GWEN IFILL: Elections are just around the corner, and much is at stake. The contenders, the candidates, and what comes next, tonight on “Washington Week.”
WOMAN: (From videotape.) I like to complain, and I want to feel like I have the right to do so because I cast my vote.
WOMAN: (From videotape.) There’s some people that need to be out of office and others that need to be in office.
WOMAN: (From videotape.) (Inaudible) – seems to be longer and longer every year to me.
MS. IFILL: Voting has already begun, and Tuesday will tell the tale. Will the Republicans take the Senate?
SENATOR PAT ROBERTS (R-KS): (From videotape.) The president has the playbook and Harry calls the plays. Let’s take the playbook away.
MS. IFILL: Will Democrats push back?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) When you step into that voting booth, you’ve got a choice to make. And it’s not just a choice between candidates or parties. It’s a choice about two different visions for America.
MS. IFILL: But what will that choice be for the economy, education, health care, and the lame-duck president?
Covering the campaign: Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for The Washington Post; Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report; and Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
MS. IFILL: Good evening.
So as we brace for the big wave or for the minor splash that will drive the analysis Tuesday night, we gather here around the table to offer you a final weekend Halloween night assessment of what the 2014 midterm election has turned out to be. Has it been a referendum on President Obama’s record or on this Congress’s future? Has it been a defense of incumbency?
Check out Democratic Senator Mark Pryor’s approach.
SENATOR MARK PRYOR (D-AR): (From videotape.) It’s why I’ve worked across party lines and tried to take the best from both parties to get things done for Arkansas. Neither political party is always right. I’m Mark Pryor. I approve this MS. IFILL: Or is the problem Washington itself? Georgia Republican Senate candidate David Perdue makes this pitch.
U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE DAVID PERDUE (R-GA): (From videotape.) If you’re as frustrated as I am by the dysfunction in Washington and believe we can do better, then I’d really appreciate your trust and your vote.
MS. IFILL: So let’s start by talking about the voters. Are they motivated? Are they throwing up their hands in disgust? Karen.
KAREN TUMULTY: Voters have – other than the strong partisans of each party, we always see a midterm drop-off of voters, and particularly among young people, among minorities, among single women, who are all, you know, Democratic constituencies.
But there are a lot of predictions out there that, despite the ease with which people can vote in so many states – in Colorado by mail now – that turnout is going to be pretty darn low this year at the polls.
MS. IFILL: I know, Jeff, you’ve been traveling all over the country. You’ve all been traveling all over the country. I’m curious about, when you talk to voters, if you get back from them what I get from them, which is exasperation. And also they hate the television ads, obviously, but then they recite them to you.
JEFF ZELENY: They do, because they’re happening so often. I mean, the best way to get a sense of what’s really going on is to sit in a hotel room or in someone’s living room and watching all these ads. I mean, it’s a $4 billion campaign.
At this point so many people have voted. Those ads are still running. I mean, they should be getting a discount because it’s kind of a rip-off. But voters are angry at everything – at government, at incumbents. So that’s one thing that I’ll be watching on election night.
Even Republicans, who should be safe – all incumbents are a little bit anxious, because even someone like Mitch McConnell, who looks to be doing OK in the polls right now, he’s not a beloved figure. People like that are not beloved figures. So the incumbency is not a good thing, even on the Republican side, this year.
MS. IFILL: Amy.
AMY WALTER: Well, and there is a sense that it doesn’t matter so much about votes. The voting is not as important, in part because they don’t think it’s going to make any difference. A lot of voters don’t know who’s in charge of Congress and they don’t really care about who’s in charge in Congress. But they know that, whether they put a Democrat or a Republican in charge, they don’t expect that they’re going to see much change.
And so I think that’s the deeper frustration is when you listen to voters, and what are they talking about? They’re talking about the economy. They’re talking about concerns about their kids’ education, their own retirement. And nobody’s really talking about that.
These ads are much more about talking to the base. So if you’re a Republican, you’re going to hear a lot of anti-“Obamacare” messages you like. If you’re a Democrat, you’re going to hear a lot on social issues that you like. But you’re not talking about the core issues that the majority of people in this country care about.
