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Washington Post’s Dan Balz On Kansas And The Rest Of The Senate Midterm Landscape

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HH: In the studio that has not been air conditioned all weekend long, so everyone’s basically melting. Dan Balz is in Washington, D.C., so he doesn’t really care what Californians say about the weather, because he has to spend his summers in Washington, so he doesn’t really have any sympathy for us. He’s of course the chief correspondent for the Washington Post. Hello, Dan, how are you?

DB: I’m good, Hugh. It’s perfect weather here.

HH: Well, you’re going to watch the Redskins tonight, so that’s punishment enough.

DB: Well, first we’ve got to watch the Nationals, and that’s a little dicey right now.

HH: I have them in my pool, so they have to win. I know. My producer, who’s an Angels diehard, has been moping around all day, and the Tigers fans are doing the same. So please, not another sweep. Dan, I want to first thank you. If you had not tweeted out the link to the Ebola story that the Post ran yesterday, I wouldn’t have run across it. That’s an amazing piece of reporting. It wasn’t yours, but it’s a terrific piece of work.

DB: It was a great piece of work, and frankly, Hugh, indicative of a lot of the kinds of things we’re doing. I mean, we’re operating on a lot of cylinders right now with that kind of reporting. I mean, what Carol Leonnig did last week on the Secret Service, and this Ebola piece, and I mean, there’s just a lot of interesting and good stuff going on here at the Post right now.

HH: And everyone, if you want to get links like that, just follow Dan on Twitter, @DanBalz. Now Dan, I want to talk to you about the piece you wrote a couple days back about the Seinfeld election, the campaign about nothing. But you also went on, this is an election very much about how people view President Obama. I like it framed that way, as a Republican. I know you’re not. I’m a conservative. I’m very happy to have it about President Obama. President Obama’s apparently very happy to have it about President Obama. But what do the senators who have D behind their name think?

DB: Well, I think David Axelrod spoke for a lot of them when he was on Meet the Press on Sunday and said the lines that the President used when he was at Northwestern, which is to say I’m not on the ballot, but these policies are on the ballot, is something that a lot of the Democrats are uncomfortable with, frankly. I mean, they want to put some distance between themselves and the President. But I think the President was right when he said that. I mean, he has been out advocating, as have been a lot of Democrats, on certain kinds of policies that they think are A) very popular with voters, and that B) can help them in the election. But for some of the Democrats, particularly in the red states, it’s difficult to link yourself directly to President Obama. And so what David Axelrod said was if he had written that speech, he would not have included that line in it. But in some ways, the President was speaking the truth. I mean, all midterms, Hugh, you know this, all midterm elections are very much about the incumbent in the White House. It’s not the only issue on the table. The Republicans, as we all know, are not particularly popular. Congressional Republicans even more so, but the President, you know, the President looms larger over the electorate than all of the other things. And so I think that however this goes, the President is in one way or another a big factor in this election.

HH: Now take that down to the retail level, particularly to Kansas, Dan Balz, where Greg Orman, the “independent” in the race, has got, according to NBC/Maris, a ten point lead over Pat Roberts. And I wrote about this today, Memo To Kansas Voters. Does this play when an independent is on the ballot, even if he is the independent that Democrats favor and the Democrat dropped out?

DB: Well, it’s a little trickier, because he’s not been entirely clear as to whether he would end up caucusing with the Republicans or the Democrats, if he is the independent senator from Kansas. So it makes it harder for voters. I mean, there’s no question that he’s got to be seen as the alternative to the Republican, and so for a lot of voters in Kansas, they’ll think that he’s more likely to be siding up with the President. But you know, he voted for the President in 2008, and he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. So where his actual allegiance lie, and where his policy positions are, is not quite clear. Where he would caucus is very important, because if he caucuses with the Democrats, he counts as a Democrat in terms of the organization of the Senate.

HH: Yeah, and that’s, to me, why Harry Reid persuaded his guy to drop out there, is he’s hoping for that. So I just think it’s interesting if they can nationalize that race by making Orman a Democrat in all but formal designation. Dan Balz, let me ask you about the key thing now in the last, the wild card. The October surprise is a surprise that nobody wanted. It’s Ebola. This afternoon, a Spanish health care worker has been diagnosed with it in Spain. She had treated a priest who had come back from Africa. There is an admitted child in Florida. I hope to God she hasn’t got this, but they’re testing her. There have been tests that have not turned out badly in Howard University, another test in other places in the country. How is this going to impact the public’s opinion of the President, if at all, in your opinion?

DB: I don’t know how it affects the opinion of the President. I’m pretty confident that it plays into this notion that things have sort of begun to spin out of control around the world, and that some of it may be coming home with this Ebola crisis. People are nervous about this. They’re scared. I watched a couple of focus groups a few weeks ago that my colleague, Karen Tumulty, ended up writing about. And the number of people who volunteered when they were asked kind of how things were going, how do you see the country at this point, a number of them volunteered that they were scared, that they were nervous, and probably a bigger percentage than we’ve seen in a long time. And when that happens, it puts people on the defensive as they think about these votes. But at this point, I don’t know whether that directly affects their perception of the President. But if they think that things are not going well, it’s not helpful to the party that holds the White House.

HH: You know, it did not help Mark Pryor to try and make Ebola an issue in the Arkansas race, so I’m very reluctant to say Republicans ought to list the inability to respond in a timely fashion to Ebola in West Africa as an issue. But when you note the concern that things are spinning out of control around the world, doesn’t that always get laid at the feet of the president, Dan Balz, when that happens if we’re not seen to be responding coherently with strength and with purpose?

DB: It does, but whether that becomes the overriding factor in somebody’s decision about how to vote, I think that correlation is a little bit difficult to figure out precisely. Sure, the more people think that things are messed up, the more unhelpful it is to a Democrat running with their president in the White House.

HH: Last question, Dan…

DB: But there’s so many of these things out there right now. It’s a kind of a pick and choose. And as we’ve said, this is an election that no single issue has risen up to be the dominant issue.

HH: Last question, I know you’ve covered so many midterms that they’re always interesting. They’re always fascinating. But this is the first midterm in which we’ve been treated to algorithms predicting to percentage terms the takeover of the Senate. What does a veteran political reporter think of all the numbers crunching going on at the Political Lab, at 538, all these other places where they’re trying to give us percentage probabilities of takeover?

DB: Well, I mean, I like to look at it. I like to try to understand it. But you know, I don’t know what, when they say there’s a 59% chance that the Republicans will take over, I mean, I think that actually means you know, the Republicans have a little bit of an edge, but not a huge edge. I mean, it sounds like landslide territory, 59%. But that’s not votes. This is a kind of a probability exercise. So I think anything under 60% means that we’re in a very competitive environment. If you get to 75 or 80%, then you have to say then the Republicans are in, you know, in the driver’s seat. It’s a midterm. The terrain is mostly on Republican territory. All of those things tip toward the Republicans, but there are a lot of competitive races out there that look like they could go, you know, right down to November 4th.

HH: I have to agree with that. Pollsters got to poll, analysts got to analyze, and writers got to write. But prognosticators? We keep prognosticating regardless of what the situation is. Dan Balz at the Washington Post, always a pleasure. Follow Dan, @DanBalz on Twitter.

End of interview.


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