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A1: The stories you need to read before your first conference call.

-- National Democrats are starting to downplay expectations in the face of a worsening political atmosphere. House Democratic strategists say they're prepared to lose seats in the low double digit range, and while there aren't any House or Senate incumbents who are done-done, there are plenty who trail or sit well below 50. "The environment has settled, and it's bad," one senior Democratic strategist told us. Other words Democrats used to describe the atmosphere to our colleague Chris Cillizza: "Challenging." "Very challenging." "Unsettled." "Not good."

-- There's "little speculation" that President Obama plans a wholesale staff shakeup after the midterms, though the administration's struggles to handle the Ebola crisis and the Islamic State have "fueled speculation." Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are part of a team "viewed as less cohesive" than the first term's "team of rivals." Hagel has ceded power to Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, while Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has weighed in on foreign policy in a way that treads on some of National Security Advisor Susan Rice's turf. Over Columbus Day, McDonough flew to California to meet with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) over redactions in a CIA report on torture. (New York Times) So many tea leaves to read.

-- The 2014 midterms are likely to cost $3.67 billion, fueled largely by spending from super PACs and tax-exempt outside groups as candidate and party committee spending shrinks. Super PACs are expected to account for $520 million in spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, up from $309 million in 2010. Candidates will spend $1.58 billion, down from the $1.8 billion they spent four years ago. (Washington Post, Center for Responsive Politics)

-- NATO said Wednesday it had intercepted 19 Russian aircraft flying close to European airspace in four separate incidents over the last two days, including one in which bombers made it all the way to the coast of Portugal. NATO fighters have scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft more than 100 times this year, three times the number of incidents as a year ago. Last week, a Russian spy plane violated NATO airspace by flying briefly over the Estonian border. (Washington Post)

-- Kaci Hickox, the Maine nurse who was released from isolation in New Jersey after returning from caring for patients in West Africa, said Wednesday she will fight any enforced quarantine requiring her to stay at home after Thursday. Hickox spent Wednesday negotiating with state officials, though Gov. Paul LePage (R) said he would pursue legal action to enforce the quarantine. Hickox has no symptoms of Ebola. She said she wants pizza from the local Moose Shack. (Bangor Daily News, New York Times) California has ordered a 21-day quarantine for medical workers who had contact with a confirmed case of Ebola in West Africa, with imprisonment and fines for those who violate quarantine. (Los Angeles Times)

-- A small number of Iraqi peshmerga troops entered the northern Syria border town of Kobane on Thursday, the first of about 150 troops on their way to defend the city from Islamic State militants. The convoy traveled through 250 miles of Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast corner after crossing over from Iraq. The U.S. military conducted 14 airstrikes against Islamic State positions on Tuesday and Wednesday, eight of them in the Kobane area. (Associated Press, Reuters)

-- Front Pages: WaPo leads with a decline in new Ebola cases in Liberia. NYT kicks off with a look at last-minute Democratic ads focusing on race issues, especially in the South. WSJ and USA Today lead with the end of Federal Reserve bond-buying (see B1 below).

Poll-a-Palooza: Last chance to empty those polling budgets, folks.

-- Wisconsin: Call it the enthusiasm gap: 93 percent of self-identified Republicans and just 82 percent of self-identified Democrats say they're certain to vote, a big boost for the GOP. That puts Gov. Scott Walker (R) ahead of Madison school board member Mary Burke (D) 50 percent to 43 percent among likely voters in a new Marquette Law School survey. They were tied at 47 percent two weeks ago. Walker leads among independents 52 percent to 37 percent. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

-- Iowa: A Quinnipiac poll shows state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) leading Rep. Bruce Braley (D) 49 percent to 45 percent, up two points from her 48 percent to 46 percent lead last week. Ernst has led in four of the last five live-caller polls out of Iowa. (Quinnipiac)

-- Connecticut: Gov. Dan Malloy (D) and former Ambassador Tom Foley (R) are knotted at 43 percent each, just about the same deadlock they've been in all month. More Democratic voters are undecided than Republicans, but among independents, Foley leads by 15 points. Independent Joe Visconti takes 7 percent. (Quinnipiac)

