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Three questions loom for Senate Republicans as court fight begins

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: Women embrace at a makeshift memorial for late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the steps of the United States Supreme Court
Women embrace at a makeshift memorial for late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the steps of the United States Supreme Court on Sept. 20, 2020.Alex Edelman / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Nothing over the last several months — a pandemic, protests, bombshell books and magazine articles — has changed what has been an incredibly stable presidential race.

So it’s doubtful that a Supreme Court fight will alter this contest.

But it sure could affect Senate races across the country, especially with control of the chamber at stake in November.

Senate Republicans — from Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., to John Cornyn, R-Texas and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — will have to answer these questions over the next 43 days.

1. Why prioritize a SCOTUS vacancy and not the coronavirus?

More than 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. Millions have lost their jobs. Congress hasn’t passed any new major relief bill since May (when the death toll was half of where it is today).

And the Republican-led Senate is about to go full speed ahead … on a Supreme Court fight?

2. Do you support the Supreme Court striking down the Affordable Care Act and its protections for pre-existing conditions?

That’s likely at stake with the court set to hear the latest challenge to Obamacare the week after the election.

3. Why was it a problem for Obama to fill the Scalia seat in an election year, but entirely OK for Trump to fill the Ruth Bader Ginsburg seat now?

The hypocritical quotes are all over the place. In fact, here’s what Graham said just two years ago: “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump's term and the primary process has started, we'll wait till the next election.”

The early conventional wisdom is that any SCOTUS fight helps Republicans.

But given those questions above, we’re not so sure.

Tweet of the day

Meet the voters who are still up for grabs in the 2020 presidential race

Our national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds nearly 90 percent of voters saying they’ve already made up their minds in the Trump-vs.-Biden race.

That leaves just 11 percent our pollsters identify as truly up for grabs between the candidates – in a race Biden is leading by 8 points nationwide, 51 percent to 43 percent.

So who are these 11 percent of voters?

They have mostly negative views of both Trump (26 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable) and Biden (29 percent fav/41 percent unfav).

Their 2020 preference is divided among Trump (27 percent), Biden (20 percent), neither (27 percent) and not sure (24 percent).

And 28 percent of them voted for Trump 2016, 27 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, 15 percent voted third party and 19 percent didn’t vote at all.

Bottom line: While Trump can expect to win over some of these voters in a race he’s trailing, he’s not going to win all of them.

“This does not look like a group that Trump can run the table with, which he needs to do in order to change the race,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, who co-conducted the NBC News/WSJ poll with GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

6,835,692: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 127,804 more than Friday morning.)

200,686: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,800 more than Friday morning.)

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

73: The number of countries worldwide that are seeing surges in new cases.

52 percent to 45 percent: The share of likely voters who trust Biden vs. those who trust Trump more when it comes to nominating a Supreme Court justice, according to a Fox News poll out earlier this month.

62 percent to 26 percent: Biden’s lead over Trump with Latinos, according to a new NBC/WSJ/Telemundo oversample of Latino voters.

About a quarter: The share of top elections officials in Pennsylvania who have left since a new law accommodating no-excuse mail voting was implemented.

2020 Vision: Biden’s splash on hand

The Biden campaign confirms that their end of August cash-on-hand (campaign + party money) was a whopping $466 million, the latest sign of how the money edge that the pro-Trump effort brought into the summer has been completely upended.

Biden, the DNC and his fundraising committees raised $364.5 million, while Republicans raised $210 million through the Trump campaign, the RNC and its committees. But the cash-on-hand difference is striking — Team Biden says it has $466 million banked away and Team Trump told the New York Times it has $325 million.

Heading into April, Team Trump had an about $182 million cash-on-hand advantage over Biden and the DNC. Now, that script’s been flipped.

On the campaign trail today

President Trump is in Ohio. Joe Biden stumps in Wisconsin.

Then vs. now

The last time Joe Biden and President Trump spoke about a vacancy on the Supreme Court in an election year, it was 2016. Here’s what they both said then:

“I think the next president should make the pick, and I think they shouldn’t go forward,” Trump said in March 2016 during an interview on CNN. For what it’s worth, this was BEFORE Trump won the Republican nomination.

During the general election debates, Trump said he would look for justices with the following qualifications: “The justices that I am going to appoint will be pro-life. They will have a conservative bent. They will be protecting the Second Amendment.”

Biden on the other hand said this: “It’s a plain abdication of the Senate’s solemn constitutional duty,” Biden said in March 2016. “It’s an abdication, quite frankly, that has never occurred in our history.”

Ad Watch from Ben Kamisar

The Trump administration has helped secure deals in recent weeks with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel, a big deal in the region. But the news has been drowned out by the barrage of dire headlines.

So Team Trump is taking to the airwaves with a new spot touting the accomplishment: “They said it couldn’t be done, but Trump did it: The first Middle East peace agreement in decades,” the spot’s narrator says, with a brief clip of praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s a push that comes as Republicans hope to pull more Jewish voters onto their side, as well as appeal to evangelical voters that president recently remarked are motivated by his pro-Israel policies.

The new ad is airing on national TV, as well as in key markets in Pennsylvania and Florida, according to Advertising Analytics. And it looks like the Trump campaign tried to take advantage of the captive football audience this weekend, running the spots during Saturday college football and Sunday NFL games.

The Lid: The Uncertainty Principle

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when we looked at the uncertainty in the Trump-vs.-Biden race over which ballots get counted (and which ones don’t).

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Republicans have found a new campaign message for 2016: “Fill the seat!”

Here’s what you need to know about Supreme Court frontrunner Amy Coney Barrett.

Barbara Lagoa is also getting attention as a top contender.

Nancy Pelosi isn’t ruling out a new impeachment vote to try to delay the Supreme Court proceedings.

A suspect has been taken into custody for allegedly sending a ricin-laced letter to the White House.