Candidates In Mid-Term Elections Fight For Votes

Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress across the nation are hoping to convince voters that they can handle tough issues ranging from jump-starting the economy to improving education. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses the latest campaign news with Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush who blogs and writes commentary for U.S. News & World Report.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

It's now three weeks to the day before the midterm elections, and it's anything but politics as usual. This has been one of the most colorful midterm campaigns in recent memory. The fighting for a seat in Congress features a dramatically varied cast of candidates.

There's the billionaire who hired the illegal immigrant, the former Marine who dresses up as a Nazi soldier and the state attorney general who lied about serving in Vietnam. And there's still 21 days left before election day.

To separate the method from the mayhem, we've invited Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a blogger and commentary writer for US News & World Report. Thanks very much to both of you for being here today.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): It's good to be here.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Writer, US News & World Report): Yeah, thank you for having us.

LYDEN: So let's step back just a sec and take a moment at looking at what's going on out there, other than the voter rage or perhaps springboarding from the voter rage that we've heard so much about.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, it's all about the economy. That is clearly the overwhelming issue in this race, no matter how voters express it. If they express it as fears of government intrusion, if they express it as anxiety about jobs in their state, it's still all about the economy.

But the other interesting factor in this race is the internecine warfare going on in the Republican Party, where Tea Party candidates have pushed out some establishment Republicans.

Bob Bennett, for example, a respected conservative senator from Utah, was pushed out by a Tea Party candidate. Sharron Angle, running in Nevada, is a Tea Party candidate. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin came to favor as a candidate of the Tea Partiers.

And none of these people are your garden variety Republicans. They're very different. Many of them have never held office before. Some of them have never been active, very active in politics before. And so we are hearing from people we have never heard from before, and some of these people are going to win.

LYDEN: And that is Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Turning to Mary Kate Cary of US News and World Report: What races have caught your eye?

Ms. CARY: Well, the one that is the most fun, I think, is the Russ Feingold/Ron Johnson race that Cynthia just referenced out in Wisconsin. It's the Senate race. Politico this morning calls it the race that says it all. And the reason they're saying that, it's become a metaphor for so many other races and trends across the United States. You have an 18-year incumbent senator against a private sector manufacturer. He manufactures...

LYDEN: Russ Feingold versus Ron Johnson.

CARY: Russ Feingold - correct. And Ron Johnson came into politics because his daughter had a heart defect and her life was saved by two doctors, and he saw the Obama health care plan as a threat to quality health care in the United States. And having never run for any office any other time in his life, has suddenly stepped into this Senate race, and now has a nine-point lead. He surged about three weeks ago and has stayed ahead. And Feingold, meanwhile, has consistently below 50 percent, which is pretty bad for an incumbent. And it's a sign of the energization of the people who identify themselves as conservative in Wisconsin.

LYDEN: Let's just listen to a clip here, because these two debated last night in Wisconsin - Senator Feingold and Mr. Johnson. Let's hear a clip.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): Will you call on them to stop?

Mr. RON JOHNSON (Republican Candidate for Senate, Wisconsin): I have no control over that.

Sen. FEINGOLD: Will you ask them to stop?

Mr. JOHNSON: That's part of the problem. You have no control over...

Sen. FEINGOLD: Will you ask them to stop?

Mr. JOHNSON: That's the right to free speech.

LYDEN: And that began with Russ Feingold and ended with Ron Johnson, the right to free speech. Isn't - how has money changed this campaign? The - first of all, Ron Johnson has a lot, as a businessman. But is that part of what's going on here, that the nexus of money that's also meeting this anger that's been much discussed?

Ms. CARY: What they were discussing there was the influence of outside groups, who, as a result of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court earlier this year, can run ads without disclosing who the donors are. And so that was the nature of that question, I think, that they were going back and forth on. And the Democratic candidates across the board, all the way up to the vice president and the president, are bringing up this outside advertising and the role of money from anonymous donors. And the Republican response to it is: Why are we not talking about the economy? Why are we talking about ads from anonymous donors? And it's a way to try to sidetrack the debate off of the economy, which is detrimental to the Democrats.

Ms. TUCKER: Except it is about the economy. When the president chastised the Supreme Court back during his State of the Union speech, several Supreme Court Justices were sitting right in front of him. He criticized them for the Citizens United decision, because he said it would unleash the floodgates for all this special interest money. And that is exactly what has happened.

And what we see is business interest spending a lot of money that they don't have to disclose. The run ads from groups that sound innocuous, sound like groups that want to help average citizens, when in fact they're groups that are pushing business interests.

Ron Johnson, one the things that he's angry about, the guy who's challenging Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, is government regulations. This is a businessman who essentially doesn't want any government regulation. That is all about the economy, whether in fact businesses should be free to do whatever they please without any regulation. So, in fact, this torrent of undisclosed money is related to economic issues.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're checking the political landscape three weeks out from the mid-terms with Mary Kate Cary of US News and World Report and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Let's look elsewhere in the country. Mary Kate, you've written that President Obama can be a scold, and you've cited his instruction to Democrats to stop sulking. And you said gone are the days of yes we can. It's become you better not. How uphill a battle do Democrats face, do you think?

Ms. CARY: I think it's pretty tough. As Cynthia was saying earlier, you know, this is all about the economy. And it's become, in so many races, a decision by voters as to whether they think the private sector is the better creator of jobs, or the public sector. And that's about as stark as you can get in economic philosophy. And President Obama has clearly shown that he believes the public sector is the place to create jobs. And that's feeding the right track/wrong track numbers, because so many American don't agree with that.

LYDEN: We've just got a couple minutes. Cynthia, President Clinton - former President Clinton, of course - suggested that a midterm defeat could be a good thing for President Obama. Do you think that's true?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think that many Democrats are find - are trying to find a silver lining in this cloud, because the simple fact of the matter is this is very much an uphill battle for Democrats. It's looking quite likely that Republicans will take the House and come close to taking the Senate. So Democrats have to find something that could be good about this. And what they're saying is it'll put Republicans in a position where they will share responsibility for governing. They can't just say no to everything the Democrats propose. And if you look closely at the Pledge for America...

LYDEN: The Republican (unintelligible).

Ms. TUCKER: The Republicans. That is the new broad, general promise that they're running on in the midterms. It says very little, quite frankly. They're going to clamp down on government spending, but it doesn't really say where. And so Republicans have said - have offered very few specific initiatives for governing in this very tough economy.

LYDEN: Very quickly, Mary Kate. What do you think we'll see?

Ms. CARY: I think we'll see the same message for the next three weeks. It's three weeks from today, is the election. There's a fun debate tonight between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown for the first time since her called her a prostitute, basically. And then tomorrow night's Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons, her opponent. And that would be fun, too. I think it's going to be a great fall. There's three more weeks of fun ahead of us.

LYDEN: Mary Kate Cary and Cynthia Tucker, thanks both for joining us in the studio today.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.

Ms. CARY: Thank you.

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