Democrat Pulls Off Election Day Upset In New York

Guests

Ken Rudin, political editor NPR
Phil Fairbanks, political reporter, Buffalo News

Democrat Kathy Hochul won Tuesday in New York's 26th Congressional district, a seat that's been in Republican hands for decades. Hochul linked her opponent, Republican Jane Corwin, to the GOP plan to overhaul Medicare. The last weeks of the campaign became a referendum on that proposal.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Mitch Daniels stays home in Indiana, diamonds are not Newt's best friend, and a very special election for House Democrats. It's Wednesday and time for a Mediscare edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics, and this week Mitch Daniels makes it official: He's out. But pizza mogul Herman Cain is in. So is former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann makes a big speech in Des Moines tomorrow. Newt's campaign buried by bling, Scott Brown retreats on Medicare, and Bay State Democrats urge Elizabeth Warren to run against him. And John Edwards could face criminal charges this week.

In a few minutes, we'll talk with Phil Fairbanks(ph) of the Buffalo News about yesterday's special election in western New York. Later in the program, two reporters just released from a dramatic detention in Tripoli.

But first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Ken, hi.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal, and of course, yes, that was the big, big news yesterday in western New York, that special election. We'll talk about it a little bit later.

But in that special election, Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated another woman, Republican Jane Corwin, to win the vacant House seat. Of all the women - ready for another convoluted...

CONAN: Convoluted (unintelligible)...

RUDIN: Of all the women currently serving in Congress, who is the most senior woman who initially won her post by defeating another woman?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, if you can figure it out, of all the women currently serving in Congress, who is the most senior woman who initially won her post by defeating another woman, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

In the meantime, Ken, good thing people were not actually holding their breath waiting for Mitch Daniels to make his decision.

RUDIN: Well, you know, you always had that thing that a lot of people wanted him to run, but he always said that my family comes first, and there are reservations among my family members, meaning his wife and three daughters, who all had hesitations for a variety of reasons.

And he sent, you know, an email note to his supporters on Sunday that, you know, my heart was in it, but my family was not, and I'm not making I'm not going to make that run.

CONAN: In the meantime, some of his advisors were quoted in the papers, anonymously, saying that among his calculations was - you could do all this, go through all of the terrible scrutiny that his family would go through and, well, the guy running in the other party looks pretty tough.

RUDIN: Well, there is that. And of course, you know, he also said, you know, about the truce on social issues: For all our lust for would-be candidates, if they would only get in the race, if Mitch Daniels would only get in the race, he still has some battles to overcome, including perception that he's not conservative enough, certainly not on social issues. He may not have done as well in Iowa as he would have liked.

But ultimately there would have been a lot of stuff on the fact that he and his wife got divorced and then got remarried. She left him, married somebody else, came back. And it's just such silliness, but that's what happens when you put yourself in the public eye, and certainly that's what happens when you announce a candidacy for president.

CONAN: In the meantime, the former governor of Minnesota has announced that he is in the race - that is, the man known as T-Paw now, Tim Pawlenty. And he made his official announcement this week in Iowa.

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Republican Presidential Candidate): Politicians are often afraid that if they're too honest, they may lose an election. I'm afraid that in 2012, if we're not honest enough, we may lose our country.

CONAN: And he said that in the course of a speech where, in Iowa, he said: You know, we're going to have to phase out the subsidies for corn and ethanol.

RUDIN: Well, usually that's not a very popular position, shall we say, in Iowa. But he's trying to sell himself as a straight-talking candidate. And I suspect that part of that straight-talking I-will-tell-the-truth thing is maybe an indirect jab at Mitt Romney, who has switched positions over the years and is seen with some distrust by many Republicans.

Now, I've been wrong on so many things. 2008, I thought Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney were going to be the nominees. I'm kind of thinking that Tim Pawlenty could very well be the 2012 Republican nominee.

The establishment doesn't dislike him. They kind of like him. He was kind of a moderate, somewhat of a moderate two-term governor of Minnesota. And he does speak the Tea Party, T-Paw language that could do well for him in, you know, in Iowa and the other states.

