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In Midterm Elections, Economy Is Still Job One

Judy Woodruff speaks with local public broadcast correspondents from California, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania about voter mood and the midterm elections.

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    And now to another Labor Day staple: politics. On Friday, Judy Woodruff ran that topic past four reporters who are part of our NewsHour Connect partnership with public broadcasters around the country.


    Each election year, Labor Day marks the unofficial kickoff to the frenzied final weeks of the campaign season. The battle for control of both the United States House and the Senate will play out coast to coast over the course of the next eight weeks. And, tonight, we bring together our public media partners from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, and California to get a lay of the land. They are covering some of the most high-profile races of the year.

    Joining us are Scott Shafer from KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, Ian Mylchreest from KNPR in Las Vegas, Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio in Columbus, and Michael Bartley from WQED in Pittsburgh.

    Now, all of you, thank you for talking with us. And I want to just start with the conventional wisdom here in Washington. And that is that the economy is the number-one issue in all of these races. But I want to do a reality check and ask if that's the case where you are in your state.

    And let's start in the east with Michael Bartley.

    Is it the big issue? And give us a quick picture of the economy in your state.

    MICHAEL BARTLEY, managing editor, WQED Multimedia; Well, Judy, great to be with you again. And there's no question, on this Labor Day, the principal preoccupation is the economy. Look, you know, in midterm elections coming up, well, social issues, you don't hear about them.

    Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is a tad lower than the national rate, but it doesn't matter. And, look, I think Pennsylvanians are realistic about this as well. You know, the economy doesn't stop, these issues don't stop at the Pennsylvania border, and start up again in Ohio. There's no border here.

    So, this, you know, national misery, whatever you want to call it, people are looking for answers. And, you know, people, you know, I don't think they're concentrating just yet on midterm elections. The principal deal here is the economy.

    And I think, you know, there's this general general feeling that the government, you know, in Washington, the federal government just doesn't have the answers, but, yes, absolutely, no question, here in Pennsylvania, from Pittsburgh out east to Philadelphia, number-one issue.


    Karen Kasler, whether there's a border or not, what does it look like there in Ohio?

    KAREN KASLER, bureau chief, Ohio Public Radio: Absolutely. Here in Ohio, we hear an awful lot about this state being the first in the recession and the last out of it, whenever it might happen. We have got three major things that are a problem here in Ohio when you start looking at the economy.

    The unemployment rate is at 10.3 percent. It's dropped every month since March. But it's still at sustained levels that we haven't seen in two decades. We also have foreclosures. The Mortgage Brokers Association ranks Ohio sixth in the nation in foreclosures. One in 10 Ohioans are at risk of losing their homes, according to data released in June.

    And then you also have an upcoming budget deficit for next year which is estimated to go as high as $8 billion. So, absolutely, the economy is a critical issue here.


    And, in Nevada, Ian Mylchreest, what does it look like there?

    IAN MYLCHREEST, senior producer, KNPR: It's absolutely the only issue here. I mean, we have the highest unemployment rate, nearly 15 percent. We have had nearly three years of the highest foreclosure rate. And, across the state, homes are down 40, 50 percent in value. Tourist industry has kind of fallen off a cliff. And construction, which was the second biggest industry, is absolutely dead.

    So, it's the first half-dozen issues here on anybody's agenda.


    And, Scott Shafer, California, is it as grim as it is everywhere else?

    SCOTT SHAFER, host & reporter, KQED Public Radio: It is very grim here, Judy. Unlike Ohio, typically, California in the past has been the last to feel an economic dip and the first to come out of it. That is not the case this time around. Unemployment here is above 12 percent. It's been stuck there for some time. California is disproportionately dependent on income tax.

    And, so, with revenues down, it's trickled down. It's affecting, obviously, the state government and local governments. There have been a lot of layoffs, police, fire, teachers and so on. So, the pain is very deep. And it's lasted a long time. And there's really little sign of coming out of it anytime soon.


    All right, I want to ask each one of you about these important races going on in your in your state, and starting back on the East Coast in Pennsylvania with Michael Bartley.

    You already had big news when your incumbent senator, Democratic Senator Arlen Specter, was defeated in the primary, Joe Sestak, the congressman, but now Sestak facing real serious competition from the Republican, Pat Toomey.


    Republican Pat Toomey, Judy, has never been behind in the polls. New polls out last week, last Wednesday and so forth, had him about seven percentage points up.

