Days Before Election, Midterms Heat Up

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With four days to go before Tuesday's election, both parties are anxiously awaiting what is likely to be a referendum on the Democrats' four-year control of Congress — as well as President Obama's 19 months in office. NPR's Mara Liasson and Ken Rudin discuss the latest political news with Steve Inskeep and Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Oh, it's rare that we mention sanity and our political editor, Ken Rudin, in the same breath, but here we are.

KEN RUDIN: Look, there's no such thing as a sanity clause.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Ken's in our studios and NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us on the line, once again.

Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Hello, I'm the second banana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: What, if anything, do Democrats get out of an event like this?

LIASSON: Democrats are hoping that they can do some organizing around the periphery of this rally - set up phone banks to get out the vote. But in fact, Republicans and conservatives have been kind of chuckling about this. And they've been saying, rather snarkily, we want all those liberals on the Mall this weekend, because we don't want them out there in the districts trying to get out the vote.

INSKEEP: Democrats have been depressed that they're depressed, Ken Rudin, can you actually change the dynamic of an election with something like this?

RUDIN: Not with three or four days to go before the election. I think, maybe it's an opportunity to feel good and remind people of the heady days of 2006 and 2008, but with three or four days to go before 2010, it's hard to make a case that a rally like this will change the dynamic of Tuesday.

KELLY: Okay, we've got lots of races around the country we want to talk about. And Mara, let me start with you and with Florida. There are reports that Bill Clinton, the former president, advised the Democratic candidate in the race for Senate there, to drop out. What do we know about that?

LIASSON: Yes, this is a story where Bill Clinton apparently had some conversations with Kendrick Meek, who is an African-American congressman running for Senate in Florida, to drop out of the race and throw his support to Charlie Crist, the governor - Republican turned independent - who is running in the race against the Republican, Marco Rubio. Meek has been trailing in the polls, there've been discussions, before this, about whether he would drop out. And Meek has said, although there were discussions, he never said he would drop out.

And the reason this story is significant is that just the news of these discussions worries some Democrats, that African-American voters could be discouraged from participating in Florida. And already, the Republican National Committee is jumping in to take advantage of this with their chairman, Michael Steele, issuing a statement.

RUDIN: Could I just say something?

LIASSON: Yeah.

RUDIN: Black voters may not only be discouraged, they may be angry (unintelligible). Exactly.

LIASSON: Yes, discouraged and angry that this happened. Exactly. And Michael Steele issued a statement, saying - Republican chairman - this sends a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African-Americans. What would happen if a Republican leader tried to force out a qualified black candidate?

RUDIN: But the facts are in some kind of a dispute. Kendrick Meek went on TV this morning, said he'd never considered dropping out. Said he's not dropping out. And in fact, the suggestion to drop out came not from Bill Clinton but from Charlie Crist himself.

INSKEEP: Difficult situation for Democrats, though, right? Because it looks like their vote will be split between the Democratic candidate and this independent candidate, Charlie Crist - even though he was a Republican. Is that right?

LIASSON: Sure. That's why they tried to clear the field.

RUDIN: And that's the irony, because for the longest time, we thought that Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio would split the Republican vote, perhaps helping the Democrat; but Charlie Crist has clearly moved to the left since he became independent candidate. Which could explain why Rubio has the lead in the polls.

KELLY: Ken, let me ask you to look forward to election night - next Tuesday night. How early in the night do you think we're actually going to start being able to see how things might be shaking out for the House and the Senate?

RUDIN: Well, sit in front of your radio and listen to NPR all night coverage, because by 7 o'clock, for example, polls will close in states like Indiana, Virginia, and 7:30 in Ohio. There is some Democratic incumbents in serious trouble in those states. If they go down to defeat early - and especially in the Senate and gubernatorial races, as well... Ohio governor, Ted Strickland's in big trouble. If those Democrats go down to defeat - and we may know that early - then the Democrats could be in for a long night. But at the same time, 7:30 the polls close in West Virginia. If the Democrats hold onto that seat -that's a long time - held by Robert Byrd. Joe Manchin, the governor's running for that seat - if the Democrats hold on to it, maybe it's good news for the Democrats' hope in retaining control of the Senate.

KELLY: And then we've got some cliffhangers, that we won't know 'til, perhaps, much later. Alaska comes to mind, California as well.

RUDIN: Absolutely. Alaska is also complicated because of the three-way race. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the Republican primary, running as a write-in. We could be up all night trying to find out who won that race.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson, I was interested that Ken, there, mentioned those three states that we should look at early - Indiana, Virginia, and Ohio - all states that had been very strongly Republican for years, all states where Democrats had made gains recently, and all states, now, where Democrats are in great danger. Are Democrats feeling that they may have thrown away all of the gains that they made in 2008?

LIASSON: Well, that is definitely the danger this year. That the map could radically change. It could go back to a kind of 2004 map, where instead of making these inroads into previously Republican territory, they're kind of relegated to the two coasts. And it's interesting, in California, where the Democratic candidates in both the governor's and Senate races had very tough challenges, they look like they're doing a little bit better right now.

RUDIN: Mara's making a very good point. In 2006, the Democrats won 31 seats in the House, another 20 in 2008. Republicans could very well get 50 to 55 more Republican seats. And therefore, going back to pre-2006.

INSKEEP: And just to keep track of the numbers, 50 to 55 would be more than enough for Republicans to take control.

RUDIN: They need 39 to take control.

KELLY: Mara and Ken, quickly, to both of you. Assuming Republicans do pick up at least one of the chambers, how well do you think we're going to see them working with the White House?

LIASSON: Well, that's been the big question. The White House has said they want to work with Republicans, they've identified some areas where they think they could get some bipartisan compromise - trade, energy, education - but Mitch McConnell, who's the Republican leader in the Senate, gave an interview to National Journal, recently, where he said he sees his job as making sure Barack Obama is a one-term president. So we always knew that Mitch McConnell was a very effective partisan player. Maybe we didn't know he was so transparent. But that certainly suggests that there will be very little compromise, at least any kind of compromise that the Republicans think would help President Obama.

RUDIN: And Mitch McConnell and likely Speaker, John Boehner, may not have a choice. There could be a lot of - or a significant number of new Tea Party members there, who owe their allegiance, not to Boehner and not to McConnell, but to these Tea Party folks out there who are just angry at the Republican and Democratic party establishments.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin, our political editor. Thanks very much for coming in.

RUDIN: Thank you, Steve.

KELLY: And thanks also, to Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And in this final week before the election, we've also been reading the comments at NPR.org.

KELLY: Lots of you have been weighing in on our stories on the Constitution, on FBI surveillance, on labor unions, on the future of the Tea Party and lots more.

INSKEEP: And what that means is, all this week, some of our millions of liberal listeners have been talking with some of our millions of conservative listeners, as well as many others hard to classify.

KELLY: NPR.org is one of many ways where you can talk to each other. You'll also find us on Facebook and on Twitter. We're at MORNING EDITION and at NPRinskeep. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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