Election Day Preview

With Election Day just a week away, candidates for the U.S. Congress and many gubernatorial contests are making their final appeal to voters — and seeking the help of many in the Obama administration. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses some of this midterm election races with Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Mary Kate Cary, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

You might not believe the number of people hitting retirement age next year, the age of 65. If you're one of them or getting near that age or if you're planning to ever retire, you'll want to hear what TELL ME MORE's Money Coach has to say, and that's a little later.

First, though, we're just one week out from the midterm elections - one week. And if the political ads peppered throughout your regular TV viewing hasn't already made you aware, candidates left, right and center want your vote and they're making their final push.

Exchanges between candidates have gotten heated, even nasty - really nasty. A growing discontent with the status quo amongst the electorate isn't a good sign for Democrats in the House or Senate.

And here to put some of the most recent political news into context are two familiar voices. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and blogger from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Mary Kate Cary is a former speech writer for President George W. Bush. She's now a blogger and commentary writer for U.S. News and World Report. Ladies, thanks so much for coming in today.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist and Blogger, Atlanta Journal Constitution): Thanks for having us.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Blogger and Commentary Writer, U.S. News and World Report): Thanks for having us.

LYDEN: So, vitriol, vitriol and, you know, more vitriol in a lot of these debates. We heard about the Rhode Island comment by a Democrat that the president could shove it and we'll talk about the governor's race there in a couple of minutes.

But, first, let's go to Florida. The Senate debate Sunday night was instructive in many ways. Let's take a listen here to an exchange between the two frontrunners, Republican Marco Rubio and Independent Charlie Crist, the former governor.

Mr. MARCO RUBIO (Republican Senate Candidate, Florida): My tax returns are public. I've gone well beyond the point of disclosure. The bottom line is you people want to focus on these issues because they're wrong on the important issues. This country has a $13.5 trillion debt.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Independent Senate Candidate, Florida): He doesn't want to release them because he doesn't believe in transparency. I created the office of open government in the governor's office for the first time in the history of our state.

Mr. RUBIO: I've never had a heckler at the debate, I've always had them in the audience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. CRIST: It's the way it is. Welcome to the NFL.

LYDEN: Mary Kate, you're a former speech writer for a Republican administration and here we got two guys both sort of that side of the line. What does this exchange say to you about the tone of the race?

Ms. CARY: I think that it's gotten a little more desperate out there. I think Crist realizes he's now down double digits. Rubio's got an 11-point lead. And Crist is ready to start throwing the kitchen sink in. It's in the closing days now. A lot of these states' early voting has started. And you have to remember, Crist is in a sticky position. He used to be a Republican who literally embraced Obama and now was unable to get his party's nomination because of the Tea Party.

Unemployment in Florida is at 12.4 percent. And Rubio started out as the Tea Party endorsed candidate. Well, he now has come to be appearing as the mainstream candidate who just happened to have Tea Party endorsements. So Rubio has really sort of taken control of this race. And the fact that Crist is sort of heckling and yelling welcome to the NFL and all this kind of stuff, shows where his mindset is right now. He's ready to throw the kitchen sink at the guy.

Ms. TUCKER: But Rubio is taking control of the race largely because it's a three person race. Rubio has about a 43 percent of the vote according to recent polls, which shows you that he hasn't quite persuaded half the state's voters to go for him. Charlie Crist has about 32 percent. And the third candidate, the Democrat, has about 20 percent. So the reason Marco Rubio is doing as well as he's doing is because Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek are splitting the vote that likely would've gone to one or the other of them.

LYDEN: Let's stay with our southern streak here. Cynthia, you vote for - with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, of course. Let's talk about Alabama, the race for governor there. A Democratic state senator, Hank Sanders, sent a robocall, reportedly targeted people who live in majority black areas of Alabama, calling on them to support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ron Sparks. It's a little hard to hear, but let's just play an excerpt of that call.

(Soundbite of robocall)

State Senator HANK SANDERS (Democrat, Alabama): Hello, this is Hank Sanders, the Alabama state senator and I'm still mad as hell. I say, hell no, I ain't going back to the cotton fields and Jim Crow days. I'm going forward with Ron Sparks, Jim Folsom and others who would do right by all of us. I hope you are mad as hell and will not go back.

LYDEN: Okay, so if you can't quite hear that, he's saying, I ain't going back to the cotton fields and Jim Crow days. And that's the part that's gotten people fired up. From your perspective, what's going on here with this rhetoric?

Ms. TUCKER: Race baiting, pure and simple. The Democrats in Alabama are pulling out the race card to try to get black voters to the polls. It's absolutely clear that Democrats need a high black turnout if they are to avoid an utter shellacking on November 2nd. And so they're resorting to racial innuendo to try to get their base to the polls.