CONAN: But is he going to, as he was challenged by the biofuels industry in Iowa, say - are you going to go make that speech about oil subsidies in Houston?

RUDIN: Well, that's a very good question, and if you ask him a direct question about he feels about the Paul Ryan Medicare plan, he'll say, well, you know something, I differ with him on some things. I have my own plan. So, you know, straight talk is not the easiest to come by with a lot of these candidates.

CONAN: Another candidate who's been on the hustings in Iowa is Newt Gingrich, who's been saying, well, I'm the man that Washington has learned to hate.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Republican Presidential Candidate): It is impossible to have watched television for the last week and not get the conclusion I am definitely not the candidate of the Washington insiders.

Everywhere I go across Iowa, or everywhere I see people randomly, they have figured out I'm the guy who wants to change Washington and they can tell it because the people they see on TV from Washington aren't happy with me.

CONAN: Well, not happy with him because, well, any variety of reasons.

RUDIN: Well, yes, and you know something, even - even when he said the thing about Paul Ryan, that it was a radical, it was social engineering...

CONAN: He now he says he would have voted for it.

RUDIN: Yes, but you know, when he said it at the time, of course everybody jumped on him, saying how dare you say that. But everybody said, well, that may be true. And we saw New York 26, and we'll talk about that later. That could very well have been the message that came out of it. So even when he says things that may very well be true, you know, we jump on him for saying that. And of course he went back on that word.

CONAN: He's also getting a lot of criticism for having a revolving credit account at Tiffany's, the famous New York jewelry store, between 250 and 500 thousand dollars.

RUDIN: I know. I mean, everybody says how could he be a fiscal conservative. To me, that's another bogus issue. But I guess if Ron Paul is going to talk about the gold standard, we may have to talk about the diamond standard with Newt Gingrich. That sounds like a set-up joke, and it was not.

CONAN: It was not, okay.

RUDIN: Nor was it a joke.

CONAN: Didn't glitter much either.

RUDIN: That's right.

CONAN: Pear-shaped, I think it - anyway, moving right along. In the meantime, there was also another announcement of sorts. Herman Cain, who's been making no secret of his plans to run, well, he's got this flashy new video out.

(Soundbite of campaign video)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HERMAN CAIN (Republican Presidential Candidate): The day after election day, when we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say free at last, free at least. Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last - again.

CONAN: Wow.

RUDIN: Well, first of all, I don't think the country is ready for a black president. I'll say that right out front. But you know, Herman Cain does have his strong base of support.

I don't know if it, you know, means anything in the caucuses and primaries. We saw that with Ron Paul. But you know, he can fire up a crowd, and we saw after the first debate a couple of weeks ago that many people said that he was the most interesting, if not the most impressive, in the debate.

I think he's beyond a long shot, but he does rile up a crowd. He certainly does.

CONAN: We hear that Rick Santorum, another person considered a long shot, may make a presidential announcement early in June. In the meantime, we have some people on the phone who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question.

That is: Of the women currently in Congress...

RUDIN: Good luck with this, Neal.

CONAN: ...the most senior woman to have been first been elected to a congressional post in a special in a race against another woman.

RUDIN: Who initially won her current post...

CONAN: Won her current post.

RUDIN: Current post. By defeating another woman.

CONAN: Okay, boy. There's a Political Junkie T-shirt out there just waiting to be taken.

RUDIN: Deservedly.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Suzanna(ph) in Stillwater.

SUZANNA (Caller): Yes, and actually, now that I'm on hold, I think I'm wrong. But I'll say Representative Michele Bachmann.

CONAN: Michele Bachmann, who may be running for president and has a big speech in Des Moines tomorrow night.

RUDIN: Michele Bachmann, unfortunately for the caller, Michele Bachmann has only been in Congress three - I think three terms, four terms. So she's - I'm looking for somebody more senior than Michele Bachmann.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call though. Let's see if we go next to - this is Steve(ph), Steve with us from Oakland.

