Election Countdown: Violence casts cloud before midterms | Clinton opens door to 2020 | Trump calls Gillum a 'thief' | Dems worry about midterm message | Trump camp's midterm ad doesn't feature president

Election Countdown: Violence casts cloud before midterms | Clinton opens door to 2020 | Trump calls Gillum a 'thief' | Dems worry about midterm message | Trump camp's midterm ad doesn't feature president
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This is Election Countdown, The Hill's newsletter from Lisa Hagen (@LA_Hagen) and Max Greenwood (@KMaxGreenwood) that brings you the biggest stories on the campaign trail. We'd love to hear from you, so feel free to reach out to Lisa at LHagen@thehill.com and Max at MGreenwood@thehill.com. with any questions, comments, criticisms or food recommendations (mostly the latter, please). Click here to sign up.


We're 8 days until the 2018 midterm elections and 736 days until the 2020 elections.


First there was a fatal shooting in a Kentucky grocery store.

Then, there was a series of explosive devices mailed to prominent Democrats and media outlets.

And then a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh-area synagogue that killed 11 people.

A string of violent incidents have cast a shadow over the 2018 midterm elections in the final days of the cycle, highlighting the intense divisions at play across the country. On one side, some Democrats place blame for the incidents squarely on President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats claim victory as Trump gets battered in court Juan Williams: Anti-abortion extremism is on the rise Trump feels squeeze in tax return fight MORE, arguing that his divisive and inflammatory rhetoric deepened political rifts and energized violent actors.

Meanwhile, Republicans have sought to downplay the president's connection to the violence. In an interview aired Sunday, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceWatch live: Pence participates in Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address Dozens of graduates walk out in protest of Pence address MORE asserted that the only people responsible for the attacks were the men who carried them out, arguing that "people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences."

The string of attacks came at a crucial time in American politics. Election Day is roughly a week away, and many voters across the country have already begun casting their ballots. Democrats are optimistic that they'll win the 23 seats they need to retake control of the House, while Republicans are hoping to energize their base to stave off outsize losses and maintain their Senate majority.

Whether politicians will tone down the rhetoric in the wake of the violence remains unclear. In Senate debates since the mail bombings, candidates decried the polarization and toxic rhetoric--before some started blaming one another for the state of U.S. politics.

Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that it's unlikely the divisiveness will cease.

"I don't think anything's going to cool tensions," he told The Hill. "This, on both sides, has the feel of the apocalypse if they lose."


State watch

Former President Jimmy Carter is urging Georgia secretary of state and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Brian Kemp to step aside and hand over oversight of the governor's election to a "neutral authority." "This would not address every concern, but it would be a sign that you recognize the importance of this key democratic principle and want to ensure the confidence of our citizens in the outcome," Carter wrote in a letter to Kemp on Monday.


Trump chimed in on the Florida gubernatorial race on Monday, touting Republican Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida bans childlike sex dolls DHS official: Florida one of the 'best' states on election security, despite 2016 Russian hack Florida teacher arrested for loaded gun in backpack told reporter: 'Ask DeSantis' MORE as "a great Congressman" who "will be a great Governor," while deriding Democrat Andrew Gillum as a "thief." The label appears to be a reference to the ongoing FBI investigation into suspected corruption in Tallahassee City Hall. Gillum has insisted that he's not a target of that probe.

The tweet drew a response from Gillum, who said Trump was "howling because he's weak."


Senate showdown

Trump will make a fourth trip to Montana, a state he won by 20 points, to help Republican Matt Rosendale defeat Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterTester will endorse a 2020 candidate 'in the next week' Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda MORE (D), GOP sources tell The Hill's Alexander Bolton, who's been on the ground reporting from Big Sky Country. Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpTrump Jr. slams Republican committee chairman: 'Too weak to stand up to the Democrats' #TrumpTantrum spreads on Twitter after impromptu press conference Trump family members will join state visit to UK MORE made headlines on Friday after calling Tester a "piece of garbage" for ending Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson's nomination to lead the Department of Veteran Affairs earlier in the year.


Tester's reelection bid has tightened in recent weeks, which Republicans link to the contentious fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughDemocratic groups gear up to use abortion rights as attack on GOP in 2020 Murkowski celebrates birthday with electric scooter ride Graham urges Trump not to abandon infrastructure talks with Democrats MORE's confirmation. Trump, who last campaigned for Rosendale on Oct. 18, is set to visit Bozeman, Montana's tech hub, next weekend. Trump's visit comes as Rosendale begs supporters for additional cash. Tester has raised more than four times as much money as Rosendale, according to recent FEC reports.


Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOn The Money: Stocks sink on Trump tariff threat | GOP caught off guard by new trade turmoil | Federal deficit grew 38 percent this fiscal year | Banks avoid taking position in Trump, Dem subpoena fight Fight over Trump's new NAFTA hits key stretch Former senators launching effort to help Dems win rural votes MORE (D-N.D.) and Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump pushing for GOP donor's company to get border wall contract: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Bolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran MORE (R-N.D.) duked it out in the second debate of the North Dakota Senate race on Friday, sparring on issues like Trump's trade war with China and health care. The debate opened with calls for civility from both candidates. But it didn't take long for the exchange to become heated, with health care bringing the most contentious back-and-forth. Here are four takeaways from The Hill's Lisa Hagen.


Wave watch

Some Democrats are sounding the alarm over what they say is the party's lack of a poignant message that will resonate with voters in 2018 and beyond, The Hill's Amie Parnes and Mike Lillis report. "We haven't had a real message since the last presidential election, so why change it now?" said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. "We had no message in 2016. We had no message in between. We have no message going into this election ... You have to give people a reason to vote for you, not a reason to vote against someone else."


