GOP Popular Now, But The Contest Is Still Ahead

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According to the latest Gallup poll, Republicans have an unprecedented, double-digit lead in the generic ballot. With midterm elections just weeks away, will the polling numbers translate into significant gains for the GOP? For insight, host Liane Hansen speaks with Tom Davis, the former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Martin Frost, the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Committee.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Labor Day weekend is traditionally a time for candidates for November's midterm elections to put their campaigns into high gear. According to a Gallup poll released this past week, Republicans have an unprecedented, 10-point lead over Democrats in the so-called generic ballot. It asked voters if they would rather vote for an unnamed Democrat or Republican congressional candidate.

To find out whether public frustration with Washington will translate into significant gains for the GOP, two former members of Congress join us. Both are well-versed in congressional politics. Tom Davis is the former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He's in the studios of Post Op Media in Arlington, Virginia. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. TOM DAVIS (Former Chair, National Republican Congressional Committee): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: And Martin Frost once chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And he's on the phone from Santa Barbara, California. Hello to you, sir.

Mr. MARTIN FROST (Former Chair, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee): Good to be with you.

HANSEN: I'd like to start with you, Mr. Frost. How ominous are these latest polling numbers for Democrats?

Mr. FROST: Obviously, you'd rather be ahead than behind, but these are one-on-one contests and that's how this will be decided. I remember in 1996 when I was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and we had lost the House for the first time in four years. And Speaker Gingrich was very concerned that the Republicans were going to lose that election, that we were going to take it back.

His fears turned out to be unjustified. I think that elections are unpredictable. We have two months until the election, and then we'll find out how this plays out.

HANSEN: Tom Davis, do you think Republicans will be able to translate this into turnout at the polls?

Mr. DAVIS: Yes. The poll also showed that the enthusiasm among Republicans is much higher than among Democrats. But historically, this was going to be a bad year for the Democrats, simply for this reason: they control everything - the House, the Senate, the presidency - and you have a bad economy and a president with low numbers.

The last two times one party controlled the House, Senate and presidencies in midterm elections, the voters flipped it. The voters don't really trust either party. This is not an affirmation of Republican principles; this is basically a way of putting a check on Obama, as opposed to giving him a blank check.

HANSEN: Do you think the Republicans are running more of a national race in opposition to the president?

Mr. DAVIS: Absolutely. They have a wave and they're trying to get their sails up and catch that wave. And in some districts, that wave will be enough to carry their candidates; in others it won't. In some districts, Democrats will adjust their sails and be able to find a counter-wind somewhere.

And as so often happens in big years, individual candidates and individual campaigns matter. I mean, it's going to be a patchwork quilt of where Republicans pick up seats and where they don't, depending on the candidates.

HANSEN: Martin Frost, I want to ask you in terms of Democratic strategy, are the Democrats keeping a local focus in some ways to avoid association with President Obama.

Mr. FROST: There's no question about that. The Democrats want to make this a choice, district by district, between the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate. And in some cases, Democratic candidates are going to distance themselves from the president and even from the speaker. And both the speaker and the president understand that. That's the way politics works in this country.

And Southern Democrats and in certain parts of the Midwest have to show that they're different from some of the national leaders, that they're independent in judgment, that they've done a good job and that they're close to the voters' sentiments.

HANSEN: Tom Davis, the conservative Tea Party, claimed another win in Alaska with Joe Miller unseating Senator Lisa Murkowski. You said the Republican Party needs to diversify its base. What do you think of the Tea Party? Is it helping the GOP gin up enthusiasm or is it moving the party maybe too far to the right?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, it's probably doing both. It is adding an energy factor to the Republicans that they have not had in some time. What it does is it - there's a lot of anger out there. And this is not a love fest with the Republican Party. Voters have made up their mind about Republicans. They fired us in 2006 and they fired us in 2008.

What you have in the Tea Party are a lot of people who don't like the Republican Party as usual. They want to try something else, and it's manifested, you know, I think, in the growth of the Tea Party and in the winds of some of these candidates. And I think they're a net asset.

Mr. FROST: But what the Tea Party has done is given us a chance to win some races that we might not...

Mr. DAVIS: Sure.

Mr. FROST: ...otherwise have won. I mean, Harry Reid has a chance of being reelected because of the extreme Tea Party opponent that he drew who defeated more moderate Republicans in the primary. The same thing in Kentucky, perhaps the same thing in Colorado. Now, maybe even in Alaska. Depends on whether the Democratic nominee can get a campaign going.

But the Tea Party candidates are not a uniform benefit for the Republicans. And in some cases, they have put races back in play that the Republicans thought they were going to win.

Mr. DAVIS: I don't disagree with what Martin is saying on that. But you asked me, were they a net benefit? And the answer is yes. And I think in some cases they've come forward with candidates that are probably stronger than you had with the conventional Republican Party choices.

Mr. FROST: Just remember that this is a pretty tall hill for the Republicans to climb. They've got to pick up a net of 39 seats in the House. There are a couple of districts where actually the Republicans may lose a couple of seats. So, they may have to pick up 41, 42 or 43 seats to get into a majority. And they have to pick up 10 seats in the Senate, which means they have to virtually run the table in the Senate. I'm not suggesting they can't do it, but this is not as easy as some people in the press would have us believe.

HANSEN: Has the old saying gone out the window, you think: Elections are generally won in the middle?

Mr. DAVIS: No, I think there's still one. I think there - Martin, I'll go first - I think there's still one in the middle. What's happened though right now is that the middle of the road has shifted not quite to the right-hand gutter, but it's shifted over to the right side because the view is Obama has been veering government to the left.

HANSEN: Martin Frost, you get the last word.

Mr. FROST: Well, you do have to be generally in the middle, and that's the thing that may save the Democrats is that some of the Republican nominees have gone way too far to the right and simply will not be acceptable by the public.

HANSEN: Martin Frost is the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He's an attorney at the law firm Polsinelli Shughart. Thank you very much.

Mr. FROST: Thank you.

HANSEN: Tom Davis is the former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He is the director of federal government affairs at the consulting firm Deloitte and Touche, and president of the Republican Main Street Partnership. Thank you.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you.

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