Meeting

Renewing America Series: The 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections

Monday, October 31, 2022
Speakers

Senior Counsel, Arnold & Porter; Former U.S. Senator from Connecticut (D) (1981–2011); Former U.S. Representative from Connecticut (D) (1975–1981); CFR Member

Former U.S. Senator from New Hampshire (R) (2003–2009); Former U.S. Representative from New Hampshire (R) (1997–2003); CFR Member

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Cook Political Report

Presider

National Political Correspondent, NPR; CFR Member

Please join our panelists as they discuss the upcoming U.S. midterm elections, the ramifications for future legislation, and what the results might portend for the future of politics and polarization in the United States.

With its Renewing America initiative, CFR is evaluating nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world.

 

LIASSON: Thank you very much. I’m Mara Liasson, the national political correspondent for NPR. And I want to welcome you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting, “The 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections.” There are five hundred of you, members, joining us today. That’s a big, big crowd.

And we have a great panel to discuss the elections. We have Chris Dodd, who’s the senior counsel at Arnold & Porter. He’s a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, former U.S. representative from Connecticut; John Sununu, who’s also on the screen, former U.S. senator from New Hampshire, and former U.S. representative from New Hampshire; and then we have Amy Walter, who is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Cook Political Report, and one of the smartest political analysts around.

So I’m going to start our discussion by asking just a big-picture question for each of you. Is this a typical midterm election, where the party in power generally loses seats and has a lot of trouble? Or is there something different about this midterm? I want each of you to answer that question, and then we can drill down into the House and Senate and some of other issues that we’re seeing this year.

Amy.

DODD: John, go ahead.

SUNUNU: Well, I thought we’d go with the age before beauty.

DODD: (Laughs.)

LIASSON: OK, Chris. Senator Dodd. Senator Dodd, OK.

DODD: I’ll start with that. If predictions hold up. I mean, I think in seven out of the last eight midterm elections have been labeled change elections. And again, it goes back I think almost the length of World War II. There have only been two exceptions to that—I think in ’98 and 2002, if my—doing my little research ahead of time and sort of anticipating your question. So if you were a betting person, I guess you’d assume that this one. But I think things have changed a bit too, in terms of the predictability of years gone by.

It was interesting looking back, Clinton, Obama, and Trump, those three—and I presume we’ll get to this at some point in the hour we have—but the question was, were they able to do things in divided government? I don’t know about John, but I served in thirty years in every imaginable combination you could think of, if it were a Rubik Cube, where the one House the other was—one party or the other, the White House. And so I think despite the fact we may end up in that situation, there are, at least based on history, some indications that there are things that can’t get done along the way. But I think you’d have to start with the assumption that that normally is the case.

Now, this is a different time. Obviously, you could argue that every election is. But I think obviously there’s a lot of polarization in the country, a tremendous amount, regrettably. Delighted to be with John. John and I disagree probably on an awful lot of issues, but we had a great personal relationship. I have a lot of respect for him. He was an excellent senator. And there was a time when that went on. I mean, it wasn’t just that you liked each other, but you actually tried to work with each other. I mean, that was the ultimate test. And I worry that that’s not the case.

Now, we’ve entered a new phase where people may have fine personal relationships, but the real test of the institution working is that do you understand you’re one of a part of a hundred other people—talking about the Senate now. It’s harder in the House. And that you try to work together. And if you don’t, then it doesn’t make the institution functional and it diminishes your chances of making a positive contribution to the process. So I think there’s a degree of predictability based on history. But again, I think the times clearly are changing how people approach politics and where they see themselves in the spectrum. Whether or not you’re a Democrat or Republican seems less and less the case, and more about whether or not you’re comfortable in certain sections, if you will, of your respective party of identification.

LIASSON: So it sounds like you’re anticipating divide government after January. Senator Sununu, what do you think is—do you think this is a typical midterm election, or is there something new and different about it?

SUNUNU: Well, yes. I think it’s a typical midterm election. A typical midterm election in that it’s going to be a bad election for the president’s party, for the Democrats. But at the same time, you know, every bad election is uniquely bad in its own way, right?

LIASSON: (Laughs.) Like unhappy families.

SUNUNU: History rhymes. History rhymes. Yeah. (Laughter.) So, you know, the House, I think—and, Amy, I’m sure, has some great numbers for us. But, look, the House will go Republican. And I do think it’ll go Republican in a way that, you know, a majority of, say, 235-240 Republicans. The importance there being, unfortunately, for Nancy Pelosi it was a very tight majority when she was speaker over the last couple of years. That gives a lot of power to cliques, groups, factions within your own caucus. And in the case of the Democrats, that was some squad members, and such. And it makes it hard to maneuver if you’re the speaker, Democrat or Republican. I think if Republicans have a bigger majority, it will give a perspective Speaker McCarthy a little bit more room to maneuver—a luxury that, frankly, Nancy Pelosi didn’t have, unfortunately in her case.

I think the Senate will probably Republican. Again, we can look at the numbers, but at this point the two toughest seats for Republicans to hold are Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And it looks like they’re trending toward the Republicans. And so then Republicans need to pick up one of Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. You know, I think it’s fair to say they’re sort of toss-up states. And in this environment, I think you might expect Republicans to pick up at least a couple of them. So then the real question is, though, right, do they pick up one? Number one. And number two, is it bigger than that? You know, do they get to fifty-three or fifty-four?

