Congressional Races Heat Up As Election Draws Near

The national spotlight is on the presidential race, but there are also heated congressional races underway across the country. NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin discusse the key races, along with political science professor Paula McClain, including the North Carolina senate race between incumbent Rep. Elizabeth Dole and Democratic contender Kay Hagan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we all know that racism is wrong. But could it also be a mental illness and how is the current presidential campaign affecting the mental health of people with racial anxieties? We'll ask some people who have actually studied these very interesting questions.

But first, with so much attention on the battle between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, it may seem that the only race is the one for the White House. But there are a number of important Senate and House contests, as well. And if Democrats gain ground, as some polls predict they will, it could create a dramatically different playing field for the next president.

Joining me now to talk about key Senate and House contests is NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, and also with us, Duke University Political Science Professor Paula McClain. She's here to talk about one of the hot Senate races in North Carolina. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Michel.

PAULA MCCLAIN: Hi, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you. OK, Ken, set the table for us. Let's talk first about the Senate races. How many seats are up for grabs and which are the ones to watch?

RUDIN: Well, there are 35 seats up for grabs. Twenty-three of them are held by the Republicans, so by numbers alone - I know you didn't expect a math quiz here - but by numbers alone, it looks like the Republicans have far more to lose. Now the question is not whether the Republicans will lose seats because they will. The question is whether the Democrats gain 10 seats or nine seats to get them to the magic 60, and if they do that, it becomes a filibuster-proof majority where they could put through a legislative agenda, judicial appointments, things like that. So there's no question that the Democrats will gain. The question is whether the Republicans can keep it to under a 60-seat total for the Democrats.

MARTIN: And which are some of the races that you're keeping your eye on?

RUDIN: Well, some of them are already lost by the Republicans. Virginia, where John Warner is retiring, and Mark Warner has had a 30-point lead over Jim Gilmore. Both are former governors. Mark Warner has a big national attention, possible leadership role. Virginia's gone. New Mexico is gone for the Republicans, where Pete Domenici is retiring. Colorado, where Wayne Allard is retiring, Mark Yudof is going to win that seat. And in New Hampshire, Jean Shaheen, the Democrat, is facing Republican incumbent John Sununu. The Democrats have held the lead in that race for months. So it looks like those four seats are clear.

Now, there are some to watch. For example, Minnesota Norm Coleman and Al Franken are running even. In Oregon, Gordon Smith is running even with his Democratic opponent, Jeff Merkley. North Carolina, which is such a Republican state, Liddy Dole is trailing in both polls with her Democratic opponent, Kay Hagan. Now there's also - you also have prospective Ted Stevens. We're watching his trial. He's up - he's indicted on conspiracy and ethics problems, and if he's found guilty that could end his tenure. He's the longest-serving Republican in the history of the Senate, but even with all his ethics problems the polls up in Alaska still show it even, and perhaps if Sarah Palin is helping anywhere in the country, she could help Ted Stevens in Alaska.

MARTIN: Professor McClain, let's dig in on that North Carolina Senate race that Ken was just telling us about between incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democratic contender Kay Hagan. What are the dynamics of this race and have they changed over time?

MCCLAIN: I think they have changed over time, and what has happened, as Elizabeth Dole finds herself behind...

MARTIN: Professor McClain?

MCCLAIN: I'm sorry. Yes, I'm here. I'm here. I'm sorry. I said Elizabeth Dole finds herself behind for some issues that are related to her but other issues that are related to the broader political...

MARTIN: Because...

MCCLAIN: Scene at this point in time.

MARTIN: You know, this was one of those races that people saw what was - we call it the Palin effect, immediately after the Republican Convention - I'm sorry, after the selection of Sarah Palin. The base was energized, as it were. Did you see the Palin effect there and what has happened to it now?

MCCLAIN: Well, the - yes, there was some of the Palin effect to energize the base, but North Carolina, demographically, has changed significantly and has changed even since Elizabeth Dole was elected in 2002. And Elizabeth Dole did some things that didn't leave her in good stead with the electorate in North Carolina. Like in 2006, she was only in the state 13 days. That doesn't sit well with the North Carolinians, and Kay Hagan has been benefiting from the Obama ground organization in North Carolina.

MARTIN: And Kay Hagan, as I understand it, she's in her fifth term in the state Senate, but was she well known to begin with? What were her perceived advantages or is it mainly, sort of, the Obama groundswell?

MCCLAIN: No. She was really unknown statewide. In fact, it was very difficult for the Democrats to find anyone to run against Elizabeth Dole because the perception was that Dole in this state was going to be re-elected in a walk. But Hagan has, you know, because of the Obama swell, the Obama ground organization and several key commercials that the Democratic Senatorial Election Committee have run in the state, have put Elizabeth Dole down in a situation which she never thought she would be before. Plus the increases in registration this time around, plus the presence of early voting, I think have all worked against Elizabeth Dole.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about Senate and House races with Duke University Political Science Professor Paula McClain and NPR political editor Ken Rudin. Ken, you've been following this North Carolina race also. What's your take on it?

