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 TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it 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 PencePence taps former DHS spokeswoman as his new press secretary GOP group hits Pence over Trump alleged business conflicts Billionaire to host top-dollar fundraiser in New York City for President Trump 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 DeSantisTrump parts ways with key Florida adviser: report Death and destruction: A timeline of Hurricane Dorian How to take politics beyond charges of racism 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) TesterDemocratic senators quietly hope Biden wins over rivals GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson to resign at end of year Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment 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 TrumpDemocrats introduce bill to block taxpayer-funded spending at Trump properties Trump dismisses NYT explanation on Kavanaugh correction The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico 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 KavanaughKavanaugh book author on impeachment calls: 'That's not our determination to make' Kavanaugh authors defend the integrity of their work The Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution 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 HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (D-N.D.) and Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerPrimary challenges show potential cracks in Trump's GOP Castro, Steyer join pledge opposing the Keystone XL pipeline EPA proposes rolling back states' authority over pipeline projects 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) MenendezAs NFIP reauthorization deadline looms, Congress must end lethal subsidies Senate Democrats warn Trump: Don't invite Putin to G-7 Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid 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'RourkeOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Fox's Ed Henry to Trump: 'Are you willing to stand up to the NRA?' Sanders, Yang to miss CNN's town hall on LGBTQ issues MORE's (D-Texas) prospects of unseating Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz endorses GOP candidate for Senate in New Hampshire Missouri Republican wins annual craft brewing competition for lawmakers GOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan 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 ClarkTen notable Democrats who do not favor impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries Fourth-ranking House Democrat backs Trump impeachment 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 BidenGiuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it Trump whistleblower complaint involves Ukraine: report 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 McCaskillEx-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Ocasio-Cortez blasts NYT editor for suggesting Tlaib, Omar aren't representative of Midwest Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand 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 NelsonMedia and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity Al Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Democrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 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 ClintonGiuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it Sanders hits 1 million donors Democrats will not beat Trump without moderate policy ideas 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."