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Analyzing what’s at stake this Election Day

Judy Woodruff previews Tuesday’s midterm elections with syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, Karine Jean-Pierre of MoveOn.org and Chris Buskirk of American Greatness.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's take a closer look at the political state of play tonight.

    In the 35 Senate seats being contested, Democrats are on defense, trying to hold onto their 24 seats, pay attention to 11 close races, some in states President Trump won big in 2016.

    There are also a few GOP-held seats that have become tossups over the course of the campaign, including open seats in Arizona and Tennessee.

    In the 36 governor's races today, it is the Republican Party on defense. Of the 16 closest races, 13 are held by Republicans, including in traditional conservative strongholds like Kansas and Oklahoma.

    But perhaps the biggest prize of this night, control of the House of Representatives. Of course, all 435 seats are up for election. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win back the speaker's gavel.

    We are going to be keeping track of them all, but we are going to pay particular attention to some swing districts. There are 21 seats that President Obama won in 2012 that flipped to President Trump in 2016. And 13 districts went the other way, voting for Mitt Romney in 2012 and then for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

    So let's get thoughts on what to watch tonight from some familiar faces here at our table, who are going to be with me all this night, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Amy Walter, national editor for The Cook Political Report, Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser to MoveOn.org and a veteran of the Obama administration. And Chris Buskirk, he's the editor of the conservative Web site American Greatness.

    We welcome all of you. It's going to be a long night. And we're going to hang together throughout, no matter what, no matter what the results tell us.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Brooks, I'm going to start with you.

    What are you looking for?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it will just be a pleasure to get actual results. That will put a crimp in my random speculation which I have been doing the last few months.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    No, it will be — a couple things strike me about today.

    First, all of the Democratic friends I have are, like, flinching, because they're afraid like, oh, they went in so confident two years ago, and now they're thinking, oh, it's going to happen again, it's going to happen again. So I have never seen such pre-vote nervousness, at least on the Democratic side.

    The third thing I would say is, if there has been any movement in the polls — and maybe Amy would know this better than my — my sense is, the last couple days have been kind of good for the Democrats.

    So, if there's any — and that matters a lot, because waves tend to be bigger than they look. And when there is a wave election, it's always bigger than we think it will be. So, that could be. We will know. We will see in a few hours.

    And then the final thing, more than about culture — more than about legislation, this is about culture, about what kind of country we are. And the results will tell us a lot about whose story about America really is the predominant story.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, are you nervous, as David says so many…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, no, no.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, no, not at all. Supremely, sublimely confident.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    The — I associate myself with David's remarks.

    But I do think the unwritten story or the uncovered story, not that — we have covered it, but it's gone generally uncovered — are the governor's races. I mean, I think — I think they're the most important.

    The Republican ascent to dominance at the congressional level began in 2010, really. I mean, that was — since then, Democrats have been competitive in votes, but not in results, because the Republicans drew the lines after the 2010 census, thanks to winning governorships across the country, but particularly in the Great Lakes, Midwestern states.

    And that's where Donald Trump won the presidency. He carried Michigan. He carried Wisconsin. He carried Pennsylvania by a grand total of 80,000 votes among the three of them. But all three of those states tonight are poised to elect, in my judgment, Democratic governors.

    And I think that, when you are talking about, as you did, states like Kansas possibly voting for a Democrat tonight, Ohio, I think, a state that Trump won by nine points, I — so I think, in that sense, when the dust does settle going forward from 2018, looking at the 2020 census, Democrats are going to be in a far more competitive position, not simply for the 2020 elections, but for drawing the congressional districts in a more equitable and just basis after that census.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amy Walter, what about you?

  • Amy Walter:

    I'm really struck by some of the things that these folks brought up, especially the feeling the last time we were all here in 2016.

    In some way, it feels like it was about 116 years ago, but it also feels very familiar, and yet the country hasn't moved on much in their opinions about the president since 2016.

    Normally, over the course of a president's first term, he starts with a honeymoon and then kind of goes up and down, and then you see where he ends up coming into a midterm election.

    In this president's case, he started basically at 45 percent, his approval rating, and he's ending essentially at 44 percent, 45 percent. And along the way, he's dipped a little here and there, and opinions of him, they haven't changed. They have just hardened.

    If you didn't like him in 2016, you really don't like him now. If you liked him in 2016, you still really like him now. And so I'm — what I'm going to be very curious to see is which parts of the country, as David pointed out, making sort of a — it's more of a culture decision than it is on policy.

