Ep. 35 MidPod x Housetalk

NICIE PANETTA: This is The MidPod, the midterms podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta.

HEATHER ATWOOD: And I'm Heather Atwood.

NICIE: We are two moms traveling America to bring you the voices of the 2018 midterm elections. Our democracy is in trouble and we're here to help you become a more active citizen. We interview candidates, activists and experts on important issues. We profile key congressional races in depth, and we hold a citizens potluck supper in every district we visit. Join us in our quest to rebuild trust in our democracy, one congressional district at a time.

HEATHER: This week we went to Washington D.C. to hear from some serious pros about how the race to control the U.S. House of Representatives is shaping up. Ali Lapp and Liesl Hickey are campaign strategists. Ali's a Democrat and Liesl is a Republican. Ali is the founder of House Majority PAC, which helps finance and advise Democratic campaigns. Liesl does media and strategy for GOP campaigns. She's a partner at Ascent Media.

NICIE: And what we love about Ali and Liesl is that they are serious House Nerds.

HEATHER: They are really House Nerds. But what I love even more is that they're friends.

NICIE: Right. These two women duke it out race after race, but they're also colleagues and friends with kids the same age and they share a desire to rebuild a vital center in American politics. They have a must listen podcast, House Talk, in which they not only review key developments in the midterms with great guests, but they also model civil discourse across the partisan divide.

HEATHER: When you listen to Ali and Liesl you really feel their commitment to finding great candidates who will be trustworthy public servants and helping them to win. House Talk comes every two weeks and we can't recommend it highly enough. We've recorded our conversation at the Podcast Village in D.C. after a really good lunch nearby.

NICIE: Heather, it's pretty exciting we are here in our nation's capital, Washington D.C., at the Podcast Village with two very special guests.

HEATHER: Yeah, we have friends here in Washington.

NICIE: We have the women of House Talk in the house, so to speak.

HEATHER: Thank you, Ali Lapp and Liesl Hickey for being with us.

LIESL HICKEY: You guys are great to have us.

NICIE: Maybe we should just start off, if you guys don't mind just introducing yourselves a little bit for our listeners. Your backgrounds, how you got into politics, and what your role is now in this crucial set of midterm elections.

LIESL HICKEY: Liesl Hickey. I've been in politics for about 20 years, mostly on the campaign side. I currently run an ad - Republican ad agency called Ascent Media. We do politics and strategy and Republican advertising. How did I get into politics? Well, probably like most people, I started at a pretty young age. Got interested in American government through a really interesting American government teacher that I had. I interned in high school for my local congressional candidate. I interned in college; I all of a sudden decided that Capitol Hill maybe wasn't exactly the place I wanted to first be and did a lot of campaigns all over the country, so I learned politics from just being out and being on campaigns. And that was probably one of the best experiences at a young age in terms of just learning politics.

ALI LAPP: Thanks for having us. This is Ali and I am currently the president of the board of House Majority PAC, which is the largest Super PAC on the House side, and we focus on electing Democrats to the House. I founded House Majority PAC in 2011 to respond to some of the big outside money that was coming in from the Koch Brothers and other big Republican groups, so we really felt like we needed a counterweight to that.

ALI: You know I was inspired to get into politics certainly in college. I had to take a politics class to fulfill a requirement and really had some great professors, and for the first time thought about doing politics as a career. I don't think I realized that was possible, growing up. I had parents who were politically aware but not active. One of my first political memories was going down - I grew up outside Seattle and we went down to Boeing Field, where Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was landing. And so my mom had taken me and my little brother there - I was in fourth grade - with signs that said Mondale-Ferraro when we saw her get off the plane. So, you know, I was pretty interested in that - I think just seeing a woman on the ticket was interesting to me. And then it really developed and blossomed in college.

NICIE: You guys have a podcast that is truly essential listening for Heather and for me as we travel around the country reporting on individual races and trying to make sense of this cycle. Tell us about how you decided to launch your podcast, House Talk, and how it's gone for you so far.

ALI: Being political operatives in D.C. even though we're on different sides of the aisle, Liesl and I had a lot of friends in common. Reporters and sort of, you know, nonpartisan political experts, and they said, "You guys should really meet. You have a lot in common." We both live in D.C., are in the D.C. area. We have three children at home and obviously do the same kind of work on different sides of the aisle. And we got together and really hit it off and did a couple of speaking appearances together and decided this would be a lot of fun. And in a cycle where everyone's attention is on the midterms, you know, why not do a podcast regularly where we really delve into House races and how they work.

NICIE: You've even shared that "House Nerds" is a thing. [laughs]

ALI: Totally. Absolutely.

NICIE: Well I have to say again for us, we not only learn so much from your show but you also model a kind of bipartisan spirit even though you're working hard on both sides of the aisle, on either side of the aisle. You clearly are collegial and are believers in our country as a whole. We really thank you for that.

LIESL: I hope we're proving that people from other sides can be friends.

ALI: Well, and we learn so much from you guys when we’re stuck in D.C. working here. But you all are going out about in the country and talking to candidates. And you know you probably talked to more candidates and I get to because of the legal structure of a super PAC. So I love listening to what you all are doing out there in the country.

LIESL: So tell us a little bit about how you guys decided to do a MidPod.

