New York Times Jeff Zeleny

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New York Times national political correspondent previews the primaries and shares his thoughts on whether the Democrats will lose the Senate in the midterm elections.

Over the course of his career, New York Times' national political correspondent Jeff Zeleny has traveled to all 50 states and reported from more than three dozen countries. He covered the '04 and '08 presidential campaigns, the first years of the George W. Bush administration, then-Sen. Obama's first year in DC and now-President Obama's administration. He previously worked for the Chicago Tribune, where he was part of the reporting team that won a Pulitzer for documenting gridlock in the nation's air traffic system, and for The Des Moines Register.


Tavis: So the calendar says it’s the dog days of August, but with midterm elections just over 70 days away and key Senate primaries being held around the country tomorrow, November 2nd – November 2nd, that is – seems just right around the corner.
For a preview of the key races tomorrow and their impact on the midterms, I’m pleased to be joined tonight by Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for “The New York Times.” He joins us tonight from Washington. Jeff, good to have you on the program, sir.
Jeff Zeleny: Tavis, thanks for having me.
Tavis: I want to start with your piece in today’s “Times” before I expand out our conversation. Your piece today talks specifically about Marco Rubio in Florida, the Republican Tea Party favorite, but it raises a larger question not just about Rubio but all of these Tea Party favorites – Rand Paul, Sharron Angle run the list, and whether or not, between now and then, whenever “then” is for them, they’re going to have to temper their message.
Tell me more about what you have to say to us today in the “Times.”
Zeleny: Well, I spent some time last week with Marco Rubio and not so long ago he was the break-out star of this newly invigorated conservative movement. He was seen as perhaps the first Tea Party senator, if you will.
A few things happened on the way to the election, one of which, Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican, knew he was in trouble, knew he could probably not defeat Marco Rubio in tomorrow’s Florida primary, so he jumped out. He became an Independent and that complicated the path for Marco Rubio.
So what I was sort of struck by last week, because I spent some time in Florida with Mr. Rubio, is that he was moderating his message. He was not reflecting back the anger that he was hearing from a lot of voters. He was saying that Republicans need to present alternatives and ideas, not just be the opposition.
So I think he is trying now. He is a unique situation in Florida that’s different from the other insurgent candidates across the country. He has to sort of thread the needle in a very complicated way because it’s going to be a three-way general election campaign – a Democrat, an Independent and a Republican.
But he is pushing ideas he thinks that Republicans have not put forward enough alternative ideas, as opposed to just being the angry opposition.
Tavis: Speaking of the Florida race and Charlie Crist leaving the Republican Party to become an Independent, I had Governor Crist on this program some days ago and I had a conversation with him about whether or not he left the party or whether the party left him. I want to play a clip of that conversation and get your thoughts about what Governor Crist had to say on this program.
[Begin clip from prior show.]
“Governor Charlie Crist:” I’m not a guy who really reflects and blames others for things. I really have been asked the question in several ways, and one is did I leave the party or did the party leave me. I think the party left me. I was proud to be a member of the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, for example, or Ronald Reagan or Teddy Roosevelt. Lincoln, of course, the Great Emancipator, and the man who said in his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, and with charity for all.”
[End clip from prior show.]
Tavis: So the question, I guess, Jeff, is how is this Tea Party complicating matters for the Republican Party across the board?
Zeleny: Well, it depends where you look. State-by-state it’s a little bit unique and a little bit different, but in Florida, Governor Crist, I guess, is right in some respect. The Republican primary electorate at least has become more conservative, but there’s no denying the fact that he saw a bit of political opportunity here and he went for it, and he is going to test the theory in Florida more than anyplace else, if voters are mad only at Democrats or if they’re mad sort of equally at Democrats and Republicans, and if he can run of the middle.
But in other parts of the country, take Nevada, for example. Sharron Angle used that anger, used that discontent and unrest in the electorate and the support of the Tea Party to help her win her Republican primary. Now a lot of Republicans, at least here in Washington, are thinking that she is of course not the strongest candidate they could have put forward to run against Harry Reid.
I’m still not completely convinced that even some of these so-called “extreme candidates,” if you will, some of these candidates who are not necessarily viewed as the top Republicans, that they still can’t win in November. Harry Reid has a ceiling on his support and some other Democrats across the country also are not in great shape.
So what we know for sure is the make-up of the Senate next year is going to be completely different. At least some of these candidates will emerge as winners, and it will change the tone and the dynamic of the Senate.
