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Seven things to watch in today's primary elections

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 and Carrie Dann /
Image: Republican candidates for the West Virginia Senate seat hold a debate
Republican candidates for the West Virginia Senate seat hold a debate at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia, on April 23, 2018. From left: Don Blankenship, Bo Copley, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., W.V. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Jack Newbrough and Tom Willis.Scott McCloskey / The Intelligencer via AP

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WASHINGTON — It’s primary day in Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia. Here are seven questions we have as voters head to the polls:

1. Will Republicans be better off tomorrow in Indiana and West Virginia — or worse off?

After many primaries, the political parties are happy to put the internal debates behind them, coalesce around the winner and move on. But in Indiana, the Senate primary has been so nasty that any of the three main Republican candidates could come limping out of Tuesday night, particularly if the contest is very closely divided. And in West Virginia, the GOP could face a nightmare if Don Blankenship winds up winning, or even if he loses but refuses to concede.

2. How potent is race and racism in West Virginia?

If Don Blankenship wins in West Virginia, it will be hard to dismiss how he campaigned in the contest’s final days. Will voters ignore his references to “China people” in anti-Mitch McConnell ads — and his indignant response to questions about whether that’s racist language?

3. Does Trump fall short in yet another race where he weighed in?

Trump’s track record on endorsements as of late hasn’t been great. Since last fall, he backed Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race (lost), Luther Strange in the Alabama primary (lost), Roy Moore in the Alabama runoff (lost), and Rick Saccone in PA-18 (lost). With his un-endorsement of Blankenship yesterday, will he get back on the boards? Or face another rejection by voters?

4. Has party-switching become one of the GOP’s cardinal sins?

Two candidates in today’s GOP races — Mike Braun in Indiana and Evan Jenkins in West Virginia — have taken a lot of incoming for their previous record with the Democratic Party. Braun voted until recently in Democratic primaries, although he maintains that he’s a “lifelong Republican” who only voted in Democratic contests to have an impact on local issues. Jenkins served in the West Virginia state legislature as a Democrat but switched to the GOP in 2013 to challenge Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall. If both candidates lose, it’ll likely be because having a “D” next to your name, even long in the past, is a heresy to the base. (Of course, that’s ironic because even President Donald Trump concedes that he’s “evolved” since his days of Democratic support.)

5. Does “the party decides” still apply to Democrats in Ohio’s gubernatorial primary?

While it’s not exactly fair to view Richard Cordray vs Dennis Kucinich as Hillary vs Bernie 2.0, there is one important similarity —Cordray has more Democratic establishment support. He’s backed by the AFL-CIO, Elizabeth Warren, Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Marcia Fudge, and several of his onetime rivals in the primary race, while Kucinich has endorsements from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution. Does that still matter in a Democratic primary? Or, as we saw with the GOP and Trump in 2016, are those endorsements less and less important?

6. How fired up are Democrats?

With both Democrats and Republicans having contested gubernatorial primaries in Ohio — and with Democrats hoping to give Republicans a run for their money in GOP-friendly NC-9 and NC-13 — turnout in those races could be a good early gauge of how engaged Democrats are in advance of November.

7. Who comes out on top in the Ohio special election primaries to replace Pat Tiberi?

Republicans have been engaged in a civil war on their side, pitting Tiberi-endorsed state Sen. Troy Balderson against Jim Jordan-endorsed Melanie Leneghan. Veteran Tim Kane has also picked up some traction with significant TV ad spending in the race. The winner will take on whichever Democrat comes out on top (Franklin County recorder Danny O’Connor seems to be the favorite). The district voted for Trump by 11 points — a margin that should be comfortable but has Republicans worried in the wake of Democratic overperformance in recent special elections. The general election is August 7.

Don Blankenship is a headache for Donald Trump. Trump and his allies only have themselves to blame

West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship has declared himself the victim of a government conspiracy, used offensive attacks and racially-charged language, and said that the press and the establishment in D.C. aren’t to be believed when they describe his ethical lapses. That sounds, well, a lot like Trump. But Blankenship’s viability now has the Trump White House in a panic, as a win for him would likely scuttle their chances of beating Joe Manchin in the fall.

