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Virginia's Sleepy Gubernatorial Race Is About to Wake Up

A quiet 2017 governor's race in Virginia is about to heat up this week as the candidates prepare to meet in a high-stakes debate Tuesday.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, makes a point as GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie watches at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, on July 22.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, makes a point as GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie watches at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, on July 22.Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

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 — Given all of the focus on politics in the first eight months of the Trump Era, it’s remarkable how sleepy Virginia’s gubernatorial race – which takes place less than two months from now – has been. Just compare it with that special GA-6 congressional race, which drove headlines for months, or even other past Virginia gubernatorial contests (Terry McAuliffe vs. Ken Cuccinelli in 2013, Bob McDonnell vs. Creigh Deeds in 2009).

But that is about to change starting tomorrow night, when one of us moderates a debate between the race’s two candidates, Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican 2014 Senate nominee Ed Gillespie. The debate is hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and it will air on NBC’s D.C. affiliate at 7:00 p.m. ET — as well as the state’s other NBC affiliates.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for this race, especially for Democrats. After losing the special congressional elections in Georgia and Montana (an at-large district), Democrats need a big win to prove that the political winds are really at their backs (particularly since Virginia is a state that Hillary Clinton won by more than five points in 2016).

On the other hand, Republicans are trying to prove that GOP candidates like Gillespie can separate themselves from Trump and his low approval rating.

Virginia’s elections take place on Nov. 7.

Risky Business — Trump to Campaign for Underdog Strange in Alabama

Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted that he will campaign for appointed Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., this coming Saturday. “I will be in Huntsville, Alabama, on Saturday night to support Luther Strange for Senate. ‘Big Luther’ is a great guy who gets things done!” he said.

But with polls showing that GOP runoff opponent Roy Moore is in the driver’s seat of this race, Trump’s decision to stump for Strange in the Sept. 26 GOP runoff is a risky move. If Strange wins, then Trump got him across the finish line, demonstrating his still-strong pull with GOP voters. But if Strange loses, then the story will be that Trump couldn’t help his preferred candidate in ruby-red Alabama.

It’s also a tricky situation for Trump, because former White House strategist Steve Bannon is pulling for Moore. (Indeed, check out how Bannon’s Breitbart News covered the Trump-Strange news: "President Donald Trump announced on Twitter Saturday night that he plans to campaign for Luther Strange in Alabama, a seriously risky move that has little to no upside for the struggling president.")

As NBC’s Frank Thorp and Garrett Haake noted, Rep. Mo Brooks – whom Strange and allies blasted in the initial GOP primary – announced over the weekend that he already voted for Moore.

Trump’s Week at the United Nations

Reuters: “North Korea's nuclear threat looms large this week over the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York, where diplomats are eager to hear President Donald Trump address the 193-member body for the first time.”

The New York Times has more on Trump’s schedule this week: “Mr. Trump will begin the week on Monday with a meeting on United Nations reform. He will meet with the leaders of France and Israel and host a dinner with Latin American leaders. On Tuesday, he will deliver his centerpiece speech to the General Assembly, have lunch with António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, and meet with Miroslav Lajcak, the president of the General Assembly. He will also meet with the emir of Qatar and host a diplomatic reception.”

“On Wednesday, Mr. Trump will meet individually with the leaders of Britain, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority and host a luncheon with African leaders. On Thursday, he will meet with the leaders of Turkey, Afghanistan and Ukraine and host a lunch with the leaders of South Korea and Japan.”

Cotton Says No Deal Yet on DACA

Despite some optimism last week that Congress might be able to forge a compromise to fix DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said on “Meet the Press” yesterday that President Trump has assured him that there’s no deal yet.

From NBC’s Kailani Koenig’s writeup: “‘I think the president has said publicly that there's not a deal, that he wants to see a deal--in fact he called me a couple night's ago to say there's no deal,’ Cotton said on Sunday’s ‘Meet The Press.’ ‘He wants to make sure that we protect the interests of American worker.’”

“Cotton indicated that the president asked him to sit down with Senate Minority Leader Schumer and other Democrats to work on immigration and border security issues, saying that although ‘there’s no deal right now,’ he's ‘happy to work with the president and Democrats in Congress to try to reach a deal that helps American workers.’”

Divisions Inside Trump’s Legal Team

A striking story from the New York Times, which notes that Trump’s legal team isn’t necessarily on the same page when it comes to the Russia investigation. “The debate in Mr. Trump’s West Wing has pitted Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, against Ty Cobb, a lawyer brought in to manage the response to the investigation. Mr. Cobb has argued for turning over as many of the emails and documents requested by the special counsel as possible in hopes of quickly ending the investigation — or at least its focus on Mr. Trump. Mr. McGahn supports cooperation, but has expressed worry about setting a precedent that would weaken the White House long after Mr. Trump’s tenure is over.”

And there’s this: “The friction escalated in recent days after Mr. Cobb was overheard by a reporter for The New York Times discussing the dispute during a lunchtime conversation at a popular Washington steakhouse. Mr. Cobb was heard talking about a White House lawyer he deemed “a McGahn spy” and saying Mr. McGahn had “a couple documents locked in a safe” that he seemed to suggest he wanted access to. He also mentioned a colleague whom he blamed for “some of these earlier leaks,” and who he said “tried to push Jared out,” meaning Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been a previous source of dispute for the legal team.”

It’s Not Just Washington That’s Shredding America’s Political Norms

Finally, a provocative piece from Michael Cohen in the Boston Globe: “If there is one defining characteristic of the sinfulness of the Trump administration, it’s the daily and calamitous shredding of America’s unwritten political and institutional norms. It began during the campaign when Trump refused to hand over his taxes and talked about putting his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in jail. It continued in January when Trump refused to fully divest himself from his business interests, thus ensuring that he would personally profit from being president.”

But Cohen says that it’s just not the White House and Washington that are shredding America’s norms. “Consider the decision by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to grant fellowships to former White House spokesperson Sean Spicer and convicted felon, Chelsea Manning.”

And in a tweet last night, Cohen added another institution to the list – Hollywood, which brought out former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer at the Emmy Awards. “On Friday I wrote about norm shredding from D.C. to Harvard. After tonight it needs to be expanded to Hollywood,” he said.

Meet the Women Who Have Trump’s Back

NBC’s Ali Vitali: “For the first time in any administration, two women are now in command of its top public-facing roles — press secretary (Sanders) and communications director (Hope Hicks). And thanks to another recent hire — Mercedes Schlapp as a senior communications strategist — women now make up 62 percent of Trump's small but nimble press operation.”

“They say it makes a difference. ‘You're able to take [the president's strength] and then mix it with a bit of softness,’ said Schlapp, the department's newest addition.”

DCCC Breaks Fundraising Record for August

“The campaign arm of House Democrats has posted its highest off-year August fundraising haul ever,” NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald writes. “While their Republican counterparts haven't yet released their August results, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has outraised Republicans each of the three previous months — a result Democrats say bodes well for their prospects of winning the House in the 2018 midterm elections.”

“The DCCC raised $6.26 million in August, compared to $4.15 million for August 2015, the last comparable year before a midterm election. Overall, the DCCC has raised $72.46 million in 2017. And the committee touted its online fundraising, which it says has totaled $31.26 million for the year so far, including $2.4 million last month.”