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Politics chat: Three must-watch races that could turn the Senate

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's a little more than a week left to go before November 8, and federal security agencies have issued an internal bulletin, obtained by NPR, warning about a heightened domestic violent extremist threat environment. This comes just days after Paul Pelosi was injured during an attack in his home in San Francisco. His wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was in Washington, D.C., at the time. Police arrested the intruder and say the attack was intentional. He was looking for the House Speaker, repeating, where's Nancy? Joining me now to talk about this is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: This incident has chilled lawmakers - and rightfully so - many of whom have been raising the alarm about the rise in threats against them. That includes Senator Susan Collins, who said she wouldn't be surprised if a member of Congress were killed.

LIASSON: That's right. You know, there have been so many more threats to public officials in the last five years and not just members of Congress. We've seen threats against Supreme Court justices, local election officials, school board members. And there is really this sense that there's a horrifying shoe just waiting to drop. And people who track these threats say there's a connection between the increase in violent apocalyptic rhetoric where political opponents describe each other not as simply people with different ideological views, but as enemies, traitors, people who have to be locked up and hanged. And that kind of rhetoric, combined with someone who's mentally unstable or divorced from reality, leads to more of this deadly violence against public officials.

As you said, Paul Pelosi's attack was an attempted assassination against his wife. The intruder said, where's Nancy? Where's Nancy? That's exactly what the January 6 insurrectionists said as they stormed through the Capitol. And we also know that he reportedly - this suspect reportedly authored a blog filled with references to right-wing conspiracy theories, false claims about the 2020 elections, anti-Semitic and racist ideas, which really fits in with what we know about the vast majority of these threats. There are threats from people who have embraced left-wing rhetoric. There was the Bernie Sanders supporter who opened fire on a Virginia ballfield and wounded House Republican Whip Steve Scalise five years ago. But most of these threats and incidents comes from people associated with right-wing extremist rhetoric.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, we're at this particularly divisive moment when it comes to the midterm elections, right?

LIASSON: We certainly are. This has been a real roller coaster of an election cycle. The big question is, will this be a normally bad election for the party in power, the Democrats, or a spectacularly bad election? I guess the weather report for Democrats is cloudy with a chance of a tsunami. You know, we've seen a lot of swings of the pendulum. Originally, it looked like a terrible cycle for Democrats. Then after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, Democrats thought that they had a little bit of an advantage. But now it looks like the fundamentals have really clicked back into place. Voters are more worried about the economy and inflation than they are about abortion rights. And polls are showing Republican momentum. But gas prices have been going down for three weeks. So the question is, is there time for yet another swing of the pendulum before Election Day?

RASCOE: So, I mean, what about those polls, Mara? Because, you know, in the past it has seemed like they have been off. So how much faith should we put in them at this point?

LIASSON: Well, that's a very good question. Remember, polls are just a snapshot in time. They are not meant to be predictors about what's going to happen even a week from now. And in the past, polls have gotten a lot of things wrong recently. Sometimes they get the direction of the race wrong. Most often, they get the margins wrong. And it's much harder to poll Senate races than House races in a midterm. But in the past, we know that pollsters have underestimated the number of white, noncollege voters in the electorate. That means they've undercounted Republican voters. They've tried to correct for that. But the problem for the polling industry in general is that people - more and more people just don't want to talk to pollsters.

RASCOE: OK. In the 30 seconds we have left, the Senate, the - in the Senate, the loss of one seat would flip control of the Senate to the Republicans. What races should we be looking for, you know, to decide that?

LIASSON: I think the key three races are Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Whichever party wins two of those three races will have the majority in the Senate in January.

RASCOE: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Thank you so much, Mara.

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

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.
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