STEVE (Caller): Yeah, hi. I want to say, Ken, you and Mark Shields are, you know, my big favorites. But it's - I think it's Barbara Boxer defeating Carly Fiorini(ph) or Carly Fiori(ph) here in California in the last Senate race.

RUDIN: Well, she did. But see, the question is, of all the members of - the female members of Congress currently in office, who is the most senior who in her first post defeated a woman? Now, Barbara Boxer was elected to the Senate in '92. She defeated Bruce Herschensohn in that election, and of course - and she was elected to the House in '82 defeating a guy. So she didn't defeat a woman to first come to her job. I hope that's clear, probably not.

CONAN: Probably not. Steve, thanks very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But would Mark Shields come up with a question like that? I don't think so.

CONAN: I don't think so. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jill(ph) and Jill with us from Prairie Village in Kansas.

JILL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: What's your guess?

JILL: My guess is Nancy Pelosi.

CONAN: Nancy Pelosi, well, very senior.

RUDIN: Well, actually not only is that a very good guess, it is a very good guess, she is second. When Nancy...

CONAN: Silver medal, Jill.

RUDIN: She could get the sleeves.

CONAN: The sleeves of the T-shirt.

RUDIN: When Nancy Pelosi was elected to Congress in 1987 in a special election, she defeated another woman to the position. Nancy Pelosi is number two in this, the second-most senior.

CONAN: Jill, very good guess.

RUDIN: Very good guess.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Matt(ph) and Matt with us from Northbrook in Illinois.

MATT (Caller): What it is, guys.

CONAN: What it is. Go ahead, Matt.

MATT: I'm going to guess Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the senator.

RUDIN: And that is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: While Nancy Pelosi was elected to the House in '87, Barbara Mikulski won her Senate seat in 1986, defeating Linda Chavez in Maryland.

CONAN: Well, Matt, stay on the line. We're going to put you on hold, collect your particulars, and we'll send you a fabulous Political Junkie T-shirt as your prize and in return for your promise to take a digital picture of yourself that we can post on our wall of shame.

MATT: Cool, guys, keep it real.

CONAN: Congratulations. Okay, keeping it real, that's what we're doing. In the meantime, there are rumors that Sarah Palin, of course the former vice presidential candidate, may be moving to the state of Arizona.

RUDIN: Well, everybody always says that Sarah Palin has a sense of Yuma, and yes, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: And now she may very well be moving, and it almost makes sense to have some kind of geographical base of support, whether she's running for president of Jon Kyl's Senate seat or whatever, away from Alaska, because that's a very tough state to fly in and out of, and that's clear.

But the rumor is not only is she going to run for president from Arizona, but now she may be the Republican nominee for the Kyl Senate seat, which I think is just far-fetched and not going to happen. As a matter of fact, she has not contacted anybody in the Arizona GOP about this at all.

But everybody is looking at the fact that she may move to Arizona, and therefore it means this. And of course it doesn't mean anything.

CONAN: All right, and we do have a result in a much-examined judicial election in the state of Wisconsin. David Prosser, the incumbent, who was thought to be a representative of the state's governor, and this was thought to be a proxy on the labor fight - anyway, he, after a long recount, as expected, has succeeded in holding on to his seat. But we're going to be talking about the most recent bellwether election, at least that's what some people say. That was yesterday in New York State, in the 26th Congressional District. And, well, some say this is the first election of 2012. So Political Junkie Ken Rudin's going to stay with us. We hope you do too. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us, as he is almost every Wednesday. Between our visits he blogs and podcasts and puts his twisted mind to work devising ScuttleButton puzzles. You can find all that at npr.org/junkie.

But now to western New York and a special election Democrats hope will prove a bellwether for 2012. The Democrats scored an upset. Kathy Hochul will fill New York's 26th Congressional seat, a district that's been in Republican hands for decades.