RUDIN: Well, Professor McClain is exactly right in the fact that Liddy Dole has been really almost an invisible senator in her six years, but more importantly, I think, as Republican portions have turned downwards because of the economic situation, Elizabeth Dole's has as well. And one reason, she's on the Senate Banking Committee, and if there's a focus of ire among voters about what's going on, it's folks who happen to be - to their misfortune - to be on the banking committee. And Elizabeth Dole has not, I don't think, sold herself well to the voters there.

But plus the fact that many Republicans, even, feel that Elizabeth Dole has not been an aggressive senator. She's certainly no Jesse Helms. Of course, that's good and bad, but I think she has not been visible, and as Professor McClain says, she's almost been invisible, and Republicans, I think, would be happy to get a better Republican there for the next six years.

MARTIN: Well then, why then were the Democrats having trouble recruiting somebody to run against her?

RUDIN: That's the irony. I mean, sometimes - remember in 1992 when President Bush, right after the first - the Gulf War, the first President Bush, so many Democrats - Al Gore, Dick Gephardt - said they are not running for president, and some unknown Arkansas governor said, sure, I'll do it. And as it turned out, when their economy went sour, it was good news for the Democrats. So sometimes, you know, both parties realize that it's good to have good candidates even in an uncomfortable political climate because things can change in a hurry, and that's certainly the case with the economic downturn.

MARTIN: Professor McClain, you mentioned that there's expected to be high-voter turnout, in part because of the ground organization that Senator Obama has put together, and I would assume the enthusiasm - one would assume that there's also an anticipated high African-American-voter turnout. How is that affecting the dynamic of the Senate race?

MCCLAIN: Well, I think it is going to have an effect, and what we see in terms of early voting is that about - so far, about 1.1 million people have voted early and about 28 percent of those early voters have been black. Now there's a unique feature to North Carolina's early voting, and during the early voting period one can show up at the polls, register to vote and vote. Once the early-voting period is gone, then you have to be a registered voter, as such, to go in on November 4th.

So essentially, with the Obama ground organization, they can turn people out who might not have been registered in the previous thing but in early voting can walk in, register to vote and vote. So given the differences in the McCain ground organization and the Obama ground organization in North Carolina, this really plays to the advantage of Kay Hagan.

MARTIN: And it's a real advantage for those first-time voters who may not...

MCCLAIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Be motivated to go twice, to go through sort of an administrative procedure twice. How are African-American voters are responding to Kay Hagan's candidacy? Is she considered a good candidate in these communities?

MCCLAIN: Well, that's really difficult to say because so much has been focused on Obama. And like I said, I think Hagan is benefiting from the strong Obama sense and the fact that the Democratic Party has done a lot of outreach to various black communities around the state to get support for the Democratic ticket. In North Carolina, after you vote for the president you can vote straight party ticket. So once you vote for the president, if they can get people just to circle that oval for the Democrats, that benefits the Democrats all the way down the line.

MARTIN: Ken, earlier in the year we talked about the fact that there are some - a special election in Mississippi, for example. The Republicans tried to link the Democratic nominee to Senator Barack Obama because he was perceived as a negative. It didn't work. How about in this race? Is Kay Hagan running with Obama or she kind of running apart from Obama?

RUDIN: Well, remember, you know, no Democratic presidential candidate has taken North Carolina since 1976, Jimmy Carter. Obviously some polls - many polls show that it's a very, very competitive race with even Obama up in some of them. So obviously, a lot of people are attributing it to the African-American turnout.

And you mentioned Mississippi and the special election early for Congress. The Senate race is one to look at, too. Roger Wicker is the appointed Republican incumbent in Mississippi, but the Democratic opponent, Ronnie Musgrove, has a tremendous amount of African-American support. No Democrat has won a Mississippi Senate seat since 1982. But again, the influx, the enthusiasm, the excitement among African-Americans could make a difference in Mississippi. Same with Georgia.

Saxby Chambliss, like Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Saxby Chambliss was thought to be cruising to re-election. Jim Martin is a Vietnam veteran who is benefiting by the Obama ground game and the influx of African-American voters, the excitement that we haven't seen in those two Southern states in a long time.

MARTIN: Are they running with Obama or are they running alongside Obama?

RUDIN: Well, you know, it's hard to say. Obviously, given the fact that they have - that the Obama camp has such a good, get-out-to-vote effort, such a strong organization, so much money in - you know, as Howard Dean would like to say, the 50-state strategy, that they can't help but be excited even if ideologically they may not be in tune with Barack Obama. But if they have a strong organization to latch on to, they'll sure take advantage of it.

MARTIN: All right. Can't wait to see how it all turns out. I know - it's just - it's hard to wait, isn't it? It's kind of hard to wait to watch the end of this movie, right?

RUDIN: And 2012 is coming right around the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: NPR's political editor Ken Rudin joined us from his home office. We were also pleased to be joined by Duke University Professor Paula McClain, who joined us from the University studios. I thank you both so much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.

MCCLAIN: Thank you, Michel.

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