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Ahead of midterms, there's a focus on Senate races in Pennsylvania and Nevada


How do Republicans view their chances of recapturing Congress this fall? They are favored to make gains, as the party out of power often does. They need just a handful of seats to control the House. And as we'll discuss this morning, they need a net gain of just one to win the Senate. But it's been hard work to gain that one. Republicans remain favored, for example, to win a Senate seat in Ohio. But J.D. Vance slipped behind in some polls. And in a debate last evening, Democrat Tim Ryan tied Vance to Donald Trump.


TIM RYAN: Donald Trump said to J.D. Vance, all you do is kiss my ass to get my support. He said that. That's bad. I'm for Ohio. I don't kiss anyone's ass, like him. Ohio needs an ass-kicker, not an ass-kisser.

INSKEEP: Vance responded, that was a nice, rehearsed line.

Multiple Republican candidates are having a little more trouble than expected, yet they still do have a shot to get that one seat. So let's talk this over with Scott Jennings, who is a Republican strategist. Welcome back to the program.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Republicans have been pretty open about saying some candidates are weaker than they'd hoped on your side. But now we've seen some of them in action. We've gotten into the fall. How are they doing?

JENNINGS: Well, I think some are better than others, of course. J.D. Vance, who you mentioned there, in Ohio has come around. He had a slow summer. His fundraising has been rather slow since he won his primary. But it feels, to most Republican strategists, like Vance has moved into at least a small lead in a state that, candidly, for us, is the best state on the map. It's the reddest of the target states.

INSKEEP: When we're talking about the six or seven where there's a tight race, yeah. And it seems like national Democrats agree with you. I believe national Democrats still have not spent a lot of money in Ohio, which suggests they don't think they can really win there.

JENNINGS: Yeah, the national apparatus is not. Although Ryan, the Democrat there, like most Democrat Senate candidates, has raised a tremendous amount of money. And that's one advantage for Democrats for the last several cycles is that their small-dollar donors around the country give directly to their candidates. On the Republican side, our small-dollar donors tend to give to Donald Trump. And so our candidates have, you know, candidate to candidate, less money to spend. And we've had super PAC spending to balance it out in Ohio, but the most efficient dollars in a campaign come right out of a candidate's committee.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned Trump there because, of course, a number of the candidates who are having trouble a little bit on the Republican side are people who've tied themselves to Donald Trump, which you need to do to win a primary. I think of Adam Laxalt in Nevada. I think of Blake Masters in Arizona. We could name some others. There are people who have needed to embrace lies about the 2020 election.

You're close to Mitch McConnell. He's been honest about the election. Donald Trump lost. Trump is still out there campaigning that he won, causing candidates to repeat variations on that. And that does raise a question for me. Why should Republicans who know the truth vote for someone who doesn't tell it?

JENNINGS: Well, Republicans are balancing a lot of issues in their votes. And even Republican candidates - I'm sorry, Republican voters, I think, that agree with McConnell, in your framing there, about the 2020 election are also looking at a country in which they do not agree with much of anything Joe Biden is doing or what the Democratic Congress is doing. And so it's not really a bunch of one-issue voters. It's a bunch of multi-issue voters who are trying to balance a lot of stuff. And on balance, they think Joe Biden's administration needs a check and balance. So in some cases, they're willing to support candidates that they may not have supported in the primary, but certainly think are going to be a roadblock to Biden for the next two years.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one of those candidates - Adam Laxalt in Nevada. And he is somebody who gets categorized as an election denier to some extent. But Republicans are seen as having a real chance in Nevada. There's a large Latino vote in Nevada. And I know that Republicans have been going for a larger share of that vote. Do you see a real chance to add to your party's coalition there?

JENNINGS: Yes. Republicans are quite excited about movement in Hispanic voters toward the Republican Party. We've seen it in a few races already this year. And there's just evidence that working-class Hispanic voters, like all working-class Americans, are moving away from Democrats and moving towards the Democrat Party. Regarding Laxalt specifically, Republicans regard this as the top pickup opportunity. They think Laxalt's running a good campaign. So of everything on the map, this is numero uno, so to speak, for Republicans - Nevada. If they win that one and can hold serve everywhere else, they'll be home for the majority.

INSKEEP: You know, the Pennsylvania campaign has been very personal, of course. John Fetterman, the Democrat, mocked Dr. Oz for much of the summer for living actually in New Jersey. Dr. Oz has responded by talking about Fetterman's stroke. But let's get to the essence of the job here. Fetterman, at least, can make a case, although he's been criticized, that he's got experience in government. He's lieutenant governor. He's mayor of a city. He's done various things. He's also been accused of not doing very much, but he has a record. What is the case that Dr. Oz - setting aside the personal issues and where he lives, what is the case that Dr. Oz is prepared to be a member of the United States Senate?

JENNINGS: Very simple. The case Republicans will make is that he's prepared to be a check and balance against Joe Biden, who's not overwhelmingly popular in Pennsylvania. And the case against Fetterman Republicans make is that he's just far too liberal, especially on the issue of crime. For the Republicans there, Oz has had persistent image issues since the primary. He was pummeled with attack ads - over 20 million in the primary spent against him. And so he's been trailing. But the issue that has reeled him in has been crime, and they've been pounding Fetterman on liberal crime policies. I think that race is, at this point, a toss-up. And again, if Republicans hold and can win either Georgia or Nevada, they're home for the majority.

INSKEEP: You mentioned one thing - that Joe Biden is not terribly popular in Pennsylvania or anywhere. If it were strictly a referendum on Joe Biden, Democrats might automatically lose. But the former president is in the picture and campaigning in a way that former presidents almost never do. How does that complicate things for your side?

JENNINGS: Yeah, he's not terribly popular either, and he has a unique property. He can motivate people to vote for and against whatever it is he's for. So remains to be seen on who's a more potent vote-getter or vote-turner-offer in Pennsylvania. But he does complicate the picture, no question.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings is a Republican strategist. It's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much.

JENNINGS: Thanks, Steve. See you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.