As Biden's Approval Rating Dips, Republicans Sharpen Their Message For The Midterms : The NPR Politics Podcast The GOP has a good shot at taking at least one if not both chambers of Congress in next year's midterm elections. And they are already sharpening their message by focusing on the economy.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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As Biden's Approval Rating Dips, Republicans Sharpen Their Message For The Midterms

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BRIAN JAMES: Hi, this is Brian James (ph) from Dallas, Texas. I am currently driving a combine on my parents' farm in Alberta, Canada, helping finish the harvest. This is my first time being home in over two years. This podcast was recorded at...


2:05 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, September 20.

JAMES: By the time you hear this, things may have changed. Enjoy the show.


DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: He got right to work.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: That is extremely awesome. I think that's the first combine call we've ever gotten.

KHALID: I think so (laughter). Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And today on the show, we're going to talk about Republican strategy for the midterms. I know it seems like a long time into the future, but campaigning and election strategizing is already underway.

But first, we have a bit of bad news for Democrats. Last night, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that Democrats cannot create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by adding this to this massive reconciliation bill that they've been working on. Deirdre, explain this decision to us.

WALSH: This was definitely a big setback for Democrats on Capitol Hill. So the process they're using to pass this massive spending bill is called budget reconciliation. And under that process, there are limits to what can be included in a bill. They're using this process to get around a Republican filibuster and pass a bill just with a simple majority in the Senate.

They wanted to include immigration as a part of this big package, and they argued that it would have an impact on the budget. But the Senate parliamentarian - her name is Elizabeth MacDonough - she is actually a former immigration attorney.


WALSH: She is a nonpartisan arbiter of the Senate rules, and she ruled that this proposal from Democrats to provide this path to citizenship for roughly 8 million undocumented immigrants had an impact way beyond the budget and it was outside of the rules for budget reconciliation. So they're not allowed to include it.

LIASSON: Now what (laughter)? What do they do? Do they have a fallback plan, Democrats?

WALSH: Well, the two top Senate Democrats last night, Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and Dick Durbin, the Senate judiciary chair, who's really been focused on immigration for decades, say that they are working on some sort of backup plan. But it's hard to see how they're going to be able to scale something back that would be significant that the parliamentarian would accept. We're waiting to see what they propose, but it seems kind of like a long shot.

And I will say, I think that the parliamentarian essentially did Democrats a political favor. I mean, as we all know, immigration reform is an extremely contentious issue, and a lot of moderate Democrats were probably relieved to not have to talk about this issue heading into the midterm elections and not have to vote on it.

KHALID: So speaking of the midterms - and I know that a lot of y'all are thinking that's a year from now, that we all should chill, there's a lot of other topics to talk about. The reason I want us to talk about it today is that, you know, Deirdre, you have done some really good reporting about how Republicans have already begun strategizing, of what they're going to do, in part because they think they have a good chance to take one or maybe both chambers. Democrats have really thin margins in the House and the Senate, and history tells us that usually the president's party loses seats in the midterms.

You know, we were talking about immigration. I will say immigration was a huge messaging factor for Republicans in 2018 in the midterms. It does not appear that that is the GOP's main focus this time around.

WALSH: Yeah, I don't think it will be the main focus. I mean, they're saying - you know, the border as an issue is one issue in sort of the basket...


WALSH: ...Of issues. They think border and security issues will be things that they will talk about in certain districts. But far and away, Republican campaign officials and operatives I talked to say they see the economy and specifically inflation as the factor that they think rises to the top in districts across the country.

They think that President Biden and Democrats campaigned in 2020 to getting the economy back on track, to getting past the pandemic, and that's not happening. They think that it's the top issue where voters will feel a sense of essentially sort of buyer's remorse for giving the Democrats control of both the White House and Congress.

LIASSON: The interesting thing about inflation - we have seen prices rise for certain goods. Overall, we're not seeing runaway inflation. But inflation is something that's very psychological. If people feel prices are rising, regardless of what the economic data says, they're going to feel worried about it. That can in itself cause inflation. So I think that the Republicans are probably onto something there.

But it's also important to remember how tied together the economy and COVID are. That's why President Biden has been focusing so much on trying to get everybody vaccinated. Because if COVID isn't under control, the economy can't open. And that is the thing that he's - the White House is most worried about.

KHALID: You know, I do wonder, though, how much something like the economy as a standalone factor really matters to people, or is it, like, indicative of how they feel about President Biden overall? And the reason I say this is in 2018, I did some reporting on the, you know, at that time, relatively positive economic conditions in the country, how that might affect President Trump and Republicans in 2018. And there was this political scientist I talked to at Emory who had studied all these midterms dating all the way back to World War II. And he told me it wasn't necessarily the health of the economy. He found that approval ratings of a president were a far better predictor of what was going to happen in a midterm election.


KHALID: Do you feel like the economy is a factor of just overall how people feel about the president?

LIASSON: Well, look. The president's approval rating is a very good indicator of how well or poorly his party is going to do in the midterms. The economy gets factored into that approval rating. What we did see during Trump - when the economy was good, it still didn't save him or his party from taking a real drubbing in the 2018 midterms.

