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Despite Pennsylvania's new map, it does matter who wins in tonight's PA-18 race

by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /
Image: The crowd cheers during a rally for Conor Lamb at the United Steelworkers headquarters
The crowd cheers during a rally for Conor Lamb at the United Steelworkers headquarters March 10, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lamb is the Democratic nominee for the 18th congressional district special election.Raymond Thompson / for NBC News

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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

WASHINGTON — By now, you know that the congressional district where tonight’s Pennsylvania special election is taking place won’t exist in its current form come November due to the state’s new congressional map. And you also know that the outcome in this district likely won’t tell us anything new about the political environment. (After all, there isn’t much difference in Democrats winning by 2 points — or losing by 2 points — in this +20 Trump district.)

But the outcome of the contest between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone DOES matter.

It matters because a victory clears the field for Lamb or Saccone when it comes to the new congressional districts where they’ll likely run in November (PA-17 for Lamb, PA-14 for Saccone). “If Lamb (D) wins, he'll be in a much stronger position to take on Rep. Keith Rothfus (R) in #PA17 in the fall (in fact, he'd probably be a slight favorite). If Saccone (R) wins, he'll have inside track for #PA14 to the south,” the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman tweeted.

It matters because a GOP loss tonight could possibly lead to more Republican retirements. “If [Lamb] wins, you’re going to see probably another half a dozen Republicans say they’re not running again,” former Vice President Joe Biden said while campaigning for Lamb last week, per the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin.

It matters because if they win, Lamb or Saccone would get incumbent-protection services as a sitting member of Congress.

And it matters because of the campaign messages that the parties and candidates are trying to sell voters – like the GOP’s tax cuts, the GOP’s anti-Pelosi ads and the Dems’ argument that they’re running fresh faces who are “stability” candidates. “If GOP can't sell tax cuts effectively in a CD that voted for Trump by 19.6%, where will they be able to in the fall?” Wasserman asks.

Polls close in Pennsylvania at 8:00 pm ET.

Saccone: My opponents have a hatred for Trump, country and God

NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard: “Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone on Monday evening asserted that his political opponents ‘hate’ the president, the United States, and even God. ‘They’re energized for hate for our president,’ said Saccone, standing alongside Donald Trump Jr. in a firehouse in this western Pennsylvania town. He continued, ‘Many of them have a hatred for our country. I’ll tell you some more — my wife and I saw it again today, they have a hatred for God.’” Here’s video of Saccone’s remarks.

Be sure to check out The Rundown

If you haven’t checked out our new blog on the 2018 midterms and beyond — The Rundown — give it a try. Here’s a link to bookmark and check daily.

Trump’s silence about the poisoning in the U.K. is deafening

“British Prime Minister Theresa May says her government has concluded it is ‘highly likely’ Russia is responsible for the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent,” the AP wrote yesterday. “May told British lawmakers on Monday that Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were exposed to a nerve agent known as Novichok, a weapon developed in the Soviet Union in the end of the Cold War.”

“‘Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,’ she said.”

But guess who hasn’t commented on the poisoning — despite chiming in on past attacks or violence in the U.K.? President Trump.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did call the poisoning an “outrage” and said the United States stands by Britain. But she wouldn’t say if Russia was behind the act. “Right now, we are standing with our UK ally. I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that. And we’re going to continue to work with the UK, and we certainly stand with them throughout this process.”

But guess who did single out Russia? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Tillerson says ex-spy's poisoning in UK 'clearly came from Russia,' vows it 'will trigger a response',” the AP says.

(Update: After First Read was published this morning, the Washington Post reported — and Trump himself subsequently confirmed — that Tillerson is out as Secretary of State, to be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo. The Washington Post reported that Trump asked Tillerson to step aside on Friday, before his comments on Russia.)

Nunes & Co.’s credibility on the Russia investigation ended a while ago

“House Republicans investigating foreign interference in the 2016 election say they have found no evidence that Russians colluded with any members of the Trump campaign and dispute a key finding from the intelligence community that Russia had developed a preference for the Republican nominee during the election,” NBC’s Mike Memoli reports.

But remember, whether it was House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes’ statement outside the White House or their release of the Nunes memo, the House GOP’s credibility and good faith in this investigation ended a while ago.

As former top CIA official John McLaughlin, an MSNBC national security analyst, tweeted last night: “As a subject or observer of Cong oversight of intell for 40 years, I've never seen a party drive a stake thru the process as House Reps just did. It depends on a bi-partisan approach that at least gives the minority a voice. Take that away and the thing dies. It just did.”

WaPo: Two sources claim Roger Stone had contact with Julian Assange in 2016

Meanwhile, this new story from the Washington Post isn’t the greatest timing for Nunes & Co. “In the spring of 2016, longtime political operative Roger Stone had a phone conversation that would later seem prophetic, according to the person on the other end of the line. Stone, an informal adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, said he had learned from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that his organization had obtained emails that would torment senior Democrats such as John Podesta, then campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” the Post writes.

A reminder: Podesta’s emails were hacked in March 2016; WikiLeaks didn’t start releasing them until October 7.

More from the Post: “The person, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing federal investigation into Russian campaign interference, is one of two Stone associates who say Stone claimed to have had contact with Assange in 2016. The second, former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg, said in an interview Monday that Stone told him that he had met with Assange — a conversation Nunberg said investigators for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III recently asked him to describe.”

“In an interview Monday, [Stone] again denied that he had any advance notice about the hacked emails or any contact with Assange. He said he only recalled having one conversation with anyone in which he alluded to meeting the WikiLeaks founder — a comment he said he made as a joke to a long-winded Nunberg. ‘I wish him no ill will, but Sam can manically and persistently call you,’ Stone said, recalling that Nunberg had called him on a Friday to ask about his plans for the weekend. ‘I said, “I think I will go to London for the weekend and meet with Julian Assange.” It was a joke, a throwaway line to get him off the phone. The idea that I would meet with Assange undetected is ridiculous on its face.’”

A timeline of how WikiLeaks affected the 2016 race

September 2015: FBI agent notifies low-level DNC tech-support contractor that at least one computer network had been compromised

March 19, 2016: Russian hackers gain access to Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta's emails

July 21, 2016: GOP convention concludes with Trump giving his speech accepting the Republican nomination

July 22, 2016: WikiLeaks releases stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee

July 24, 2016: DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigns

July 25, 2016: Democratic convention begins

July 27, 2016: In his final news conference of his 2016 campaign, Trump asks Russia: "If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing"

August 21, 2016: Roger Stone tweets that “it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel”

October 2, 2016: Stone tweets, “Wednesday@HillaryClinton is done #WikiLeaks”

October 4, 2016: WikiLeaks' Julian Assange says his organization will publish emails related to the 2016 campaign

October 7, 2016: Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence release a statement directly saying that Russia is interfering in the 2016 election

October 7, 2016: WikiLeaks begins releasing Podesta's emails

October 31, 2016: "This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove," Trump says on the campaign trail

November 4, 2016: "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks," Trump says from Ohio.

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