SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Susan Davis from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. The news is out. We're finally going back on the road. And Houston, we're heading your way very soon. Join me, Asma Khalid, Tamara Keith, Domenico Montanaro and Ashley Lopez at Zilkha Hall on Thursday, September 15. You can find more information about tickets, including discounted student ones, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Houston Public Media. We hope to see you there.
LIAM CARNAHAN: Hi. I'm Liam Carnahan (ph), and I'm calling you from just outside Buckingham Palace, where hundreds of people have gathered to pay their respects to the queen. In the background, you can hear the gun salute. This podcast was recorded at...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
On the scene - 1:09 p.m. on Friday, the 9 of September.
CARNAHAN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it.
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CARNAHAN: Enjoy the show.
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DAVIS: That is very cool.
KEITH: Can we note that our big boss went to London to go on vacation this week, and, of course, wherever he goes, there's big, breaking news (laughter).
DAVIS: News breaks.
KEITH: Sometimes you just can't escape it in this field. Oh, well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
KEITH: And today we're going to talk about Colorado. Republicans are looking to the Rocky Mountain State to pull an upset in their campaign to flip control of the Senate. GOP leaders hope that their nominee in Colorado, a construction company CEO named Joe O'Dea, can flip the blue state red. And Deirdre, he is a rare Republican nominee this cycle. He's someone who affirms that President Biden won the 2020 election. He thinks that someone other than Donald Trump should lead the party in 2024. Tell us about him.
WALSH: He's very different from basically all the other Republican nominees running in the sort of 10 to 12 Senate races that we sort of see as competitive this cycle. As you said, he believes that Biden was elected the president. Unlike the rest of the Republican nominees in those competitive races, O'Dea has not been endorsed by Donald Trump. He doesn't want Trump's endorsement. He doesn't really even really want to talk about Trump. As you said, he said he doesn't think he should run in 2024. He talked about campaigning for people like Mike Pompeo or Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley. He really wants the party to go in a different direction. Colorado has been trending pretty blue, but O'Dea is positioning himself as a moderate.
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JOE O'DEA: On the whole, we got to get rid of this partisanship that's just keeping us from putting good policies in place that move America forward. And that's why I'm running. I'm independent-minded. I am a conservative, but at the same time, we've got to do what's right for Colorado, what's right for America.
KEITH: I mean, like, to be clear, at this point Colorado is barely a purple state. It has been consistently pretty blue. It has gone Democratic, has a Democratic governor. It has Democratic senators.
WALSH: Right. But Michael Bennet, who is running for his third term as the Democratic senator from Colorado, has been in tight races every time he's run. So while the state is blue, mostly, some of the statewide races have been competitive. And, you know, I think Democrats are taking this race seriously. They believe Bennet is well ahead. They believe he's positioned well because he has a lot more money than O'Dea. But, you know, I still think that they understand that he's got to get out there and talk to people because people are still pretty worried about things like an inflation. And that's basically the No. 1 issue O'Dea talks about.
DAVIS: I wonder how much of an impact it is. You know, when I think about this race, Michael Bennet isn't a super-entrenched incumbent. He doesn't have a super-high-wattage personality. I feel like a lot of Colorado voters are still getting to know him. It seems like it's sort of generic Democrat versus generic Republican. And Colorado might be a pretty good bellwether in that sense of how voters, especially independent voters, are going to break this cycle.
WALSH: Right. I mean - and I think Bennet is making his case that his party has delivered for the state, and he's lining up all the recent accomplishments that happened just right before he went home for recess, things like the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act, things that he believe will help boost the economy. He admitted, as he's been traveling around the state in August with O'Dea, that inflation is the No. 1 issue that he's hearing from people about. But Bennet is also pushing back hard at the idea that Joe O'Dea is a moderate.
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MICHAEL BENNET: He's the nominee of the Republican Party here in Colorado. And he says that Trump bears no responsibility for what happened on January 6. That should be disqualifying - to say nothing of his position on Roe v. Wade, to say nothing of, you know, his position on the trickle-down economics that have made Colorado and so many places in this country unaffordable for working people.
KEITH: Sue, I want to go back to something you said, which is that O'Dea is a generic Republican; Bennet is a generic Democrat. O'Dea is a generic Republican of...
