Political Chat: Primary Results, Boehner's Obama Lawsuit

Several primary elections wrapped up this week. Host Michel Martin speaks with two seasoned political analysts to learn more about the primary results and the races to watch later this year.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to begin today's program by taking a look at this week's primaries. A number of congressional and state level nominees were selected on Tuesday. And people are still talking about a few notable races in places like New York, Maryland and Mississippi. To the surprise of some who saw a Tea Party resurgence in some previous outcomes, incumbents seem to fare well across the board, including establishment Republicans, whose candidates beat Tea Party backed candidates in Mississippi, Colorado and Oklahoma. In Maryland, the current Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown won the Democratic nomination for governor. He thanked his father, an immigrant from Jamaica, in his victory speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR ANTHONY BROWN: He came here because he believed that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can pursue your dream and the American dream and make a contribution.

MARTIN: If Brown wins, he would become the first African-American governor of that state. And some say his is a career to watch. We wanted to talk about all of this, so we've called once again Charles Mahtesian. He's a senior political editor for NPR and he's back with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Charlie, thanks so much for taking the long road upstairs.

CHARLES MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: (Laughing) Hi, Michel, great to be here again.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Andra Gillespie. She's a professor of political science at Emory University and is author of "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark And Post-Racial America." She's with us from the studios at Emory University in Atlanta. Andra, welcome back to you as well. Thank you for joining us once again.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Charlie, let me start with you. Any headline from Tuesday that you want to tell us about?

MAHTESIAN: Well, I think the marquee race that everybody was watching and probably was the most revealing about the state of the political scene in 2014 would've been Mississippi, where everyone expected that Senator Thad Cochran was a goner after the June 3 primary. You know, almost all the trend lines suggested that, you know, he was going to be in big trouble. There was, you know, not only - there was polling that showed he was down, all the momentum seemed to be with his challenger. There didn't really see - seem to be a pathway to victory for him yet. Ultimately he pulled it out against Chris McDaniel with a pretty politically risky and novel strategy of appealing to independent votes, Republicans who didn't vote in the primary and also African-American Democrats.

MARTIN: And why was that novel? I mean - why was that novel? I mean, you just think that's not the kind of thing you do until the general election? Or something else...

MAHTESIAN: Well, not the kind of thing you see Mississippi Republicans do. Number one, they don't need to because of the numbers. But also it's just not the thing - it's not a strategy you see Republicans resorting to in primaries. And it kind of tells you a bit about the dire circumstances he was in, but it also suggests something about the kind of record he had amassed that he was even able to make a plausible case to African-American Democrats as to why it might make sense to cast - to show up and cast votes for him in the Republican runoff.

MARTIN: I'll be interested to hear more about whether this has future implications for how, you know, campaigns are run because we've talked about the fact that the electorate is so polarized along, you know, all of these different lines. So, Andra, what about you? What were you paying attention to on primary night? What races captured your attention?

GILLESPIE: Well, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Maryland and Harlem. You know, all of these races featured African-American candidates of different parties, all of which with different expectations of whether or not they were going to win and we have different outcomes there as well. You know, I will say that I'm not terribly surprised that Thad Cochran would run to win African-American voters. While it's an underused strategy. It's actually not unusual in southern states with open primaries for people to sometimes jump parties to try to pick elections. When you live in a state with one party rule, sometimes you do actually want to participate in the other party's election if you're in the minority party, just so that you have a say in who your representative is.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit about Oklahoma. You said you had your eye on that as well?

GILLESPIE: So in one of the - the special senate primary, T.W. Shannon, who is the speaker of the Oklahoma - former speaker of the Oklahoma house, an African-American Republican, was running for the nomination and for the Republican Party. And he eventually ended up losing in that particular race to a Republican congressman from the state as well. And so it was really interesting, I don't think people thought that the race was going to end up being as decisive as it was. People anticipated a runoff and Shannon only got about a third of the vote. It's actually interesting to look at the counties where he did win outright or win a plurality and a lot of those places either had larger than average black populations or larger than average Native American populations. I think some people thought with the success of somebody like Tim Scott in South Carolina that we were seeing the resurgence of African-American Republicans. And while I think that we are increasingly going to see more African-American Republican nominees and actual elected officials, whether we're talking about members of Congress or senator, even at the state level, you know, we still see that there is still plenty of room and progress to be made there and still many glass ceilings to crack at various levels.

MARTIN: Interesting. We are going to hear from Tim Scott in just a few minutes. We're going to talk a little bit about something else. He's become an important conservative voice on the whole question of poverty and how poverty should be addressed. We're going to hear from him a little later. Charlie, the - what about the whole question of the state of the tea party and whether it still remains a force in American politics? Did we learn anything?

