MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The country is in the final hours of voting in today's pivotal midterm elections. Many polls are now closed in several states with key races, including Indiana and Virginia, though some are staying open late to make up for some trouble with voting machines.
BLOCK: At NPR headquarters in Washington, our election unit is humming, getting ready to cover the full results with our reporters who are in place at dozens of campaign headquarters across the country.
We're joined now by our colleague Robert Siegel. He's in our election night studio, where he'll soon be co-hosting tonight's coverage along with Linda Wertheimer. And, Robert, if we're looking for looking for trends today -
ROBERT SIEGEL: Hello, Melissa.
BLOCK: Hi, Robert. This year not so easy to detect what those trends might be at this hour.
SIEGEL: Well, at this hour there are some numbers out on the Internet that purport to be leaked exit poll information, which - and some of it actually have been released elsewhere, which confirmed things that we've assumed for weeks. Which are that a great many voters are casting their vote on national issues as well as or as opposed to local issues.
And also the majority of voters disapprove of President Bush's performance as president. So no great surprises there. But we won't tick off numbers that are swimming around the Internet at this hour. We really don't know what they mean.
BLOCK: We did mention two states - Indiana and Virginia - and those are both places that are considered to be bellwethers that will indicate at least some of what's to come for the rest of the evening.
SIEGEL: Yes. Some of the early closing states have interesting contested House races. Those are in Indiana and also in Kentucky. And we'll get some sense of how the evening is shaping up for the Democrats and Republicans in the House based on those results.
And in the Senate, in Virginia, the polls closed just a few minutes ago but obviously many people are still voting. And that's where George Allen, freshman Republican senator, is trying to wind a second seat in the race that everyone thought was going to be very easy a few months ago for him. It turned out to be quite difficult, and he's facing a very strong challenge from Democrat Jim Webb.
And right now we're going to go to our reporters who are the headquarters of those Virginia Senate candidates, starting with Mike Pesca, who's in Vienna, Virginia, at Webb headquarters. Who do the folks there think is happening today?
MIKE PESCA: It's empty right now here. It's kind of odd. There are no supporters and they just erected the stage where either a victory or a concession speech will be delivered. Or maybe if the vote is that close no speech will be delivered, except we're going to wait and see.
But to me it's just kind of indicative of a campaign that maybe didn't even think two months ago they'd be in a position to possibly win this race and possibly flip the Senate.
SIEGEL: What did Mr. Webb, former secretary of the Navy, novelist, what did he do on his last day of campaigning, Mike?
PESCA: He was everywhere you'd expect him to be with everyone you'd expect him to be. The Mt. Rushmore of popular Democrats - Bill Clinton was here and the popular former Governor Mark Warner was with him. And he surrounded himself with Democratic establishment, trying to get out the message that a vote for me is a vote for change.
And it seems like the voters of Virginia did two things. They looked at George Allen's campaign missteps and they said maybe we do need a change. Then they cast their eyes to Jim Webb and a surprising number of them, at least according to the polls, changed their minds. There was something like a 16-point lead just a month ago or a little more than a month ago and that has been narrowed. There is no poll that says anything other than this race is too close to call.
SIEGEL: Okay. Mike Pesca at Webb headquarters. We'll be hearing from you during our special election coverage throughout the evening.
And now over to the campaign headquarters of Senator George Allen and Adam Hochberg. Adam are there people there at least yet?
ADAM HOCHBERG: Well, just a few people trickling in. The polls here closed at 7:00 Eastern time, about 10 minutes ago. And folks are just now filtering into the room. But they're still setting up the microphones and the balloons and getting the buffet table ready. So it looks like it's going to be a long night here.
SIEGEL: Many people described this Senate race during the early weeks, at least in the fall this year, as a race between Senator Allen and Senator Allen. He was his own worst rival during those weeks.
HOCHBERG: Well, you know, it's really stunning how close this race has become. It was only a few months ago I was with Senator Allen in South Carolina and he was running for president down there. His presidential campaign was in its early exploratory stages and getting some pretty good reviews from South Carolina Republicans. And then the bottom just dropped out of the Senate race.
There were the allegations of Senator Allen's alleged racial insensitivity. Questions about his religious background. All kinds of negative ads and personal attacks going both directions in this campaign and -
SIEGEL: All of which leaves us with a closely contested election in Virginia. Which who would've thunk it a year ago. Thank you very much. Adam Hochberg at Allen headquarters.
The polls have closed in a few states - Virginia one of them at 7:00 p.m.. but it's too early to see any votes. Also in Vermont. where we actually are going to venture a projection right now that Bernie Sanders who has been the Independent, actually Socialist member of the House from Vermont who has caucused with the Democrats in the House is, as was expected, the winner of the Senate race in Vermont. That's to fill the seat of the retiring Senator Jeffords.
And Bernie Sanders, again, will be an Independent in the Senate, but he has said that he will caucus with the Democrats.
And in Indiana, Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican, actually didn't even have a Democratic incumbent. He had a Libertarian running against him, that was it. And it's kind of a no brainer to say that he has won reelection today as the polls have closed in Indiana.
Howard Berkes is in Indiana. And, Howard, you have some more contested races than that Lugar race to look at tonight.
HOWARD BERKES: Very much more contested. There are three races we're watching here tonight. I'm at the election night gathering of Democrat Baron Hill, who's trying to get back into Congress. He was there until two years ago before he was defeated by Republican Mike Sodrel, who's now the Republican incumbent. They're in a very tight race here, at least according to the pre-election polls.
