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Why the political world may be underestimating Dems in 2018

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: Immigration protest Washington
Immigration activists march toward the U.S. Capitol to protest the Trump Administration's immigration policy in Washington on June 30, 2018.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

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WASHINGTON — You always want to learn from past mistakes. But there’s also a danger of over-learning. And that could very well be the case as we observe the political environment heading into November’s midterm elections: Yes, there’s a chance that Republicans hold on to the House and make key gains in the U.S. Senate. But right now, they’re the underdogs.

Indeed, because of what happened in 2016, the political world is probably underrating Democrats’ chances in November and overrating Republicans’ chances. Nothing’s wrong with that, of course, since American politics is always capable of delivering surprises (see the 2016 general election, the 2016 Michigan Dem primary, the 2008 New Hampshire Dem primary).

But as we get close to being three months out from the midterm elections, here’s the political reality:

The president’s job rating is in the danger zone

That’s true whether it was 45 percent (in the earlier national NBC/WSJ poll), below 40 percent (in the NBC/Marist polls of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin), 38 percent (in Quinnipiac’s national survey), 41 percent (in the national NPR/PBS/Marist poll), or 42 percent (in Gallup’s weekly tracking). In the six times since World War II when a first-term president's job-approval rating was below 50 percent, his party lost an average of 43.5 House seats.

Democrats lead in the generic ballot (although it isn’t as sizable as it was in 2006 or 2008)

Quinnipiac has it D+12; NPR/PBS/Marist as D+7; NBC/WSJ at D+6.

Independents are breaking towards the Democrats

Just 36 percent of independents approve of Trump’s job, according to the most recent national NBC/WSJ poll. And independents prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress by more than 20 points, 48 percent to 26 percent

Democrats have the advantage in enthusiasm

65 percent of Democratic voters have a high level of interest in the upcoming elections – registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale – compared with 49 percent of GOP voters, per the national NBC/WSJ poll.

There’s a plethora of open seats

“Republicans are defending 42 open or vacant seats, a record since at least 1930. The retirements of Speaker Paul Ryan (WI-01), as well as powerful committee chairs like Reps. Ed Royce (CA-39) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11) and popular moderates like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) and Frank LoBiondo (NJ-02), have given Democrats stellar pickup opportunities,” the Cook Political Report David Wasserman writes, per Politico.

Democratic candidates are outraising Republicans

“Democrats outraised Republicans in all but FOUR of 40 of some of the most competitive House general election races in the second quarter of 2018,” one of us wrote earlier this month.

But there is a GOP wild card that could reverse some of these Dem advantages: Trump is getting stronger with his base. After all, the national NBC/WSJ poll found the president’s approval rating among Republican voters at 88 percent — the highest of his presidency — and 29 percent of all voters strongly approve of his job, which is another high for Trump in the poll.

So don’t count out Republicans in the fall. But don’t overstate their chances, either.

Scott Walker, other GOP candidates in key Midwest states trail Dem rivals

“New polls in three key Midwestern states show Republican Senate and gubernatorial candidates trailing their Democratic counterparts in hypothetical matchups — particularly GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, where only a third of voters say he deserves to be re-elected and where he trails his leading Democratic challenger by more than 10 points,” one of us writes. “According to new polling from NBC News and Marist, just 34 percent of Wisconsin’s registered voters say Walker should win re-election in the fall, while 61 percent say a new person should be given the chance to lead the state.”

Three key developments in the Russia probe over the last 24 hours

1. NBC News: “Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, asserts that Trump knew in advance about a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 between his son Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer, in contradiction to Trump Jr.'s congressional testimony in May 2017, a knowledgeable source told NBC News on Thursday night.” CNN first reported this news.

