It's General Election Season! Live From Texas : The NPR Politics Podcast Abortion access and inflation are the top issues driving the midterms, but they're motivating very different sets of voters. And an under-discussed force driving the midterms? The long shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, political correspondent Susan Davis, political correspondent Ashley Lopez, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

Thanks to Krishnadev Calamur, Gianna Capadona, Brandon Carter, Scott Detrow, Jessica Goldstein, John Isabella, Lexie Schapitl and Arnie Seipel.

Muthoni Muturi is the executive producer of The NPR Politics Podcast. The show is produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Eric McDaniel is our editor. Fact-checking by Maya Rosenberg. Engineering by Patrick Murray.

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It's General Election Season! Live From Texas

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ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: Hi. My name is Elena Moore. I am a producer on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, and I am ending my summer by recording the podcast live at Zilkha Hall in Houston.

(APPLAUSE)

MOORE: This podcast was recorded on Thursday, September 15, at 8:08 p.m. Central time. Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. This is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST live. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And we are here at Zilkha Hall in Houston, Texas, and we've got some friends with us.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: And I have to say it is so exciting to be back for the first time, our first live show back with an audience.

MONTANARO: This is pretty cool. I mean, it's pretty cool. There's people here. There's people up there. That's awesome. This is great.

KEITH: So let's get down to it. Asma, we have said this many times, but midterms are typically a referendum on the president in power. Look no further than 2018, 2014, 2010 - all of them routes for the president's party. And, again, even a few months ago, 2022 looked to be shaping up that way as well. President Biden had a stack of failures and near-misses. But then recently, the president and his party have gotten a string of wins, right?

KHALID: No, that's right. And I was speaking with a Democratic strategist probably back in January, February. And I remember she was telling me that Democrats themselves were really nervous because there's the sense that it doesn't really matter how good of a local candidate you are. You can't really, like, outperform the president of the United States' approval rating by 10 points. That's just not mathematically, politically possible. But I think the winds have shifted quite a bit in the last couple of months.

You know, Democrats have been really optimistic about some key pieces of legislation that they were able to pass. There's the CHIPS Act that got semiconductor manufacturing and production up. There's the PACT Act, which essentially expands veterans' benefits. And then, of course, there's the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the big piece of legislation that Democrats were trying to pass for many, many months that I would say, in some ways, was going nowhere and that also, because it was going nowhere, I think exasperated some of the traditional Joe Biden base of supporters.

So, you know, look - I've spent some time both covering the White House but also traveling around the country. And one of the things I will say is I consistently heard this level of frustration from Democratic base voters, often young voters who felt like they gave the president control of the Senate, they gave the president control of Congress, and they elected a Democratic president, and yet they weren't getting tangible relief. That, I think, has fundamentally changed since the Inflation Reduction Act passed but even more notably, to be honest, once the president announced some level of student loan debt forgiveness.

KEITH: So, Domenico, Asma nodded to the president's approval rating, which was deeply underwater. It is still underwater, but it's up.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, slightly up, right? I mean, we saw a few months ago back in July, when we had our poll, he was at 36% approval rating. Now our most recent one - he's at 41% approval rating. What Asma talks about about young voters and base voters not quite being there as a strong, you know, part of Biden's base - you know, he only has a 17% strongly approve rating, which is not great for a president. You know, Trump was always somewhere in the 30s or 40s when it came to that. You know, his strongly disapprove rating, meanwhile, is 41%. So when you look at that, you have a - he has an intensity problem, right? And midterms are all about intensity. Now, I will say the one thing we haven't talked about is abortion rights.

KEITH: Right.

MONTANARO: And I think that the fundamental shift in this election has been because of what happened at the Supreme Court overturning Roe. We have seen a huge spike in women who are registering to vote across the country. This is a massive, you know, shake-up. We've heard from a lot of Republican strategists who thought maybe that would fade a little bit, hoped it would fade a little bit. It hasn't. And as we know, women outnumber men when it comes to voting not just on this stage but, you know, also throughout the country generally.

KEITH: Right. And women tend to - there is a gender gap, and women are more Democratic as voters than men.

MONTANARO: Plus...

KEITH: Men are more Republican. Yeah.