And the actual polls closed in the eastern part of this district an hour ago and the western part of the district just a little while ago at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time. And we don't have any returns yet, but there are a lot of people gathered here waiting for the candidate to show up, watching the TV screens, hoping for some news that'll be good news for Democrats.
SIEGEL: That's the Sodrel race. And you have another one that you're looking at as well.
BERKES: Yeah. There are two others. In the 8th Congressional District, both the 8th Congressional District and the 9th are along the Ohio River, along the Kentucky border. And in the 8th Congressional District, Republican John Hostetler, six-term incumbent elected in 1994 when Republicans took the House from the Democrats, is up against Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat, who's a very popular county sheriff here, conservative on social issues - gay marriage, abortion - the kind of Democrat who can beat Republicans in this district in southern Indiana in general.
And Ellsworth, the Democrat, was leading in pre-election polls. Hostetler may become the first Republican incumbent who loses tonight. We don't have returns yet, but that race could be decided early in the evening.
SIEGEL: It's Howard Berkes -
BERKES: And then in the second -
SIEGEL: Yes, go ahead, Howard.
BERKES: I was going to say, one more district, the 2nd District in the northern part of this state, another close race. So there are three districts here in Indiana we're watching closely tonight.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Howard. And the reason we're talking about Indiana is that the polls have closed there. So Indiana and Kentucky offer us an early glimpse of what might happen with House races across the country.
Throughout the evening, we're going to be hearing from our guest political observers. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and staff writer Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard. Welcome to both of you -
Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (The Weekly Standard): Thank you.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Thank you.
SIEGEL: All night long we're going to be adding a lot of numbers, subtracting some as well, I assume - how many House seats, how many governorships, how many Senate seats. I'd like to hear from both of you about whether they're likely to add up to some qualitative statement about our politics in our country.
E.J., what's at stake. What are we saying about ourselves today in this election do you think?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think people are making judgments on a series of things. They're making judgment on the war in Iraq and the country seems to have changed its judgment since its view in the period immediately after the war. Fox News just posted an exit poll from Virginia, which is a, had been thought of as a very Republican state. And there, according to the exit poll, by 54 to 44 percent, voters in Virginia were saying they disapproved of the war.
I think if there is a good Democratic night, it'll be a verdict on the war. So obviously on the administration's confidence, a verdict on President Bush and a judgment on the kind of campaign, I think, that the Republicans ran in the past.
The Republicans won with campaigns in which they argued voting Democratic weakens the country. Again, that didn't seem to play as well this year, especially because of Iraq.
SIEGEL: Matthew Continetti, what do you think?
Mr. CONTINETTI: I think at the end of the day we'll see great Democratic victories, Robert, but not much will change in our politics. We're a 49/49 nation. We got up to a 51/48 nation in 2004. I think we're going to be back at a 50/50 nation by the end of the night.
SIEGEL: So the margin, the gap between the two parties may still leave us with some degree of gridlock, perhaps in Washington. The war, do you see it as a referendum on the war today?
Mr. CONTINETTI: Absolutely this election is a repudiation, will turn out to be a repudiation of the conduct of the war in Iraq. There's no question. But I don't see much changing in the actual conduct in the war going forward.
SIEGEL: You've written about the Abramoff scandals. You've written extensively about that. Do you think that corruption figures much in the -
Mr. CONTINETTI: One interesting number out of the Fox News exit poll, 42 percent of voters were saying that corruption and Congressional scandals were they most important factor in their vote. I think that will be a very interesting result coming out tonight.
SIEGEL: E.J., it was said back in 1994 that the Republicans managed to nationalize the elections through the Contract with America, a reform conservative agenda that lots of Republican candidates join together with. Did either party succeed this year, you think so far, in nationalizing this election?
Mr. DIONNE: Both parties nationalized this election. The Democrats cause they wanted to and the Republicans inadvertently. The Republicans had hoped to win on local issues. Again, the exit polls show by about 2-to-1 voters voted on national issues, not local issues. And I think the president ended up nationalizing the election in the last month when he kept coming back to Iraq.
And so ironically, the president would've been much better off with a series of local elections, I think. Helped the Democrats in what they needed to do to win.
SIEGEL: So Tip O'Neill not withstanding, Matthew, you would agree? All politics is not local?
Mr. CONTINETTI: Oh no, absolutely not. Not in this election. In fact, I'd go even further. All politics is global at this point. The key issues facing our country are international in scope.
SIEGEL: Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.
Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: On our election night special we'll be hearing a lot more from you. And, Melissa, that's about - as I say, we've gone out on a limb calling the Indiana Senate race for Richard Lugar, who didn't have a Democrat running against him. And Bernie Sanders looks pretty good in Vermont, but we're not full of numbers for you right now.
BLOCK: Right. And more closings coming up at 7:30 Eastern - North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, although there at least one place - Cuyahoga County - where polls will be staying open late because of trouble with the voting booths.
SIEGEL: There's a lot of attention being paid to Ohio this year, where Democrats throughout the campaign season have been leading easily for the governorship and in recent weeks, not quite so easily but significantly for the Republican Senate seat of Mike DeWine. Sherrod Brown is running strong for that seat. So we're very curious.
That and some House races as well in Ohio that could change hands today.
BLOCK: Okay. Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: You bet.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Robert Siegel, who will be co-hosting our election night special coverage this evening along with our colleague Linda Wertheimer.
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