CHARLES: Hi. This is Charles (ph) aboard the National Science Foundation's Arctic region research vessel, Sikuliaq. In just a few hours, we'll arrive in port to refuel and reprovision so that we can return to the ice for more science. I have to go back to work now, so this podcast was recorded at...
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
I'm asking the producers, is it, like, solitude week at the POLITICS PODCAST?
DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: (Laughter).
DETROW: Perhaps - it is now. It is 1:07 Eastern on Tuesday, January 24.
CHARLES: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. Here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Sounds very, very cold to me.
WALSH: Sounds like a long trip too.
DETROW: But peaceful - I kind of want to do it. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.
WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
DETROW: All right. It's like - what? - three weeks into the new session of Congress, right?
DAVIS: About that.
DETROW: But perfect time to talk about next year's congressional elections - but we are doing that because candidates are already thinking a lot about them, especially in the Senate. So let's talk about it. And as a refresher, Democrats did better than expected last year, and they picked up a Senate seat. But, Sue, the 2024 map looks like it is a good one for Republicans. Why exactly is that?
DAVIS: Well, the past couple of maps have also looked like they would be good for Republicans, and they didn't always turn out that way. So it's important to remember that the map matters a lot, but it's not everything. But, yes, 2024, as we sit here today, looks like a very good map for the Republican Party. And why is that? Every two years, about a third of the Senate is up for reelection, and this particular mix of senators and states really plays to the Republican advantage. Democrats are representing 23 states that are up for reelection, many of them in red states that former President Trump won, or at least in purple states, and Republicans defending 10 seats almost entirely in pretty safe places like Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, places that they're probably not going to face much of a challenge from Democrats - so a cycle in which Republicans have more opportunities to be on offense and potentially flip more seats and Democrats playing a whole lot of defense in really tough terrain.
DETROW: OK. So, Deirdre, a good point Sue just made. It's beyond the map, right? Like baseball announcers say, that's why you play the game.
WALSH: (Laughter) It's about candidate quality, right?
DETROW: Candidate quality and strategy too - remind us how Democrats and Gary Peters, the Michigan senator who ran that strategy, approached last year and why that mattered.
WALSH: I mean, he talked a lot about candidates. I mean, a big part of the Democratic strategy was trying to paint Republican candidates, Republican challengers as extreme. And a lot of that was linking them to former President Trump, who was not super popular in a lot of the competitive states where the midterms were fought last cycle, places like New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia, Arizona, I mean, the swing states - right? - where Republicans really thought they had some good opportunities to flip seats in a 50-50 Senate. But as Sue said - right? - the map isn't everything, and it really did come down to candidate quality. Besides painting Republicans as extreme, Peters and Democratic incumbents and challengers, people like John Fetterman in an open seat in Pennsylvania, focused on talking about Democratic accomplishments, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, bills that Democrats passed on their own to lower prescription drug prices to address inflation. But Peters, a lot, focused on the political environment of last year, which was shaped to a great deal by the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. And as soon as the leaked decision came out last spring, Peters was very aggressively out there saying that issue was going to be a defining one in a lot of these races. And a lot of Democrats argued that really did sort of give them some momentum or help them sort of reshape the debate going into the 2022 midterms.
DETROW: Sue, the candidate issue on the Republican side was big. Mitch McConnell continues to be minority leader and as he's made it pretty clear that he thinks that is a big reason why. What, if anything, can he do to change the type of people who are running and get nominations next year? And, frankly, how much do Republican primary voters care what Mitch McConnell thinks about who should be the nominee in their states?
DAVIS: Well, this is the bind that Mitch McConnell is in. I mean, he probably has a better political acumen at picking the right kind of candidates that can win in certain states and certainly in purple states or swing states, but it's not really up to him. You know, McConnell is a fascinating figure in that he's not particularly popular among base Republican voters. And I think as 2022 proved, he doesn't have a whole lot of sway, particularly in a world where former President Trump still is the most dominant force in Republican politics and may well be the 2024 nominee. And that's a really important dynamic of the next election. It's going to be a presidential election year. It's going to be a lot harder to differentiate from the top of the ticket. And Donald Trump seems still pretty inclined in weighing in on these races, and his endorsement of candidates, his ability to elevate them through primary processes, has been a huge frustration for Republicans like Mitch McConnell, who, I think - you know, look at Georgia as a great example in 2022. Herschel Walker was not the candidate that Mitch McConnell and Mitch McConnell allies wanted in that race. But when Donald Trump endorsed him, it kind of made him powerless in that dynamic. So I think that that's going to be one of the challenges for the Republican Party is how engaged does Donald Trump get? Does he support more Herschel Walkers in purple states like Georgia? And can party leaders do anything about it? And they don't really have a ton of sway. And if anything, there is this sense among the conservative grassroots that the harder the establishment comes in for a candidate, the more unpalatable they could be seen to the base voters. So a lot of this is sort of sleight of hand behind who you support and how you support them.
