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First Thoughts: What we learned this week

What we learned this week: that the GOP has the money mo’… that Dems are cutting their losses but also gaining ground in key races… that the debates have focused more on health care than the economy… and that the midterm season is more of a referendum on Pelosi/Reid than Obama… Wrapping last night’s Reid-vs.-Angle and Murray-vs.-Rossi debates… Previewing Sunday’s Bennet-vs.-Buck showdown… Obama and Biden stump for Coons at 1:30 pm ET… First Read’s Top 10 Senate takeovers… And profiling GA-8.

*** What we learned this week: We knew that Republicans were doing well on the money front, but we learned this week that they’re doing better than we had even thought. Sharron Angle raised a whopping $14 million in the last quarter (which is forcing the DSCC to spend more in the contest and pull out of MO SEN even earlier than they anticipated?); the RGA announced raising more than $30 million in the quarter (which allows them to play heavily in almost every GOV race in the country, especially since they can ignore CA and FL); and the GOP-leaning outside groups continue to spend and spend. The good news for Democrats: Even with all the GOP momentum, the DCCC continues to outraise the NRCC, and has a sizable cash-on-hand advantage. Then again, the GOP outside groups are more than making up the difference. And the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Democratic efforts to match the GOP outside group spending are coming up short. http://bit.ly/bDyLA0

*** Dems cut their losses and gain ground in key races: We also learned that Democrats are cutting their losses and pulling out of House and Senate races (like Steve Driehaus’ in Ohio and Robin Carnahan’s in Missouri); the goal is to now save the majorities. We learned that Democratic candidates are gaining ground in some key races, and that the Obama rallies are helping the party (see PA SEN, for instance). And in a big debate week, we’ve surprisingly learned that the more contentious issue has been health care and not the economy -- perhaps a realization that there’s really not much more the government can do to spark the economy. Finally, the fact that this midterm season is more of a referendum on Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid than on President Obama came into focus this week with the TV ads that Reps. Bobby Bright (D-MS) and Jim Marshall (D-GA) are running in their districts.

*** Reid vs. Angle: It was tough to watch last night’s Harry Reid-vs.-Sharron Angle debate. It looked more like a condo board association meeting than a clash of political titans. “Painful” doesn’t even begin to describe last night’s back-and-forth. And if both candidates didn’t perform well, that only helps Angle. The reason: It’s hard to paint your opponent as not ready for primetime if you don’t come across looking much better than she did. Also, Reid never really buttonholed Angle on the issues. For example, he hit her for wanting to privatize Social Security -- but didn’t take the extra step that that means subjecting retirement money to the stock market’s ups and downs. And it was like this on issue after issue. Reid also slipped into "Washington-speak" time and time again. Perhaps the worst moment for him: his shuffling around for notes for his closing statement.

*** Murray vs. Rossi: As it turns out, Patty Murray finds herself in a similar situation to Harry Reid -- she’s a longtime senator whom her opponent is casting as a D.C. insider. But unlike Reid, Murray was the aggressor in her debate last night against Dino Rossi. She brought it to him every time. For those that watched NV SEN and WA SEN debates back-to-back on C-SPAN, it was night and day. Rossi and Murray looked like heavyweight Senate candidates: Both came across competent and, well, ready for primetime. Toward the end, Murray seemed to score on the Boeing issue in a way that made Rossi seem exasperated.

*** Bennet vs. Buck: The next debate on the horizon is Michael Bennet (D) vs. Ken Buck (R) on "Meet the Press" this Sunday. Besides competing in a close contest, Bennet and Buck share this trait: The media-constructed narratives for them -- that Bennet is a creature of Washington and that Buck is an Angle-like Tea Party figure -- are somewhat unfair. Although Bennet attended private school in DC, he was the Denver schools superintendent before being appointed to Ken Salazar's Senate seat. (In fact, he was more of a political outsider, at least in terms of political experience than primary opponent Andrew Romanoff was.) And although Buck is very conservative on abortion and Social Security, he isn't Angle or Joe Miller or even Rand Paul. (Indeed, he’s a former U.S. attorney and Justice Department prosecutor.) Before the debate, "Meet" interviews White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

*** On the trail today: President Obama and Vice President Biden stump for Chris Coon in Delaware at 1:30 pm ET… Biden later heads to Wisconsin, where he campaigns for Rep. Steve Kagen and House candidate Julie Lassa… Bill Clinton is in California for Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Loretta Sanchez… Rudy Giuliani campaigns for Marco Rubio in Florida… And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stumps in Connecticut for Linda McMahon.

*** 75 House races to watch: GA-8: The Democratic nominee is four-term incumbent Rep. Jim Marshall, and his GOP opponent is state Rep. Austin Scott. In 2008, McCain won 56% in this district – which is located in the middle of the state and represents Macon – while Bush won 61% here in ’04. As of June 30, Marshall had nearly $1 million in the bank, versus Scott’s $213,000. Marshall voted against the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and health care. Cook and Rothenberg both rate the contest as a Toss Up.

Countdown to Election Day 2010: 18 days

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