But don’t ignore the fact that Trump and his allies have spent years exploiting the idea with their voters that they shouldn’t believe what they read or hear in the news, an idea that Blankenship has used to great effect. It’s not hard to draw a line between those who have created this dystopian, distrusting view of the press and the rise of Blankenship, Roy Moore and (likely) Joe Arpaio.

What’s more, it wouldn’t be hard for Trump to bolster his anti-Blankenship argument with news articles about the former coal baron’s ethics problems, but he hasn’t done that — he’s only asserted that Blankenship can’t win. Why not? Perhaps Trump doesn’t want to risk legitimizing a press that he’s long called “fake” to protect his own interests? Undermining the press works well if you’re under scrutiny, but for Trump, it may be backfiring now that Blankenship is beating him at his own game.

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Trump set to announce decision on Iran deal

Today at 2pm ET, President Trump will announce his final decision on whether the United States should withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement.Assuming that he decides to leave or impede the deal — as the New York Times and others report is expected — it won’t happen in a vacuum. As we’ve written before, Trump would be reversing a diplomatic deal just as he is attempting to hammer out a new agreement with North Korea on nukes. And some of the same major criticisms of the Iran deal from Trump and his allies also apply to what’s playing out with North Korea as a potential summit between the two countries looms.

Criticism 1. The Iran deal only applied to nukes and didn’t change the country’s overall behavior.

“It gave Iran far too much in exchange for far too little. The enormous financial windfall the Iranian regime received because of the deal—access to more than $100 billion, including $1.8 billion in cash—has not been used to better the lives of the Iranian people,” Trump said in January 2018.

But the North Korean regime has murdered people, starved its citizens and taken American prisoners (like Otto Warmbier). Nothing in what has been reported so far deals with this North Korean behavior.

Criticism 2. The Iran deal doesn’t prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons permanently (after the 10-year window expires).

“My policy is to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon—not just for ten years, but forever,” Trump said in January.

But there is still no timeline yet about North Korea’s denuclearization (nor what denuclearization exactly means).

Criticism 3. The Iran deal was forged because Obama was more concerned about his legacy than anything else.

“It is now generally understood that completing a major nuclear-arms agreement with Iran was an obsession of Mr. Obama’s from early in his presidency,” the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger wrote in 2015.

But Trump and his supporters are already talking about Nobel Prizes and legacies – before the summit has even begun. A crowd in Michigan recently chanted “Nobel” when Trump talked about North Korea, and a group of GOP lawmakers is already pushing for his nomination for the prize.

New York AG Eric Schneiderman resigns after accusations of violence towards women

Just hours after The New Yorker published an in-depth, 6,100-word account of allegations of violence by Eric Schneiderman against four women, the New York attorney general announced his resignation, even while denying the accusations. From NBC’s Alex Johnson: “New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement who has taken on disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, abruptly resigned Monday night after The New Yorker published the accusations of women who said he was violent toward them… "In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity," Schneiderman said in his statement, which he tweeted publicly afterward. "I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in non-consensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.’”

More: “The magazine quoted two of the women, who agreed to be named — Tanya Selvaratnam, an activist writer and actor, and Michelle Manning Barish, an activist and writer. Both said they were involved with Schneiderman in relationships that each lasted longer than a year. They described their interactions with Schneiderman as "assault" and said his behavior was fueled by heavy drinking. All four women characterized the alleged violence as non-consensual, according to the article.”

This was an incredibly fast-moving story, and the speed with which Schneiderman stepped down — and with which prominent pols called for his resignation, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand —showed just how potent the #MeToo narrative has become. And as this all unfolds, don’t forget about Schneiderman’s long history of action against Donald Trump, including fights against potential Trump pardons, his suit against Trump University and his probe of Trump’s charitable foundation.

Don’t miss tonight’s California gubernatorial debate

Tonight, six candidates for California governor will face off in a debate moderated by one of us(!) at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m PST (that’s 9:30-11:00 p.m. EST.) The debate is hosted by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and NBC Bay Area and will focus on issues impacting Californians, both in Northern California and statewide. You can watch the live stream tonight here.

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