Eyes Off The White House: Other Races To Watch

my chat with Linda Wertheimer

Republicans made historic gains in the House in 2010, and while the GOP didn't quite get to a majority in the Senate, they had great expectations for 2012. NPR's Ken Rudin joins guest host Linda Wertheimer to talk about the fight for control of Congress.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Just under two months to go before Election Day. The national conventions are over. We're weeks away from debates. And while Democrats and Republicans try to win the White House, they are also locked in a battle for control of Congress. Republicans made historic gains in the House in 2010. And while the GOP didn't quite get a majority in the Senate, they had great expectations of this year because the numbers are in their favor.

Ken Rudin is NPR's Political Junkie and he joins us to talk about the fight for control of Congress. Good morning, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So can we start with the House?

RUDIN: Well, of course, all the seats are up in the House - all 435 seats are up. And right now, there are 240 Republicans, 190 Democrats and there are five vacancies. So the Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to make Nancy Pelosi speaker once again.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you think the prospect actually is, Nancy Pelosi getting to be a speaker again?

RUDIN: Well, theoretically it's doable. There are about 50 seats or so that are competitive and, of course, could go either way. And usually when there's a big title wave - the Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House two years ago - usually two years after that there is some kind of adjustment, where it comes back to normalcy. So, of course, a lot of these Republican freshmen could be very vulnerable in 2012.

And there are questions: is the momentum, is the fervor that the Republicans had two years ago, that Tea Party momentum, is it still there in 2012? And what about the plan that Paul Ryan is famous for, on redefining Medicare? There a lot of Republicans who have been put on the defensive over Paul Ryan, especially now that he's on the national ticket. So that's something to watch, as well.

But at the same time, there are some Democratic retirements that have put Republicans in good shape to win those seats. Redistricting in several states have hurt the Democrats. And the disappointing job numbers probably won't help the Democrats either.

WERTHEIMER: What about the presidential contest? Could the presidential contest be a factor?

RUDIN: Well, it could be. It doesn't always have to be. But more recently there've been less indication of coattails. For example, when George H. W. Bush was elected president in 1988, it was the Democrats who picked up more seats in the House. When Bill Clinton was elected president four years later, Republicans gained more seats. And don't forget when George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, the Republicans lost two seats in the House and four seats in the Senate.

WERTHEIMER: What about the Senate?

RUDIN: Well, certainly in the Senate, the numbers favor the Republicans, at least on paper. Of the 33 Senate seats that are up, 23 of them are currently held by Democrats or Democratic-leaning Independents. So the Republicans certainly feel they have more targets to go after.

WERTHEIMER: But wouldn't you just automatically assume that somewhere in that 23 seats would be the four seats they need?

RUDIN: Yeah, and the Republicans have been saying that all along; the numbers are in our favor, we certainly should do it. They're looking at Claire McCaskill in Missouri, who has been vulnerable from the beginning. They're looking at Jon Tester, the Democratic incumbent from Montana - also look very vulnerable. They like their chances in Nebraska and Wisconsin and North Dakota and Virginia, all states where Democratic incumbents are retiring.

But the Republicans are having their problems of their own. Their candidate seems to be underperforming in North Dakota, the surprise retirement of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe in Maine has certainly hurt the Republican cause there. And the comments by Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin about rape and pregnancy...

WERTHEIMER: That's the guy who's running against Claire McCaskill.

RUDIN: Yeah, again, this is hurting the Republican chances of beating McCaskill. That's turned the race inside out.

WERTHEIMER: Give us a couple of races, Ken, for your fans, the junior junkies.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: My fan? Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Well, I mean everybody, of course, is watching the Senate race in Massachusetts. Scott Brown, who took Ted Kennedy's seat, Republican Scott Brown, has won that seat, and he's leading in the polls in a very Democratic state, against Elizabeth Warren, the former consumer advocate, who gave a very impassioned speech last week at the Democratic convention. That's a big seat to watch.

Also, in Virginia, you have a battle between two former governors, George Allen, former governor/former senator, who self-destructed six years ago with his Macaca comment. He's running against Tim Kaine, the former DNC chair. And George Allen is trying to tie Tim Kaine with President Obama. That could be a plus, could be a minus, it's hard to say. That race is very, very close.

And one thing a lot of people are forgetting - by the way, in Connecticut, Linda McMahon, the former wrestling executive, is the Republican nominee for the Senate there. In Hawaii, Linda Lingle, the former governor, is the Republican nominee for the Senate there. This could be the year of the Linda.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Thank you, Ken. Thank you very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Ken Rudin, his weekly Political Junkie column can be found at npr.org/junkie.

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