HEATHER: I will tell that story. Nicie Panetta and I met when our daughters started middle school together, and our daughters are now sophomores in college. And you know, we were moms at our kids' school. You know, I knew what Nicie did. She'd had a career in finance and you know, a very significant career and I was a food writer, a local food writer, writing local stories. I love writing local stories. I did a cookbook that sort of delved into the culture along with the food in Massachusetts. So I was doing that, and then the 2016 election happened. And as Democrats - Nicie and I - I would call Nicie occasionally and say, "what are we going to do?" And in the spring of 2017 she called me and she said, "I have an idea. We're gonna have a podcast. And you're going to help me tell the stories, Heather, or at least you're going to have a food story. We're going to travel around the country and we are going to visit congressional swing districts and we're going to interview the candidates. We're going to talk to citizens and we're going to tell a food story too." So she pulled me into this lovely journey and it's been a really, really great journey, I have to say. And one of the things that has been great about it is the optimism that I have felt, because you know, yeah I can imagine sitting in Washington D.C., having the news come in all, you know, 10 hours a day, has got to be a grind. And when we're home I feel that. But when we're traveling and we're just talking to Americans it really feels great.

NICIEL And I'll just add real quickly that although we decided early on to try to be focused on Congress, which we do feel is the critical branch of government right now at this moment in our country's history, part of the real joy of the journey is just getting into communities and seeing all the activity down ballot as well as up at the federal level. So we do see that commitment rising to get involved more with politics so that helps buoy us up. We do want you to know that there's good energy out there on both sides of the aisle, I would say.

HEATHER: This is a good story. I don't think you guys have heard this one. So in 2016 my daughter started at the University of Michigan. And Donald Trump was elected. And our daughter surprised us and signed up for ROTC and she is now in the National Guard and she is currently right now, as we're speaking, in Latvia. But it was a really interesting addition to my stress in 2016 because suddenly, we're not a military family, and I had this daughter who was signing up to do this, to commit herself to some military commitment and it was wonderful in the end because I was very upset in the beginning, and then Nicie and I started the MidPod and I began to meet women and men who had served in the military and who had had very successful careers and really felt so strongly about the honor of that. And it had also, sort of, you know, been a great career for them also. And it had projected them into places of leadership. And I began to see my daughter's choice in an entirely different light. And that happened because we were traveling around the country meeting people who had served.

NICIE: Yeah, and this concept of servant leadership is really key to our show in that we knew from our local congressman Seth Moulton, who himself is a Marine veteran, that he and others were going to be recruiting a lot of former veterans but also other people with service backgrounds to run in this cycle. And that concept of a new generation of leaders is very exciting to us. You know, we know that there are very good people in Congress now who aspire to do that work and to put the country first. But we are in a hyper partisan time and so we're very eager to see more of that in this 116th Congress coming up in 2019.

NICIE: So, with that as a preamble maybe we should just dive in a little bit. We really want to take advantage of your expertise and we see this as an opportunity since we're here in Washington with you all to just delve a little bit into the importance of the U.S. House. You know, what is it about the House that you've seen in your careers that kept you coming back for more? What do you love about the institution and what does it look like when it's at its best?

ALI: Look, the House was designed to really represent America and you're going to have members of Congress who represent highly urban, diverse districts, and you're going to have members of Congress that represent you know very rural districts, very agricultural districts. So, you really get people from all over the country here. I think the Senate is just a little bit different. To run for the Senate I think you need a slightly different profile. It's a lot less unpredictable about who's going to be elected from the Senate - the types of people. The House, you can have such big swings from election to election. So that's one of the things I find so fun about the House is you really do get to see a little sliver of America right there in the Capitol building.

NICIE: What about you, Liesl?

LIESL: I mean, there's also some important because it's closest to the people. I mean people who serve in the House, I mean, they're true representatives. Unlike the Senate one, which has longer terms. They have to go every two years in front of their constituents and make a case for why they should come back to D.C. to represent them. And it really is the "People's House" and that's why I think people who work in the House who don't just serve in the House, but also people who help get those elected, I think they're kind of seeing America a little bit more up close and more often than those who are working in Senate races or gubernatorial races even and others, because you are actually having to respond to constituents and their concerns - very, you know, regularly. And the best members of Congress are the ones who act as mayors. They're the ones who are closest to their constituents and honestly the ones who are in swing districts - the smart ones - they actually do work like that like a Seth Moulton on the D side in many on the Republican side who really spend time on their constituent services. They spend time talking to their constituents, but mostly listening because you really have to act like a mayor.

NICIE: Yeah. And I think we really experienced that in general with our travels. But even specifically, say, within a state like California, which is by no means monolithic. You have districts that are heavily levered to agriculture, districts that are melting pots of, you know, suburban sprawl. Maybe the fourth district that has Yosemite. very rural. So it’s exciting to see and you do see that pressure, that they have to win the people's trust based on their needs, which is pretty cool.

ALI: Well, and I think it's one of the important things to think about the House, to understand what's happening in the House and why, you really just have to look at who each member of Congress is representing. Nine times out of ten, the things they are doing, you know, are really because they believe they are representing the people who sent them here. And I really do think that most members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are really doing what they think is best for the people they represent. And that sometimes means that there's a lot of bickering and arguing because, guess what? What's best for the people in downtown Seattle may not be what's best for the people in North Dakota. And so those members of Congress might really disagree on some issues, and that's to be expected. I think what people who've been working in the House for a long time like Liesl and I see that's disappointing is that the disagreement has just become so hostile and so venomous, and it becomes, "you disagree with me because you're corrupt and you're horrible." Not because, either, "we don't see eye to eye on this policy issue,” or “your constituents have different priorities than my constituents do." But it's really become much more personal, I think, than it used to be.

