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Dems More Optimistic About Midterms As Poll Numbers Improve; Pelosi Refuses To Say If She'll Seek Another Term As Dem Leader; Biden To Hold First In-Person Meeting With Griner, Whelan Families. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 16, 2022 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: So let's just start with a generic congressional ballot, who you going to vote for when you vote for Congress? Democrats get 46 percent now, 44 percent for Republicans, so a two point advantage for the Democrats, that's better than being behind. It was a one point advantage back in July, not enough at that rate to keep the house, right, is that fair?

AMY WALTER, PUBLISHER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, COOK POLITICAL REPORT: Yes, I think that's fair. I was talking to a Democratic strategist the other day, who said, we went from being relatively hopeless in May, to actually competitive now. And I think that's a very good way to think about where the battle for Congress sits, which was you're right, in May, the kinds of numbers we were seeing, especially among Democratic enthusiasm, that's what this poll shows as well, which is Democrats are much more engaged. They feel better about the President. There's been some improvement among independents as well. But it's still in very dangerous territory for the party in power.

KING: Right. Let me jump in on that point, because you smartly write about the two challenges to defy history, or at least, you know, be competitive in the midterm election. Number one, mobilize your base, no question. Between the President, the recent legislative gains and the Dobbs decision, Democrats are energized. The question is the challenge to then is get the middle, independents to come your way. So look at the generic ballot broken down by primary this poll, 95 percent of Democrats say they're voting for the Democrats, 96 percent of Republicans say they're voting for Republicans, but that independent number evenly split. That's not good enough for Democrats, if that holds up.

WALTER: It's actually much better than it was. And also much better historically, what's happened historically, and let's even just go back by historic to 2006, where the party and the White House is losing double digits in the House, in some cases, losing the House and the Senate. They're losing independents by double digits, they're losing by 15 points, 10 points, 12 points.

What's so confounding about this election at this point, this election polling is that Democrats are doing much better among independents on the congressional ballot in Senate race polling among independents, then the President is doing among independents. Normally, those two things are much closer together. And so that's my question for these next six weeks. Is that going to hold as more voters who quite frankly haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to politics start to clue in?

KING: And the question is candidate hold is who settles the debate about, you're arguing now over voters what should be most important to you and you see the big fight between the campaigns, you write about it this way, the challenge for Republicans in the next six weeks will be to effectively tie Democratic candidates to the unpopular Biden. Meanwhile, Democrats have to convince enough voters the threat for a MAGA-fied GOP is more dangerous than staying the economic course in which they're not satisfied. That's the big thing, trying to convince people who have a lot of concerns, inflation, maybe crime, the return of Trump, the Dobbs decision. What should be most important when you pull the button?

WALTER: And this is what "The Times" I think, did very well in their polls today, or at least in outlining it. If the spotlight turns to the economy, Republicans are up by about six points on the generic ballot, if all we're hearing about, all we're talking about is that. But if we're talking about abortion, if we're talking about Donald Trump and the kinds of candidates that Donald Trump has supported, well, that's when we start looking at a much closer race for Congress.

KING: Right. So one of the questions I always have is trajectory, the staff, I drive them crazy. The President's numbers are going in the right direction still historically low. If you look, Obama was at 46, Donald Trump was at 40, Joe Biden is at 41. Both Obama and Trump lost the house in their first midterm election. So if you look at those, you say, oh, well, the Democrats are in trouble.

However, just today, we looked at the polling numbers, approval ratings up a little bit, the generic ballots a little better for Democrats. This is a different statistic. I love, I know you love the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index. Again, it's low. But look at the trend line. The question for the Democrats is can you keep that trajectory for seven more weeks?

WALTER: And do people believe it, right? And that there it's -- I do think that, that you always want to be coming on the upswing into November as opposed to it's going on the downslope. And for previous presidents, especially for Barack Obama, he started off with a very high approval rating in 2009. And it just kept dropping and dropping as we got closer and closer to the midterms. President Trump stayed steady, right? He didn't move much up. He didn't move much down, starts at 45 ends at 43.

This President it takes a different trend line, right? He starts much lower. No real honeymoon for him but dips down really far. By the time we get to the summer of this year, he was at 38 percent. So is he going to get back up to 45 percent which in some of these states, as you know, these are very evenly divided states. It's easier in a Senate race for a Democratic candidate to outperform the President by four points than by 10 points.


KING: Right. And then lastly just we talked about these broad national implications, let's just look at the new poll in the Pennsylvania Senate race. John Fetterman is the Democrat. Dr. Oz is the Republican. Ninety-five percent of Democrats voting for Fetterman, only 87 percent of Republicans, that's interesting, Fetterman is getting 13 percent of Republicans in this vote because independents are split. If independents stay split, that 13 percent Republican support could be the difference.

WALTER: Could be the difference between winning and losing there. And again, you don't have to win independents to win but you can afford to lose them by double digits.

KING: Right. It's fascinating. Seven weeks, seven and a half weeks to go Amy, grateful you're here.

Up next for us, the midterm stakes for the Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She has led House Democrats for nearly two decades but call for change at the top among Democrats are growing.



KING: Some new CNN reporting now on the midterm election stakes for the woman who has led House Democrats for nearly two decades, more and more of those Democrats are willing to say publicly, it is time for Nancy Pelosi to step aside. CNN spoke with more than two dozen Democratic members and this consensus emerged, the speaker should not continue as Democratic leader if the party loses its House majority in the November midterms. This week, Speaker Pelosi making clear that conversation can wait.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you like to answer Brian's question about your own future?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): No. I said, first we're going to win. And that's really the issue. OK.


PELOSI: Did you not, are we speaking a different language? First, we win.


KING: Our chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju joins our conversation. This is not a new question for the Speaker. And she's smart enough to understand, I'm not talking about this before the election. But it is striking in your reporting that so many Democrats are willing to talk about it and not just talk about it, but talk about it on the record. MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. Because they see the writing on the wall that this is almost very likely going to be the last time she is running the House Democratic Caucus. Now she is not shut the door on that possibility. In fact, she reached an agreement back in 2018, that she will serve only four more years as Speaker. But it was not an iron clad agreement. They didn't change the rules. And she's never firmly shut the door. And as you saw right there, she's not exactly saying what she will do.

And now there's some sense that Democrats may do much better than the midterms, there's even an outside chance or still a remote chance that they could keep the House. If they do, does that change their calculation? Does she decide to stay in the speakership, if that were to happen? And when we surveyed the Democratic caucus, my colleague, Isaac Dover, also Daniella Diaz, talking to a wide range of members, it was pretty clear if they lose the majority, there's virtually no support for her to stay.

If they somehow keep the majority, Democrats are just divided over that topic. Some say, yes, if she wants to, she would be the favor, and she can hang on, and others are saying on the record, that it's time for change, generational change. That's what comes with Dean Phillips told me earlier, he told me yesterday, and other Congressman Vicente Gonzalez made a remark said if we win the House, she'll deserve it, if not the dynamics change.

Henry Cuellar an interesting person there. He got some support for Pelosi to win her -- his primary says I'll support it for whatever position. And you see, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voted for Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker suggesting it's time for change. So this conversation is happening and jockeying, of course, is happening behind the scenes to replace her.

KING: And happening because of years of this sort of gender -- some of its generational, some of its ideological, some of its geographic, listen to Elissa Slotkin here, embattled vulnerable Democrat from the middle of the country who looks at our leadership and says New York, California change.


REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN (D-MI): I have always said I think it's time that we have new leadership. I think it's time frankly, that some Midwesterners get into leadership. We have a lot of New York and California. I'd like to see more diversity and leadership there. I have made a commitment to my district, I stick to that commitment.


KING: It's a fascinating dynamic in that so many of these younger Democrats want generational change. And yet, most of them, if not all of them have enormous respect for Nancy Pelosi, and her achievement, first woman speaker, we have vice president who was a woman now, the most powerful woman in American politics for a very long time. Did she negotiate her departure here? How's it work? MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Absolutely. I mean, you're absolutely right. It is hard to understate how much thirst there is for generational change in the Democratic leadership right now. I mean, not just generational, change in general, these leaders have been there for years and years, they're in their 80s. There's also meanwhile, the thirst for change, perhaps in the White House as well. So I think all of that is folding into this dynamic.

But in terms of Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaving, I mean, look, the reason she's not talking about this right now is strategic. She doesn't want to make herself a lame duck. She doesn't want to have potentially less power, less ability to fundraise. She doesn't want this open, jockeying, and warfare to replace her even though it is starting to take place behind the scenes. But I think at the end of the day, there will be a respectful conversation, they will recognize the work that she has done and say it is time to move on.

KING: And one of the reasons when she cut that deal back in 2018, there was talk about changing then. These are the potential replacements, one, is Hakeem Jeffries who is one of her key deputies. He is 52 years old. But the number two and the number three among House Democrats also say, well, we're not done yet and they happen to be like Nancy Pelosi in their 80s. Part of the question is, you know, there were efforts like a few years back in 2018. Can you get all three of them to step aside? That's hard to negotiate because of ego, ambition?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, for sure. The young guns who were talking about Hakeem Jeffries in his early 50s, Adam Schiff in his early 60s, you know, what are we really talking about here? I just think it's important as we think about this. To me, this is not really that much about Nancy Pelosi. This is about the bigger things the ideological divides, the generational change, the voters demand for generational change.