    He's been up anywhere between four points, up 11 points. And it's really interesting because Sestak, who ran a showcase campaign against Arlen Specter, the big deal there will be to get turnout out in Philadelphia.

    You know, Pennsylvania is a very interesting state. We have 1.3 million more Democrats registered than Republicans. But it doesn't seem to be a factor right now, unless Philadelphia turns out. In the last statewide general election, Philadelphia only had about 10 percent turnout.

    If you don't get above 25 percent in Philadelphia, Joe Sestak is in trouble. That's the conventional thinking. But, Pat Toomey, you know, it's interesting. It's finally getting, you know, hot on television ads, Joe Sestak painting Pat Toomey as a Wall Street insider, Pat Toomey painting Joe Sestak as, you know, this big taxer, big spender type thing.

    It's going to be really interesting. It's Labor Day. We have two months. But, right now, it seems like the Republicans do indeed have the upper hand. But there's time will tell.


    Let's move to Ohio to Karen Kasler, and first to your Senate race. You have got George Voinovich, Republican senator. He's retiring. Republican Congressman and former Budget Director under President Bush Rob Portman is running against Democrat Lee Fisher. Give us a thumbnail of that race.


    Well, this is the first time in 12 years that a seat had opened up in the U.S. Senate. And Democrats were really hoping to take that back. They didn't count on a primary back in the spring. And that primary sucked almost all the money out of the eventual nominee, Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher.

    And, so, now he is at a serious fund-raising disadvantage against Rob Portman. The last reporting period had him at a 9-1 fund-raising disadvantage. Fisher says he's now gained that back. But what I don't think we're seeing here in Ohio is the national money coming in to this race.

    It seems that the national party is focusing on other races, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, because Rob Portman is on the air with his ads, with his money, where you don't see the Democratic Senate Campaign coming in and boosting Fisher's campaign.

    What you do see is the Republican Governors Association coming in and spending an awful lot of money. They have said that they will spend $3 million for each race that they target. And they are pouring money into the governor's race, which puts Congressman John Kasich, former Congressman John Kasich, against the Democratic incumbent governor, Ted Strickland.


    And one and, quickly, in that governor's race, again, where the incumbent, the Democrat, getting a run for his money from from Kasich, Kasich worked for Lehman Brothers, big Wall Street firm, of course, that went under.

    Is that a factor in this campaign?


    Absolutely. And what Mike said in Pennsylvania is absolutely true here as well. We're seeing a lot of the Republican candidates painted as Wall Street cronies.

    You're seeing the Democrats being painted in a different way. And those themes are coming into play. But the polls are showing that maybe they're not resonating as much as they should. At least if you're a Democratic strategist, you would like to see them resonate.

    And the other thing is, in Ohio, early voting starts on September 28. So, this idea of a Labor Day kickoff, we have been campaigning in Ohio for a while because the early voting does start a lot earlier. We're not just going to polls in November. We're going in September.


    We're seeing that in several states.

    All right, we want to move to Nevada now. Ian Mylchreest, this is a race that is getting attention, has been getting enormous attention for months now. You have got the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, running against a challenger, Tea Party member Sharron Angle. What's the state of that one?


    Well, in the spring, it looked like Senator Harry Reid was a dead man walking. But, as soon as Sharron Angle won the primary, she was out of money. And he spent two months painting her as probably the most extreme candidate that could have won.

    And it seems to have succeeded. He's wrestled it back to a statistical dead heat in the last couple of months. And it looks as if her negatives are almost as high as his. And, in fact, in a recent poll, some 66 percent of would-be Republican voters said they would rather have some other Republican candidate.

    So, she's in real trouble and has basically brought forward her media strategy. We're getting inundated with anti-Harry Reid ads: Harry Reid has wrecked the economy. It's all his fault. It's time to change.

    And she's really trying to stop the bleeding here from the Republicans and independents. At the moment, we're looking at a statistical dead heat.


    And people looking at that as a test of Tea Party strength.

    All right, to California now. Scott Shafer, this is a state, two competitive races. Your Senate race, you have Barbara Boxer, the Democrat, who really has not had serious opposition, as she has now from Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard. They had a debate this week. You were the moderator. So, since the debate, how does it look?


    Well, it was a very feisty debate. And you saw Barbara Boxer coming out swinging, as they both did really, trying to portray Carly Fiorina as a corporate insider.

