TINA KWAN: Hi. This is Tina from Las Vegas, and I just finished my focus group with Susan Davis from the NPR POLITICS POD.
KELSEY SNELL, HOST:
KWAN: This episode was recorded at...
SNELL: 1:44 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15.
KWAN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be riding my NPR cloud nine. OK. Here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
SNELL: Sue, you're out there influencing the groups.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Man, it's like an out-of-body experience to have a...
DAVIS: ...From someone I talked to in a podcast we're going to talk about. I don't know. There's layers here.
SNELL: NPR POLITICS PODCAST in session over here.
DAVIS: We're everywhere.
SNELL: Yeah (laughter). Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.
BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: And I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.
SNELL: So yesterday was a big primary day throughout the country. Races in Nevada, South Carolina were the standouts. But before we head to Nevada, let's talk briefly about South Carolina. Tom Rice, an incumbent Republican congressman, who was one of the 10 to vote to impeach then-President Trump after the January 6 insurrection, was defeated handily. Another member of Congress, Nancy Mace, drew Trump's ire, but she managed to eke out a win. Sue, these two races featured really different incumbents, both disliked by the Trump wing of the party. So what does it tell us that one survived and the other one didn't?
DAVIS: Well, one of the things to consider, and the shortest answer, is that Rice's district is just Trumpy-er (ph). You know, it's more rural. It's less educated. And Rice really just never backed away from his impeachment vote. He defended it. He said it was the right thing to do. He knew the stakes of continuing to campaign that way, and he never apologized. Mace ran a very different race. She did not vote to impeach Donald Trump, but she was a critic of him. But in the months, and now years, since, she has worked very hard to get back in the good graces of Trump voters, of the president himself. So they ran very different campaigns. I'd also say on a candidate level, the candidate who beat Tom Rice was probably a better candidate than the candidate who did not beat Nancy Mace. So it does prove that there is a path to being a critic of Donald Trump and surviving. You just have to choose to walk that path. And Tom Rice chose differently.
SNELL: And that congressional district politics can be really complicated, and you can't always replicate them over and over in different places.
SNELL: So we're going to shift gears, and we're going to get to our main focus, and that is Asian American and Pacific Islanders, so AAPI, voters. They're growing rapidly across the country. And one place where that growth is especially notable is in Nevada. So the AAPI population is the fastest growing in that state, and the state itself has become important for Democrats and Republicans. So, Sue and Barbara, you were just there talking to voters.
SNELL: Nevada held their primary yesterday, and we should say Democratic incumbents running for reelection in the Senate and governor's races won handily. On the Republican side, Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general from a prominent political family, who has the backing of former President Trump, will face Catherine Cortez Masto in the Senate race. She's the sitting Democrat right now. And Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, another Trump-backed candidate, won the GOP gubernatorial primary. He will face the sitting governor, Steve Sisolak, a Democrat. Sue, were there any themes in the issues you were hearing from voters going into that primary?
DAVIS: Well, I think it's obvious that voters all over the country have the economy at the top of their minds of concerns. I mean, people are feeling it in their everyday lives, and that was really prominent. I just want to back up a second, though, and talk about why we wanted to go to Nevada. As you noted, Kelsey, I mean, this is a demographic that is growing in influence across the country. I'd like to say it's small but mighty. And one of the things we saw, particularly in the last presidential election, is that AAPI participation in elections was one of the biggest jumps in the electorate. And the reason why I wanted to go to Nevada there is, as you said, it's the fastest growing demographic in the state. But in Nevada, these races - governors' races, senators' races - if you know the state, these are races that are almost always decided by 1, 2, 3 percentage points. You win and lose in Nevada by really tight margins. So when you're talking about a group that is now about 8% of the electorate, they can have a really potent effect in statewide races, or in all races. And that was a point that Eric Jeng, who's an activist there, told us when we spoke to him.
ERIC JENG: If you asked me right now for the midterm election, I honestly don't know who will win. But I do see both sides doing a lot more events, doing outreach. And I like that. I like that no one is taking the Asian vote for granted.
DAVIS: Now, he made the point that, historically, the Asian vote in Nevada has broken about 2 to 1 for Democrats, but that's shifting and evolving, especially as more and more people are moving into the state.
