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Election Analysis: What Were American Voters Trying To Tell Us?


Well, what were American voters trying to say last night? Robby Mook and Scott Jennings have interpretations of that. Mook managed Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016. Jennings is a Republican political strategist who is close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Gentlemen, good morning to you both. Thanks for coming by.


ROBBY MOOK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings, let's start with you. What do you read in these results?

JENNINGS: A couple of things. In the Senate, it strikes me that Brett Kavanaugh locked in the Senate for Republicans. If you look where they picked up seats, it was where Democrats voted against Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court in...

INSKEEP: Missouri, North Dakota - places like that.

JENNINGS: Yeah, Indiana. And even in West Virginia, where the Democrats won a closely contested seat, Democrat Joe Manchin voted for Kavanaugh. So I think what we saw in mid-October was Kavanaugh locking in. On the bad side for Republicans, the suburbs obviously went blue. Democrats did well in the suburbs.

And I think that, tactically speaking, the decision to go for immigration at the end of the race instead of to focus on the economy, which is terrific, might've cost Republicans a bit in the suburbs. So pivoting out of this, if I'm President Trump, you've got to think about the economy to try to get back into the good graces of the suburbs.

INSKEEP: I was at a campaign rally on Friday night where the president said, I know people want me to talk more about the economy, the economy's great. And then he switched right back to immigration.

JENNINGS: Yeah. He's going to have - I know he thinks it's boring. He's going to have to embrace the boring. I mean, I live in the suburbs. I moved out there because I want it to be boring. I want to get up and go to work, take my kids to school, rinse and repeat, watch The Weather Channel and "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse." I mean, that's what you want to do in the suburbs. They want stability, peace and prosperity, and the president is delivering it. He just has to stay on message with it recover those for 2020.

INSKEEP: Robby Mook, I'm thinking of the last couple of midterms in which a House changed control - 2010, 2014. Each time, the Republicans won a House. It sticks in my mind that after each election result, I can remember a Republican - Mitch McConnell may have been one of them - saying we recognize that the American people don't actually like us very much, a remarkably frank statement saying, we know this is an oppositional vote, and now we have to earn people's trust. Do Democrats think that people like them?

MOOK: I think, absolutely. If you look at the popular vote margins - you just brought up 2004...

INSKEEP: 2014.

MOOK: ...Excuse me - 1994, 2010. The popular vote margin there was probably something like five, six points. You're looking at a popular vote margin here for Democrats of nine points. So despite gerrymandering, despite voter suppression tactics by the Republicans, Democrats took back the House. And I think it was an overwhelming rebuke of the president. As Scott said, he had everything going in his favor here. The economy's doing really, really well.

People wanted accountability. So I absolutely think people trust those Democratic House candidates to go and provide that accountability. And as was mentioned earlier, we saw a bunch of people get elected who come from law enforcement, from national security, so on. This is a whole new class of folks that are going to go to get pragmatic work done.

INSKEEP: And we should mention very high turnout election. You said 9 points. Some other counts are 7 points. We don't know the exact popular vote margin...

MOOK: Right.

INSKEEP: ...But a big popular vote margin for Democrats. Are you confident that this is a margin that could carry you in 2020, that these are voters that could win an election in 2020?

MOOK: Yeah. A really important thing we saw last night were those gubernatorial wins in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan. Those are obviously states that were a challenge for us. Florida stands out for me as a state that just continues to be really, really tough for us, you know, both in the gubernatorial and the Senate race last night. But in the upper Midwest, you know, we saw people come back to the Democratic Party both in the House map and those gubernatorial races.

INSKEEP: I want to put something else on the table for you, gentlemen. President Trump - you critiqued, Scott Jennings, the president's campaigning somewhat. There is something that I think the president did that a lot of people clearly found revolting that may have worked or at least not hurt Republicans in certain places.

The president's own people put out an ad that was so racist that even Fox News and every other network stopped running it. The president spoke of the black candidate for governor in Florida as someone who's not equipped to be governor. There was remarkable racial language in this election. And in certain places, Republicans won anyway. What do you make of that?

JENNINGS: Well, I think the president thought he needed to continue to energize his base on the immigration issue. But I think they'd already gotten there. The Kavanaugh fight, I think, brought the parties to parity on energy. And...

INSKEEP: So you don't think that language had anything to do with the results?

JENNINGS: No. I think immigration, at the end, was overkill for the president. He would've been wiser to let Kavanaugh carry the Senate races and focus on the economy to try to mute some of the losses in the suburban areas. They tactically went for immigration, and it did not pay off in my opinion. I - again, if you look at the impact of the courts on elections, McConnell went all-in on the Supreme Court in 2016. And I think it delivered the presidency. He went all in on Kavanaugh in 2018. And I think it delivered the Senate.

So if you're President Trump, you're like, where am I a little softer now? And it's these areas that are really focused on the economy. Robby mentioned the upper Midwest, you know, very focused on the economy. Suburbs - very focused on the economy. That's what he's got to talk about.

INSKEEP: Robby Mook.

MOOK: Yeah, I actually agree. I mean, I think the president's got to pivot away from this. We saw in the Virginia midterm elections in 2017, the Republicans - Ed Gillespie went all-in on these racist ads, and it absolutely backfired. And so they've got to find a better path. But I also want to put this in context. In 2010, the Democrats lost the House and kept the Senate. And Barack Obama called it a shellacking. I think we need to see Donald Trump come out and acknowledge this was a shellacking last night for him and his message.

INSKEEP: That is true.

JENNINGS: And Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012. I think we're reliving this same cycle. I think there's a better-than-50 percent chance Trump wins in 2020.

INSKEEP: Because now he's got a House to run against. And maybe I'll give you the last word, Robby Mook, because Republicans are still in a situation where they can get things done. They've got the presidency. They've got the Senate. They can confirm a bunch more judges, as Scott Jennings has alluded to. Democrats arguably are in a situation where they can mainly just oppose or investigate the president. Is that going to be enough for them?

MOOK: I think there's opening, for example, on infrastructure for Democrats to work with the administration. They have said that. But to just take on what Scott said - look, this president has had zero accountability. And his job approval last night was 39. Exit polls are saying 44. It's going to go down as soon as the American people see the light of day on what this administration is really doing. That's what the Democrats in the House are going to provide.

INSKEEP: Robby Mook and Scott Jennings. One was Hillary Clinton's campaign manager. The other advises Mitch McConnell. Thanks to both of you.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "CHILL DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.