And this brings us to Chris’ point about divided government, which is a great point and I wholeheartedly agree. Ironically, when you a have a president in one party and Congress controlling—the other party controlling both houses of Congress, that’s actually the lease divisive arrangement you can have, all other things being equal. And granted, this is not normal time. And the reason is as follows: In that arrangement, the minority has some incentive to work with the majority in Congress, because if they come to an agreement on legislation their president, the president of their party, the minority party, gets credit. And if things go off the rails and something uncomfortable happens, their president, the minority’s president, can veto that legislation.

So there’s actually an incentive. When you have one party controlling everything, the minority has no incentive to cooperate. So I think there is that opportunity that Chris describes. I think we’re missing some other ingredients, though. This is a polarized time. And we can talk about some of those issues. But the potential is there. And again, ironically, if Republicans were to control the Senate having fifty-three or fifty-four senators would actually make it easier for Mitch McConnell to participate in negotiations with the White House on issues because, again, you’re going to get whipsawed by one or two hardliners. You’re more—you’re probably better able to hold your caucus together.

LIASSON: So, Amy, you know, historical rules only work till they stop working. And I’m wondering—you know, we went through a big rollercoaster this cycle. Things look typically terrible for the Democrats in the beginning. Roe versus Wade was overturned. There was that little moment in the summer where things looked like they were going to defy political gravity. Now we’re back to what looks like the fundamentals clanking back into place. So what do you think about this midterm? Typical, or are there things that are just new for you?

WALTER: That’s right. Elections typically for a midterm are a referendum on the party in charge. And the party in charge would like to make it a choice election. We see that every year too, where if you’re in the party in charge, especially if you’re the party that has the House, the Senate, and the White House—and, by the way, the last time we saw a party that had majorities in the Senate and the House and the White House come through a midterm election with those majorities intact, it was 1978. So we have yet to see in this sort of—certainly in the twenty-first century, but even the latter twentieth century, any party that has control of Washington keep that control through a midterm.

In part because, right, voters sense that the party in charge overreached, that they spent way too much time focused maybe on their partisan agenda, and the other side is usually much more energized. The out party more energized than the in party. What makes this year a little bit different is the fact that, one, there is something now to motivate the in party that wasn’t there before Roe v. Wade, and before the era of Trump, quite frankly, who every time he sort of presents himself, I think gives Democrats another reason to be engaged and energized. Though the fact that he’s been incredibly quiet of late is probably good news for Republicans and Republican candidates.

The other thing making—especially on the Senate side—making this much more of a choice election is the fact that not only are Republicans defending seat this year, that’s states Biden won. Senator Sununu pointing out Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But Republicans have nominated candidates that make it easier for Democrats to make the argument about this not just being a referendum on, all right, you don’t like Joe Biden, fine. You’re not happy about the economy, fine. But the status quo you are unhappy with is a much safer bet, or a less risky bet, than going with this person here with all their baggage and all their problems.

And that’s what makes the Senate harder to sort of predict this year, because, I mean, let’s face it. Pat Toomey and Rob Portman and Richard Burr—we can have a whole conversation about why they retired. But had they decided not to retire, we wouldn’t even be talking about those races. Those would all be in the bag, I think, for Republicans. If certain governors, including one in New Hampshire, decided to run for the Senate, or in Arizona, I don’t think you would be as perplexed about the outcome. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be fifty-fifty in terms of control of the Senate.

But it is pretty clear that the other places—the other issues are clicking into place in terms of the fact that the focus right now remains on the economy, the frustration Americans are having with inflation, and that the other issues, while important, I think, in helping to raise the level of interest among Democrats and, let’s face it, our polarization also helps that. For Democrats it means that the—it is harder to get the big waves, like we saw in 1994 or 2010, where you’re losing fifty, sixty seats in the House, when so many people are just locked into their partisanship and they’re going to give the party that they’re affiliated with, they’re always going to give them the benefit of the doubt. They’re always going to dislike the other party, regardless of what other issues are going on.

So I would say we’re right now—for the House, we’re in the fifteen to twenty-five seat range for Republican pickups. That would put Republicans with a, you know, ten to fifteen seat majority. And in the Senate, I still think it’s fifty-fifty, although it does feel like there’s enough momentum right now for Republicans to pick up one. The default position is to say it stays fifty-fifty. Remember, the bigger challenge is, I think, going forward for Democrats, the 2024 map is not friendly. West Virginia, Montana, Ohio, Arizona. Those are all Democratic-held seats that are up in 2024. Those are going to a challenge to hold.

The other thing that I think will be really interesting to watch, one thing we’ve been noticing is, especially on the House side, where Democrats seem to be struggling are in states that are much bluer than—and, as such, would seem to be safer for Democratic incumbents. But places like Oregon, New York, California, even Illinois. There’s a question—

SUNUNU: Connecticut.

WALTER: I’m sorry?

SUNUNU: Connecticut.

WALTER: Connecticut. Connecticut, exactly. In Hartford that Fifth District seat—

DODD: Oh, no. Not Hartford. Waterbury. (Laughter.) But go ahead.

WALTER: All right. All right. In other words—

LIASSON: Amy, I want to ask you a question about that.

WALTER: Yeah.

LIASSON: Is that because they don’t have to worry as much about abortion in those states? In other words, it’s not a threat if you’re in a blue state because it’s going to be legal.

WALTER: I think—it’s not a threat. I think that’s part of it. I think—

LIASSON: And inflation gets to be more of the salient issue.

