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Trump Rolls the Dice in Georgia's Special Election

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: Democratic Congressional Candidate For Georgia's 6th District Jon Ossoff Campaigns Ahead Of Tuesday's Special Election
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to volunteers and supporters at an election eve rally as he runs for Georgia's 6th Congressional District in a special election to replace Tom Price, who is now the secretary of Health and Human Services on April 17, 2017 in Roswell, Georgia. The election on April 18th will fill the congressional seat that has been held by a Republican since the 1970s.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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

Trump rolls the dice in Georgia election

Democrats always wanted to make tonight’s special congressional election in Georgia about President Trump. And he’s obliged in the last 24 hours — by tweeting about the contest (“The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressioal [sic] race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!”), and then by recording a robocall in the contest. “Only you can stop the super liberal Democrats and Nancy Pelosi's group, and in particular, Jon Ossoff. If you don't vote tomorrow, Ossoff will raise your taxes, destroy your healthcare, and flood our country with illegal immigrants,” Trump says in the robocall, per NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald.

And while Trump here is trying to gin up Republican turnout — to keep Ossoff below 50% to force a June 20 runoff — his involvement could also further motivate Democrats. It’s the same kind of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation Barack Obama frequently faced: You’re going to get blamed if you don’t get involved and lose, so you might as well help your downballot candidates. But what’s remarkable here is that Trump isn’t touting a particular Republican (11 are in the field); he’s trying to stop one single Democrat — in a congressional district (urban, upscale) that’s not necessarily tailor-made for the president. Indeed, Trump again tweeted this morning, "Democrat Jon Ossoff would be a disaster in Congress. VERY weak on crime and illegal immigration, bad for jobs and wants higher taxes. Say NO."

Everything you need to know about tonight’s special congressional election in Georgia

So tonight brings us the high-profile special congressional election in Georgia to fill the seat vacated by Republican HHS Secretary Tom Price. If no one gets more than 50% of the vote in this 18-candidate field, the race heads to a June 20 runoff. Here is everything you need to know:

Can Democrat Jon Ossoff get 50%-plus and avoid a runoff? Probably not, but he has a chance. The polls show Ossoff in the low-to mid-40s, but that percentage could grow if Democratic turnout is sky-high compared with GOP turnout. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has estimated, Hillary Clinton would have won about 57% of the voters who have already voted early in this contest.

Is Ossoff doomed if he can’t crack 50% tomorrow? Not necessarily. While Republicans’ odds of holding on to this seat increase in a two-person race, the polling — which hasn’t been of the greatest quality, mind you -- shows Ossoff running competitively against the top-tier Republicans in a runoff. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report is designating the overall contest as a Toss Up.

How much is the race about Trump? Ossoff has definitely tried to make it about the president. “When President Trump embarrasses our country or acts recklessly, I’ll hold him accountable,” he has said in one of his ads. “Donald Trump doesn’t represent our values,” Rep. John Lewis says to the camera in another Ossoff ad.

Republicans, meanwhile, first targeted Ossoff by resurfacing video of him acting out as Han Solo during his college days. Then they tied him Nancy Pelosi. And then they played the Osama bin Laden card in this video.

Is this district Trump country? No. And this is an important point if Ossoff wins (either on April 18 or June 20). Tom Price got 62% of the vote in this highly educated and affluent Atlanta-area district in 2016, and Mitt Romney took 61% in 2012. But Trump barely beat Hillary Clinton here in 2016, 48%-47%, and that was on his best day of the general election.

Who are the top Republicans? They include former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (who has been the top Republican in most polls), former state Sen. Dan Moody (who has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. David Perdue), and businessman Bob Gray (whom the Club for Growth is backing).

How much national money is going into this one contest? About $14 million has been spent on advertising in this district by both sides. Ossoff himself raised at least $8.3 million for his run -- an astounding sum for a House candidate — but he has also had to contend with the widely-publicized fact that just 5% of those donations came from his own home state.

What time do polling places close? Polls in Georgia close at 7:00 pm ET. There has been a sizable early vote in this race, and so early vote totals will probably show Ossoff with a significant early lead. The question is whether that holds up when Election Day totals come in.

How predictive are special elections for upcoming midterm elections? They aren’t. While an Ossoff win would send shockwaves throughout Congress and open GOP eyes about the current political mood, special elections don’t predict how a later midterm cycle will turn out. Indeed, back in 2010, Democrats won a highly contested special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA). But that Democratic victory didn't stop the GOP from its huge midterm victories that year.

Democrats: We’re going to block tax reform until Trump releases his taxes

“As procrastinators rushed to file their tax returns by Tuesday, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, emphasized again on Monday that Mr. Trump had no intention of making his public. Democrats have seized on that decision, uniting around a pledge not to cooperate on any rewriting of the tax code unless they know specifically how that revision would benefit the billionaire president and his family,” the New York Times writes. “And a growing roster of more than a dozen Republican lawmakers now say Mr. Trump should release them. ‘If he doesn’t release his returns, it is going to make it much more difficult to get tax reform done,’ said Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, pointing out that the president has significant conflicts of interest on issues such as taxation of the real estate industry and elimination of the estate tax. ‘It’s in his own self-interest.’”

Say my name, say my name

Critics are jumping all over Trump’s Fox News interview, in which he refers to Kim Jong-un as “this gentlemen” and seems to conflate the North Korean leader with his father, who succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il in 2011. "I don’t want to telegraph what I’m doing or what I’m thinking. I’m not like other administrations, where they say we’re going to do this in four weeks," Trump told Fox, per The Hill. "It doesn’t work that way. We’ll see what happens. I hope things work out well. I hope there’s going to be peace, but they’ve been talking with this gentleman for a long time.” More Trump: “You read Clinton’s book, and he said, ‘Oh, we made such a great peace deal,’ and it was a joke. You look at different things over the years with President Obama. Everybody has been outplayed.” And: “They’ve all been outplayed by this gentleman.”

Let us now praise authoritarian men

This kind of statement never would have been released by George W. Bush, whose administration tried to promote democracy around the world. “President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory and to discuss the United States’ action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on April 4th,” per the White House’s readout of Trump’s call yesterday with Erdogan. “President Trump thanked President Erdogan for supporting this action by the United States, and the leaders agreed on the importance of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable.” Why that readout is extraordinary: Erdogan narrowly won a referendum that fundamentally transforms Turkey’s democracy. Leonid Bershidsky writes how Turkey's referendum was the latest example of rural areas besting urban ones in a narrowly decided election.

British prime minister calls for snap election

NBC News: “British Prime Minister Theresa May stunned her country Tuesday by calling a for a snap general election to be held in less than two months' time. Her announcement caps a bruising year for the United Kingdom, coming only 10 months after the country's "Brexit" vote to leave the European Union that ushered in May's own leadership. Tuesday's statement delivered outside the prime minister's formal residence came as even more of a surprise because the prime minister has repeatedly ruled out calling an unscheduled election.”

Trump’s Day

President Trump today heads to Wisconsin, where he makes remarks at 3:20 pm ET. Per NBC’s Ali Vitali, Trump will sign an executive order here that the administration is touting as “Buy American, Hire American” The Hire American piece will call on the Departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security, and State to take "prompt action" in cracking down on fraud and abuse through the assessing of guest worker programs in the United States.

What were other presidents doing on April 18?