2. The AP: “The Moscow lawyer said to have promised President Trump's campaign dirt on his Democratic opponent worked more closely with senior Russian government officials than she previously let on… Scores of emails, transcripts and legal documents paint a portrait of Natalia Veselnitskaya as a well-connected attorney who served as a ghostwriter for top Russian government lawyers and received assistance from senior Interior Ministry personnel in a case involving a key client.”

3. The New York Times: “The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is scrutinizing tweets and negative statements from the president about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, according to three people briefed on the matter. Several of the remarks came as Mr. Trump was also privately pressuring the men — both key witnesses in the inquiry — about the investigation, and Mr. Mueller is examining whether the actions add up to attempts to obstruct the investigation by both intimidating witnesses and pressuring senior law enforcement officials to tamp down the inquiry.”

Remember, the more there’s evidence that Trump and his team colluded/conspired/cooperated with Russians in the 2016 election, the more powerful allegations of obstruction of justice could potentially become.

Also remember that Trump and his son have DENIED any role or knowledge the president had about that June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians. From Trump’s July 2017 interview with the New York Times:

NYT: Did you know at the time that they had the [Trump Tower] meeting?

TRUMP: No, I didn’t know anything about the meeting.

NYT: But you didn’t——

TRUMP: It must have been a very important — must have been a very unimportant meeting, because I never even heard about it.

NYT: No one told you a word, nothing? I know we talked about this on the plane a little bit.

TRUMP: No, nobody told me. I didn’t know noth—— It’s a very unimportant — sounded like a very unimportant meeting.

Via Twitter this morning, Trump once again denied knowing of that June 2016 meeting. “I did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?). He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary’s lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!”

Here’s a test of Trump’s commitment to election security

How seriously does he take the news that Russia tried to hack Claire McCaskill’s campaign? At 3:00 pm ET, President Trump holds a closed-press meeting with his National Security Council on the topic of election security. But how seriously does he take this news, especially after Trump claimed earlier this week that Russians wanted Democrats to win in 2018?

The Daily Beast: “The Russian intelligence agency behind the 2016 election cyberattacks targeted Sen. Claire McCaskill as she began her 2018 re-election campaign in earnest, a Daily Beast forensic analysis reveals. That makes the Missouri Democrat the first identified target of the Kremlin’s 2018 election interference… The attempt against McCaskill’s office was a variant of the password-stealing technique used by Russia’s so-called ‘Fancy Bear’ hackers against Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in 2016. The hackers sent forged notification emails to Senate targets claiming the target’s Microsoft Exchange password had expired, and instructing them to change it. If the target clicked on the link, he or she was taken to a convincing replica of the U.S. Senate’s Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) login page, a single sign-on point for e-mail and other services.”

And here’s Trump tweeting this morning: [T]he only Collusion with Russia was with the Democrats, so now they are looking at my Tweets (along with 53 million other people) - the rigged Witch Hunt continues! How stupid and unfair to our Country.”

DeSantis, Graham lead in Florida

“Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Gwen Graham have solid leads in their party’s respective primaries for governor, according to a new [Mason-Dixon] poll that foreshadows a general election pitting the candidate of President Donald Trump against the candidate of women’s issues,” Politico writes. “Graham, a former member of Congress, has 27 percent support in her primary against four men and leads the second-place Democrat, former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, by 9 percentage points, according to the survey.”

Congressional Leadership Fund plans “Super Saturday”

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the main Republican Super PAC focused on House races, announced Friday it will spread thousands of volunteers across 31 competitive legislative districts this weekend, NBC’s Shaquille Brewster reports. In what the group calls “Super Saturday,” the Super PAC aims to contact over 400,000 voters through door knocking and phone banking. It’s the third such event for the group that is pledging to raise and spend $100 million to help Republicans maintain their hold on the House of Representatives.

“This election cycle, CLF is committed to doing things differently which is why we launched a data-driven, hyper-targeted field program to help Republican members win in the fall,” CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss said in a statement first reported on by NBC News. The group says its team has made over 15 million “voter contacts” since February 2017.

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