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November 15, 2019

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Presidential primary brawl overshadowing crucial Congressional contests

With so much airtime devoted to Donald Trump and the bruising Democratic drama, it’s easy to forget that November will also see pivotal battles for seats in Congress, battles a given presidential nominee could tip one way or the other. Judy Woodruff talks to Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report and David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report for more.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Of the three remaining candidates for president, only Democrat Bernie Sanders was on the campaign trail today, this the day after two Democratic primaries.

    In Kentucky, an official winner has still not been called, but Hillary Clinton holds a razor-thin lead over Sanders. The Vermont senator did win in Oregon, but he remains the underdog for the party's presidential nomination.

    The drawn-out primary battle is sparking tensions between Sanders himself and party leaders, an issue he tackled last night during a stop outside Los Angeles.

  • SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, Democratic Presidential Candidate:

    The Democratic Party is going to have to make a very, very profound and important decision. It can do the right thing, and open its doors, and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

    I say to the leadership of the Democratic Party, open the doors. Let the people in.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Meanwhile, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who easily won Oregon's GOP primary, held a highly publicized meeting today with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, that on top of the names that his campaign unveiled today of potential Supreme Court nominees in a potential Trump presidency.

    He also discussed what's behind his sharp tone that he often takes on the trail in an interview last night with FOX's Megyn Kelly.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I have been saying during this whole campaign that I'm a counterpuncher. You understand that. I'm responding.

    Now, I then respond times maybe 10. I don't know. I mean, I respond pretty strongly. But in just about all cases, I have been responding to what they did to me. So, it's not a one-way street.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And while the contest for president gets most of the attention, it could also have a ripple effect down the ballot. There are 34 U.S. Senate seats up for grabs this election cycle, and, of those, seven are considered now a toss-up.

    These include the open contests in Nevada and Florida, where Harry Reid and Marco Rubio have announced they're not seeking reelection.

    To discuss all this, we're joined by Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor and publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. And David Wasserman. He's the House editor for The Cook Political Report.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report: Thanks, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Stu, let me start with you.

    Remind us why it matters who has a majority in the Congress. We spend so much time on the presidential race.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Right. We have spent so much time covering the race and talking about the race.

    But when you get down to it, after the election is over, the president is going to have to work with the House and the Senate if they're going to deal with any fundamental issues. And they have had a hard time on big issues like tax reform, immigration and the like because the Congress and the president haven't worked well.

    So, knowing what is going on in Senate races and the House, who is getting elected, I think it tells us something about what is going to happen after the November elections in the next Congress.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, let's talk about both the House and the Senate and start with the Senate. But, Stu, I'm going to focus on that with you.

    We listed, what, 34 seats are up.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This year, seven considered toss-ups. Is there some rhyme or reason to those that are most vulnerable? Where are they? Who are they?

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Well, most of these — most of these seats are Republican seats.

    Remember, 24 of the 34 seats are Republican seats. These are Republican seats, Republicans who were elected six years ago. That makes them the class of 2010, if you remember that election, Judy. And I know you do. That was the first Obama midterm. Voters were angry, frustrated. Many Republicans thought the president had gone too far too fast. And they wanted to send a message, send a message to Barack Obama by electing Republicans to the Senate.

    And they did that in many swing states and even one Democratic state, Illinois, where Mark Kirk won in a surprising election just because of the contest.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, now they are coming back.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    And now they're up, in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio. These are all swing states. And given the polarization of the country and the polarization in these states, it's not surprising. When you get swing states, you get competitive elections.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Dave Wasserman, give us a big picture of the House of Representatives. You have got 435 seats in the House. How many of those are considered vulnerable, up for grabs?

  • DAVID WASSERMAN, The Cook Political Report:

    Well, today, we only consider 36 districts to be competitive. And really Democrats need 30 to get a majority. Right now, Republicans have a 247-to-188-seat advantage. That is the largest majority they have had since 1928, since Herbert Hoover was elected.

    And the question is whether Democrats can really tie Republican incumbents and candidates to Donald Trump. And that is easier said than done. Last fall, we were talking about both party leaders suggesting major seats in jeopardy for Republicans if Trump were the nominee. Now both parties are taking a more cautious approach, because, after all, Trump, he doesn't have a coherent ideology.

    He doesn't have a voting record. A lot of Democrats are saying now that they might have had an easier time running against Cruz, because at least they have that playbook written.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, in other words, it's not as clear that he is the automatic detriment for some of these Republicans; is that what you are saying?

  • DAVID WASSERMAN:

    That's true.

    Well, and I think Democrats will pick up seats. They could pick up somewhere between 10 and 15 seats if the elections were held, let's say, next Tuesday. Those next 15 to 20 seats get really hard for Democrats to pick up, because not only have filing deadlines passed in a majority of districts, so Democrats didn't have the opportunity to convince candidates to get into some of these races against Republicans.

    But also Republicans have a huge advantage in terms of having drawn the lines in 2010. So there really aren't a vast number of targets. If there are any targets for Democrats, it's districts with high Latino shares, where you could see a spike in turnout against Trump, or districts with high levels of well-educated voters, where Trump could perform unusually poorly for a Republican.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And let's pick up…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Stu, yes, go ahead.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    I believe there are 26 districts where there are a Republican congressman who just was carried by Barack Obama.

    There are five, on the other hand, five Democrats sitting in Romney districts. So the Republicans have much greater risk. There are more Republicans sitting in what ostensibly are swing Democratic districts, but not enough so the Democrats have an easy chance of picking up 30 seats.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, back to the Senate for a moment, Stu, is there a pattern here? We know that each member is running on his or her — or each senator running on his or her own record.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Yes. Well, they are going to try to run on their own record.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But how much of it is there a Trump effect are you seeing?

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Well, I think, since so many of these are swing states — Illinois is a heavily Democratic state. Mark Kirk got elected because of unusual circumstances, so he is a little different.

    But Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire, and Ohio are all classified as presidential swing states. And they have in most cases Republican incumbents. Florida is an open seat.

    But the question is, can the Republican incumbents here run their own races, or are they going to be defined by Donald Trump? And if you are Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire or Rob Portman in Ohio, your problem is, every morning that you get up, a reporter is going to shove a microphone in your face and ask you, what do you think about what Donald Trump said yesterday?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For House members, Dave Wasserman, it is a little bit different, isn't it? They are not as high-profile, obviously, on a statewide basis. It's more in their district, but they can get swept up in this as well.

  • DAVID WASSERMAN:

    That's true. And it may make it even more difficult for them, because they have even less time to communicate with voters and separate themselves from the top of the ticket in an environment where the presidential race is getting all the attention and it is the main event.

    And so, for example, in New Hampshire, in the Senate race with Kelly Ayotte, she said that she will support the nominee of the Republican Party, but she won't endorse. That is kind of a move of jujitsu that is difficult for a lot of voters in New Hampshire to understand.

    And a lot of Republicans in the House are dealing with the same kind of conundrum.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There were some — I think a number of people were scratching their heads over what is the difference between support and endorse.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I want to ask you both, though, about a couple of developments today.

    Stu, the — Bernie Sanders really getting into what seems like a difficult disagreement with the Democratic National Committee over how soon he should pull back, get out.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    He is saying every voter needs to vote. Is this something that…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    … have a consequence?

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Sure.

    As the Democratic race continues, Bernie Sanders seems to be ratcheting up the rhetoric. And to the extent that he does that, it risks some Democratic core groups turning out in November, since he is, frankly, unlikely to be the nominee.

    And what is one of his biggest groups?; 18-to-29-year-olds, young voters. Are they going to turn out for Hillary Clinton? And if they don't, if they don't turn out for her, they are not going to be able to vote for these Democratic candidates in swing states.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Dave Wasserman, the other story we reported is Donald Trump announcing his potential Supreme Court nominees, potentially, if he is elected president.

    I don't think we have ever seen anything like this. Is this the kind of thing that could have legs as a story, as an impact on voters?

  • DAVID WASSERMAN:

    This seems to be the year of gimmicks. Right?

    Ted Cruz announcing his vice president before wrapping up the nomination, Donald Trump announcing his Supreme Court picks before even overtaking or coming close to Hillary Clinton in some national polls.

    I think most voters, when they go to the polls in November, are going to be more concerned about the temperament, the readiness of the candidates, who will bring about the best kind of change that they want in November or the most change, rather than particular people that they want to see on the Supreme Court.

    Most people understand that Donald Trump is going to nominate a conservative, Hillary Clinton is going to nominate a liberal justice.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, gentlemen, it is great to you have both.

    Dave Wasserman, Stu Rothenberg, thank you very much.

  • STUART ROTHENBERG:

    Thanks, Judy.

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