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Washington Keeps A Keen Eye On Senate Races


Now to all those Senate seats up for grabs. They're expensive, some are pretty nasty and these races will determine who controls the U.S. Senate when all the dust settles. For a closer look, we've reached out to Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays. Good morning, Cokie.


MARTIN: We've been following the races, all these candidates, done a lot of reporting on who's up and who's down - why is this still so uncertain? I mean, it's sounding like this should be the Republicans' moment, right?

ROBERTS: It certainly should be. As we've said all cycle, this map is going for them, the open seats and the incumbents who are defending seats are by and large in red states. And the Republicans have made sure that that there are no sort of out-there candidates as they have had in the last couple of cycles. And the presidential approval rating just stays stuck, a low 42 percent.

But so far, Rachel, we're not seeing a wave. We're not seeing candidates pulling away. And there are these interesting states where there are third-party and Independent candidates who are throwing late wrenches into campaigns. Take, for instance, South Dakota. The Democrats pretty much gave up on holding the seat in South Dakota when Tim Johnson, the incumbent, said he was resigning. But now Larry Pressler, who's a former Republican senator who's running as an Independent, is doing so well in the polls that the Democrats are putting some money in there. And it's been like that this whole cycle, where somebody's up, somebody's down, somebody's in, somebody's out. And so we can't really call it.

I mean, it still should be the Republican advantage, but Democrats also think they have an advantage that might not be showing up in the polls, which is what they call their ground game - their get out the vote operation. And it's hard to know whether they're right about that or not.

MARTIN: But are they good at that? I mean, we keep hearing that off-year elections are not where Democrats show up. Can they get the voters to the polls?

ROBERTS: Well, usually that's true. Off-year elections are whiter, older, maler voters, and that means Republicans. And given the level of voter disinterest that we're seeing in the polls, that might certainly be the case this time around as well. But we have seen times when that has not been the case. When the Democrats retook the Senate in 1986, after the Ronald Reagan landslide in 1980, it was the first time that we saw several candidates winning their Senate seats, even though they had lost the white vote and had lost the male vote. And yes, there was some weak Republican incumbents who had come in in the Reagan landslide of '80. But the president's approval rating was at 63 percent going into that election, and still the Democrats won it. And it has an effect, Rachel, because I remember soon after that, Robert Bork was nominated for the Supreme Court. I went to John Breaux from Louisiana - just elected - thinking he was going to say that he was supporting Bork. This is before there were any hearings. And he said, I'm not for Bork. And I said, you're not? He said, no, Cokie, who elected me? Women and blacks elected me. Who's against Bork? Women and blacks. I'm going to go with that girl, what brung me.


MARTIN: Good advice. So there's a lot of focus on what this election will mean for the last two years of President Obama's term. But it is the Senate, Cokie, it goes beyond that and beyond Obama's term.

ROBERTS: As you said, no six years. And the people who will be elected this year will be around for the full first term of the next president. And given the power of incumbency, they could be around for years and years to come. And that is something that voters often forget as they try to send a message going into the polls on election-day. This is a long-term decision that voters are making when you talk about the Senate.

MARTIN: Cokie Roberts. She joins us most Mondays to talk all things politics. Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.