MS. IFILL: But Molly, aren’t these candidates, especially in these tight, tight Senate races, aren’t they counting on motivation, enthusiasm, getting their base to turn out? Doesn’t that require some sort of engagement?
MOLLY BALL: Well, you can engage people by getting them excited about you, or you can just get them really afraid of the other guy. And that’s what a lot of these candidates are choosing to do and what a lot of the outside groups are doing with these overwhelmingly negative constant, you know, billions of dollars of TV ads.
I do think, you know, I feel like a bit of a broken record talking about this being an anti-Washington election, because I feel like we’ve been saying that every year –
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. BALL: - since maybe 2008. And I guess it’s us. It’s Washington. We haven’t gotten any better, so the voters keep casting that anti-Washington vote. But at the same time, you know, we all covered 2010. That was a mad-as-heck election, right. That was people really bringing out the pitchforks. I don’t get that sense of a real tide of anger, especially anger in one particular direction, that 2010 was. So that’s why, as you said earlier in the show, it seems like it’s going to be a little bit more of a splash than tidal wave.
MS. IFILL: Mad as heck. That’s so sweet.
MS. BALL: It’s PBS. I don’t know (what else to say ?). (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Well, as you can tell, everyone here tonight has been on the road, reading the polls, talking to candidates and to the voters, to try to get a handle on all of those tea leaves.
Here’s a part of my conversation last weekend in North Carolina with the two candidates involved in the most expensive Senate race ever, Republican Thom Tillis and incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan.
(Begin videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: Why is it, so close to election day, are things so tight? All these ads, $100 million worth.
SENATOR KAY HAGAN (D-NC): You know, North Carolina is this purple state. But I feel very good about where we are. I do think this out-of-state money is something that I’m very disappointed in, but it is because of the Supreme Court decision.
MS. IFILL: But you’ve benefited from it as well.
SEN. HAGAN: You know, I think, no matter who gives money, it should be disclosed and I think it should be transparent.
(End videotaped segment.)
(Begin videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: Someone was quoted as saying that a persuadable voter at this stage is as hard to find as a pink unicorn.
U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE THOM TILLIS (R-NC): I do believe that there are persuadable voters out there. I believe that there are voters on election day who will go into the ballot box and make a decision at game time.
(End videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: Well, it’s game time. What do you all see?
MR. ZELENY: I mean, I think that Republicans have this air of confidence about them, and they know that they’re probably likely to pick up the six seats that they need. That’s the number we have to keep in mind election night, six seats. But they don’t know exactly where they’re going to come from still. I mean, they generally know where the three will come from – Montana, South Dakota, Virginia. But the other three, they’re still not, even this close to election day – millions of people have voted – they’re still not quite sure, because –
MS. IFILL: You said Virginia. You meant West Virginia.
MR. ZELENY: West Virginia, exactly.
MS. IFILL: I was going to say, did something happen in Virginia?
MR. ZELENY: The Republicans are so scarred by what happened in 2010 and 2012 – the Senate Republicans, at least. They’re just not quite sure this is going to happen. But there are so many seats in play. It’d be hard to imagine them not finding three seats elsewhere.
MS. TUMULTY: There’s one little factor that’s a little bit different in North Carolina. You know, Kay Hagan, the incumbent senator, is likely to be hit by this anti-Washington sentiment. But Thom Tillis is the speaker of the House, and people in North Carolina aren’t exactly wild about the legislature’s performance either. So they’re both being hit by a little bit of an anti-incumbent sentiment.
And another issue in North Carolina is there is no other state in the country, at least in the last presidential election, where young people and old people’s voting patterns were so different, with the young going one way and the old going the other. The young people are going to be the hardest ones to get out, and those are the constituents, particularly in North Carolina –
MS. IFILL: And that’s part –
MS. TUMULTY: - Democrats need.