SPRUNT: Yeah. And I mean, Eric talked to us about how the county GOP is taking a much more active role right now in trying to court that AAPI vote, so taking out ads in different local Chinese papers, for example. The RNC, in May, opened an Asian Pacific American Community Center in Vegas. And actually, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman, came down to the opening, and she said something along the lines of, listen; Democrats have taken this vote, this demographic, for granted, and it's time for us Republicans to show up.
DAVIS: So we assembled a group of five AAPI voters, and we just wanted to talk to them about the issues that were on their mind. And like I said, economy - huge issue. Here's a couple of the voters we talked to. This was MC and Ash.
MC BALICANTA: But now all the prices, it goes up - the rent, the gas, all the groceries. And I have two children. My oldest is here with me, so we're just renting at my coworker's house, just two bedroom. It's really hard to, like, you know, put aside money that you wanted to buy a house in the future.
ASH MIRCHANDANI: For me, the biggest thing is how do I retain my staff, and how do I pay them what they need to be paid or what they expect to be paid? I have a restaurant, and my food cost has gone up 30%, 40%. I can't raise my prices 40%. Nobody's going to buy it. So how do I sustain? I think if we don't do anything quickly, there's going to be a lot of small businesses going out of business.
DAVIS: I thought that was interesting just 'cause you hear the crunch from both sides, right? Like, you hear it from the worker, and you hear it from the employer that now is just a tough time.
SNELL: Right. And economic concerns, like inflation or gas prices or wages or any of the things that we heard from them about running a business, are all big, national-scale issues. But Nevada's pretty unique in how huge tourism is to the broader economy there. So how does that kind of play into the way voters you talked to are looking at politics?
DAVIS: Well, I think that's a good question. I mean, when you think about the local workforce - and we went to Las Vegas because most of the AAPI population is centered around Las Vegas, and Las Vegas is the tourism and hospitality industry. One of the things that was interesting, MC, that woman you just heard, she's a member of the Culinary Workers Union. And if you've ever paid attention to Nevada politics...
DAVIS: ...You know that they're just a powerhouse.
DAVIS: They have about 60,000 members in the state. The union is very good at getting their members to show up and vote in elections. And I confirmed this with the union, but their population is now about 15% AAPI. And even before and after we were talking to these voters, MC had been with other union workers, door-knocking ahead of the Tuesday primary. So I do think there's a big overlap in sort of the hospitality worker in turnout and enthusiasm, partly because of the very well-organized union structure there that can tend to get people to show up to the polls.
SNELL: Tourism kind of has a long reach into people's lives, right? It's not just about whether or not the casinos are doing well. It's about the employees and how they interact with the economy, how they live their lives in the state, not just the people coming in.
SPRUNT: Right. And, you know, one other thing here is, like, obviously the pocketbook issues that Sue described - gas, groceries, all the things that inflation touches - everyone, you know, everyone talked about, everyone felt. But another thing that came up, Kelsey, was housing affordability.
SPRUNT: And so one of the people that we spoke with, Brian Almero, he's actually in the real estate and mortgage industry. And he said it's just become really difficult for locals to purchase homes, to save to purchase homes and even to rent because rent itself has gone up a lot in various places in the Vegas community.
SNELL: Your conversations came after gun violence in the U.S. was really in the spotlight again with shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. Las Vegas, of course, was the site of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. So what did you hear from voters about their attitudes about guns?
DAVIS: You know, I asked them about this, and I actually asked them about what had been - what, at the time, Congress had been talking about negotiating. This was before they had announced the bipartisan framework on the Hill. And I said, hey, they're looking at doing, you know, tougher red flag laws, background checks. And all five of them said, yes, absolutely. That would be great. We would like it if Congress did that. But when you get sort of into their own personal views about guns, there is definitely some differences. And I think it fell pretty sharply along gender lines, which we've seen true among lots of demographics.
SNELL: Well, we're going to talk more about what Congress is actually doing on guns in just a minute here. Barbara, thank you so much for your reporting. Thanks for being here.
SPRUNT: Oh, thank you for having me.
SNELL: And, Sue, stick around 'cause we're going to take a break and come back and talk about what's happening with Congress and guns.
