MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief after last night's primaries. Here's President Trump at the White House this morning.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Last night was a very big night for the Republican Party. Every candidate that we wanted won. And they did very well. There was tremendous enthusiasm.
KELLY: But whether Republicans really do have a fighting chance with Democrats fired up against Trump is a big question. Here to walk through the takeaways from last night and look at whether a blue wave is coming are NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson - hey, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: And NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro also here in our studio. Hey.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Domenico, you first. Is the president right? Was last night a very big night for Republicans?
MONTANARO: Well, it was a big night in one way. The fact of the matter is Don Blankenship lost, and that was a big goal of the president's and of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell's.
KELLY: This is the West Virginia race.
MONTANARO: Right. That's the West Virginia Senate Republican primary. Blankenship was a former coal executive who served a year in prison after he was found culpable for a mine explosion that killed 29 people.
KELLY: So a good night there for Republicans in West Virginia, at least from the point of view of - that they have a candidate now who they think might have a good shot against Democrats in the general election.
MONTANARO: Yeah, the Democrat Joe Manchin, and this should be a state where Republicans can do well.
KELLY: Mara, what did not go well for Republicans last night?
LIASSON: A lot of Republican members of Congress lost. Being a Republican congressman was clearly a liability. If this election is going to be a referendum on the party in power, on the president and the Republicans, you can see there's still a lot of negative energy toward them. On the whole, though, I think that even though we don't want to overweight the results of last night too much, this wasn't a bad night for Republicans. Not only did they avoid their worst nightmare in West Virginia, they also in Ohio turned out many more Republican voters than Democrats turned out, which kind of raises the question, wow, we thought Democrats were supposed to be more enthusiastic. At least in Ohio, that wasn't the case.
MONTANARO: I wouldn't overlook, though, how bad a night it was for congressional Republicans. The fact of the matter is there's something going on within the Republican Party. If you're a slick-dressing, slick-talking, shoe-shined Republican in the old GOP model, it's not good for you. That was highlighted in Indiana with an ad that Mike Braun, who won that Republican Senate primary - conservative, outsider businessman - he was able to paint Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, two congressmen, as cardboard cutouts of each other who you couldn't tell apart.
KELLY: We've been talking Republicans. Let me turn you to Democrats. There has been so much chatter about a blue wave, that whether the House, whether the Senate, will go Democratic in the fall. Did we learn anything from last night that helps us start to sort out where that trend might be going?
LIASSON: I don't think there was anything about last night that suggests there isn't going to be a blue wave. One thing we can say about Democratic performance last night is that the divisions inside the Democratic Party are not as intense and bitter as the fights inside the Republican Party. They...
KELLY: Is that typical for a party not - out of power?
LIASSON: When you're really motivated to win, you will put aside some of your differences. The other thing that's significant about Democrats is they have candidates in every race. Last night...
KELLY: They're contesting races the Democrats haven't contested in the past years, yeah.
LIASSON: They're contesting races they - that's right. They used to leave a lot of red seats uncontested. And what they are doing this year is that they are fielding candidates everywhere, which means if there's going to be a blue wave, they want their candidates in the water with their surfboards ready to catch the wave if it comes because if you're not in there and you're just standing on the beach, you're going to waste that opportunity.
KELLY: Domenico, take the blue wave metaphor and run with it here.
MONTANARO: Well, the average losses for a president's party in his first midterm is 25 House seats and two Senate seats - almost exact numbers that Democrats would need to take over control of Congress. And when a president's approval rating is below 50 percent, as President Trump's has been, they lose an average of 41 House seats and five Senate seats.
LIASSON: And, of course, historical rules only work till they stop working. But...
MONTANARO: (Laughter) As we saw in 2016.
LIASSON: Yes, as we saw in 2016. The thing about the signs of a wave, the generic ballot showing that more people prefer a Democrat to represent them in Congress than Republicans, those historical rules apply to pre-2010 elections. After 2010, which was the big Republican redistricting year where they took over all those state legislatures, they drew a map that kept their members safe, they have a lot of structural advantages. So the wave has to be able to be big enough to overcome those.
KELLY: You introduced the dreaded polling word, which led everybody totally wrong in 2016. No? You're shaking your head. You're both shaking your heads.
MONTANARO: Let's back - OK. So right after the election, the American Association for Public Opinion Research - AAPOR - went and looked at how far off were the polls, were they not. They found that actually national polls were generally right, even by historical standards. They found, quote, "national polls were among the most accurate in estimating the popular vote since 1936."
KELLY: Aha. But the popular vote...
MONTANARO: Is not how we elect presidents.
LIASSON: And even though the generic ballot looks like it's been shrinking recently and Donald Trump's approval ratings look like they've been going up, I haven't talked to a single Democrat or Republican campaign person who has changed their view of this cycle. And that view is that Democrats are very optimistic, and Republicans are very pessimistic.
KELLY: To wrap up, Domenico, what's your big takeaway from last night?
MONTANARO: Again, Republican division still much greater than Democratic division, and it's not good to be a Republican congressman. Being an outsider businessman - that is helpful.
KELLY: Mara, can you take it away?
LIASSON: Republicans dodged a bullet in West Virginia. Their chances of hanging on to their Senate majority look a little bit better today than they did yesterday.
KELLY: That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thank you to you both.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.