MS. IFILL: And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it, Molly, which is the Obama coalition that helped him win North Carolina in 2008 and around the country were African-Americans, Latinos, women, young women, single women, and young people. And they don’t all seem to be that moved this year.
MS. BALL: Well, I mean, Amy was talking about this. I think that voters sort of correctly perceive that not a lot is at stake in this election. Of course, the candidates are always going to say it’s the most important election of our lifetime. It’s just not objectively true this time. No matter what happens, even if Republicans take the Senate, we had divided government before. We will have divided government after the election. Obama will still be in the White House. The Republicans, barring some kind of freak occurrence, will still have the House of Representatives.
And so whether the Senate is in Republican hands will make some difference, but it’s not going to change that basic fact of life. And it probably won’t undo the partisanship that has kept that stalemate going for the last six years. So I think it’s hard for candidates to convince voters that that’s – that there’s a reason for them to come out to vote. And, you know, Democrats have this ground game that they are really banking on, that they’ve spent a lot of money on this year, but you can’t turn people out to vote who just don’t want to vote.
MS. WALTER: Right.
MS. IFILL: Go ahead.
MS. WALTER: Yeah. And that is what I think the key to all of this. You know, Republicans said to me you can’t win on turnout when you’re losing on message. And the message to the Democratic base is one of you’ve got to turn out; it’s so important. You came out for Obama. That’s fine, except for this is a base that has soured on the president, much more so than they were in 2012.
I mean, when you – I went and compared the numbers in North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, the really important races where the president – he didn’t win North Carolina, but won the other two – his numbers among all of those groups you just talked about, except African-Americans, have gone down tremendously; single women, Latinos, young people. It’s dramatic, the difference in terms of their approval rating of the president.
So trying to motivate people who feel disappointed – I think Molly’s right. It’s not a pitchfork kind of election. It’s more of a pessimism election, like a (nah ?) election.
MS. IFILL: Let’s walk through some of these states, as many as we can get through. Georgia – things – as far as we know tonight, Friday night, things are still dead even.
MR. ZELENY: No doubt about it, and I think perhaps even with a slight edge for the Democrat there –
MS. IFILL: Michelle Nunn.
MR. ZELENY: - Michelle Nunn. And the challenge for Georgia is or the complication is there’s a runoff election. And the winner has to get 50 percent plus one. Otherwise it goes for two more months, the first Tuesday in January.
MS. IFILL: And there’s a libertarian candidate.
MR. ZELENY: And there’s a libertarian, who complicates it. So it’s – Republicans are absolutely worried about not winning it on the first election. But the second go-round, we’ll see.
MS. IFILL: Colorado?
MS. BALL: I was just in Colorado. I’ll take this one. Colorado is a really interesting state because it went for Obama twice and because Democrats were starting to feel confident that they had a permanent coalition there. Over the last decade they’ve really reengineered the state in a Democratic direction.
But now we seem to be seeing a little bit of a backlash to that and Republicans getting wise to a lot of the tactics Democrats have used. So Cory Gardner, who a lot of Democrats believe is maybe the Republicans’ strongest of all the Senate candidates this cycle – a congressman; a Republican who, despite having taken conservative positions, is able to sell himself as this sort of sunny, work-across-the-aisle moderate – taking on incumbent Mark Udall, who really never expected to be in trouble. And I think that we’re talking about states like Colorado on election eve tells you what kind of year this is, tells you how much progress Republicans have made.
MS. IFILL: You know, what you say – I was in Colorado, and so were you, Karen. One of the interesting things is that this is a perfect example of what you’re talking about, this being more moderating kind of election. This is not a tea party election at all among these Republicans who are doing well. Cory Gardner is Mr. hey, everything’s fine here. And he’s not the only example.
MS. TUMULTY: But Mark Udall also tried the – the strategy that has worked in the last couple of cycles for Democrats in Colorado has been social issues, with reproductive issues being sort of the silver bullet. So he was essentially trying this play again. Cory Gardner saw it coming, sort of wiggled out of his support in the past for the personhood amendment.
