This is an audio transcript of the FT News Briefing podcast episode: ‘FTNB Special: your crash course to the US midterm elections

Marc Filippino
Hi there from the Financial Times. Today is Saturday, November 5th, and this is a special episode of the FT News Briefing.

Unidentified
Please . . . Please . . . Please . . . Vote! Vote!

Marc Filippino
The US midterm elections are just a few days away and over the past few weeks we’ve been bringing you stories about some of the key issues on voters’ minds, from inflation to election denialism. So today we brought all these stories together for a special FT News Briefing episode. Think of it as your crash course for the election. We’re going to start in the Midwest state of Michigan to find out how abortion is influencing voters. This year, the US Supreme Court overturned a 50-year-old ruling that protected the right to this medical procedure. And Michigan is one of a handful of states where people will actually get to vote on the issue because their ballots will have a state proposal about abortion. Now, given that Michigan is almost perfectly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the outcome is really a toss-up. Democrats are hoping for more voters like Anna Target here.

Anna Target
But I’m kind of leaning Democrat because I feel like I have to vote that way to get, you know, my own reproductive rights. And to some other issues, I feel like I am more in the middle, but this time it takes a priority for me.

Marc Filippino
The 21-year-old student was speaking to the FT’s James Politi. James was recently in Michigan, and he joins me now. Hey, James.

James Politi
Hi, Marc.

Marc Filippino
So, James, you visited Lansing. That’s Michigan’s capital, and it’s right by Michigan State, which is a huge university. Why did you decide to visit this area in particular?

James Politi
So Michigan is kind of the cauldron of the abortion debate in the midterm elections, and that’s because it’s a classic battleground state. There are a number of pivotal House races and then there’s actually a kind of referendum within the state to enshrine abortion protections into the state constitution.

Marc Filippino
Wow, so a lot on the line for Michigan when it comes to abortion. How are Democrats campaigning on this issue?

James Politi
So I spoke to a state lawmaker named Sarah Anthony. We met at a coffee shop called Strange Matter, and it’s in a progressive neighbourhood of Lansing. And Sarah Anthony, who’s African-American, said that for a long time, progressive politicians, especially in tight races, couldn’t talk openly about abortion. They had to tiptoe around the issue just because it was so sensitive.

Sarah Anthony
I think for everyone running for office that it’s no longer acceptable to toe the line, to be vague.

James Politi
She described a meeting she had with voters in a rural majority white community that’s in the district she’s hoping to represent as state senator.

Sarah Anthony
 . . . In which we expected, you know, 10, 15 people to show up to listen to my stump speech, became a 50- to 60-person event in a backyard. And literally every single person in individual conversations looked at me and said, Where are you on abortion? But as soon as I said, I am pro-choice and unapologetic about it, they said, ‘Sign me up’.

Marc Filippino
James, can you tell us a little bit more about the state ballot measure that Michiganders are voting on when it comes to abortion?

James Politi
So advocates petitioned and got it on the ballot after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, which provides the constitutional right to abortion in the United States. If the measure is actually rejected, Michigan would revert back to a 1931 law that’s still on the books but hasn’t been enforced for half a century. That would ban all abortion with virtually no exception.

Elissa Slotkin
So this state is really ban versus Roe. What I have found is that women especially just are not OK with a total ban. It just doesn’t work with reality.

James Politi
That’s Elissa Slotkin. She’s the Democrat who represents the area in the US house of Representatives. I met her at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, which is on the south side of Lansing.

[SOUNDS OF PEOPLE WORSHIPPING IN A CHURCH]

James Politi
It’s a predominantly African-American church. African-Americans are, you know, part of this loyal Democratic base. But Slotkin says that due to abortion, in part, there are two other groups of people that may also swing her way.