Outsiders say Hochul owes her victory to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and his plan to privatize Medicare. Republican Jane Corwin admits she should have been on the defensive over Medicare much sooner. Others in the GOP blame a third-party candidate, Jack Davis, for stealing away nine percent of the vote.

If you voted yesterday in western New York, what made this election different? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Phil Fairbanks has been covering the race for the Buffalo News and rejoins us today from member station WBFO in Buffalo. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. PHIL FAIRBANKS (Buffalo News): Neal and Ken, it's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And nice to see Buffalo is the center of the political world, at least this week.

Mr. FAIRBANKS: As it should be, right, Neal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: As it should be. So this is safe Republican territory no more. This really came as a surprise.

Mr. FAIRBANKS: It certainly did. Certainly a month ago I think people gave little chance, if any, for Kathy Hochul to win this. But obviously she saw something that a lot of other people didn't.

In recent weeks, I think it's become a little bit more obvious that this was a horserace. But the fact that she won by eight points, 48 to 42, is still a pretty big surprise.

CONAN: Well, there was that third-party candidate in the mix, and if his votes - could his votes be taken for granted that they would have gone to the Republican?

Mr. FAIRBANKS: I think the large majority of them. I think if you look at the polling that was done, certainly that indicated that the large majority of the votes that went to Jack Davis probably would have gone to Corwin.

He finished with about nine percent of the vote, which is less than what a lot of people expected. So he was certainly a huge factor but not the only one.

CONAN: Ken, and some people are saying that Ms. Corwin, the Republican candidate, had a, well, a war on two fronts and didn't manage either of them particularly well.

RUDIN: Well, that's very true, and we are going to get to the Medicare part in one second. But the thing about Jack Davis is once upon a time in the polls he had like 20, 22, 23 percent of the vote in the early polls, and he was basically bashing Jane Corwin, the Republican.

So she spent a lot of her time and effort tearing, trying to tear down Jack Davis and by doing so, one, it allowed Kathy Hochul to stay focused on the Medicare issue; and two, by going negative, Jane Corwin's negatives increased as well.

CONAN: And Phil Fairbanks, as we go to this race, we're going to be reading the national tea leaves on this and whether Medicare is the issue that's going to be the Democratic horse that will carry them through the next campaign. But did it pivot on Medicare or on local issues?

Mr. FAIRBANKS: Definitely Medicare was the premiere issue. It wasn't unusual for me as a reporter to come across voters who are Republican, had rarely, if ever, voted Democrat, and this time around they would tell you pretty bluntly that they were voting for Kathy Hochul and that the reason was Medicare.

CONAN: And what did the election look like in its last week or two? We heard that the place was deluged with commercials.

Mr. FAIRBANKS: That's, again, not unusual, to talk to a voter who would tell you, you know, if I had my druthers, if you could tell the candidates one thing, tell them to stop the robocalls, tell them to stop the ads.

I think probably in the last week or so, the negative ads and the robocalls may have worked against all three candidates, to be quite blunt.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Phil, what was Corwin's response when asked about Medicare over and over again? I mean, it seemed like she had to know this question would be out there, and it sounds like she never seemed to know how to answer it.

Mr. FAIRBANKS: The odd thing is - actually, if you know Jane Corwin, it's probably not odd. You know, she's a conservative. She'll tell you that on day one. She describes herself as a reasonable conservative but a conservative nevertheless.

So the fact that she took this position probably wasn't a surprise to people who knew her well, and she never backed off of it. Right up until last night, she was defending her position on Medicare as the only rational position to take if one wants to keep Medicare afloat.

CONAN: And as you look at this election, the - you mentioned the robocalls. Some of those were placed by Bill Clinton, and the governor, the Democratic governor of New York, also weighed in. But there were some heavyweights on the Republican side too.

Mr. FAIRBANKS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean Jane Corwin had strong support by the Tea Party, even though Jack Davis was the endorsed Tea Party candidate. People like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, you know, definitely campaigned on her behalf, the Tea Party Express campaigned on Corwin's behalf. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did robocalls on Corwin's behalf. So yeah, there was heavy-hitters on both sides.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'd like to hear from those of you in that district what it felt and sounded like in the last week or so. Brian(ph), Brian's on the line with us from Amherst, New York.