MONTANARO: Plus, a big piece - when you have - what strategists have told me is that when you have voters who register in the year of that election, they're much more likely to vote.

KEITH: So, Ashley, you are based here in Texas, but you've been...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wooo (ph).

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: And you've been traveling a lot both around your state, but also, you were in Florida recently. Domenico mentions these numbers with women registering to vote. When you're out there talking to voters, what are you hearing about the abortion issue?

LOPEZ: Well, it depends who I'm talking to.

KEITH: Of course.

LOPEZ: You know, it's really interesting how little the Dobbs decision has sort of riled up conservative voters. I thought that was really interesting. I went to a couple of conservative conventions, and I was expecting to see, like, a parade kind of mood. But, you know, it seems like that issue is not motivating at all, but it is very motivating on the left. And it has been motivating for voters that, I think for the most part, would not have cared about abortion because, you know, it was always in the back of people's minds. Like, this was not really an issue that affected them day to day.

But now that, you know, especially in Texas has, you know, one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, this is affecting a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have thought about it. I mean, there's been a lot of reporting about, you know, women who were having failed pregnancies having to deal with this issue and having to go out of state for care. And I think that kind of stuff really could affect the bottom line in politics. And we're already seeing, like - I think we were talking about young voters. So we already have seen a little bit of a voter registration effect. So I think young women 18 to 30 in Texas alone are outpacing young men in voter registration by 11%, which is pretty big, especially in a, you know, state like Texas, where 11% is a lot of people. So, you know, we're - I think we're already kind of seeing stuff. It just depends who votes. It's like...

KEITH: Right.

LOPEZ: ...The thing we always say.

KEITH: So we talk about fundamentals a lot, and I think one of the fundamentals of politics is that anger and fear are highly motivating, and happiness, not so much.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KHALID: And the left is angry. I mean, I will say the left has been quite angry since the Dobbs decision. You hear that from people you talk to. You get that sense when you look at polling. You know, one of the things I've been struck by is that for a long time in recent election cycles, culture wars have been very motivating, and the right has been very effective at motivating that. We saw that with the 2016 election where President Trump, I think, was able to very successfully rally people's emotions around fears of immigration or fears of different, you know, racial minority groups. And this election could be, I think, a shift in terms of which side is able to effectively motivate cultural issues.

KEITH: Right. Domenico, what has been fascinating to watch is particularly in - there have been a couple of special elections and a statewide ballot measure in Kansas related to abortion rights, or in these special congressional elections where candidates - Democratic candidates have not shied away from talking about access to abortion, and that is different. You know, in the past, it's not something they've leaned into. But this election, because of all of these other dynamics that we're talking about, Democrats are, in many races, leaning into it at the same time that you're seeing some Republicans scrub their websites.

MONTANARO: Well, that's happening at a time when we're now beyond Labor Day, and there are a lot of general election - all the general election races are really hitting high gear. And I've been really surprised, and when I was talking to Democrats over the summer, that they were going to push on abortion as the issue. And I was really interested to see whether that was going to work in places like Arizona, for example, where independents are so key. And one of the things I also noticed in our polling is that 58% of independents said that the Dobbs ruling makes them more likely to vote in November, which is interesting - 77% of Democrats, far fewer Republicans saying that. But also for independents, inflation is their top issue, although it's going down as a concern.

So the messaging war is literally between those two subjects, and Democrats feel like they can, you know, because of that 58%, get a good share of independents that they would need, with good candidates, by the way, going against candidates who might have some vulnerabilities, let's say, in places like Georgia and Pennsylvania and others, you know, where they feel like that message can win out.

KEITH: And, Asma, when you were talking about wins that President Biden has notched up, one thing that the White House is constantly reminding us of is this is the longest, fastest period of gas prices going down, which is one of those indicators of inflation that people feel, you know, approximately once a week, depending on what kind of car they have and how big the tank is and how long their commute is. You also have been out on the road in both Michigan and Florida talking to voters about the economy. What did you hear?

