For Democrats, the last days of 2018 look different than they did in 2016

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: A woman walks past election posters, one of them supporting Richard Ojeda, candidate for a US House seat in West Virginia
Election posters in Huntington, West Virginia. Michael Mathes / AFP - Getty Images

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — In the past week or so of the 2018 campaign, something definitely happened — in favor of the Democrats and at the expense of Republicans.

We saw it in the weekly Gallup poll, which had President Trump’s approval rating down 4 points to 40 percent; we saw it in our NBC/Marist poll of Arizona, where Democrats are doing as well on the ballot test with likely voters as registered voters, suggesting enthusiasm is on their side; and we saw it in the New York Times Upshot/Siena and Monmouth polls of key House races, which have Democrats ahead or in strong position to upset GOP incumbents.

Now none of this is to say that Democrats are destined to win back the House (the GOP has a 20 to 30 percent chance of holding on) or even to prevent LOSING Senate seats (where the map is so tough for them). But what is clear about the final week of this midterm season – with now six days to go – is how different it is in the closing days versus what we saw in 2016, when Comey, daily WikiLeaks disclosures and a disciplined Trump dominated the final days of that contest.

Is this due to movement after the pipe-bomb scare and Pittsburgh? Is this the political environment snapping back to where it was pre-Kavanaugh? Or is it just noise and a false sense of where things truly stand? (After all, it was six days before Election Day 2016 when the polls had Hillary Clinton up 6 points in Wisconsin.)

The canary in the coal mine if something is definitely happening in the Democrats’ direction — especially after Pittsburgh and the pipe bombs — is Tennessee, where our NBC/Marist poll has Republican Marsha Blackburn ahead by 5 points, though that’s within the margin of error.

What is ultimately more important in that contest: the ballot test (where Blackburn is ahead) or the fav/unfav numbers (where Democrat Phil Bredesen is +13 and Blackburn is -1)? Do hold-your-nose voters in that state not show up, or do they send a message?

Who would you rather be right now — Bredesen or Beto?

Speaking of Tennessee, here’s a question to ponder: Who would you rather be right now — Bredesen or Beto O’Rourke in Texas? Both are trailing in red states by 5 points in the latest polls, though that’s within the margin of error.

In Bredesen’s favor are his postitive fav/unfav numbers (while Beto is upside down in the polls we’ve seen). In Beto’s favor is his cult-like status, plus all the money he has.

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So what plays better for a Democrat in a Republican state — bright colors, or moderation?

By the way, we have another NBC/Marist poll coming out later today…

A conservative smear scheme against Mueller?

NBC News: “Special counsel Robert Mueller last week asked the FBI to investigate a possible scam in which a woman would make false claims that he was guilty of sexual misconduct and harassment, after several political reporters were contacted about doing a story on the alleged misconduct.”

“At the center of the scheme is publicity-hungry Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman, who has repeatedly dabbled in internet conspiracy theories in the past, including promoting the idea that murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was killed by deep-state government operatives,” the Daily Beast adds. “Burkman denied involvement in any attempt to pay people to frame or accuse Mueller. But he also claims that he has witnesses who will expose the Special Counsel as a sexual harasser and has scheduled a Thursday press conference in Northern Virginia to introduce his first accuser.”

And more from the Daily Beast: “In his efforts to dig up dirt on Mueller, Burkman appears to have enlisted outside help. Jacob Wohl, a right-wing Twitter personality and a self-described friend of Burkman, said Burkman had told him he had hired Matthew Cohen, who claims to be a managing partner at the private investigations company Surefire Intelligence, to assist with the investigation. In fact, it appears that Cohen is Wohl.”

Kellyanne Conway’s husband argues Trump ending birthright citizenship by executive order would be unconstitutional

Yesterday, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said this in defending the president’s apparent attempt to end birthright citizenship: “There are constitutional scholars who say the 14th amendment has been misinterpreted and actually the Supreme Court has never gave a solid opinion on this,” she told reporters.

But last night, Conway’s husband, George, disagreed: “Sometimes the Constitution’s text is plain as day and bars what politicians seek to do. That’s the case with President Trump’s proposal to end ‘birthright citizenship’ through an executive order. Such a move would be unconstitutional and would certainly be challenged. And the challengers would undoubtedly win,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed with former acting Obama Solicitor General Neal Katyal.

“Birthright citizenship sprang from the ashes of the worst Supreme Court decision in U.S. history, Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 decision that said that slaves, and the children of slaves, could not be citizens of the United States. The blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans was shed to repudiate that idea. Afterward, the drafters of the 14th Amendment declared in their very first sentence, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The drafters were motivated by their utter revulsion toward slavery and a system that relegated people to subordinate political status because of their birth. They weren’t thinking of, or concerned with, any exceptions to birthright citizenship other than the absolutely essential.”

Trump gets a cold response in Pittsburgh

“President Donald Trump visited the Tree of Life synagogue, site of a mass shooting that killed 11 people Saturday, amid protests of his presence here Tuesday. The president, who was accompanied by daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner — both of whom are Jewish — and his wife, Melania, spent about 13 minutes inside the synagogue. While he was there, the president laid stones and white flowers at memorials for each of the 11 victims. He did not make public remarks before departing in a motorcade,” per NBC’s Phil McCausland and Jonathan Allen.

“His visit was controversial in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the Jewish community here, among city leaders and in the political world. Trump has denounced the "scourge of anti-Semitism" that drove the shootings, but his critics have said that his highly charged rhetoric has contributed to toxicity in American politics.”

The president is back on the campaign trail

President Trump holds a campaign rally in Estero, Fla., at 7:00 pm ET.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Peter Baker writes that Trump is throwing out so much stuff against the wall — cutting more taxes, ending birthright citizenship, sending troops to the border — he’s trying to see what sticks in this tough political environment.

“In the last days before a midterm congressional election that will determine the future of his presidency, Mr. Trump seems to be throwing almost anything he can think of against the wall to see what might stick, no matter how untethered from political or legal reality. Frustrated that other topics — like last week’s spate of mail bombs — came to dominate the news, the president has sought to seize back the national stage in the last stretch of the campaign.”

“Ad hoc though they may be, Mr. Trump’s red-meat ideas have come to shape the conversation and, he hopes, may galvanize otherwise complacent conservative voters to turn out on Tuesday. But he risks motivating opponents, as well, and he has put even some of his fellow Republicans on the spot as they are forced to take a position on issues they were not expecting to have to address.”