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It's Primary Day in Texas. Here are six storylines to watch.

by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /
Signs mark a polling site in San Antonio for early voting that began Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 and ended Friday. The Texas primary is Tuesday, March 6. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)Eric Gay / AP

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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 — For more than a year, we’ve written about, reported on and analyzed the 2018 midterms. And today, they’re finally here — the first official primaries of the midterm season — in Texas.

Here are six storylines we’ll be watching:

1. Do Democrats turn out almost at the same rate as Republicans?

As we noted yesterday, nearly 50,000 more Democrats than Republicans voted early in Texas’ largest 15 counties — a reversal from 2014, when early-voting Republicans easily outnumbered Democrats in the same counties. Now these large counties don’t include the more rural (and GOP-leaning) areas, so here’s the comparison to track tonight: In 2014, 1.3 million Republicans voted in the gubernatorial and Senate primaries, versus roughly 500,000 Democrats. How much closer do those numbers get tonight?

2. Can George P. Bush avoid a runoff?

It’s not every day that we pay attention to a race for land commissioner. But it’s also not every day that a Bush scion – in the Trump Era — happens to be on the ballot. Incumbent Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the son of Jeb Bush, needs to surpass 50 percent to avoid a May 22 runoff against former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who wants his old job back. President Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have endorsed Bush. But is that enough when the GOP, even in the Lone Star State, is the party of Trump and not of the Bushes?

3. Who wins the Dems’ gubernatorial primary?

In maybe the least talked-about major primary race in Texas, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez faces off against businessman Andrew White (son of former Gov. Mark White) in the Democratic race to take on incumbent GOP Gov. Greg Abbott. Yes, Abbott is a shoo-in to win re-election, but either Valdez or White will be on the top of the Democratic ticket with likely Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke.

4. Does Laura Moser make the runoff in TX-7?

This has been the race with all the Democratic drama after the DCCC dropped oppo on fellow Democrat Laura Moser (for criticizing small-town Paris, Texas while she was a writer living in DC). The question tonight will answer: Did the oppo work for the DCCC? Or backfire? Before the Dems’ House campaign arm intervened, the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman identified lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (backed by EMILY’s List) and attorney Alex Triantaphyllis as the top Dem candidates to challenge GOP Rep. John Culberson, who is very vulnerable in this affluent Houston district.

5. Who wins the GOP’s TX-21 primary?

A whopping 18 Republicans are running to replace retiring Rep. Lamar Smith in this San Antonio/Austin suburbs district — led by former Ted Cruz staffer Chip Roy, former U.S. Rep. Quico Canseco, state Rep. Jason Isaac, Bexar County GOP Chair Robert Stovall and former Bush administration official Jenifer Sarver (who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016). With the wrong candidate, there’s an outside chance Democrats could make this race interesting.

6. Who wins the Dem TX-32 primary?

Another vulnerable GOP congressman is Rep. Pete Sessions (Hillary Clinton won his district in 2016), and the top Dems are former Obama State Department official Ed Meier, attorney and former NFL player Colin Allred and former USDA official Lillian Salerno, who is backed by EMILY’s List.

Introducing our “Rundown” blog on key midterm news and reporting

With the official start of the 2018 primary season, we’ve unveiled our new “MTP 2018 Rundown Blog,” which features the latest news, analysis and data for the midterms. Yesterday’s posts included the ad spending in next week’s PA-18 special election (which is expected to top $12 million), our Top 10 Senate takeovers, George P. Bush’s ads, how Trump’s tariffs are playing in the midterms, a new Wisconsin poll, and Thad Cochran’s upcoming resignation, which will trigger a special election in November.

Check it out — and bookmark it!