KHALID: I mean, I think that inflation - the economy as a whole has been probably one of the thorniest issues for the president and his team to effectively navigate, and that's in part because there are some metrics of the economy that are doing, you know, objectively very well, when the president and his team talk about unemployment levels or wage increases, which, you know, have - we've seen increases in wages. I think the challenge is that inflation is something that is felt across the board. Like, if the unemployment rate, say, moves from 4 to 5%, that's not felt by everybody in society. Inflation is something that is tangibly felt by a large chunk of the population. And so, you know, I started going out on inflation stories probably, gosh, May of last year. And it was interesting because at that time I think the issue was more troublesome for the White House because the White House wasn't addressing it. And you might remember there was some of the talk we heard from the president and his team would be that this issue was going to be - transient?

KEITH: Transitory.

KHALID: Transitory inflation is the word - right? - that it was going to be here not long-term. Obviously, inflation has stuck around for a lot longer, and you've seen the White House change its message.

KEITH: You know, in geologic time, it is definitely transitory.

KHALID: (Laughter) So it was always like, well, how long is it going to be around? And I think what I've seen is that over time, though, it's been - as I've been going out to different parts of the country - I've done, like, three different trips where specifically I was talking to voters on inflation. I do think that there has become a sense from independent or left-leaning voters that the White House is attempting to tackle the issue. And you didn't get that sense last year. Now, whether that's going to be sufficient, I don't really know. And, you know, the big elephant in the room that we have not discussed is President Trump and his, you know, ever-present factor in this election cycle, which we can get to in a second. But I think that that changes the equation for a lot of Democrats because it's not just about the economy. It's not just going to be about abortion, right?

MONTANARO: Definitely. I mean, inflation is obviously the top issue for - across the board for independents and Republicans and, because of that, overall becomes the top issue. Democrats have a very different set of issues that they're concerned about, including abortion rights, the January 6 committee hearings, for example. And, you know, as former President Trump has weighed in on this election very prominently, you know, him endorsing candidates in Republican primaries, he's certainly shown his strength in being able to get people through Republican primaries. But with that comes a lot of problems for those candidates because nothing is truth serum for people than a purple state - OK? - because, you know, they wind up having to, as you said, scrub their positions because, suddenly, you have candidates in places like New Hampshire and Arizona where they can't say the election was stolen anymore. They have to take that off the website and say, well, there were some problems. There was some fraud, but, like, forget about that other thing I said.

You know, Mitt Romney's campaign in 2012 called that Etch A Sketch, right? And that's kind of - you know, they're trying to Etch A Sketch their websites now. And, you know, it is what it is. People do that all the time. But, you know, when you have - I'm going to be really interested to see right after Election Day - or, you know, election few weeks if these elections are close - you know, which if any of these candidates who are endorsed by Trump, especially in Senate races, actually win. And if they lose, there's going to be a lot of Republicans on the Mitch McConnell wing of things pointing fingers at Trump and saying he's not very strong as a candidate. And I think that that's going to become a big piece of something that people talk about.

KEITH: But, Ashley, is this also something - he motivates Republicans, right? Like, Republicans want his endorsement. He's holding a rally in North Carolina next Friday. He's been holding rallies in important states. Like, they want him in this.

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, he still has overwhelming support among anyone who identifies as a Republican or even a conservative. You know, I will say I think it was really interesting when I talked to some conservatives recently - I will say this was before Mar-a-Lago that I heard this the most. Some conservatives are actually kind of sick of the drama with Trump. They actually think, like, it's hurting their ability to get some of their priorities, you know, to be salient with voters because it's just, like, you know, mired in all this other stuff. So I - you know, I will say, like, more and more conservatives have been saying, like, you know, maybe a Ron DeSantis is a better option. But yeah, I don't think he's - I think he's, like, 99% untouchable. But I do - it's hard to see how this will - like, I mean, it really helps having your own social media platform - right? - to just sort of flood the conversation.

KHALID: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And, Tam, we'll let you take a little break - talk to you in a minute.

KEITH: Talk to you soon.

KHALID: And when we come back, we're going to talk some more about the key issues driving the midterms and drill down on some specific races.

(APPLAUSE)

KHALID: And we're back. We are back now joined by our lovely colleague, NPR's Susan Davis. Hey there, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, guys.

