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Why the Indiana Senate race might actually be the best midterm bellwether in the country

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: Joe Donnelly
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) speaks at "Making AIDS History: A Roadmap for Ending the Epidemic" at the Hart Senate Building on June 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.Paul Morigi / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The midterm battle for Senate control has plenty of colorful characters, important narratives and high-profile races. There are well-known red state Democratic incumbents like Joe Manchin and Claire McCaskill; there are expensive and high-stakes partisan clashes in traditional battleground states like Florida and Nevada; and there are quirky races in places (we’re looking at you, Tennessee) that don’t always get a lot of national political attention.

But for a true bellwether contest about the state of the country in 2018, the best bet might be Indiana, where Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly is facing off against relative political newcomer and GOP businessman Mike Braun.

Why? Donnelly doesn’t have the strong personal and political brand of a McCaskill or a Manchin, and Braun doesn’t have the political baggage of being a “D.C. insider.” That makes this more of a generic Democrat v. Republican ballot than most of the other marquee Senate races elsewhere in the country. And it’s in a state where — despite a GOP-leaning history — Democrats have sometimes benefitted from political winds blowing their way, including Barack Obama’s win there in 2008 and Donnelly’s victory in 2012.

So, while other races may get more attention because of the larger-than-life national profiles of the candidates or the familiar battleground terrain, look to Indiana for what might be the most instructive contest to show us how the overall political climate is shaping up — and who will control the chamber after voters head to the polls.

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Trump: Undocumented immigrants should be sent back “with no judges or court cases”

Over the weekend, Trump tweeted this: “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order.”

Setting aside the use of the verb “invade” just a week after suggesting that migrants “pour into and infest our country” — it’s particularly striking that Trump is flatly proposing the elimination of due process for undocumented immigrants despite his explicit defense of the rule of law when it comes to his own political allies.

Remember this Trump tweet from February, when Trump defended former White House staffer Rob Porter amid disturbing accusations of domestic violence against his ex-wives? “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”

For a president who campaigned under the banner of “the rule of law” — and who has certainly been litigious enough in his time as a businessman to know plenty about the legal process — Trump seems to see application of the law and legal fairness through the same lens as he sees his political battles: Is the target someone who’s “with him” or not?

Are migrants seeking ‘economic opportunity’ or ‘looking down the barrel of a gun’?

One of us(!) spoke with lawmakers on two sides of the immigration debate Sunday — Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine — about why migrants are coming to the border in the first place.

Here’s what they had to say on NBC’s Meet the Press, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard: “Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Sunday that a ‘small percentage’ of migrants seeking entry into the U.S. fit President Donald Trump's characterization of the ‘worst’ of society, insisting that a ‘vast majority’ are doing so for economic opportunity. ‘I would just say I would prefer the president would step out and say" that "a lot of these folks" are coming "for economic reasons," Lankford said on Meet the Press. "They want to be able to flee into an area where they have greater economic opportunities."

“Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, disagreed with Lankford on the reason migrants are seeking entry into the U.S., saying many are fleeing violence in their home countries… ‘These are almost entirely people coming from Central America, not Mexico,’ King said, ‘and they are fleeing violence. And that’s one of the reasons this idea of a deterrent may not work if you’re looking down the barrel of a gun in your home community, whatever your chances are to get to a free country, you’re going to take it in order to save your family’s lives.’”

NBC: Trump cools on Mattis, leaving his defense chief out of the loop

NBC’s Courtney Kube and Carol Lee have this exclusive report this morning on how Defense Secretary James Mattis has been left out of the loop on major decisions. “Defense Secretary James Mattis learned in May from a colleague that President Donald Trump had made the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, and scrambled to get his boss on the phone before a formal announcement was made. It wouldn't be the last time he was caught off guard by a presidential announcement.

A month later, Mattis was informed that Trump had ordered a pause in U.S. military exercises with South Korea only after the president had already promised the concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.”

More: “It's a stark contrast to Trump's early enthusiasm for the retired four-star Marine general he proudly referred to as ‘Mad Dog’" And while the two men had disagreements from the start — on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects, for instance — Trump still kept Mattis in the loop on major decisions and heeded his counsel… In recent months, however, the president has cooled on Mattis, in part because he's come to believe his defense secretary looks down on him and slow-walks his policy directives, according to current and former administration officials.”

Tariffs bump up prices of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, send some production overseas

Don’t miss this today, via the AP: “Harley-Davidson, up against spiraling costs from tariffs, will begin shifting the production of motorcycles headed for Europe from the U.S. to factories overseas… The maker of the iconic American motorcycle said in a regulatory filing Monday that EU tariffs on its motorcycles exported from the U.S. jumped between 6 percent and 31 percent. The company said it expects the tariffs will result in an incremental cost of about $2,200 per average motorcycle exported from the U.S. to the EU.”

It’s the unintended consequence of Trump’s tariff move, and it’s particularly stinging to Republicans, who have often held up Harley as exactly the kind of U.S. company that their policies would help to grow.

Civility starts at the top

It’s been a particularly nasty week when it comes to political rhetoric, threats and calls for confrontation between political adversaries. There was Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave a Virginia restaurant. There was Sanders’ father — Mike Huckabee — suggesting that a photo of tattooed gang members comprised Nancy Pelosi’s “campaign committee.” And there was Maxine Waters telling a crowd: “If you see anybody from [Trump’s] cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

We certainly don’t condone any of that language or those threats. Then again, is it any surprise that this kind of language has become so commonplace when the president of the United States routinely insults his political opponents, calls the press the “enemy of the people” and frames almost any debate as “us” versus “them” — with “them” broadly defined as anyone who disagrees with his point of view? Civility starts at the top — and Trump’s behavior only encourages both his allies and foes to use the same kind of incivility against each other.

But just because the president treats people poorly doesn’t mean everyone has to go along with the same tactics. As David Frum wrote in the Atlantic earlier this month, “Donald Trump and the political movement behind him are empowered by ugly talk. Their own talk stands out less sharply in contrast. “You did it first … you did it worse … you do it more” are accurate enough answers, but they are not as powerful as not doing it at all. Let Trump be Trump. Let decent people be decent. Trust your country—not all of it, sadly, but enough of it—to notice and appreciate the difference.”