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National issues are dominating these three critical Senate races

With midterm elections less than a week away, many eyes are on critical Senate races that can determine the balance of power in Washington. Brandon Smith of Indiana Public Broadcasting, Christopher Conover of Arizona Public Media and Chas Sisk of WPLN public radio in Nashville join Judy to discuss the issues they're hearing about, early voting levels and party efforts to motivate their bases.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Election Day is less than a week away. And while Democrats have felt good about their chances of regaining control of the House of Representatives, they face a tougher challenge in the U.S. Senate.

    Of the 35 Senate seats up this year, tight races in a number of states could end up adding to the current Republican majority there.

    To talk about some of these races, I'm joined by Brandon Smith of Indiana Public Broadcasting, Christopher Conover of Arizona Public Media, and Chas Sisk of WPLN Public Radio in Nashville.

    We welcome all three of you to the "NewsHour."

    Christopher Conover, let's start with you.

    In Arizona, what are voters talking about? What are they focused on in this Senate race?

  • Christopher Conover:

    The big focus here is immigration in many ways, because Arizona is a border state.

    I'm in Tucson, which is one of the larger cities in the state. We are less than 100 miles, 60 to 70 miles from the border. So the border is always an issue, even in local races here, certainly in a federal race.

    The other issues are the same that we hear across the country, with health care, and we hear a little bit about education here, but it's mainly health care and the border, with the border and immigration being number one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Christopher, I should have of course named the candidates in your state. They are Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat, Martha McSally, the Republican.

    But let's turn to Tennessee and to Chas Sisk.

    This is another Republican-held seat. What are voters talking about there?

  • Chas Sisk:

    Yes, this has definitely been a nationalized election. A lot of the conversation is around those national issues, especially here towards the end of the campaign.

    Immigration has been a big issue, and a lot of people are telling us at the polls that they are thinking a lot about it. That's in large part thanks to Congresswoman Blackburn, who is the Republican nominee, bringing it up a lot on the campaign trail.

    And we also hear about health care, which is something that the Democrats have been pushing. The Democratic nominee, Phil Bredesen, is a former governor, but he's also a health care executive. And so he has felt comfortable talking about that issue. So those national issues have really been playing pretty prominently in this race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    National issues over particularly local in Tennessee.

    Now, Brandon Smith, Indiana, again, this is a Senate seat held now by Democrats that the Republicans would like to take away. And, in fact, last night, you had a debate in Indiana between the incumbent Democrat, Joe Donnelly, and his Republican challenger, Mike Braun.

    It happened to have been moderated by the "NewsHour"'s own Amna Nawaz.

    I want to play first, before I come to you, for our audience just a bit of an exchange between the two of them. And this had to do with health care. Let's watch and listen.

  • Mike Braun:

    It was called the Affordable Care Act, which Joe was all for. It's the unaffordable care act.

    It was doomed to fail because you had big government get in cahoots with big health care, specifically big health insurance. I took on the health insurance companies 10 years ago, and regardless of what his Democratic talking points are, I would never be for any replacement that doesn't cover preexisting conditions.

  • Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.:

    What he said is not true. Mike supports a lawsuit that would end the Affordable Care Act, that would end preexisting conditions.

    So, all of you watching out there tonight, if you have someone in your family with diabetes, with arthritis, with asthma, their coverage goes away if Mike's lawsuit is successful.

    As I said, that's how important this is. Those are the facts, and he can't deny that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that was Mike Braun first then Joe Donnelly.

    So, Brandon Smith, has health care been a big issue in this race?

  • Brandon Smith:

    Absolutely.

    Like my two colleagues before me have said, health care and immigration are two issues that a lot of voters and the candidates themselves are talking a lot about here in Indiana.

    I will add one that they didn't talk about, because it is an issue here, which is sort of an economic issue, the tariffs that President Trump has imposed.

    The two biggest industries in Indiana are agriculture and manufacturing. So, there are folks in this state that really don't like the tariffs and steel workers up north who really do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how is that playing? I mean, the — what's the — the agriculture sector doesn't like them, right?

  • Brandon Smith:

    Right.

    And Mike Braun has had a little bit of trouble with that, and he's actually had to sort of change his position over time. He's all for Donald Trump, and he says that a lot, but recently he has started to take a harder line on the tariffs and say that if he gets into the Senate, that he will tell the president to get rid of them, which he wasn't saying earlier in the campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, let's go back to Arizona, Christopher Conover, and the Trump factor.

    Martha McSally, the Republican, was keeping her distance, I think it's fair to say, earlier on in this contest, but now she seems to be fully embracing the president.

  • Christopher Conover:

    That's incredibly fair to say.

    When she was just a member of the U.S. House representing Southern Arizona, she definitely kept the president at arm's length. But as soon as she declared that she was running for the U.S. Senate, she really embraced President Trump.