-- California: The final pre-election Field Poll shows Gov. Jerry Brown (D) leading former TARP administrator Neel Kashkari (R) 54 percent to 33 percent. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) leads former state GOP chairman Ron Nehring (R) 47 percent to 37 percent. Democrats lead every statewide race. In the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, technically a non-partisan office, incumbent Tom Torlakson (D) is tied with former charter school CEO Marshall Tuck (D) at 28 percent apiece, with a whopping 44 percent undecided. (Sacramento Bee, pdf)

National Roundup: What's happening outside the Beltway.

-- WH'16: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is getting the most out of the final days of his RGA chairmanship. Between today and Monday, Christie will campaign with Republican governors and candidates in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Michigan, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine.

-- Maine: Independent candidate Eliot Cutler said Wednesday he realizes the gubernatorial race is a two-man fight, and he's not one of the two. Cutler, who's polling in the low double digits, said he wouldn't drop out of the race, but he said supporters who don't think he can win should choose another candidate. Cutler didn't name a favorite candidate, but polls show he draws more voters from Rep. Mike Michaud (D) than from Gov. Paul LePage (R). (Bangor Daily News) Sen. Angus King (I), who had backed Cutler, said Wednesday he would support Michaud. (Portland Press Herald)

-- Nevada: How bad is early voting going for Democrats here? The DCCC on Wednesday said it is buying $360,000 in last-minute airtime to defend Rep. Steven Horsford (D), a freshman incumbent who's been targeted by $935,000 in Crossroads GPS ad spending. Obama won the district by 10 points in 2012. (Washington Post) Early vote totals show Republicans lead by 2,500 registrants in Horsford's district, which includes part of Clark County. Jon Ralston's conclusion: The state Senate, which Democrats hold by a one-seat majority, is trending toward the GOP. (Ralston Reports)

-- Arizona: The state Democratic Party has sent mailers touting Powell Gammill, a genetics researcher and frequent candidate running as a Libertarian against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (R). The mailers don't expressly advocate a vote for Gammill, but they point out his positions. Sinema faces retired Air Force officer Wendy Rogers (R). In 2012, Sinema won the new 9th district by about 10,000 votes; Gammill took more than 16,000. (Arizona Republic)

-- Wisconsin: Two former executives at Trek Bicycle say Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke (D) was forced out as head of European operations 21 years ago. One executive, who went on to serve in a top post with a rival bicycle company, and another who heads a local county Republican Party, told conservative news websites that other members of Burke's family were concerned with the job she was doing. Burke said in a statement she left the company during a restructuring period. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

-- Oregon: Oracle has asked state Senate President Peter Courtney (D) and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) to defund a lawsuit over the state's botched Cover Oregon health care exchange. Oracle and Oregon are suing each other over the failed website, while the state searches for new software to replace it. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (D) said the office was "flabbergasted by Oracle's back-door attempt to lobby Oregon legislators." (Oregonian)

DC Digest: What's on tap today in DC.

-- President Obama heads to Portland, Maine, today to attend a DNC fundraiser and to campaign with Rep. Mike Michaud (D), the party's gubernatorial nominee. He hops over to Rhode Island tonight, where he'll remain overnight.

-- Vice President Biden travels to New York City this afternoon for a fundraiser for Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa). Biden heads back to D.C. after the event.

-- Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown's (D) campaign says First Lady Michelle Obama will attend his campaign's final get-out-the-vote rally on Monday in Baltimore. (Associated Press)

TV Time Out: Our exclusive look at who's advertising, and where.

-- The TV Time Out is less than a week away from running its course, and most folks have shipped their last ads. Now comes the credit-claiming. Yesterday, we laid out the biggest spenders in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia and Iowa. Today, the other hot races that will determine control of the Senate. A note on methodology: We combined groups operating under the same general umbrellas, like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, into one number for simplicity's sake. These are estimates, probably on the low end of what the actual numbers will be. These numbers come from ad buyers in the know, not CMAG or other ad monitoring groups.