You hear that sort of extremist rhetoric, unfortunately, on both sides. Both sides resort to extremist rhetoric to try to energize their base. On the right you hear President Obama called all kinds of names: socialist, Nazi, Hitler, et cetera, et cetera. And, you know, I don't think that's necessary. I don't think that voters necessarily go to the polls because of that kind of name calling. Certainly black voters in Alabama know that there is no danger of any return to Jim Crow.

LYDEN: Mary Kate, you wrote for President H.W. Bush, I'm sorry we misidentified you at the outset there.

Ms. CARY: No problem.

LYDEN: I want to ask you that name calling in general. I mean, isn't there more of it, from your perspective, out there in general?

Ms. CARY: I'd like to say no, but I think I'm probably wrong about that. I think what's going on here with this sort of incendiary language and race baiting and name calling is an effort to whip up your base. But, really, the smart political money in this race, you always want your base to show up, but the battleground is over the Independents in this race. And right now there was a poll that came out yesterday, George Washington University-Politico poll, the GOP has a 14 point edge amongst Independents.

Amongst Independents right now, as of today, the Tea Party has a higher approval rating than Obama does amongst Independents. And so I think that's where the action is and that's where the battleground is the next week. And so I think some of this stuff, to get your base fired up is a little misdirected. I think if they were smart they'd be looking at Independent voters.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about this, the final week before voters go to the polls in the midterm's next week. My guests are Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Speaking of the base, let's just turn to the president, who appeared this morning on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," and this program is, as many people may know, aimed primarily at an African-American audience on African-American stations. Here we go.

President BARACK OBAMA: I need you to show up and vote on November 2nd, because everything that we're trying to do, from helping young people afford college to making sure that folks have health care, to trying to get jobs back in our communities, all that is going to depend on me having folks in Congress who want to move this country forward, as opposed to moving it backward.

LYDEN: And so, as Mary Kate was saying, you know, maybe they shouldn't be trying so much to get out the base, Cynthia. Maybe the president should be concentrating on Independent voters and the Democrats.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I disagree with that. I think that many polls show this huge enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans are much more enthusiastic about voting this time around, Democrats a little less so. And Democrats always struggle to get out their base during the midterms anyway. As a matter of voting history, middle class voters, older voters, white voters tend to vote in the midterm elections more. Black and brown voters, younger voters who are a significant part of the Democrats' base tend to vote less.

If the Democrats could turn out as many of their voters as they did in 2008, they would be winning a lot more of these elections that they now appear to be losing. After all, pollsters measure likely voters. And that's one of the reasons Democrats appear to be doing so poorly because the Republicans - more Republican-likely voters. There are more Republicans saying they are likely to vote than there are Democrats saying that they are likely to vote.

LYDEN: So you're kind of nodding your head, Mary Kate, so if we do see the Democrats being somewhat better than they're predicted to do, that could be why. But I want to ask about the president because we played that clip at the outset where the Democratic candidate for governor of Rhode Island, you know, tells President Obama to shove it. I mean, what does that do to this argument of getting out the base? And is the president a liability?

Ms. CARY: Well, yeah, that's the reason he did it, I think, is because, you know, Obama, Pelosi, Reid is sort of the face of the Democratic agenda. The head of the Democratic Governor's Association kind of called the president out on it and said this sends a terrible message to everybody who's trying to get Democrats elected this year.

You know, when I worked at the Republican National Committee under Haley Barbour, the rule was that the party did not endorse anyone prior to the primary. Once you won the primary, then the party endorsed. And, you know, you stand by your man through thick and thin once he wins the nomination.

So for the president to not stand with the nominee on the Democrat's side in the governor's race, because of his friendship with Lincoln Chafee, you know, what really should have happened is he should have sort of pulled the Budweiser ad, called Lincoln Chafee and said, I love you, man, but I can't endorse you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: And it doesn't mean he has to slam his friend, but he needs to endorse the Democratic candidate or send a huge message, and this is what happened. It was a huge message.

LYDEN: Who was called Frank Capra, we didn't identify him. We've just got a couple minutes left. I watched predictions, but also, something to be said about the Tea Party Movement one more time. Given The Washington Post's quite interesting piece on Sunday that said, look, we looked for 2,300 Tea Party chapters, we could only identify 647. Some of those people had met only once. Is there some sort of outside emphasis that's being attributed here that doesn't really translate into political action? Either of you.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think that one of the most interesting things about the news story that The Washington Post did, looking at all of these local groups -what The Post was trying to do was look beyond the big national groups, the national leaders or activists, if you will.- they don't like to call themselves leaders - the national Tea Party activists, grassroots groups on the ground, some of those groups are as small as one person. Some of them have five people. Some of them have met once. Some of them have never met. So I think what that shows us is that the Tea Party energy has been co-opted by establishment Republican activists.

LYDEN: It's going to be a great race.

Ms. CARY: It is going to be great, a week from tonight.

LYDEN: Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Mary Kate Cary is a former speech writer for President H.W. Bush, now with U.S. News and World Report. Thank you both for coming in.

Ms. CARY: Thank you.

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