DAVIS: A different era.
KEITH: Yes. He's not a generic Republican of right now.
WALSH: In this cycle, you're right.
DAVIS: I know. He's like a unicorn right now. I mean, the fact that he doesn't deny the 2020 election results unto itself makes him a minority of Republican candidates, especially in higher-profile races. Most Republicans running in really competitive Senate races at least flirt with the idea that the election might be somewhat illegitimate. And to me, that's really fascinating. But he's an interesting candidate because, to me, for this state, he's a pretty good candidate, right?
DAVIS: Like Colorado - yes, it currently is Democratic. But this is a state that not long ago has had Republican governors, has had Republican senators. It's not - it is, in theory, still winnable if Republicans field candidates like this - independent, progressive on social issues, a little bit more fiscally conservative and kind of mainstream.
KEITH: But in so many of the other Senate races around the country, Republicans have not fielded traditional mainstream.
DAVIS: No, they have a candidate problem this cycle. They absolutely do. I mean, this is an environment that should be good for Republican candidates just by historical precedents, by how unpopular the president is. And a lot of their problems are self-inflicted. You have Republican candidates in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Georgia and Arizona that aren't performing in the way that the party would like them to. And a lot of it is driven by personality, that it's not about the issues; the personalities are the dominant factor. And Colorado is kind of interesting to me because the personalities (laughter)...
WALSH: Are not the issue.
DAVIS: ...Are not so interesting...
DAVIS: ...That the issues are actually more compelling.
WALSH: And that's why - right. And that's why Republican leaders feel like this is an opportunity for them because in places that they're underperforming, that Sue mentioned, they feel like this is a place to go on offense. If they can't go on offense in somewhere like Arizona to beat Mark Kelly...
WALSH: ...Because Blake Masters is the Republican nominee who's underperforming and pretty conservative...
DAVIS: Or extreme, you might say.
WALSH: Right - somebody like Joe O'Dea, who supports some abortion rights, who supports a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, who supports protections for DREAMers in a state that has a sizable Hispanic voting bloc, could be the second-largest voting bloc on Election Day, that's the kind of candidate who could have some crossover appeal. And I think the one issue I think that stuck out to me and Lexie Schapitl - our producer, who traveled there - was, you know, inflation is still pretty much the No. 1 issue, but abortion is a big factor in a state like Colorado. Over and over again, we were reminded by people that the state's history is the most progressive on the issue. There are basically no restrictions on abortion access. O'Dea supports abortion access for those up to five months.
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O'DEA: I believe the first five months, the mother has the choice. After that, there should be some exceptions - rape, incest, life of the mother.
WALSH: But the problem for O'Dea is people in Colorado are concerned about him potentially being a 51st vote for someone like a Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, if Republicans take control.
WALSH: And O'Dea has said he backed the Trump Supreme Court justices who did overturn Roe v Wade. And he said, I support conservative justice, but I disagreed with them on that decision. I think those types of issues are an opening for Democrats who want to sort of poke holes in the idea that he is moderate and say, no, he's not because look at these other conservative positions that he supports. So I think that's the issue in a lot of races that we're watching. But I think it could be a big issue in Colorado.
DAVIS: This is a race worth watching even if O'Dea loses because it will be curious to see how much he loses by. If he gets smoked by Bennet, I think it tells you that there's no room in this party for pro-choice, election-supporting, independent-minded Republicans. But, you know, if he gets 45, 46, 47, like, even though he might not be a senator, that kind of race might give certain factions of the Republican Party hope that that kind of candidate can still exist in the party and in a maybe a slightly more Republican state could win.
KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to keep watching that and some of these other states that you mentioned, Sue. But we are going to take a quick break for now. And when we get back, what's on the agenda for Congress - you know, the people that are in office now - before the midterms?
And we're back. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, Democrats in the Senate are planning now to vote on legislation to protect same-sex marriage and interracial marriage. Those are two other existing rights that the sort of legal framework for which rested on the same legal argument that Roe rested on. Sue, there is a big political calculus here to get Republicans on the record on these issues ahead of the midterms.
DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot going on here. And the first thing I'd say is this wasn't supposed to be on the Senate agenda. The Senate had no plan to take up legislation codifying the rights to gay and interracial marriage. But the House, you know, in a sort of symbolic vote or what they thought would be a symbolic vote, put this bill up in July before they went out for the summer break. And not only did it pass, but it passed with 47 Republicans, which in the House is a pretty big bipartisan vote these days. So it kind of changed the conversation on Capitol Hill. Like, you know, the party in power does - these kind of symbolic votes on tough issues happen all the time. People want to get people on the record. They want to campaign on it. But it became like, wait a minute, could we actually pass this in the Senate? Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer didn't have plans to put it on the schedule, but now it is because they've had this momentum and there is bipartisan support for it in the Senate.
Senator Rob Portman, who's a Republican from Ohio, who has become a supporter of gay rights after his son came out publicly several years ago, and Tammy Baldwin, who is an openly gay female senator from the state of Wisconsin - there are four hard yeses right now in favor of the bill among Republicans. That would be Portman, Murkowski, Collins and Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina. Four is nice, but as you well know, if you know the Senate, you need 10. So Baldwin and Portman are relatively confident that they can get at least that magic number of 10. Schumer said that they could start the process to bring this up in the Senate as early as next week. And we could know by the end of the month if Congress actually passes legislation to codify these rights and send it to Biden and, you know, potentially give Democrats another legislative win before the election.
WALSH: I think it's interesting that there's this universe of Senate Republicans that are holding off and won't say how they're going to vote.
WALSH: I mean, we - I think we expected they'll get there. But I think that they're - it's just a recognition that the politics on this issue have changed dramatically...
WALSH: ...Since the last time Congress has really dealt with this issue. I mean, you saw it in the House vote. People like Liz Cheney, a very conservative Republican who voted against the issue years ago, has a gay sister and changed her position and voted yes on it this time. There are lots of Republicans like that who've shifted on this issue, and it's a recognition that their constituents think that they should support this.
DAVIS: Yeah. And I - you know, gay marriage isn't as complicated as abortion as a social issue - just if you look at the polling. I mean, gay marriage is - the debate is largely settled in this country. Super majorities of the country believe that gay marriage should be legal including majorities of Republicans. It's not as controversial, but it is ahead of an election. And look, like, the resistance to gay marriage and acceptance of gay marriage largely resides in socially conservative religious groups, and they tend to be a base of the Republican Party. So, you know, you don't tend to want to annoy your base before an election. Even if you are publicly in support of that issue, you don't like reminding voters of these things.
We should also note there's no threat to gay marriage or interracial marriage right now, which has been one argument that Republicans are trying to fall back on, is, like, this procedural argument. But that's not flying with Democrats these days...
KEITH: Well, but...
DAVIS: ...'Cause that was the argument on other issues.
KEITH: But is there no threat? - because there was the Clarence Thomas opinion that was part of the Roe decision. But he had...
DAVIS: There is an academic threat, absolutely. But there is not active legislation moving through the states like there was with abortion that led up to the Dobbs decision. That's not happening in a parallel with gay and interracial marriage.
WALSH: I will say we don't see sort of, like, any official movement towards these things. But on our trip to Colorado, we did hear from one voter in Denver who was concerned about this. His name is Philip Cardenas. He's a gay man who runs a candy company out in Denver.
PHILIP CARDENAS: If it continues on the climate it's going, then it's possible that my legal marriage right now could not be legal except for in the state I'm from, which is - it's very personal.
DAVIS: Right, this idea that, like, the rights you took for granted or thought were ingrained can just be gone. So I think that the country's receptive to this idea right now. Like, why don't we protect these rights? And like abortion, Congress never made a law, right? They relied on a Supreme Court decision to protect this right. That was always a fundamental legal argument against Roe, that it should be - it's done through legislation and not through the courts. So now they're doing it through legislation. And this is arguably what conservatives would say should happen, that these kind of things should happen through the legislative process and not the courts. But we'll find out. And so I think Democrats might be in a weird position where, like, they wanted the issue - so they might get the political win, but they might actually get the policy win. And it's very rare those two things happen especially on culture issues.
WALSH: Especially this close to a midterm election.
WALSH: These big issues tend to get floated away from the election.