-- Kentucky: Republicans and Democrats dropped more than $25 million onto the airwaves here, led on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's side by McConnell's campaign ($8.8 million), the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, run by McConnell allies ($4.2 million) and the NRA ($367,000). On Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' (D) side: Grimes' campaign ($8.6 million), Senate Majority PAC ($1.9 million) and the DSCC ($1 million).

-- Michigan: A once competitive race kind of petered out (pun very much intended), but not before costing $35 million. Those spending most on behalf of former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R): Land's campaign ($5.6 million), two Koch brothers groups ($5.3 million) and the NRSC ($2.2 million). Those spending the most for Rep. Gary Peters (D): Peters' campaign ($6.9 million), the DSCC ($4.8 million) and Senate Majority PAC ($2.6 million).

-- North Carolina: This race could end up costing more than $90 million in ads alone before the day is out. Top spenders for state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R): Crossroads ($10 million), the NRSC ($9.5 million) and the Koch brothers network ($8.6 million). Those most on board with Sen. Kay Hagan (D): Senate Majority PAC and Patriot Majority ($13.7 million), Hagan's campaign ($13.4 million) and the DSCC ($9 million).

-- New Hampshire: The race between Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) and former Sen. Scott Brown (R) is a $20 million affair. Top Brown backers: The Koch brothers ($3.4 million), Crossroads ($2.4 million) and Ending Spending ($2.1 million). Top Shaheen backers: Shaheen's campaign ($3.2 million), Senate Majority PAC ($3.2 million) and the DSCC ($2.7 million).

-- Virginia: Sen. Mark Warner (D), former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie (R) and their allies spent almost $7 million on ads. Gillespie's biggest boosters: His own campaign ($2 million) and 60 Plus, a Koch network group ($594,000). Warner's biggest backers: Virginia Progress ($2.2 million) and his own campaign ($2 million).

B1: Business, politics and the business of politics

-- The Federal Reserve on Wednesday formally ended its $3 trillion bond-buying program. Now, its governors will debate how and when to begin raising interest rates, six years after slashing those rates to zero. Some officials say the first increases could come in the middle of next year, though the official line out of the Fed is only that it will wait a "considerable time" after the end of the bond-buying to start hiking rates. (Washington Post)

-- Stock futures are lower after small loses on Wednesday. Most international markets are down this morning, with European markets down more than 1 percent. (CNN)

C1: The long reads you'll need to check out before tonight's cocktail party.

-- David Plouffe's advice for Hillary Clinton, in a September meeting at her home in D.C.: 1) Prioritize real-time analytics and get rid of the clunky traditional campaign. 2) Define a rationale for her candidacy, beyond celebrity and focused on economic equality. 3) Settle on a core messaging strategy and don't get knocked off message by allowing others to get in her head -- something Plouffe did repeatedly during the 2008 primaries. Plouffe also told Clinton to start her formal campaign team now, rather than next year. The Republican attacks on her had already begun, so, Plouffe said, "Why not?" A long read on the mini-industry that has sprung up around beating Hillary Clinton, from Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush.

Attn Matt Drudge: Things conservatives will get outraged by today.

-- Contender for the Worst Ad of the Year: A new NARAL radio spot features a couple, obviously in the mood, desperately looking for condoms, ostensibly because Rep. Cory Gardner's (R) campaign against birth control means there's a condom shortage. The conversation naturally moves on to a critique of Gardner's politics, including denying climate change that's "weirding our weather." As amorous couples often do. (Townhall)

Attn HuffPo: What outrages liberals today

-- A second Republican Senate leader said this week that even with the majority, repealing the Affordable Care Act isn't going to happen. In an interview with WPBI radio, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Obama isn't going to sign a repeal, and that he would prefer to get things done in the next two years. "I want to put things on his desk that he would actually give true consideration to signing, because they’re good for our economy, they’ll get people working again, and they’ll help move the country forward," Barrasso said. (BuzzFeed) Mitch McConnell said the same thing on Fox News on Wednesday. (NPR)