MAHTESIAN: Well, I think overall it was not - if you're keeping score at home, it was not a great night for the Tea Party. Chris McDaniel was sort of its signature candidate in Mississippi and Cochran was probably the Tea Party's last, best remaining chance to take down an incumbent. They have a couple of opportunities coming up but not as - they are not as well-positioned as in Mississippi. But I mean, I think, you know, the ideas of writing the Tea Party's obit, it misses the mark. The Tea Party, you know, at least in my estimation, is definitely not dead. You can still see it leaving its mark in elections - in House elections - in open seat house elections in particular. You see it leaving its mark in moving the party to the right and on Capitol Hill. But I do think what we're now discovering about the Tea Party is - we're beginning to see the outlines of the outer limits of what they can accomplish. Meaning, for example, incumbents no longer get caught sleeping the way they used to. And I think another change that you see is that Republicans and their supporters in the business community now understand that they can't sit back. They are taking on the Tea Party head on, in a way that they were much more reticent about doing in the 2012 election cycle. So I think you're beginning to see almost a maturing of the fight between the two. And so I don't think that this is the end, in any way, for Tea Party.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the primaries that took place earlier this week, and we're talking about what the headlines are from those. With us are Charles Mahtesian, he's a senior political editor for NPR and Andra Gillespie is a professor of political science at Emory University. So Professor Gillespie, one person generating buzz - you talked a little about kind of the rising class, if we could call it that, of African-American politics. That next wave, Maryland's Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown is now poised to become the first African-American governor of that state. That's because, you know, the Democrats are so dominant in Maryland and the winner of the Democratic primary is usually, you know, heavily advantaged in the fall. Tell us a little bit about Anthony Brown if you would. And is his a career that is worth watching and if so, why?

GILLESPIE: Absolutely. I had the pleasure of meeting him actually a couple of months ago, when he was in Atlanta doing some fundraising. And he's got, you know, an interesting story - Harvard grad, Army veteran, he's been lieutenant governor of the state under Martin O'Malley. He helped to sort of spearhead the creation of Maryland's exchange. And while one of his opponents actually tried to use that against him, running ads in Maryland that almost look like Republican ads against Anthony Brown, Brown emerged victorious. He's got an interesting story - grew up in New York, I believe. The son of a Jamaican doctor and a Norwegian immigrant mother - or a mother of Norwegian background. So, I mean, he definitely has an Obamaesque type of story but with the defense credentials. So if he wanted to do something later on, I don't know what his future plans are beyond the Governor's office, it's definitely available to him. This is actually a time where Maryland is kind of coming full circle. You know, it was just in 2006 that Kweisi Mfume did not win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate against Ben Cardin. And so we're now coming into a place where African-Americans are really coming into the fore politically and taking advantage of their numbers. They're taking advantage of demographic shifts in the state. So as we've seen Washington, D.C.'s black population decline, Maryland's black population has grown. Proportionately, there are as many blacks in Maryland as there are in Mississippi. And so this is a state that students of African-American politics need to pay attention to.

MARTIN: And so Charlie, before we let you go - a couple minutes left. I wanted to talk about this whole issue of executive - of power. We're kind of making a turn here. The - House Speaker John Boehner says he plans to move forward with a lawsuit against President Obama for abuse and misuse of executive power. He's talking about his decision to move forward with this lawsuit. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The Constitution makes it clear that a president's job is to faithfully execute the laws. And in my view, the president has not faithfully executed the laws.

MARTIN: And as we are speaking, the Supreme Court has just issued a ruling that would limit the president's power to make recess appointments. And I just sort of wonder all this together - I know this is just very recent news here, but is this going to have an impact on the president's ability to function through the remainder of his term? I mean the president's been arguing why he needed to make these recess appointments is that Congress has been so uncooperative and that they can't - he just can't sit on his hands and not allow his administration to function. I just wanted to get your perspective on these developments.

MAHTESIAN: I think the Boehner lawsuit is operating at two levels. And I don't think either of them, at least in the Obama presidency, is going to have a profound impact. The first one is - it's a reflection of the traditional kinds of constitutional tensions we see between the legislative and executive branches. But I think there's also a political level to the suit. And what you're seeing is, in many ways, an articulation of the Republican argument against the Republican - or against the Obama White House. And that is designed solely for political constituency because so many Republicans believe that. And I think the timing of it is, you know, no secret. It is coming before the midterm elections and it enables Republicans to, in some ways, outline their argument against the Obama White House. And it helps at least underscore to their base their commitment to getting out the message about what they feel is the fatal flaw of the Obama administration, which...

MARTIN: Do you feel that this lawsuit has substantive merit, or is it mainly a political document?

MAHTESIAN: Well, without having read it and seen it, you know, I'm hesitant to speak on the substantive - substantive merits of it. But clearly there's a political angle to it. I mean, it walks you through almost exactly what the case has been made against the Obama administration, its agenda and how it has attempted to accomplish that in Washington.

MARTIN: Charles Mahtesian, he's a senior political editor here at NPR. He was with us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Andra Gillespie's a professor of political science at Emory University and she joined us from the studios at the University. A lot to talk about today. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MAHTESIAN: Thank you.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

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