NICIE: What are your views on why things have gone south?

LIESL: Mostly because of the hyper partisanship of the current political environment. I don't think it's bad people on either side who are doing this on their own for some reason. It's just kind of the political environment that we currently live in.

NICIE: We just released an interview last week with Christie Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey - a Republican, and she talked about this concept of strong partisanship/weak parties, and really issued a call to our listeners and to Americans to think about getting involved in a healthy way with literally our political parties not eschewing them. And I was curious for your guys' take on that.

ALI: I think you need more voices of reason out there amongst people who are politically active and interest - and interested in politics. There's very loud voices on the far right, the far left. There are a lot fewer voices in the middle. And I think that would certainly go a long way. And there is a lot of partisanship and tribalism almost. A lot of voters have sort of picked a side and they just pick the facts that support their side, no matter what. And you can't really reason or persuade a growing swath of the American electorate, and that's fortunate, and you're right, parties are becoming weaker. Congressional leadership has less power than ever. I think back in the day there was something called earmarks and those have gone away and lots of people would say that's good because they were corrupt and they were a horrible thing. But no question; believe it or not, the leaders of both parties in the House - whoever the minority leader is, whoever the majority leader is - they usually want to compromise and get something done. And when they can't get their members in line by saying, "OK look, vote for this legislation, we'll help you out with the bridge you need in your district," it becomes harder. There's no question. So, I'm not advocating for a return to earmarks but there's no question that some of the, "reforms" that have happened in the House over the last 10 to 15 years have actually made it much harder, I think, for compromise to be achieved in the House.

HEATHER: I want to bring up an interview that we did with Ray Smock, the director of the Robert C. Byrd congressional center in West Virginia, and he made exactly that point. He said the loss of earmarks has been really critical to both bargaining chips but also, there just isn't much coming back to the district anymore. You know, there aren't, you know, "OK I'll get your bridge, I'll get you a road." It's more ideology.

NICIE: That's a really interesting point. A critical issue like infrastructure may really have been hampered by the loss of this tool for bargaining.

LIESL: Well, actually, I'll give a shout out to another podcast who's - that's run by Jon Ward. He's a Yahoo reporter that is focused on the breakdown of the parties and institutions. It's called The Long Game. It's really insightful and he talks a lot about how the parties have gotten a lot weaker and I agree with that, and one of the reasons, I'll add on top of earmarks, is McCain-Feingold, another reform that was supposed to lead to less corruption, more transparency, accountability, and actually, it's really interesting as I think about this cycle, the outside group Super PAC that is supporting Republicans, CLF - Congressional Leadership Fund - probably spend more money on House races than the National Republican Congressional Committee's fund. And it just goes to show the weakening in the parties, the stronger the outside groups. And that's, I think, led a lot to the breakdown of the parties as well.

NICIE: So that's a good segue, I think, to talking about, well, move from the People's House to the People's Choice, which is really your guys' power alley and you're very much in the business of helping candidates convince voters that they're the right fit for their district. And as you look at the emerging post-primary lineups for this 2018 cycle, what would be your overall, kind of, top line observation so far?

ALI: Well I can speak to the Democratic side for sure. I mean this is a cycle, for starters, just to set the table, where Democrats are playing offense by and large across the board. So what we're really looking at are Democratic challengers and a lot of Republican incumbents. Now there are a lot of open seats as well, so you have two outsiders running. But you know, what I'm seeing from these Democratic candidates - first of all, we're seeing a ton of women. Another, I'll call him a House Nerd. Dave Wasserman, who we talk to all the time on our podcast and we love Dave. He just tweeted out a statistic the other day that said so far in districts that have one woman, one man, and no incumbent running in Democratic primaries, women have been winning 70 percent of the time. And that's not just, you know, seven out of 10 races, that's 59 out of 84 races. So Democrats are nominating women across the board. They're also nominating a lot of outsiders. There are seven highly competitive House races in California. We just had those primaries last week. Not a one of the Democratic candidates, for better or for worse, as ever held elective office before. And we also have a lot of great veterans out there. Folks like Mikie Sherrill is running - she's a great veteran. Elaine Luria in coastal Virginia. So I'm by and large seeing Democratic candidates I like. I'm excited about them and I think they'll do well come November.

