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Week in politics: Congressional Democrats fear losing majority in midterms

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

It's only the second day of January, but already, Washington has its eyes on November and the midterm elections. Democrats with the slightest majority in both chambers of Congress have the most to lose. And with the White House occupied by a member of the same party, history tells us they are likely to lose some seats. We're joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson to discuss. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Eyder. It's nice to be with you as a host.

PERALTA: Yeah. And Happy New Year.

LIASSON: Happy New Year to you.

PERALTA: So let's start with the House, Mara. What's the mood among Democrats about their midterm prospects?

LIASSON: The mood is bad. I haven't ever covered a midterm election cycle when one party is as pessimistic about their prospects as Democrats are today or that the other party, the out party, is as optimistic about their prospects as Republicans are about winning back the House. Republicans have a lot of reasons to be optimistic - the president's low approval ratings, the persistence of the pandemic, the advantage that the Republican Party gets from redrawing congressional districts because Republicans dominate statehouses, and they are the ones who draw the district lines because Democrats failed to make inroads in state legislative seats in 2020. And as you just mentioned, the historical pattern that the party in power always lose seats in a midterm.

PERALTA: What about the Senate, where, technically, the Democratic caucus only has a majority because Vice President Kamala Harris gets to break a tie?

LIASSON: That's right. The Senate is a jump ball. With the 50-50 split, Republicans only need a net plus one seat to gain control. And, of course, Democrats only need to gain one seat to get out of this excruciatingly difficult tied situation. But just as in the House, Republicans are very confident that they can take back the Senate. The head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rick Scott of Florida, points out that every state Biden won by less than 10 percentage points in 2020 now is a battleground state with an incumbent Senate Democrat trying to protect his or her seat. You've got Mark Kelly in Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Raphael Warnock in Georgia. That's a pretty big pool for Republicans to fish in for the seats they need. Now, Democrats are looking at Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as possible pickup opportunities, but their pool is smaller.

PERALTA: Former President Trump is still a huge presence in American politics today. Is he more of an asset than a liability for Republicans?

LIASSON: Well, at this point, he's definitely an asset in terms of motivating the Republican base. In some races around the country, his endorsement is going to be the seal of approval that a candidate wins - needs to win a Republican primary. But there are Republicans who are worried that the lie that the president tells over and over again that he was the real winner of the 2020 election - there's no evidence for that. None of the numerous inquiries into possible fraud in 2020 has turned up anything, but the president is obsessed with this. He's determined to relitigate 2020. Republicans are worried that could backfire in some of the midterms, even though Trump is using this lie as the main motivator for Republican turnout. He wants Republicans to turn out and avenge the steal.

Something else we don't know is whether the House's January 6 committee is going to affect the election at all. It's getting ready to write the first draft of the definitive history of last winter's insurrection. And the story the committee seems to be discovering is that the insurrection was not a spontaneous riot but an effort by Trump to stage a kind of self-coup - an illegitimate effort to stay in power despite losing the election.

PERALTA: So let's end on something that we know affects elections, and that's the economy. What's the takeaway from that?

LIASSON: The economic picture is very mixed. There are many signs that the economy is chugging along nicely, but voters think the economy is terrible. How it affects the election will depend on how long inflation lasts, how high it will go. Even though wages are up and growth is up and unemployment is down, inflation is real, and wage gains are eroding. It's pretty scary not knowing what something's going to cost and how far your paycheck is going to go. The danger for the president is that inflation persists. It's not just transitory or a supply chain problem - or that the Federal Reserve's efforts to nip inflation in the bud has a negative effect on growth. You know, in the past, the surefire way for the Fed to solve inflation was to spark a recession.

PERALTA: OK.

LIASSON: But if you're in the White House, you don't want that in an election year, either.

PERALTA: That's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.