And I also think that there’s a sense among Colorado voters of, you know, there’s just so many times you can run this play and make these arguments before people just quit hearing it.
MS. IFILL: Arkansas. Weren’t you in Arkansas?
MR. ZELENY: I was in Arkansas. And I think that is a place where Mark Pryor has the family name. It is a very golden name of politics. It just may not be enough this year. I mean, the Democratic – you know, Republican winds are blowing so hard, it’s going to blow out the Democratic traditions, it looks like.
But Mark Pryor is still – he is – I was out there about a week and a half ago, and Bill Clinton was at his side. And Bill Clinton is going back this weekend. He’s going all across the state.
MR. ZELENY: Yeah. You know, I’m not sure that that’s going to work exactly. But Arkansas is a changing state. In 2008, there were still four Democratic members of Congress, I believe. The legislature was Democratic. It’s just a changing southern state, so it’s hard for him to hold on. The Republican there is Tom Cotton.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. My favorite two things about that race is Tom Cotton, the Republican, the veteran, who also comes across as not being very hard-edged. He ran an ad in which he and his wife were sitting with a puppy on their lap they were stroking. People say mean things about it. I love that ad. And the other is the story that I think was in The Washington Post about David Pryor campaigning for his son, going to all the small towns in Arkansas and saying he and his wife are the antiques road show.
MR. ZELENY: Very clever.
MS. IFILL: I loved it. I loved it.
MS. WALTER: Kentucky feels a little anticlimactic right now, because this was supposed to be the marquee race, right? Can Mitch McConnell, who’s now the minority leader, hold on? He’s as unpopular in the state as Barack Obama, even though it’s a Republican state; and Alison Grimes, the Democrat, you know, really running a very strong campaign, raising tons of money, making it – trying to make it a referendum on Mitch McConnell; he, of course, making it a referendum on Obama.
But you see the reason that Mitch McConnell has been able to win in Kentucky. And he wins by narrow margins every time. But he is a dogged, smart, aggressive campaigner. And it has been a show, and he’s opened up something of a lead.
And, you know, I think this is what’s important too. We made the point about this isn’t really a tea party election. And this is what to me is going to be fascinating is seeing how these candidates, who’ve been running sort of more – even though they’re very conservative – Tom Cotton’s very conservative; Cory Gardner in Colorado very conservative – but they’ve been running as sort of more moderate candidates.
What happens when they come to Washington and then they have to govern? The base is expecting them to be conservative. They’ve seen them campaign more moderately now.
MS. IFILL: Shades of Marco Rubio.
MS. WALTER: It’s going to be very – I think it’s going to be very challenging.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about Iowa. This is an example of – Joni Ernst, the Republican nominee there –
MS. WALTER: Yes.
MS. IFILL: - who was endorsed and pulled almost out of oblivion during the primary by Sarah Palin. So she comes – she has the bona fides that you would expect to have. And she is really running a strong race against Bruce Braley, the Democrat.
MS. BALL: Well, she was endorsed by Sarah Palin, but she was also endorsed by Mitt Romney. And this is what Republicans have done this year. You know, Jeff’s talking about how Republicans have come so close and fallen short in 2010 and 2012 from taking the Senate. Democrats thought they won those elections, but it was really the case that Republicans lost them.
And this year Republicans have not nominated a Todd Akin or a Sharron Angle. They have nominated candidates like Joni Ernst, who were conservative enough, like Amy said, to satisfy the base with their positions and get through those tough, bloody primaries, but then could pivot to the general election and sound like normal people and not say things that got them in trouble and would be played over and over again in a campaign ad.
And so you have these sort of sputtering Democrats on the sideline saying, no, no, I swear she’s an extremist. But she doesn’t sound that way. Voters don’t perceive her that way. She seems like what she is, which is a small-town Iowa girl from a farm. Let’s not forget the hogs.
MS. IFILL: The hogs that she castrated. How can anyone forget the hogs?
MS. BALL: And it’s interesting that, to get through the primary, she talked about castrating the hogs. In the general election, she hasn’t another commercial about the hogs, but it’s about Washington being a mess. There’s no testicles this time.