LIESL: We're in a much better position, Republicans are, than I ever imagined at this point in the cycle. It is incredible. And I'm usually, as Ali knows, very pessimistic for our chances, and I can't believe that I can honestly say I think it's 50/50 if the Democrats take the House. I've always run in races where we're 10 points down because I'm usually working in districts that are blue districts or very purple districts. I mean, you run like that. So for me to say that is unlike me, and I think it goes to show where I think things actually are and where things are headed. You know, a lot of people sit and say, "oh, there's 100 seats in play." I don't see anywhere close to that. I think maybe there are 50 seats in play. If we keep the majority it'll be by a slim margin. I think it will be hard for us to win every race. I think we will take some losses. But if the Democrats win I don't think it's going to be a lot either. However, this environment - and Ali and I talk about this a lot - is so incredibly unstable. It's unpredictable. Things can change in a minute or a day. And so, what we're talking about today could be, like, wiped out by tomorrow, who knows? But today I feel pretty good about things. I really do. I'm shocked by some of the candidates the Democrats have elected in their primaries. They definitely have some good ones but there are a lot that I don't think fit their districts in - when you're talking about battleground districts you have to have the kind of candidates that really do fit in that they have a story to tell that voters can understand and relate to. And I feel like throughout their primary process, and this just sort of a natural process that Republicans have gone through as well on our side, sometimes you don't exactly get the candidates that you think can win or that you wanted and thought that they were going to be worth the investment in the end. And that's kind of what will end up happening as we look to the fall is, who's going to get the financial investment because you're thinking, get them across the finish line.

ALI: As House Talk listeners will know, my counter to Liesl's point on that is always, I look back at my experience in 2006 when I was at the DCCC see when Congressman Rahm Emanuel, now mayor Rahm Emanuel, was chair. And there were a lot of primary outcomes that were not what the committee necessarily wanted that cycle. But, some of those primary victors are still in Congress today. So you never quite know and I think one thing that it's too early to tell right now is, is it a slight thumb on the scale for Democrats in November? Or is it a Blue Wave? That obviously impacts how many of these candidates are able to come through even if ideologically they may not be the perfect fit for the district. An overall positive environment can certainly go a long way in helping some of them get elected.

HEATHER: May I ask who some of those congressmen who are still in office are?

ALI: Sure. You know, at the time, well there's a couple who have - who were still there and who have since lost, but at the time the committee was very supportive of a different candidate that Jerry McNerney beat, who's still a congressman. There was a primary in the Philly suburbs that then Congressman Patrick Murphy won. That was not the committee's choice in that election either. So those are two that come to the top of my mind. But they were able to get through for a number of different reasons.

NICIE: Liesl, I know that midterms are often characterized very generally as referenda on the party in power. But it sounds like you see some other factors at play including maybe the economy?

LIESL: Yeah, historically they absolutely are a referendum on the party in power and I'm not saying that won't be the case this cycle. I think we have headwind there for sure. I think the focus is definitely on the economy. And the thing is, when you look at the battleground map it's suburban districts and these suburban districts are filled with people who care deeply about the economy and their economic voters. And they're pretty happy about, you know, what their financial situation looks like right now. Their jobs are good. I mean, and more importantly, they're feeling a little more stable about their current situation. And I wonder if their dislike of the president, because for the most part they do dislike the president, if that will eclipse how they're feeling about their financial situation. And I just think that's what's really interesting about this cycle and that's something that I think in the past, when we had these sort of massive waves they were based on big disagreements on policy issues, ideas, not just personalities. Even though there were a lot of Republicans and independents that weren't in love with President Obama, they really hated health care so much. So it wasn't that right now we have a situation where they actually sort of like a lot of what the president is doing, especially when it comes to the economy, and they just don't like him. And so this is what I think is very different about this situation than what we had in 2006 and definitely what we had in 2010.

NICIE: Do you think that, you know, this - I think it's one thing as we've been talking about particularly we're recording this during President Trump's trip to the G-7 and North Korea and there is a feeling that he's destabilizing the NATO alliance and so there's a question in my mind of, you know, when does that hit that suburban voter of, like, "that's just too much for me"?

HEATHER: I also want to make the point that it sounds as if you're just saying the absolute opposite of what we heard in basically December of 2016 which is, well, all of these voters were voting against their best interests just because they like Trump, right? I mean, isn't it that they were sort of voting for him?

LIESL: I think people mostly voted for him because they voted against Hillary, by and large, in these suburban districts, if he won them. In most of the ones that are on our battlefield actually is the opposite. They voted for Hillary because they'd personally disliked him. They voted for Republicans down ballot for Congress by pretty large margins because they were - they didn't dislike his policies or the Republican agenda regarding the economy.

ALI: Well I think there's also two kinds of swing districts this cycle. I really put them into two buckets. And one bucket, and the better bucket for Democrats frankly I think, are these suburban districts. There are 25 House districts that voted for Hillary Clinton that are represented by a Republican. They're suburban. They're more diverse. They're more educated than the country at large and higher income as well. And Liesl's right. They're definitely happy with the economic situation right now. They see their stock portfolios going up. They're happy about that. I think what is an outstanding question though, is one: do they give the president credit for that? And number two, how much of Donald Trump's agenda do they really like? Are they OK with the foreign policy stuff? Are they OK with the immigration stuff? Where are they on things like climate change and women's health care and things like that. So I still think some of those voters, even if they're pleased with the economic situation they still could certainly be persuaded to vote for a Democrat down ballot.

ALI: Second bucket of districts are districts that voted for Barack Obama but didn't vote for Hillary or narrowly almost voted for Barack Obama but then really swung for Trump. And those districts are much more white working class districts, heavily concentrated in the Northeast and the upper Midwest and those districts, even though the overall economic numbers are good, they're not happy with the economic situation and I think, oddly, the more they hear people talking about how great the tax cut is, the more they're like, "well where's my piece of that?" And I don't think they're seeing it. They definitely were not happy with the healthcare legislation that the Republicans tried to push through. So, while those voters might be more inclined to vote Republican, kind of, out of a tribal loyalty to Donald Trump or cultural issues, I think they're open to a Democrat on economic issues. So Democrats have to, kind of, thread that needle and try to win enough districts in both buckets to get a majority.

