was called thanks to allegations of fraud in last year's election in the district, took to Twitter  on Wednesday evening to explain why he decided to return Omar's donation. 

"I did this weeks ago because I vigorously disagree with any anti-semitic comments. Since this time, dangerous and hateful attacks have started against her," he wrote. 

"I condemn in the strongest terms the hateful rhetoric against her, the Muslim community and people of color. Too many have been hurt by our broken politics. We must end hate speech against all people and groups."

Omar donated $2,000 to McCready's campaign last year, and his campaign issued the Omar campaign a refund on March 30. The refund was reported on McCready's first quarter fundraising disclosure, which was filed on Monday. 

Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath's campaign told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution it also declined a $2,000 donation from the congresswoman. She narrowly defeated GOP Rep. Karen Handel in November in her suburban Atlanta district. 

Omar has faced criticism for her comments about the Israel lobby, which Democratic leadership panned as trafficking in "anti-Semitic tropes." She apologized for those comments earlier this year.  

The GOP continues to hammer Democrats over her comments, accusing the party of not adequately condemning anti-Semitism. And President Trump has blasted her in recent days by pointing to comments she made about 9/11

Omar's defenders have argued the condemnation is in bad faith—that her comments about the Israel lobby were only meant to critique the power of money in the political system, while her comments on 9/11 were taken out of context and the criticism has led to threats on her life. 

But the decision by these two candidates to distance themselves from Omar and return her donations ahead of two likely contentious elections shows that at least some purple-district politicians see an association with her as a possible political risk. 

2020 roundup: Terry McAuliffe won't run for president

WASHINGTON—The ever-expanding field of Democratic presidential hopefuls will not include former Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who announced Wednesday that he'll skip a White House bid. 

McAuliffe told CNN that while he could have beaten President Trump "like a rented Mule" he instead wanted to focus on helping Democrats in Virginia, where the two of the top three statewide officials admitted to appearing years ago in blackface and another is accused of sexual assault. 

The decision comes after months of speculation that the former governor and longtime Democratic fundraiser would jump in, sparked by his criticism of the party's embrace of "ideological populism." 

There are still a handful of other Democrats eyeing bids, most notably former Vice President Joe Biden, who would occupy the same moderate lane in which McAuliffe would have run. 

But with so many Democrats deciding to jump in, it's notable when one decides to sit on the sidelines. 

Keep reading on for more headlines from the 2020 trail you may have missed. 

  • Democratic candidates spent last month pushing for a release of the full Mueller report, so expect those calls to continue today as the redacted version is finally released. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand panned the attorney general's press conference as "propaganda," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker accused Barr of trying to "spin" the Mueller report before its release and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted that "it's a disgrace to see an attorney general acting as if he's the personal attorney and publicist for the president."
  • California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris expressed "regret" over the "unintended consequences" of the truancy program she oversaw as state attorney general in a new interview with Pod Save America
  • South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Thursday about the Mueller report, his decision to come out as gay, and how his campaign is going to boost support from minority voters. 
  • After Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders drew the attention of both the Democratic field and President Trump with his Fox News town hall this week, Politico reports Amy Klobuchar has booked a town hall with the network. NBC is also reporting that Buttigieg is in talks with Fox for a town hall as well. 
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, the only Republican running against President Trump, tweeted that it is "essential" that Robert Mueller testifies in front of Congress about his report on Russian election interference.
Monica Alba

Trump campaign response strategy after Mueller report: “Vindication” over “exoneration”

WASHINGTON — With the highly-anticipated release of the Mueller report expected Thursday, the Trump campaign is ready to capitalize on the contents and has already determined a rebuttal strategy: a focus on “vindication” above all else. 

In the days following the release of Attorney General Bill Barr’s four-page summary, the president repeatedly touted “complete and total exoneration” — and his 2020 team followed suit with slick videos, tailored fundraising appeals and even new merchandise

Of the $30 million directly raised by the Trump campaign in the first three months of the year, $8.2 million came from contributions (of $200 or more) during the week after the Barr letter was released, which happened to coincide with the end of the fundraising quarter. 

But a strong indication the response may be a little different once more Mueller material is made public comes directly from their pre-emptive messaging. 

"We know that President Trump will — once again — be vindicated: no collusion and no obstruction," communications director Tim Murtaugh told NBC News, emphasizing vindication ahead of Thursday’s expected publication. "The tables should turn now, as it is time to investigate the liars who instigated the sham investigation in the first place."

The second part of that statement is also a preview of where the campaign plans to keep shifting the conversation to: the origins of the Russia probe itself, rather than the contents of the nearly 400-page document. 

Campaign officials acknowledge it is quite difficult to predict and execute a coordinated reaction before knowing the extent of the findings. But over the last week, as Trump allies brace for previously unknown and potentially unflattering details in the report, the president has not used the word “exonerate” once and instead has seized on “no collusion” and "no obstruction!"

It’s unclear whether or not Trump has actually been advised to highlight vindication as a more accurate description now that the two-year investigation, which he deemed a “witch hunt hoax,” has wrapped up.

In his summary, Barr cited the special counsel's work, saying it explicitly concluded that there was no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russians to influence the 2016 election. But he was far less definitive on the question of obstruction.

“While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller writes in his report, according to a quote in Barr’s letter. 

2020 roundup: Gillibrand supports challenger to anti-abortion rights House Dem

WASHINGTON—New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is backing the Illinois Democrat who is running once again to dethrone one of the party's last remaining anti-abortion rights lawmakers. 

After an event in Chicago on Tuesday, Gillibrand and Democrat Marie Newman took to Twitter to give each other mutual endorsements. 

Newman fell short in her 2018 challenge against Lipinski by just a few thousand votes in the first high-profile primary fight of the calendar.

A slew of prominent progressive activists and politicians rallied around Newman during that race because of her support for abortion rights, in contrast to Lipinski's views on the issue. But House Democratic leaders rallied behind the incumbent, and a super PAC with ties to the centrist 'No Labels' spent heavily to boost Lipinski. 

So with an early endorsement of Newman, Gillibrand is looking to send a message about her support for abortion rights and willingness to take on an entrenched politician over the issue. 

There's a lot more news coming out of the 2020 trail, so click here for more from the campaign world. 

  • Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, the newly-minted presidential candidate, told CNN on Wednesday that he supports Medicare for All as an "aspirational goal."  But he added that "I would not take anybody's private insurance away."
  • President Trump is handicapping the Democratic presidential primary, tweeting that he thinks it'll come down to "Crazy Bernie Sanders vs. Sleepy Joe Biden."
  • South Bend Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg downplayed the hecklers that have interrupted his recent campaign events, arguing that it's a "barometer of success." 
  • While FEC deadline day was Monday, there's still a whole lot of interesting information buried in fundraising reports. Check out yesterday's blog post that focuses on the durability of the Democratic candidates' donor base for more. 
  • After releasing his tax returns this week, former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke defended his charitable giving by arguing he donated more than he specifically itemized on his returns. 
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath's campaign refused to accept a contribution from Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has been the recent target of criticism from the president after controversial remarks about America's relationship with Israel drew a rebuke from leaders of her own party.