BRIAN (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BRIAN: Thank you very much for taking my call. Watching the whole election roll out, I was wondering: Is the national Republican convention trying to play it off like it was more of a third-party spoiler than a Medicare thing?

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Well, yeah well, yes, I mean, there is some fact - the fact that Jack Davis did, you know, have this battle with Corwin for weeks and weeks, that certainly took away from it. But look - this district, I mean Carl Paladino out-polled Andrew Cuomo for governor, and this is a solidly Republican district - since 1970 - the Republicans have been winning - with Jack Kemp. Clearly, and Phil said it absolutely correctly, this was really a referendum on the Medicare issue.

CONAN: Thanks, Brian.

BRIAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is John(ph), John with us from Rochester.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah, hi. There's actually some evidence that Jack Davis was -did not play a spoiler role, that in fact Davis voters were leaving the Davis camp for Kathy Hochul. So you know, it might be a worse loss for the Republicans than it looks because Davis voters were not, you know, die-hard Tea Party voters necessarily.

RUDIN: Well, and that's a good point because Jack Davis was the Democratic nominee three times in that district. So there are a lot of Democrats who had been voting for him in the past. So it's very well possible that Jack Davis's numbers did come from Democratic supporters.

CONAN: Well, Phil Fairbanks, what do you see from the exit polls?

Mr. FAIRBANKS: Yeah, not so much exit polls, but there was a poll done about four days before the election, by the Public Policy Polling Group, which is a Democratic firm but with a reputation for accuracy.

And if you look at where the Davis voters went according to that poll, Davis dropped about 11 points in that poll from their previous poll. About seven of those 11 points went to Hochul, five went to Corwin.

CONAN: So he was getting supporters from both parties.

Mr. FAIRBANKS: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, would a Democrat be at least reasonable to argue that, look, if this had just been a two-person race, the Democrat would have won anyway?

Mr. FAIRBANKS: I think it's still - I still think that's a stretch to some extent. You know, certainly I think the eight-point margin that Hochul won with probably would have been substantially less if Davis wasn't in the race.

But I think it's hard for Corwin supporters to argue that Davis was the sole factor. I still think Medicare was a huge factor. And I say that in part just from talking to rank-and-file voters.

CONAN: All right, John, thanks very much for the call. And the polls suggest that this election really took shape just in the last week or so. Was that because people started to focus in on it? What happened? What changed?

Mr. FAIRBANKS: I think to a large extent, you know, the fact that it was a special election, you know, people weren't really focused on it. You know, this wasn't a primary in September with a lot of other races on the ballot. You know, this wasn't a general election in November.

So I think it took people a while to get up to speed on the notion of an election in late May. So I think the timing of it had a lot to do with it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Joan(ph), Joan with us from Williamsville in New York.

JOAN (Caller): I voted for Jane Corwin yesterday. Of course I am a Democrat. So I would have voted for her anyway. But I was shocked because the place is Republican up to its eyebrows here.

CONAN: Corwin was the Republican candidate.

JOAN: I know. I voted for the one that won, I'm sorry.

CONAN: Kathy Hochul.

JOAN: Yes, I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's okay.

JOAN: I'm excited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, everybody's excited to talk to Ken.

JOAN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOAN: I've listened to your show for so long. This is the first time I've called. But because it's so local, I just am ecstatic because it's been -everything in this area has been Republican probably since Moses went through here.

And it's just - it's good to have a fresh face with sort of new ideas. And I was absolutely stunned that she won.

CONAN: Moses, most people don't know Moses divided the Erie Canal.

JOAN: He did.

CONAN: Yes, he did.

RUDIN: That was Robert Moses (unintelligible)...

CONAN: He was down-state.

JOAN: But I wasn't there for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Joan, thanks very much for the phone call, we appreciate it.

JOAN: You're welcome, bye.