NICIE: Yeah, and this is consistent with some of the work that we've done where, you know, every district has its mixture of persuasion versus turnout that would be needed to flip it. And in these suburban areas, you know, definitely there will have to be some element of persuasion. Conor Lamb had to persuade some people to come over who had maybe voted for the president. But how are you feeling about turnout and, you know, energizing the base?

LIESL: Well, Democrats clearly have an advantage in terms of enthusiasm. And we saw that during the special elections. We saw that during the gubernatorial elections and Republican operatives and others are very keenly aware of this and this is something that is a big focus. You know, I think most places where we are weak in terms of turnout is not necessarily with Trump voters or Trump-supportive voters. It's more with, like, soft Republican voters. A lot of them are women. And so, we do need to focus a lot of our turnout on just your traditional, I don't even know what to call, all these sets of Republican voters anymore, but traditional establishment-ish guess kind of Republican.

NICIE: Maybe the women who went ahead and voted for Doug Jones in Alabama, say.

LIESL: Yeah I mean, there are a lot who who have been sort of soft Republican voters who now, I think, are trying to see themselves more in an independent category, even though they lean R, especially when it comes to the economy, but they're just feeling, you know, the president makes them a bit uneasy. And you know, I could see them staying home.

NICIE: What would be the issue that you think could help get them to the polls and go ahead and pull the lever for a Republican? Or would it be the candidate's qualities?

LIESL: I think it's a candidate. I mean, I think in all of these districts, as Ali I know, candidates' campaigns are what matter most in congressional districts. And obviously there's a lot of national noise that goes on on top. But it really is the quality of the candidate and the quality of their campaign. And you're going to be communicating with voters through your candidate and not through a national brand in any of these districts or as a Republican we definitely wouldn't. And honestly for Democrats I imagine that in a very swing suburban district, it's more about the candidate and their campaign, their issues, their policies for America. The Democrats have many candidates who have said that they are not supporting Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. I think right there is an example of how Democrats also are going to be running their own campaigns and talking to the voters in their own way, what they think is the best fit for their district and how they also feel they're going to a place where their voters are. A lot of times candidates who don't win in suburban districts on both sides - like they don't go meet the voters where they are. And you have to do that to an extent as a way to start a dialogue with them when maybe they don't want to necessarily have a dialogue with you.

ALI: And look, on the Democratic side, Democrats do have an advantage. People are fired up. There's the resistance. All of that's happening. That's going on to varying degrees in every district in the country. It might be really prevalent in one district and in another district there really isn't that effort there going on. So Democrats can't be lazy about their turnout efforts this year. I would say that one advantage the Republicans have as we look at the dynamics of the cycle, is that they know Democrats have a turnout advantage and they're investing in it and they're doing the work they need to do to make sure that they're not defeated because not enough Republicans turned out. It's going to be a big priority for them. So we on the Democratic side have to do the same and not take it for granted.

NICIE: Can we talk just briefly - you guys are crafting messages and you're going to be putting money behind candidates. What is the scale of the investment that you all will be making in this cycle on either side of the aisle compared to, say, the last midterms in 2014?

ALI: On the Democratic side I think you'll see more spending certainly from outside groups in the House. The outside group that I work with, House Majority PAC, only spends on the House but there's a lot of groups, from the League of Conservation Voters to Emily's List, that play on every level. And I think it's fair to say that in the conversations I'm having with folks, they all know the most important game this year is the House. And that's really where we can make our mark. So I think you're going to see more spending by some of those groups in House races. The DCCC's fundraising, from what I can tell as an outsider, is going incredibly well. House Majority PAC fundraising is going incredibly well, so I think they'll be more resources on the Democratic side. With that said, we're still going to be outspent by the other side. I feel confident in that, unfortunately.

LIESL: There will be massive spending on the Republican side. I mean, it will be massive.

NICIE: So Heather and I have a naive, outside the Beltway question for you about the political advertising world. Who wants to be naive? Shall it be me or you?

HEATHER: Uuuhhh, is this my old question, the one that I always ask?

NICIE: Who watches TV?


ALI: That’s not naive. We get asked that by everybody - everybody. So the most sophisticated political investors and strategists all ask this question.

HEATHER: Ok, so I am not that naive.

ALI: No, no. Want me to take the first half of this, Liesl? Ok.

LIESL: Since I don't watch TV? [laughs].

ALI: But I don't watch TV. So this is the thing. Everyone who asks that just like, put yourself in a bubble because we are all in a bubble because we don't watch TV. But most of America still watches TV and I can tell you, I have seen numerous experiments that are actually done in a scientific way with an amazing group called the Analyst Institute. I have seen poll numbers move in a massive way because candidates or outside groups are on television. So the reality of the media landscape right now is that you have to do more, which means you need more money. It would be wonderful if you could say, ”we're going to spend a million dollars in advertising for this House race.” And you know, 20 years ago that was nine hundred thousand dollars on TV and a hundred thousand dollars on mail and radio. And now there's Internet, and you can - now we only have spent four hundred thousand dollars on TV, isn't that great? No. You still have to spend nine hundred thousand dollars on TV. But then just go ahead and add on another three hundred thousand dollars for digital and probably also satellite. You know, because now that's not included. So the unfortunate thing is, is that it's very true that television is less efficient than it ever has before. You're not reaching as many eyeballs, but you still have to do it. And the cost of television has not gone down by a commensurate amount. That's ultimately the problem and a huge reason why the cost of campaigns is exploding.