KHALID: So we're going to talk more about the midterms. And, Ashley, I actually want to start the conversation with you because, you know, here in Texas, a lot of people, it seems, are paying attention to the governor's race. I think it's interesting to all of us across the nation where, you know, the main candidates, of course, are the incumbent Republican, Greg Abbott, and then you have former Democratic congressman, Beto O'Rourke. And I am just curious if you can help us understand the state of play because we are here in Texas. And I think it's an important race that gives us insights into nationally some of the dimensions people are paying attention to.

LOPEZ: Yeah, I mean, this is not a state where Democrats do well historically. So I do think, like, Republicans will always have the wind at their backs here. And polls show that, I mean, if you were to place bets about who's going to win the governor's race, you'd probably say it's going to be Greg Abbott because he has at least in the single digits a lead. And this is not an election where Democrats are expected to do well. You know, when Beto O'Rourke ran for Senate against Ted Cruz, Ted Cruz was more unpopular than Greg Abbott is, although Greg Abbott's popularity has been kind of waning. It's been a kind of tougher reelection for him than prior elections. You know, so Beto O'Rourke doesn't have the same kind of wind at his back that he did in 2018 - was it? Was that that long ago? And so it's going to be a tough race for Beto O'Rourke.

But a lot of things have happened in Texas that I think are issues that Democrats would say are helpful to them. So one, we talked about abortion already. You know, guns in general has always been a pretty touchy thing for Democrats to talk about in Texas. But I think what happened at Uvalde does resonate a little differently. I think that is a conversation that I'm hearing. It - sound a little different among Texas voters than I have in the past. And, I mean, it's because there's been just, like, a lot of school shootings in Texas in the past four years. So I think it's going to be a really interesting race to watch because there are, like, two big issues - two big, national issues at the forefront here. And then also, you know, Beto O'Rourke is good at fundraising, so it's not like it's a candidate who we would kind of expect to underperform in Texas. But, you know, it's also still Texas. So, you know, Republicans do very well here, and there's, like, a lot of reasons for that.

DAVIS: Ashley, where does the Latino vote fit into the picture? Because I think it's important here in Texas, but there's lessons to be learned nationally here. It's a demographic that I think - you know, Texas is the state that Democrats are always hoping on. And I think a lot of it when you talk to them, it's the demographics-is-destiny...

LOPEZ: Right.

DAVIS: ...Idea, right? But when you look at the Latino vote, it's getting more and more complex. And this is not a demographic of people that I think either party can really consider their own, at least not right now.

LOPEZ: Yeah, I mean, as a Floridian, I always kind of balk at the demographics-is-destiny thing because Latino voters at least where - you know, a lot of - a big chunk of Latino voters where I come from vote for Republicans. And, you know, I think, like, Democrats are finding that it's just there's a section of the Latino electorate that is just - they need to do more outreach to. They're just not really talking to them at the same frequency that now, especially in the - in south Texas, Republicans are talking to them. I've been talking to groups that are mobilizing voters - right-of-center groups. And they've been doing a great job. They've been knocking on doors a lot longer than Democrats have. And it's always been a problem for Democrats, where they go to voters of color kind of, like, right before elections, and voters see right through that.

DAVIS: Yeah.

LOPEZ: They don't like that, and so that's kind of catching up with them - or it's been - and then, you know, there was the pandemic. You know, Democrats weren't as likely to be knocking on doors compared to Republicans during that time, so there's just, like, a lot to catch up on. But yeah, I mean, in 2020, that spelled a lot of trouble for Democrats because Latino voters - particularly Latino men, who would probably identify as Tejano more than anything - like, not really Latino - voted for Trump in numbers that I think a lot of people were surprised by.

KHALID: You know, Sue, I want to ask - 'cause we were talking a lot earlier about different themes that have been motivating voters...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Ahead of the midterm race. I mean, we spoke about abortion. We spoke about the economy, inflation. You know, but I know you've also been spending time with voters. You have covered Congress for years. Do you have a sense of, like, thematically, what is actually the key priority or two?

DAVIS: I mean, that's a good question. I think that this midterm is arguably one of the most fascinating elections I have covered. And this is my - I've covered 20 years of elections, this year. I know...

KHALID: Wow.

DAVIS: ...I don't look a day over 10 years of coverage.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: This is a tough election because - and I think having covered the past couple of them, you guys would agree - like, the playbooks of politics are just being rewritten in real time. And what we do every election is you kind of look to the past to get, you know, a roadmap. How - what are the lessons? Where are we going? And, like, none of the guideposts and none of the roadmaps, I think, are helpful anymore. If anything, in this particular election cycle, I've been trying to kind of ignore those things. We haven't really talked about it, but I think it's worth mentioning again - like, we passingly mention the pandemic, but especially in my reporting, like, I do think the pandemic created a lot of shifts in this country, and I think it got a lot of people really tuned into thinking about their government across the spectrum. So I think I've also seen a lot of engagement from people in local politics in a way that I...

KHALID: Like school boards, you're thinking - yeah.

DAVIS: School boards, education boards, local congressmen, their governors' races, like, a lot of health policies that were set by states, and I think voters are really primed to vote in this environment in a way that we're still trying to figure out. So don't forget the pandemic when you're thinking about the dynamics in 2022. I think a lot of the conventional wisdom - what do you - what are the metrics you look at? The president's favorability rating - well, Biden's really unpopular, but you still see candidates running way ahead of the president, which is also weird...

KHALID: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...When we talk about polarization. Aren't we all supposed to feel one way or another? And, like, there's weirdness happening in the electorate there. And I know you talked about Trump, and we don't need to hammer on that, but midterms are also - it speaks to the thing you hear all the time - the cliche is midterms are a referendum on the president in power, right? Like, the way you show up and send a message to the White House is through the midterm elections. And I think that's true when you're only talking about the president in the White House.

And Trump continues to try to make this election a choice, especially when so many of the candidates down the ballot running - especially in the Senate and in the House, particularly - are running not only like Trump, but running on a campaign that they want him to be the president again. So he's still top of mind in this voter situation where we haven't really had a former president, at least in modern times, doing this in a midterm election. So I guess what I'm telling you is I have no idea what's going to happen in the midterm election...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ...But I think that that is, as a reporter, really fascinating because there's so much churn and so much dynamism and so much angst in the country, and I think that this election is going to - I feel like our country's at a bit of a crossroads, and I think that this election is one that's going to kind of point us in the direction of the path that we're going on, at least for the short-term future.

KHALID: You know, it's interesting to hear you say that, Sue, 'cause I had this realization the other day that this is actually the first, essentially, major election since the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol...

DAVIS: Yeah, like think of all these, like, huge...

KHALID: ...And that it is a chance for people...

DAVIS: ...Enormous change happening in this country.

KHALID: ...To vote on how they feel about that event.

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: And I think if people had strong questions about democracy, about the future of democracy, like, this is a moment, essentially, where they can kind of say that.

DAVIS: You get to weigh in. Yeah.

KHALID: Yeah.

DAVIS: I mean, one thing I've been trying to ignore, but I'm curious to ask Domenico about it - like, I have really tried not to look too hard at polls this cycle because I think we've made mistakes in the past by looking too much at polls, and I think that it's tough to capture all this change in the electorate. But you're our poll guy. I mean, what are the sort of - you know, we've still got two months to go, but we're in the home stretch - like, what's the pulse check right now? Like, what is the country saying right now, at least according to our own data?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, first of all, when you talk about, you know, polls - whether good or not and all that stuff - yeah, they're constantly trying to figure out where they went wrong, how they could do better, especially considering the data from the 2020 election and the fact that you have a lot of Trump supporters who just don't want to answer the phones because they see - they hear pollster and they equate it with media...

DAVIS: Media.

MONTANARO: ...And they just don't trust it. And there's a lot to adjust for that, which is one reason why, honestly, like, I don't pay that much attention to horse-race polls right now, or I don't think I will for quite some time. I mean, the idea that this person is up by seven points or that person is up by 12 or whatever - you know, it's in the back of my mind, but I do more reporting through the campaigns - through the advertising money that people are spending because that really tells you kind of why they're spending money - what the, you know, momentum is in a particular race. And what we do hear, though, as far as the pulse goes overall, is that it does still seem like Republicans have the clear advantage to win the House.

DAVIS: We should also note, though - 2022 is a redistricting year, which might not get everybody excited, but I'm pretty into it.

LOPEZ: (Laughter).

DAVIS: But Texas is a great place to talk about this, though, because, you know, there was this moment where we were like, oh, wow, we might be spending this election year in Texas because we're going have all these competitive races. And the Republican strategy of the 2022 cycle, where they basically had the upper hand in the states that is still driven by a partisan process, is they didn't necessarily eat into Democratic territory. They just decided to shore up Republican territory. I'm not even sure we really have any competitive House races here this cycle, which is crazy in a state this size.

LOPEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think if you stretch it, you could say maybe there's one or two.

DAVIS: Yeah.

LOPEZ: This makes a lot of sense if you're a Republican because, when they redrew maps the last time, they wrote all these seats that favored Republicans. But because Texas grew so much...

DAVIS: Yeah.

LOPEZ: ...You have to remember, this is a state where people - I mean, people who live here know this. It's constantly growing. So, like, you have to kind of factor in a long-term view of, like, more moderate and liberal voters moving into especially, like, you know, suburban areas around the big cities. And so, I mean, it is a smarter move to shore up those, like, seats that were possibly in danger and just give Democrats a couple of safe seats, like, you know, I guess we call packing them into a couple of seats around the big cities. So, I mean, I'm not surprised to see that. But yeah, it makes it kind of boring to cover elections 'cause like...

DAVIS: (Laughter).

LOPEZ: ...You kind of know the - you know the outcome already. But I think this is nationally true as well. A lot of states drew mostly safe districts. There's not a lot of competition across the country, I would argue.

DAVIS: It's only gerrymandering when the other party does it, though. That's the thing.

MONTANARO: You know, I mean, Sue, you and I have covered politics a while. And when we started covering politics, we were both, I think, covering a lot of the House. And I remember, when I was a researcher and put out my list of the most potentially competitive seats, I had a list of 129 seats, I think it was...

DAVIS: Wow.

MONTANARO: ...In 2006. And that's down to, like, maybe 40...

DAVIS: That's crazy.

MONTANARO: ...Maybe, if you can push it. And that's, you know, largely due to polarization, but also because it's been so much easier with the migratory patterns we've seen - Democrats moving into cities. It's a lot easier to pack them in and draw a little circle around them because they live in such tightly compressed areas and because Republicans control, frankly, a lot more legislatures than Democrats do.

DAVIS: Asma, I'm going to let you get the last word here because it is still a midterm that is still, in many ways, a referendum on the president. Biden is hovering - we'll say 40-ish percent approval rating, depending on how you ask the question and where you are in the country. But how does he factor in here? You know, you don't see him on too many campaign stages next to people who are on the ballot this cycle, so how is he positioning himself in this midterm for his people down the ballot who want to win reelection?

KHALID: I mean, I think there's a sense from the White House of optimism about getting concrete legislative wins. Look, I think that if I were to say, though - you go out and talk to people - nobody's really, like - nobody I've talked to has, like, quoted to me anything about the Inflation Reduction Act, being like, I'm going to go out and vote because of this piece of legislation that was passed. But to Domenico's point, I know we've spoken a lot about abortion. There is an energy and excitement around it.

I think that the big question I have - and I know that you were saying this election year - we've all been saying it - it's such an abnormal election year - is back in 2018, I was speaking with a researcher who did look back at every election cycle dating back to World War II and said the best indicator of how the midterms are going to go is to look at the president's approval rating. It doesn't matter how the economy is often doing - you know, like, the economy can be doing well. That's not necessarily translating. It's the president's approval rating. And when you've got a president in the low 40s, that's not a great approval rating.

MONTANARO: I will say, though, it's a little different in the Senate than it is in the House. You know, Senate races traditionally are not quite as many seats - maybe two seats on average that you've seen a party in power lose. And that's because of - you know, these are statewide races, right? So it's a little different. And this year, in particular, you have a lot of purple states, and we have that candidate quality issue...

DAVIS: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...That Mitch McConnell talked about - the Republican Senate leader - as those are Trump candidates. So when you combine abortion rights with those, you know, candidate quality issues that some Republicans are having, Republicans really went from feeling like they had a very good chance of taking back the Senate to biting their fingernails and wondering if they're going to lose a seat or two.

