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Dems, Republicans try to game California's upcoming 'Top 2' primaries

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: California Gubernatorial Candidtates Town Hall
California gubernatorial candidates (L-R) Travis Allen, John Chiang, John Cox, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa. Los Angeles, CA - JAN 13: 26th Annual Empowerment Congress Summit Empowering California: A Local Perspective | Gubernatorial Town Hall. REUTERS/Empowerment Congress/Leroy Hamilton/PoolPOOL / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Next Tuesday, June 5, brings us arguably the most important date in the battle for the House before Election Day: California’s Top 2 primaries.

Under the state’s primary system, the Top 2 candidates, regardless of political party, advance to the general election. That means the possibility of two Democrats being at the top of the tickets for governor (Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa) and for U.S. Senate (Dianne Feinstein, Kevin de Leon). But it also means the possibility of two Republican candidates advancing to the general in three key House races in Southern California (CA-39, CA-48, CA-49), which are central to the Democrats’ path to winning back the House. Getting shut out in two or all three of these contests could make it harder for Democrats to net the 23 seats needed to flip the chamber.

So both parties are engaged in different strategies to game California’s Top 2 system. On the GOP side, President Trump has endorsed Republican John Cox for governor, trying to unite California Republicans around a single candidate, which could help drive turnout in the House and downballot races. “On June 5th., vote for GOP Gubernatorial Candidate JOHN COX, a really good and highly competent man. He’ll Make California Great Again!” Trump tweeted yesterday. In addition, House Republicans have opened an office in Southern California to spur GOP turnout in the three key House districts.

On the Democratic side, the DCCC has been airing TV ads both IN FAVOR of their preferred candidates in these crowded primaries (see here and here) and AGAINST Republican candidates (see here and here). And while House Democrats want two Democrats at the top of the ticket for governor – to drive Dem turnout and depress the GOP’s – gubernatorial frontrunner Gavin Newsom prefers a Republican opponent, since someone like fellow Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa represents a greater general-election threat than either of the two leading GOP candidates (Cox and Travis Allen). “You know my position,” Newsom said in a debate earlier this month. ‘I think a Republican would be ideal. Either one of these (Cox, Allen) would do.”

What’s fascinating about all of these races is that they’re essentially margin-of-error contests to make the Top 2, where candidates in positions No. 2, No. 3 and even No. 4 are separated by just a handful of points in the public and private polling. All of which makes the June 5 primaries – and the strategies going into them – quite a game.

Trump blames Democrats for his administration’s policy of separating migrant families

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Trump fired off this tweet: “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S. Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL! DEMOCRATS ARE PROTECTING MS-13 THUGS.”

For one thing, it’s not a law that separates migrant children from their families. And for another, it’s a policy Trump’s own administration created. NBC’s Benjy Sarlin: “The administration confirmed this month that breaking up families was a byproduct of their new ‘zero tolerance’ plan to prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally, which would require minors who traveled with their family to be taken into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Under the previous policy, children were usually allowed to stay with their parents in shelters while awaiting legal proceedings.”

“‘If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,’ Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier this month at an event in Arizona announcing the move. ‘If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.’”

Fact-checking Trump’s tweets on 2016 Russian interference and the Russia probe

Also over the Memorial Day weekend — and as well as this morning — Trump issued additional tweets that require some fact-checking.

“Why didn’t President Obama do something about the so-called Russian Meddling when he was told about it by the FBI before the Election? Because he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win, and he didn’t want to upset the apple cart! He was in charge, not me, and did nothing.”

The facts: While critics have argued that Obama could have done more, it’s inaccurate to say he “did nothing.” On Oct. 7, 2016, his administration accused Russia of interfering in the election, and said that the WikiLeaks releases were part of the Russia-directed effort. (The Obama administration later sanctioned Russia for the interference.) Strikingly, however, Trump seized on the WikiLeaks releases. "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks," Trump said in Ohio on Nov. 4, 2016.

“The 13 Angry Democrats (plus people who worked 8 years for Obama) working on the rigged Russia Witch Hunt, will be MEDDLING with the mid-term elections, especially now that Republicans (stay tough!) are taking the lead in Polls. There was no Collusion, except by the Democrats!”

The facts: Robert Mueller served under Obama for just four to five years (2009-2013), and he was appointed as FBI director under George W. Bush. And while Trump maintains there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia, there were multiple reported contacts – including the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Donald Trump Jr.’s direct messages with WikiLeaks and Roger Stone seeking information on Hillary Clinton from WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.

Trump heads to Tennessee to campaign for Marsha Blackburn

At 8:00 pm ET, Trump holds a rally in Nashville, Tenn., for GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn. The AP: “Trump is traveling to Nashville, Tennessee, on Tuesday to raise campaign cash for Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the party's leading Senate hopeful in Tennessee, and headline a rally with his most loyal supporters. Blackburn is expected to face Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen to replace Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who is retiring. The Tennessee campaign is among several races crucial to Trump's plans to maintain control of the Senate, where Republicans are defending a narrow two-seat majority.”

Republican Rep. Tom Garrett won’t seek re-election

“Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) announced Monday that he is struggling with alcoholism and will abandon his run for a second term in Congress so he can focus on recovery and his family,” the Washington Post writes. “Garrett, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, is the 48th Republican to retire or announce they will not seek reelection to the House this year, according to a list maintained by the House Press Gallery… Garrett, 46, was facing a robust challenge from his Democratic opponent, journalist and author Leslie Cockburn, who had raised more money and had more cash on hand than he had.”

The Cook Political Report is keeping Garrett’s VA-5 district as “Lean R.” Still, it’s notable that three states – California, Pennsylvania and Virginia — could provide Democrats with nearly half of the 23 seats they need to win the House. And three other states – New York, New Jersey and Texas – could provide close to the other half.

Romney: “I don’t think that I would point to the president as a role model for my grandkids”

In an exclusive interview, NBC’s Garrett Haake asked Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney this question:

HAAKE: Do you think [Trump] is a role model?

And here was Romney’s answer:

ROMNEY: I-I don’t think that I would point to the president as a role model for my grandkids on the basis of his personal style. He has departed in some cases from the truth, and has attacked in a way that I think is not entirely appropriate. I think that his policies have been by and large a good deal better than I might have expected. But some of the things he has said are not ones that I would aspire for my grandkids to adopt.