Tavis: When you say that the Senate will be “completely different,” are you suggesting that Democrats are going to lose the Senate? Is it going to be that completely different?
Zeleny: We’ll find out. I’ve also spent some time in Wisconsin recently and you know if Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat from Wisconsin, if he is locked into a tough campaign, a tough race, you know if he’s in trouble, a lot of Democrats are in trouble.
I think it’s too early to say if Democrats will lose control of the Senate. Everything would have to happen just perfectly for Republicans. They would need to win out in California; they would need to win in Washington state. They would need to win in Wisconsin.
But even if Democrats hold their majority, it will be a much smaller majority. What I mean by to the Senate, to looking different, is there will be at least a handful of new senators who are likely to win who will be representing the Tea Party movement, representing some of this unrest that’s out in the country, and it is going to be different. It is going to – Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina will not stand alone as a rabble-rouser, at least in the eyes of Democrats. There will be many others joining him.
So it is going to be a moment of clarity for the Republican Party in terms of what their message is and what their approach is going forward here, so I just think the make-up of it will be different. I’m not sure if the balance of power will be different yet.
Tavis: Your message sounds directly in contrast, a direct contradiction, put another way, to what Vice President Biden had to say in St. Louis the other day. He is much less concerned about the Democrats losing control or authority than you appear to be.
Zeleny: Yeah, I was at Vice President Biden’s speech. He said that he thinks Democrats are going to hold the House and the Senate and he kind of made a joke. He said, “If it wasn’t illegal, I’d make book on it.” He said he would place a bet on it.
I think you expect the vice president to say something like that when he’s delivering basically a pep rally to a Democratic audience. He was urging, the full context of his speech, he was urging Democrats to be a little more confident, be a little bit more bold, don’t be quite so pessimistic.
He was firing up the troops. Who knows if Democrats will actually hold their majorities, but privately, party leaders are very worried about the House and they believe the Senate could also be at risk of losing their majority if everything goes right for the Republicans.
But the vice president was giving a little red meat to his Democratic crowd and telling them to keep fighting.
Tavis: Just a few months ago it appeared that John McCain was in some serious trouble in Arizona after being the standard-bearer for his party in the last presidential election he looked to beyond the verge of being thrown out, leaving very unceremoniously, not unlike Mr. Specter in Pennsylvania being thrown out of the Senate.
It appears now, if I read these polls correct, that John McCain may in fact pull off this race in Arizona, which would certainly make him the favorite in November.
Zeleny: Tavis, I think you’re right. It looks like Senator McCain is winning far and away over former Congressman JD Hayworth, and it is a bit of a surprise. I was out in Arizona just a few months ago when State Sarah Palin appeared at Senator McCain’s side. He wouldn’t have done that; he wouldn’t have done that rally if he thought this was going to be an easy primary.
But he has spent some $21 million on the primary alone in Arizona and that, I think, explains why he is doing as well as he is. He has convinced Arizona Republican voters, at least it seems, if you believe the polls, that he has a new position on immigration. Several of his ads, a lot of that $21 million, have gone toward taking a tough stance on immigration.
Not quite the exact same John McCain that we saw a couple of years ago, trying to negotiate a bipartisan agreement with Senator Kennedy from Massachusetts and President Bush over immigration.
So I think Senator McCain has insulated himself from the attack from the right, and it looks like he is going to prevail in the primary on Tuesday. One thing that I think we’re not sure of is voter turnout in an August primary in Arizona. If the voter turnout is quite small, the voters – the people who are supporting Mr. Hayworth may be more committed, more passionate than Mr. McCain’s support.
So it may be slightly closer than some of the polls have indicated, but boy, if Senator McCain would be defeated, that would be a major surprise to everyone. We don’t see that coming at all.
Tavis: Speaking of surprises, in 15 seconds, you don’t expect McCain to get upended tomorrow, but is there one particular race that you are keeping your eyes on where there might be an August surprise?
Zeleny: I think I would also look at the late returns in Alaska. Sarah Palin once again has doubled down on a Senate candidate in Alaska. She’s going against incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski. If Sarah Palin would happen to pull off that victory, if her candidate would win, that would be interesting, but look for another Sarah Palin endorsee to fall tomorrow in America.
Tavis: Jeff Zeleny with “The New York Times.” Good to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insights about the big races tomorrow.
Zeleny: Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Thank you, Jeff.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm