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Too Close to Call: Control of Senate Hinges on Races in Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona & Nevada

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The balance of power in Congress is still up in the air after Democratic candidates outperformed expectations in much of the country in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Control of the Senate now rests on four states: Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada. We speak with The Nation’s John Nichols, who says Democratic Senate candidate Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes could still close the gap with Republican incumbent Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, who now has the advantage. He also says that while Republicans look favored to win the Senate seat in Nevada, the race has ended up closer than expected. “Nevada can surprise you at the end,” says Nichols.

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AMY GOODMAN: The balance of power in Congress is still up in the air after Democratic candidates outperformed expectations in much of the country in Tuesday’s midterm election. With ballots still being counted in many key races, it remains unclear which party will control the U.S. Senate or the House.

Control of the Senate now rests on four states — Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada — after Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman pulled off a major victory in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, defeating Dr. Mehmet Oz for the seat currently held by Republican Pat Toomey. Fetterman addressed supporters this morning.

SEN.-ELECT JOHN FETTERMAN: We bet on the people of Pennsylvania, and you didn’t let us down. And my promise to all of you is I will never let you down. Thank you, Pennsylvania. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: In Georgia, it appears increasingly likely the race between Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker will go to a runoff. In Arizona, Democratic Senator Mark Kelly has a six-point lead over his Trump-backed challenger, Blake Masters, with two-thirds of the vote counted. In Nevada’s Senate race, Republican Adam Laxalt is leading Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto with three-quarters of the vote counted. And in Wisconsin, Republican Senator Ron Johnson is in the lead over Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, but the race is still too close to call.

We’re going to begin today’s show in Wisconsin to talk about Tuesday’s Senate races and much more with John Nichols, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, John. You are joining us from Madison, Wisconsin. Talk about this key race, what we know so far, and who these candidates are — of course, one, the incumbent, Ron Johnson, the other, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it’s easy to say that Ron Johnson is the most controversial and scandal-plagued member of the United States Senate, although he certainly has competition. Johnson has, especially over the last six years, since Donald Trump came on the scene, identified as one of the most Trump-aligned members of the Senate. And he’s also been someone who has caused a lot of controversy because of conspiracy theory-like statements about coronavirus, about vaccines, things of that nature. And, of course, he was drawn into the January 6th controversy because there was a moment on January 6 where apparently he was talking with folks outside of his office about delivering lists of fake electors to Vice President Mike Pence. The vice president obviously said no, and that didn’t go forward. But as you can see, when you put all these pieces together, Johnson was someone who appeared to be a pretty easy target in this election cycle. And then there’s also the fact that he acknowledged that he’s, since coming to the Senate, doubled his own wealth.

And so, Democrats were very enthusiastic about putting somebody up against him. The winner of a crowded Democratic primary was Mandela Barnes, who’s the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin. And Barnes ran what I would argue was a pretty remarkable campaign based on his deep ties to Milwaukee, the fact that he comes from a union family — his grandfather a steelworker, his father a United Auto Workers member, his mother a union teacher — and his own service as a state legislator and then lieutenant governor. So, his campaign was very strong one.

Unfortunately, in September and early October, very, very wealthy Republican donors, as well as the Republican Senate campaign committee, moved immense amounts of money into the state. They overwhelmed Barnes with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that was, by any means and by any standard, untruthful. It was widely decried as racist, because the ads identified Mandela Barnes, the first African American candidate for the United States Senate of a major party in Wisconsin, as dangerous and different, and using all sorts of other codewords. And so, that put Barnes down a little bit in the race. He was down at one point in a major poll by about six points.

But some very strong debate performances in mid-to-late October, I think an appearance by Barack Obama on his behalf, and just incredibly hard campaigning by Mandela Barnes brought him back into the running to this position where we’re at now, which is a very close race. Johnson is ahead. We don’t know all that’s out yet. It won’t be a lot. And so, Johnson has the advantage, but Barnes could — it is theoretical — could still close this gap.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John, what do we know about the turnout, how it compares, for instance, to the 2018 midterms, and also who came out? What sections of the state or what demographic groups?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, turnout was very strong. In fact, early voting, which is obviously a measure that usually is seen as at least somewhat favoring the Democrats, was up 35%. And that’s a huge spike in early voting.

But on Election Day, what was very striking was the heavy turnout on campuses around the state. Mandela Barnes was a young candidate: He is in his mid-thirties. He focused a lot of his attention on the campuses. And also, last week, late last week and into the weekend, Senator Bernie Sanders came into Wisconsin and appeared on four college campuses — in Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison and then near the campus up in Oshkosh — to rally students. And there are videos from some of these campuses of incredibly long lines of students showing up on Election Day. And we’ll get the final measures of all this, but it does look like Mandela Barnes benefited at the close by a bump in youth turnout, as well as some incredibly hard work that he and a number of other groups did in Milwaukee to bump Black turnout, Latinx turnout. And so, I do think that that gap was closed by a quite successful mobilization.

The final thing I’ll tell you is that in Dane County, the Madison area, which is really the heartland for a lot of progressive voting in Wisconsin, you saw a great increase in turnout. At one point — and I don’t know what the final number will be, but at one point they were talking of a turnout well above 80%. And that was certainly beneficial to Barnes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John, could we switch over to Nevada, which there’s increasing sense that this will be a Republican pickup in the Senate race, possibly as well in the governor’s race? Nevada was a state that increasingly the labor movement has played a key role. What, from your sense, has happened there?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, a lot of things happened in Nevada. And remember, we don’t have the final results there, and we should always be careful, because Nevada can surprise you at the end. In fact, it has in recent years. But at this point, you’re right. Republicans appear to have the advantage in the key statewide races. And these races ended up closer than expected, I think because the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas really put on a major final push. But it didn’t — it doesn’t appear at this point to have closed the gap.

Why? Look, Nevada is a state, and Las Vegas especially, a place which really kind of rises and falls, in many senses, with the economy. And [inaudible] inflation [inaudible] a huge issue in Nevada. And it was, frankly, a hard issue for the Democratic candidates in that state. This is true, I think, in general for the Democratic Party nationally. And it’s an important thing to understand. While the Democrats did far better on Tuesday night than expected, they never really developed an effective message on what came out as the number one issue in most exit polls, and that was inflation. And the challenge there was that instead of focusing on price gouging, instead of focusing hard on corporate irresponsibility in the state, in this case, they had more of a vague message. And I think that that prevented Democrats from potentially having an even better night on Tuesday, not just in Nevada but in a number of states across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, we want to thank you for being with us, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent.

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