Far-Right Losses And Abortion Politics Blunt Republican Gains : The NPR Politics Podcast Democrats outperformed expectations last night. Despite Biden's unpopularity and big economic headwinds, abortion politics and the unpopularity of Trump-backed candidates helped stave off a Republican wave. The House still looks like it's headed for GOP hands but not by a huge margin and the balance of power in the Senate is still uncertain.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political correspondent Susan Davis, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Far-Right Losses And Abortion Politics Blunt Republican Gains

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MELISSA: Hi, this is Melissa (ph). I'm calling from Canastota, N.Y. I'm currently standing outside of my polling place watching an amazing lunar eclipse while waiting for my fellow poll workers to come help set up our polling place. This episode was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

1:07 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, the 9 of November.

MELISSA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.

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

KEITH: And thank goodness for the poll workers.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Shout-out to all of them. Thanks for the work that they did.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

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

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

KEITH: The picture after voting concluded last night is still fuzzy, but it is getting somewhat clearer. And one thing that is quite clear is that the red wave that Republicans had hoped for and predicted turned out to be more of a ripple. There were some big wins for the GOP, especially in Florida, where incumbent Governor Ron DeSantis romped to a nearly 20-point victory. And he framed it as a victory over what he called the woke culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.

KEITH: The Democrats managed to flip Pennsylvania's open Senate seat with Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman prevailing over his Republican challenger, Mehmet Oz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN FETTERMAN: We had our slogan. It's on every one of those signs right now. Every county, every vote. Every county, every vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Every county, every vote.

FETTERMAN: And that's exactly what happened. We jammed them up.

KEITH: And Democrats also held onto seats that were thought to be competitive, both in the House and in the Senate, like New Hampshire's Senate race, the governor's mansion in Kansas. Also, in states where abortion was actually on the ballot - Vermont, Michigan, California and Kentucky - voters supported protecting the right to abortion access. Right now, as we tape this podcast, we still don't know for sure who will have control of the House or the Senate. Races are close in Arizona and Nevada for those states' incumbent Democratic governors and senators. And while Democrat Raphael Warnock holds a narrow lead over his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, for Georgia's Senate seat, the vote is going to a runoff in December. So there have been many a takeaway from last night, but perhaps the biggest one is just expectations - Sue, that Republicans just did not have the big bad blowout night that they were planning for.

DAVIS: They didn't, and the question is, why? And I think one of the answers - and it's something we talked a lot about on this podcast in the run-up to the election - was candidate quality. And one of the the truths coming out of last night is candidate quality really did matter. As you noted, Tam, some Republicans had a great night last night. It wasn't that the country was rejecting the Republican Party. They were rejecting specifically candidates that I would say would be fairly described as the most Trump-y - candidates in many races that were the loudest election deniers, many that were embracing of conspiracy theories. Across the board and across the country, those candidates are losing by pretty significant margins, and I think provoking what has already begun a lot of soul-searching in the Republican Party and about its relationship with former President Donald Trump.

KEITH: Well, and there were also a lot of House Democrats who were on the list of vulnerable Democrats who, based on the fundamentals, you would say they should have lost.

DAVIS: Look, Republicans had a lot of candidate issues in Senate races. But in the House, they tell you they actually had pretty good candidates. They thought they put some of their best people on the board and they still are losing in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio. And that is a problem, right? They lost in places they thought they were going to win. Republicans themselves had said publicly higher expectations. It looks like, you know, we don't know the exact numbers, but based off of our own reporting, it looks like the Republicans are still likely to win the House, but it could be a really narrow majority, maybe in the high single digits, low double digits. That is half of what Republican forecasters were saying they expected on election night.

LIASSON: And much - and even a smaller fraction of what they were predicting a few weeks or months ago.

KEITH: Absolutely. So, Mara, let's get to some of the why in terms of issues. We talked a lot about concerns about inflation. And voters ranked inflation very high on their list of concerns. But you have to factor in abortion here and the Dobbs decision. And certainly, you see that in places where abortion was literally on the ballot, as we said. Did that prove to be more of a motivator than people were expecting it to be?

LIASSON: I think so. Look, voters can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can be concerned about inflation and also about abortion. They can come to the conclusion that maybe the Republicans, who many of whom supported across the board bans on abortion with no exceptions, were more extreme on this issue. I think that the other thing that was at play here is you had all the fundamentals, which were bad for Democrats - president's approval rating, inflation, they're the party in power in a midterm. But polarization keeps swing districts at a very low number, and it also keeps swing voters at a very low number. Ninety percent of voters are locked into one party or the other, only 10% are true swing voters. On the other hand, if you look at House districts, only about 10% are competitive districts, meaning that Trump or Biden won them by 55% or less. Very, very few truly competitive House districts.

KEITH: Can we talk about history? Because former President Trump, in his first midterm, his party lost 40 seats in the House. Former President Obama, in his first midterm, lost 63 seats. George W. Bush gained seats. That was right after 9/11. Clinton lost 52 seats. One of these things is not like the other. This year just doesn't look like those years.

