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Politics chat: State Republicans set agenda with reactive bills ahead of midterms

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

As we just heard, there are several issues driving Florida lawmakers ahead of fall midterms. But it's not just Florida. Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures are also flooding the zone with bills to advance their party's agenda ahead of elections. In Arizona, for instance, nearly a hundred bills have been introduced to restrict voting rights. There's a similar landscape in Michigan, Wisconsin and other states. We're joined now by national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

FLORIDO: Mara, looking at how GOP-controlled statehouses are preparing the election battlefield, what can we expect in the coming months?

LIASSON: Well, in addition to redistricting, which would shrink the number of competitive districts and give Republicans an advantage, you're hearing, as you just heard, about all of these culture war issues. Republicans think these are great issues for them around transgender athletes, school curriculums, around what they're calling parental rights, curtailing discussions of race and gender and sexual orientation in schools. You're going to hear Republicans say that Democrats want to indoctrinate your kids. If your kid is white, they want to make him feel uncomfortable. So along with crime, immigration and inflation, which are top concerns for voters, Republicans feel they have a very strong hand, lots of issues to pick from. They're feeling pretty confident about the midterms.

FLORIDO: And what about Democrats? Do they have a counter strategy or any strategy of their own?

LIASSON: Well, Democrats have a much weaker hand. They're the party in power, so they're blamed for everything that's going wrong. And they've really struggled to get a clear message for the midterms. They're going to try to define Republicans as too extreme. They're going to talk about their accomplishments, about how the economy is much better, COVID is going away, also try to empathize with voters about inflation, which is a real problem. But Democrats are also trying to recalibrate their message on social issues. You heard Joe Biden make a pretty ringing call in the State of the Union not to defund the police. Of course, he's never been for defunding the police. But there was a little bit of good news for Democrats this week. The jobs numbers on Friday were excellent - 678,000 jobs created last month. Unemployment is down from 4% to 3.8. And there were some polls that showed Joe Biden's abysmal approval ratings inching up a bit.

FLORIDO: Tell us a little more about that. Where is he getting that bounce?

LIASSON: Well, he's getting that bounce mostly from Democrats coming home and independents taking a second look at him. NPR did a poll recently that showed he actually got a bounce from the State of the Union address. That's very rare. Most presidents don't see much of a bounce from their State of the Union address. The overall approval rating for Biden in our poll was 47%. That's up eight points from the NPR poll last month. His approval rating for handling the crisis in Ukraine is up 18 points to 52%. We don't know whether this is an outlier or whether it will continue, but it's something that Democrats were certainly happy about.

FLORIDO: Mara, I'd like to ask you a question about Ukraine. President Zelenskyy made a direct appeal to American lawmakers yesterday in a virtual call asking for more help from the U.S., including more military aid and energy sanctions on Russia. Are those things that President Biden can realistically do without a major domestic blowback?

LIASSON: Well, there are some things that he can do, and Congress is getting ready to pass a big package of aid for Ukraine. In terms of military aid, the White House told NPR over the weekend that it is working with Poland to get Soviet-era MiG planes to Ukraine. These are planes that Ukrainian pilots know how to fly. Vice President Harris is going to Poland this week to talk about this transfer and what the U.S. can do to support Poland in it. There's also a big bipartisan push in Congress to ban Russian oil and gas. The U.S. gets not a big amount - anywhere between 3 and 10% of its imported energy from Russia. And this would be a U.S. ban, not international sanctions on Russian energy. Sanctions would require the U.S. to block other countries from getting Russian oil and gas. And, of course, Europe is much more dependent on Russian energy than we are. But yes, he can do all these things, but there will be some blowback because prices of gas at the pump will go up, and Joe Biden is going to be blamed for that by Republicans.

FLORIDO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.