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Republican primaries are already intense, while Democrats hold their fire

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: Senate candidate JD Vance campaigns in Boardman
Senate candidate JD Vance campaigns in Boardman, Ohio, on Feb. 16, 2022.Gaelen Morse / Reuters

WASHINGTON — If it’s Thursday ... Russia sends thousands of more troops to Ukraine border. ... President Biden heads to Lorain, Ohio to talk about his bipartisan infrastructure law. ... Biden also plans to change his economic message, per NBC’s Mike Memoli and Carol Lee. ... Retiring Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, endorses Jane Timken in the primary to replace him. And Biden is underwater — in California.

But first: Republican statewide candidates are duking it out in primary races across the country. Just take a look:

“J.D. Vance called Donald Trump an idiot and smeared his America-first policies as immoral and absurd. Jane Timken defended a RINO congressman after he impeached Trump,” one TV ad from Ohio Senate GOP candidate Mike Gibbons says. “J.D. Vance and Jane Timken would be Washington wimps. But Mike Gibbons is Trump tough.”

“Pull back the curtain on Dr Oz. What do you find? Hollywood liberal,” says an anti-Mehmet Oz ad in Pennsylvania.

“McCormick got rich off us. McCormick led a hedge fund with a billion-dollar Chinese investment program. He called China our ally,” responds an anti-David McCormick ad in the Keystone State.

But what about Democrats — particularly in the competitive and crowded Senate primaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as the gubernatorial Democratic primary in Florida?

It’s been pretty much crickets so far.

Part of it is that Democrats don’t have as many wealthy self-funders running (who are able to bankroll expensive ads). Another explanation is that the primaries in Wisconsin (on Aug. 9) and Florida (Aug. 23) are still months away.

But it means — right now — Democrats aren’t having a full-throated debate over who is the more electable candidate, who is the better ideological fit, and where the party needs to go in Year 2 of the Biden presidency.

Especially in Pennsylvania, where that primary is just three months from today (May 17).

Democratic strategists see this as a positive development: Let Republicans be the ones tearing into each other and leaving a lasting mark for voters.

Then again, there are real differences between the Democratic candidates, particularly in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that aren’t getting litigated.

Are Democrats better off having that debate sooner rather than later?

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … $535,713

That’s how much money incumbent Rep. Van Taylor, R-Texas, has booked on the TV airwaves between now and his March 1 primary, after a $107,000 buy yesterday, per AdImpact.

It’s 85 percent of all the money booked on the airwaves through the primary, with the anti-Taylor Defeating Communism PAC spending $71,000 and former Collin County Judge Keith Self, a primary opponent, spending $20,000.

While Taylor remains the favorite, he’s been hit from his right on things like voting for a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission, an attack the anti-Taylor PAC is trying to amplify.

Other numbers you need to know today:

7,000: The number of troops Russia recently sent to the border, a senior U.S. official said, despite Russia’s claims it was pulling some forces back.

22 percent: How much money raised through Republican donation-processing firm WinRed last year went to Trump’s two main committees, per Axios.

13: The number of Texas Republicans congressional candidates who would say that the 2020 presidential results were legitimate when asked by Hearst Newspapers. They contacted 143 candidates.

67 million: The number of U.S. households who ordered free at-home Covid tests through a government website.

Midterm roundup

Biden heads to Ohio today, where he’ll be greeted by Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur — one vulnerable House member who’s eager to embrace Biden on the campaign trail, NBC’s Henry J. Gomez reports.

Retiring Ohio Republican Rob Portman backed former state party chairwoman Jane Timken for Senate yesterday. Also yesterday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, endorsed Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt in the open Senate race.

Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley’s decision to back Rep. Vicky Hartzler in the race drew sharp criticism from Rep. Billy Long, who is also running for Senate. Long has also insisted that he is not dropping out of the race.

Team Blue PAC, led by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, announced its first slate of endorsements, backing House Democrats facing progressive challengers, including Reps. Shontel Brown of Ohio, Danny Davis of Illinois, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Donald Payne, Jr., of New Jersey and Dina Titus of Nevada, per Rolling Stone.

Not included in that group? Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who faces a tough primary race against attorney Jessica Cisneros. The Cisneros campaign announced yesterday that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, will headline an early vote rally for Cisneros next week.

The Democratic group American Bridge 21st Century launched a new super PAC yesterday, aimed at Republicans running to oversee elections who have denied the 2020 election results. The group plans to spend $10 million on those races for state and local office.

Ad watch: Boo Biden, yeah Trump

Businessman Mike Durant is out with a new ad in Alabama’s Senate race, blasting Biden and praising former President Trump on immigration.

Durant opens the ad quoting Trump: “President Trump made it clear on day one: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime.”

“But Joe Biden speaks a different language. Depression, open borders, tax dollars for illegals, violent gangs. Here's some plain english. Joe Biden is a failure,” Durant continues. Near the end of the commercial, Durant says, “I'm going to stop him because the career politicians won't.”

Durant seems to be trying to distance himself from “career politicians” like Rep. Mo Brooks, who has already won Trump’s endorsement in the race, and Katie Britt, who worked for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala, for years, without naming them directly.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is running for Congress in Montana, violated ethics rules while serving in Trump’s Cabinet, per an inspector general report released Wednesday.

Stephen Dickson, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, is stepping down on March 31.

The NFL hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to defend the league against a racial discrimination lawsuit.

The AP explores Democrats’ struggles in rural America.

Republicans in the Florida House passed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks.