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Politics chat: Five weeks to midterms, Supreme Court to hear key cases

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

And we're moving on now to a look at the midterm elections, which are only 36 days away. And my, my, my, things are already heating up. We're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson to talk about these races and what's driving them. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: OK, so let's take a look at the landscape and what it looks like almost five weeks away from the midterms. And that's kind of unbelievable to me.

LIASSON: (Laughter). The midterms have been a real roller coaster. You know, four to six months ago, Democrats looked like they were really cooked. It looks like there was a giant wave building. Democrats were very despondent about their chances to keep the House and Senate. Then over the summer, inflation eased up just a bit. Gas prices came down. Biden's approval rating numbers went up a little. Plus, the Democrats, after a year of forming a circular firing squad, passed their big climate and drug-pricing legislation. And then the Supreme Court overturned Roe, and that increased enthusiasm among Democrats and increased Democratic voter registration. The generic ballot tightened. That's the question that pollsters ask voters - if the election were held today, would you vote for the Republican or the Democrat? So all of a sudden, Democrats were feeling a little better.

Then the roller coaster swooped down again. And by September, the fundamentals, which favor Republicans, were back in place. Inflation was still around. Biden's numbers, even if they were a little better, were still low. On issues, voters said that Republicans were better to handle issues like the economy and inflation. And Republicans started hammering on the crime issue, which is actually the issue where they have their biggest advantage with voters. And you can see that in a race like the Senate race in Wisconsin, where Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, the Democrat African American, running against Ron Johnson, who is the least-popular Senate incumbent up for reelection this year. And Johnson has just been hammering Barnes with racially charged ads on crime. And it's working. Barnes had a small lead, and now he's trailing. And remember, overall, Republicans only need five net pickups to take back the House and only one net pickup seat to take back the Senate.

RASCOE: So is the issue of access to abortion going to be a factor in really tight races?

LIASSON: Yes, definitely. Especially Arizona - the state court there just said that a 1901 law banning all abortions in the state can stand. And the big marquee race there is the gubernatorial race between Democrat Katie Hobbs, who's the secretary of state, and her Republican opponent, Kari Lake. And it's going to tell us how powerful the abortion issue is - how much the abortion issue will motivate Democrats. Kari Lake is pro-life. She's also one of the foremost election deniers in the country. She believes the lie that Donald Trump actually won the election in Arizona in 2020, and it was robbed from him.

And her opponent, Katie Hobbs, is a real contrast. She's very low-key, not super charismatic. In 2020, she was the state official who pushed back against election denial and maintained correctly that the election was not stolen from Trump in Arizona. So Arizona is a real state to watch. It also happens to have the highest number of election deniers on the ballot - Republicans running for secretary of state, governor, senator. And again, it will be a very good test case on whether the power of the abortion issue helps Democrats.

RASCOE: OK. So let's pivot from Roe to the Supreme Court. You know, the court is starting a new term on Monday. What are you watching for in terms of how their decisions could shape the midterms and maybe the 2024 presidential elections?

LIASSON: Yeah, the Supreme Court has a bunch of issues before it that will have national implications and permanent implications. One of them is a case that involves something called the independent state legislature theory. We talked about this a couple of weeks ago on this show, where a bunch of state court judges from every state in the country filed a brief imploring the Supreme Court not to allow state election laws that affect federal elections to go unchecked. This is about a case called Moore v. Harper out of North Carolina. If the judges side with the Republicans' legislatures, who drew a new contested congressional map, it will mean that state courts have no power, no check and balance, no power to review how state legislators decide who can vote, where they can vote, how votes are counted.

RASCOE: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara LIASSON. Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on 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.
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