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A Showdown in Kentucky Could Be the Last of the Obama Wars

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Matt Bevin
Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin visits with customers during a campaign stop at a Chick-fil-A restaurant during the lunch hour on Tuesday, May 19, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. From left are Christie Embrey, Cat Glass, Lizzie Glass, Baylee Sullivan and Cindy Glass. Candidates Matt Bevin, James Comer and Hal Heiner are in a tight race to decide who will represent the Republican party in November against likely Democratic nominee Jack Conway to be elected governor of Kentucky. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)David Stephenson / AP

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

The Last Obama War?

Outside of the presidential contest, the best political race worth watching THIS YEAR is the gubernatorial showdown in Kentucky between Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin. The reason: It could very well be the last Obama War. Indeed, the Republican Governors Association this month has released two TV ads -- one linking Conway with Obama’s energy policies (see: coal), and the other hitting Conway on the health-care law. Both of the TV ads conclude, “Jack Conway: Putting Obama first and Kentucky last.” Of course, this is the same playbook that the GOP and Mitch McConnell used to sink Democrat Alison Grimes in last year’s Senate race in the Bluegrass State. The Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy tells First Read that the race could largely come down to what is the bigger drag -- Obama or Bevin not being the GOP’s ideal candidate? (Remember Bevin attending that rally in support of legal cockfighting in the state? Perhaps Conway’s most potent weapon will be re-airing all of McConnell’s own attacks on Bevin.) That said, gubernatorial races typically aren’t as nationalized as Senate/House contests, and Conway can point to popular term-limited Gov. Steve Beshear. But as the Lexington-Herald’s Sam Youngman recently wrote, state Democrats find themselves in a pickle in Kentucky: If they run away from Obama -- like Grimes did in ’14 -- they end up alienating Democratic voters in Louisville and Lexington.

What a Bevin/Conway win would mean in November

And it seems like Conway is following the Grimes playbook. He is up with an ad bragging that he was the only Democratic attorney general to sue the Obama admin over coal issues. Bottom line: If Bevin wins, it largely will be due to Obama’s unpopularity in the state (plus Conway’s handling of it) and it could mean it won't spell the end of the Obama wars, at least in the red states. But a Conway win could very well signal the end. That’s what’s at stake in November.

The true test for the GOP-controlled Congress will come in September

Kentucky’s gubernatorial race MIGHT be the last Obama war -- a statewide/downballot race that Republicans try to make all about the sitting president -- but it won’t be the last political battle involving Obama. Just look at what Congress (and the president) will have to deal with when Congress returns in September from its August recess. There’s the Iran deal, the Highway Trust Fund and, oh, a possible government shutdown over Planned Parenthood. Politico: “On Wednesday afternoon, 18 House Republicans told leadership that they “cannot and will not support any funding resolution … that contains any funding for Planned Parenthood.” Meanwhile, GOP social conservatives like Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Jeff Sessions of Alabama said they’d consider supporting an effort to attach a spending rider that would eliminate Planned Parenthood’s $528 million in annual government funding to must-pass spending legislation this fall.” This a real test for the GOP-led Congress, which has racked up some minor bipartisan victories (trade authority, Medicare doc-fix). Given that they know control both the House and Senate, Republicans won’t have Harry Reid to blame anymore.

It ain’t gonna be pretty

Folks, this is a slow-moving train wreck about to happen. Can anyone recall House Speaker Boehner calling any Harry Reid legislation a "piece of s***", as he called Mitch McConnell’s Senate highway bill? He said a lot of bad things about some Senate Dem legis but that harsh? Folks, this ain't gonna be pretty. And with a handful of 2016ers in the senate needing to show spark, it will be a political September to remember.

Kasich now cracks the Top 10

A new Quinnipiac poll -- which has Donald Trump in the national GOP lead -- also has Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 5%, which puts him in the Top 10 average of the last five national polls. And it knocks out Rick Perry, who falls to #11. Our numbers (using Quinnipiac, CNN, WaPo/ABC, Fox, USA Today/Suffolk):

  1. Trump: 19.4%
  2. Bush: 13%
  3. Walker: 11.8%
  4. Rubio: 6.2%
  5. Paul 6%
  6. Huckabee 5.4%
  7. Cruz: 5.2%
  8. Carson 5.2%
  9. Christie 3.2%
  10. Kasich 2.8%
  11. Perry 2.2%
  12. Santorum 1.4%
  13. Jindal 1.4%
  14. Fiorina 0.8%
  15. Pataki 0.6%
  16. Graham 0.4%
  17. Gilmore 0.0%

Comparing Hillary’s fav/unfav with Biden’s

The same Quinnipiac poll also shows Vice President Joe Biden with his best fav/unfav score in the last seven years of the survey (49%-39%), while Clinton has her worst fav/unfav ever in that poll (40%-51%).

Watching the economy: GDP estimate at 2.3% in second quarter

The U.S. economy is growing, but it’s still a bit sluggish. CNBC: “U.S. economic growth accelerated in the second quarter as a pick up in consumer spending offset the drag from soft business spending on equipment, suggesting a steady momentum that could bring the Federal Reserve closer to hiking interest rates this year. Gross domestic product expanded at a 2.3 percent annual rate, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. First-quarter GDP, previously reported to have shrunk at a 0.2 percent pace, was revised up to show it rising at a 0.6 percent rate.”

Battling over Cuba

Finally, Hillary Clinton on Friday will give a speech on ending Cuba’s trade embargo -- in Florida (the home state of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) and at Florida International University (where Marco Rubio has been an adjunct professor). Both Rubio and the Bush campaign hit Clinton’s upcoming speech on Friday. But don’t forget this recent Pew poll: 73% of Americans -- including 56% of Republicans -- support the United States re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. The same poll found 72% of all Americans -- and 59% of Republicans -- in favor of scrapping the trade embargo with Cuba.

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