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Fear, loathing and lies on the 2018 campaign trail

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: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Elko, Nevada, on Oct. 20. Carolyn Kaster / AP

WASHINGTON — If there’s one way to sum up the past week in American politics, it’s this — it’s been a week of fear, loathing and lies in the closing days of the 2018 midterm campaign.

The fear

The pipe-bombs targeted at prominent Democrats and the manhunt that’s underway; President Trump prepping the U.S. military to send hundreds of troops to the border to confront that migrant caravan that’s more than 1,000 miles away; and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen saying this about that caravan: "We do not have any intention right now to shoot at people. They will be apprehended, however," she said. "But I also take my officer and agents, their own personal safety, extraordinarily seriously. They do have the ability of course to defend themselves."

The loathing

President’s Trump’s 3:00 am ET tweet blasting CNN (“Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’”); that rough and nasty Andrew Gillum-versus-Ron DesSantis gubernatorial debate in Florida; and Trump embracing being a nationalist (“You know what I am? I'm a nationalist. OK? I'm a nationalist. Nationalist. Use that word. Use that word.")

And the lies

Trump’s assertion that "criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed” into the caravan – later admitting there was no proof to his assertion (“There's no proof of anything. But they could very well be”); Trump and GOP candidates insisting that they’re guarding protections for those with pre-existing conditions – when they’ve supported a lawsuit arguing that Obamacare and the provisions in it (including protections for pre-existing conditions) are unconstitutional; and Democrats accusing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare – when what he said was that the only way to achieve entitlement reform is when both parties control Washington.

We have 11 days to go until Election Day…

Brace yourselves for the unexpected

And speaking of 11 days to go until Election Day… It was at this very same moment in the 2016 presidential campaign — 11 days out — when James Comey sent his letter that upended that race.

So expect the unexpected. There’s plenty of time for another twist, turn and more in this 2018 campaign.

Trump has completely abandoned his role as Soother-in-Chief

Going back to Trump’s handling of the pipe-bomb scare and his 3:00 am ET tweet… It’s unfair to blame him for the scare; we have no idea who sent them and what that person’s motivations were.

But where Trump DOES deserve criticism is how he’s handled the moment — he hasn’t played the role as president in trying to calm things down. He’s reacted as a partisan Republican, not as president of the United States.

The closing TV ads: Health care for Democrats, Nancy Pelosi for Republicans

NBC’s Ben Kamisar and one of us write how the tax law (for Republicans) and Donald Trump (for Democrats) haven’t been the universal messages in TV ads that everyone might have expected a year ago. “Instead, Democrats and Republicans have coalesced around two messages they believe do have that power.”

“Democrats have long pegged health care as a winning issue that allows them to paint Republicans as playing political games with protections for pre-existing conditions and overall coverage. And the GOP has fallen back on its tried-and-true strategy of linking candidates to an unpopular House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to warn against a liberal takeover of Congress.”

Here’s a taste of the GOP’s anti-Pelosi ads:

“Abby Finkenauer is Nancy Pelosi’s dream”

“Liberal Leslie Cockburn, Pelosi’s values, not Virginia’s”

“She wants to put Pelosi back in charge”

“Brindisi would rubber-stamp Pelosi’s agenda”

“Another vote for the Pelosi agenda”

“Nancy Pelosi wants back in charge”

Meanwhile, “Democratic ads in the last few weeks have included spots with voters telling their personal stories; ads attacking lawmakers for past votes to repeal Obamacare; Democrats leaning on healthcare to address unique challenges in their districts like access to rural healthcare; and hits on lawmakers who supported the GOP healthcare plan that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.”

Here’s why some Dem candidates aren’t talking that much about Trump

So why aren’t Democratic candidates flooding the airwaves with anti-Trump messages, especially the tried-and-true “check and balance” argument against the sitting president? NBC’s Benjy Sarlin takes a stab at some answers. “First, Democratic operatives assume that attitudes toward Trump — while critical to the midterms — are already "baked in" thanks to his omnipresence in the political conversation. With the president constantly setting news cycles on fire, there's more value in promoting topics that might otherwise fall out of the conversation.”

“Another big factor in the lack of Trump-centric messaging is the midterm map, which includes an unusually high number of races in deep-red territory. Democratic Senators in Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Montana have even run re-election ads showcasing their support for Trump policies like building a border wall.”

And third, Sarlin writes, some Democratic strategists worry that Trump depresses some key Dem groups. “Progressive groups working on voter turnout at the grassroots level say that leading with anti-Trump information for voters is sometimes counterproductive with key liberal-leaning demographic groups, including millennials and Latinos. Some activists fear that the noise around the president might discourage those who may not be likely to vote from participating in politics rather than psyche them up to cast ballots.”

NPR/PBS/Marist poll shows Dems with 10-point lead

“Roughly two-thirds of voters say President Trump is a factor (either major or minor) in their vote in this year's midterms, far more than said so in 2014 about President Obama,” per a new national NPR/PBS/Marist poll.

The poll has Trump’s job-approval rating at 41 percent among registered voters, and it has Democrats with a 10-point lead on the generic ballot, 50 percent to 40 percent.