LIESL: And TV is still the fastest way to move numbers quickly. I mean, there's just no doubt about it. I mean, nobody can argue - that's not the point. I mean, you know, if we put up a bunch of digital tomorrow against a TV advertising buy, you wouldn't see any returns on digital for many, many weeks. You'd see a return on TV in a week or so, depending on how large your buy was. But it just happens quickly. And to Ali's point, we're not watching TV. I don't have time to watch TV, I don't know if you do, Ali. But a lot of people are.

ALI: And look, digital is becoming more and more useful and important but the way I think about digital is that, if you have 100 people in a room and you're advertising on digital to all of them, the number of people in that room that are frequent enough digital users or watchers that you're going to have an impact on might be, like, 7. And so maybe at the end of your month-long digital campaign you've persuaded those 7 people, that's not enough to win an election. You needed to get to that other 93 people and they just don't consume digital enough to get exposed to your advertising enough. So again, digital. You have to do it. And especially I personally think you have to do it on platforms like Hulu and YouTube. And when people are sitting at their computer saying, "I'm going to watch a program now" and they're, you know, getting it on digital, but those, like, you know, little ads that are running in your computer while you're reading your e-mail? They're not having as much of an impact. Digital's growing but it doesn't replace television.

NICIE: It struck me that maybe it be just worth our spending a minute on what you learn about voters from all the statistical studies that you do. And what role education plays in some of the divides that we're seeing in our politics today.

LIESL: There's a lot of interesting stuff being written right now about what happened in 2016. Now there's been some time and breathing room and people have actually been able to go back and look at data. I think that was pretty clear in terms of the 2016 results.

ALI: I think it's unfortunate that there's becoming this educational divide and it's something we've seen in a lot of the research we've done. Some of the traditional cultural issues, whether that's abortion or gay rights. Those are sort of going away a little bit, which is great. You know, I think most voters are more accepting and they're not really kind of those cutting issues that they used to be. Education is becoming much more of a cultural issue now. And you know, people without college degrees are almost I hate to say but, like, anti-college, and I think that's probably not great for the direction of the country, in my opinion.

NICIE: It's interesting to think about, I mean, since education is handled so much at the local level in our country and financed at the local level, yet we know how critical it is, now, not just for our economy, but really for our republic and for our system of government - how this next set of congressional leaders will try to have some kind of impact on that issue, seems make or break.

ALI: Teacher strikes are so interesting too that are happening all over the country. And you know, I look at some of the states that are really cutting teacher salaries back and they're not, frankly, keeping pace with some of the more prosperous parts of the country. And I just wonder, like, don't the voters there want their kids to have an education just as good as the kids in San Francisco or Boston or some of the more affluent Northern Virginia, you know, more affluent communities in other parts of the country? That's the way that you bring your community up.

LIESL: I think we'll see more action at the state level to be honest. And as voters look at issues they think about education more at a state level than they do at a national level. You see that in gubernatorial polling all the time. And I think what we've seen in terms of the teachers strikes - I know there are a lot more Republican governors who are focused on education and teacher salaries than there were, you know, probably even a year ago.

NICIE: You've released a fabulous recap episode from the recent primaries. And we also have our episode recapping the June 5th primaries with Elliott Morris of The Economist. But how about if we do a lightning round and we each pick two districts that we think our listeners should keep an eye on as this cycle progresses and we'll give everybody just a little cheat sheet.

LIESL: Who wants to start?

NICIE: Heather, you go first.

HEATHER: I have two races that I just simply love the candidates and they're both women. Lauren Underwood in Illinois 14th Congressional District and Talley Sergent in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District. Lauren - she's a young African-American woman who won her primary against six white men in a district that is 85 percent white and she won with 57 percent of the vote in a conservative Republican district.

ALI: She's a nurse.

HEATHER: Exactly, yeah. She's a nurse and has a joint master's degree in nursing and public health - or health policy. She did work on the Affordable Care Act. So she is well versed in that and she's a believer. She just thinks we need to fix it and keep it. People there are very concerned about health care and she's just a really dynamic candidate. I think she is a winner. And then Talley Sergent in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District. She's a sixth generation West Virginian and she worked for Senator Jay Rockefeller. She worked for the State Department, then Coca-Cola, and she came back to run knowing firsthand the poignancy of the issues in West Virginia. Her family has suffered, as so many have, with the opioid epidemic there and she has this great line where she says, "West Virginians know how to rise from the ashes and go forward." And she's just, you know, very emotional about it and rooted in the district and she is, you know - she's smart and she knows how to run there. And I think she would know how to represent, too.

NICIE: Tough climb there, very Republican district.

HEATHER: Yes. Alex Mooney is the incumbent and it's obviously a very Republican district. I think it is rated R+17. So my poor Talley. [laughs]

NICIE: And yet he was, until 2011, the chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

LIESL: That’s right. Right?

