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Upcoming Pennsylvania Senate primaries present clarity and confusion

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.
Mehmet Oz at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Penn., on April 2, 2022.
Mehmet Oz at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Penn., on April 2, 2022.Matt Rourke / AP

WASHINGTON — If it’s Wednesday ... Trump-endorsed Alex Mooney wins in member-vs.-member West Virginia-02 primary. ... But Trump-backed Charles Herbster loses to Jim Pillen in GOP’s Nebraska governor showdown. ... The Senate votes on abortion bill (which is expected to fail). ... President Biden, in Kankakee, Ill., speaks on the impact the war in Ukraine has had on food supply and prices. ... Democrats meddle in GOP’s gubernatorial primaries, per NBC’s Henry Gomez and Natasha Korecki. ... And NBC’s Benjy Sarlin on Biden vs. the “Ultra-MAGA agenda”

But first: Pennsylvania’s primaries are now less than a week away, and the Democratic Senate race has become crystal clear, while the GOP contest is anything but.

With progressives gaining strength in their party, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is running away in the Dem race, with last week’s Franklin & Marshall poll showing him ahead by 39 points (!!!) over Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa.

“We are squandering, in my opinion, an enormous opportunity to do some transformative good through legislation that is being stopped by a senator like Joe Manchin. And I'm not criticizing him. I'm simply saying I would vote differently,” Fetterman says in an interview with NBC’s Dasha Burns.

By contrast, the Republican contest has become increasingly foggy, with a new Fox News poll showing it now a three-person race – all of whom are separated by just three percentage points:

  • Mehmet Oz: 22 percent (+7 since March)
  • David McCormick: 20 percent (-4)
  • Kathy Barnette: 19 percent (+10)
  • Carla Sands: 8 percent (+2)
  • Jeff Bartos: 7 percent (-2)
  • Undecided: 18 percent (-13)

What’s more, the Fox poll finds a third of Pennsylvania primary voters — 37 percent — saying that Trump’s endorsement of Oz makes them more supportive of the celebrity, while the rest say it makes them less supportive (22 percent) or has no effect (37 percent).

Also, the conservative Club for Growth is going up with a $2 million supporting Barnette in the closing week (see below for more).

And maybe the biggest GOP story of all here is McCormick, who has tried to attach himself to Trump’s MAGA movement (see his latest ad), but who has struggled so far to make the connection.

“He may be a nice guy, but he’s not MAGA,” Trump said of McCormick last week. “He’s more Toomey than he is MAGA.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … $2 million

That’s how much the conservative Club for Growth is spending on television in the closing week before Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary to boost conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, per new spending filings reported by AdImpact. The move puts the group at odds with Trump, who has endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, after clashing with Trump in Ohio’s Senate race.

It’s the Club’s first expenditure of the primary, a biographical spot coming as Barnette appears to be gaining steam (she won the backing of a handful of other conservative groups Tuesday, too). And at least as of now, it’s good enough to make the Club the top spender in the final week of the race.

But up until this point, the pro-Barnette effort has been virtually non-existent on the airwaves. The pro-David McCormick and Mehmet Oz efforts alone have outspent Barnette’s campaign by a margin of more than 328-to-1.

So the question is: Can this late surge of cash help magnify Barnette’s late surge and win her the race? Or will her allies be wishing they jumped in earlier?

Other numbers you need to know today:

$4.37: The average price of gasoline, per AAA, which is a new record high.

57: How many House Republicans voted against an additional $40 billion in aid to Ukraine.

7: The number of Republican House members who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill who will not be serving in Congress next year after McKinley’s loss (New York Republican Rep. Tom Reed had already planned on retiring at the end of the year, but announced yesterday he would resign).

Tweet of the day

Midterm roundup: Trump goes 1-for-2 in last night’s primaries

Trump-backed businessman Charles Herbster, who faced multiple groping allegations, which he denied, lost the Nebraska governor’s primary to James Pillen, a pig farmer and University of Nebraska regent who was endorsed by term-limited GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts. Pillen got 33 percent of the vote (with 99 percent in), while Herbster got 30 percent, per the NBC News Decision Desk.

But Trump did get his pick in West Virginia’s 2nd District, where GOP Rep. Alex Mooney defeated fellow GOP Rep. David McKinley. Mooney got 54 percent of the vote to McKinley’s 36 percent, with 97 percent of the vote in.

McKinley drew Trump’s ire for supporting the bipartisan infrastructure package and an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The congressman said in a statement that he was “proud that I have always stood up for what's right for West Virginia — even when it hurt me politically.”

NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard notes that Mooney’s victory comes despite the fact that the new 2nd District included about half of his old district. “Multiple voters told us [Tuesday] that Trump’s endorsement of Mooney was their deciding factor,” Hillyard reported from West Virginia.

Elsewhere on the campaign trail:

Arizona Senate: Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly’s new ad features a local Republican businessman who says Kelly’s office helped him secure Covid relief funding.

Illinois Governor: A GOP outside group is up with a new spot bashing Republican Mayor Richard Irvin for previous comments praising both the Black Lives Matter movement and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, calling Irvin a Democrat.

Nevada Governor: A Stronger Nevada, a Democratic-aligned group that has been playing in the GOP primary, booked another $1.7 million in television advertising time this month, per AdImpact.

Wisconsin Governor: The Democratic-aligned Alliance for Common Sense placed $13.8 million in TV time starting in August ahead of the competitive governor’s race, per AdImpact.

Kentucky-04: Former President Trump endorsed Rep. Thomas Massie’s re-election. Massie had previously said Trump “is at fault” in the 2021 attack on the Capitol, and a year before, Trump had called on Republicans to “throw Massie out” of the party for holding up a Covid relief bill.

North Carolina-04: Progressive New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam’s congressional bid.

North Carolina-11: The Washington Post dives into the effort to unseat Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn.

Pennsylvania-12: Ocasio-Cortez also endorsed state Rep. Summer Lee.

Texas-28: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar ahead of the May 24 primary runoff. His opponent, progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros, picked up an endorsement from Tanya Benavides, who placed third in the March 1 primary.

Ad watch: The latest in Oz vs. McCormick

On Monday, David McCormick released an ad that included an old video of Donald Trump praising him. Though the ad featured Trump lauding McCormick, Trump has endorsed Mehmet Oz in the GOP Senate primary.

Now, Oz is out with an ad clarifying that exact point, featuring footage from Trump’s recent rally with Oz. In the ad, Trump calls McCormick “a liberal Wall Street Republican.”

“David is totally controlled and he is a candidate of special interests and the Washington establishment,” Trump adds.

The two candidates have already spent a combined $23 million on ads in this race, according to AdImpact, with their outside allies spending millions more.

Talking policy with Benjy Sarlin

Biden vs. the “Ultra-MAGA agenda”: Biden delivered a speech on inflation Tuesday, in which he pledged to work with the Federal Reserve and Congress, even as he cautioned the pandemic and war in Ukraine were still the primary drivers of rising prices. He referenced plans to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations and drive down drug prices, which Democrats are hoping might go into a reconciliation bill if they can convince Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. to sign on.

But the standout theme was his extended attack on what he called “the congressional Republican plan” and “the Ultra-MAGA Agenda,” which he said would raise taxes on most Americans and threaten to undo programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Biden was referring to Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.’s 11-point plan, (see previous First Read coverage here) which calls for requiring all Americans to pay income tax, which most currently do not, and would sunset all federal legislation every five years unless Congress votes for an extension.

Scott’s plan is an easy target for Democrats right now, but Biden’s lines tying it to the broader GOP were misleading, especially a ludicrous whopper that falsely implied most Republicans had signed onto it.

“I can’t believe that the majority of Republicans buy on to Scott’s plan,” Biden said. “But that’s a plan in writing, and he’s in the leadership.”

Scott’s plan isn’t backed by the majority of Senate Republicans, and the best the White House offered as evidence were a handful of stray quotes from members and candidates, some just vaguely praising him for offering his ideas. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has condemned the Scott plan in fiery terms using the same substantive critiques as Biden and promised it would go nowhere under his leadership.

That said, Scott isn’t some irrelevant gadfly, either. While he's stressed his plan is his own personal project, he's the chair of the Senate GOP’s powerful campaign arm, he’s reportedly Trump’s preferred pick for majority leader, and he’s been on a national campaign for months promoting his ideas and attacking his critics on the right. Scott's plan was also greeted with praise by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. Highlighting his ideas is clearly fair game, which makes the dishonesty more glaring.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

A federal judge ordered that New York’s congressional primary be postponed until Aug. 23 with its congressional map still in flux.

The DNC is making what they call a “historic” seven-figure investment in a paid media campaign targeting Latinos, NBC News’ Suzanne Gamboa reports.

Elon Musk plans to allow Trump back on Twitter after he completes his purchase of the company, he told attendees at an event yesterday.