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First thoughts: And we're off...

The 2010 primary season kicks off today in IL… Three things to watch in today's primaries: 1) Dem vs. GOP turnout, 2) anti-incumbent fervor, and 3) Tea Party performance… Polls close at 8:00 pm ET… Is the NRSC fortunate that the Senate primary is taking place today and not a month from now?... Obama heads to New Hampshire… A busy day on Capitol Hill… Charlie Rangel's hefty legal bill… And Virginia's vote against health care.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** And we're off…:  This year's main political event -- the battle for control of Congress -- doesn't take place until November. But beginning today and lasting through September, we officially embark on the 2010 undercard contests -- the various Dem and GOP primaries -- which could very well be as revealing and entertaining as the November midterms. Today, voters head to the polls in Illinois to pick Dem and GOP nominees for Senate, House, and governor. And these primary races might provide us with additional clues about what to expect nine months from now.

*** Three things to watch: One, do Republicans continue to hold an enthusiasm advantage? (In 2004, when Obama won the Senate primary, Dem turnout was nearly 1,243,000 in that contest, and GOP turnout was 662,000; in 2006, during Blago's re-elect, the Dem gubernatorial candidates got 944,000 votes, the GOP ones got 736,000.) Two, are incumbents marked men and women? (Does the sitting governor, Pat Quinn, lose tonight?) And three, how potent and potentially divisive is the Tea Party movement? (How close does Patrick Hughes get to Mark Kirk in the Senate race, and how many votes does conservative fav Adam Andrzejewski get in the Gov primary?)

*** The skinny on today's primaries: In the race for Obama's old Senate seat, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Chicago Urban League head Cheryle Jackson, and former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman lead the Dem field, while GOP Congressman Kirk and developer Hughes lead the Republican one. In the contest for governor, Gov. Quinn and state Comptroller Dan Hynes duke it out on the Dem side, while the GOP field includes state party chair Andy McKenna, former state AG Jim Ryan, state Sen. Bill Brady, and businessman Andrzejewski. And for the House, there are primaries worth watching in IL-10 (which is Kirk's seat), IL-14 (where Denny Hastert's son is running for his dad's old seat), IL-11 (where GOPers are running to challenge Rep. Debbie Halvorson) and possibly IL-8 (where GOPers are running to challenge Rep. Melissa Bean). Polls in Illinois opened at 7:00 am ET and close at 8:00 pm ET.

*** Timing is everything: Here's one final observation about Illinois: The National Republican Senatorial Committee has to feel very fortunate about the timing of today's primaries in the state. Why? Because had the primaries been next month (as had been normal pre-'08), we're guessing that front-runner Giannoulias -- who has political baggage -- might no longer be the front-runner, especially if the story about his family's bank continued to play for several more days. Make no mistake, the NRSC feels that Kirk would have an easier time in a general election against Giannoulias than, say, Hoffman. We're also guessing that if the primary took place a month from now, Kirk -- who voted for cap-and-trade and supports abortion rights -- would be facing a stronger Tea Party challenge that he currently is. However, as we said above, it's worth watching how close Hughes might get to Kirk tonight. This INCREDIBLY early primary (six weeks earlier than what WAS normal for Illinois) meant the campaign season didn't kick off until after New Year's, leaving underdog challengers just three weeks to gain traction.

*** Granite State of mind: As voters in President Obama's home state go to the polls -- and both Obamas already cast their absentee ballots -- the president today heads to Nashua, NH, where he will propose taking $30 billion that Wall Street banks repaid and using that to help community banks issue more loans. "These are the small, local banks that work most closely with our small businesses that provide them their first loan, and watch them grow through good times and bad," Obama is expected to say, according to excerpts the White House released last night. "Combined with my proposal back in December to continue waiving fees and increasing guarantees for SBA-backed loans, this will help small banks do even more of what our economy needs -- ensure that small businesses are once again the engine of job growth in America." The president's town hall meeting in New Hampshire begins at 2:15 pm ET. By the way, NBC's Chris Donovan reminds us that Nashua is the place where Obama unveiled his "Yes we can" slogan, in his concession speech after losing the NH primary in '08. And if there is ANY state that's a place for the president to test-drive his pitch to independents, it's New Hampshire.

*** Busy day on the Hill: Meanwhile, there's plenty of action today on Capitol Hill, too. At noon ET, Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on overturning "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Per the New York Times, "Gay rights leaders say they expect Mr. Gates to announce in the interim that the Defense Department will not take action to discharge service members whose sexual orientation is revealed by third parties or jilted partners, one of the most onerous aspects of the law." Also testifying on the Hill today will be OMB Director Orszag and Treasury Secretary Geithner (on the budget), as well as DNI Blair, CIA head Panetta, and FBI Director Mueller (on global threats). And at 11:00 am, Sens. McCain (R), Graham (R), Chambliss (R), Lieberman (I), and Lincoln (D) hold a news conference to introduce legislation cutting off funding for the trials of 9/11 conspirators in civilian court. Critics, of course, will point out that we didn't see similar legislation from Congress when the Bush administration was trying suspected terrorists in federal courts.

*** Programming note: MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports," which airs at 1:00 pm ET, interviews Vice President Biden. And MSNBC's "Daily Rundown," which begins at 9:00 am, has an interview with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), as well as a discussion on this primary day with former Reps. Tom Davis (R) and Martin Frost (D), both ex-heads of the NRCC and DCCC, respectively. 

*** Stimulating the law business: Did you know that embattled House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel spent more than half a million dollars on lawyers -- in the last quarter alone? The New York Daily News: "Ever since Rangel ran afoul of several ethical rules last year - from unreported income on a Dominican Republic villa to using office letterhead to raise money - his five teams of lawyers have chewed through campaign cash faster than Rangel can raise it. During all of 2009, Rangel raised about $1.3 million, but spent more than $1.5 million on lawyers out of the $2.2 million he spent in total." *** UDPATE *** Roll Call lets us know that it published this story first.

*** Virginia's rebuke on health care? In Virginia yesterday, the state's Democratic-controlled Senate "passed measures Monday that would make it illegal to require individuals to purchase health insurance, a direct challenge to the party's efforts in Washington to reform health care. The bills, a top priority of Virginia's 'tea party' movement, were approved 23 to 17 as five Democrats who represent swing areas of the state joined all 18 Republicans in the chamber in backing the legislation." The Virginia House is supposed to pass the legislation as well, and Gov. McDonnell (R) is expected to sign it into law. However, it's debatable whether such a state law is constitutional, but the action certainly is a P.R. blow of sorts to the national Democratic efforts to overhaul health care. (It's also worth noting that the 23-17 majority wouldn't clear a filibuster in the U.S. Senate.)

*** More midterm news: In Florida, be careful of the hype some are giving to a poll that GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio conducted showing Charlie Crist (R) losing as an independent in a three-way general election against Marco Rubio (R) and Kendrick Meek (D). Crist has made NO moves or even coyly hinted at an indie run; in fact, some argue that this is another attempt by supporters of Rubio to alienate Crist further from the GOP in the state. But among conservatives in the blogosphere, the poll is gaining buzz and Crist folks are realizing they need to push back… In New York, Harold Ford was on "Colbert" last night, as a new Marist poll shows him trailing Gillibrand, 44%-27%, with 25% undecided.

Countdown to TX primary: 28 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 273 days

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