WALTER: It is. And so you don’t have the—well, and you don’t have the intensity on the Democratic side, right? But I also think that, especially if you’re talking about a place like Oregon, or Washington, or New York, where you have—and Connecticut is this way too, though they’re more—they switch power, at least they used to, at the gubernatorial level. But where it’s been one party government for a really long time. And people are frustrated. And so if you’re a House incumbent and Democrat, and you’re sitting out there for reelection, and you’ve got—people are angry about the national political environment, and inflation, and what’s going on in Washington. So you’re buffeted there.

And then at home, crime, homelessness, you know, frustrations about whatever’s going on in the economy in your home state—although, I think it’s much more about those other issues, like crime and homelessness—you’re getting, like, a double squeeze. And then, Mara, I think you’re right. You put on top of it, well, if you’re a Democrat and you’re, like, well, I know abortion is a really important issue but, you know, in my state I don’t think it’s ever going—it’s never going to be outlawed. If you’re in Michigan, or Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania, that’s a much higher concern.

LIASSON: So let’s talk about Senate races. And I want to know how all three of you define the battleground. It’s very small, maybe only three races—Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania. I don’t know where you guys put Arizona in there. But talk a little bit about these Senate races and how you see them playing out. At least in two of them, Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman had a stroke and a disastrous debate performance, and Georgia, where Hershel Walker has been best by one scandal after another, we’re really testing the proposition—the kind of Trumpian proposition—that he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose any votes. I mean, maybe these things just don’t matter anymore. I saw a poll the other day that said more than 60 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would stick with their candidate even if he had or she had a personal or moral failure. So let’s talk about those key Senate races.

SUNUNU: Well, I’ll go first and try to be brief, because I’d already touched on it. I do think Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—Wisconsin, because Senator Johnson, I think, has righted the ship and is probably nominally ahead, Pennsylvania because of the debate performance. I think those go to Republicans. So to me, the battleground is Arizona, Nevada, Georgia. And, you know, some people may call those toss ups. Walker has been polling surprisingly well in Georgia recently. You know, the best of the whole summer. And, you know, it's not like any of those issues or accusations have gone away.

So I think Republicans probably pick up two of those three. And if it were a stronger election, you know, states like New Hampshire or perhaps Washington or Colorado could come into play. I don’t feel that happening, but then again, you know, in 1994 nobody thought that the Democratic speaker of the House was going to lose, you know, his House race. So there are always a couple of real surprises on election night.

LIASSON: Senator Dodd, what do you think?

DODD: Well, it won’t surprise you, but I think the analysis on the House—I don’t know enough about all those races. The Senate, obviously, contests are getting a bit more attention. And I think Democrats have a—it’s going to be very close, in my view. Unless the polling is all wrong, which it could be, by the way. The last cycle we went through, polling was off by five or six or seven points, I forget the exact number. And I think it’s harder to poll today than it was when John and I were starting out in politics.

But when I look at those races, and I identified earlier on, because I think there were some other states that could have been in play, like the state of Washington, for instance. I don’t think it is anymore, with Patty Murray. But let me just address, because the most politically competitive states are Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan—although not a Senate race this year—Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia. I think Democrats have a very good chance of winning Arizona, Colorado and, I believe, Georgia. I don’t—again, I have suspicions here that Warnock is going to do well in that race.

Pennsylvania, for the very reason that people think he did—the pundits thought he did a terrible job in the debate. People come along with a feeling in these matters. I mean, most people aren’t sitting there making a decision necessarily on some specific issue. Some do, but an awful lot of people it’s, do I like this person? Do I not like this person? I think there’s an awful lot that spoke well of him. First of all, he had the guts to go on the debate. A lot of people, I’m sure, advised him not to. He made the point that though he has—you know, he had a stroke. He had a problem. A lot of us know that problem in our own families and our own cases. I’m not sure you necessarily walk away from that saying, the guy did a poor debate performance I’m going to vote against him. I think they took the totality of the person. And I think Fetterman’s going to do a lot better than people think.

And I got to believe—listen, the choice issue is interesting. Again, the polling is funny. I think that issue—I don’t have any confidence in the polling number on that question today. The last thing anyone’s going to tell you is that they know someone—a family member, a neighbor, a coworker—who’s been through that dreadful decision. And whether you live in a state that may protect you or not, I think a lot more people don’t tell someone who knows my cell number and knows my email what my views are on this particular case, in certain areas. So I have a feeling we’re going to do better on that issue than people think on the question, when people walk in and close the curtain and cast a ballot.

Anyway, we come down to, then, pretty much, like, I think John and I are close enough on this. I still think Wisconsin and Ohio—now, maybe call me a Pollyanna, because Democrats always get giddy about Ohio, but I think Tim Ryan has won a great race in the state. I think you’re right, had Portman run again. I think Sherrod Brown ought to have a seminar every year on how to win Ohio. As a progressive Democrat he does well in that state. And I still think there’s a possibility. And I think there’s still a possibility in Wisconsin. I realize the numbers don’t show that, any overwhelming victory. But I think Wisconsin and Ohio could still be of interest.

And Republicans, again, we had some aspirations in Utah with an independent candidate. Probably not going to happen. I think North Carolina, despite the fact there’s a very good candidate, the Democrat that’s a former Supreme Court justice. Florida, obviously. Nevada, again, I think that’s close. She’s a great senator, I think done a good job, Catherine Cortez Masto. But I have a feeling that’s going to work out. If you take my numbers there, after all of that, you get Democrats winning six of these states in play, Republicans winning four to six. And you could end up back exactly where we are today. If you could follow what I just said there, you’re pretty good. But nonetheless, trying to run through them to give you some feel on them.

