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Primary season is upon us. Here are 10 contests to watch.

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

by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray , Carrie Dann and Andrew Rafferty /
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

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WASHINGTON — The 2018 midterm season has officially been underway for three weeks, with primary contests in Texas and Illinois yielding plenty of intraparty drama already this month (and there’s more Texas intrigue to come, with contested runoffs on May 22).

It’s going to be a very interesting spring and summer as both parties fight amongst themselves to choose the candidates who will appear on the ballot in November. Here are ten of the most compelling, contentious or consequential primaries to watch before we head into the fall — from earliest to latest.

1. WV-SEN, GOP primary (May 8) — Republicans are increasingly worried that former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who served a year in prison after the 2010 explosion at his West Virginia mine — could come out on top in the primary. If he does, many fear that vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin would have a far easier path to reelection in the fall than if he faced either of Blankenship’s main opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins or state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

2. IN-SEN, GOP primary (May 8) — Incumbent Joe Donnelly is one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country, but the three main GOP contenders to take him on —Todd Rokita and Luke Messer and Mike Braun — must first get through a brutal and deeply personal brawl to win the nod.

3. OH-GOV, Dem and GOP primary (May 8) — Former federal consumer watchdog Richard Cordray and longtime Ohio pol Dennis Kucinich are the top candidates fighting for the Democratic nomination. Attorney General Mike DeWine is the heavy favorite against Lt. Gov Mary Taylor on the GOP side, but it’s been a nasty race, with a pro-Taylor super PAC deriding DeWine on TV as insufficiently close to Trump and DeWine branding his opponent as a “slacker.”

4. GA GOV, Dem primary (May 22) — Candidates Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are locked in a tense contest as the two female Democrats try to claim the party’s mantle, with race playing a prominent role (Abrams is black, Evans is white.)

5. California House primaries (June 5) — Orange County’s changing demographics and Clinton-friendly districts should be favorable to Democrats, particularly after a pair of high-profile Republican retirements. But the state’s top-two primary system threatens to shut Democrats out of several contests completely if too many Democratic candidates divide the vote amongst themselves.

6. VA-SEN, GOP primary (June 12) — Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine is expected to have a fairly smooth reelection race, but the outcome of the GOP primary still may have important consequences for the Republican Party up and down the ballot in Virginia. The best-known GOP contender so far is Corey Stewart, who stridently defended Confederate imagery during his near-win in the gubernatorial primary last year. Republicans privately worry that Stewart at the top of the ticket could drag down moderate Republican House candidates elsewhere in the state, hurting the party’s chances of keeping the House majority.

7. WI-SEN, GOP primary (August 14) — There’s a ton of outside money already pouring into Wisconsin as state Sen. Leah Vukmir (who’s been endorsed by Scott Walker’s wife Tonette) and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson (who has the backing of the Club for Growth and megadonor Richard Uihlein, among others) battle for the chance to take on vulnerable Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

8. AZ-SEN, GOP primary (August 28) — Conservative Kelli Ward has been bashing Rep. Martha McSally from the right (and don’t forget that Joe Arpaio is in this race, too). The winner will face a strong candidate in Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

9. FL-GOV, Dem and GOP primary (August 28) — Guns are becoming a big issue on both sides of this primary as Gwen Graham (daughter to former senator and governor Bob Graham) dukes it out with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine in the Democratic contest, while the competitive Republican field includes agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam, Trump-backed Rep. Ron DeSantis and – likely – Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

10. NY-GOV, Dem primary (September 13) — Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, famous for her role as a star in the HBO hit series “Sex and the City,” could give incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo a tough fight if she can build the right coalition of voters in the state.

The stakes are huge in the battle over a Census question on citizenship

Last night, the Commerce Department announced the addition of a question on the 2020 Census that would ask respondents about their citizenship status. The state of California almost immediately announced that it will sue the Trump administration over the decision, calling it unconstitutional; Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee is also vowing to fight it in court.

Here’s why this debate is such a big deal: Opponents of the citizenship question have long worried that its inclusion — on top of the Trump administration’s already hard-line rhetoric on immigration — would scare non-citizens away from participating, resulting in a major undercount in areas with high immigrant populations. The starkest example might be in California, where advocates think an undercount would likely cost them at least one House seat after congressional seats are reapportioned based on the new Census counts.

But an undercount of immigrants could have sweeping nationwide effects too, particularly because both congressional representation and the distribution of federal funding are derived from Census data. That means that a shift in the count could move political power and federal resources away from more diverse cities and towards more rural, GOP-leaning areas instead.

The Stormy storm rages on

Yesterday, we wrote that a quote from retiring Rep. Ryan Costello caught our eye when he complained that the constant stream of distractions from the White House — including the Stormy Daniels story — is making it far harder for endangered Republicans to break through and tout their own accomplishments. (Costello was even more direct in a New York Times interview published last night, saying “If I had a town hall this week, it would be question after question. Do you believe him or do you believe her? Why don’t you believe her?”)

And just a quick look at all of the headlines about Daniels yesterday illustrates how the sheer volume of news on the scandal is crowding out positive messages that GOP candidates might be trying to share.

Here’s a look at the developments in the Stormy Daniels story in the last 24 hours:

  • Daniels filed an amended lawsuit alleging that Michael Cohen defamed her and violated campaign finance law.
  • Her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, said that Cohen tried to keep him off the case.
  • The White House weighed in, saying that Trump “does not” believe that Daniels was threatened over her affair allegations and that “there is nothing to corroborate her claim.”
  • Avenatti said that he has “a handful of leads” on who threatened Daniels.
  • A friend of Daniels said that she still has the dress from the night of her alleged sexual encounter with Trump.
  • The Washington Post reported that Trump has privately called the scandal a hoax and complained that “Daniels is not the type of woman he finds attractive.”

Waiting for an FEC investigation of Cohen’s payment to Daniels? Don’t hold your breath.

From NBC’s Geoff Bennett and Kristen Welker: “Current and former Federal Election Commission officials tell NBC News it could take a year or longer for the FEC to address the case of whether Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels represents an unreported in-kind, contribution to the Trump campaign.”

More: “The FEC, which is charged with administering and enforcing federal campaign finance law, is understaffed with two current vacancies on its six-member commission. And two sources with direct knowledge tell NBC News that the FEC is still closing previous cases from the 2015-2016 election cycle… Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said the process won't be speedy. “I think it is almost impossible for FEC to finish by the end of year,” Potter told NBC News.”

Rick Scott finally looks poised to jump into the Florida Senate race

And finally,Florida Gov. Rick Scott — who’s been long rumored to be prepping for a Senate bid against Bill Nelson — finally looks like he’s getting ready to make a move. He touted a “major announcement” coming on April 9. (Also yesterday, his chief of staff stepped down, a move widely seen as preparation to join his campaign.) Scott’s expected entry into the race would also have ripple effects nationwide. Why? The multi-millionaire, who’s never been shy about spending millions on his own political goals, will force Democrats to spend big to protect Nelson in pricey Florida media markets, making money more scarce for other statewide races elsewhere in the country.

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