WALSH: And the fact that we're this close up against it could help actually motivate some independent voters that they want to get out, right?
KEITH: Well, and one thing that stood out to me after the Dobbs decision was how quickly many Democratic leaders sort of pivoted to say, this isn't just about abortion; this is about other rights like access to contraceptives...
DAVIS: Your privacy rights, yeah.
KEITH: ...And gay marriage and interracial marriage. And in theory, I think they thought they'd be able to campaign on that this fall. And they are, in some ways, campaigning on that. But now they may actually have legislation to show for it, too, which is the surprise.
DAVIS: Well, Deirdre, you also made this point, which I thought was good - was that, like, it's - we're in this rare moment where we are having these culture war fights, but Democrats feel more emboldened. I think a lot of times the left feels more back on their heels in these debates, and they're the ones sort of forcing these culture votes and culture issues. And they're winning on them, and that - we don't see that happen a lot as well.
WALSH: Right. It's not that long ago - 2004, right? - that there was a national election that was animating the right on issues like same-sex marriage. And now it's - like Sue was saying, a majority of Americans support it. So Democrats see this opening to add it to things like abortion because public opinion is so overwhelming in their favor. So I just feel like it's one of those things. Like, the - what we think the midterm elections are going to be about, I feel like has changed, like, 20 times in the last...
KEITH: It changes every three weeks approximately.
DAVIS: Did not think gay marriage was going to be something we were talking about in 2022, but here we are.
KEITH: All right. We are going to take one more quick break. And when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.
And we're back, and it's time to end the show the way we do every week, with Can't Let It Go, the part of the pod where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise. Deirdre, you go first.
WALSH: The thing I can't let go of this week is the quintessential American story of Frances Tiafoe. He is a 24-year-old tennis player who beat one of my favorite tennis players, Rafa Nadal, at the U.S. Open. The U.S. Open is the big major tournament going on right now. Serena Williams finished her career. That was the big story last week.
DAVIS: I've heard of her, yeah.
WALSH: The GOAT.
KEITH: Familiar with the name.
WALSH: But this week, it's all about somebody that we haven't heard of.
WALSH: And I was, I have to say, very torn. I was - I've been watching a lot of tennis. I love watching the U.S. Open. And I always root for Rafa. But here he was playing this 24-year-old American from Maryland, right up the road...
WALSH: ...Who started playing tennis because his parents - his dad was a immigrant from Sierra Leone who escaped the civil war there. Also, his mother separately came from Sierra Leone, and they met here. Both escaped the civil war there. His dad's a janitor who was working at the tennis center in College Park, Md.
WALSH: He picked up a racket as a kid, started doing really well. And then people noticed how great he was. And he started playing tennis and was recruited, and he played junior and went pro at a really young age, kind of like the Williams sisters.
WALSH: And so he had this unbelievable win against Rafael Nadal. He won his next match. He's in the semifinals today. He's 24 years old. There hasn't been an American man in the finals or semifinals of the U.S. Open in about 20 years.
WALSH: But his personal story to me is just amazing. You know, the kid of immigrants who - they were talking about his strokes last night. And they were saying they were so uneven because he didn't have any money and didn't have his own racket, that he just sort of picked up whatever racket he could play with and taught himself how to play. So he doesn't swing like everybody else who learned how to play with, like, their own racket. It's just - he's just a - really high energy, fun to watch. And I really hope he makes it to the finals.
KEITH: I'm a little concerned that you've now talked about him on the podcast because last week Asma talked about Serena Williams. We were all...
DAVIS: And then she lost, yeah.
KEITH: ...Rooting for her. And then she lost.
DAVIS: Is it a jinx?
KEITH: So is it the NPR POLITICS PODCAST jinx?
WALSH: No. It is not. We're going to break the jinx.
KEITH: We're going to break it.
DAVIS: You know, as someone who has little kids - and you hear these stories about parents, and my husband and I joke about this, where I'm like, do we got to start a sport now, like, put a tennis racket in this kid's hand, like, the - Earl Woods, the Serena Williams' dad? Like, they had those kids out practicing at such young ages. And when I hear these stories, I'm thinking, like, do I got to get this kid in a pool? Like, what do I need to do to have a superstar?