CONAN: And given this is a special election, Phil Fairbanks, is Miss Hochul going to have to defend her seat again come November 2012?

Mr. FAIRBANKS: No, she's - this is her seat for the next year and a half or so. I think the real question about her future in Congress is what's going to happen to the seat in terms of redistricting.

There's a strong feeling that because New York is going to lose two seats because of population loss, that one of them will be in western New York, and that Kathy Hochul, as the least senior member in Congress, is likely to be the victim of that redistricting. So...

CONAN: So we have to see what happens there. The redistricting in a lot of places is going to be pretty interesting.

Phil Fairbanks, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. FAIRBANKS: My pleasure.

CONAN: Phil Fairbanks, a reporter for the Buffalo News, with us today from member station WBFO there in western New York.

And Ken Rudin, the architect of the Medicare plan that was, as Phil Fairbanks reported for us, the pivot of that election in western New York, well, the architect of that plan is Paul Ryan. He's the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and he was asked about what happened this morning when he appeared on the MSNBC program "Morning Joe."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Morning Joe")

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): There is a Medicare story to be told here, and the Medicare story that's being told here is the president and his party have decided to shamelessly distort and demagogue Medicare. So we're going to see a new Mediscare reform campaign here.

CONAN: Mediscare. He says Democrats are demagoguing, saying that seniors with current benefits, people over 65, their benefits are in trouble.

RUDIN: Well, look, yes, there was a lot of demagoguing going on, just like the Republicans did a lot of demagoguing during the 2010 elections about the Obama health care plan. I mean that's the nature of the game, but the fact is that this Medicare thing is making a lot of Republicans nervous.

You saw what it did to Newt Gingrich. You saw what it's doing to Scott Brown, switching, now saying he's going to oppose it. And then you saw what the vote -the Republican voters said in New York 26.

CONAN: Well, we'll get to Scott Brown in just a minute, but it's interesting. The Republicans in the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Ryan plan. I think almost every member of the Republican Caucus voted in favor of the Ryan plan. Now the Democrats are forcing either tonight or tomorrow...

RUDIN: Tomorrow.

CONAN: ...the members of the Senate to vote on this, and this is what the Senate majority - minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said on "Fox News Sunday," that, well, he's releasing his members to vote any way they want.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Fox News Sunday")

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): What I've said to our members are that we're not going to be able to coalesce behind just one. And we may well vote on the Ryan budget. I'm going to make sure that the Democrats get to vote on the Obama budget, which the - which my counterpart, Harry Reid, thought was terrific back in February.

CONAN: So this is leaders in both parties sticking the other parties with unpopular votes.

RUDIN: This is true government inaction. I mean, basically it is trying to embarrass the other side and not true leadership, and nobody should be surprised by that kind of...

CONAN: And there's also going to be a vote in the House next week to - on the debt ceiling, straight up or down on the debt ceiling, Republicans showing their muscle, saying this is not going to pass without big budget cuts.

RUDIN: Well - and that's exactly it. I mean, both sides will love to have this - Harry Reid would love to have this vote on Paul Ryan just to say that, you know, let's see if you have the courage, because if Republicans, going back to Medicare for one second, if the Republicans do vote no, then the Tea Party will threaten them with, you know, primary battles in 2012. So both sides want to embarrass the other by taking seemingly unpopular votes and see how it plays politically.

CONAN: We're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin, as we do every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get back to the start of the circle. Scott Brown's special election to the United States Senate from the state of Massachusetts, a huge upset. Well, that was thought to be the harbinger of the 2010 election. Democrats sure hope the election yesterday in upstate New York was the harbinger of the 2012 campaign.

But in the meantime, Mr. Brown, after first indicating that he would vote in favor of the Ryan budget, well, he's now said that he is going to vote against it. He said that in an op-ed page, and this is a quote this is a quote from Illinois freshman Joe Walsh ,who told Fox News that Brown will have some explaining to do.

