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What To Look For As Big Races This Midterm Continue To Be Decided


Let's take stock of where we are this election night. Polls have closed in nine states. And to tell us about the results so far and to give us the roadmap to the long night of counting and waiting ahead, we're joined by three of NPR's political correspondents. Mara Liasson - hey there, Mara.


CORNISH: Scott Detrow - hey, Scott.


CORNISH: Tamara Keith, welcome to the studio.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Glad to be here with you.

CORNISH: We have many ex-congressional reporters in the room...


CORNISH: ...So we're about to get into the weeds.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Including me. You've got it covered, man (laughter).

CORNISH: Yeah, ecstatic. Scott, give us the latest.

DETROW: As the current (laughter) congressional reporter...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

DETROW: Well, the big news right now is it looks like Democrats are on the verge of their first pick-up of a Republican-held congressional district. This is a district in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that we, as people live here, have seen the ad after ad after ad. It's expensive. And it's the type of district that Democrats need to win a lot of to retake control of the House of Representatives.

CORNISH: Why? What kind of demographics are here that make the difference?

DETROW: It's a suburban district, high-income, high-education. And it's one of the 25 districts that voted for a Republican for Congress in 2016 but also voted for Hillary Clinton. Right now, Democrat Jennifer Wexton has a wide lead over incumbent Republican Barbara Comstock.

CORNISH: Also, we have a governor's race. Information here?

DETROW: I have not seen that yet.


DETROW: But there's also an interesting...


DETROW: ...But one more interesting House race to look at, though, is that this is a much more Republican-favorable district, and that is the 6th Congressional District in Kentucky. President Trump won that district by 16 points in 2016. But right now, the Democrat Amy McGrath is neck and neck with Republican incumbent Andy Barr. It's 50-to-49 McGrath. If Democrats win that district, that says that this could be a really big night for Democrats.

CHANG: And Mara, read the tea leaves for us, as you always do. I mean, Democrats have been talking about this huge blue wave that's going to be crashing across the country this election night. How big, how blue will this wave be, you think?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, the definition - excuse me - of a wave is where all of the close races tend to go in one direction. Think of it more of a tsunami that keeps on rolling in...

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: ...Not a humongous 100-foot wave where they win by huge margins.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: I think that's the way to understand it. But the - we knew there was going to be a blue wave. Democrats were going to pick up seats. The question was how big was it going to be.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: How many House seats would they end up with? And so far, what we've seen tonight - it's very early - but they are on track. They are on track to where they want to be.

CORNISH: Tam, remind us how much effort this president has put into the last couple of weeks, just, like, the rallies and the events, right? I mean, he's really - I keep hearing this phrase - put it out on the field tonight.

KEITH: Yes. That is the phrase that we are getting from numerous White House officials, that the president left it all on the field, which is, you know, one of those great sports references, like giving 110 percent.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KEITH: So what they're saying is - yes...

LIASSON: Or he didn't leave anything on the field. I always am confused about that metaphor.


CORNISH: It's a little early in the night to be talking about it...


CORNISH: ...But I think (laughter) what's important is, like, how are they setting up the messaging for the next couple hours?

KEITH: Yes. So let's lay out what they're saying. They are saying they - their goal is to defy history. And the way they define history is different than maybe the way we would define a wave or the way we would define a good night or a bad night. They are focusing on the history of presidents who've had really, really bad nights in midterms - so for instance, President Obama in 2010, who lost 63 seats, or President Clinton in 1994, who lost 54. They are saying that, you know, sure, we could probably maybe lose the House. But, you know, there are other presidents who have had it worse.

CORNISH: Comparatively, right. Although this is tied to approval ratings.

LIASSON: But what does it matter if they have - if they lose the House, and the other guy gets to send you subpoenas and investigate you?

KEITH: Right. That - yes. Those are the challenges. And the reality is that whether the Senate goes to Democrats or stays with Republicans, it's still going to be an incredibly narrowly divided Senate. And President Trump has faced challenges in getting some of his policies through a narrowly divided Republican Senate.

