LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I am Renee Montagne. Control of the Senate is the big topic in this midterm election. And how it shakes out, whether Republicans can take back the Senate from the Democrats, could have a lot to do with how much voters in 12 states approve or disapprove of the president. So let's go to a key finding of a new poll by the Bipartisan Team that sampled likely voters for NPR in the past week. It finds President Obama's approval rating in states with competitive Senate races is lower than it is nationally, only 4 percent lower in those battleground states. But even that is a positive for Republicans. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, has more.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: This year's Senate battleground, the dozen races that will determine which party controls the Senate next year, is hospitable terrain for Republicans and a daunting challenge for Democrats, says Whit Ayres of Resurgent Republic. He is a Republican half of our polling team.
WHIT AYRES: Voters in these states disapprove of the job Barack Obama has done. They trust Republicans more on the economy, on health care and especially on foreign affairs. And that is a huge load for these Democratic candidates to carry all the way through the fall.
LIASSON: President Obama's job approval rating, in these states, is 38 percent. When our likely voters were asked if the election were held today, would they vote for the Rebulican or the Democrat? The generic Republican wins by three points. Yet, that's is not as bad as it could be, says Democracy Corps's Stan Greenberg, the Democratic half of the NPR poll.
STAN GREENBERG: You have to be hard-headed, you know, about where this race is. And we know we're dealing with states, where Romney carried them, but when you go to the actual race, who you're actually voting, the Republicans a three point advantage.
LIASSON: As in only three points. That's still a big plus for the GOP, given that this generic ballot question, historically, tends to exaggerate Democrats' strengths. But, Greenberg says, the numbers show how resilient Democratic candidates are in a Republican environment.
GREENBERG: We've already had lots of attack ads, massive advertising on Obamacare, the so-called killer issue. And these people are still standing.
LIASSON: Our poll also found to be unique to these battleground states, enthusiasm about the election is high across the board. In most national polls this year, Republicans have been much more engaged in the campaign than Democrats. Stan Greenberg.
GREENBERG: What is happening now, in the battleground in the Senate, is that all of the attentions, with all of the advertising, the partisans of both sides are showing equal interest in the race. That is very good news for Democrats 'cause that's one of the big, off-year advantages that Republicans usually bring to this.
AYRES: Well, I think Stan's right. But even with equal enthusiasm, Republicans still hold a generic advantage and President Obama is still remarkably unpopular.
LIASSON: President Obama is unpopular. But he's actually less unpopular than any other elements of Washington leadership. The Democratic Senate, the Republican House and individuals, like Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid, all score lower than the president. Stan Greenberg.
GREENBERG: In these mostly Republican battleground states, on every measure you look at, the Republican Party is less popular. And so there has to be a reason why the Democrats are doing better than you would expect.
LIASSON: But, says Whit Ayres, in a midterm election, the president is a more important factor and the biggest anchor weighing down Democrats.
AYRES: The Republican leaders in the House are not on the ballot in Senate races in battleground states. But the president always looms over midterm elections. That is the relationship that is most relevant in these battleground states, not the unpopularity of Republican leadership.
LIASSON: Arkansas is a pretty good example of the dynamics at work in the battleground this year. House Republican Tom Cotton is trying to defeat incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Cotton is a favorite of Conservatives and a reliable backer of the House Republican agenda. He's also an Iraq War veteran and a Harvard grad. But likely voter Gene Hoover, a veteran himself, is not going to vote for him. Why?
GENE HOOVER: He's a man who runs off to Harvard. He's clearly in tune with student loans for himself, but not for other people's children. He voted against the Farm Bill. He votes against Tornado Relief. He's a veteran. I'm a veteran. I retired from the Army. But he doesn't share my interests.
LIASSON: On the other hand, there's Cassandra Bolen, also from Arkansas. She's the kind of voter Republicans are counting on this year.
CASSANDRA BOLEN: I'm an independent, but this election I'm tending to lean toward the Republicans. I feel like the federal overreach is just getting really out of control.
LIASSON: In our poll, Independents give the president a dismal 33 percent approval and Republicans an eight point advantage on the generic ballot. Cassandra Bolen says her main issue is health care.
BOLEN: The Affordable Health Care Act is forcing people to have health coverage. You know, everybody is forced to have something that they may or may not need. And I think that is very unconstitutional.
LIASSON: The full results of our Senate Battleground poll can be seen at NPR.org. We'll be checking back in the fall to see if the dynamics change in these 12 races that will determine who controls the Senate in 2015. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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