ALI: Maryland Mooney, I think? You know what I do love about that, that there is this great dynamic candidate in that district that is very tough, is that, you know, the Democratic Party cannot be absent from places like that in the country and you need to have a Democrat running and hopefully representing, if not in Congress, then at the state and local level, those parts of the district so that when voters say, "what do I think of when I think of the Democrat?" They think of Talley.

HEATHER: Sergent, yeah.

ALI: And not just Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. So I think, you know, it's fabulous that we are inspiring people to run even in uphill districts like that one.

HEATHER: And there's also this whole populist thing happening in West Virginia with the teachers' strike. So I have my fingers crossed for Talley.

NICIE: Ok, excellent. Liesl?

LIESL: Well, two I'm watching are ones that I think will tell us a lot about where we're headed on election night in terms of Republicans keeping the majority or Republicans losing the majority. And they're both on the East Coast, which is why I picked them and I'll be watching them closely. One is Pennsylvania-1. This is suburban Philly, quintessential swing district that encompasses mostly Bucks County with Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick. I would say a very solutions-oriented, pragmatic member of Congress, in fact he was rated by the Lugar Center as a third most bipartisan member of Congress. Really fits his district. His brother was a congressman. Before him, the Fitzpatricks I'll say are very rooted in Bucks County and the Democrats in my opinion did not get the candidate that they wanted here. Instead they got Scott Wallace who's, I would say, is a very progressive bulldog-ish type candidate that isn't quite what this district is. And so I'm watching that closely because if Brian Fitzpatrick can survive in what is going to be, as Ali mentioned a few minutes ago, I mean, I think this race could be up to 20 million dollars. It's going to be unbelievable, the amount of spend here between the candidates, and Scott Wallace is a self-funder so who knows how much money he is going to contribute to his efforts. But also the outside groups, I mean, there's like 7 million already reserved in Philadelphia, you know, mostly, probably for this race. Potentially a few others too. But this is a real bellwether. If an incumbent who has done the right thing for his district, if he's doing well, it will show that other incumbents who sit in his same, similar position can win in a tough district. Hillary won this district only by one point but still very much a swing district.

LIESL: The other I'm looking at right now is not necessarily in the tossup column but I think is one to watch, because it will also show us if we're going to have, what I think could point to a bad night, which is Virginia-7, Congressman Dave Brat. Richmond Democrats have a strong female candidate here. So we're seeing that in other districts similar to this across the country. This was a district the president won but some parts of the district - Ed Gillespie, who ran for governor, did not perform as well as other Republicans had in the past. This is one I'm watching that would point to, maybe not a blue wave, but at least a bad night for us.


ALI: Well, I picked two districts, one from each of the two buckets that I referenced earlier. So the first district is from that suburban district bucket and that's Congressman Erik Paulsen in Minnesota-3. This is a suburban Twin Cities district. And there are a lot of strong Republican incumbents who have represented districts that are trending blue that have been really difficult to dislodge in recent years. Democrats I think are lucky this cycle because a good number of them are retiring. But we have a lot that are running for re-election such as Mr. Paulsen. We have a candidate there, a guy named Dean Phillips. And what makes this district so interesting to me is that we polled here a bunch of times in the 2016 cycle. We never really saw Erik Paulsen below 50. He looked strong. People knew who he was. They liked him. And there have been a few polls that have been released publicly that have already shown him down two or three points to his Democratic challenger here. So this will be one I'll be watching to see. Can we knock off some of these perpetually popular Republican incumbents in Democratic districts?

ALI: The 2nd District I picked is in Iowa, which is a district from the category that Trump won, Iowa-1. This district swung pretty heavily away from us at the presidential level. Obama got 56 percent of the vote here in 2012 and Hillary only got 45 percent of the vote. So a big swing. We have a Democratic candidate here, Abby Finkenauer, who would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She's been in the legislature. She comes from a union family. This is a very blue collar union district. She's running against Rod Blum, who is facing some ethical issues. And I think is an overall pretty weak Republican incumbent. So I feel real optimistic about this district for November.

NICIE: Well, I picked Michigan-11, which is an open seat. So I think that's the only open seat we're talking about right now that's being vacated by Representative Dave Trott, who is a self-funding millionaire. He actually was still in the race when we visited, but subsequently decided to pull out. And it's still a crowded primary situation. We don't know exactly how it's going to shake out, but I feel like it's a very suburban, pretty affluent with some working class components west of Detroit. And I feel like it kind of captures that Rust Belt feeling even though it's not as depressed as some of the other areas that we might talk about. The question of whether Trump's economic and the Republican Party's economic policies are going in the right direction for the country I think will be very much front and center in that district. Haley Stevens may be the likely Democratic nominee there. She has a background working on the auto rescue. So I kind of feel like that District 2 is a little bit of a referendum on, you know, can government be a force for bringing us forward or do we want to stay safe with like a low government, anti-government kind of Republican feeling, so I'm interested in that one. It also may be a female-to-female matchup, in which case you would kind of take that “Year of the Woman" aspect out of it, so it'll be kind of interesting to watch from that standpoint. My other race is California 25. We just had the primary results there. I just think it's a super interesting district in California because it's that northern edge of L.A. County. Lot of law enforcement have typically made their homes there, affordable suburbs with some more rural pieces to it that are actually heavily Hispanic. So it'll be I think a test of Katie Hill, who's a - I think the Democrats nominated the most moderate, best-fit candidate but she still has work to do. And I noted in the primary that Steve Knight, the incumbent, got over 50 percent of the vote total. So that shows that this is by no means a lay up. And I think it will be to some degree a test of this kind of blue wave activism because a lot of people who live in the L.A. area will be out there knocking doors and canvassing. And I think that will be a good test of whether that blue wave enthusiasm can really push some of these candidates over the line.