DAVIS: It's not. And, you know, we're still figuring out the numbers, but it does look like we're going to have an asterisk after the 2022 midterms. This was a weird election. I keep using the word weird, but I can't think of a better way to describe it. There's a lot of crosscurrents...

KEITH: Yes, a crosswind, crosscurrents, yeah.

DAVIS: ...Happening in this country. And it's hard to connect all of these dots. The one caveat I will say - and it's true that Republicans didn't perform as well as they should have - but one thing to consider here is part of that reason is the House is already so sordid and also that Republicans did a lot better in 2020 than they were expecting. So the landscape in this midterm, it was already a pretty narrow landscape, comparative to these other midterms we're talking about when the number of swing states was just exponentially larger. We always knew it was a small - maybe 20, 30, 40 seats that were ever going to be in play to begin with, but they really underperformed.

But let me put another take on this 'cause I have talked to some Republicans this morning who actually feel really good about what happened last night, and here's why. If you are part of the wing of the Republican Party that is very eager to move past Donald Trump, last night was the best evidence to date that it's time to do that, that the most Trumpian candidates lost and some of the least Trumpian governors and senators won, not just Ron DeSantis in a state like Florida. But look at Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who also got crossways with the former president - not exactly considered a Trump ally - also won big. You look in a state like New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, a Republican governor there - another romp. Like, Republicans that I would consider sort of that non-Trump, traditional conservative lane had a great night. If that's the direction someone wants the Republican Party to go in, there is a lot to feel good about what happened last night, even if it doesn't result in House and Senate majorities.

LIASSON: Well, the thing is that's an - that - it bolsters their intellectual argument about why it's time to move past Trump. But I think that the Republican establishment would like him to be in the rearview mirror, but instead he's still on the hood of the car. I mean, I get the argument, but the base is still with him. You know, I always say he started the cycle as an 800-pound gorilla, and he ends it as a 700-pound gorilla. He's still a big gorilla inside the party. He might be less electable in a general election. But I don't know if his hold on the base has weakened to the point where somebody like a Ron DeSantis could take him on and beat him.

KEITH: And it's still not clear that a Ron DeSantis would want to take him on. Trump is very likely to announce that he is running for president yet again.

LIASSON: Thrilling Democrats across the country.

KEITH: Yes, but he is, as you say, still this giant force in the Republican Party. And even though his chosen, hand-picked candidates up and down the ballot had a terrible night, you know, he's not the kind of person who will say, oh, well, I was wrong. Let's move on. He's going to blame them or blame Mitch McConnell for saying that there were candidate quality issues. And then he runs. And again, is there anyone who has a bigger piece of the Republican electorate pie than he does?

LIASSON: Oh, Ron DeSantis is going to have a lot of Republican donors saying, let's go.

KEITH: Yeah.

LIASSON: You know, I don't know if there's going - if he's going to look any stronger than he does right now.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, what governing looks like with the very real possibility of divided government.

And we're back. And I want to talk about the House and House leadership. Last night, Kevin McCarthy, who is the current House minority leader and widely seen as the next speaker of the House, had an election night party and said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: But when you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority, and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority.

(CHEERING)

KEITH: And everyone woke up this morning, and it's...

DAVIS: Still unclear.

KEITH: ...Still unclear.

DAVIS: You know, Republicans - and part of the reason why we say they're still favored is the math - the projections that we've been looking at and where they're leading and where they're not. But one thing - and I've said this before, and it's important to remember in this context - part of the reason why they're probably going to get there is 2022 was the first election under new maps that were drawn after the 2020 election. But if this was an election that had been fought under 2020 maps, Democrats might be in the hunt for holding the majority. I mean, it's a testament to how important the role redistricting played and the fact that Republicans ran the process in more of those states that tilted towards their favor - that they're going to get the majority this time around, which speaks even more to the weakness of the wave, right? Like, they're winning because of structural strengths not because of voter enthusiasm or sentiment.

So one of the words that gets thrown around all the time in midterm elections - mandate. And I think that Republicans - I don't think any Republican in their right mind is looking at the outcome of this election and thinks that a potentially incoming House Republican majority has any kind of mandate. And Republicans were coming into this election with big ideas, lots of talk about how they're going to take on the Biden administration. There was potential for all kinds of showdowns with Democrats. And I think the fire and the fury behind that talk needs to be toned down a little bit. They don't have the referendum from voters to say that they have any empowerment, really, to advance any kind of strictly partisan conservative agenda.

LIASSON: But, Sue, that has never stopped a majority, no matter how slim, in the past. And I guess what I'm wondering, what you think - it's a lot easier to just investigate the hell out of the Biden administration as opposed to passing legislation. I get how a small, tiny majority makes it hard to pass anything. But why would it put a damper on investigating Hunter Biden 24/7?

DAVIS: I think that's a really good question, and we'll see if Republicans can help themselves, right? Like, they still want to do all those things. But I think it's reasonable to look at what happened last night and say that the voters were sending a message to the Republican Party that they're tired of the conspiracy theorizing. They're tired of sort of the extremism. And, sure, if you want to focus oversight on Afghanistan, on the U.S.-Mexico border, on things that I think reasonable people think a Congress can look at - or do you want to be going after Anthony Fauci?