Democrats and Republicans are honing in on radically divergent messages in the final week of the midterms. Democrats are focusing on kitchen-table issues – health care and the minimum wage, among them – while Republicans are turning to the culture wars to sell themselves to voters, The Hill's Mike Lillis and Scott Wong report. While some in the GOP have sought to push an economic message focusing on tax cuts and low unemployment, Trump is leaning hard into the same scorched-earth strategy that catapulted him to victory in 2016.


Survey says…

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezEnding the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean We can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison MORE maintains a 5-point lead over GOP challenger Bob Hugin, a new Emerson College Poll finds. Seven percent of voters remain undecided. The poll comes as the Cook Political Report shifted Menendez's reelection bid to "toss-up" last week. Menendez, whose campaign has been dogged by his past corruption case, has a negative favorability rating in the state. But Trump's even greater unpopularity--and Hugin's ties as a former Trump state campaign chair -- may give the Democrat the support he needs to hold on.


Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke: Trump 'provoking' war with Iran by sending troops to Middle East Buttiegieg backs NFL players' right to protest during anthem: I 'put my life on the line to defend' that Overnight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan MORE's (D-Texas) prospects of unseating Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan MORE (R-Texas) are looking slightly brighter, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. Cruz is still leading O'Rourke 51 percent to 46 percent. Still, that signals a tightening race. A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month showed Cruz leading O'Rourke by 9 points – 54 percent to 45 percent.


Rep. Dave Brat (R) and his Democratic opponent Abigail Spanberger are locked in a dead heat in their race to represent Virginia's 7th District, according to a new survey from the Wason Center for Public Policy. Spanberger has a slight edge with 46 percent support, according to the poll, while Brat came in at 45 percent. That's well within the poll's 4.2 percent margin of error.


Democrats are gaining ground in the House generic ballot, leading Republicans by 17 points, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. Fifty-seven percent of likely voters plan to cast their votes for Democrats, compared to 40 percent who say they'll vote for Republicans. Monday's poll shows Democrats with a 4-point gain since last week's Los Angeles Times poll.


Paper chase

House Democrats looking to claim leadership posts after the midterms are pouring money into helping vulnerable incumbents and first-time candidates challenging Republicans in key districts, The Hill's Mike Lillis reports. Rep. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkPelosi calls for investments in child care, early education A workplace safety solution Anita Hill would be proud of Senate Dems put brakes on Trump impeachment talk MORE (D-Mass.), for example, has given more than $3.3 million in an effort to boost Democrats. She's vying for the vice-chairmanship being vacated by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who's looking to move up to caucus chair.


Trump's campaign is out with a new $6 million ad buy, touting the president's economic record ahead of Election Day. Oddly enough, the 60-second spot doesn't feature Trump at all. Instead, it plays a series of news clips lamenting slow economic growth before the real estate mogul took office. It then switches gears and touts the success of Trump's economic agenda.


What we're watching for

Campaign trail:

--Oct. 30: Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump agrees with Kim, rips Biden at Japan presser Trump 'personally thinks lots of good things will come from North Korea' Trump meets Japan's new emperor in lavish welcome ceremony MORE will campaign in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with state Rep. Abby Finkenauer, the Democrat running against GOP Rep. Rod Blum in Iowa's 1st District.

--Oct. 31: Biden will be in Bridgeton, Mo. for Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillCongress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Lobbying world Big Dem names show little interest in Senate MORE (D).

--Nov. 1: Biden will be in Fargo, N.D. for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D).

--Nov. 2: Obama will campaign for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in Atlanta, Ga. He'll also be stumping for Gillum in Miami.

Trump rallies: (All times in ET)

--Oct. 31 in Fort Myers, Fla. at 7 p.m.

--Nov. 1 in Columbia, Mo. at 7:30 p.m.

--Nov. 2 in Huntington, W. Va. at 4 p.m.

--Nov. 3 in Pensacola, Fla. at 7:30 p.m.


--Oct. 30: Indiana Senate debate

--Nov. 1: West Virginia Senate debate

--Nov. 4: Georgia gubernatorial debate


Coming to a TV near you

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is out with a new ad questioning whether Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonRepublicans amp up attacks on Tlaib's Holocaust comments The muscle for digital payment Rubio says hackers penetrated Florida elections systems MORE (D-Fla.) took an illegal campaign contribution when he sold a Virginia house to a company linked to Lebanese business mogul (and the country's current president) Rafic Hariri for more than its market value. "Was it an illegal campaign contribution disguised as a real estate deal?" a narrator asks in the ad. "That's corruption, Washington style."


Race for the White House

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTester will endorse a 2020 candidate 'in the next week' Democratic candidates should counter Trump's foreign policy 2020 Democrats jockey over surging college costs MORE acknowledged that she'd "like to be president," stoking speculation that she could mount a third bid for the White House. But she said she won't consider the possibility of a run until after the midterms. Longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines told Politico earlier this month that the chance Clinton will run is "somewhere between highly unlikely and zero, but it's not zero."


Lara Trump, Trump's daughter-in-law and a senior adviser to his 2020 campaign, told The Hill's Reid Wilson in an interview last week that Trump will not take responsibility for GOP losses in the midterms. "It's hard to translate excitement for one candidate to another. I don't think it's a referendum on the president directly if Republicans do not hold their seat or they lose a seat."