Two last things I’d say, that I think are also important. There’s an overwhelming—people voting straight party tickets. When first—when I ran for the Senate, I won by about 150,000 votes in Connecticut. Ronald Reagan won by 150,000 votes in 1980. People split their tickets. They don’t seem to do that anymore. Who’s ever at the head of the ticket in many states, that’s how downvoting occurs—down-ballot voting occurs. The favors there are you’ve got a very dynamic candidate in Arizona, the Republican candidate for governor.

I don’t know them terribly well, but nonetheless seems to have a good. With that effect, Kelly should win Arizona. But if down ballot you get a strong push on the top, I think in a state like Pennsylvania, the Democrats gets a favor. I think Shapiro is probably a more appealing candidate than the Republican candidate. In Georgia, again, it favors a Republican, because Kemp has run a very good campaign. He survived the primary. He’s strong, and I think going to be very difficult to unseat. That could, obviously, help Hershel Walker. But I think that’s a factor.

I mentioned polling. I have a problem with it. I just don’t believe any longer you can get the kind of answers that people are going to give you their straightforward. I think there’s people much more sophisticated about answering those questions along the way. So those are factors which could contribute to the outcome in several of these states as well.

LIASSON: So, Amy, how do you define the Senate battleground? Is it more than three races?

WALTER: So the—yeah, no. I do think Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona are really where it gets decided. And Pennsylvania I think is really the key, because if Democrats win in Pennsylvania, they can afford to lose one of their own incumbents and still survive. It would also suggest that, you know, the lead that Fetterman built over the summer was solid enough with withstand the environment, and that individual candidates ultimately became more important. And so the real question to me in these Senate races is who is—who’s the bigger drag? The president, who in these new polls that came out in the New York Times this week or this morning—you have Democratic candidates outpolling the president, in some cases, by double digits.

Now, we haven’t seen that—to Senator Dodd’s point—we haven’t seen double-digit overperformance by any candidate—you have to go back to the ’90s. You know, Bob Kerrey in Nebraska was able to win, you know, while Clinton’s numbers there were twenty-two points underwater. But that doesn’t happen that much. I mean, the most we’ve seen there are a couple of individuals. You’ve got Susan Collins in Maine. You have Joe Manchin of West Virginia. You’ve got Jon Tester in Montana. But most fall somewhere—the final vote of these candidates fall somewhere between four and six points in the range of where the president’s approval rating is, if you’re of the same party as the president.

In the last election, there was not one Republican who won in a state that Donald Trump did not carry in the 2018 midterms. There wasn’t a Republican candidate who won in a state where Trump was under 48 percent. In 2010, Democrats defied—in some ways, defied gravity because even though they lost sixty-three seats in the House, they still held onto the Senate. But even then, they only won two states where the president’s job approval rating was under, like, 44 percent, or 45 percent. So either—what is going to happen is either that the candidate quality—the individual Republican candidate, who in places like Georgia, Arizona, Ohio, is still more unpopular than popular, right? They have big challenges in terms how they’re perceived. Is that going to be more important to voters? Say, yeah, I don’t like Biden, but I’m also willing to—I’m not willing to cast my ballot with this person who I dislike? That, to me, is the question.

I just am—I’m skeptical that you’re going to be able to see some of these candidates outperform Biden by that kind of margin. Which is why Ohio, interestingly enough, Ohio, I think, we’ve spent a lot of time on that race. And I do think Tim Ryan’s running a very good campaign. It is very close. The one thing that I would note, though, is he still seems to be sort of stuck right at about 45 or 46 percent of the vote, in a state that Biden got 45-46 percent of the vote.

LIASSON: Yeah. This is—before we go to Q&A, I want to talk about kind of the elephant in the room, the thing that does make this cycle really different, which is that 70 percent of Republican candidates are election deniers, or election skeptics, whatever you want to call them—questioning the fact that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. And we know that 70 percent of Republican voters believe the lie that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected. So what does that mean, not just for the results in 2022—because we’ve seen many candidates say they are not willing to say in advance that they would accept the results of the election if they lost—but also going forward to 2024? And I want to ask Senator Sununu this, because this is an issue for your party.

SUNUNU: Well, not entirely. Look, I think, you know, this issue, in some regards, has been a big distraction for both parties. And, you know, once we get through the election there’ll be recriminations if the Democrats aren’t successful, why weren’t we successful? Well, you know, they’re talking about it now, we didn’t spend enough time on the economy, and inflation, and crime, and the border, and other things. They did spend a tremendous amount of time sort of reviewing and looking at January 6th, obviously through the committee. From a substantive point of view, I think the voters look at that and say it was an outrage. It was, you know, a violent act against our institutions of government. But where are these hearings taking us? What substantive changes are being recommended as opposed to just having hearings and reaffirming that Donald Trump was—behaved outrageously and isn’t a very nice person?

So it was a distraction for the Democrats. Certainly a distraction for the Republicans. And, as you point out, many Republicans couldn’t come to grips with the fact that President Biden was legitimately elected. I think the real question is, moving forward, after the elections, do Republicans want to continue to relitigate the past and have hearings on Hunter Biden, and continue to talk about the 2020 election? And do Democrats want to continue to talk about the 2020 election, or January 6th, or Donald Trump? And I think that—I think, as we said here, the way I feel about it is, you know, the party that insists on relitigating the past is going to continue to suffer politically. And I think that’s the challenge for both.

LIASSON: By relitigating the past—

SUNUNU: Pardon?

LIASSON: By relitigating the past, do you mean continuing to deny the—that the results of 2020 were legitimate?

SUNUNU: Well, that’s—yes. That’s one form of it.