Elissa Slotkin
Are Michigan State students signing up to vote often for the first time because of this issue, because they know it’s going to be on the ballot now? And then secondly, Republican women, particularly in the rural counties around Lansing who identify as Republican, identify as pro-life, who are the ones who have no other option if they get pregnant, who can never sneak away for five days, and who live in a, in an area where their medical care may not be what they need if they start to have a terrible miscarriage or haemorrhage.

Marc Filippino
So, James, did you talk to any Republicans about how they feel about the abortion issue?

James Politi
I contacted Tom Barrett’s campaign. He’s a Elissa Slotkin’s opponent, Republican opponent. And they declined to talk to me, as did Tudor Dixon campaign. She’s the Republican candidate for governor in the state. But Tom Barrett did change the wording on his website about abortion, and he was asked about it during a debate against Slotkin on local TV.

Tom Barrett
Michigan voters are going to have their, their chance to voice their opinion on this.

Unidentified man during a TV debate
Right. Right.

Tom Barrett
I am someone who’s pro-life, and that’s a deeply held, sincere position that I have. It is one that is, you know, based on a firm moral recognition that life is important and life is important to defend.

James Politi
I spoke to some Republican strategists and political experts in the state who said that they believe that abortion was an important factor in the race, but that in the end, economic issues would be, still be the kind of predominant factor. They are laser-focusing on inflation and the economy, and you can hear that in this TV ad from Tom Barrett.

Tom Barrett advertisement
In Joe Biden’s America, families like mine are paying more for groceries.

Unidentified child in Tom Barrett advertisement
Way more.

Marc Filippino
And James, Republicans could be right here. There, there was a poll conducted earlier this month by the non-partisan Marist Institute for Public Opinion, and it shows that the number one issue for American voters is, is actually inflation. Abortion came in second place. James, thanks so much for your time.

James Politi
Thank you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Marc Filippino
We’re a few weeks away from the US midterm elections. And one thing to know about this election is that it’s kind of a referendum on the incumbent. That’s President Joe Biden and the Democrats who hold a slim majority in the House and Senate. So Republicans could take control of Congress if they win enough seats. There’s one huge issue working in the Republicans’ favour — inflation. Polls show it’s the top issue for voters. Today in our series, The FT’s Lauren Fedor travels to Virginia. It’s a state where voters have ping-ponged between the two parties over the past few years. She looks at how inflation will play out in a nail-biter of a congressional race.

Lauren Fedor
(Muffled sound of people talking) We’re in a parking lot in Prince William County, Virginia. It’s a leafy, affluent suburban area, about an hour’s drive south of Washington, DC. It’s a crisp autumn day. The leaves are changing colour. People have come to this government building to cast ballots early before election day on November 8. Volunteers are handing out flyers for political candidates outside. There’s a blue tent for Democrats and next to it, a red one for Republicans. That’s where we meet 88-year-old Terry Barrett wearing a bright red T-shirt. She says the most important issue for her right now is inflation.

Terry Barrett
My expenses have just gone up and up. Every month I need to take a little bit more out of savings because every month it costs me more.

Lauren Fedor
She’s handing out leaflets in support of Yesli Vega, the local Republican candidate for the House of Representatives. Vega’s a former police officer, and her campaign has focused on crime and law and order. She also has a lot of TV ads about inflation.

Yesli Vega advertisement
As a working parent, I know the struggles families face. Groceries, gas, everything costs more yet politicians in Congress ignore the problem. I’m Yesli Vega, and I approve this message because in Congress, I’ll work for a future we can all afford.

Lauren Fedor
Vega tells me why her campaign is focusing so much on the cost of living.

Yesli Vega
Every meet and greet that I have, every community event that we go to, that is the number one concern of folks. And the reality is, is that we’re all feeling the squeeze, whether it be at the grocery store, at the gas pump.

Lauren Fedor
Vega’s doing the same thing as other Republican candidates across the country. She’s blaming high inflation on the Democrats and the recent spending bills. Familiar-sounding names and also her opponent in this race, Abigail Spanberger.

