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Week In Politics: Midterm Elections


And on this Halloween Friday, we're joined by our spookily smart political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: It's about this time of year that we ask you to lean back in your uncomfortable chairs over there and give us some projections. So looking ahead to Tuesday - David Brooks, you first - what are you forecasting we might be seeing?

BROOKS: I've looked into my massive databank of complete guessing intuitions and I'm picking seven of nine seats for the Republicans.

BLOCK: In the Senate?

BROOKS: It's a pretty big win, but not massive. You know, to me the big story of this election is that we've still got a lot of ticket splitters, people who'd vote for one party in one office and then the other party for the others. We're just seeing less of that. And this is a campaign conducted in red states mostly. And the Republicans are just trying to get people who voted for a Republican presidential candidate, vote for Republican Senate candidates. And I think they're going to have some success at that.

BLOCK: Well, E.J., if David's right and the Republicans do pick up, what, seven to nine seats, that gives them control of the Senate. What are you forecasting?

DIONNE: You know, I try only to make predictions I can believe in and I'm not sure I believe anything about this election yet.

BLOCK: Really?

DIONNE: I mean, if you - and I really go with the forecasters like Nate Silver and Nate Cohn, where clearly leans Republican. They start out with three seats - Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Then there are five to seven seats that they've got either a good shot in or a reasonable shot in, so you say the odds are they get to the majority.

But there are all these counter-indicators out there. The Democrats are doing very well on early voting, much better than the last time. Sean Trende has a very interesting piece in RealClearPolitics where there are many more undecideds and third-party votes than usual in the polls, which suggest to him there may be a lot of stay-at-homes. So it's probably a Republican Senate, but I am still not there yet.

BLOCK: Is it clear to you what this election is about? If in the past it's been about the economy's stupid or it's been about security, David Brooks, what is the 2014 midterm about?

BROOKS: I guess unhappiness verging into fear. I guess that would be the way I'd put it. People are clearly disappointed in President Obama. You look at his ratings on handling the economy and foreign affairs, they're low for a president. They're about where George W. Bush's were at this point. Second, since America's projecting weakness abroad, the economy - even though statistically, the economy's doing OK, people don't have a sense they can quit their job and get a better paying one. So they feel insecure and their freedom is inhibited by that lack of economic opportunity, and then just the general sense that our institutions don't work well. I think that's why Ebola was sort of effective - not that it's a big issue in itself - but it's sort of the objective correlative of the anxiety people feel that we just don't know how to manage.

BLOCK: Did you just say objective correlative?


BLOCK: You did.

BROOKS: That was my high school English teacher, Mrs. Deusnap (ph) who gave me that word.


BLOCK: Translate.

BROOKS: It's the object that embodies a lot of emotions. I think T.S. Eliot gave us that one, but Mrs. Deusnap for me.

BLOCK: You're classing up the joint today, David.

BROOKS: Yeah, I know.

DIONNE: See, I was going to talk about epistemological humility about predictions, so there we go.

BROOKS: That would be pretentious. What I said was merely pompous.


BLOCK: E.J., what's this election about?

DIONNE: You know, a pick between pretentious and pompous is kind of like how people view this election, which is the Republicans have made it all about Obama. If you go around the country and looked at the ads, there are more pictures of Obama in Republican ads mostly than there are Republican candidates themselves.

Democrats - people who vote Democratic, a lot of them will be voting against the Republicans to keep them from winning control of the Senate. And then a lot of people said this is a "Seinfeld" election and that it's about nothing. Actually, it's about a lot of things - about Obama, about Republicans, some places it's about the fear of Ebola and ISIS. In other places, it's about economic worries, which go both ways.

For Democrats, it goes against into populist politics, which is why Elizabeth Warren has been so popular as a Democratic speaker out there. And for others it's just we're not happy with the economy, so we're voting against Obama. So it's a very strange election because it doesn't have a focus, but that doesn't mean it's about nothing.

BLOCK: Is there one particular race, David, that you see as a bellwether for the country heading towards 2016, say?

BROOKS: Well, I guess if you're looking at - I mean, the one that's the pivotal race for picking up the Senate is - that would have to be the North Carolina Senate race, where I think the Democrat may hold on. But it's close, so that's where the - if Kay Hagan loses, then it's because of just general upset with Obama.

BLOCK: She's the Democratic incumbent.

BROOKS: She's the Democratic candidate. I guess I'd look at the governor races. They're actually in some ways more indicative. We know that the national electorate is very polarized and very idealized. But the governor's races, there are a ton of really close ones. And there people are more likely to be voting on the issues. And so you can get a sense - have the Republican Party detoxify their brand - do they seem less Tea Partyish, more respectable, more businesslike, more likely to deliver on the economy? And especially among young people, some of the polling suggested the young are switching over to the Republican side. Is that indeed happening?

BLOCK: E.J., one race that to you says something about where this country is headed?

DIONNE: Well, my favorite race is Kansas, where Governor - where I was this week - Governor Sam Brownback, who put in a real clear Tea Party, cut taxes deeply, which leads to deficits and cutting spending.

Democrats have a real shot there - Paul Davis - and I think if you take - we talked about this a little last week - Kansas, Wisconsin and North Carolina Senate race, where the speaker is responding on state issues, that's where Tea Party ideas are really on the ballot. The other set that I'd be looking at is Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina in the Senate. For the Republicans to claim that they're making progress, they've got to win some purple or blue states. And those are the three in which they have at least a shot. And I can't resist doing this 'cause I don't get to do it very often - I agree with my colleague Charles Krauthammer, who said that if the Republicans can't take the Senate in this climate, they should find another way to make a living.

BLOCK: Briefly, David Brooks, on Halloween, a spooky, scary scenario that you're looking at going forward. What's scaring you?

BROOKS: What's scaring me? You know, obviously, there's a good chance it will be in this election for another couple weeks in Louisiana and I guess Georgia. And this has been the most boring election I've ever covered.

BLOCK: If there are runoffs.

BROOKS: If there are runoffs, and so I don't want to think about it for another two weeks.


DIONNE: The Senate is supposed to organize on January 6 and the runoff is in Georgia - isn't 'til - I'm sorry - January 3, the Senate organizes. January 6 is the runoff in Georgia. We may not know who controls the Senate until after the Senate sits down here.

BLOCK: OK. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to you both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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