MS. WALTER: Can you say that on PBS?
MS. BALL: I don’t know. I might get bleeped.
MR. ZELENY: One thing happening in Iowa also, though, is there’s a very strong governor’s race there, and there are sort of, you know, Democrats just across the border getting sort of sucked in by that. But she’s the one to watch on Tuesday.
MS. TUMULTY: Also don’t forget there were a couple of big gaffes by the Democratic nominee -
MR. ZELENY: The better candidate usually wins.
MS. TUMULTY: - Congressman Braley, who, among other things, said dismissive things about the senior senator in the state, Chuck Grassley, being just a farmer, being not even a lawyer, in line to run the Judiciary Committee.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about Kansas, because when you talk about it, you know, where the Republicans have figured out a way to get everybody in – Ted Cruz has been in Kansas on behalf of Pat Roberts, as have – I guess Sarah Palin’s been there – but Bob Dole has been there. And so everybody has been campaigning for him against the independent, Greg Orman, because –
MR. ZELENY: Because the Republicans have sort of sounded the five-alarm fire here and bringing in every single Republican. That was the race that they shouldn’t be spending money and this shouldn’t be happening, but Pat Roberts was asleep at the switch again and he almost got taken by surprise. So they’re trying to get every sort of faction of the Republican Party – the moderates, the conservatives, the Christian conservatives – out and fired up about this.
But I’m not sure – it’s been a fascinating story. I think that Greg Orman may have peaked a little soon. We’ll see. But again, it takes a campaign organization to get voters out, and he’s kind of out there on his own.
MS. WALTER: Right. And Kansas is – it’s a fight – it’s an intraparty fight. This is not a fight between the two parties. This is Kansas. And it’s had a sort of long tradition of the very conservative part of the party and the moderate part of the party. And this is where Greg Orman has done very well is with the Johnson County/Kansas City suburbs. And he sort of appeals to that moderate Republican who feels very frustrated by the current governor, who’s also very conservative. And he – you know, that is where Roberts needs to bring in a Bob Dole, because he needs to get those old-line Republicans back. He doesn’t need the Sarah Palin Republicans now. He needed them earlier.
MS. TUMULTY: Also worth mentioning – the Democrat in that race dropped out.
MS. IFILL: That’s true.
MR. ZELENY: Or was edged out -
MS. IFILL: Was edged out.
MR. ZELENY: - by some maneuvering.
MS. IFILL: We have a couple more to hit before we run out of time – Louisiana, where there may also be a runoff. Mary Landrieu – there is going to be a runoff.
MS. WALTER: Let’s just call it. Let’s just – everybody make your reservations.
MS. IFILL (?): (Inaudible.)
MS. WALTER: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: Why?
MS. WALTER: Let’s – (inaudible) – New Orleans so we can all have great dinners there. Because this is a state where you need 50 percent on election night. There are three candidates in that race, which means that it’s more likely than not that nobody gets 50 percent. And so we go into early December. We have a runoff.
It’s going to be very tough for Mary Landrieu. That state – as Jeff was talking about Arkansas, talk about a state that has changed dramatically over the last 10 or 12 years. And it’s really – it’s not enough just to turn out New Orleans. She – for a Democrat to win there, you have to do better among white voters there, and that’s going to be (a problem ?).
MS. IFILL: We might also be up late waiting on Alaska as well, right? That’s also another tight, late race.
MS. TUMULTY: That’s because the Democrats have just – they think their ground game is going to save them in that state. And so they have put a field operation into the most remote native villages. So they’re going to be sort of going out and getting those votes back.
MS. IFILL: Well, is this an issue-free election in the end, or is this all going to come back to getting people to turn out, getting your people turn out, rather than “Obamacare” or the economy or education or any of the issues, even women’s issues, that we keep hearing people talk about?
MR. ZELENY: It’s somewhat of an issue for the election, but it certainly started as an “Obamacare” election. Now you watch the ads; you look at the ads. I mean, it is not as much of an issue as they thought it would be. But as Molly said before, it’s sort of a fear election too. Something like a million dollars has been spent just on Ebola ads alone.