WALSH: I think you - this kid had natural talent. I think...
WALSH: ...Your kids might have natural talent, too.
DAVIS: We got to figure out what that is. Right now, it just seems to be wanting snacks.
WALSH: Yeah, that's a talent.
DAVIS: It's a talent. So, Tam, what can't you let go of this week?
KEITH: Well, this week, for the first time since 2012, there was a portrait unveiling at the White House, official portraits...
KEITH: ...Of the Obamas. So it was like old home week there at the White House. And their portraits are different. Like, these are - their portraits, I would argue are more modern and truly like no other portraits...
KEITH: ...In the White House. So the artist Robert McCurdy is the one who did President Obama's. And, you know, it's just this fine level of detail that's hyper-realistic. And then Sharon Sprung did the portrait of Mrs. Obama. She's in this blue chiffon dress in the Red Room looking forward. And her husband, the former president, in his remarks, I mean, he basically, like, hit on his wife.
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BARACK OBAMA: I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle - her grace, her intelligence and the fact that she's fine.
DAVIS: I can't tell if that's charming or, like, a little creepy,
DAVIS: ...Little cringe. Like Dad...
KEITH: It's a little cringe.
DAVIS: ...Stop talking about how hot Mom is.
KEITH: But then to me, this is, like - you know, like, a study in spousal relationships because then later, Jill Biden gets called up to speak. And everyone gives her a standing ovation except Joe, except her husband the president.
KEITH: He's still sitting?
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JILL BIDEN: Joe, honestly. Everybody stood but Joe.
DAVIS: She's like, come on, man.
KEITH: So then he stands up and claps for her alone (laughter).
DAVIS: Rare, nice moment at the White House these days.
KEITH: Yeah. I mean, like, it sort of harkens back to a different time.
DAVIS: Yeah. Traditions, right?
KEITH: Sue, what can't you let go of?
DAVIS: I mean, we can't end the week without noting the passing of Queen Elizabeth, obviously, biggest news of the week. Couple of things about it, aside from the huge nature of the news, is that someone made the point that she lived as long as a third of American history. When I read that statistic, I was like, that's crazy. Like, she's as third as old as our country. The thing I really can't let go of this week - and Deirdre, I'm glad you're in the podcast today because I think you'll feel me on this - last night around 4 a.m. when I was up because my baby decided to get up, I discovered on the internet something now known as Irish Twitter...
WALSH: Oh, yeah.
KEITH: Oh, what's that?
DAVIS: ...Which, you know, if you're familiar - I'm a proud Irish-American family, as is Deirdre Walsh if you can't tell by the name.
DAVIS: And if you know the Irish, there's - they have complicated feelings...
DAVIS: ...About the royal family.
WALSH: I told my husband he should probably stay off Twitter.
DAVIS: Yeah (laughter).
WALSH: He doesn't really tweet. He only has eight followers. Shout out to (inaudible).
DAVIS: And, you know, I am not condoning the views of Irish Twitter, but I was pretty blown away at some of the responses to the queen and how varied and mixed it was from my people.
WALSH: There's a lot of people in Ireland who still can't let it go...
WALSH: ...About the history there.
WALSH: But then you see some of the ambassadors and the current leaders who chose to think about sort of the mended relationships as opposed to the troubles...
WALSH: ...And the violent times. But it is definitely, just the British monarchy, the British government is just...
DAVIS: A little triggering.
WALSH: ...Something you just don't bring up around Irish relatives.
DAVIS: But it reminds me of one of my favorite sayings about, like, the Irish forget everything but their grudges.
DAVIS: It's on display. But God rest Queen Elizabeth. But also, if you ever get dragged by Irish Twitter, it is unlike anything you've ever seen.
KEITH: All right. We are going to wrap it there today. Next week, we are going to mark the passing of the seasons from summer to fall with all of our timestamps. So if you are winding down summer in the northern hemisphere, send us a timestamp, and let us know how you're closing things out with summer. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We're, like, trying to do a theme week thing here. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel and Krishnadev Calamur. Our producers this week are Lexie Schapitl and Elena Moore. Thanks to Brandon Carter and Maya Rosenberg. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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