LIASSON: OK. OK.

SUNUNU: But continuing to focus on Donald Trump and January 6th is a version. Having hearings on Hunter Biden’s laptop I think is a version of that. And I think there were, you know, legitimate, serious questions about how the media behaved in suppressing that story. But as an issue for Republicans, I don’t think you’re going to, you know, continue to be successful politically if you insist on revisiting and rehashing that in a public way when you take control of the House.

LIASSON: Amy, I just—yeah, putting aside how it functions as an issue, just the very fact that you have such a high number of Americans who don’t believe that the election was fair, I mean, that is a direct attack on the peaceful transfer of power and kind of the bedrock of American democracy, which is power can go from one party to the next and both parties see elections as legitimate, even when their side loses. You know, are we in a whole new world here, or?

WALTER: I think we’re in a place right now where partisans—and I do think it’s important to highlight that. When we see these numbers about “I don’t believe the election,” and—these are people who identify themselves as partisans, right? And we have a lot of people who don’t identify themselves as partisans, even though they vote overwhelmingly for the same party, election after election, right? There are very few true independents. But people who are self-identified Republicans, yes, believe that—a couple of things. One, that the whole system isn’t fair because they don’t believe the world that they know—and I think this is getting harder and harder in this era of, you know, these things and algorithms or whatever, right? We live in these worlds where we say, I don’t know anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I don’t know a single person who voted for Joe Biden.

LIASSON: So how could he possibly have won? Yes.

WALTER: It is impossible for we to believe that’s true. Impossible for me to believe that’s true. I don’t know that you’re going to get—I mean, what happened on January 6th, I—no one wants to see that happen again. I think there are plenty of people who are saying, I think January 6th is horrible and I would never go and do that, and I think all those people should be arrested and spend the rest of whatever time in jail. I also think that—I don’t trust the system, right? I don’t trust pretty much anything.

And if you are any institution right now, you’re feeling that blowback, right? I don’t trust public health. I don’t trust pretty much any institution telling us anything right now is viewed with a level of skepticism, because it either doesn’t fit with your own worldview or because you believe people are doing things for nefarious purposes. So I do think there are a lot of people who, when the other side wins, say—but, again, it’s been on the Republican side. So let’s be clear right now. It’s not a both-sides thing. But who are saying: I don’t believe it to be true, but I’m not going to try to overthrow the government.

LIASSON: That’s a big distinction, yes.

Chris, yes. Senator Dodd.

DODD: You know, can I just—because I think there’s something else going on. We’re talking about obviously the national legislature. But I think if you look at the states, what’s happening with states—and, again, you probably know all these numbers. But I guess it sort of surprised me. Thirty-seven of our fifty states have single party government. The Democrats have fourteen of them. The Republicans have twenty-three of them. And there are thirteen states where it’s divided. And if you go to the point where an awful lot of people believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and believe, as you watch these stories about people who are demanding all sorts of changes on how we count the Electoral College votes and so forth, I wish John were right in that point. I think he may be wrong. I think there’s a far deeper problem going on.

If you ask me the single most important issue in this campaign, it’s democracy. That’s what’s at stake. All these other things you can argue about what you would do on inflation, and this, that, and the other. But the real question is here, are we going to be able to preserve this democracy of ours? And we’re listening on an hourly basis of people who are bringing radical thoughts to how we would rearrange the transfer of power in the country. And that worries me deeply, in a sense. And I don’t think that’s just a Washington debate. I think it’s actually going on in a much deeper way. There was a story the other day about this county attorney in a small county—Pickens County of Georgia. Where, obviously, everyone wanted to be able to open up the Election Commission, unseal the ballots to look at them, for whatever reason—whatever reason they may have had.

And there was overwhelming support for that in the community, the small community. This one attorney said, no, I’ve got to obey the law. And the law says, if one group can open it then everyone can. Now they see there’s a nefarious intention to open up all the ballots for everyone to look at them. So I just don’t believe necessarily that this is a Washington problem, it’ll go away. I think it’s deeper. I think it poses major threats to country. And I worry deeply about it. And I think what’s going on at the states—we’re obviously focused on what happens in Washington, but I don’t think enough attention’s being paid to what’s happening at the state level. A lot of these people out there deeply believe their views and are getting reinforced every day by people at a national level who agree with that, or at least promote that idea.

LIASSON: OK. At this time I’d like to invite our members to join the conversation with their questions. Reminder, this meeting is on the record. And the operator will now remind you how to ask a question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from Fred Hochberg. Mr. Hochberg, please accept the unmute now button.

Q: Thank you. This was a great conversation.

I’m sorry these are questions from the beginning. When the party in power tends to lose Congress or the Senate in the midterm, is part of that also just the complacency of the party in power, that the people are actually—the party in power, they got what they want so I don’t need to go to the polls anymore, as much as overreach and as much as—so it’s often dissatisfaction with the party out of power. I think it’s also—maybe it’s complacency and smugness by the people who won who say: I got everything I wanted.

Part two, unrelated, is: I heard once—only once in thirty minutes—the word “Florida” mentioned. And has Florida gone the way of Ohio, essentially almost a lost cause as a toss-up state? And if so, battleground state, that is bad presidentially and bad for the Electoral College. So if I can get two questions in, somewhat unrelated, I’d appreciate it. Thank you.

LIASSON: How about if our former senators take the complacency issue and, Amy, talk about Florida?

SUNUNU: I think we should do it the other way around, because Amy has a really good answer to the complacency—I think she touched on it before, but she can expound on it. I smile because the idea of Florida no longer being a battleground is obviously good if you’re a Republican. But, look, I think the analysists are always too quick to sort of write off this state or that state as being no longer competitive. There’s no question this year, because of the strength of Governor DeSantis running for reelection and the strength of Marco Rubio running for reelection, it sort of pushed the state more strongly than in past years in the Republican direction.

But Florida is a big, diverse state. Two years from now, four years from now, six years from now that could certainly change. And, you know, over just the last decade we’ve seen changes in the demographics of Ohio or electoral movement in Ohio, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado. All of these states have shifted pretty significantly on the spectrum one way or another—Virginia, perhaps. So ten years from now, we’re going to look back and five three or four states that moved in directions we didn’t expect.

DODD: Just to underscore John’s point, and we’ll get to the two questions here, I remember in 1974 when I first ran for Congress, and it was the Watergate year. And it was an overwhelming year. I think it there were seventy-five Democrats elected to the House. And there was literally a conversation among certain Republicans that maybe they ought to change the name of their party, it was such a devastating loss. And of course, six years later Ronald Reagan was elected as president, and things began to—and the Senate was lost. I was only one of two Democrats elected that year—new Democrats.

So I think people make these judgments about a moment and then assume that’s the way it’s going to be for a long period of time. I think John is correct on that. And frankly, Val Demings has run a great race, in my view. And she certainly takes off the table the crime issue, for instance, having been the police chief there. But again, I don’t disagree with John. When you have your governor again at the top of the ticket, you have both your senators—and Marco Rubio is a good candidate and a strong candidate—it gets hard. But I do think it’s going to be a closer race than I think a lot of people imagine in the end. But I suspect it’s going to be a tough one for the Democrats.

WALTER: Yeah. And as for the complacency question, it’s a good point. I think the other challenge always for the party in power is that, you know, the president comes in, either a newly elected president or, in the case of the 2014 election, right, he wins a second term. And you win on this coalition of voters. And you say to those—that coalition of voters, hey, you guys got to come out again for me, right? And as Democrats would say constantly, after each one of their pretty bad losses—2010 and 2014—the Obama coalition comes out for Obama. It is called the Obama coalition for a reason. It is hard to get younger voters out in a midterm. It is hard to get African American voters in these states that—to come out for a midterm. The idea of keeping the House and the Senate just didn’t really feel connected at all to the president.

I think some of that—we’ve seen a little bit of a change in that in these last few years. 2018, again. I think there was a question about whether Democrats—whether Republicans who turned out for Trump would show up in an off-year election, with him off the ballot. And while Democrats did have better turnout in 2018 than Republicans did, the real reason Democrats did so well in 2018 is that they brought out a whole bunch of new people, people who hadn’t voted in 2016. Or people who had voted in 2016 for, like, Bernie Sanders or the third-party candidate. So I think this is this era we’re in, where every election does feel more existential, and that it is less about, oh, let’s go show our support for the candidate who was just elected president, as much as we’re protecting democracy, we’re protecting America, because if the other side even gets the tiniest toehold everything we know of will be destroyed.

LIASSON: Right. Really apocalyptic.

WALTER: Yes.

LIASSON: Negative partisanship is the big motivator. You go into the voting booth to vote against somebody, not necessarily to vote for. And of course, if you’re the out party, you’re more feeling like you want to vote against the in party.

So we have another question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Susan Purcell.

Q: Hi. Can you hear me?

LIASSON: Yes.

Q: Hello? OK. So I have two short questions.

One is, the issue about the stolen election and, you know, the Republicans arguing this and the Democrats saying, no, no, that’s wrong. But the interesting thing was that those of us who were watching the computers on various stations with the numbers coming in saw that when there was this sudden closure of all the offices at 1:00 p.m. (sic; a.m.), around there, in the morning, and they kept them closed till about 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. And in several cases, they would not let any Republicans observe anything.

But we were watching the computers. And the numbers kept shifting from high to low, back again. They were very unstable. And various computer experts that were on TV basically supported that this was very strange. The mainstream media didn’t cover it, of course, I mean, except for Fox, which I don’t know if you consider mainstream or not, and some of the smaller ones. And then the Supreme Court, it wasn’t that they turned—they denied the accuracy of the information on the cases that were submitted to them. They just didn’t take the cases and didn’t want to be involved in adjudicating this. So that’s a different take on what went on in terms of the stolen elections.

The first—the next thing, to be quick, the January 6th Committee, I mean, frankly, those of us who are Republicans—and I am, in case you couldn’t guess—we see it as a kangaroo case—a kangaroo court which had no legitimacy. We weren’t allowed to select our two representatives—not that two was enough. It should have been, you know, majority-minority. They picked who they wanted. And they picked two Republicans, like Kinzinger and, what’s her name, Cheney. They were renegade Republicans. They weren’t—they were voting—I mean, they disliked Trump intensely. They didn’t feel much loyalty to the party.

And so that was not—I mean, we had no representation, frankly, on the January 6th Committee. So when there’s a kangaroo court, and all of us know what a kangaroo court committee looks like, then it has no legitimacy. So it’s not that we challenge the—you know, the rule of law, and all of that. No. The behavior of the committee was unprecedented in the way they chose the members of it, and how they would not allow any testimony from party members or others. So, you know, those two issues—

LIASSON: So we’re going to get your questions answered.

Q: OK.

