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GOP Faces A Midterm Report Card, Democrats Seek Control


It is Election Day.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You got to go out and vote.


BARACK OBAMA: Don't boo. Vote.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What are Democrats for? We are for the people.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And President Donald Trump has been delivering.

MARTIN: After two years with full control of Congress and the White House, Republicans face a referendum on their performance. President Trump says he's made good on what he said on election night 2016.


TRUMP: We have to do a great job. And I promise you that I will not let you down. We will do a great job.


Now, we should say the GOP has had some high-profile legislative failures.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Obamacare is the law of the land. It's gonna remain the law of the land until it's replaced. We did not have quite the votes to replace this law. And so, yeah, we're going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.

GREENE: And here's the sound of one big success.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This is a great day for the country. It's been 31 years since we've done comprehensive tax reform.

MARTIN: For their part, Democrats have been largely on the outside looking in. Now, they're looking for redemption.


BERNIE SANDERS: So the Democratic Party has got to make it clear which side it's on. And I'm going to do everything I can to make certain that it is on the side of the working families.

MARTIN: And promising to be a check on President Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We have a responsibility to draw a line with these administrative actions and say no.

MARTIN: And by this time tomorrow, we'll have a good idea of what voters have decided. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about this midterm season. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So it seems like there's been a lot of hype over these particular midterms ever since Donald Trump was inaugurated. I mean, as you look back, have they shaped up the way you thought they would?

LIASSON: I think that despite all of the twists and turns in this election cycle, the race has been pretty stable. But, you know, we've had a rollercoaster. There were various times, especially in the beginning of the cycle, when Republicans thought they could pick up as many as five Senate seats. Democrats at one point thought they might have had a path to get the majority in the Senate. But I think that everybody's come down to earth now. And we're where we were where Republicans could pick up anywhere between one and three Senate seats. Democrats are just hoping to limit their losses and win the House.

GREENE: I mean, one thing we can say for certain - there's so much energy in both parties right now - a lot of enthusiasm in the country. I mean, there is potential for a record turnout numbers we're talking about. For candidates, is this more about getting undecided voters and winning them over? Or is this all about turning out the base?

LIASSON: Well, it's turned out to be a base election. Certainly, the president believes in that. The president is always all about his base. He tends to operate with a kind of social media or cable news business model, which is he doesn't really worry much about expanding his audience. He just wants them to watch the show more hours a day.

GREENE: Be stuck to the TV, yeah.

LIASSON: Yeah, because - and extreme content or kind of very incendiary rhetoric equals more engagement. That's the social media business model. And for President Trump, it worked in 2016. It got his core base voters - white working-class voters to turn out in greater numbers. And that seems to be what he's hoping will happen this time. The thing that's been unusual about this election is usually you have one side that's energized and the other side that's complacent. That's what we've seen in most midterm elections in the past.

This time Democrats had the edge all along. They might still have a little edge. But what happened in the last month or so is Republicans have also gotten amped up. The Kavanaugh fight helped them. Also it's October - Republicans starting to come home. So you really do see two tribes very excited and energized about this election.

GREENE: You know, Rachel and I have both been out talking to voters. And I want to dig in a little bit to the Trump appeal. There's one voice that's really stuck with me. She's in Poplar Bluff, Mo. She works at this factory that was actually hit by President Trump's tariffs - lost jobs because of it. And I was asking her, Michelle Spurgeon, about what she thinks of the president.


GREENE: I mean, have you lost any faith in him...


GREENE: ...Since this tariff went into effect?

SPURGEON: No. It's hard right now. I mean, a lot of times when things are hard, they're going to get harder until they start getting better. That's just a fact of life.

GREENE: Mara, she's just not with Trump. She's like totally with him - saying, I'm willing to sacrifice for you because I believe so much in what you're doing.

LIASSON: Right. And, you know, Trump said famously in 2016 he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and he wouldn't lose any voters. The corollary in 2018 is he could stand on a soybean field and put a lot of tariffs out there and hurt soybean farmers, and they'd still stick with him. And that's, I think, what you're hearing there.

But Trump believes - and there's a lot of evidence to show that he's right - that emotional issues - culture war issues, race, crime, immigration - work better at energizing voters than economic issues. And I think you see that with all these farmers who are being hurt by Trump's policies in their pocketbook. But in their heart, they agree with him on these other issues. And they're sticking with them.

MARTIN: Mara, most Republican candidates have openly embraced the president. I mean, even if they were reluctant early on, most of them have have gotten on the Trump train. What are these elections going to tell us about the GOP's identity going forward?

LIASSON: Well, I think it's going to tell us a lot. Trump has definitely remade the Republican Party in his own image. But if they do lose a lot of seats, they're going to have to rethink that. And there are a lot of suburban House districts where you see the tremendous falloff in white college-educated women who are turning away from the Republican Party. So I think this election is going to tell us a lot about the limits of Trump's base. How big is it? Can he get them out in an election where he's not on the ballot? And I think that Republicans are either going to come out of this triumphant and more Trump-ist or in a place where they have to do a lot of soul-searching.

MARTIN: What about the Democrats? I mean, there's a lot of talk about how Democrats have been reaching out to try to extend their tent - recruiting candidates of color, recruiting more women. In particular, Ayana Pressley - she's a city councilwoman from Boston who unseated a Democratic incumbent in the primary there. She seems likely to become the first black congresswoman from Massachusetts. I want to play a little bit of what she had to say earlier this year.


AYANNA PRESSLEY: I'm not going to pretend that representation doesn't matter. You cannot have a government for and by the people if it is not represented by all of the people.

MARTIN: Representation matters. What is this year's Democratic slate of candidates going to tell us about the party's future?

LIASSON: I think the Democratic Party is going to look a lot more diverse. It's going to look more female. It's going to look younger and browner when we're finished with this election. One of the things that's historic about this election - in addition to fielding a large number of female candidates, they're competing everywhere. And if there is going to be a blue wave, Democrats have to have their surfboards in the water to catch it. And in the past, they used to leave a lot of House races uncontested. They're not doing that this year.

GREENE: But, Mara, even if the Democratic Party is exciting people by having this roster of diverse candidates - a lot more women - there was a woman who our colleague Leila Fadel spoke to on a piece that aired on our program. Her name is Christina Rodriguez (ph). She lives in El Paso, Texas, and she was talking to Leila about why she thinks she is not going to vote in these midterms.


CHRISTINA RODRIGUEZ: I really don't think about it. It's kind of sad to say. But I don't think about like, OK, well, what can be better in my life. It's like I do what I can do to make my life better. I don't depend on them to change things for me.

GREENE: As much as the narrative is there's going to be this big turnout and lots of energy, I mean, a lot of people still don't vote in midterms, right? Is that a problem for Democrats or maybe both parties?

LIASSON: Well, I think that the woman that you just heard from completely crystallizes Democratic nightmares. If they can't get high turnout among Hispanics and young voters - they don't need it everywhere, but they definitely need it in places like Texas and Arizona and Nevada. If they can't do that, then they have failed to convince women like that as to why voting is connected to making her life better.

MARTIN: OK. So, Mara, we've talked an awful lot about Congress. But what other races are you keeping your eye on?

LIASSON: Well, I'm really watching governors' races. They often don't get as much attention as the congressional races, but they are extremely important for the next election cycle 2020. Donald Trump really needs to have a Republican governor in Florida. When you look at the states where he won - Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan - all of them had Republican governors in 2016 - and state legislative races because if Democrats are shut out once again from state legislatures, they will have no say in the next redistricting process that happens after the 2020 census.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson for us - thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.