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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 — After last week’s gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, we are now less than a year away from the 2018 midterm elections. And Republicans find themselves in a dangerous situation.
- An unpopular president: On average, since the Truman Era, a president's party loses more than 28 House seats in his first midterm election. And the average has been 43.5 House seats the six times the president's job-approval rating has been below 50 percent. Well, Trump's most recent approval rating is 39 percent, per Gallup. And Democrats need to pick up 24 House seats to win back that chamber.
- More than 20 House GOP retirements — and counting: By NBC’s count, more than 20 House Republicans won’t be running for re-election, including at least five who hail from competitive districts.
- An expanded playing field: According to the Cook Political Report, 61 House Republican seats are in the Toss Up, Lean Republican or Likely Republican categories, while another seat (Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's) is Lean Democratic. That’s compared with 20 House Democratic seats that are Toss Up, Lean Democratic or Likely Democratic.
- The polls: Democrats, on average, enjoy close to a double-digit lead on the generic ballot. FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten writes that the generic congressional ballot, even more than a year out, “has historically been quite predictive of what will eventually occur in the following year.”
- A divided GOP: Finally, the Republican Party remains divided, with President Trump blaming congressional leaders (particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) for the GOP’s legislative failures. Why is that problematic? It makes it harder to convince Trump voters to reward these leaders by re-electing incumbent Republicans.
Add them all up, and Democrats have a substantial advantage heading into next year’s midterm elections. But an early advantage doesn’t always mean success. There could be an external event (like what happened when Republicans picked up seats during George W. Bush’s first midterm election after the 9/11 terrorist attacks).
The Democrats could overreach (like Republicans did in 1998 with the impeachment of Bill Clinton). And Democrats could have a big night a year from now but still come up short in taking back the House (like what happened last week in Virginia, where Democrats won the gubernatorial contest by nine points, but control of the House of Delegates there is still unclear).
Still, the overall political landscape is a real problem for the GOP. Looking at the numbers from last month’s NBC/WSJ survey, GOP pollster Bill McInturff called them a "flashing yellow light for Republicans.” After last week’s contests in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere, we’d take that caution one step further — a flashing red light.
Roy Moore threatens to sue the Washington Post
And that’s before we even discuss the Senate and next month’s race in Alabama that could reduce the GOP majority there from 52-48 to 51-49. Here’s the latest there, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard and Tim Stelloh: “Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore said Sunday that he planned to sue The Washington Post over a report that he pursued teenage girls, including a 14-year-old, when he was an assistant prosecutor in his 30s. At a Christian Citizen Task Force forum here, Moore said the newspaper published false allegations — ‘for which they will be sued.’”
On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., became the latest Republican to ask Moore to step down from the race. “You know, this is a terrible situation, nearly 40-year-old allegation, we'll probably never know for sure exactly what happened," Toomey said, according to NBC’s Kailani Koenig. "But from my point of view, you know, I have to say, I think the accusations have more credibility than the denial. I think it would be best if Roy would just step aside.”
Beyond Virginia: How America's big counties are reshaping politics
Last week, we wrote about Ralph Northam’s big Democratic margins in Virginia’s affluent suburban counties. But there’s a bigger story going on around the country, as big, densifying counties in many states have gotten bluer, even as Democrats struggle to gain traction in more rural surrounding areas.
The numbers bear it out. One of us writes: “An NBC News analysis of voting and demographic trends in each of the lower 48 states shows that, since 2000, Democrats have improved upon their presidential election margins in the lion’s share of the most vote-rich and populous counties in America even as their share of the vote in the remainder of each state was stagnant, decreased or — at best — grew at a far slower pace… In 39 of the lower 48 states, Democrats significantly increased their vote share in presidential elections from 2000 to 2016 in each state’s most populous county.
"And in all but two of those states, Democratic margins outside of the most populous county failed to increase at similar rates, widening the partisan gap between each state’s more urban center and its surroundings.
"Viewed as a whole, the numbers suggest a common urban political culture is rising out of the country’s big cities that overrides the nation’s regional differences so that the political identity of Atlanta has more in common with Milwaukee or Denver or even Miami than it does with the rest of Georgia.
"Combining the votes from 2000-2016 in all of the contiguous United States shows how the Democratic share of the vote in each state’s largest county rose from a cumulative 18.6 percent in 2000 to 31.4 percent in the last election. Subtracting those votes from the total shows that, on average, Democrats only won the remainder of U.S. counties once in the past four presidential elections — in Barack Obama’s 2008 landslide.”
Former U.S. intelligence officials say Trump is being played by Putin
“Two top former U.S. intelligence officials said Sunday that President Trump is being ‘played’ by President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and accused him of being susceptible to foreign leaders who stroke his ego,” the Washington Post writes.
“‘By not confronting the issue directly and not acknowledging to Putin that we know you’re responsible for this, I think he’s giving Putin a pass,’ former CIA director John Brennan said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’ ‘I think it demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint.’”
“Appearing on the same program, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said he agrees with that assessment. ‘He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office, and I think that appeals to him, and I think it plays to his insecurities,’ Clapper said.”
White House: Trump 'briefly' brought up human rights during his meeting with Duterte
Speaking of being susceptible to foreign leaders who stroke his ego, President Trump “briefly” brought up the human rights abuses that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime has committed. NBC’s Ali Vitali: “U.S. President Donald Trump met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at an economic summit here, leaving unanswered questions about whether he'd bring up human rights violations. After the meeting, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines' fight against illegal drugs." ISIS and trade were also discussed, she said.”
Duterte, for his part, chided reporters for shouting questions during a brief availability, saying it was a bilateral meeting, not a news statement — but leaving the door open to a news conference afterward. Last week, Duterte said he would tell Trump to ‘lay off’ if he raised the issue of human rights.”
Why is this a big deal? “Philippine police, at Duterte's direction, have killed thousands of people accused of drug crimes without trials, incurring condemnations from human rights groups, the United Nations, the U.S. Congress and the European Union,” the Los Angeles Times writes.
Biden: 'I, honest to God, haven't made up my mind' on 2020
In an interview on “Today” Monday morning, former Vice President Joe Biden was asked about Trump’s stance on Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. “I don't believe Putin at all. They did meddle, he was responsible for it.”
When NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked Biden if Trump was being naïve when it comes to Putin, Biden deflected the question. “I don't believe Putin,” he said.
And Biden said he hadn’t made up his mind about 2020. “I, honest to God, haven't made up my mind on that.”