    When she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, she laid off tens of thousands of workers, shipped a number of jobs overseas to places like China and India. Boxer, that was really where she went on the offensive.

    Carly Fiorina, on the other hand, very articulate, smart, has a good grasp of the economy and economic issues, and tried to portray Barbara Boxer as someone who has been there too long and done too little, someone who is all talk and no action, somebody who is divisive and too partisan.

    And so those are the portraits of these two candidates that are being portrayed by the candidates. There are other issues, though, in California. The economy, of course, is dominant, but there are other issues, like the environment, very important, choice, abortion, also an important issue.

    And Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer don't agree on any of those issues or guns or immigration. There's a whole host of issues they disagree on. And so it's going to be very interesting to see how voters evaluate those two candidates.

    In the governor's race, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger is termed out, can't run again, Jerry Brown attempting to make a comeback as governor. He served last in the early '80s. He's running against Meg Whitman from eBay.

    So, again, you have got a Republican woman who has a corporate background, running as an outsider, someone who is going to shake things up. Jerry Brown, kind of the wily old veteran, has been playing kind of possum, hasn't really spent any money. He's spent less than a million dollars. Meg Whitman has spent more than $100 million in this campaign. So, Labor Day is here. Jerry Brown now is going to start spending some of that money that he's piled up over the past several months.


    And right at this point, Scott Shafer, where does that race stand in the polls?


    It's very close. I would say it's about even. Some polls show her up by a few. Some polls show Jerry Brown up by a few. The thing Jerry Brown is known nationally, in some ways, but people under the age of 40 in California don't really know him. And, so, his job in part is going to be to reintroduce himself or introduce himself to younger voters and to explain why a 72-year-old politician is relevant to the future, why he should be given another chance to be governor.


    Finally, one thing I have to ask all of you, and that is the man who is not on the ballot in any of these states this year, President Obama, and, yet, many would argue that he's very much a factor. Let's do a wrap-around and ask each one of you this question, starting with Scott Shafer out in California.


    Well, Obama is still relatively popular in California. He's been campaigning and helping Barbara Boxer raise money. And although his numbers have come down since the election, when asked whether they want to elect a senator who will work with Barack Obama to help him implement his his plan vs. someone who is going to fight him at every turn, voters say they want somebody in the Senate who is going to help him enact his agenda. So, that could accrue to Barbara Boxer's advantage.


    Ian Mylchreest, what about in Nevada? Is the president a help or a hindrance, or neither?


    Probably a hindrance. I mean, a recent poll had less than one in three people saying that the administration's policies have helped the economy. And since the economy is the only issue, it's not much of a help.

    But it's being totally carpet-bombed out of existence by both campaigns, which are already blanketing airwaves, the Internet, everything, with advertisements about the bad state of the economy and blaming each other for it.


    And what about in Ohio, Karen Kasler? Is are people talking about the president? Is he a factor?


    Well, two recent polls that are out this week, one that leans Republican, one that leans Democrat, both show that Obama's approval ratings are fairly low in Ohio. And yet he's coming back to Ohio. He will be in the Democratic stronghold of northeast Ohio, in Cleveland, this week.

    Vice President Joe Biden on his second trip to Ohio in three weeks, he's in Toledo for Labor Day festivities, the second Monday in three weeks he's been here. And both Democrats and Republicans are saying he helps their base. Democrats, he brings out fund-raising. Republicans, he brings out those people who are angry with him.


    And, Michael Bartley, the president, we just learned, is also heading to Pennsylvania in the next few weeks to help raise money for Joe Sestak. How much of a factor is the president?


    Well, I think, just like in Ohio, he has got to rally the base in Pittsburgh and in Philadelphia. Remember, Pennsylvania, it is pretty interesting, Pittsburgh, two big cities, and there's a T. that goes north and then to the west and the east. In the T., nothing. Obama will not be a factor there. But if he gets to Philadelphia, gets to Allegheny County here in Pittsburgh, and gets voter turnout, it could be interesting, but not in the middle of the state. We will see what happens.


    Well, these are some of the most interesting campaigns any of us can remember in a long time. And we thank all of you for talking with us about what's going on. And we will check in with you as as we get closer to Election Day.

    Michael Bartley in Pittsburgh, Karen Kasler in Columbus, Ohio, Ian Mylchreest in Las Vegas, and Scott Shafer in San Francisco, thank you all.