What special election upsets would mean for Democrats

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's Monday, in other words, time for Politics Monday with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR, who joins us today from California.

Welcome to both of you.

Tam, I just said California. You have got to tell us where in California.

(LAUGHTER)

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: Southern California.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. That narrows it down a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

TAMARA KEITH: A little bit. All right, the L.A. area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

Well, let's start by talking about a very serious subject, and that is the decision by the United States to strike the airfield in Syria last week.

And, Amy, we're still dealing with the strategic, the military repercussions from this, but what about the political? How is the public reacting? And then I want to ask you both about Congress.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Yes.

The Congress seems to be giving somewhat a mixed message on how they feel about what happened in Syria over the weekend. There have been at three polls that have come out since the strikes happened. A majority of Americans say they approve of this decision, anywhere from 51 to 57 percent.

But then, when you ask them the next question, which is, should we do more things like this, the majority of Americans say, we don't want to see any more airstrikes. And then when you ask the question — and I think this is also really important — about what the impact has been on the president, did Americans rally around the president, did this bump up his approval rating, it really hasn't done much at all.

His approval rating still stands somewhere around 40 percent. So, you have a public that is basically, there are a small majority agreeing with the strike, but they don't want to see much more. And it hasn't really benefited the president, nor has it made people less likely to support him. He's still basically at the same place he's always been, which again comes back to something we talk about almost every week, is our deep polarization in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so much of this, Tam, I think, is people — a matter of people comparing how this president is handling Syria and the Middle East, that part of the world, vs. the way President Obama handled it.

TAMARA KEITH: That's right.

And, in terms of Congress, when President Obama went to Congress in 2013 and asked for authorization to take similar action back in 2013, Congress was kind of, like, wait, this is a hot potato, we don't necessarily want this hot potato.

They found an out that sort of let them off the hook with this deal with Russia to dispose of the chemical weapons, which, clearly, in retrospect, they're not all gone somehow. And so Congress has frequently wanted to have some ability to weigh in, but then when it comes time to actually weigh in to authorize the use of military force in a formal way, they have had a lot of trouble agreeing on something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, as Tam just said, this is exactly what President Obama …

AMY WALTER: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're talking three years later.

AMY WALTER: Different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it's what he was concerned about, too, and led to the decision not to.

AMY WALTER: It feels very familiar.

And a lot that too is the fact that Americans feel very similar to the situation in Syria today as they did back in 2013. This is a ABC poll. Fifty-four percent said they oppose using additional airstrikes.

When you look back at where we were in the fall of 2013, when then President Obama was talking about airstrikes, about 60 percent opposed doing that. So, the public isn't any more — looking forward anymore today than they were back then to getting more deeply involved in that part of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Tam, speaking of Congress, members going home, went home this weekend for two-week Easter recess.

Are they likely to hear much from the public about Syria? Are people still talking about health care? What are we expecting in that regard?

TAMARA KEITH: I think that health care is something they're far more likely to hear about.

Town halls, if they're happening — and fewer of them are happening. There are more tele-town halls, and Facebook town halls, and any sort of town hall that won't allow the same sort of video images that dominated during the rise of the Tea Party.

Absolutely, they are going to hear about health care. And it's an interesting time for the health care legislation. Republicans in Congress, realizing they're about to go home, and not wanting to say, wow, we have completely failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, did some amendments at the very end, right before they left for recess, so that Republican members of Congress could go to Republican districts and say, well, we're still working on it, health care is not dead.

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to put a lot of pressure. On the left side, progressives are really pushing members of Congress and trying to make sure that this effort doesn't come back to life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you about that, Amy, but I also want to get to another way of gauging public reaction to what's going on in Washington, and that is these special congressional elections that are taking place in the next couple of weeks.

Very interesting, Republicans worried about some of these special congressional…

AMY WALTER: They are.

We have one coming up tomorrow in Kansas and then the next week in Georgia in two districts that are heavily Republican. These districts are special elections because their Republican members are now sitting in the Cabinet.

And this goes to the issue really of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans. This is what Republicans are very fearful about. They're not seeing that energy around their candidates in the same way that Democrats are. And we know that energy equals turnout, especially when you have a special election, where not a whole lot of people are coming out and voting.

So, we're going to be looking at these special elections, first of all, to see if there's an upset. This would be a very big deal, especially in Kansas. This is a district…

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are red, very red places. Right. Right.

AMY WALTER: These are red, red districts.

This district in Kansas went for Trump by almost 30 points. The president, in fact, now is making recorded calls, sending those in right now. Ted Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz, is out there, again, trying to get people excited, energized.

But it's Democrats who are energized. The anti-Trump momentum, you can feel both in the — how voters are reacting in these sort of places, as well as the fund-raising. The Democrat in Georgia — this, again, a very Republican district outside of Atlanta, a district that Tom Price, the now HHS secretary, won easily, very, very close there — he's raised over $8 million as an unknown candidate.

He's not a celebrity. But that shows the fervor and energy out there on the side of Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it, Tam, kind of the Tea Party with the shoe on the other foot now?

TAMARA KEITH: It is certainly sort of a 180-degree turnaround.

And, in fact, next weekend, there is going to be a Tax Day protest. This is exactly eight years after the last Tax Day protest that was really the kickoff for the Tea Party movement.

But, you know, these special elections are special for a reason. They can be sort of — they aren't necessarily good indicators of what's to some. Democrats won a special election in April of 2010, and then that fall were completely knocked out, lost something like 63 seats.

AMY WALTER: The important thing about the special elections — Tam's point is correct, you don't want to read too much into them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

AMY WALTER: But a success for the Democrats would be that they do very well, i.e., they win, or come close enough that it impacts their ability to recruit candidates to run in 2018. People get excited when they see that you're getting really close to Republican seats. And it helps with fund-raising.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we never get tired of talking about elections here. It's only been five months since that big one, when the earth shook.

AMY WALTER: And then we get midterms, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when we get the midterms coming up.

Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, Politics Monday, thank you both.

TAMARA KEITH: You're welcome.

AMY WALTER: You're welcome.

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