LIASSON: Doesn't their base want them to go after Anthony Fauci?

DAVIS: Sure. But didn't voters just tell them to be more mainstream? And also...

LIASSON: When's the last time a party ever took the lesson of being more mainstream?

DAVIS: I understand. But also, think of the internal party dynamics of this, too. Mitch McConnell doesn't want any part of these fights. So Kevin McCarthy is - yes, he's going to have to deal with his base and his own rank-and-file members. But does he want to constantly be picking fights with the Senate leader, too? I mean, the challenge facing Kevin McCarthy, if - the management challenges facing Kevin McCarthy...

LIASSON: Just unbelievable.

DAVIS: ...If he is the speaker, is going to be really hard especially if he's only got five, six, seven, eight, nine votes he can lose on anything.

KEITH: All right. Let's go back to a couple of the races that aren't settled yet - Nevada and Arizona. Those are states that could determine the balance of power in the Senate, certainly.

LIASSON: Yeah, I've talked to a lot of Democrats that are just hoping and praying that the balance of power does not come down to a runoff in Georgia. In other words, if they can hold on to Nevada and Arizona, then that runoff in Georgia is not going to determine the balance of power.

KEITH: Since you mentioned Georgia, let's talk about ticket splitters. There are several candidates where there was a governor's race and a Senate race, and the Republican candidates did not perform the same way.

DAVIS: No. And, you know, shout-out to our friend Stephen Fowler at Georgia Public Broadcasting. He and I were texting this morning, and he made the point that 1 in 10 Republicans in Georgia voted for Brian Kemp and then did not vote for Herschel Walker. So not only do I think there's an element of ticket splitting 'cause, sure, there was absolutely some Kemp-Warnock voters in a state like Georgia.

But another dynamic to this is some Republicans just sat out parts of the ballot, right? Like, maybe they couldn't affirmatively vote for a Democrat, but they just left it blank or wrote in another candidate. They just said, I can't affirmatively vote for these people. And I think that happened in places like Pennsylvania, where the Republican governor nominee, Doug Mastriano, was also a rather extreme candidate that people didn't want to vote for but may have voted down the ballot. So again, a weird election - tricky ballots. People were ticket splitting. People were sitting certain races on their own ballots out and voting for others. It was a really complicated night.

LIASSON: Yeah. And we all thought the ticket splitting was a thing of the past.

DAVIS: Right? Polarization makes it unlikely.

LIASSON: It hasn't happened like this, but it is. And I'll tell you something. To the extent that people did leave the Senate line blank, voted for Kemp in Georgia, that suggests that if Walker goes into a runoff, why would people come back to vote only for him? There'll be no other race on the ballot. Why would they bother if they've already left that line blank?

DAVIS: Yep.

KEITH: And also, the question of if Trump is running for president again, does that affect a runoff?

DAVIS: Also, one thing - a point that I think is worth being made - and Tam, I don't know if - you know, what the White House response has been to this election so far. But we talk a lot about, like, oh, is Trump going to run again in 2024? What's Trump going to do? What's Trump going to do? You know, this is the kind of midterm result that you look at a guy like President Biden and you also think, hey, maybe he feels pretty good about running for reelection now, too.

KEITH: Right. And not only does the White House feel pretty good about the night they had - about the election - but if Trump runs, Biden has some sort of, like, cosmic connection where he feels like he is the one who can beat Trump because he is the one who has beaten Trump.

OK. So President Biden last week delivered a speech where he said democracy was on the ballot. And he pointed to election deniers and people who had said that they may not accept the results of the election if they lose. So democracy, on some level, was on the ballot last night, and people have been conceding. Now, in some of these biggest races, someone like Kari Lake - that race is too close to call, and there's no concession in the offing yet. But Dr. Oz, Tudor Dixon, several other candidates who had supported the election lie - Trump's election lie - ultimately called their opponent and said, yep, you won.

LIASSON: Yeah. Now, that's a really interesting thing because the Trump playbook was very simple and available for all of his election denier endorsees, which is say the vote counting should stop on Election Day, declare victory, and if you're not named the winner, say it's fraud. We haven't heard that yet. As you said, some of these races for prominent election deniers, like Kari Lake or Mark Finchem in Arizona, haven't been called yet. So I'm waiting to see if those people do concede. One thing that I thought was interesting was Tim Ryan, who lost the Ohio Senate race, gave a concession speech where he talked about how important conceding was in a democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM RYAN: I have the privilege to concede this race to J.D. Vance because the way this country operates is that when you lose an election, you concede. And you respect...

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Amen.

RYAN: You respect the will of the people...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

RYAN: ...Right? We can't have a system where, if you win, it's a legitimate election, and if you lose, someone stole it.

KEITH: Acknowledging that you lost is a fundamental part of the American election system. And at least in several races so far, people are acknowledging that they lost.

Well, we're going to hear from President Biden this afternoon. He is holding a press conference at 4 p.m. We will be back in your feeds tomorrow with everything you need to know about that and the latest results. We will leave it there for today. But there is more coverage at npr.org, where you can also listen live. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

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

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

KEITH: And thank you 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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