Democrats now have a wider Senate map. Can they take advantage of it?

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.
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U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) leaves after a vote at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 28, 2019.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Here's the good news Democrats received on Wednesday: Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., will retire from the Senate in December 2019, which means Georgia will now have two Senate seats up for grabs in 2020.

That’s an extra GOP seat Democrats can target — in a state that’s become more demographically friendly to them — as they try to net the three Senate seats needed to flip the chamber if they win the White House.

But here’s the bad news: They don’t have top-tier candidates running in Georgia right now — either against Republican Sen. David Perdue or for Isakson’s seat, especially after Stacey Abrams confirmed she wouldn’t run for either seat.

Indeed, for all the discussion of whether Beto O’Rourke should abandon his presidential bid and run for the Senate, Texas Democrats arguably have a stronger field of candidates right now (MJ Hegar, Royce West, Amanda Edwards) than Georgia Dems do (with Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and 2018 Lt. Gov. nominee Sarah Riggs Amico).

The other challenge for Democrats: Can they find a presidential nominee who can help their Senate candidates in Georgia — as well as in Arizona, North Carolina and Texas?

But with a net-positive nominee and a stronger candidate or two in Georgia, Democrats have a real opportunity in 2020, where they can win back the White House, hold on to the House, and get to 50-plus Senate seats.

Of course, that’s the best-case situation, a la what happened for Democrats and Obama in 2008, or Republicans and Reagan in 1980.

The other clear takeaway: Georgia is going to be a battleground state next year – with the right candidate(s) and the right presidential nominee.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 90 percent

90 percent.

Of the 29 times in the last 70 years that BOTH of a state’s Senate seats have been up for election at the same time, the same party won both seats in 26 of them, per Nathan Gonzalez of Inside Elections. That’s 90 percent of those cases.

Increased pessimism on the economy

That Democrats have a real opportunity in 2020 is even more pronounced with some worsening perceptions of the U.S. economy.

This week’s new national Quinnipiac poll found 41 percent of voters saying Trump’s policies are hurting the economy, versus 37 percent who believe he’s helping it — the president’s worst score on this poll question dating back to 2017, per NBC’s Ben Kamisar.

What’s more, the same poll also showed that more respondents believe the economy is getting worse than better — again, a reversal from past Quinnipiac surveys.

Now this is just one poll, of course.

But economic conservatives like Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute are sounding the alarm.

Strain writes that the fundamentals of the economy are strong, but the most significant risk of a recession comes from Trump’s trade war.

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2020 Vision: The winnowing continues

We told you that August would be a winnowing month in the Democratic race – due to the heightened requirements to qualify for September’s debate.

And yesterday, we had another exit from the contest: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., whose campaign really never took off from the very beginning.

The heightened debate requirements are definitely working for the DNC to reduce a field of some 20 candidates into half that size.

But if the DNC had to do it over again, one thing they should have instituted was their OWN polling for early states.

Instead of leaving the polls to the whims of the Des Moines Register’s editorial calendar, they should have produced some of their own polls — from the party’s best pollsters — out of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

On the campaign trail today

Joe Biden, remaining in South Carolina, holds town halls in Rock Hill at 11:00 am ET and Greenville at 5:30 pm ET… Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro also stump in the Palmetto State… Cory Booker is in Oklahoma… And Beto O’Rourke is in North Carolina.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Joe Biden held a town hall yesterday in Gaffney, S.C., where he touched on women’s reproductive health and characterized systemic racism. On the issue of reproductive choice, Biden said, per NBC’s Amanda Golden: “It's one thing for you to say that I have the liberty to do with what I want with my body.” But: “It's another thing to say that I have the liberty to tell a woman she can't do that. They're not the same liberty.”

He later was asked by the president of the Black Student Union at Limestone College why African Americans should trust the Democratic Party. Biden responded, “We have systemic racism in the United States of America. It exists today. And it's a white man's problem, white men are responsible for it, not black men.”

Tweet of the day

The Lid: Devil went down to Georgia

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at the state of play in Georgia’s two(!) Senate races in 2020.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Here’s Alex Seitz-Wald’s take on the narrowing Democratic debate stage.

Republicans are starting to fret about the state of the economy and Trump’s trade policy, POLITICO reports.

The Trump administration is ending automatic citizenship for some children of military and federal workers abroad.

Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament is facing an angry backlash.

Trump Agenda: Underwater on the economy

Trump’s approval on the economy was underwater in the latest Quinnipiac poll.

Democrats are raising the alarm over Trump’s reported promises to pardon those who might violate the law in the rush to build a border wall. (Trump denies that he issued those instructions.)

The president is blasting Fox News coverage, saying the network “isn’t working for us anymore.”

The EPA is set to roll back regulations on methane.

A U.S. cyberattack against Iran eliminated the database its paramilitary arm used to target oil tankers.

Trump is heading to California next month.

2020: Gillibrand exits the race

Kirsten Gillibrand is out.

Democratic candidates are continuing to complain about the debate rules.

Joe Biden says there will be an “absolute wall” between government and his family’s business ventures.

Martha McSally has a primary challenger.