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First Thoughts: McCaskill to get her challenger

McCaskill to find out her GOP challenger in today’s Missouri SEN primary… Another look at the battle for Senate control… Romney camp comes out swinging (on topics not related to the economy)… Adding important context to the Romney camp’s new welfare TV ad… Obama on “Romney Hood”… Priorities USA Action is up with its latest TV ad… And Romney stumps in Illinois and Iowa.

Sid Hastings / AP

Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, John Brunner, left, Sarah Steelman, center, and Todd Akin are introduced at the start of a debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Friday, July 6, 2012.

*** McCaskill to get her challenger: It’s primary day in Missouri, where Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) will find out which Republican is challenging her in the fall -- U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, or businessman John Brunner. Make no mistake: McCaskill is vulnerable, and the GOP has a real chance of winning this seat (and possibly the majority) in the Senate. McCaskill is a fascinating story. Perhaps no one was a more important early endorser of Obama than she was, and probably no Senate Democrat up for re-election this year is paying a bigger price for her association with the president. But some of her problems also were self-inflicted (think of those charter jets), and remember that she barely won during the Democratic wave of 2006. What’s more, Missouri isn’t going to be a battleground state in the presidential election, meaning that the Obama machine won’t put in the same kind of resources in the Show Me State than it will in Ohio or Florida (which will benefit two other sitting Dem senators, Sherrod Brown and Bill Nelson).

*** And the battle for Senate control: If Republicans get their best candidate in Missouri (the C.W. is that Akin isn’t as strong of a general-election candidate than Brunner or Steelman) and in Wisconsin next week (Tommy Thompson and Eric Hovde are viewed as stronger than Mark Neumann) then they have a real shot at winning control of the U.S. Senate. Here’s the path: Win Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Missouri and Wisconsin, and lose only Maine. That would net Republicans four seats, which is enough to take control of the Senate even if Obama wins re-election. But if Republicans lose another seat -- say Elizabeth Warren defeating Scott Brown in Massachusetts -- then the GOP would have to win one more Senate contest, probably either in Virginia, Florida, or New Mexico. But if Obama loses, then Republicans would need to net just three seats, which is a very doable feat.

*** Other primaries to watch: There are other primaries in Missouri today. Businessman Dave Spence is expected to win his GOP gubernatorial primary to challenge incumbent Gov. Jay Nixon (D) in November. And there’s a competitive member-vs.-member House primary, too -- with Rep. William Lacy Clay (D) battling Rep. Russ Carnahan (D). Meanwhile, in Washington state, we have the gubernatorial primaries in the race to replace retiring Gov. Christine Gregoire (D). Washington holds free-for-all primaries where the Top 2 finishers advance, and those Top 2 are expected to be Rob McKenna (R) and Jay Inslee (D). Polls close in Missouri at 8:00 pm ET, and they close at 11:00 pm ET in Washington. It’s also primary day in Kansas and Michigan.

*** Romney camp comes out swinging (on topics not related to the economy): Turning to the presidential contest… Over the past few weeks now, the Obama campaign has been driving the daily news cycle -- consider the back-and-forth over that Tax Policy Center report and Romney’s tax returns. In response, we’ve now seen the Romney campaign drop its singular focus on the economy to hit Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina (over his emails at the White House) and Obama White House adviser David Plouffe (over his paid speech to a firm with ties to Iran), and to whack the Obama campaign over military voters in Ohio. And now, the Romney camp is up with a TV ad accusing the Obama administration of gutting welfare reform; it’s also holding a conference call on this topic at 11:15 am ET. These new attacks might seem scattershot to some, maybe to buy time before this month’s VP pick. But they also seem like an attempt to try to knock the Obama campaign off message and drive the daily news cycle instead of being on the receiving end.

For the third straight month, Mitt Romney's campaign has raised more money than President Obama's. Meantime, as the president flew to a fund-raiser in Connecticut last night, there was some unplanned drama when fighter jets had to intercept a pair of small planes.

*** Some important context: But here’s some important context on this new Romney TV ad. The change in the welfare law Team Romney is attacking was actually designed to give states more flexibility -- something for which Republican often want from the federal government argue. Reuters: “The directive from the Health and Human Services Department allows states to pursue a waiver from the work requirement of the welfare law in order to test alternative strategies that would help needy families find jobs. The aim is to give states some flexibility in how they carry out the welfare law as some state governors have advocated, rather than sticking to a rigid formula.” The Huffington Post also reports that Romney, when he was Massachusetts governor in 2005, actually advocated for this kind of flexibility with welfare.

*** Obama: “It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. It’s Romney Hood”: Speaking of attacks to drive the news cycle, don’t miss what Obama said at one of his fundraisers in Connecticut last night, per NBC’s Ali Weinberg. "He'd ask the middle class to pay more taxes so that he could give another $250,000 tax cut to people making more than $3 million a year. It's like Robin Hood in Reverse. It's Romney Hood!" Obama was referring to the recent study by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, which found that Romney’s push for additional tax cuts -- while keeping these tax cuts revenue-neutral -- would result in tax increases on the middle class. Watch this issue; this is potentially a very powerful one come the fall. And if so, why isn’t the Romney camp trying to do more to parry it?

*** Priorities’ latest TV ad: Also today, the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action has a new TV ad hitting Romney’s past work at Bain Capital.

*** On the trail: Romney holds an event in Elk Grove Village, IL at 11:40 am ET and then raises money in Chicago before hitting another fundraiser in Des Moines, IA… And Obama visits two fundraisers in Washington, DC.

Countdown to GOP convention: 20 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 27 days
Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 57 days
Countdown to VP debate: 65 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 70 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 76 days
Countdown to Election Day: 91 days

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