December 8, 2023

PBS NewsHour host Geoff Bennett welcomed back the show’s political team, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of National Public Radio, for a spicy Monday evening rehash of the previous week’s fiery political happenings, through a tax-funded, Democratic prism.

After a clip from Sen. Lindsey Graham warning Republicans to adopt “reasonable positions” on abortion to win elections, Bennett asked Walter: “So do Republicans have reason to be concerned about a potential abortion-ban backlash?” The guests’ answer: most definitely — and the GOP has a problem with guns too.

Keith relayed the view from a left-wing college campus, the University of Wisconsin, where abortion brought students out to vote: “It is a mobilizing issue for them.”

The segment moved on to the imbroglio in the Tennessee legislature, where two black liberal legislators were expelled from the state legislature for invading the statehouse floor with bullhorns, ranting in favor of gun control, in the aftermath of the shooting by a trans-man (i.e., a biological woman) at a Christian school.

Host Bennett used PBS’s favorite euphemism for gun control, “gun safety,” while NPR’s Keith fiercely defended the left-wing legislative disruptors and emphasized race, while wondering why the Biden administration didn’t do so initially as well.

PBS NewsHour


7:41 p.m. (ET)

Geoff Bennett: And, Amy, let’s start with the political impact of abortion restrictions, because Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, he was on one of the Sunday shows yesterday, and he was asked whether the GOP’s position abortion is costing the Republican Party after a string of electoral defeats.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC): We can win this issue at the ballot box if we show up with reasonable positions. If we have our head in the sand, we’re going to lose.

Geoff Bennett: So do Republicans have reason to be concerned about a potential abortion ban backlash?

Amy Walter: Yes, that’s a very good question. And I reached out to a Republican strategist who does a lot of work in swing states asking the same sort of question: What do you think this means? And the reply from this person was a big sigh, because, as we learned from 2022, the issue wasn’t so much about abortion, about the medical procedure. One Democrat said to me, abortion wasn’t the issue as much as Dobbs was the issue. In other words, it was the overturning of a right that people thought that was enshrined, right, something that had been around for 50 years. And even Republicans acknowledge that this is what really turned off voters, the sense that the rug can be pulled out from under them at any moment by unelected judges. And so the FDA decision, which has been 20 years — it’s been in effect for 20 years — getting basically pulled out from under women because of the decision of one judge fits into that same narrative. And so when you do talk to Republicans, they — Republican strategists, again, who have to do this work in swing states, they acknowledge this is a problem. But their challenge and the reason for the big sigh was that the legislators and the judges who are doing a lot of this work, well, they don’t — they’re not in swing states, and they’re not accountable to the kinds of voters that determine who wins and loses in these battleground areas.

Geoff Bennett: Well, on that point, Tam, you were just in Wisconsin, and we saw how abortion access, reproductive rights, it was a decisive issue in that key Supreme Court — Wisconsin with Supreme Court election, where the liberal won. You were talking to people. What did you hear?

Tamara Keith: Right. And, admittedly, I was at U.W. Wisconsin, so — or U.W. Madison, so this is a liberal campus where young people were voting, but I was there. They were early voting. They were lining up to early vote. And as I was talking to people coming away from voting, what these young people said, and it wasn’t just the girls, it was the young men as well, said that the reason they were driven there to vote — I asked, what brought you out to vote? They said, abortion, the issue of abortion. It is a mobilizing issue for them. And there in Wisconsin, it was a particularly live issue, because, like many states around the country, there was a trigger law. Ad so when Dobbs happened, then a state law that dated back to 1849 banning abortion was triggered.

And so this — something was taken away, as Amy says, and that is extremely motivating for voters, and not just liberal voters. And so I think that what you saw there, what you saw in the midterms, what you see from Democrats in swing areas saying, no, we are going to run on this, this is an issue.

And you saw someone like Nancy Mace, who is a Republican from South Carolina, a congresswoman, saying, well, maybe the — maybe the federal government, the FDA should ignore this ruling in Texas. She is responding to her voters, which are swing district voters, who overwhelmingly support some abortion access.

Geoff Bennett: And, for decades, I mean, Republicans have talked about abortion because it was a rallying cry, a way for them to identify with a culturally conservative base. Now that it’s motivating voters against the GOP, can Republicans change the subject, as some of them want to do?

Amy Walter: Well, that’s what many of them tried to do in 2022, which was to say the economy is the most important issue. And so, even for voters who care about abortion, it’s secondary, because inflation is their top issue. What we found in the election was, yes, the economy was a very important issue, but abortion was either right behind it, or, in some cases, which we found in post-election polling, that for those voters who were feeling not so great about Biden, not so great about the economy, they said they somewhat disapproved of it, they picked abortion as their top issue. So you can both be upset about the economy and upset about abortion. The one thing I will point out, though, is that this issue did not cut one way in every single state. In a state like Georgia, where the governor passed a six-week ban, signed a six-week ban, he succeeded in winning election, which is Senator Graham’s point here. He won in part because he was talking about other things. He didn’t come across as unreasonable to voters. And I think another reason why he might not have come across as unreasonable to many swing voters is, he also did something else, which is he did not get endorsed by Donald Trump. And, in fact, he defeated Donald Trump’s handpicked primary opponent. So, being — in some ways, it wasn’t just that they were anti-abortion and didn’t have exceptions. It’s also that many of them had been endorsed by Donald Trump. And those two together, I think, were really problematic for swing voters.

Geoff Bennett: It’s interesting. In the time that remains, let’s talk about what’s happening in Tennessee, because Tennessee Representative Justin Jones, he has been reinstated by a unanimous vote by the Metro Nashville Council. Justin Pearson could be reinstated as early as tomorrow. He represents Memphis. Tam, the White House has really aligned itself with this story, because there’s so many themes and issues, advocating for gun safety, preserving democratic norms, small-D democratic norms. There was also, of course, a racial element to this, in the two Democrats who were ousted happened to be African American, and the one who was not expelled was a white woman. Take us behind the White House strategy to go all in on Tennessee.

Tamara Keith: It’s also a guns issue. And that is very important to them. This White House is leaning in a lot on the matter of guns. There was just another mass shooting today. And what they saw in Tennessee was a lack of due process for lawmakers who were trying to just get gun control measures a hearing, just trying to get some voice put to what the protesters were shouting from the rafters. And so the White House doesn’t really see a downside in leaning in on this. Interestingly, the president’s statement didn’t even mention the racial element, though it became quite apparent as the day went on and as the night went on, that there was also this racial element, which is not something that the White House necessarily would shy away from.

Geoff Bennett: Amy, will gun safety issues become a decisive factor in elections, the way abortion has been?

Amy Walter: I mean, it’s interesting. The vice president went to kind of see, the White House talking about this issue. This isn’t really aimed at just Tennessee. This is aimed at the kinds of voters…

Geoff Bennett: No, it’s a national issue, yes.

Tamara Keith: Yes.

Amy Walter: It’s a national issue aimed at the kinds of voters that Republicans have been bleeding in the era of Trump, those suburban voters in and around fast-growing cities like Nashville or Atlanta, et cetera, except Phoenix. So I think, with the combination of younger voters, suburban voters, those voters that Republicans are hoping to get back, this is just one more issue that makes it harder for them to bring them back into the — into the fold.