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Disappointment With Both Parties A Major Factor In Midterm Elections


Just one more day until the midterm elections. The GOP is well-positioned to pick up seats in the House and take control of the Senate but lots of races are polling well within the margin of error. Disgust and disappointment with both parties and the president were key ingredients this year. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The shouting - most of it on TV - is just about over. And a surly electorate is slouching toward the ballot box. It's been the most expensive midterm election ever - $4 billion was spent and the result so far? Nobody likes anybody. Huge majorities say the country is on the wrong track and voters gave all the players - President Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans - low marks. But in a second term midterm, says political analyst Larry Sabato, that adds up to bad news for the incumbent president and his party.

LARRY SABATO: In many respects, this is just a classic sixth-year itch election. By then, a president has embittered the opposition party and has disappointed many people in his own coalition. Those are just the political facts of life.

LIASSON: Every president elected twice since World War II who had a Senate majority to lose has lost it in a second term midterm. And that's what Sabato and most prognosticators expect will happen tonight. There hasn't been an overriding issue in this campaign or even two competing agendas. Instead, the Republican's message could be boiled down to just two words - Obama bad.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you trust President Obama and the Washington politicians to deal with the problems we face - too much debt, not enough jobs, terrorism and Ebola?

LIASSON: The GOP playbook was simple - tie every Democrat to the unpopular president.

SABATO: My opponent, Senator Shaheen, has been voting with the President over 99 percent of the time.

LIASSON: Democrats, particularly in the red states that make up this year's battleground, were spooked. Many tried to scuttle away from the President with varying degrees of credulity. Here's Democratic Senate candidate Alison Grimes in a debate last month.

ALISON GRIMES: Why are you reluctant to give an answer on whether or not you voted for President Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Bill, there's no reluctancy. This is a matter of principle. Our Constitution grants, here in Kentucky, the constitutional right for privacy at the ballot box.

LIASSON: Sometimes it seemed President Obama was in the witness protection program. He kept his campaign travel to friendly blue states, but sometimes he said things that made it harder for Democrats, like when he tried to explain that he wasn't on the ballot, but...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot - every single one of them.

LIASSON: As Republicans tried to nationalize the election with a laser-like focus on the President, Democrats tried to frame it as a choice between two candidates. In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn scuffed up the reputation of businessman David Perdue, making him out to be a heartless outsourcer of jobs and indifferent to the rights of women. Here are Perdue and Nunn responding to a moderator's question about why female managers sued Perdue's company for pay discrimination.


DAVID PERDUE: That lawsuit was less than 2,000 people. We had upwards of 70,000 employees in that company.

MICHELLE NUNN: Two-thousand women - I - that actually seems like quite a lot to me.

LIASSON: But for the most part, Republicans blunted the war-on-women attacks. In Colorado, for example, Republican Cory Gardner came out in favor of over-the-counter birth control, a position he now shares with Planned Parenthood. And in the debate two weeks ago, he backed away from his previous support for a constitutional amendment that would give legal rights to embryos.

CORY GARDNER: I think, again, I do not support the personhood amendment. The bill that you're referring to is simply a statement that I support life. But let me just...

LIASSON: Neither party spent much time trying to change the minds of swing voters because there are so few of them. Instead, says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, most of the effort was aimed at turning out core supporters.

JENNIFER DUFFY: They're not talking to the middle. They're not trying to persuade voters. So it's almost like watching two different campaigns.

LIASSON: Other surprises - the completely unexpected addition of Kansas to the toss-up list. Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s, but there's an intraparty fight between Kansas Tea Party conservatives and the GOP established. Larry Sabato...

SABATO: This is backlash politics in Kansas. Amazingly, one of the most Republican states in a GOP-tilting year is moving in the other direction causing angst for the Republicans.

LIASSON: Independent Greg Orman is challenging incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts. Orman hasn't said which party he'd caucus with if he won. The Kansas race has been as heated as any other. Here's how Orman and Roberts handled an easy-to-anticipate debate question - what nice thing can you say about your opponent?


GREG ORMAN: I appreciate Senator Roberts' service to our country. I appreciate his service in the Marines and I will...

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: I would say that you are a very well-dressed opponent.


LIASSON: Sometimes, it's just too hard to be gracious in the heat of a hard-fought campaign. So where does this leave the voters? Not happy at all - but it's not clear that either party is listening to the message voters want to send. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll, 50 percent of voters said they favored a hypothetical candidate willing to compromise. That's a big flip from 2010, when 57 percent said they'd rather have a candidate stick to their positions at the expense of passing legislation. It remains to be seen if the next Congress will give voters what they say they want. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.