NICIE: Well that was fun.

ALI: Those were good choices.

NICIE: Maybe we'll come back and do that again a couple of months. That would be really fun. Well we're probably coming close to the end of our time here and we're super grateful. I think the only other thing we were going to just using closing was an idea that we had starting our podcast, the MidPod, of sending a series of love letters to America and helping our listeners learn more about places in the country that they don't necessarily know very well. So our final question is, if you could visit any congressional district in the country on vacation, where would you want to go and why?

HEATHER: Everyone's looking at me to go first again. All right. Well I am sticking to West Virginia because I just loved it when we visited that state. But I'm going to switch districts. And I would visit West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District because I kind of love Richard Ojeda. He started the whole -.

ALI: You’re going to see him on your vacation?

HEATHER: Well that's what you asked. Oh yeah. Well, I'm also fascinated with the southern coalfields and I think, you know, to see that whole area, which is where so much of the labor issues started here in this country. So yeah, but I wouldn't mind seeing him on my vacation.

ALI: All right, well, I'll go next. I love the ocean so I've picked two coastal districts but on opposite sides. One is California-49, where we just had a big primary there. That's the northern part of San Diego which includes wonderful places like Del Mar and I would love to go there on vacation. We try to go there every other year, actually, or somewhere near there. And then my other district is a completely non-competitive district. I had to look up the district number. It's Georgia-1. I would go to Savannah. One of my favorite cities in the country. It's so beautiful. It's so relaxing. If I were a writer I would definitely just move to Savannah and write there and just be in Savannah.

NICIE: My husband and I went to Cumberland Island for our honeymoon. Highly recommend.

ALI: That's wonderful.

LIESL: Well Ali and I both picked California-49 which is interesting. [laughs].

ALI: We’ll go there together.

NICIE: It's because you're such good friends.

LIESL: And I also picked Florida-26. I loved the Florida Keys. I love Key West, like a real vacation. Actually just sitting on the beach and eating good food.

NICIE: Liesl almost changed my mind over lunch when I found out that Tangier Island is in Virginia-2, the Scott Taylor district, which is pretty competitive this cycle because Liesl's husband actually has an oyster farm in that area, right?

LIESL: Correct.

NICIE: Yeah, so I'm very tempted but I'm gonna stick with my original plan, which is California's 4th Congressional District. I have never been to Yosemite. And Jess Morse, who's running there in a tough race and a pretty Republican area, but a great candidate, she gave me a whole bunch of hiking tips in our Swinglandia episode.

HEATHER: I want to backtrack a little bit and say I would go to Tangier Island, too.  [laughs].

HEATHER: Because that conversation was just so good. And the oysters, and the history of the area, and the issues.

LIESL: Well, we would highly recommend it and we would love to show you guys around out there.

HEATHER: Field trip.

NICIE: Bipartisan field trip. Country over party. All right. Well, Ali and Liesl, we can't thank you enough for your time today. We really appreciate all the work that you do on behalf of our democracy and the podcast is a tremendous resource. Thank you for that.

ALI: Thanks for having us and thank you guys for traveling all over and bringing some of these candidates to the rest of the country. It's - I mean, House candidates are amazing people. They really are. And they don't get enough - they get no national notice. So, it's wonderful you guys are telling their stories to people.

LIESL: Great to be on. Thank you guys.

HEATHER: Thank you.

NICIE: Our thanks to Ali and Liesl for spending time with us. We hope to have another conversation between now and Election Day. And by all means subscribe to House Talk as well as the MidPod wherever you get your podcasts.

HEATHER: It's a really good way - if you listen to these two podcasts, you’re going to know everything you need to know about the midterms.

NICIE: Exactly. They'll give you the D.C. expert view on all the horse race dynamics and we're going to bring you lots of heart from the hustings.

HEATHER: Yeah. They're the girls in the shop and we're on the road.

NICIE: Exactly. So that's it for this week. Next week we profile the race in Illinois' 14th Congressional District. It's a dynamic contest in the Chicago suburbs with a great Democratic candidate, Lauren Underwood. We're excited for you to meet her. And while we were there we learned quite a bit about some amazing history in Illinois. And Heather, tell us about what you're working on.

HEATHER: Yeah, so we began to realize that the Underground Railroad was really active in Illinois' 14th Congressional District along with the rest of Illinois. Freedom seekers were crossing for leaving Missouri and trying to go north. So we will have a whole episode on the Underground Railroad and why it's really important to think about, today. It's one of our new hashtags on the MidPod. #KnowYourHistory.

NICIE: Yeah.

HEATHER: Because we're livin' it.

NICIE: Exactly. There's a lot to learn from the struggles we've been through in the past in this country. So that's it for this week. Please visit us online. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and consider going over to patreon.com/themidpod and becoming a patron of the show. We are building out more and more exclusive content and if you become a patron we will send you swag. Thanks for listening. See you soon.


Eunice Panetta