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Top 10 most likely Senate flips

With today’s launch of the “Rundown,” we wanted to unveil our list of the Top 10 Senate seats that could switch parties in November — a list we’ll continue to update between now and Election Day 2018. No. 1 means most likely to flip. A reminder: Democrats need to pick up a net of two seats to gain control of the U.S. Senate.

  1. Nevada (R): A tough GOP primary + a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016 + a Dem challenger facing minimal opposition = Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, being the most endangered Senate incumbent of 2018.
  2. North Dakota (D): Republicans are divided over whether this race or the Senate contest in Missouri is their best pick-up opportunity now that GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer has decided to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. But the tiebreaker goes to North Dakota, given that Trump got 63 percent of the vote there in 2016 versus 56 percent in Missouri.
  3. Arizona (R): This race remains the most fascinating Senate contest of 2018. There’s a competitive GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, the potential of a November showdown between two female candidates (Democrat Kyrsten Sinema vs. Republicans Martha McSally or Kelli Ward) and, of course, the presence of Joe Arpaio.
  4. Missouri (D): In what looks like a 50-50 race between incumbent Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill and Republican Josh Hawley, the scandal surrounding Republican Gov. Eric Greitens doesn’t help the GOP.
  5. West Virginia (D): Who would you rather be: West Virginia’s most famous politician (Democrat Joe Manchin) running in a state where Trump got 68 percent of the vote in 2016, or a lesser-known Dem senator (Joe Donnelly) running in a state where Trump got 56 percent? Because Democrats have had more recent success in Indiana (see Obama in 2008), we’ll go with Donnelly. But we expect these states to switch back and forth between now and November.
  6. Indiana (D): See above.
  7. Wisconsin (D): It looks like it will be a long — and expensive — GOP primary between Republicans Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson, with outside groups pummeling incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the meantime.
  8. Florida (D): We could very well move up this race if/when Republican Gov. Rick Scott — and his millions — jump into the contest to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott’s shift on guns after the Parkland shooting has been striking.
  9. Tennessee (R): Republicans caught a break when retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker decided not to re-enter this race, which would could have produced a bitter primary between Corker and Rep. Marsha Blackburn. But given the national environment and the big-name Democratic candidate (former Gov. Phil Bredesen), this race remains worth watching.
  10. Ohio (D): One of the key questions of this 2018 season is if Democrats — in the Senate and gubernatorial contests — can get their groove back in Ohio after their shellacking there in 2016. Brown seems to be in as good of a position as Democrats could have hoped at the beginning of this cycle. But like Tennessee, this race is worth watching.

Other Senate races to watch (in alphabetical order): Minnesota (Tina Smith seat), Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas

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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. 

A deeper dive into the health of Democratic candidates' donor bases

WASHINGTON—Topline fundraising numbers have dominated the discussion about the Democratic presidential candidates' first-quarter fundraising haul. 

You can read more about those top-lines in today's First Read

But some deeper digging sheds important light on the durability of the candidates' donor bases. 

Small-dollar hauls

Small-dollar donors are the new must-have campaign accessory for Democrats after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (and President Trump) changed the game in 2016. 

These donors are important because they can be repeatedly tapped throughout the campaign, allowing a candidate to raise quick cash without working to expand its donor base. 

Unsurprisingly, Sanders led the pack of major Democratic candidates with this metric by raising more than $15 million in donations under $200. That accounted for about 84 percent of his total haul.  

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers, raised about 70 percent of her total from small-donors too. 

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke also raised about 60 percent of their first-quarter hauls from small donations. 

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker raised about 15 percent of their donations from those small contributions. And former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper raised just nine percent from small donations. 

Maxed-out donors

The flip side of the small-dollar coin are maxed-out donors — those who donate the federal maximum donation of $2,800 a cycle (primaries and general elections count as separate cycles). 

The wealthiest donors are a great way to infuse cash into a campaign. But they can't donate again. 

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Hickenlooper both raised a majority of their money from maxed-out donors (Delaney largely self-funded his campaign).

But Warren raised about two percent of her money from maxed-out donors, a sign that she'll be able to dip back into the well repeatedly. 

Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Buttigieg also raised less than 20 percent of their dollars from max-out donors. That's a big deal, especially because they finished the quarter in first, second and fourth respectively in total contributions.

General election money

Some candidates are already raising a significant amount of general election money that they can't use unless they win the primary, but that they're including in their top-line numbers already.

About 10 percent of the money that Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former HUD Sec. Julián Castro raised from donors this past cycle was earmarked for the general election. Klobuchar raised more than any other candidate with about $570,000. 

'Performance is better than promise' — Biden eulogizes South Carolina's Hollings

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden made his first 2020 cycle trip to an early voting state Tuesday, eulogizing late South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings for his deep commitment to the state and advocacy for its neediest citizens.

Biden, who served alongside Hollings for most of his 36 years in the Senate, recalled that Palmetto State icon was chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign committee when he launched a long-shot bid against a popular Republican incumbent in Delaware in 1972.

"He ended up taking a chance on me," Biden said. "He saw something in me that I wasn't sure existed. But he believed in me. I can say without fear of contradiction that that made me believe more in myself."

Biden praised Hollings' bridge-building political style, both as a governor and then as a senator. "He knew how to get things done," Biden said. "He knew how to build coalitions. He even knew how to get along with Strom when he needed to."

Strom Thurmond was a Dixiecrat-turned-Republican senator from South Carolina and the oldest living senator until his retirement at the age of 100. Biden also delivered his eulogy in 2003, something that already has drawn attention as approaches the Democratic primary contest.

Biden focused his remarks Tuesday on Hollings, especially praising him for seeking to address systemic poverty and hunger in rural areas. He also quoted Hollings in a potential allusion to his future candidacy.

"What a man will do in public office is best told by what he’s done. Performance is better than promise," he said.

Yang leads Democratic presidential candidates in Facebook spending for past week

WASHINGTON — Entrepreneur Andrew Yang led the field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in money spent on Facebook advertisements for the second week in a row.

Yang spent $154,840 on ads from April 7 to April 13, trailing only President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, which spent $161,285.

Yang spent $157,230  the previous week, the most of any presidential candidate of either party, according to Facebook’s publicly available political ad archive.

Many of Yang’s recent ads were used to promote events he was holding in cities such as Boston and Atlanta last week. The ads often mentioned Venture for America, the nonprofit Yang started.

Yang’s ads also highlighted his support for a universal basic income as a response to the threat of artificial intelligence.

Following Yang in last week’s spending was Julián Castro, former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary under President Obama, who spent $137,162. Castro's ads focused primarily on fundraising to secure a spot in the Democratic debates, saying “my spot on that stage isn’t guaranteed unless I reach 65,000 donors.”

One way candidates can qualify for the debate is if they raise money from 65,000 unique donors as well as from 200 unique donors in at least 20 states. 

Rounding out the top five Democratic spenders were Sen. Elizabeth Warren ($67,275), Marianne Williamson ($64,634), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar ($48,379).

President Trump has dominated Facebook spending this year, buying ads through both his official campaign committee, Donald J. Trump for President Inc., and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint effort of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Many of Trump’s ads last week focused on themes such as the Mueller Report, the southern border wall, and the news media. There were often requests for donations with phrases such as “DONATE NOW to show you want to FINISH THE WALL!”

Facebook started the political ad archive in May 2018 to increase transparency and “to help prevent abuse, especially during elections.”

All election-related and issues ads must now be labeled with who paid for the ad. Facebook users can see how much a campaign spent on an ad and how many people saw it.

Inslee on immigration: 'We are not afraid of diversity'

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential hopeful and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee criticized President Trump's suggestion of sending detained immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities, accusing Trump of trying to promote "bombastic chaos."

Inslee told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the plan won't work because those in sanctuary cities, which are typically Democratic-leaning areas, will be ready with open arms. 

"You can’t threaten somebody with something they aren’t afraid of and we are not afraid of diversity in the state of Washington.”

"We relish it, it is the basis of our economic and cultural success," he said, adding that the state has a long history of accepting refugees.