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How the hot-button issues of abortion and inflation played out in Midterm elections

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Another swing state with a crucial race for control of the Senate is Wisconsin. Inflation and abortion also drove voters to the polls there. Republican Senator Ron Johnson is trying to hold on to his seat and push back a competitive challenge from Democrat Mandela Barnes. NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben is in Milwaukee and joins us now. Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So I want to hear about last night and the scene there. But first, can you just give us the stats as they stand in that Senate race? What do we know?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So as far as we know right now, with more than 90% of the votes in, Ron Johnson is slightly ahead of Mandela Barnes - ahead of him by a bit more than a percentage point. So that race has not yet been called. And last I saw from the Barnes campaign, they said they are waiting for every vote to be counted. So they have not conceded yet. And we're just going to be waiting to - until something more official happens.

MARTIN: All right. So both candidates spoke last night, I imagine. Where were you listening to results and the candidates?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Well, actually, I was in downtown Madison, and there was another major statewide race, and that is the governor's race here. I was at a party in downtown Madison for Governor Tony Evers. He is a Democrat. And it was a very measured celebration, a very muted celebration for a while as everybody waited for results because Wisconsin is such a purple state. It is always close. And everybody was just sort of waiting to see, OK, is he ahead? Yes, he is. OK, how much, and is this for real? But Evers eventually gave his victory speech as 1 a.m. approached. And here's one thing he said in his speech. He said he thinks he did well because he keeps his promises and that he works hard. And he rounded that out by adding this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY EVERS: That's who I am, folks, and that's what I've always been. Some people call it boring, but you know what, Wisconsin? As it turns out, boring wins.

(CHEERING)

KURTZLEBEN: And Tony Evers - he's a mild-mannered guy. He talks a lot about how he's a former schoolteacher and school administrator. But it's - I don't think it's a stretch to also read this as a rejection of Trumpist politics, that, you know, Tony Evers is not brash or loud or harsh. So, yes, everybody was very excited, but it still wasn't full-on, super excited by the end of the night because there was an understanding that, yes, they weren't ahead in that Senate race, and they were still awaiting it.

MARTIN: Yeah. You talked to a lot of voters. What did they tell you about the two big issues - right? - inflation and abortion? How did that weigh on their choices?

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, very heavily, and, of course, it's respective by party, right? I mean, inflation was super, super important to Republican voters and abortion super, super important to Democratic voters. And in both cases, if you talk to voters, they'd say, well, yes, and that issue, inflation/abortion, makes this one of the most important elections of my lifetime. But what's interesting to me is also sort of the limits of those issues. For example, Democrats - Democratic voters, of course, feel inflation, and they said, yes, I'm concerned about it. But several voters I talked to said, look, I don't know if who we elect is going to change inflation all that much. It seems to be a global problem. Similarly, you had a lot of Republicans who said, yes, I am pro-life, but there are bigger issues.

And also, one other thing to add is that as Election Day approached, I - you really got the sense here and elsewhere that the reaction to the Dobbs decision was sort of baked in already - that is, that the people who were energized, who were going to be energized by the Dobbs decision already - by, say, August or September, already were energized by it - right? - and that there weren't a lot more people who were going to be won over. So the parties went after those voters in other ways.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Kurtzleben reporting from Wisconsin, thanks, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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