So we're so tribal now that a lot of factors that used to determine the results of midterm elections just don't anymore. Now it's all about motivating your base to turn out. And I think that's why you see Biden taking what is for him pretty divisive approach about vaccines. He's going to that us versus them playbook saying we've got the vaccinated majority, and the economy and schools are being held up by the unvaccinated, selfish minority.

KHALID: But, you know, you mentioned approval ratings, and we have seen the president's approval ratings take a dip in recent weeks.

LIASSON: Oh, definitely. He's under 50. He's in the high 40s, which isn't a good place for a president.

WALSH: And that is definitely something that these Republicans I've been talking to said really puts them in a much better position. I mean, they are feeling very confident that they are in striking distance of retaking the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate. And if you listen to the messaging, it's Biden's economy, Biden's economy. I mean, a lot of the policies that Biden and congressional Democrats passed as part of the American Rescue Plan were popular. But there hasn't been a lot of linkage from voters to the president sort of giving him credit or giving Democrats on the Hill credit for some of those policies. And Republicans see an opening there.

And if you listen to Mitch McConnell, I mean, he was - did a Fox News Radio interview and was asked about a state poll about a possible Republican challenger running against a Democratic incumbent in the poll. And he basically was like, I don't care about that poll. It's all about President Biden's approval ratings. And here's what he said about them.


MITCH MCCONNELL: We all know that next year will be a referendum on how you feel about this administration. Presidential approval is the coin of the realm in these off-year elections two years into a new administration.

LIASSON: That's certainly what Mitch McConnell is hoping, but remember what just happened in California. Recalls are really a referendum on the incumbent. That's the whole point of a recall election. But Gov. Newsom managed to change that referendum into a choice election between him and a very Trumpist Republican, Larry Elder.

So I think Democrats are hoping that instead of being a referendum on the incumbent's - on the president's party, they can make the midterms into a choice between Trumpist Republicans who want to get back into power and the things they're doing to open the economy.

KHALID: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, a look at some of the other key political issues that could tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C.

And we're back. Let's focus now on some of the other big factors heading into 2022. To me, the really sort of huge wildcard here is President Trump. You know, most presidential candidates who lose an election kind of fade into the backdrop. The losers are not necessarily in play in the next midterms.

But President Trump feels like such an X-factor. You know, there are questions about will he campaign? Who will he campaign for? Will he say something outlandish that'll make the evening news? Will he announce he's running for president again before the midterms (laughter)? And Deirdre, how much are you hearing from Republicans about the former president and what role, if any, he might play in these midterms?

WALSH: The Republicans I talked to said it's really unclear how active Trump will be in specific races. They say his policies are popular, and so the candidates talking about the same types of policies as Trump are expected to be a big part of the debate in the midterms. They don't think that he's going to travel to a lot of races, but they think he can raise a lot of money, help motivate the base for Republicans.

But I think, you know, the one thing they're not saying, I think, is that in a lot of the places that are competitive districts where there are suburban voters that were turned off by Trump in 2020, you know, will they still have a negative opinion of him? Will they still be thinking about him and his impact on the party in the midterm election? I mean, their argument is, in 2020, a lot of House Republicans did well and they picked up seats in an election they were expected to lose. So they think that voters can distinguish between former President Trump and a Republican candidate on the ballot.

LIASSON: You know, I agree with that. But one other thing to watch for is Donald Trump's clout inside the Republican Party. When Donald Trump endorses a primary candidate, that's a really big thing. And just last week, you saw Anthony Gonzalez, who was a kind of rising star Ohio Republican congressman, he's going to leave Congress after his term is over. He was one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted to impeach President Trump, and Trump had anointed a kind of pro-Trump primary challenger to Gonzalez. And, you know, he just threw in the towel.

And what's interesting about that is whether - I think Trump has big sway in Republican primaries when he endorses a candidate. But if those candidates win the primaries, will they be the best general election candidates? We don't know that yet.

KHALID: Perhaps one of the most important unknowns in the 2020 midterm elections are the congressional redistricting maps. And we still don't know how those maps are going to be redrawn after the census.

LIASSON: Well, we know something (laughter). And we know they're going to favor Republicans. It's not a complete unknown. As a matter of fact, even before Afghanistan, before delta, I don't think I've ever seen an out party be so confident of their ability to get the majority back in the House, mostly because they only needed five seats and they knew that they could pick most of those up just through redrawing district lines in the states where they have complete control over the redistricting process.

WALSH: I mean, I think the Republicans that I talked to were trying to dampen expectations that they could win control just based on redistricting. I think that there were a lot of people out there that were raising, you know, just the sheer numbers of seats that they could pick up. And I think that they don't want to sound sort of overconfident after seeing how - some states, there's a lot of uncertainty. And there's a lot of states where there could be legal challenges.

And a lot of candidates don't even know what districts they're going to be running in yet. So I think that sort of makes it harder for them to figure out sort of who the best candidates are and where they should focus their resources because they just don't even know how many competitive districts are going to be the ones on their top-tier target list.


KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. We'll be back in your feeds again tomorrow.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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