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What To Expect From Congressional Races This Year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

No matter who wins the presidential race on Tuesday, the success of the next president will depend on the outcome in the nation's congressional races. Democrats are expected to hold onto their House majority, but control of the Senate is up for grabs. Joining us for one last pre-Election Day check-in on those key races, here are our congressional correspondents, Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell.

Welcome, welcome, you two.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

KELLY: Sue, you first. To remind, Republicans, at this moment, enjoy a 53-seat majority in the Senate. How likely is it that that's going to flip to Democrats?

DAVIS: Well, I think based on all available evidence - and that includes public polling and the reporting that Kelsey and I have been doing - it's more likely than not. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conceded this week that it's, in his words, a 50-50 proposition. Republicans are likely going to pick up at least one Democratic seat in Alabama, and that means Democrats would need to then gain at least four seats and win the White House to get the most narrow 50-seat majority. Democrats think they're most likely going to win three Republican-held seats in Arizona, Colorado and Maine. And if they're right, they just have one more seat to clinch that fourth. And they're looking at races in North Carolina, Iowa and Montana as that next tier where party strategists think they can win at least one, if not more, to clinch that majority.

KELLY: Now, Kelsey, over on the House side - considerably less suspense. As we noted, control of the House is not really in doubt this year. Is there any suspense in what is happening in House races?

SNELL: You know, there actually is. But it's really a question about whether Democrats will grow their majority or not. You know, right now, most forecasters believe Democrats will gain somewhere between five and 15 seats. Republican strategists I've spoke with say they hope to hold Democrats to single-digit gains. That may not seem like a lot, but Democrats themselves talked about their current 232-seat majority as a high watermark after the 2018 wave.

It's also extremely interesting to me that Democrats could gain House seats in states where President Trump is polling ahead, places like Texas. And I think that really speaks to one of the bigger trends of 2020. That's the collapse of the Republican Party in a lot of suburban districts where Republicans used to really have a stronghold there. It's a potential bellwether for how the presidential race might go. If Republicans are losing a large number of House seats that Trump won four years ago, on Tuesday night, that could mean a lot of chances for House pickups.

KELLY: Many chances, hundreds of congressional races on the ballot, as in every election year. Let me ask you both your pick for one race that we should keep a close eye on on Tuesday as one of those possible bellwethers you mentioned. Kelsey?

SNELL: I'm going back to Texas on this and back to the suburbs in particular. Democrats and Republicans both tell me that the fate of some suburban districts there could be signs of broader trends in the country. I'm particularly watching open seats outside of Houston and Dallas. These are both currently held by Republicans who are leaving, and the races are virtually tied. If Democrats are winning there, it could be a sign of a wave for House Democrats.

KELLY: Sue Davis, how about you?

DAVIS: For me, it's all about North Carolina. I have not spoken to a single person, Republican or Democrat, this entire election year who didn't think this Senate race is directly tied to the top of the ticket. And one of the big reasons here is another trend - is that fewer and fewer Americans split their tickets between the two parties anymore. And I think North Carolina is the best example of that. If President Trump is winning North Carolina, then so is Republican Senator Thom Tillis. And the reverse is true. If Joe Biden is winning North Carolina, then so is Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham. Mary Louise, if you think about how important North Carolina is to both the path to the White House and the Senate majority, whichever way that race is called could tell us a lot about how this election's going to go.

KELLY: Big picture, I mean, we're looking at one of two scenarios, right? It sounds like either we're going to have a split Congress exactly like we have right now or full Democratic control of both houses. So what does that mean looking past the election in terms of what comes next, Kelsey Snell?

SNELL: We know that a divided Congress looks pretty unproductive. And there's no really good reason to think that an era of gridlock is going to change, especially at how baked in the partisanship is in the system. So let's look a little bit forward just past Election Day to the lame-duck session. And there's still a COVID relief package to work out. Traditionally, it's really difficult to get big legislation through in a lame duck. That's that time period between an election and the inauguration and the start of the new Congress. And Congress still has to pass a government funding bill in early December.

If Trump loses, Democrats may decide to hold off on a new COVID bill until a new administration, where they could get a bigger package. If President Trump wins, Republicans may decide they have no incentive to negotiate over big-ticket items like, you know, state and local funding and national testing and tracing regimes that are real deal-breakers for Democrats.

DAVIS: And this is Sue here again. I mean, if Democrats sweep Congress and Joe Biden is president, buckle up. There is going to be so much pressure within the factions in the Democratic Party to get an agenda through Congress. And the pressure on Senate Democrats to blow up the filibuster, which requires supermajorities to get anything difficult through the chamber, is going to get so intense. I mean, Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week outlined what she thinks their agenda is going to be - climate change legislation, expanding health care coverage, lowering prescription drug costs and democracy and voting reform. And that's just the beginning.

If you remember the last time Democrats controlled all levers of government - it was after the 2008 wave election, and it was one of the most productive two years in modern congressional times. That's when they passed the Affordable Care Act, for instance. Democrats want to do that again. And I would say what's different now than 12 years ago is there's a lot less patience with Democrats to try to find compromise with Republicans.

KELLY: NPR congressional correspondents Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell, thank you both.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

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