    And it's more personality-based. And which parts of the country are going to weigh in? They weigh in differently in House races than they do in Senate races. And it looks a lot different in a midterm than it does in a presidential, when electoral votes are the key, as opposed to individual districts and different situations in individual states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Karine Jean-Pierre, if we're ending up about where we started, it's not as if a lot hasn't happened over the last two years.

  •  Karine Jean-Pierre:

    Yes.

    Oh, yes. What has not happened in the last two years? When you are talking about nervous Democrats, it reminds me of the "Saturday Night Live" skit with the nervous Democrats.

    And I know a lot of friends who are feeling like that, who are just staying home and drinking by themselves, but…

    (LAUGHTER)

  •  Karine Jean-Pierre:

    Tonight, because they don't want to — but, anyway, I am in the line with Mark on the governorships.

    I think that's something that we haven't heard a lot about. There are a lot of historic firsts, I think, in this election, but, yes, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, as you mentioned. We can make a lot of historic — kind of getting back some of those states and really focusing on redistricting and what that will look like in 2020.

    And also Florida and Georgia, if that happens, we're going to potentially elect the first African-American woman in Georgia governor in this country that we haven't done yet, also the first African-American governor in Florida, which would be huge.

    And there are other firsts. We could potentially elect more than 100 women in Congress and the first Native American.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    More women.

  •  Karine Jean-Pierre:

    More women, 100 more women in Congress, the first Native American, the first Muslim woman.

    So there's a lot that has happened in the last two years. And I think it started with women, with the women's march.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chris Buskirk, what's your perspective? What are you keeping an eye on?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I will tell you, the — when you think about just the horse race tonight, there are a few districts and there are races I think we will all are going to keep our eye on, Virginia 10 or Ohio 12, or some of the Senate races.

    And these are bellwethers when you just think very sort of tactically what's going to happen tonight, how is it going to turn out. But the big-picture thing for me is going to be Republican turnout. That's something that I think is really interesting.

    Since we talked — we're talking about the women's march, since the women's march almost two years ago now, we have known Democrat turnout was going to be enormous. I think one of the things that may be set to surprise people is that Republican turnout is going to be — is going to be really, really big tonight, too.

    And so what does that tell us? It tells us that Republican candidates and the Republican base aren't running away from Trump or the policies he's been pursuing. They're actively running with him.

    And so that sets up an ongoing political conflict that's going to play out in the next two years and probably beyond that. I mean, remember, two months from now, in January, the presidential race starts. We're just barely going to get through Christmas.

  • Amy Walter:

    I think it starts tomorrow.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I was hoping for a Christmas break.

  • Amy Walter:

    I know, but you're not going to get one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's 12 hours from now.

  • Amy Walter:

    But I think that's a really good point about turnout.

    That's what's so different about this midterm from previous midterms. Usually, there's a wave because one side turns out, and the other side doesn't. And the way — the side that turns out usually is the party out of power, right?

    They are the most frustrated. They want to get back in power. And the party in power, they're either complacent or they're disappointed, and they stay home. That's not what this election, certainly in what we have seen thus far, is suggesting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask each one of you, just to go around, are we hearing from the candidates, David, the things that the voters want to hear about? Are we hearing about the things that matter in our lives?

  • David Brooks:

    Mark and I disagree on this one.

    But I think it's a big election. As I mentioned last week, I think, on both sides' minds, there is some sense of national unraveling. So it's not about specific issues. It's about a big sense of unraveling.

    And I think what Donald Trump has done is told a very coherent national story. Here's where we are. Here's who the good people are. Here's who are the aliens who are out to get us. And that's a big comprehensive story.

    The Democrats have gone to the health care issue. And I personally think that's a mistake. It may not matter electorally because enough people don't like Donald Trump. But I think it's really a question of, what kind of nation are we? Who's in our nation? What values do — our nation represents?

    And Donald Trump has given a pretty coherent argument about that. And I think the Democrats have not responded with a coherent big argument in that way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    David was wrong a week ago.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    And it's one of the great things about his consistency that I have come to admire and treasure.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, that is not a midterm election. That's a presidential election.

    And the president is the voice of the party. I really think that what is fascinating about this election is that the Republicans were dealt four kings. I mean, this economy is absolutely gangbusters.

    And if you — when you have got fewer people on food stamps, when you have got more people working in manufacturing, when you have got a booming economy, and Donald Trump is a one-trick pony. He can only come back to division. He can only come back. He can't accept good news.

