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WASHINGTON — The last race of 2018 pretty much played out the way the other ones did the last cycle, especially when it comes to special elections.

The good news for the GOP: They won last night’s special election in North Carolina’s Ninth District, with Republican Dan Bishop narrowly defeating Democrat Dan McCready, 51 percent to 49 percent.

That keeps the magic number of seats they need to flip to win back the chamber in 2020 at a net of 18 – instead of raising it to 19. It also means Republicans won’t have to spend the same kind of resources next November to defeat McCready, which would have been a definite target.

That money can now go elsewhere.

The bad news: They barely won a district that both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney carried by 12 points, suggesting — at least for this one special — that the overall political environment hasn’t changed much since 2018.

Indeed, the Cook Political Report identifies more than 30 GOP-held House seats that are less friendly to Republicans than NC-9, per NBC’s Ed Demaria.

They include TX-23 (the open Will Hurd seat), PA-1 (Brian Fitzpatrick), MI-6 (Fred Upton), NE-2 (Don Bacon), IL-12 (Mike Bost), OH-1 (Steve Chabot) and FL-16 (Vern Buchanan).

Mr. Below 40 Percent

Speaking of a political environment that hasn’t changed that much since last November, three new national polls all have Trump’s job rating below 40 percent.

So, nearly a year after the midterms, the president’s approval rating is still stuck in pretty much the same place; Democrats are making more and more races competitive but the bottom still hasn’t fallen out for the GOP; and — in districts with just enough Trump supporters — the president can still show up for a rally and make the difference.

The question for the GOP is, of course, whether there are enough of those Trump-friendly areas in 2020.

By the way, this unchanged political environment is bad news for backers of new gun legislation, too. Without a jarring loss in NC-9, there’s no reason to think Republicans will have any incentive to make policy concessions — on guns or anything else.

Bolton Out

National Security Advisor John Bolton is out after a series of disagreements with Trump, most recently over potential negotiations with the Taliban at Camp David.

Bolton is the fourth person to hold the job during the president’s tenure. He served just 520 days (per Foreign Policy), which still made him the longest-tenured official in the position during the Trump administration. Michael Flynn held it for just 24 days before stepping down and later pleading guilty to lying to the FBI; H.R. McMaster was in the job for 412 days; and Keith Kellogg briefly served as acting NSA for seven days.

Trump has tried to make the case that the constant churn is “shaking things up” — but does he have anything to show for it, especially on foreign policy? Other than the public dismissal of people he hired?

As our colleague Benjy Sarlin points out: “There’s no one reason why Trump’s approval isn’t great, but “Everyone I hire ends up being an incompetent loser who betrays me!” continues to be an interesting choice of re-election theme.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … 15.3 percent versus 1.1 percent

15.3 percent versus 1.1 percent.

That’s Democrat Dan McCready’s margin of victory in North Carolina’s Robeson County in the 2018 election and the 2019 special election redo, respectively.

Robeson is a majority-minority county, due in part to about 42 percent of residents who identify as Native American. (Black residents make up another 24 percent.)

And/but: It’s worth noting that the turnout in the special election was far lower — by nearly 10,000 votes in Robeson County alone — compared with 2018.

By the way, Trump won Robeson in 2016 by 4.3 points.

Tweet of the day

2020 Vision: Texas Two-Step

A new Quinnipiac poll in Texas finds Elizabeth Warren now in second place among Democratic primary voters in the Lone Star State, while Beto O’Rourke has slipped since June.

Here’s how the poll — out just a day before the Democratic debate in Houston — shows where the top four candidates stand.

Biden: 28 percent

Warren: 18 percent

Sanders: 12 percent

O’Rourke: 12 percent

And here’s where things stood in the same poll back in June.

Biden: 30 percent

O’Rourke: 16 percent

Sanders: 15 percent

Warren: 11 percent

(No other candidates cracked double digits in either the June or September Texas polls.)

On the campaign trail today

It’s debate-prep day for the major candidates, and they don’t have events… Tom Steyer, who appears to have qualified for the October debate(s), stumps in South Carolina… And Joe Sestak is in New Hampshire.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Elizabeth Warren kicked off debate week in Texas with a town hall in Austin, where she was introduced by Rep. Henry Cuellar’s primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros. Warren endorsed Cisneros on Monday. Per NBC’s Benjamin Pu, “Warren reiterated calls to abolish the electoral college” and hunkered down on running her campaign without closed-door fundraisers. Pu flags this Warren remark: “I don’t spend my time at fundraisers for bazillionaires and corporate executives. I just don’t do it.”

And while that could be a wink and a nod to Joe Biden’s fundraisers, Warren deflected when asked how she plans to, or if she plans to, take on Biden directly during the debate on Thursday. Instead, Warren pivoted to discussing how she’s building a grassroots movement and to “talk about what’s broken in this country.”

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Here’s NBC’s reporting on what went wrong for Trump and John Bolton.

Bolton’s departure “removes one of the last constraints on Mr. Trump’s sense of the possible in world affairs,” writes the New York Times.

Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire say they’re sticking with their caucus and primary.

Is Andrew Yang ready for prime time?

TRUMP AGENDA: Trump targets homelessness in CA

Trump is pushing for a crackdown on homeless camps in California.

POLITICO looks back at how Mike Pence convinced Trump to pick him as VP.

The president is again attacking “boneheads” at the Fed.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is backing an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

2020: Ten’s a crowd

Most voters think that there are still too many people on the debate stage.

The New York Times previews Biden v. Warren in Houston.

Democratic Senate candidates in Texas are going big on guns.

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Booker says his campaign needs to be 'ramping up' in fundraising appeal to voters



2020 presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke to MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton on his campaign’s direct fundraising appeal to voters in order to continue his campaign.

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Joe Biden hits back amid reports Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his son



“Trump’s doing this because he knows I’ll beat him like a drum,” Biden said. The comments come amid reports that President Trump pressed the head of Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Trump administration also announced it would deploy troops to Saudi Arabia after the attack on its oil fields last week.

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Elizabeth Warren edges out Joe Biden in Des Moines Register Iowa poll



Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has overtaken former Vice President Joe Biden in Iowa, according to a new Des Moines Register/CNN poll of the crucial state.

The poll out Saturday night found Warren was the top choice for the Democratic nomination with 22 percent support among likely caucus-goers, while Biden had the support of 20 percent of respondents. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fell to third with 11 percent.

The poll was conducted of 602 likely Democratic caucus-goers from Sept. 14-18. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The last Register/CNN poll, in June, had Biden leading with 24 percent and Warren in the third spot at 15 percent, slightly behind Bernie Sanders, who came in second with 16 percent support.

While there have been several other recent polls of the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted by Des Moines-based pollster Ann Selzer, is widely considered to be the most accurate, so its Saturday night releases have become must-watch events for Iowa politicos.

The poll was released after the entire 2020 Democratic presidential field gathered in Des Moines Saturday for the annual Steak Fry, a fundraising event hosted by the local Democratic Party club.

Warren surged 7 points in the poll since the June survey, while Biden lost a bit of ground, putting them neck-and-neck inside the poll’s margin of error.

Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, both slipped significantly, down 5 and 6 percentage points, respectively, leaving Buttigieg at 9 percent, down from 15.

The rest of the field, meanwhile, is mired in the single digits.

California Sen. Kamala Harris held steady at 6 percent, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker gained a couple of points to land at 3 percent, while coming at 2 percent were Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, billionaire Tom Steyer, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Everyone else was at 1 percent or below.

Still, just one-in-five likely Democratic caucus-goers said they had already made up their minds so the race remains fluid. Almost two-thirds said they were open to being convinced to support someone else.

“The data in this poll seem to suggest the field is narrowing, but my sense is there’s still opportunity aplenty,” Selzer told the Register. “The leaders aren’t all that strong. The universe is not locked in.”

But the data is unquestionably good news for Warren, who is now both the best-liked candidate in the field (75 percent view her favorably) and the candidate being considered by the most likely caucus-goers (71 percent).

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