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Week in politics: After poor midterm showing, is Trump's influence waning?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Democrat Mark Kelly has won the Arizona Senate race, according to the AP, and that makes it one more seat likely Democrats will retain control of the Senate. But there are still key races to be decided. So four days after Election Day, we just don't know which party will have control in Congress come January. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: A week that should make us - all of us in the news business humble about predictions. So let me not delay in asking, so what's your prediction, Ron? Democrats get the Senate, but Republicans control the House by just a whisker?

ELVING: So it's 49-49 right now for the Senate with Arizona decided and Nevada, Georgia to go. They are still counting in Nevada, but incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto has been reducing the lead of Republican Adam Laxalt a little each day. Last night, the margin was just 800 votes with tens of thousands of ballots left to count. So Democrats are cautiously optimistic there. Winning either Nevada or the Georgia runoff would give Democrats a 50-50 tie again, which would make them the majority with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. In the House, it looks like the Republicans will be ahead by just a whisker, as you say, gaining a net of fewer than 10 seats, which is 15 or 20 fewer than they expected to gain and that most everyone, including me, expected them to gain.

SIMON: What happened to the red wave?

ELVING: It happened, Scott, but pretty much only in Florida. In that one state, Republicans truly dominated. Governor Ron DeSantis won a new term by 20 percentage points. But elsewhere in the country, not so much. Now, as we've said, over the last 75 years, the average gain in the House for the party opposing the president has been about two dozen. And it's been more than 40 seats when the president was under 50% approval, as Biden is now. The GOP was looking for that kind of numbers, and they are nowhere near that. So the big question is why. Midterms are always a chance to push back against the current president. And that was true this year. But we also saw a lot of pushback against the former president, who made himself a focal point this year and promoted a lot of candidates in marquee races who wound up losing.

SIMON: What about inflation? Polls showed prices to be the issue. And Republicans, of course, blame the administration.

ELVING: A lot of us thought the election would be primarily about inflation, and inflation clearly mattered. But people signing up to vote for the first time around the country this year seem to have been motivated as much by abortion rights and climate change. Also, more young people turned out than has been typical in midterms, and that also made a big difference.

SIMON: Candidates endorsed by Donald Trump lost a number of key races - Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, now Arizona. Is the Trump brand now one to avoid?

ELVING: There have been Republicans who wanted to avoid that brand for a long time, and they just got their arguments reinforced by this election. Trump got involved this year, intimately involved, picking winners in the primaries, always looking for candidates who had minimal government experience, if any, but had media presence or visual appeal, candidates in his own image, and also people who were willing to embrace his baseless claims about the 2020 election.

He found those people in state after state, but they were not always the strongest potential nominees. That's part of his current dilemma but only part. Republicans are also seeing the emergence of a legitimate threat to Trump as the next nominee in 2024. That's Ron DeSantis I just mentioned. And so we're going to wait and see if former President Trump really does announce his new campaign for president next week, as has been expected.

SIMON: Whatever the final results, we seem to return once more to a country that's locked up 50-50. Just more gridlock ahead for the next two years?

ELVING: In a word, yes. There will likely be no legislation that is bipartisan enough or nonpartisan enough to become law. Biden will have his veto pen. Democrats will have some input on the bills that go to his desk. But those facts don't change the reality of Congress. You either have the votes, or you don't. And right now, that means the votes of both parties, and they just aren't getting together.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.