(Soundbite of Fox News broadcast)

Representative JOE WALSH (Republican, Illinois): Scott Brown ought to be ashamed of himself. This is the defining moment in our - in - of this generation. We have got to be bold. We know these entitlements have to be reformed to be saved. He knows that. And any Republican that doesn't vote for this or doesn't support this is purely being guided by political reasons, and shame on them.

CONAN: Political reasons. Shame on them. Running for re-election.

RUDIN: Look, this was supposed to be the defining moment for the Republican Party. All the Republicans were supposed to rally behind this thing, and this is causing deep fractures in the party.

Olympia Snowe is probably going to vote no. Susan Collins will vote no. Olympia Snowe will have a Tea Party opponent next year. Scott Brown. Rand Paul, for different reasons, will vote no. So it has not even united the Republican Party on this.

And whether it's a harbinger for 2012, you know, we always say this is a big deal, and ultimately turns out is a little, you know, very inconsequential, but this could be something that the Republicans are very nervous about.

CONAN: In the meantime, the Democrats in Massachusetts are saying we may have found a candidate to run against Scott Brown, and they're talking about Elizabeth Warren.

RUDIN: Well, Elizabeth Warren is the consumer advocate that President Obama has been trying for the longest time to appoint to this new agency...

CONAN: Consumer financial protection agency.

RUDIN: Exactly. And the Republicans, who just despise Elizabeth Warren, they feel that she's anti-business, you know, she's Auntie Em - remember in "Wizard of Oz"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: She's opposed to the banks.

CONAN: She's melting.

RUDIN: She's melting. But basically that she - I mean, the Republicans just despise her, and the Democrats say, well, look, what better person to represent the Democratic Party and consumer advocacy than - to come back to Massachusetts, where she lives for the last 10 years and run for the Senate.

CONAN: And interestingly, she was on Capitol Hill yesterday to testify in -before Congress and got into it with Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry.

Representative PATRICK McHENRY (Republican, North Carolina): Look, Miss Warren, it was a simple request. Your staff had a request. My staff said we're trying to accommodate you. We're going to get you out of here in 10 minutes if you just...

Ms. ELIZABETH WARREN (Special Adviser, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau): Well, Congressman, we had an agreement.

Rep. McHENRY: You had no agreement.

Ms. WARREN: We had an agreement for the time this hearing would have occurred.

Rep. McHENRY: You're making this up, Miss Warren...

Ms. WARREN: You asked that...

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): Oh...

Rep. McHENRY: You're simply - this is not the case. This is not the case.

Ms. WARREN: I...

Rep. CUMMINGS: Mr. Chairman, you - you just did something that I - I'm trying to be cordial here, but you just accused the lady of lying...

Rep. McHENRY: She's accusing me of making an agreement that I never made.

Rep. CUMMINGS: I think you need to clear this up with your staff...

Rep. McHENRY: And I have...

Rep. CUMMINGS: ...that they have moved this thing around 50 million times.

CONAN: That's Representative Elijah Cummings there playing the role of peacemaker. Of course if she was accused of lying to Congress, that's a federal crime.

RUDIN: No, no. But all the things which she's accused of lying to were saying that they wanted more time, and she said no, we allotted an hour for this hearing, and we had an agreement about that. And they said, well (unintelligible)...

CONAN: But...

RUDIN: There's ugliness going on here, and that's why it would be so fascinating if she were the Democratic nominee in Massachusetts.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but let's go, as long as we're talking about the Senate, to New Mexico, where Republican moderate Heather Wilson could be attracting a big primary opponent.

RUDIN: She's a Republican. She lost. She ran for the Senate in 2008, got beaten in the primary, and she's running again in 2012 for the seat that Jeff Bingaman is giving up. But Lieutenant Governor John Sanchez, who is to her right, announced his candidacy. There will be a struggle for the Republican nomination in New Mexico.

CONAN: Ken Rudin will be back with us as he usually is next Wednesday.

Ken, thanks as always for your time.

RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Coming up, two U.S. reporters held captive 44 days in Libya. They'll join us to share their story. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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