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Run-Up To Midterm Elections Overshadowed By Other News

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Of course, the health of the economy has been a dominant issue in the past few election cycles - but maybe not so much this year. We're into the homestretch of the midterm campaign, and the marquee fight is for control of the Senate. Foreign policy issues are dominating Washington, with much debate over how the Obama administration is handling the conflicts overseas in Ukraine and against Islamic State militants. And let's not forget immigration. We're joined this morning by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa. Welcome to both of you.

ROBERT COSTA: Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GONYEA: Mara, let's start with you. President Obama has been in Europe for the NATO summit meeting. Most of the talk there was about containing Russia and defeating Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Will the president have any kind of a concrete plan to take to Congress on either one anytime soon?

LIASSON: Well, Congress is only back in town for a couple of weeks before they break again. So I do think President Obama will have to settle on a broader strategy to confront ISIL that includes attacking the group in Syria in pretty short order. He's going to have to present it to the public and consult with Congress. It's not clear yet if he'll be asking Congress for formal authorization for further military action. It's also not clear if Congress wants to vote on that. But the White House is confident that if the president is clear on what he wants, Congress will support him. There might be voices arguing that he should do more, but since those gruesome beheadings, there is not a lot of support for doing less against ISIS.

GONYEA: OK, Robert Costa, you've been writing about the impact these conflicts are having within Republican ranks, especially with the rising influence of the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party. He's the Kentucky senator, of course. He's a probable 2016 presidential contender. He's a libertarian. He's generally anti-interventionist. How's that playing out?

COSTA: Well, I think there is an academic debate right now, within the Republican Party, about the way forward on foreign policy. But I think that's been shelved for the moment. You see in several key, battleground Senate races - in Alaska, in Arkansas, in New Hampshire, in Iowa - you see Republicans there. They see the majority within sight, and the Republican nominees know voters are uneasy about GOP positions on social issues and perhaps some economic issues. And so they're actually running as hawks. You have military veterans in those four states as the Senate Republican nominees. And they're talking about ISIL. They're talking about the president's foreign policy. They believe this is a way to win over swing voters.

GONYEA: OK, we're going to get to the Senate in a moment. First, Mara, the big domestic issue this summer has been whether the president would use some sort of executive action to tackle the immigration crisis. How likely does that look at this point?

LIASSON: He is going to use executive action to tackle the immigration crisis. The question was whether he would do it before Election Day, and now that looks less and less likely. He has been under pressure from immigration groups. And he has said he will act to expand deportation relief beyond the dreamers. But the White House has changed its mind about the politics of doing executive orders, that Republicans would see as amnesty, before Election Day. When the president originally said he would act without delay, after he got recommendations by the end of the summer, the White House simply wasn't anticipating how big an issue this would become on the campaign trail from Republicans. The White House has also been getting a tremendous amount of pushback from Senate Democrats up for reelection in red states. They do not want the president to do this before Election Day.

GONYEA: OK, Robert, that brings us to the battle for control of the Senate. During the final two years of the Obama presidency, how confident are Republicans feeling right now?

COSTA: I think Republicans feel very confident. They think there may even be a wave in sight. But they believe that it comes down to candidate quality in a lot of these races. Can the Republicans avoid the problems that plagued them in 2010 and 2012? Can they avoid gaffes talking about abortion and those kind of hot-button issues?

GONYEA: And, Mara, it does sound like an uphill battle for the Democrats if you look at the states that are in play, states that Republicans feel they've got a good shot of winning. Where is there hope for the Democrats if they want to hang onto the Senate?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question because it is an uphill battle. The Republicans need a net six pickup to take control of the Senate. There is a very big pool of competitive states for them to fish in to get those net six seats. The Democrats really need to hang on to at least two of the four red state incumbent Democrats. We assume that Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia - those are open seat races. Those are gone. The Republicans will pick those up. That's three. But they need three more. So the Democrats need to hang on to two of the next tier of four races, which is North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana. And yes, the Democrats still have some hope about picking up a Republican seat or two, mostly Georgia, where Michelle Nunn is running in an open race. I think that still will be very tough. The Democrats' hopes are little bit less for Kentucky, the most expensive race in the country right now, where Alison Grimes is trying to unseat the minority leader, who would become the majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

GONYEA: And Mara, just quickly, any surprises out there?

LIASSON: Oh, my goodness. Kansas - what is the matter with Kansas? Independent Greg Orman is giving the incumbent Republican, Pat Roberts, a real scare. In some polls he's running ahead of Roberts. And in this reddest of red states, the conservative Republican Governor Sam Brownback is also struggling in his reelection bid. The Democrat in the Senate race, Chad Taylor, who was trailing badly, tried to get off the ballot to boost Orman's chances of defeating Roberts. But the Kansas secretary of state said, nope. He has to stay on. And now the National Republican Party is sending in the cavalry, a lot of top strategists to help Roberts.

GONYEA: NPR's Mara Liasson and for Washington Post, Robert Costa. Thank you both for joining us.

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