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Past scandal could haunt Democrats in California 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: Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) speaks during a news conference on April 9, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) speaks during a news conference on April 9, 2019 in Washington, DC.Zach Gibson / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Scandals that produce special congressional elections typically don’t help the political party trying to hold on to the seat, whether it wins or loses.

Think of the specials to replace former GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham in 2006 (which the GOP barely won in that red district), or former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner in 2011 (which the GOP flipped in New York), or Rep. Tim Murphy in 2018 (Democrats won his Pennsylvania-18 seat).

Call it the scandal penalty — akin to a 10-yard penalty for the incumbent party before the contest even begins.

That brings us to tomorrow’s special congressional election in California's 25 district between Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia to replace former Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif.

In October, Hill stepped down from her House seat amid an investigation into allegations of improper sexual relationships with staffers. Hill blamed the scandal on published nude photos of her, and claimed her estranged husband was responsible for them.

Now the Hill scandal is far from the only reason why Republicans privately are feeling optimistic about their chances of winning tomorrow’s special election, and why Democrats are bit pessimistic in this district that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and Hill won by 8 points in 2018.

Garcia is a strong candidate (former Navy combat pilot) who’s running as the outsider; vote by mail in California (which is how the special is operating due to the coronavirus) usually has benefitted Republicans, as the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman observes; and the seat is simply a competitive seat.

But memories of the Hill scandal — the former congresswoman is even up with an ad in the race — could also be helping to drive GOP turnout in this special election.

“It is scary to go to work” in the White House

How do you reopen the economy when the coronavirus is even spreading inside the Trump White House?

“It is scary to go to work,” Trump top economic adviser Kevin Hassett said on CBS yesterday, per the New York Times.

Hassett added, “I think that I'd be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing. But, you know, it's the time when people have to step up and serve their country.”

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It all highlights a clear disconnect, as NBC’s Kristen Welker pointed out on “Meet the Press” yesterday: “The White House is essentially urging the country to reopen, cities and states, and yet, those same cities and states do not have the same level of testing that exists at the White House.”

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, put it this way on “Meet” yesterday: “Somewhere between now and tomorrow next year, we're going to see 60 to 70 percent of Americans ultimately infected with this virus. What we have to do is figure out how not just to die with the virus, but also how to live with it.”

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

1,343,873: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 76,594 more than Friday morning.)

80,724: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 3,957 more than Friday morning).

8.99 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

Three: The number of members of the White House task force who will self-quarantine after exposure to Covid-19.

More than 20 percent: The potential unemployment rate by next month, according to two White House economic advisers.

I’m rubber, you’re glue

The Trump campaign is up with new TV ads hitting Joe Biden on China and the coronavirus.

A sample from one: “For 40 years, Biden's been wrong on China, supporting trade deals to destroy American jobs, giving China most favored nation status letting China walk all over us.”

The one problem with this line of attack: Trump himself has defended China and even earlier praised the country’s handling of the coronavirus.

And as NBC’s Sahil Kapur writes, the same I’m-rubber-you’re-glue situation exists for other GOP attacks on Biden – on age, mental fitness, nepotism, sexual harassment/assault – where Trump has the same (or a worse) problem.

Tweet of the day

2020 Vision: Meet Biden VP possibility Tammy Duckworth

Last week, we broke down strengths and weaknesses for six top Biden VP contenders.

Well, here’s our breakdown for another possibility: Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.

Strengths: Duckworth’s military service makes her stand out from the pack, and she would be a woman of color on the ticket. She has deep experience as a current senator, a former member of the House and a former assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs during the Obama administration. She’s also 52 years old and became in 2018 the first U.S. senator in history to give birth while in office.

Weaknesses: She has not been vetted on the national stage and isn’t well-known nationally.

Potential oppo on her: In 2009, Duckworth was sued by two VA employees alleging harassment and workplace retaliation. The case was ultimately settled in 2016.

This week on the Hill

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will hold an entirely remote hearing on Tuesday about how to safely reopen the economy and schools amid the coronavirus crisis. Anthony Fauci (of the NIH), Robert Redfield (of the CDC), Brett Giroir (of HHS) and Stephen Hahn (of the FDA) will be testifying in front of the committee remotely after some of them were likely exposed to a person with a positive case of coronavirus.

Per our White House and Capitol Hill teams, Redfield and Hahn both agreed to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone with coronavirus. In addition to Redfield and Hahn, Fauci became the third member of the White House’s task force to self-quarantine — however unlike others, Fauci will reportedly follow a “modified” quarantine period because his exposure was deemed “low-risk.” You can read more about that here.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

In an op-ed, Joe Biden argues that the president is setting up a false choice when it comes to reopening the country.

Here’s how the health crisis may be tipping the Senate map toward Democrats.

All eyes are on Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis to see how he handles reopening in his state.

The New York Times looks at Kamala Harris’ next move (perhaps to vice president?)

And Politico calls Harris the “early favorite” for the VP slot.