Yesli Vega
And this is a direct result of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Abigail Spanberger’s failed policies we’ve seen over the last couple of years. You know, wasteful spending coming out of Washington are continuing to drive up inflation through the roof.

Lauren Fedor
Congress has passed trillions of dollars worth of spending bills in recent years. But most economists say that federal spending alone isn’t necessarily to blame for rising inflation. Other factors like the pandemic, supply chain disruptions and, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine have all contributed to higher consumer costs. But Republicans across the country are keeping their message simple. Costs are up and Democrats are to blame. That puts the Democrats in a tough spot. They have to defend their record and try to give a more nuanced explanation of inflation.

Tucker Martin
These are real headwinds. So if you’re a Democratic incumbent, you’re running in a historically bad time.

Lauren Fedor
Tucker Martin is a longtime Republican political consultant in Virginia.

Tucker Martin
I think Abigail Spanberger is doing the best she can in the face of that. But one of the cruel realities of politics is that environment matters, in my opinion, more than anything else. And environment is the thing you cannot control.

Lauren Fedor
Vega’s opponent, Spanberger, is a former CIA officer who was elected to Congress for the first time back in 2018. She was narrowly re-elected in 2020. (People speaking in the background) To hear Spanberger’s message, we follow her here to a sprawling development of new homes, some of which are still under construction.

Abigail Spanberger
I want to thank you so much for welcoming me into the community. (People talking in background)

Lauren Fedor
The congresswoman is talking to local business owners about the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s the $700bn spending bill that Joe Biden recently signed into law. This is the kind of legislation Democrats are campaigning on to say they’re taking inflation seriously. Economists say that despite its name, the Democrat-led bill won’t reduce inflation in the short term. But Spanberger emphasises how it will cut specific costs for people like their healthcare.

Abigail Spanberger
The legislation also caps and again, this is speaking to seniors, caps out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 a year and caps insulin prices.

Lauren Fedor
Later, she tells me that people understand inflation is complicated and that federal spending alone is not to blame.

Abigail Spanberger
Most people do live in the reality of understanding that there’s not some little button that like a Democrat could push or, more importantly, that if there was a Republican that they would be able to push. Right? These problems weren’t created in their day, and they can’t be solved in a day. And most people, unless it’s sort of, you know, hanging on to a hyperpartisan talking point, understand that these questions are complicated and challenging. And this is where I say, like I have been working on these issues. Right?

Lauren Fedor
Back at the parking lot where people are still casting their ballots, Democratic party volunteer Tracy Blake is holding his three-year-old daughter. He says he doesn’t blame Democrats and Congress for higher prices, and he doesn’t think Republicans will make things better.

Tracy Blake
Republican gets back in office a minute. They’re like supposed to be fiscally conservative, but then they spend like $1tn on whatever, you know, tax cuts or whatever military. So I don’t really pay attention to that argument.

Lauren Fedor
Another voter here is 18-year-old Alison Portillo. She’s just old enough to vote and is casting a ballot for the first time. She tells me the economy was not front of mind when she voted for Spanberger.

Lauren Fedor
What’s the most important issue would you say to you going into the election?

Alison Portillo
Women’s rights. Definitely, women’s rights. All women’s rights.

Lauren Fedor
When the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade this summer, Democrats thought that fired up voters like Portillo could give them the edge. But the latest polls suggest it might not be enough. Here’s Tucker Martin, the Republican political consultant.

Tucker Martin
If the hope on the Democratic side was that abortion would emerge in the summer and stay front of mind and help change this environment, it just doesn’t look like that’s occurred. It looks like at the end of the day, to say the obvious comment everybody would make during an interview on this topic is — it’s the economy, stupid. But, but it probably is.

Lauren Fedor
And that’s the message I’m hearing when I talk to people not just in Virginia, but across the country. Democrats had hoped that other issues like healthcare, like abortion rights, would be enough to fire up their base and get them over the finish line in November. But now, with the economic situation not getting any better and opinion polls showing the economy is still the top issue for most voters, Democrats are increasingly worried that Republicans will have the edge heading into polling day.

Marc Filippino
That was the FT’s deputy Washington bureau chief, Lauren Fedor.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Marc Filippino
In just two weeks, US voters will head to the polls for midterm elections. Democrats hold a thin majorities in both houses of Congress. Republicans are working hard to regain control. One way Republicans think they can do that is by appealing to Hispanic voters. Hispanics are the second largest and the fastest-growing demographic in the US. For the next story in our midterm series, we go to Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s a city of about 120,000 people west of Philadelphia that was once dominated by German immigrants. Now, it’s more than 50 per cent Hispanic. The FT’s Sonja Hutson went to Allentown to see what Republicans are doing to win over Hispanic voters. She joins me now. Hey, Sonja.

Sonja Hutson
Hey, Marc.

Marc Filippino
OK. So of all the places you could have gone, why did you choose Allentown?

Sonja Hutson
So I went to Allentown because the Republican National Committee set up a Hispanic community centre there earlier this year. And it’s one of about 20 of these Hispanic community centres that they’ve set up around the country, largely in Democratic areas, places where there are really tight congressional or Senate races like there are in Allentown and in Pennsylvania.

Marc Filippino
So Sonja, when you went to Allentown, you went to an event at the Hispanic Community Centre. What did you see there?

Sonja Hutson
So you walk in. It’s a fairly small room. There are maybe two to three dozen people there, but they did fill up the room. There were campaign signs on the walls in both English and Spanish for local Republican candidates. And there were some heavy hitting Republicans that came to Allentown for this event. One of them was the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. Her name is Ronna McDaniel. Here she is speaking at that event.

Ronna McDaniel

Gracias por la invitación. Es un placer estar aquí (McDaniel laughs and people cheering). I worked on that a little bit.

Marc Filippino
So what was her message? What’s the pitch Republicans are making to Hispanics for them to vote Republican?

Sonja Hutson
So they were definitely trying to appeal to the immigrant identity. And in fact, the other big name at this event was Mehmet Oz.

Mehmet Oz
My father was an immigrant to this country. How many of you, your parents came over? And how many came over yourselves?

Marc Filippino
What? Dr Oz, the celebrity TV doctor?

Sonja Hutson
Yes, the celebrity TV doctor, Dr Oz. He is now the Republican candidate for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania. So, Marc, the fact that Republicans sent these two really heavy hitters to this pretty small city to speak to a couple dozen local people really indicates what a big deal these centres are and how seriously Republicans want the Hispanic vote.

Marc Filippino
Yeah, it really does. So what is the strategy, though? Is it to win over voters in this election or is it more long term?

Sonja Hutson
So the idea is to open these centres well before the election and then keep them open permanently and be a permanent fixture or kind of, of the community. And I spoke to a political-science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. His name is Christopher Borick.

Christopher Borick
You don’t want to be seen as just, you know, dropping in or opportunistic and coming here in election time and then pulling out, especially, you know, if you’re a Republican party in the community that you had more limited success in. So establishing, you know, a presence that can be there and part of the, the broader fabric of a community, this seems to be the type of investment that makes sense.

Marc Filippino
OK. So they’re in it for the long haul. What do Democrats say about this GOP Republican community centre?

Sonja Hutson
So I met up with Allentown’s mayor, Matt Tuerk. He’s a Democrat, and he’s also the city’s first Hispanic mayor. His grandmother came to the US from Cuba, like a lot of Allentown’s Hispanic residents. And we met up at a Dominican restaurant in a heavily Spanish-speaking neighbourhood in the city.

[A man and woman speaking in Spanish]

Sonja Hutson
And he brushed off the Republican efforts in Allentown.

Matt Tuerk
I think there’s a little bit of (chuckles) . . . There’s a little ham-handedness in opening up a community centre. Did you get to visit it?

Sonja Hutson
Yeah, I was just there earlier today.

Matt Tuerk
Yeah, it’s, it’s barely an office, right? And it’s, it’s not here in the census tract that’s 80 per cent Latino. It’s on Union Boulevard, which is kind of a commercial strip.

Sonja Hutson
He told me that he thinks Democrats’ message resonates with Hispanic voters better than the Republican one does. And, you know, he may be right. A survey from the highly respected Pew Research Centre found that most Latino voters say the Democratic party cares about them and works hard to earn their vote.

Marc Filippino
Right. And nationally, it does look like Democrats are reaching out to Hispanics in a, in a pretty big way, especially after they were burned in the 2020 elections when a surprisingly large number of Hispanics voted Republican.

Sonja Hutson
Yeah, definitely. I spoke to a Democratic strategist about this. His name is Chuck Rocha, and he told me that 2020 was a wake-up call for parts of the Democratic party.

Marc Filippino
So you’ve seen the Senate campaigns, the Senate campaigns’ super Pacs and even the DNC who have been out doing Spanish language and Latino advertising, like putting money where your mouth is, as early as March of this year, which is to me incredibly satisfying as one of the folks saying, you must start early. You must treat this group as a persuadable universe of people.

Sonja Hutson
And Marc, you know, numbers back that up. Democrats are outspending Republicans 3 to 1 in Spanish language advertising, and that’s according to a reporting by Politico.

Marc Filippino
Wow. So is there any evidence that the Republican efforts here in Allentown are working?

Sonja Hutson
So there’s not much of an expectation that this community centre or even knocking on doors to talk to voters one on one will sway a huge number of Hispanic people to vote Republican in this election. But Christopher Borick, he’s the political science professor in Allentown, he told me that even a little progress with Hispanic voters could make a big difference in tight races like the ones here.

Christopher Borick
And if you could gain a few per cent among groups like the Latino and Hispanic community, which has grown in this district like it has everywhere else in the United States, you can have big-time pay-off.

Sonja Hutson
So I guess we’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

Marc Filippino
Sonja Hutson is a producer for the FT News Briefing and guest host when I’m out. Thanks, Sonja.

Sonja Hutson
Thanks, Marc.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Marc Filippino
Next week, Americans go to the polls for the midterm elections. It may not be an exaggeration to say the very foundation of America’s democracy is at stake. This all started back when then-President Donald Trump contested the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. He said that the election was stolen, and Joe Biden didn’t actually win. Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in January 2021 in protest. Today, a majority of Republicans still believe that the election was stolen. And dozens of Republican candidates in these midterm elections are using that to fuel their campaign rhetoric. In our midterm election series today, we’re going to look at election denialism, as it’s called, and we’re focusing on Arizona, because in that state, there are three Republicans running for key offices that oversee elections. All these candidates are election deniers, and they all have a good shot of winning their races. The FT’s Caitlin Gilbert has been reporting on this, and she joins me now. Hi, Caitlin.

Caitlin Gilbert
Hi, Marc.

Marc Filippino
So, Caitlin, why is Arizona known as ground zero for election denial candidates?

Caitlin Gilbert
Yeah. So in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, most of the kind of famous or most viral conspiracies we saw take off started in Arizona. Part of that was due to the margin Joe Biden ended up winning by was very, very close. Obviously, this is a product of how people are getting election results on the night of November 4th and then leading in the days following as that race was still not yet called. So I think partly because of the way in which that election shook out and then sort of circulated out around the country.

Marc Filippino
Right. I see that connection. So we should actually mention that election denialism has been around for a while. It didn’t actually start with Trump, although it was definitely heightened under his presidency.

Caitlin Gilbert
So I would say, like the concept of election denial, denialism is probably as old as, I don’t know, elections themselves. You can probably find people throughout US elections contesting the results in some form or another. But the closest kind of event to what we saw in 2020 was probably the 2000 election during the Bush versus Gore presidential election. The vote sort of came down to a very, very close race in Florida, getting down to the hundreds of ballots. And you had a group of Republican operatives, staffers, literally protest, the local election officials doing a hand recount of the results.

Marc Filippino
So now, jumping back to now, we have candidates across the country at multiple levels saying the 2020 election was not legitimate, the election process is flawed or rigged. Are these efforts organised?

Caitlin Gilbert
Oh, yes. Part of this is very much Trump-backed. There is a specific, what he calls the America First secretary of state Coalitions. But the Republican party is also obviously heavily invested in their candidates. This was a huge kind of like contrast in the primaries where you saw Trump endorse folks who mirrored him in saying the election was stolen in 2020, beating out candidates who were less likely to say that. It’s pretty clear that the Republican party has done the former and gotten fully behind all their candidates, regardless of their stances on the 2020 election in particular.

Marc Filippino
Let’s go back to Arizona and the candidates who say the 2020 elections were unfair and the system’s rigged. One is former state lawmaker Mark Finchem. He’s running for the position of secretary of state, which oversees elections.

Mark Finchem
When you steal something, that’s not really a win. That’s a fraud.

Marc Filippino
That’s Finchem speaking at the US capitol the day before the January 6 insurrection where he was also present. Another Arizona election denying candidate is a former TV anchor named Kari Lake.

Kari Lake
I’m always worried about voter fraud because we have a system right now, an election system that people don’t have faith in.

Marc Filippino
And finally, there’s Abe Hamadeh. He’s a former county prosecutor who’s now running for state attorney-general. Now, Caitlin, if someone like Mark Finchem gets elected to secretary of state and an election comes along that he does not sign off on — and as secretary of state, he has to in order for it to be processed — what would happen then?

Caitlin Gilbert
Yeah, that’s where we get into the, the very scary sort of crisis of democracy territory. This is an unprecedented thing to, to happen. It’s not, it’s not really happened at all, right? We saw almost all the secretary of states in swing states in 2020 get this immense pressure to not certify. They all did because that is their job, legally. And they had to do it by a specific deadline as per state law. So if we start to get into territory of missing deadlines and secretaries of state just choosing not to certify, as Mark Finchem said he would, we just sort of enter a period of lawlessness. There’s no like law in Arizona, I would imagine the only real stop-gap we have is, is through the courts. We had this happen in New Mexico at the local level earlier this year. The primary result, a local canvassing board essentially refused to certify an election, but the secretary of state sued them with the state supreme court essentially to be like, hey, you have to do your job. And then they did. But if you have folks high enough up, like the secretary of state, like the governor, all kind of on the same page when it comes to election denialism, that would functionally just put democracy with a small D in crisis.

Marc Filippino
So Caitlin, for this story, you did a ton of reporting on election processes. What struck you the most after digging up so much information and speaking to so many people?

Caitlin Gilbert
Yeah, so I spent a lot of time talking to folks who study sort of an academic level what the process actually entails. There are so many checks in place and so much of it is transparent. I was actually really stunned at how much effort and work goes into ensuring the security of, of our elections. And I think the thing that I was most struck by was, in talking to folks actually working in elections at the local level, a lot of people have left their positions because the pressures are kind of insane. And, you know, folks are getting death threats. But there are folks who are kind of like newly emboldened to do their jobs and continue to do their jobs. And so talking to them, I think, especially ahead of this next set of elections, they really conveyed to me that they have never felt, you know, that their job was as important as it is now.

Marc Filippino
Caitlin Gilbert is a data visualisation journalist with the FT. Thanks so much, Caitlin.

Caitlin Gilbert
Thanks, Marc.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Marc Filippino
You can read more on all of these stories at FT.com. This has been a special episode of the FT News Briefing. Make sure you check back on Monday for the latest business news.


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