WALTER: Yeah. Can I address the first one? Because I think this is really, really, really important to appreciate. Now that we vote—that most states are voting with a number of—in a number of different modes—mail, early in-person, and then election-day voting. There are also things that come in the mail—military ballots from overseas. Ballots, if you go in-person and, let’s say, they don’t have you on the voter roll but you know you’re a voter, or you’re at the wrong precinct, OK, they have to match those up. It makes it more challenging to cover an election night in the way we used to cover election nights. In fact, this wouldn’t work for all of the networks that we work for, but election night is—we treat it like the Super Bowl, like we’re going to know at the end of the night who won the game. And the reality is, we likely do not, because each state has different rules for when and how they count the ballots that come in before Election Day. And when it’s very close, those ballots that are contested also have to go through a process.

In every single one of the states where the integrity of the vote was challenged, the integrity was upheld. There is absolutely no credibility to the question that there were computers or anything else that was hacked, or changed, or in any way untoward. These were Republicans and Democrats in these states who did these audits and found nothing wrong. But I do think the way that we present this information in the media is inconsistent. We treat it like a day of everybody’s going out to vote today and by the end of the night, everybody, you’re going to have a result. That doesn’t happen. We’re going to see it again this year. There’s going to be these mirages of red, mirages of blue. And you’re going to look up on the screen and you’re going to say: How is that possible? They called this race because the Democrat is ahead by 20,000 votes. A Republican shouldn’t be winning. It’s—I don’t know how we change this, Mara. This is more of a media question than anything else.

LIASSON: I think we have to constantly tell people what you just said, that we are not going to have a result by midnight. I mean, the votes have to be counted.

SUNUNU: I think that’s true. I agree with what Amy said. But I would add what I think is an important observation, that because there are those different modalities, there are things that states can do to improve the clarity and the transparency as they process these ballots. So for states to be able to say as clearly as possible how many absentee ballots do they have in their possession, you know, to process. How many people voted early. You know, the more information the better. And to have a counting process, again, that’s hopefully consistent and transparent, not unduly interrupted. You know, if you’re going to stop voting—stop counting between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., announce it beforehand. I mean, little things like that go a long way toward making the public—Democrat, Republican, doesn’t matter—more confident about the process. And because all of these states were dealing with new modalities because of COVID, they hadn’t really planned effectively for how to process, how to communicate, and how to share data with the media, but also with the general public. So that’s the thing I hope states are going to get better this time around, because to me that’s what, you know, feeling confident and good about an election—whether it’s U.S. Senate or local representative or mayor—you want to be confident in the process.

LIASSON: Yeah. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Tyler Godoff.

Q: Tyler Godoff, Emerging Founder.

Thanks so much for a great conversation here. And I’d just like to offer up the idea, I think Amy and John, you should do—both do a podcast together and talk through some of these contentious issues and educate, because I agree it’s about in a calm way really getting across what exactly is going on and take out the hysteria. And that leads me to my question.

I think one thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree across the board is that the candidate quality, for the most part, is not where we’d like it to be. We live in a nation of 330 million Americans. And that’s a lot of options. And why—there’s a concept in computer science, garbage in, garbage out. And so why are we not seeing better quality entering these really important elections?

LIASSON: Senator Dodd, what do you think about that?

DODD: Well, there are probably a lot of different reasons. One is that the estimates are that this midterm election—at least one estimate I’ve seen—the midterm election, the total amount of money spent on this election will hover around $10 billion. It’s staggering what’s available resource-wise—a lot of it dark money, we don’t know where it comes from, and the like. And candidly, you know what, in 1789 you had to be a while male that owned property to not only vote, but to be a candidate. Now, de jure, we’ve gotten rid of all of that stuff.

But de facto, it’s back, in many ways, because we just exclude an awful lot of talented, otherwise competent people even thinking about this, to engage it, unless you have the personal wealth or access to it. Now, again, we debated that issue over the years. The Supreme Court has ruled on various matters along the way. But I think when you begin looking at what these races cost, and whether or not people who of modest—relatively modest means can compete in them, it’s staggering and worrisome to me. That pool shrinks all the time. And so you’re back, in effect, to what we saw two hundred years ago—more than two hundred years ago in the country. So that’s one of the issues.

Secondly is, a lot of it the decisions are made at the primary level. It’s not get to the general election. And what’s happened to both political parties, to some extent, is that you have to pass litmus tests and so forth. And a relatively small percentage of the electorate in the United States actually participate in primaries here. And many, many cases, a relatively small minority of people can have a huge influence on who the general candidates are going to be. Most people—you know, the two words that are never found in the original documents of our country are “moderation” and “compromise.”

I don’t recall a single person, I’m sure John doesn’t, who ever ran for the Senate and said: Elect me. I’m a compromiser at heart. That would be one certain guarantee that you’re not going to be the elected candidate. And yet, it’s exactly what we anticipate in a democratic process here, that compromise is something you end up doing every day. All of us do in our lives. And I think people get turned off by that, assuming they have to embrace views that are far away from where they may be in order to be a candidate of their party.

I think those two matters have an awful lot to do with people deciding they just can’t even think about doing this. And it isn’t just the Senate or the House. It goes down to local levels as well. Getting people to be on a zoning board, or the planning zoning, or the education committee, and so forth. We’ve watched what happens nationally over the last few years, where people are attacked ruthlessly for volunteers showing up to try to help lead and so forth. So we don’t—so we don’t—we’re scaring people off, I think. We’re making it too financially impossible for people to even think about it. And I think those are major factors in people deciding whether or not they would like to engage in the public life of our country, as an elected official.

LIASSON: Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jon Greenwald.

Q: Thank you very much. I have a very short question. It’s really just—I should say, I’m a retired foreign service officer, also, living just outside of Washington.