DAVIS: It is pretty amazing how we started this election cycle where the people who do get paid to prognosticate and forecast elections - you know, six months ago, we were talking about a red wave, and now we're sitting here weeks out saying these races are all a dogfight and it could go either way. I mean, it...

KHALID: Especially in the Senate, yeah.

DAVIS: It's been pretty - a roller coaster year, at least in terms of politics.

MONTANARO: Could be a lazy river current.

DAVIS: (Laughter) All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, it'll be time for Can't Let It Go.

KHALID: And we're back with my colleague, Tamara Keith. Hey, again, Tam.

KEITH: Hello again.

KHALID: And now it is time for my - and I believe your - favorite part of the show. It's called Can't Let It Go, where we talk about the things that we just cannot stop thinking about - politics or otherwise. And, Sue, why don't you kick it off?

DAVIS: The thing I can't let go of this week is a story that was in The Washington Post about a beautiful, angelic little toddler and the terrifying doll...

KHALID: Oh, my gosh.

DAVIS: ...That she has...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ...Taken with her everywhere. This - the mom took her daughter to one of those spirit of Halloween shops that pop up, you know, around this time of year. And she saw this doll. And if you've ever had a little kid who wants something in a store, it was like, please mom, please mom, please mom. And the creepiest thing she said to her mother was, it needs me.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: But, I mean, look at that doll.

DAVIS: But her mom, clearly a good sport, bought it for her, and she takes it with her. It's become like a - she gives her a - she has a whole Instagram account now. It's a whole thing. But, as you can see, it's quite captivating.

KEITH: That doll needs a friend...

DAVIS: Just...

KEITH: ...And that doll needs your soul.

DAVIS: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

KEITH: So it's a win-win.

DAVIS: But just like Corduroy needed a friend who would sew on the button...

KEITH: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...She needs a friend who will take her around to eat people's brains.

KEITH: But also, 100% not taking my kid to the spirit of Halloween store this year.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: I know. That's the lesson. So Tam, what can you not let go of?

KEITH: Well, in other toddler news...

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: ...Apparently, we can't let go of toddlers. So there are three new members of Congress that were just sworn in after special elections. One of those is Pat Ryan. He's a Democrat from upstate New York. And these ceremonial swearing-ins are really like a photo op, but then it is like a special moment - a moment where they put the kids in their Sunday best, and they go, and they pose with the Speaker. Or if you are Pat Ryan and his children, the children just, like, kind of run amok, and then the 3-year-old, Theo - I think he's three. I don't know his exact age. But Theo ultimately ends up picking his nose, which, like...

MONTANARO: As toddlers are want to do.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, like, as toddlers do every single day or 4-year-olds or - anyway.

MONTANARO: That's what hand sanitizer's for.

DAVIS: This is, like, every holiday card mom's worst nightmare.

KEITH: She's like, I just wanted the photo.

DAVIS: I just want us all to look at the camera.

KHALID: So, Domenico, what about you? What can you not let go of?

MONTANARO: What I really can't let go of is these new rules that baseball is going to implement for next year. For example, they're going to have a pitch clock. You know, they're going to take the amount of time that you have between batters and say, OK, you only have, you know, X amount of seconds to go. And they do this in the minor leagues, and they found that games are much shorter because, I think anybody who watches baseball knows, they take a long time. And one of the things I thought was really interesting - I watched this MLB TV thing with a pitcher who was pitching in the minor leagues where they have a clock and a pitcher who was pitching - the same pitcher pitching in the majors without a clock. They found the same five pitch sequences, and it took him 40 seconds longer to pitch those five pitches in the major leagues. If you extrapolate that out, as, you know, I like to look at these numbers, it's about...

DAVIS: You love to extrapolate.

MONTANARO: It's about half an hour to 40 minutes shorter in a game if you were to take 30 to 40 seconds per half inning or per batter per half inning, minute and half, 3 minutes times nine, 27 minutes...

DAVIS: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Thirty minutes of a game shorter. That's not bad.

KHALID: That's - I mean, that's...

DAVIS: A lot less beer that the baseball teams are going to sell, and they are going to regret this choice.

LOPEZ: Are they doing this because, like, all of our attention spans have gotten worse, just like shorter?

KHALID: They're like, we just want people to stay in the stands.

LOPEZ: Yeah. It's like no one's paying attention that long.

KHALID: So, Ashley, what about you?

LOPEZ: I have been watching - which has been really fun - I've been watching a lot of little girls, particularly little Black girls, reacting to the new "Little Mermaid" trailer. Yeah - the first time we're having - I think they have it up. This is the first time we have, like, a new Ariel. It's Halle Bailey from Chloe and Halle, I think that's the name of the band. Yeah.

KEITH: When I first saw this - the actress' name is Halle Bailey, I think, but I read it as Halle Berry.

(CROSSTALK)

KEITH: I was like, I know she looks young, but...

(CROSSTALK)

KEITH: Has she had some work?

MONTANARO: That'd be pretty good casting.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MONTANARO: I think it's really special and really important when people are able to see themselves on screen...

DAVIS: Clearly, yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Where you haven't seen that through history - and especially these fairytales.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Watching the joy on these little girls' faces has just been so nice. And I'm usually someone who - for some reason, my algorithm is really scary. But this week, it's been really nice. It's been really nice.

MONTANARO: Did you get the creepy doll, too?

LOPEZ: Man, I kind of wish I did. That's kind of metal, I'm not going to lie.

(LAUGHTER)

LOPEZ: OK, Asma...

DAVIS: Asma, what can't you let go of?

LOPEZ: Oh, sorry.

KHALID: OK. So I also feel like this is a bit of, like, a hometown crowd of Houston who might appreciate this. So I have been watching quite a bit of the show on Netflix called "Indian Matchmaking."

(CHEERING)

KHALID: See - I knew y'all would appreciate this because one of the main characters on "Indian Matchmaking" is a Houstonite. Did I say that - is that you all call...

MONTANARO: Houstonian.

KHALID: Houstonian.

LOPEZ: Houstonian.

KHALID: Sorry about that, guys.

MONTANARO: Come on. That's like saying an Indianan.

KHALID: Houstonian.

LOPEZ: Are you from Indiana?

MONTANARO: She knows...

KHALID: Houstonian of the name Aparna. I would say, like, I have a love-hate relationship with this show. It's, like, cringeworthy, but you can't stop watching it. What I think is, to me, like, really impactful about this show - so it's gotten a lot of criticism, just so you know, 'cause people will say that it kind of prays upon some of the worst, like, stereotypes of the South Asian culture, that it's misogynist or colorist. And, you know, there's, like, no Muslims in the show, even though, like, 15% of India is Muslim. So it has its, you know, quirks. But what I thought was to me really interesting - and you get this with Aparna - is that I think there's this quest when you have shows about, like, representation, that it should always be, like, model minority foot forward. And in this show, you get a lot of the raw - I can say this as a South Asian - but some of the not-so-pleasant aspects, and it's all out there with Seema aunty and all the characters. And I kind of appreciate that.

DAVIS: Look, you spend your days, like, wondering about the future of democracy. And sometimes you go home at night, and you just need some trash TV.

KHALID: No shame in that.

KEITH: No shame in that.

KHALID: All right. Well, that is it for Can't Let It Go. Thank you all so much for coming. Thanks to the team here at Zilkha Hall...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

DAVIS: ...And to our friends at Houston Public Media and to the team at NPR who are not on the stage but are responsible for making it all possible - Krishnadev Calamur, Gianna Capadona, Scott Detrow, Jessica Goldstein, John Isabella, Eric McDaniel...

KHALID: ...Elena Moore, Casey Morell, Patrick Murray...

KEITH: ...Muthoni Muturi, Maya Rosenberg, Lexie Schapitl and Arnie Seipel...

DAVIS: ...And of course, all of you who support the show and your local station. More at donate.npr.org.

KHALID: And next week on the podcast, we are trying out something new, which are themed time stamps. So we're doing unusual jobs' time stamps, which means, you know, if you have an unusual job, please submit your time stamp to nprpolitics@npr.org. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: I'm Ashley Lopez. I also cover politics.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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