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The real Russia story on Monday wasn’t Sam Nunberg. Instead, it was that New Yorker profile of Christopher Steele

For all the attention on former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg’s multiple cable TV appearances Monday, the day’s biggest Russia-related news came from Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile on dossier author Christopher Steele. Among the news and nuggets from the article:

  • Many of Steele's assertions have turned out to be true. "His allegation that the Kremlin favored Trump in 2016 and was offering his campaign dirt on Hillary has been borne out. So has his claim that the Kremlin and WikiLeaks were working together to release the D.N.C.’s e-mails. Key elements of Steele’s memos on Carter Page have held up, too, including the claim that Page had secret meetings in Moscow with Rosneft and Kremlin officials. Steele may have named the wrong oil-company official, but, according to recent congressional disclosures, he was correct that a top Rosneft executive talked to Page about a payoff.”
  • Steele wrote another memo in late November 2016 that Russia wanted to block Mitt Romney as Trump's choice to be secretary of state, according to a senior Russian official. "The official said that he was merely relaying talk circulating in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but what he’d heard was astonishing: people were saying that the Kremlin had intervened to block Trump’s initial choice for Secretary of State, Mitt Romney." Trump didn't reject Romney for secretary of state until mid-December 2016.
  • It is believed one person is already dead as a result of the dossier's publication: “During [Fusion GPS’] Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, his lawyer asserted that ‘somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier.’ Who that could be has been the subject of much media speculation. One possibility that has been mentioned is Oleg Erovinkin, a former F.S.B. officer and top aide to Igor Sechin, the Rosneft president. On December 26, 2016, Erovinkin was found dead in his car. No official cause of death has been cited. No evidence has emerged that Erovinkin was a Steele source, and in fact Special Counsel Mueller is believed to be investigating a different death that is possibly related to the dossier.”
  • Steele never told the Clinton campaign or the Democrats he had approached the FBI about his findings. “As a top Clinton-campaign official told me, ‘If I’d known the F.B.I. was investigating Trump, I would have been shouting it from the rooftops!’”
  • Obama and Biden weren't notified about the Steele dossier's findings until Jan. 5, 2017 — 15 days before Trump's inauguration. “As one person present later told me, ‘No one understands that at the White House we weren’t briefed about the F.B.I.’s investigations. We had no information on collusion. All we saw was what the Russians were doing. The F.B.I. puts anything about Americans in a lockbox.’”

Sam Nunberg’s day on cable TV

As for Nunberg, here’s NBC News: “After a day spent belligerently defying special counsel Robert Mueller, former Donald Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg appeared to reverse himself Monday night and said he likely will cooperate with a subpoena seeking campaign documents related to the Russia investigation. Nunberg helped Trump prepare for the first Republican presidential primary debate in August 2015 along with the man he has described as his mentor, veteran Republican operative Roger Stone. He made a bravado tour of television talk shows Monday declaring he wouldn't cooperate with the subpoena.”

“‘The president's right, it's a witch hunt,’ Nunberg told MSNBC's Katy's Tur. But Monday night, Nunberg, who said he still hadn't talked with his attorney, told NBC News that he would probably cooperate with Mueller in the end.”

Paul Ryan vs. Trump on tariffs

The other big story playing out today… “President Trump, facing an angry chorus of protests from leaders of his own party, including the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, insisted on Monday that he would not back down from his plan to impose across-the-board tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. But the White House was devising ways to potentially soften the impact of the measures on major trading partners,” the New York Times writes.

More: “The intense maneuvering, which began before Mr. Trump’s unexpected announcement of the tariffs last Thursday, is likely to delay any formal rollout of the measures until next week, according to several officials who have been briefed on the deliberations. On Monday, Mr. Ryan, the most powerful Republican in the House, broke with the president, declaring through a spokeswoman, ‘We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance with this plan.’”

Cochran to retire, setting up Mississippi’s second Senate race in November

Finally, “Citing ill health, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced Monday that he will resign his Senate seat, effective April 1,” per NBC’s Jonathan Allen. “The early departure clears the way for Gov. Phil Bryant, a fellow Republican, to appoint an interim successor — perhaps Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves — and sets up a special election on Nov. 6. It also raises the possibility that State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who announced a primary challenge to Republican Sen. Roger Wicker last week, will switch races to take on Bryant's pick.”

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