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Politics In The News: Midterm Elections Are 99 Days Away

NOEL KING, HOST:

The midterm elections are just 99 days away. And if current polling holds true, Democrats could make serious gains in the House of Representatives. Now, winning seats in the Senate is likely to be harder for Democrats. But for months, Democratic activists and some nervous Republican officials have been talking of a blue wave that they think may hit.

Dave Wasserman studies the ins and outs of all 435 congressional districts. He's a house editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and he's with me in studio. Good morning, Dave.

DAVID WASSERMAN: Good to be with you.

KING: OK, all 435 House seats are up for election in November. But you wrote last week that a key place to focus is 42 open seats currently held by Republicans. That's less than a tenth of the seats. Why are those so crucial?

WASSERMAN: We talk a lot about the blue wave, but we don't talk a lot about the red exodus in 2018.

KING: (Laughter).

WASSERMAN: And this is the record number of Republican open seats since at least 1930. There are 42 seats with no Republican incumbent on the ballot. That in our view tips the scales slightly in Democrats' favor in the battle for the House.

KING: There are some very high-level Republicans retiring, including Speaker Paul Ryan, also a couple of very powerful committee chairs. Why retire when your party is in power?

WASSERMAN: Take the example of Rodney Frelinghuysen, the chair of the appropriations committee from northern New Jersey. He waited his whole career for the appropriations gavel. And yet when he got it, he found himself under siege from a Democratic candidate who gained traction in his district back home and also from the House Freedom Caucus on his right, who are opposed to more spending. So he decided, why put up with this? And he's hanging it up.

We're seeing a number of committee chairs, we're seeing a number of moderate Republicans leaving. And I think one of the under-covered stories of 2018 is the extent to which the party will steadily become a more pro-Trump party loyal to the White House thanks not only to these retirements but also the losses of Republican moderates.

KING: Well, yeah, you wrote in a column last week that there is this emerging trend in Republican primaries which is that Republicans who oppose the president lose. Does it seem like the Republican Party to you is firmly in the grasp of President Trump?

WASSERMAN: At least in the electorate it is. There's still some doubt among members of Congress. But many of them are deciding, why put up with the White House when I could leave for a different job? And so moderates like Charlie Dent from Pennsylvania or Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida are leaving. And Democrats have an excellent opportunity to pick up their seats.

KING: And are they pushing hard to seize the opportunity?

WASSERMAN: Yes. Democrats are funding their candidates to record levels in a lot of districts. There were 55 Republican incumbents in addition to these open seats who were outraised in the last fundraising quarter. And Donald Trump is turning out to be the best fundraiser Democratic candidates have ever had.

KING: Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted something very interesting. He suggested that he would be willing to shut down the government if he cannot get Congress to pay for a border wall, which of course was one of his big campaign promises. If the president were to shut down the government, if the government were to shut down, how would that affect the races in November? Would it be mayhem?

WASSERMAN: Not necessarily. Look; the top issues for voters right now are still health care and the economy and jobs. And Republicans are still paying a price back home in these districts for votes they took last year on health care repeal and the tax bill. It's very different from the conversation we're hearing from Democrats in D.C. right now over immigration, to some extent the Mueller investigation and Russia. Voters are still concerned about pocketbook issues. But a lot of the Democrats who were open to voting for Trump in 2016 might be coming back into the Democratic fold.

KING: Do voters tend to care about a government shutdown?

WASSERMAN: Yes. I think when they see one party as obstructing something, sure. But in 2013, Republicans were perceived as the ones who were to blame for a government shutdown.

KING: Yeah.

WASSERMAN: They did pretty well in the next midterm elections.

KING: All right, it appears based on what you've been writing that Democrats are more motivated than Republicans. Is opposition to the president enough of a motivator to bring out moderates and to bring out people who sometimes do vote Republican over to the Democratic side?

WASSERMAN: Sure. This is a check-and-balance election in some respects in addition to a blue wave. And we saw this in 2010. A lot of independents simply don't like one-party control of government. And what we saw in 2016 - about 1 in every 5 voters disliked both parties' presidential candidates. But most of them went to the polls thinking that Hillary Clinton would win the election, so they voted for a Republican as a check on her power. Well, guess what? They still don't like Donald Trump. And now they're voting for Democrats as a check on his power.

KING: Political analyst Dave Wasserman is house editor at The Cook Political Report. Thanks for coming in.

WASSERMAN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.