When you look at Pelosi herself, she has been a history making speaker a couple of times. Also for a lot of Americans, specially American women, the iconic photo of Pelosi and the blue dress, staring down Donald Trump. Nobody has been a better tactician and strategist for the Democratic Party leading through very treacherous state -- straits the last several years, but she's 82 years old. Yes, if they lose, there would be a push. But if they won, there will be a push too like --

ZANONA: And she may want to leave.

RAJU: Yes. And thing is like, if she -- there's almost certainly she wouldn't have that support to stay. But she, you can't count her out because you expected her not to get the votes in the last go round. But she were -- she was able to lock down those votes. Also interesting, John, in talking to, you mentioned Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn. Clyburn told me he has not made any decision on what to do if Pelosi steps aside. We heard that Hoyer had indicated privately that he wants to stay on as the leader as well. And he declined to comment saying I'm not going to talk about that yet. So there's going to be a bit of a scramble post-election.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I have to say just also to take a step back, even the idea that we're talking about potential changes in the leadership structure. If the Democrats were to overtake the House, it really does show sometimes the changing momentum in recent weeks as well for the Democratic Party, with recent polling data showing changing perceptions with lowering gas prices as well. Your point as well about how this is indicative of changing demographics. Also, just a new generation coming in wanting more sprawling change. We saw some of those fissures really showed himself also last year when it came to negotiations over some of the President Biden's legislation, including --

KING: It is generational thing, it's bubbling in both parties, actually. It's bubbling. But Democrats will also come to understand whenever that moment comes her ability to raise money. Look at what the Speaker did this year with a very tiny House majority. She can count. She can count.

Up next, President Biden meeting this afternoon with the families of two Americans imprisoned in Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.



KING: A significant moment for the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan who later today will have their first in person meetings with President Biden. This at a time the White House says there is some movement but no breakthroughs in talks with Russia aimed at winning their freedom. Let's get to our chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, what do we know?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, this is a long standing request from these families. They have wanted to meet in person with President Biden for some time. And now they will actually get that request granted. They want to come face to face with him. It's kind of been a situation where they had complained publicly earlier several months ago that they had not spoken directly to President Biden. That was Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner. Then she got a call from President Biden and Vice President Harris.

Paul Whelan sister then was saying that she had not gotten a call directly from the President. She then got a call. And now today both of them are going to get an in person meeting with President Biden. One of the families was already in town. And so the White House says President Biden wanted to meet with both of them. But unfortunately, John, you know, they are finally getting their meeting, but they are not going to be getting the news they want. Here's what Karine Jean- Pierre told me yesterday.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I would love to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer, and we are bringing their loved ones home. That is not what we're seeing in these negotiations at this time. Look, as we have said the Russians should accept our offer, they should accept our offer today.


COLLINS: And that offer she's talking about is one that the U.S. made to Russia to trade a Russian arms dealer who was sentenced up to about 25 years in prison in the United States in exchange for Brittney Griner and for Paul Whelan. And they thought that was going to be an offer that the Russians were going to jump out. But John, that just hasn't happened. It's prompted a lot of deep frustration inside the White House that the Russians have not really in any substantive way responded to that.

And so that is still where this stands. They are not getting the news today. Unfortunately, the White House says that their loved ones are coming home but President Biden will be meeting with Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, in person -- with their families in person. And of course they say, the White House says really, John, that's just because they want to telegraph that this is still a top priority for him.

KING: We'll watch what happens in today's meeting and then perhaps, perhaps continued negotiations. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, appreciate the live reporting.


Up next for us, Donald Trump calls the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell quote, an absolute loser.


KING: Topping our Political Radar today, Donald Trump's Save America PAC has given Attorney Chris Kise a $3 million advance to represent the former president, that's according to a source familiar with that arrangement ties as a former Florida Solicitor General, he's seen as a key addition to the Trump legal team following the FBI search that turned up those classified records at Mar-a-Lago.

A quote absolute loser and a lapdog for Democrats, those are the words of the former President Donald Trump aimed at the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. Trump adding those insults in a statement blaming McConnell for not playing hardball with Democrats over a looming potential government shutdown.

The Senate vote to codify same sex marriage will have to wait until after the November midterm elections. That bill set to hit the Senate floor next week. Now though, Democratic negotiators say they need more time to lock down the 10 Republican votes they would need to get it passed. The legislation, a direct response to the Supreme Court decision back in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, a preemptive move, its supporters say in case the court also takes aim at same sex marriage.

Today, King Charles III and his siblings will stand guard at their mother's coffin as mourners continue to pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II. Entry to the line is open again after a brief pause when it reached capacity earlier in the day, a government tracker shows potential wait times of more than 24 hours. You can watch our special CNN live coverage of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, it begins Monday morning, 5:00 a.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.


Thanks for your time today in Inside Politics. Try to have a peaceful weekend. Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage right now.