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First thoughts: What we learned

It's Giannoulias vs. Kirk for Obama's old Senate seat… Quinn leads by 7,000 in the Dem IL Gov race, while Brady has a 503-vote lead (!!!) on the GOP side… It wasn't a bad thing to be an establishment candidate in the statewide contests, but the same wasn't true in the House contests… Denny Hastert's son lost… Ex-GOP Sen. Dan Coats to challenge Evan Bayh… White House pushes back on security… And House and Senate play Alphonse and Gaston on health care.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** What we learned: So what did we learn from the primary contests in Illinois last night? For starters, in the statewide races, it wasn't a bad thing to be the establishment candidate. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) and Congressman Mark Kirk (R) won their respective Senate primaries, setting up a very competitive contest in November for Barack Obama's old Senate seat. We also learned that we don't have a winner in the gubernatorial races -- yet. On the Democratic side, sitting Gov. Pat Quinn leads challenger Dan Hynes by slightly more than 7,000 votes with 99% of precincts reporting. In the GOP contest, state Sen. Bill Brady leads fellow State Sen. Kirk Dillard by just 503 votes (!!!), with Andy McKenna and Jim Ryan closely behind. We also learned that the conservative/Tea Party candidates in the statewide contests didn't have much a bite. In the Senate GOP primary, Patrick Hughes got just 19% of the vote, while Adam Andrzejewski finished fifth in the GOP gubernatorial race. Finally, we learned that turnout was down, especially compared with the last time (2004) there was a wide-open Senate field. If you a build a primary in a February (in a non-presidential year), they won't come. It was the DEAD of winter.

*** On the House side: But if it wasn't harmful to be an establishment candidate in the statewide contests, that wasn't necessarily true on the House side. In IL-14, Ethan Hastert was unable to win his father's old congressional seat (following in the footsteps of Dick Armey's son). In IL-10 (Kirk's seat), the more conservative Republican Robert Dold beat the more moderate Elizabeth Coulson, setting up a competitive general election against Dan Seals (D), who will see if three times is finally the charm. And in IL-11, Adam Kinzinger won the GOP primary for the right to challenge Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D). By the way, for those keeping score on these things, it was another bad night for EMILY's List; it candidates in the Senate race (Cheryle Jackson) and IL-10 (Julie Hamos) both lost. Also on the House side -- but in Florida -- state Sen. Ted Deutch won the Democratic primary for Robert Wexler's (D) congressional seat. The general election there takes place April 13.

*** Grabbing Coats out of the political closet: Outside of Illinois (and Florida), the biggest political news last night came in Indiana, where we learned ex-GOP Sen. Dan Coats plans to challenge Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. As Democrats have reminded us, Coats is far from a perfect GOP recruit -- he left the Senate in 1999 (fearful of facing the popular Bayh), and also has served as a lobbyist. But what Coats does is put yet another Senate seat in play for the Republicans. They now have eight legitimate pick-up opportunities, in ND, DE, NV, CO, AR, IL, PA, and IN. But to be able take back control of the Senate, Republicans now have to put AT LEAST two of these states in play: CA, CT, OR, WA, WI, and NY. Coats' entry also is going to frustrate the Obama White House. Make no mistake, Bayh is the front-runner in this contest, but if the White House thinks Bayh's recent statements have been problematic, just think what it's going to look like now that he has a serious challenger. In short, Coats' entry is at the least a legislative victory for Senate Republicans.

*** Administration pushes back: Yesterday, we really saw the Obama administration push back against the GOP critiques about 1) trying 9/11 suspected terrorists in civilian courts, and 2) that the alleged Christmas Day bomber stopped talking after he was read his Miranda rights. In fact, it was Maine Sen. Susan Collins – of all people – who delivered last weekend's blistering GOP radio address: "Abdulmutallab was questioned for less than one hour before the Justice Department advised him that he could remain silent and offered him an attorney at our expense. Once afforded the protection our Constitution guarantees American citizens, this foreign terrorist 'lawyered up' and stopped talking." But as NBC reported yesterday, citing officials close to the case, Abdulmutallab has begun talking again. And the methods used to get him to talk, according to the administration, was longstanding FBI practices -- in this case using Abdulmutallab's family. The administration argues that Abdulmutallab would have been less cooperative had he faced an interrogator in a military uniform. Of course, this won't end the debate; it just adds more nuance to something that it appears is never as black and white as some would like to believe.

*** Playing Alphonse and Gaston on health care: It likely won't provide the political theater that Friday's Q&A with House Republicans did, but President Obama addresses Senate Democrats at their meeting in DC at 10:00 am ET. And what is said about health care could be the most interesting news at the meeting. NBC's Ken Strickland reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told bloggers yesterday that the Senate would have to pass a health-care bill first -- via reconciliation -- that addressed House Democrats concerns before the House would vote on a final health care bill. But a few house later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted he didn't know how that could happen, procedurally. "We can't go first. I don't know a way procedurally we can start a reconciliation," Reid said to reporters as he left a meeting in Pelosi's office. "If somebody could figure it out and tell me, I'd be happy to take a look at it." Reid countered, Strick adds, that it was more likely the House would pass a reconciliation bill with its desired fixes first, and then send it to the Senate. "Yes, that seems like a strong possibility.

*** A matter of Anti-trust: Meanwhile, House Democratic leadership officials confirm to First Read that they are going ahead with a stand-alone vote next week to repeal the anti-trust exemption for health-insurance companies. A repeal was included in the House's health reform legislation, but they're going forward with a stand-alone measure, signaling the beginning of a larger effort to break up the bill and put Republicans on record on potentially politically popular measures. "They can side with their constituents or the insurance giants," one House Democratic aide said.

*** Another busy day on the Hill: It's another busy day on Capitol Hill. Defense Secretary Gates, Labor Secretary Solis, Transportation Secretary LaHood, Treasury Secretary Geithner, and OMB Director Orszag fan out to testify on the FY2011 budget. Also, HHS Secretary Sebelius goes before the Senate Finance Committee to talk about health care. And DNI Director Blair talks to the House Intelligence Committee.

*** A programming note: MSNBC's "Daily Rundown," which airs beginning at 9:00 am ET, has an interview with top White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes. And MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" has GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Orrin Hatch.

Countdown to TX primary: 27 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 272 days

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