CHANG: Scott Detrow, are you seeing some new results come in?

DETROW: Yeah. We have one new call. And this is not particularly surprising, but Senator Tim Kaine has won re-election in Virginia. And the fact that he won this early in the night - Virginia's an increasingly purple state. But Virginia was called (laughter) very late in 2016 on the presidential level. This was a pretty easy run for Tim Kaine tonight. In Indiana, though, it's a different story for Democrats. Joe Donnelly is one of many Democrats facing a very tough re-election challenge in a state where President Trump is popular and won. He is trailing...

CHANG: Won by almost 20 points, right? Indiana? In 2016?

DETROW: And that's about the margin right now. Republican Mike Braun has 57 percent to 39 percent for Joe Donnelly, with 20 percent of precincts reporting in Indiana.

CHANG: I want to talk about turnout, Mara. I mean, we've been talking a lot about how this particular election is going to see a huge turnout, potentially record turnout, the highest turnout in decades. Which party benefits most from that record turnout?

LIASSON: Well, clearly the Democrats benefit if we're on track to see the biggest turnout since 1966, which our Domenico Montanaro predicted based on the early vote earlier this evening. But I think what's significant is that Donald Trump said the other day nobody paid attention to the midterms. Now the midterms are really hot.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: In other words, he's made the midterms really hot, which is...

CHANG: Right. A hot ticket.


LIASSON: ...His metric for success.

KEITH: Making the midterms hot again.

LIASSON: And he did. And he did because Donald Trump can motivate his base voters, but he also motivates the Democrats' base voters. And that's - I think - what happened.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: I mean, there was this huge counter-reaction against Trump. And what we know from midterms in the past is the midterm electorate is a Republican electorate. It's older, more rural, whiter, more churchgoing, more married. And Democratic voters - younger, browner, more female, more single, more secular - just don't show up in the midterms. Maybe this is the year that they finally exorcise that curse.

CHANG: But a question about turning out the base. I mean, President Trump has been really focusing like a laser on his message about illegal immigration, about the caravan, about changing the 14th Amendment to get rid of birthright citizenship.


CHANG: Could that rhetoric backfire in affluent suburban districts where...

LIASSON: Of course. Well, of course. That's the big risk.

CHANG: ...They need to keep House seats?

LIASSON: That's been the big risk that he's taking and had a lot of Republicans biting their fingernails because for every white, non-college base voter that he energizes with this notion that illegal immigrants are coming and invading our country, and they're coming here to kill us, you make a suburban, college-educated female voter even more angry at you.

CHANG: Yeah. Right.

LIASSON: So that's the big risk that he took.

CORNISH: Scott...

CHANG: Scott Detrow - sorry, go - yeah.

CORNISH: Yeah. In the minute that's left, what are the races we need to watch as polls close at 8:00?

DETROW: Well, as polls close at 8:00, a whole bunch of states come in. One state where results are starting to trickle in - but because it's divided up by timezones, there's still voting going on - is Florida. And that's an interesting counter-story to Indiana, where you have a Democrat - Bill Nelson is actually leading by a couple of points against Republican Governor Rick Scott right now. This is a state that Democrats earlier in the year thought was a state that would - they would have to try really hard to not lose. But so far, Nelson's up in front.

CHANG: And just to kind of reiterate, we're looking at two chambers that are looking at very opposite projections tonight, right? A Senate where the Republican majority could be retained, if not expanded, and the House, where the Democrats might be taking the majority. What is that - what's the meaning of that, two chambers facing totally different narratives tonight?

DETROW: To bring this conversation full circle...


DETROW: ...It's all about the playing field. The entire House is up, but it's only a third of the Senate. And it just happens to be a third that is very friendly for Republicans.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Mara Liasson, Scott Detrow and Tamara Keith. Thank you to all of you.

DETROW: Sure thing.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANT GREEN'S "MAMBO INN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.