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'Everything' Is At Stake For Democrats In Next Month's Midterms


There's a lot at stake in this year's midterm elections - Donald Trump's legislative agenda, the GOP's ability to put conservative judges on the courts. But the political stakes are particularly high for the party currently out of power. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I asked veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala what's at stake for his party in the midterm elections.

PAUL BEGALA: Oh, everything.

LIASSON: Everything?

BEGALA: Everything.

LIASSON: To Begala, the old cliche about this election being the most important one of our lifetimes is really true.

BEGALA: The Democrats are completely shut out, even though they've won the popular vote 6 out of the last 7 presidential elections, and even though they mostly win the popular vote for the House.

LIASSON: If the Democrats lose this fall, and losing means failing to take back the House and make significant gains at the state level, they'll be shut out again without a say in legislation, judicial appointments or, as former Bill Clinton aide Elaine Kamarck points out, in the next congressional redistricting that happens after the 2020 census.

ELAINE KAMARCK: Winning back some state legislatures, or at least getting close, is critical for the long-term future of the Democrats. I mean, you know, we've had several elections now where there are more Democratic votes for Democratic members of Congress, but Democrats can't win because all the Democrats have been gerrymandered into one district. So Democrats have to get control of state legislatures and stop that practice.

RON KLAIN: This really is almost the difference between life and death.

LIASSON: The difference between life and death? That's Ron Klain, another previously mild-mannered Democrat with a currently apocalyptic view of the stakes for his party in November. A former top aide in the Clinton and Obama White Houses, Klain says if Democrats lose in November, their worst nightmares come true, and Trump has a free hand.

KLAIN: That means he can fire Jeff Sessions and, essentially, end the Mueller investigation and replace him with an attorney general of his choosing. It means that Trump could continue to roll back regulatory protections, undo the Affordable Care Act.

LIASSON: But if the Democrats win one house or both, Klain says, then Congress returns to being a check and balance on the president. And there will be a lot of oversight.

KLAIN: You'll start to see questions being asked about how taxpayer dollars are being wasted, how the government is being used as a piggy bank for the Trump family. You'll see, also, looks at what's going on at some of these agencies, how big corporate interests are turning our environmental laws inside out at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.

LIASSON: In addition to investigating, Paul Begala says, Democrats do also plan to legislate.

BEGALA: If the Democrats take the House and they pass things that people want, like an increase in the minimum wage, like a child care bill, like controlling prescription drug costs, like shoring up pre-existing conditions and reducing the cost of premiums, then let the Senate take it up, or not. And then you've got something to run on.

LIASSON: Even if they can't overcome Senate Republicans or a presidential veto, Begala says Democrats can set an agenda for the next election in 2020. But Republicans who've been through this before say beware of what you wish for. Eric Cantor is the former Republican majority leader who came to power when Republicans took over the House after President Obama's first midterm. That was thanks to the Tea Party movement, which wanted instant results.

ERIC CANTOR: I can tell you if we weren't contemplating, at least monthly, if not more often, repealing Obamacare, then we were not doing all we could, even though there was no chance that a bill to repeal Obamacare would pass a Democratic Senate or would be signed into law by President Obama himself.

LIASSON: Cantor said Democrats, if they win, will have to deal with the same danger of super high expectations from their left-wing base.

CANTOR: These constituencies are going to expect abolishing ICE. They're going to expect a Democratic majority to implement and execute on Medicare for all. And at the most extreme, they're going to expect the Democrats, who, if they win majority in the House, to go ahead and impeach the president.

LIASSON: If the Democrats win the House, impeachment will quickly become their biggest hot potato. Their left-wing activist base will demand they move quickly to impeach the president. But the Democrats' leadership in Congress is lukewarm at best to that idea. But Democrats are willing to wrestle with the political pressures and perils of impeachment because they know it's a problem they'll only have if they win the majority again. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. 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.