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First Polls Close In 2018 Midterm Elections

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: All right polls have just closed in a handful of states this election night. Officials there are busy counting ballots, and the results coming in now and over the next several hours from across the country will determine control of Congress and many states. They will also show us what the American people think about President Trump nearly two years into his term.

To talk about all of this, we are joined now here in the studio by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow. Hey, both of you guys.


MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

CHANG: All right, Scott.


CHANG: We have the first states reporting in results. Control of the House is a huge battle tonight. What are you watching right now?

DETROW: The first district I'm looking at is Kentucky's 6th Congressional District in the Lexington area. Now, this is not the type of district that Democrats absolutely need to win to regain control of the House.


DETROW: But it could tell us a lot. It went to President Trump by 12 - by 16 points in 2016. But Amy McGrath is the Democrat running against Andy Barr there. She is one of these candidates who went viral with big ads on the Internet. She's a veteran, really compelling candidate. Right now, it's neck and neck.


DETROW: Barr is up 51 to 48 percent with about 8 percent of precincts reporting. If she keeps it close or if she wins, that could tell us a lot about Democrats having a big night.

CHANG: There...


CHANG: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.

DETROW: Two other districts real quick...


DETROW: ...To watch are in the Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Richmond suburbs where polls just closed. These are the types of high-income, high-education districts that Democrats are really putting a lot of their chips and money and focus on. Those are seats held by Dave Brat and Barbara Comstock. Keep a close eye on those, especially the Comstock district.

CHANG: OK, there are also key Senate races we're watching tonight, Indiana for one. Republicans are trying to flip that seat to add to their Senate majority. What are we seeing in those results so far?

DETROW: With about 5 percent of precincts reporting, Republican Mike Braun has a 58 percent to 39 percent lead over Joe Donnelly. Again, it's really early on in the night there. So those could - those could narrow. The lead could widen.

But Donnelly is - is in a spot that a lot of Democrats find themselves in on the Senate this year. There are 10 states where Democrats are trying to win another term in states that President Trump carried in 2016. So Democrats had to play a lot of defense in the Senate, and if they want to - to keep it even or regain control...

CHANG: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Of the Senate, they're going to have to - they're going to have to swat back a lot of tough competitions from Republicans.


Mara Liasson, I want you to jump in here because it's it's too early to get a lot of results. But it's right on time to hear a lot of emails and messages from the various, like, PACs and organizations - right? - who are trying to set up expectations for the night. What are you seeing so far?

LIASSON: Well, so far, we're not seeing that much. We're seeing some results from red states. But I haven't seen any change in what I would call the Democrats' cautious optimism. They feel pretty strongly they are going to take the House back. In Florida, they feel they are on track, perhaps, to save the Senate seat there and - and get the governor's mansion.

So I think nothing really has changed. I do think you're starting to hear from the White House and from Republicans a redefinition of what success would mean just in case they do lose the House - comparisons to the number of seats that Barack Obama lost in his midterm versus the number of seats that Donald Trump might lose. So they're clearly getting ready to spin this tomorrow.

But so far tonight, we don't have enough returns to say.

CORNISH: So they're not playing up that referendum idea anymore, or...

LIASSON: Well, he has not backed off on that. Midterm elections are always a referendum on the president and the party in power. This president has embraced that more than any other president in modern history. He said, I'm not on the ballot, but I am on the ballot. This is a vote for me. And he has made it unavoidable that the choice tonight was either validating his leadership style or voters saying we want a check and balance on Donald Trump.

CORNISH: Scott, can you help us understand what's going on with congressional Democrats? They've been very anxious about taking over the House. I mean, are they still anxious?

DETROW: You know, a lot of the stats, a lot of the trends are going in their favor. But every Democrat remembers two years ago when they thought they were going to win the White House, and they lost and the shocking upset. So it's going to take a lot for Democrats to feel comfortable tonight.

But talking to Democrats in two key states that need to win a lot of seats to win back the House, California and New Jersey, they're saying they feel like they got the voters to the polls that they needed to get to the polls. In California, they feel like Latino turnout was high. And the record numbers are - not record, but high turnout that we're seeing in so many places is generally good news for Democrats.

CHANG: But - but what if Democrats fail to retake the House? Have they told you what that - have they said what that would mean if they fail?

DETROW: You know, for months, every time I've asked, that's such an existential question for Democrats...

CHANG: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...That they haven't even had an answer. I think it would mean two things - one, they have no idea how to message themselves, and two, a lot of Democrats are concerned that if Republicans retain control, President Trump is going to feel emboldened to do basically whatever he wants 'cause he'll feel like there have been no consequences at all for any choices that he's made in the White House.

LIASSON: If they lose, big, ugly, circular firing squad in the Democratic Party.

DETROW: Oh, yeah.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: Although one Democrat said to me, even if we win, we're going to form a circular firing squad 'cause that's what Democrats do.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, man.

CORNISH: You mentioned this earlier...

LIASSON: But it's going to be ugly if they lose.

CORNISH: But for Republicans, if they see some real losses, this doesn't change their approach to Trumpism, so to speak, does it?

LIASSON: Well, that's what's so interesting. I don't think it does because the people who are going to lose are the moderate Republicans - suburban districts where Democrats could win. So the people who - the Republicans...

CORNISH: But they were already headed towards the exits, it seems like.

LIASSON: Or some of them were, but the people who are going to be - the Republicans who are going to be left in the House of Representatives are going to be the Trumpist (ph) base. So there's not going to be - even if the party as a whole...


LIASSON: ...Wants to do some soul searching about whether Donald Trump's divisive message on immigration and race and crime actually hurt them more than it helped them, the people who are left in the House are going to be total Trump loyalists.

CHANG: That raises the question of what governing's going to look like 'cause we're going to see a Democratic majority in the House, and the minority in the House is going to be even more polarized. I mean, they're going to be this raucous minority inside the minority party. How is that going to work out?

DETROW: Well, remember in September, when President Trump veered back and forth on whether or not he wanted to cut a deal in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it seemed like he would strike a deal with Democrats, who would back away from it a day later. I think that would be par for the course on almost every big issue for the next two years if Democrats do take the House.

LIASSON: I don't even know if they'll even get to that point. I think maybe legislation grinds to a halt and oversight begins.

CHANG: Oh, lovely. That's NPR's Mara Liasson and NPR's Scott Detrow. Lots more to come. Stay with us. Well, stay with your NPR station for live coverage of election results and analysis all night. 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.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.