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Congressional Races, Strategies Take Shape


The race for the Republican presidential nomination has hit a lull. The next group of primaries isn't for more than two weeks, so it might be a good time to look around at another campaign for control of the U.S. House of Representatives. After all, they control the federal budget. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute devotes his attention to Congress year round, and he joins us from their studios. Thanks very much for being with us, Norm.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Oh, my pleasure.

SIMON: If the Republican Party is now rallying around Mitt Romney as its presidential nominee, what are some of the implications for congressional races?

ORNSTEIN: Well, there are really two things to start with. The first is that the performance of a presidential candidate can either be a boost or a drag on candidates for Congress. It's something we call presidential coattails. The more interesting point is that Romney has embraced the Republican House budget. This is an agenda driven by Paul Ryan, and we're going to see in a way that's unusual this time, an interlinking of priorities of Congress with a Republican presidential candidate in which they both may rise or sink.

SIMON: I've to mention the Etch A Sketch remark. Didn't in some ways the Romney campaign also signal that they might change the narrative they're going to present in the fall campaign?

ORNSTEIN: I have little doubt that Mitt Romney is going to try to find a way to segue way to the middle from what's been a series of positions that are quite starkly conservative. But Romney has fully embraced Ryan's budget and House Republican's economic priorities. I don't think he can move the Etch A Sketch to get away from that. And, of course, the fact is most Republican members of Congress don't have to appeal to voters in the middle the way that Romney does because they're districts are safe and their concerns are in primaries over-anchored at the right.

SIMON: What role does the Tea Party play in these congressional elections?

ORNSTEIN: A couple of weeks ago, Scott, we had an election that was obscured because of the presidential primary in Ohio, where Jean Schmidt, a relative veteran in Congress and a hard-edged conservative was knocked off in a primary by a newcomer with Tea Party backing, basically because she had gone Washington. So the Tea Party as a movement remains a very significant force, and that's a force that's going to, among other things, keep House Republicans from moving towards any kinds of significant compromises through the remainder of the year and, of course, the moment of reckoning is the beginning of the new fiscal year, October 1, when we might have threats of shutdowns four and a half weeks before the election.

SIMON: Norm, what was the last - Congress' last approval rating in a poll you saw, or maybe it should be called disapproval rating?

ORNSTEIN: Pick your poison. The last three polls have been 9 percent approval, 11 percent approval and 13 percent approval.

SIMON: Well, that raises the question; this cannot be good news for incumbents and the people who hold the majority in Congress now.

ORNSTEIN: What remains interesting is that even if you ask the larger question, do you think most incumbents should be removed from office or re-elected, very solid majority, say kick 'em all out. But when you get to the money question: what about your own representative, they're still doing reasonably well. So most incumbents are still going to be re-elected. And the only way you're likely to see that enormous backlash, is if some explosive event occurs right before the election that reminds voters why they hate Congress so much. And that's why these showdowns at the end of September and beginning of October could prove so important.

Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."

SIMON: Thanks very much, Norm.

ORNSTEIN: My pleasure, Scott. Good to talk to you.


SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.