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Tim Pawlenty goes down and six takeaways from Tuesday's primaries

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: Tim Pawlenty concedes his run for governor
Tim Pawlenty, with his wife, Mary, as he concedes his run for governor on Tuesday at an election night gathering in Eagan, Minnesota.Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune via AP

WASHINGTON — Last night’s primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin brought us another surprise — the defeat of former two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota’s GOP gubernatorial contest. Pawlenty lost to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, 53 percent to 44 percent.

Here are our six takeaways from Tuesday’s primaries:

1. The Tim Pawlentys no longer have a place in today’s Trump-led GOP

Yes, the polling — including our NBC/Marist poll from last month — showed Pawlenty with a comfortable lead against Johnson. But that lead wasn’t good enough in a race against a candidate who sounded more like Trump than Pawlenty did. (“Tim Pawlenty gave us higher spending and massive fee increases. He brought us green energy mandates, light rail, common core. Tim had his chance, and he blew it,” Johnson said in a TV ad.) But make no mistake: Republican insiders wanted Pawlenty to win, and there’s the fear that a GOP ticket led by Johnson could hurt the party in a state with plenty of competitive races in November. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., won the Democratic gubernatorial primary, and he’ll face Johnson in the general election.

2. Democratic enthusiasm is still sky-high

While measuring primary turnout isn’t a perfect way to gauge how the general election will play out — primary voters, after all, don’t necessarily equal general-election voters — it’s unmistakable that more Democratic voters participated last night. (And while Scott Walker, for example, faced little opposition in his GOP primary in Wisconsin, there was a competitive Republican contest for Senate.) Here’s a look at the turnout in last night’s gubernatorial primaries:

  • Minnesota: Dem 580,962; GOP 319,276
  • Wisconsin: Dem 537,840; GOP 456,007
  • Connecticut: Dem 211,499; GOP 142,890
  • Vermont: Dem 57,102; GOP 35,840

3. Scott Walker vs. Tony Evers will be arguably the nation’s top gubernatorial contest in the fall

Well, we asked yesterday which Democrat would be the party’s nominee against incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker. And State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers, as expected, won the crowded primary, getting nearly 42 percent of the vote. Walker is vulnerable, and he’s facing the most challenging political environment of his career; the NBC/Marist poll showed him losing to Evers in a hypothetical matchup.

4. Vermont’s gubernatorial race will get attention, too

Meanwhile, in Vermont, Democrat Christine Hallquist won her party’s gubernatorial nomination, and will face incumbent Gov. Phil Scott in November. Hallquist is the first transgender woman to win a party’s nomination for governor, and she’d become the nation’s first transgender governor if she wins in the fall. But the Cook Political Report currently rates the race as “Solid R.”

5. It will be Baldwin vs. Vukmir in Wisconsin’s Senate race

Leah Vukmir defeated Kevin Nicholson, 49 percent to 43 percent, for the right to face Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., in November. The millions that donors, including Richard Uihlein, poured into the contest to help Nicholson couldn’t overcome Vukmir’s backing by Wisconsin’s GOP establishment. The Cook Report has the race as “Likely D.”

6. Top House races for November are now set

Finally, the field is set for what will some of the top House races in the fall. In MN-1 (vacated by Walz), it will be Democrat Dan Feehan vs. Republican Jim Hagedorn; in MN-3, incumbent GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen will face off against Dem Dean Phillips; in MN-8 (the seat vacated by Dem Rick Nolan), Republican Pete Stauber will face Democrat Joe Radinovich; and in WI-1 (Paul Ryan’s seat), it will be Dem Randy Bryce vs. Republican Bryan Steil.

White House can’t guarantee there’s no tape of Trump using the N-word

“White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that she could not ‘guarantee’ that there are no recordings of President Donald Trump using the N-word,” NBC’s Jonathan Allen writes. “‘I’ve never heard him use that term or anything similar,’ Sanders said in response to a series of questions from NBC's Kristen Welker about whether he's ever used the racial slur. Asked if she could promise that Americans would never hear him say it on a recording, she declined. ‘I can’t guarantee anything, but I can tell you the president addressed this question directly,’ she said, though she acknowledged that she had never asked him the question herself.”

Manafort’s defense rests — without calling any witnesses

“Lawyers for Paul Manafort rested their case Tuesday without calling any witnesses, bringing a swift end to the evidence stage of his tax- and bank-fraud trial, which legal analysts say appears stacked against President Trump’s former campaign chairman,” the Washington Post says. “The decision by Manafort’s legal team not to introduce its own evidence — after two weeks of sometimes bruising testimony about the defendant — is a common tactic by defense lawyers, who often prefer to attack the government’s case by grilling prosecution witnesses instead of offering their own. Doing so can also send a signal to jurors that the burden of proving a crime rests with the prosecution and defendants don’t have to prove their innocence.”

Breaking down the ad spending in key Senate contests

Yesterday, we listed the 10 most expensive Senate races in terms of ad spending (TV and radio) as of this week. Well, here’s a party-vs.-party breakdown of this ad spending: Democrats lead the spending race in six of these races; Republicans lead in three (including in New Jersey!); and the parties are tied in North Dakota. (Note: For states that have already held their primaries, the totals below are only for the general election, which explains why the dollar amounts are higher in, say, Arizona than in Missouri or West Virginia. The biggest individual spender is listed in parenthesis.)

  • FL-SEN: GOP $30.2 million, Dem $11.0 million ($19.9 million by Scott campaign)
  • IN-SEN: Dem $7.0 million, GOP $6.1 million ($5.3 million by Senate Majority PAC)
  • WI-SEN: GOP $16.8 million, Dem $8.6 million ($5.7 million by Baldwin campaign)
  • MO-SEN: Dem $3.1 million, GOP $1.8 million ($2.2 million by Senate Majority PAC)
  • WV-SEN: Dem $3.7 million, GOP $3.3 million ($2.9 million by Senate Majority PAC)
  • NV-SEN: Dem $5.3 million, GOP $4.6 million ($3.3 million by One Nation)
  • MT-SEN: Dem $4.2 million, GOP $1.6 million ($1.7 million by Tester campaign)
  • AZ-SEN: Dem $6.9 million, GOP $4.9 million ($4.3 million by Sinema campaign)
  • NJ-SEN: GOP $5.5 million, Dem $1.3 million ($5.2 million by Hugin campaign)
  • ND-SEN: GOP $2.9 million, Dem $2.9 million ($1.5 million by Senate Majority PAC)

The TV ad messages: Republicans are hitting Dems on Pelosi, immigration and taxes, while Democrats are running against Washington

And when it comes to the messages from TV ads in the most competitive 2018 races, Republicans are hitting Democrats on Nancy Pelosi, immigration and sanctuary cities, and raising taxes.

  • Here’s the National Republican Senatorial Committee in NV-SEN knocking Democrat Jacky Rosen for voting with Nancy Pelosi 90 percent of the time.
  • Here’s the NRSC hitting Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in ND-SEN over sanctuary cities.
  • And here’s the Congressional Leadership Fund blasting Democrat Katie Porter in CA-45 over sanctuary cities, ICE and single-payer.

Meanwhile, Democrats are running against Washington.

  • Here’s Dem Phil Bredesen in TN-SEN — whose running against Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn — campaigning against DC.
  • And here’s Dem challenger Josh Harder — running in CA-10 against Rep. Jeff Denham, R-CA — with an anti-DC message