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[00:00:00]

Hi, NPR, I'm Emma Jamieson, and I'm from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

[00:00:05]

I'm currently packing up to leave for my freshman year of college at the University of Missouri, where I'm majoring in journalism, partially because I've been so inspired by the work you guys do here at the Politics Board.

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This podcast was recorded at twelve forty five pm on Thursday, August 6th.

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Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be dreaming of the day that I can start reporting on national politics just like you guys do.

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All right, here's the show. Wow. Oh, that's so sweet. That's a great journalism school, too. Well, good luck to you. Very cool. Hey there. It's the NPR Politics podcast. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress. And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

[00:00:50]

So, Sue, you have a really interesting news story up today about Republicans in the Senate and the uphill battle that they have in trying to maintain their majority this November. It starts out with this anecdote that I think is is is kind of quirky about how Republicans were happy about the fact that this high profile Republican lost his primary in Kansas.

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So explain that to us. Right.

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So in Kansas this week, former Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach is a pretty well-known name in politics because he was a pretty controversial figure, both as secretary of state and as an ally of Donald Trump. He was known for his work against voter fraud, although ultimately a lot of the work he did was undone in court. And he himself was sanctioned by the courts for some of his actions taking place in that he was a bit of a firebrand candidate.

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And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was working very hard to keep his majority, believed that if Kobach won the nomination, it would almost certainly cost them that seat in November, that Kobach simply could not win a general election.

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So he ended up losing the primary in no small part because of McConnell's élite outside PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, which put two million dollars into that race to make sure that they got the candidate they wanted, which is Congressman Roger Marshall, who will now face off in what could still be a competitive race against Democrat Barbara Bullier, just one that is likely to be easier for Republicans to keep in their column as long as Kris Kobach was not the nominee.

[00:02:19]

So to be clear, though, just because the favored candidate for Republicans won the primary, it seems like you're saying that still. Does it mean that Republicans actually have a lock on winning the general election in Kansas? Even though I think many of us consider Kansas to be a fairly red state?

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It's a ruby red state. It hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932. But I think it's a reflection of a couple of things. One, the Republican Party in Kansas itself is pretty fractured and has been for some time. So there is a path forward for a centrist Democrat to win if they can appeal across party lines.

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But this is a state that Republicans absolutely cannot afford to lose. They're already on defense in almost every other competitive Senate race except for one. And losing Kansas would almost certainly mean the majority is lost, which is an amazing statement that Republicans have to worry about Kansas at all.

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And it speaks to, I think, the broader national climate right now that it's no surprise. Right. The president is trailing Joe Biden in so many ways. The national climate affects the down ballot, especially with fewer and fewer voters ever being split ticket voters. So if the president's dragging, it's dragging on his party and we're seeing that happen across the Senate battlegrounds, Republican incumbents are trailing in virtually every battleground race, or at least statistically tied.

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There's no race in which they have a clear advantage shy of Alabama, which is where Democratic Senator Doug Jones is up for reelection and pretty certain to lose this fall because he's unlikely to be able to overcome the strength of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket there. So that's one bright spot for Republicans. But in nine of the 10 other competitive races, they're there on their heels and they're trying very hard to hold on to the majority. It's certainly mathematically possible for them to still do that.

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But, you know, this was a year that started out with no one thinking Democrats had a chance to take over the Senate and about, you know, 80, 85 days out from the election. It's a very real possibility.

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I mean, so that is crazy to me. I mean, so many Democrats that I've talked to in recent months, they never thought that was a possibility. It was just sort of a presumed assumption that Republicans were going to maintain control of the Senate for months.

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And the reason was that even though Democrats had some pickup opportunities, the pool wasn't big enough for them to fill in for those net for pickups. That's what's really hard.

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So if the race tightens overall, I think we're going to go back to that early assumption that Republicans hang on, they lose some seats, but not the majority. But if Biden's lead continues to be as big as it is, it's possible the Democrats could find those four seats.

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You know, Colorado, Maine, two places where Republican incumbents are running for re-election in states that Hillary Clinton won. Both of them are trailing. And then you've got a whole bunch of other states that Democrats have been pretty bullish on.

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So earlier you had mentioned that there are 10 battleground states, 10 his big. So can you kind of rundown for us the list of what states you're referring to? Sure.

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So, you know, we talked about Kansas and Alabama. The other states that I think are the most closely watched right now in terms of competitiveness are Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, all four states where Republican incumbents are running for reelection, all four states where at least in current polling, the Republican incumbents are down in. By some measure, in some states greater than others, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner has been trailing in the polls basically all year long, that's going to be a really hard seat for Republicans to hold.

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And as the map has expanded, we're seeing really interesting things happening in traditionally red states like Montana and Iowa, two states that Donald Trump won. But Democrats have been able to field candidates that are putting those races, at least right now, within the margin of error. They're competitive. And then you also have this this year. There's kind of a weird oddity in the state of Georgia. Both of the Senate seats are open because former Senator Johnny Isakson retired and they appointed Kelly Lefler to the seat.

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So both of those senators are going to be on the ballot in November.

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Georgia may be a reach for Democrats, but it's certainly as asthma as you well know, like the demographics of Georgia are just changing that. If this ends up being a massive wave democratic year, it is possible that Democrats could pick up seats in Georgia.

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But if Democrats are winning in Georgia, there is zero doubt in anyone's mind that that would translate to a Biden victory and a Democratic takeover of the Senate.

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Right. And since we're past the era where people split their tickets, it's really important to watch how Donald Trump is doing in these states. Right.

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And it didn't happen in any state in 2016. So, you know, that is why you just see their fortunes are so tied to the top of the ticket.

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If Trump wins reelection, Republicans will probably hold the Senate. And the reverse is true. If Biden wins, Democrats are much more likely to take the Senate because voters just don't shift back and forth anymore.

