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Arizona debate highlights key party differences ahead of midterms

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
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WASHINGTON — If it’s Friday ... President Biden warns that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is at the highest level since Cuban Missile Crisis. ... Biden announces action to pardon thousands convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. ... Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.,  expects to resign from Senate, creating special election for seat in 2024… Trump-backed group hits the airwaves in Ohio and Pennsylvania. ... CNN releases new polls on contests in Arizona and Nevada. ... And the Herschel Walker saga continues.

But first: Thursday night’s Senate debate in Arizona between Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly and GOP challenger Blake Masters perfectly summed up the 2022 midterm campaign between Democrats and Republicans. 

On abortion. On the economy. On immigration. And on Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. 

Kelly went after Masters on abortion, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard and PJ Tobia. “Arizona women have totally lost the right to make a decision about abortion. It’s devastating. It’s wrong. It’s exactly what my opponent Blake Masters wants. Blake Masters has called abortion demonic or religious sacrifice. He’s even said that he wants to punish the doctors,” Kelly said. 

Masters countered that he supported abortion limits after 15 weeks. “Just last year, Arizona passed a law that limits abortions after 15 weeks. I support that law. … I support limits at the federal level. … Sen. Lindsey Graham has proposed a 15-week bill with the common exceptions, and I support that. I believe in limits.” (That comes, though, after Masters scrubbed his website saying he’s “100% pro-life” and supporting a federal personhood law for the unborn. 

Masters went on offense on economy and immigration: “This is the Joe Biden and Mark Kelly economy.” And: “Joe Biden and Mark Kelly, they laid out the welcome mat [for undocumented immigrants].” 

Kelly, however, distanced himself from Biden’s immigration policies, NBC’s Allan Smith and Sahil Kapur report. “I’ve been strong on border security. And I’ve stood up to Democrats when they’re wrong on this issue — including the president,” he said. “When the president decided he was going to do something dumb on this and change the [Title 42] rules that would create a bigger crisis, I told him he was wrong. So I pushed back on this administration multiple times.”

Kelly blasted Masters over the lies about the 2020 election. “The only reason that we’re having this conversation is because my opponent Blake Masters put out a video questioning who won the presidential election here in the state of Arizona.” 

Masters backtracked saying he didn’t see evidence of vote-count rigging or fraud in the 2020 election. “Yeah, I haven’t seen evidence of that.” 

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … $2.1 million

That’s about how much in TV airtime MAGA Inc., a new super PAC aligned with Trump, reserved in two Senate races on Wednesday, per AdImpact. The group reserved $1.3 million in Ohio and $829,000 in Pennsylvania — both that feature Trump-backed GOP candidates.

Trump allies announced last month that they were launching the new group with a focus on spending in the midterms. NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard reported the group “would be the main vehicle for spending on behalf of Trump’s political interests in 2022.” Some Republicans have called on Trump to spend his massive campaign war chest to support GOP candidates, so it appears he may be starting to do so.

Other numbers to know:

11: That’s the number of Republicans (out of 17) who either voted to impeach former President Trump in the House or convict him in the Senate who have decided to retire or lost primary bids this cycle. On Thursday, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse announced he is stepping down to lead the University of Florida

26: How many days before Election Day that the Jan. 6 committee is holding its next public hearing — on Oct. 13. 

34: How many Jan. 6 defendants have asked to be transferred from a D.C. jail to Guantanamo Bay

57%: A reminder, that’s the share of donations from donors giving at least $10 million to federal elections this cycle has gone to the Republicans, compared to 43% for Democrats, as of a Meet the Press Reports analysis of data through June. Now, top Democratic strategists are warning they don’t have the resources to compete everywhere they want to on the House battleground. 

3: The number of lawmakers vying to become the next House GOP whip, per NBC News’ Allan Smith and Scott Wong.  

About 50: The number of Venezuelan migrants who arrived at Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence after taking a bus from Texas.

Midterm roundup: Raising (spending in) Arizona

There have been signs in the last few months that Arizona has fallen down the list of top Senate rankings this cycle (primarily the decision by the Senate Leadership Fund to pull its ad spending there to fund other races). But this race is still expected to be quite close, and there’s been a flurry of new activity there in the last 24 hours. 

On top of the tense debate we saw last night, Kelly is up with a new ad where he tries to frame himself as someone willing to buck both parties.

“I stand up to the left when they want to defund the police, and I stand up to the right when they want a national abortion ban,” Kelly says in the direct-to-camera ad. “And when Joe Biden gets it wrong, I call him out.” 

But while the marquee GOP super PAC isn’t playing in Arizona anymore, that doesn’t mean other groups have given up. Politico first reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee is adding a “seven-figure” investment into the state that includes TV and direct mail. The group has spent $4.6 million on ads in the state since the primary, but virtually nothing since the end of last month, per AdImpact. 

Elsewhere on the campaign trail:

Arizona Senate/Governor: new CNN likely voter poll finds Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly leading Republican Blake Masters 51%-45%, and Democrat Katie Hobbs leading Republican Kari Lake 49%-46% in the governor's race. 

Georgia Senate: Republican Senate hopeful Herschel Walker at a campaign stop on Thursday continued to deny allegations that he urged an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion and reimbursed her for the procedure. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s campaign released a new TV ad highlighting allegations that Walker threatened women with violence.

Iowa Senate: GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democrat Mike Franken faced off in their only debate Thursday night, clashing on abortion, inflation, and Jan. 6, per the Des Moines Register. They also sparred over an allegation from Franken’s former campaign manager that he made an unwanted advance (which Franken has denied). 

Nevada Senate/Governor: The new CNN likely voter poll finds Republican Adam Laxalt leading Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto 49%-46%, and Republican gubernatorial nominee Joe Lombardo leading Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak 48%-46%. 

Pennsylvania Senate: The Associated Press reports that Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman “kept a light work schedule and was often absent from state business” during his four years in office. 

Illinois Governor: Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker debated Republican nominee Darren Bailey in a tense event that the Associated Press summarized as the two men “finding different ways to call each other ‘liar.’”

Oregon Governor: Inside Elections reports that Nike co-founder Phil Knight has donated to both Republican Christine Drazan and independent Betsy Johnson’s gubernatorial campaigns. Drazan, Johnson and Democrat Tina Kotek debated Thursday, sparring over crime, homelessness and access to abortion in the state.

Texas Governor: Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s campaign launched a new TV ad featuring family members of children killed in a mass shooting earlier this year at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. 

Ad watch: Herschel Walker’s saga continues

Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for Senate in Georgia, is defending himself from attacks about his past in a new TV ad

“As everyone knows, I had a real battle with mental health, even wrote a book about it, and by the grace of God, I’ve overcome it,” Walker says in the ad.

His words come after allegations were made in the Daily Beast this week that Walker paid for a former partner to have an abortion. The Daily Beast later revealed that the former partner is a mother of one of Walker’s children, but the candidate has repeatedly denied the allegations, which NBC News has not independently verified. 

The ad has been making rounds on social media since Wednesday, but AdImpact, an ad tracking firm, only captured on TV for the first time Friday.

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world

The Washington Post reports that the federal agents investigating Hunter Biden believe they have enough evidence to charge him but the decision is up to the U.S. Attorney. 

NBC News exclusively reports on the Biden administration’s plan to combat an ISIS infiltration of a refugee camp

And the group has a new national TV ad calling Congress to protect DREAMers.