    And she had a primary with two strong Trump supporters, including Maricopa County or former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had campaigned with the president across the country and the president actually pardoned last year — or earlier this year.

    So she made a change in that way. Of course, Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat, is not embracing the president. The president has sent e-mails on behalf of Martha McSally and has come to Arizona to campaign on her behalf.

    His sons are here campaigning on her behalf. The vice president has been here campaigning on her behalf.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to Tennessee.

    Chas Sisk, the president has — or, I should say, Marsha Blackburn, the Republican candidate for the Senate, has consistently been a fan of President Trump. How much of a factor is he there?

  • Chas Sisk:

    Definitely a very big factor. I mean, President Trump' still is very popular in Tennessee, every bit as popular as he was on Election Day.

    And the idea that she's embraced President Trump is really quite true literally. You see her campaign ads, and there's actually an advantage of her embracing the president from one of his first rallies on her behalf.

    So he has definitely thrown his support behind her. He's already been here twice in Tennessee. He's going to be coming here a third time between now and Election Day. So, definitely, she's — she's very much tying herself to President Trump and trying to portray yourself as the ally of him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in Indiana, Brandon Smith, you have a different situation, in a Democratic incumbent, Joe Donnelly, but he's tried not to be — not to distance himself too much from the president.

  • Brandon Smith:

    No, not at all.

    In fact, you will hear Joe Donnelly say more than almost anything else that he's voted with President Trump 62 percent of the time. He's a Democrat, but he knows that he's in a relatively Republican state here in Indiana. And so he portrays himself as a really conservative Democrat or an independent sort of lawmaker who, as he puts it, votes with the president when it's good for Indiana and votes against him when it's not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to finally come back to all three of you on voter engagement.

    I mean, we learned today that early voting around the country is surpassing what it was in the last midterm elections in 2014. Something like more than 24 million people have already voted early, compared to about — I think about 20 million years ago.

    Back to you, Christopher Conover.

    I mean, how much voter interest do you see? Are people talking about this race? Is it getting a lot of attention?

  • Christopher Conover:

    Oh, sure. Everywhere you go, people are talking about this race. You can't escape it. It's on your TV if you're watching commercial TV every ad break. And that's almost all you see during the ad break. So — and in coffee shops and everything else, that's what people are talking about.

    When it comes to early voting, Arizona is a big early voting state. Early ballots went out a month ago. And, at this point — I looked at the numbers right before we all sat down — about 50 percent of early ballots are back at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chas Sisk, what about in Tennessee? What kind of voter interest, voter engagement are you seeing?

  • Chas Sisk:

    Yes, it's definitely very high.

    Just as in Arizona, definitely every ad break is full of commercials by the two candidates, as well as a very competitive governor's race here in Tennessee. That's pushed early voting up over a million people. And this is a state of six million people total, perhaps about four million voters total.

    So, a million of them have already gone out there and cast ballots. And, definitely, you see long — you see lines at the early voting locations. We only have in-person early voting, nothing — you can't do it by mail.

    So you can see a lot of people out there even at the polling locations really getting engaged in the election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how about in Indiana, Brandon?

  • Brandon Smith:

    Yes.

    In 2014, Indiana had the lowest voter turnout in the country. But we didn't have a Senate race on the ballot. And this time, we do. And that's been drawing the most interest, I think, of any other race, particularly as it sort of nationalizes out to be a bit of a referendum on the Trump administration and his sort of agenda.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Brandon, one other question.

    In terms of the campaigns being organized all over the state, I mean, do you see evidence of that?

  • Brandon Smith:

    Oh, absolutely, particularly for the Democrats. I mean, the Republicans have a great get-out-the-vote machine here in Indiana, because it is such a Republican-controlled state.

    But Democrats and particularly Joe Donnelly, the candidate, is everywhere. And he's been everywhere for all six years he's been in the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, quick question, Christopher Conover, about organization?

  • Christopher Conover:

    Everybody here is very organized.

    I get e-mails constantly from both parties about get-out-the-vote events all over the state, from door-knocking and all kinds of things, all over the state, every major metro area. So, very, very organized on both sides.

    Arizona tends to lean Republican, but Democrats see an opening in this race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, in Tennessee?

  • Chas Sisk:

    Yes, absolutely.

    All over the state, you're seeing signs of organization. Even in East Tennessee, which has been the Republican stronghold — it's where Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are from — you're definitely seeing a pretty high level of Democratic organization there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, we're going to leave it there.

    Thank you, all three, with just six days to go.

    Chas Sisk with WPLN, Nashville Public Radio, Brandon Smith, Indiana Public Broadcasting, and Christopher Conover, Arizona Public Media, thank you.

  • Chas Sisk:

    A pleasure.

  • Christopher Conover:

    Thank you.

  • Brandon Smith:

    Thank you.

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