    His message basically is, things are bad, and they're going to get worse. And that's — that's — so he comes back to immigration. And I think, in a bizarre way, he's played into the Democrats' hands. I really do.

    I mean, instead of saying, what we have accomplished, it's not only morning America, it's weekend in America. It's a great boom. And the Democrats opposed me at every turn. And this is what we have — boom, and we're going to bigger booms, and it's going to be better tomorrow.

    And, instead, he turns away from that and goes to fear, division, and I think to defeat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chris Buskirk, has the president missed the mark by talking as much as he has about immigration?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I don't think so. And here's why. I mean, I understand Mark's point.

    But I think what Donald Trump's looking at is that this is a — this is an issue that motivates the Republican base. This — if you go back to August of 2015, what was the issue that started to separate Donald Trump from the rest of the pack during the primaries? It was immigration, when he started to really talk about that a lot.

    That propelled him forward. And the more he talks about that, the more engaged the Republican base comes. And part of it is what he really believes. So he's a conviction politician in that way on this issue.

    Part of it also is, is you go with what works. And if this is something that's important to your base — we were talking about that — are politicians talking about what's important to voters?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Chris Buskirk:

    This is important to Republican voters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jean-Pierre, how do you see it?

  •  Karine Jean-Pierre:

    So, it's really unfortunate, because there is an immigration problem, absolutely, and we need to fix it.

    And, clearly, Central America, countries there are having real issue — economic issues and violence there, and people there are trying to flee to save their lives.

    And — but what Donald Trump is doing is racism. It's race-baiting. It's really awful. It's ugly. It shouldn't be who we are as a country. And instead of coming up with policies and trying to figure out, how can we help, how can we fix, he's really just throwing red meat at his base.

    And it's really disturbing. And I — as someone who is an immigrant myself, came here with my parents decades ago, this is not what the American dream is. You know, this is fear-mongering, and it shouldn't be. And so that's kind of unfortunate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chris, do you want to respond quickly to that, before I go to Amy?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Yes, I think — I appreciate your point, Karine.

    I think — I can speak for myself. I don't want to put words in anybody else's mouth. But the perception of the immigration problem we have from the right, for myself, is that this is one of those things where you have to get control of the border first and then start to think about, well, OK, how do we fix these other things?

    In other words, don't let the problem of illegal immigration get worse, because there's such distrust on this issue between Democrats and Republicans, that everybody — it's kind of like a drug deal at midnight. Nobody wants to go first, right?

    And so it's kind of like a matter of the president saying, let's build a wall, let's enforce the laws, and then we can talk about, how do we deal with Central America? It's a big issue.

    If there was no demand for people to come here, you wouldn't have the issue at the border. So, how do you help fix these other countries that are in our hemisphere that are sending people here?

  •  Karine Jean-Pierre:

    So, I think we're agreeing, but I think it's the lies, right, saying that the caravan, with no facts, right, are gang members, when we know a majority of the folks who are in that caravan are women and young people.

    I think it's a lie saying that you're going to end the 14th Amendment, right, which is something that's really, take away people's birthrights who are born here.

    So, that's the problem, is the lies and the fear-mongering. It's not that we're not saying, hey, we don't need to fix the problem. There is a problem, but why connect it to lies?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We are going to come back to this and talk about it a lot more through the night.

    But, Amy, it's emblematic of what we're looking at in this election.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

    The emotional piece of this election has been clear from the very beginning, right? Literally, when the election was over in 2016, the emotion was raw. And that rawness has continued throughout, until this moment.

    The interesting thing about the issues being brought up, for Democrats, it's health care. I think they looked at that issue, and they said, you know, in 2016, Hillary Clinton made the contrast between Democrat and Republican, between herself and Trump on vision of America. I'm going to be an inclusive vision of America. He's — a divisive message on America.

    And she loses. And Democrats say she lost because she didn't talk about the economy and this wasn't the issue that was going to motivate voters. Health care, pocketbook issue, will.

    What it is setting up for, though — and this was going to come anyway, but it's certainly setting it up even more dramatically — is Democrats at some point have to get their arms around and define what Medicare for all means. For every Democrat, it means something different. And whoever the Democratic nominee is, is going to have to really, clearly outline that.

    And, for right now, I think that is fine that we don't have an answer, but it's going to be more challenging going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to come back to all of this as the night goes on.

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