DETROW: So let's talk about a couple specific states. Let's start with Arizona, one of the five or six states that really matters for the next presidential election. I would say that Kyrsten Sinema has a primary challenge, but she does not because she left the Democratic Party recently. But House Democrat Ruben Gallego just announced he is running for the seat.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
RUBEN GALLEGO: I'm Ruben Gallego. I'm running to be the senator of Arizona because you deserve somebody fighting for you and fighting with you every day to make sure you have the same chance (speaking Spanish).
DETROW: So a couple of things to talk about here - and first, it's worth pointing out, Sinema has not yet declaratively said whether or not she is running for reelection. But, Deirdre, if she did run, it seems to me that a Democratic candidate and a Democratic-leaning or historically Democratic, independent candidate would be quite the combination to give a Republican a big advantage, right?
WALSH: It would. I mean, Arizona is a state that the electorate is roughly a third Democrat, a third Republican, a third independent. If she ran as an independent and Gallego runs as a Democrat and there is a strong Republican challenger in the mix, you could see how the Republican could win. Democratic leaders are concerned about that. They're being really careful not to really weigh in right now. Last night I talked to the DSCC chair, Gary Peters, who made a point to say that Sinema is somebody he considers a friend. Not all Democrats - a lot of progressive Democrats like Ruben Gallego - would not agree with that statement, but said, you know, it's far too early to decide what our strategy is going to be like in Arizona. And a lot of other Senate Democrats said similar things with the exception of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who enthusiastically is backing his colleague, Senator Sinema, who he agrees with philosophically on a lot of things.
DAVIS: Arizona is going to be a fascinating state in 2024 because of how crucial it is to the presidential race. But because of those unusual dynamics that Deirdre mentioned - like, the electorate is so fascinating that no party has, like, a built-in advantage, and it might be the most purple swingy state there is. And then if...
DAVIS: ...You add in this - if Sinema ultimately does run, you have a scenario where the winner would win with a plurality of the vote. And it creates a huge opportunity for Republicans there because Gallego most obviously would draw from Democratic-leaning voters. He's more progressive than Sinema and sort of running on a lot of the progressive angst towards her more moderate voting record. So in trying to take out Sinema, getting in the race might actually benefit the Republican Party if they put up a candidate who can win. And Arizona's been a good place to tell that story. You know, you look at candidates like Blake Masters for Senate or Kari Lake for governor, both lost in the midterms because they were too far right for the state. So it's a good place where Republicans are having their own identity crisis and are still working through it.
DETROW: Right. Like you said, the perfect purple state in so many ways, and yet two Democratic senators and now a Democratic governor, in large part because of which Republicans got the nomination.
WALSH: And also, if President Biden's at the top of the ticket like he's expected to be, that could be a factor there too. I mean, Mark Kelly won reelection this cycle by, you know, very deliberately distancing himself from Biden on issues like immigration and other things. So it'll be interesting to me sort of how different candidates deal with the incumbent president.
DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back with more of this conversation.
We are back. And a few of the states on the map this year are interesting examples. And I think West Virginia and Montana are probably the most extreme cases of a big trend that has really defined national politics over the last couple of decades, and that is fewer and fewer and fewer states are voting one way for president and then electing somebody from the other party for governor or especially for U.S. Senate - that states seem to be moving more and more in ideological blocs. West Virginia and Montana, two pretty conservative states that both have multiple-term Democratic senators - that's going to be a big part of the conversation next year.
DAVIS: Sure. I mean, I think if you are - if you listen quietly, you can hear Majority Leader Chuck Schumer quietly begging both Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to run for reelection. I mean...
DAVIS: ...Tester and Manchin are probably at the very top of the list of Democrats who are probably considering not running again and also Democrats that their colleagues would very much like to run again because they have proven an ability to win in states where almost no other Democrats can win statewide. Probably truer in West Virginia than Montana - Montana has had more statewide Democrats elected more recently. But in a 2024 presidential year, these are states that are probably pretty safely going to vote Republican - certainly West Virginia - and who can outrun the top of the ticket? Those are probably the only two Democrats that could. And if one or both decides to retire, I think almost everybody would move those seats into sort of leaner-safe Republican territory. So the effort to get them to run again - because, again, beating incumbents are hard and beating popular incumbents is even harder - are probably the best chances for Democrats in the next cycle.
WALSH: Right. And both of those senators haven't, as Sue said, decided whether they're going to run for reelection. Both came back after the recent recess and have been telling reporters they're still trying to figure out what they're going to do. They're still in conversations with their families. I asked Senator Manchin last night if he decides to run, would he run as a Democrat, you know, given that Senator Sinema just changed herself to an independent? And he didn't answer that question.
WALSH: So like Sue said, I mean, he just has such a brand as a former governor and senator who's won statewide as a Democrat, I don't know that there's really anyone else in that category in his state that could even come close. And there is a field of Republicans that are eager to take Manchin on because they think that they can run against him as the key vote that helped President Biden get so much of his agenda through.
DETROW: Just to follow up, is that something that people are talking about as a possible realistic scenario, or is that Joe Manchin being cagey in the hallway and not wanting to answer an interesting question?
WALSH: I think it's Joe Manchin not wanting to answer. I mean, it's sort of his MO...
WALSH: ...To sort of keep people guessing, and he wants to be in the mix of a lot of these...
WALSH: ...Discussions. I don't really know if it would change much, but I guess it gets back to the issue of running in the cycle of a presidential campaign. And he would already, I'm sure, argue that he is a different kind of Democrat than President Biden - if he runs for reelection, as we expect him to. But I don't know if he changed the label, whether that would really make much of a difference in West Virginia because he's just so well-known already.
DAVIS: Another Democrat I would put in that sort of red-state mix is Sherrod Brown of Ohio. I consider Ohio a red state now. I think even - and especially after the midterm elections, like, it's a pretty reliably conservative state at this point. But Sherrod Brown is a progressive Democrat who, again, has defied a lot of those expectations in a red state because he also has a very strong brand. But he's done something that Tester and Manchin haven't done yet. He's hired a campaign manager. So he's at least starting to take steps that signal he does intend to run for reelection. People have certainly hired campaign managers in the past and changed their mind. But I think a lot of Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when he made that announcement that he will run 'cause I think a good example of if he were to decide to retire, there probably aren't a lot of Democrats that could carry Ohio in a presidential year.
WALSH: The other thing I was noticing when I looked at the map is there are some states where there are Democratic incumbents expected to run for reelection that were competitive in the last cycle - Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen. Those were all big battleground races in 2022. I think most people expect those folks to officially run - you know, announce their intention soon and run again. But if for some reason something changes or Republicans learn from some of the lessons, like in Pennsylvania in 2022 - I mean, I think those are all going to be races we'll be covering.
DETROW: Are there any states at all that Republicans currently hold that they're worried about defending?
DAVIS: Not really. I mean, that's sort of what's fascinating about this cycle is that these are states that - I mean, I guess if you had some outlandish sort of scenario. But Mississippi, Utah, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Indiana - like, these are not places, unless you have a rock star candidate or a really flawed Republican candidate, that are likely to be hypercompetitive, especially with presidential dynamics.
WALSH: Yeah, I mean, the real contests - right? - are in the primary, like...
WALSH: ...In Indiana where we expect there to be a competitive primary to replace Senator Braun, who's running for governor. And that'll be, I think, a real interesting test case for sort of the pulse of the Republican Party this cycle in terms of a conservative like Jim Banks running against potentially more of an establishment candidate like former Governor Mitch Daniels.
DAVIS: Now, what I would say about the Republican side is it's interesting to watch what some of them do in relation to the presidential race. Some of the Republicans up - Rick Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri - are folks that are known to harbor potentially some presidential ambitions. Now, I don't know if Trump being in the race eliminates the case for them to run, but they certainly have that ambition. And, like, so many things could unfold. And if any of those were to become open-seat races, that might change dynamics. But as of right now, I think all of them would be pretty heavily favored in their races.
DETROW: That's a good point. And just again, as we talk about senators making up their minds - at this point in the 2020 cycle, that January of the year before - because I was flying out to all these announcements - we had, like...
DETROW: ...A half-dozen declared candidates...
DETROW: ...A good chunk of them from the Senate by now. So far, not happening - of course, Trump has said he's running. A lot of Republicans are doing the things you do, but nobody else has formally jumped into the race yet, which is interesting.
DAVIS: Yeah, extremely. And I think that that is what might defy some of these expectations is there's this sense that people need to declare early, make their attentions known early, certainly in Senate and House races. But I think a lot of these Republicans are doing this dance around the presidential, and it's hard to get in if Trump is in because there's not a lot of oxygen for alternatives right now. But, you know, if he gets out of the race, if the race seems more competitive, there could be later-breaking momentum in the Republican primary fight than we might otherwise anticipate right now.
DETROW: All right. The internet tells me we have 651 days till the 2024 election.
DAVIS: And many podcasts to go...
DAVIS: ...Before we sleep. Yeah.
DETROW: So we will revisit this a few times, I think.
DETROW: On that note, I am Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.
WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
DETROW: 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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