And we're back. And with us now is Juana Summers. Hi, Juana.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.
SNELL: So we're going to continue talking about guns now. And, Sue, the Senate seems to be trying to move quickly to pass some kind of gun legislation, maybe even before the 4th of July. But what they're talking about is a lot weaker than what President Biden is asking for. And it doesn't include some broadly popular proposal, like an assault weapons ban and universal background checks. So why is something this limited getting so much support and attention?
DAVIS: Well, if it can come together, it would be the first gun-related legislation basically of any kind to pass Congress in a generation. But I think on the whole, there was also a lot more appetite among Republicans to show that, like, there is perhaps some more common ground on this than a lot of times the dialogue around it would have people believe.
SNELL: And that Republican support includes at least 10, potentially 11 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at this point. So that's enough if all the Democrats stick together to potentially get around a filibuster, which is a big deal.
DAVIS: Which is a big deal. And let's caution here; there's no bill yet.
DAVIS: You know, they put out a statement saying, look; we have top lines that we've agreed to and 10 Republicans on board in theory. But actually putting this into legislative text and negotiating all the legal ins and outs is still pretty complicated. I don't want to be predictive. I can't say for certain this is going to become law, but this is probably as close as Congress has come to getting to a law then in the past 20, 25 years.
SNELL: Juana, we mentioned that advocates were signing on to the concepts in this framework, but these are people advocating for stricter gun measures, by and large. How are they feeling about this in the broader picture?
SUMMERS: Yeah. Kelsey, I think Sue was absolutely right. They point out that this is a great first step, but it shouldn't be the only step. I think about the statement that came out from the organization March for Our Lives that was born out after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. David Hogg, who was a student during that massacre, said that in a less broken society - and I'm paraphrasing here - Congress should be able to do more, but that this bill is worth fighting for if even one life is saved. And he went on to say that this should be the beginning and not the end of Congress's work.
And I think that really well encapsulates what I've heard from a host of advocates who have worked tirelessly on this issue, many of whom are survivors of mass shootings in this country, many of whom have been personally affected by other sorts of gun violence that plague everyday communities. They think this is a good step because Congress has not been able to pass significant gun safety measures in more than three decades, but they do acknowledge that this is far more tepid than they would have hoped for but that the logjam that the three of us have all covered on Capitol Hill would likely not permit any stricter regulations to actually become law. So they're kind of taking what they can get and then planning to push on if Democrats are able to add to their numbers in the midterms.
SNELL: So, Sue, with all of that in mind, why now? Why is this moment so much different than every moment before?
DAVIS: I mean, I think in some ways it's just the cumulative effect of mass shootings in the country. And I think the frustration grew and grew and grew. I do think the grassroots has changed, as Juana noted. You know, a decade ago, a lot of these groups didn't even exist. The organization and the mobilization is much better for people that want tougher gun laws. And frankly, public opinion - at a certain point, it doesn't behoove any lawmaker to be against things that have 60, 70% support. And the stuff in this bill, getting 10 Republicans on board kind of tells you it's not that controversial. And it could really, truly, if enacted, save lives. I mean, it would do things like enhance red flag laws. It could expand the background check system and close something called the boyfriend loophole that would expand the definition of people who could not have access to weapons if they were ever convicted of domestic abuse. I mean, that could save lives.
SNELL: All right, Sue, you and I are going to continue following this until it reaches whatever conclusion it comes to. But, Juana, you will be moving on to new and exciting things. I'm very excited to be able to be the one who says, goodbye, Juana. You're leaving us to go host All Things Considered.
SUMMERS: I am. I'm really sad to be leaving everyone at the Washington desk, which has been my home two different times in the last 10 years. But I'm really excited to get to hopefully keep talking with you and Sue and Barbara and everybody else in new and different ways on the show when I start later this month.
SNELL: Well, we're going to miss you, but we're very excited.
DAVIS: We'll miss you. Congratulations.
SUMMERS: Thanks, friends. I will miss you both and everybody on the desk just a whole bunch.
SNELL: Well, we will be back tomorrow. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.
SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. And for one more day, I cover politics and racial justice.
SNELL: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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