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And I think we're seeing that particularly right now, where the country is so polarized between the party.

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It's just really hard to picture that sort of Donald Trump, John Hickenlooper voter, you know, the cross party voter really exist anymore.

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All right. Well, let's take a quick break and we'll have more to talk about when we get back support for this podcast.

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[00:07:36]

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[00:07:53]

And so another congressional election storyline that I think has been fascinating to watch is just the sheer number of incumbents who have lost primaries in the House, both Democrats and Republicans. And I'm curious if you see any common trends among some of these victories that we've seen.

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The first thing you have to know is that seven incumbents have lost this year, that we're running for re-election. And I think most people would hear the number seven and think that doesn't sound like a whole lot of incumbents when you know that there's 435 members of the House. But credit to Bloomberg analyst Greg Drew, who calculated the numbers and said it was the most incumbents who have lost in a non redistricting year since 1974. So it is one of those things that just kind of tells you that something's going on in 2020.

[00:08:37]

There's some fundamentals in the country where voters are thinking about things very differently. I think on the Democratic side, what you're seeing is that the energy, the activism in the party is coming from the progressive left. I think they're benefiting from a political climate that is unique to twenty, twenty one. The pandemic progressive allies will tell you, is dramatically changing the way people think about their relationship with government and to the racial justice. Protests following the death of George Floyd have created an environment, particularly for black candidates, that is very good right now.

[00:09:10]

And so in the case of a big profile, primary win this week was Corey Bush, who defeated William Lacy Clay for a district in Missouri that his family, his father represented it before him had held onto for more than five decades.

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Incredibly difficult to do. She is a younger, also African-American, a racial justice activist. She was known in the local community following the Ferguson protests in 2014. But the way that I think it illuminates how it's different this year is she ran against him in twenty eighteen, another year. Great for Democrats, another year, great for women. She lost by 20 points. She ran again this year. She beat him by three.

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Yeah. And some of these races are not big ideological splits. Sometimes they're almost like a new generation, more diverse generation of Democratic candidates. But it's really interesting, the center of gravity in the Democratic caucus in the House is definitely moving to the left.

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What we haven't seen yet are large numbers of progressive candidates flipping districts from red to blue. That remains to be seen.

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No, and that's where the real tension in the Democratic Party is, right? Like all of these progressives that are winning are winning. These are safe seats. Yeah. Yeah. This is not where the majority is won and lost. So you're going to continue to have this tension between the majority makers, the centrists, the moderates winning in swing states, in places that you have to compete in order to have the majority and basically where the intellectual and activism.

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Air Force inside the party is which is the left, that tension that exists in the Democratic Party is only going to accelerate in the next Congress and the Democratic Party.

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And soon the Republican said, are you also seeing that tension play out between some of the incumbents who've lost their seats in some of the challenges of one? There's echoes of it in both sides.

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One thing I would say is that so many Republicans have lost that you're just not seeing as many primary challenges.

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But for Republican incumbents have lost this year, too, I would put asterisks next to because they were sort of uniquely flawed candidates who had their own unique issues, one being Steve King in Iowa, another being Steve Watkins', who had criminal problems in Kansas.

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But the other two, yeah, I think you can put it towards this ideological frame to their losing from the right that they're losing because candidates are saying they're not sufficiently conservative or they're not sufficiently loyal to the president. And I think the net effect of this that you see in Congress is that oftentimes incumbents are being replaced by people more ideologically polarized than they are. And that contributes to what we know is true about Congress, that it gets more and more divided and polarized with each election because there's less and less in common between the two parties.

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Right. So the Republicans move, right. And the Democrats move left. But, Sue, what do you think is the overall outlook for November?

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Is the House going to get more Democratic or less?

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I think it would be an amazing night for Democrats to gain numbers. Initially, there had been from forecasters and from strategists I talked to, hope that Republicans could pick up some of those seats. The climate right now is not good for Republicans. I think it's it's things are happening so fast that no one's willing to say anything declarative. But I spent the week talking mainly to Senate strategists and Senate strategists do not feel confident right now.

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They are not confident the president's going to win re-election and none of them believe that Republicans will maintain their 53 seats. I talked to one who said their absolute best case scenario on election night would be a 51 seat majority.

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So that allowed just tells you how Republicans are feeling about this election. They know it's going to be hard. I don't think that they've given up hope. I think that they see a path. The one point that one made that I thought was very a good point is that right now we're at a point where if the president were to win, if Senate Republicans are to hold the Senate, they are probably due to factors outside of their control, which is not necessarily the place you ever want to be as an incumbent, specifically things like if the economy gets better, if there's news of a vaccine, if there's something that gives people more confidence in the way in their government as it is right now, the status quo.

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But those aren't things that Donald Trump can control. Those aren't things that Mitch McConnell can control. And that's never a great place to be in.

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We do know pretty clearly that the president is fairly unpopular in certain battleground states at this point. And you were saying we're not seeing any of these incumbent senators really try to create daylight between themselves and the president. And I'm curious to better understand why that's the case, you know, given how we see the president doing it.

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I think that because our politics are so polarized and because the Republican Party really stands for what Donald Trump wants and because the base is so loyal to him, it's very hard to separate yourself.

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I think the only Senate incumbent I can see doing that or having a chance to do that is Susan Collins of Maine, who has her own brand and identity as somebody who's independent and somewhat nonpartisan. But otherwise, it's just incredibly hard to do to separate from Donald Trump. He's such a dominant figure. He sucks all the oxygen out of the room, certainly in the Republican Party.

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And my dog agrees. All right.

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Well, let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential election. Susan Davis.

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I cover Congress. I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

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And thank you for listening to the NPR Politics podcast.