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Midterms could hinge on the greater force — fundamentals or candidate quality

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.
Image: Democratic Senate Candidate John Fetterman Holds Campaign Rally In Erie, PA
Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman speaks in Erie, Pa., on Aug. 12.Nate Smallwood / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — If it’s Thursday … FBI agents continue to sift through seized documents more than a week after Mar-a-Lago search. ... Former Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg is expected to plead guilty to Manhattan D.A. ... Nearly half of college students wouldn’t room with someone who votes differently, new poll finds. ... Cook Political Report with Amy Walter moves Pennsylvania Senate from Toss Up to Lean Democratic. ... And Marquette Law Poll has Democrats up 7 points in Wisconsin Senate and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ahead by 2 points in Wisconsin Governor.

But first: With less than three months to go, the 2022 midterms appear to be coming down to which political force is greater.  

The fundamentals? Or the candidates? 

If you look only at the measurements that have typically defined midterm elections — a president’s job rating, right track/wrong track, the generic ballot — this is shaping up to be a big Republican year. 

President Biden’s approval is in the 30s and 40s (even if it has improved in recent weeks); the percentage believing the country is headed in the wrong direction has been in the 70s; and the generic ballot continues to be in historically dangerous territory for Democrats (even if that also has improved). 

Despite those overall fundamentals, however, the outlook for Democrats looks surprisingly strong, especially in the battle for the Senate. 

Polls have shown Democrat John Fetterman up by double digits against Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania Senate; a new poll out Wednesday had Democrat Mandela Barnes ahead of GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin Senate; and the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter says the most likely Senate outcome — right now — ranges from D+1 to even to R+1/R+2.

That would not represent a midterm thumping for Democrats. 

Now it’s possible the state polls are off (remember 2020 or even 2018?). But it’s also possible that the traditional fundamentals are less important because Biden isn’t at the center of this campaign. 

At least not right now. 

“We’ve never had an election about a former president,” a GOP ad-maker complained to the Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor. 

Maybe the biggest variables to watch over the next three months will be enthusiasm and turnout. 

Because, usually, the party controlling the White House and Congress doesn’t turn out the same way the opposition does.  

But that turnout in Kansas earlier this month told a different story. 

Tweet of the day

 Data Download: The number of the day is … 46%

That’s the share of incoming college sophomores surveyed in a new online NBC News/Generation Lab poll who said they would “probably not” or “definitely not” be roommates with someone who voted differently in the 2020 election. 

In the survey, 62% of Democrats said they opposed rooming with someone who voted differently, while 28% of Republicans said the same. 

The poll also found other signs that political polarization is impacting young Americans’ personal lives. A majority of respondents said they opposed going on a date with someone who voted differently, and 63% said they likely wouldn’t marry someone who voted differently. 

For more on the poll’s findings on polarization, views of the future, and top concerns, check out this story.

Other numbers to know:

60%: The percentage of Wisconsin registered voters who oppose the decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade (more than 90% of Democrats and 60% of independents oppose the decision) in a new Marquette poll. 

$50 million: How much Planned Parenthood is planning to spend on the midterms, its largest electoral investment ever.

$2 million: How much Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action will spend on a social media buy targeting swing-state voters whose voter registrations may have lapsed. 

6: How many hours Rudy Giuliani spent at an Atlanta courthouse  during testimony to a grand jury. 

5.7% How much the Census believes it overcounted Puerto Rico’s population, which would mean the population fell even more than the almost 12% it had estimated. 

$1 million: That’s how much Trump’s PAC raked in per day for at least two days after the FBI search, the Washington Post reports. 

Midterm roundup: A bump for Barnes? 

Wisconsin is one of the most pivotal states in the nation during this midterm election, home to key Senate and gubernatorial races, as well as other statewide and down ballot races with serious implications. 

That’s why Wednesday’s poll from Marquette University turned heads — the poll has Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes up 7 points over Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (in a less surprising revelation, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is up 2 points over Republican Tim Michels). 

Take Barnes’ big lead with a grain of salt, as Johnson is no stranger to winning from behind (and was down 6 points in Marquette’s August 2016 poll). Republicans also haven’t begun attacking Barnes, who just won the Democratic primary, in earnest.

Johnson, for his part, is attempting to rebrand himself ahead of November, telling NBC News’ Natasha Korecki, “I’m trying to tell people who I am.”

But the dynamic of Democratic candidates overperforming President Biden’s approval rating continues to be a significant story in this midterm cycle. 

Elsewhere on the campaign trail:

Alaska Senate: Abortion has emerged as a key dividing line between Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her GOP challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, Bloomberg Government reports.

Florida Senate: The Brevard County sheriff’s office is investigating an altercation between a Republican tracker and Democratic Senate hopeful and Rep. Val Demings’ security detail, as the tracker claims he was pushed to the ground, per Politico. 

Pennsylvania Senate: Republican Mehmet Oz brushed aside the needling over a viral video of him shopping for a crudité platter that his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has fundraised off of, telling Newsmax “I’ve rolled my sleeves up my whole life.’ 

Nevada Senate: The Nevada Independent reports on how the country’s first Latina senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, is trying to keep Latino voters in the fold despite the GOP’s recent gains with the demographic. 

Washington Senate: Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is up with a new ad that features footage from the Jan. 6, 2021 attack to argue “Our democracy is in real danger, it’s up to all of us to save it.” 

Maine-02: Politico profiles Democratic Rep. Jared Golden as he tries to overcome the national environment by showing voters that often he bucks his party

New York-10/12: Former President Donald Trump made a few sarcastic “endorsements” Wednesday of Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney and former impeachment counsel Dan Goldman. 

New York-22: The GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund is going up with another $170,000 in ad spending before Tuesday’s primary, where it’s backing businessman Steve Wells in the open seat race.

Ad watch: Gaetz defends his seat

In Florida’s 1st District, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz is defending himself on the airwaves from two primary challengers, whom he’ll face at the polls on Tuesday.

In a new ad, Gaetz features his support from Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and his endorsement from Trump. The spot features a clip from a speech where Trump calls Gaetz “a man who’s really courageous and a really great guy and he loves Florida and he loves the country.”

Gaetz’s primary challengers include former FedEx executive Mark Lombardo, who has spent over $400,000 on the airwaves already on ads calling Gaetz “Lyin’ Matt Gaetz” and telling voters that Gaetz, “puts himself first, ahead of Trump and ahead of you.” 

Lombardo has also blasted Gaetz for being investigated by federal law enforcement in connection with sex trafficking crimes. Gaetz denies all wrongdoing.

So far, though, Gaetz has outspent Lombardo on the airwaves, with over $1 million spent on TV ads, according to AdImpact. He’s also brought in other conservative lawmakers to campaign with him across the district. Last week, he appeared with Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan at a rally in Pensacola.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Former Vice President Mike Pence says he’d consider testifying before the House Jan. 6 committee.

North Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban is back on the books after a federal district court decision Wednesday

Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott wrote an open letter telling Americans not to apply for new IRS jobs because the party will “defund” those jobs if it takes control of Congress next year. 

The CDC outlined new, drastic changes to the agency to improve its response to future public health emergencies.