So it’s not really – you know, I don’t hear much policy discussions about ISIS or anything out there right now. And those are the issues – or hardly any discussions about what the next Congress is actually facing, like the debt ceiling. How many times have people talked about that? So not issue-free, but certainly not issue-heavy.
MS. IFILL: I missed New Hampshire, by the way; Jeanne Shaheen and Mark –
MR. ZELENY: Scott Brown.
MS. IFILL: Scott Brown.
MS. WALTER (?): There are a lot of Marks.
MS. BALL: Scott Brown. Well, and that’s another race that, just the fact that we are talking about it tells you what kind of year this is, tells you how favorable the climate has turned for Republicans, because when Scott Brown first announced, he looked like a very long shot. He’s from – he’s a carpetbagger from Massachusetts. Jeanne Shaheen hasn’t really done anything to tick anybody off.
And all of the analysis, including mine at the time, was, well, maybe if there’s a wave he has a chance to ride it. Well, this is how close we are to some kind of wave that he is now within single digits of Jeanne Shaheen. He is consistently behind. It still looks like a long shot. But the fact that he’s giving her a scare is a symptom –
MS. IFILL: This is what the –
MS. BALL: - of the fact that even in blue states, even in states like New Hampshire that Obama won twice, Democrats are still having trouble and President Obama is not welcome.
MS. TUMULTY: This issue – there is an issue in this election, and it is President Obama and his job performance, and also just the whole, you know, wave after wave of bad news, from the border, from ISIS, from Ebola.
MS. IFILL: But I want to ask you about something you were brilliant enough to do, which was to reach back to last time that this whole thing flipped. And you reached out to Newt Gingrich, who became speaker of the House in 2005 (sic/means 1995) because the 2004 (sic/means 1994) election took everybody by surprise. And you asked him, does this feel like that?
MS. TUMULTY: And he said it does not. It does not feel like a wave, but it feels like maybe a rising tide. He said, look, let’s face it, you know, we were able to surprise people. And also, you know, all the low fruit has been picked here by the Republicans.
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MS. TUMULTY: He says the thing to watch is the number of state legislatures that are going to flip this time to the Republicans, he said, which is an extraordinary amount of power over redistricting, over building a field team of future candidates; that he thinks that may be the real significance of this election.
MS. IFILL: And there are a lot of governors’ races which also could flip the other way. We talked a little bit about it with Dan Balz on the program last week. But it seems to me that when you start looking around the country, that is going to affect people’s lives more.
MS. BALL: And it’s interesting how many governors are in trouble – not just Republican governors who were elected in 2010 in this Republican wave year. That’s a lot of them; you know, people like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan, Rick Scott in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine. They came in on a Republican wave. And so, in a year that’s not as favorable to Republicans as 2010, there’s a lot of Democratic governors in peril as well. You have Pat Quinn in Illinois. You have Dan Malloy in Connecticut –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. BALL: - who is in a very, very tight race in Connecticut, one of the bluest states in the country. So, you know, I think that is another symptom of just the mood, the anti-incumbency mood, the people not being satisfied that they have leadership, and wanting to kick out whoever is in charge.
MS. IFILL: Well, there is so much to talk about come Tuesday night. We’re all going to be sitting at the edge of our seats. And whether people think it’s going to affect their lives or not, I think these elections always give us an insight into where America is – not necessarily where the candidates are, but where Americans are. So that’s always worth watching and voting.
Thank you, everybody.
We have to go now. But, as always, the conversation will continue online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, where we’ll keep talking politics but pivot to 2016. Yes, it’s time. That streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. And you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
And Tuesday night you can join Judy Woodruff and me and Amy here, among others, for a full night of election coverage on air and online, including a results special at 11:00 p.m. Eastern. And now, with that, of course, we’ll be done making our plans for dinner in Louisiana.
We’ll see you here – back to your trick or treating – next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.