But my question really is just one name with a question mark after it, which I don’t think has been mentioned at all by you in talking about battleground states. And that is, Iowa?

LIASSON: Well, let’s talk about that. Franken and Grassley. What do you think, Amy?

WALTER: Iowa is one of these places, again, I appreciate the senators going through and reminding us that battleground states change. And that’s what’s fun about covering politics too, right? I mean, Mara, we’ve been in plenty of states where we would never have thought of as battleground states that now are. So it is important to watch. I think Iowa—the reason why places like Iowa, Florida, and Ohio, and even Nevada, have been more—either we can call them moving more Republican, or they’re not as Democratic, is that they have an abundance of what, in a place like Iowa it’s overwhelmingly White.

But also, when you start getting into states where we know we have a, quote/unquote, “education divide.” We know that White college-educated voters are much more willing to vote for Democrats. White non-college, much more Republican. And so in these states where you’re, like, a Colorado—part of the reason Colorado is as blue as it is, is it, I think, has the highest percent of college graduates in the country. Virginia right on its heels. And so those are places where you’re going to see Democrats doing much better. In places like Ohio, where Democrats used to win by running up the score with labor, White and voters of color, blue-collar, those are starting to move away. We know the Latino vote in places like Nevada, Arizona, but all across the country, also in some cases moving not overwhelmingly—but, again, these shifts. Two, three, four, five points make a lot of—mean a lot.

I think the interesting thing about the last, let’s call it, fifteen years is that the coalition that Obama put together, I think many of us assumed that that was the Democratic coalition, and that that was going to—regardless of who the candidate was, they would at least be able to hold onto that coalition. And that it was really one of multiethnic. But I think what is not appreciated enough, and is now starting to be more appreciated, is how well Obama did with White non-college voters. And that if you go back and you look at how Obama did in Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, it’s not just that he did better than, you know, Hillary and Biden, but how much better he did than John Kerry, right? Like, the coalition that elected Biden looks a lot more like the 2004-era than it did 2008 or 2012.

It's a long way of saying, Iowa just feels now like the kind of state where Democrats are going to be running behind. And you have limited resources in any of these years. And so the first thing you need to look to is, all right, where are the places to make that run if we have to defend all the states we just talked about that are incredibly expensive? I do think the thing that’s the most challenging for Republicans here is simply that Chuck Grassley is an older person—(laughs)—who will be in his nineties, right, after he’s reelected. I think that is probably the bigger factor here than the—than anything else about the sort of underlying dynamics of the state, because I think the Republican governor is likely to win pretty easily.

LIASSON: I think we have time for one more.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the last question from Jeff Hogan.

Q: Hi. It’s Jeff Hogan from Morgan Stanley.

The one word I haven’t heard today that I’m surprised by is gerrymandering. Discuss.

LIASSON: OK. That’s one of the reasons the Republicans are going to have an easier time getting the House back. What do you think, Senator Sununu?

SUNUNU: No. I really don’t think it has much to do with the Republicans getting the House back. I mean, it takes place on the Democrat side and the Republican side. The biggest gerrymandering effort this year was in New York. They failed.

LIASSON: And it was struck down, yeah.

SUNUNU: It was thrown out by the courts. So this has been going on forever.

You know, the—to me, it’s like democracy. It’s the worst system, except for all the others. (Laughs.) Letting, you know, political institutions in the states set the—do the districts, it’s the worst system, you know, except for all the others. So I think the alternatives are worse. I think, you know, every time we go through this census and redistricting process, parties are sure they’re locking in districts for decades. In 2000 we did it. Tom DeLay manipulated, controlled. You know, Republicans thought they were just lock-solid in 2002. And by 2006, we were wiped out. So, you know, it’s—I would like districts to make as much sense as possible to hold together. But that’s not what moves thirty or forty, you know, seats in the House. It wasn’t done because of gerrymandering. It’s done because of inflation, and crime, and border security, and the economy. That’s what’s moving this election.

DODD: I have a slightly different opinion.

LIASSON: Go ahead.

DODD: I think places like Iowa—because we didn’t talk about Iowa and we probably should have, but nonetheless. Iowa, California, the states are making an effort. You’re moving away from the political process. The numbers I cited earlier where we have growing—hovering near forty of our fifty states are one-party states, in many ways, is troubling to me in the sense that there’ll be an opportunity in some places. I think there are 171 congressional districts out of the 435 that there’s no mystery whatsoever what’s going to happen, because of the gerrymandering.

And I agree with John, certainly our—Phil Burton, one of the House leaders, of course, was a master in California, and decided he could tell you what alleys in Los Angeles to divide the districts and so forth. So no one should run around here claiming purity about this. But I do think we need to move in a way that allows for at least some better representation that people, alternative voices, get heard.

And it seems that some of these states are moving in that direction have had a system that’s working pretty well. So while there’s another step to go through, I think avoiding the opportunity where whoever controls the state can decide what the congressional makeup is going to look like is something we ought to be concerned about. So I think there are alternatives that aren’t that cumbersome, that could make a difference.

LIASSON: OK. We’ve run out of time. It was a great meeting. Thank you all for joining today’s virtual meeting. Thank you to all of our speakers. And for the members who are listening, please note that the video and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thanks a lot for being with us.

SUNUNU: Thank you, Mara.

WALTER: Thank you, Mara.

SUNUNU: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Senator.

WALTER: Thanks, guys.

DODD: Thank you, John. Nice to see you. Amy, thank you. Thank you, Mara.

(END)

 

 

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