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As primaries wind down, there are some hints about what's in store for midterms

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A special election for the House may give us clues to what's coming this fall.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You may know, the closely divided House and Senate are at stake. Republicans are favored to gain, as the party out of power often does. But they are feeling a little bit less optimistic these days. Last week, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged what the experts say - it's getting harder to see how his party captures the Senate. It's a little hard to hear this, but listen closely to this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: There's probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different. They're statewide. Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.

MARTIN: He said candidate quality. Republicans have been struggling in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia.

INSKEEP: Where their nominees have been much criticized. McConnell also said Republicans have a better chance to win the House. And that special election in New York state this week gives us more information. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here.

Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Just to be clear, not a primary, although we have some more primaries coming up this week. This is not a primary. It's an open seat. It gets decided. It's the final final in New York State, outside of New York City, in the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, rural areas, in some urban areas. What should we know about it?

MONTANARO: Well, this is a race between Democrat Pat Ryan and Republican Marc Molinaro, both local county executives. It's to fill out a term for Anthony (ph) Delgado, who left Congress to become lieutenant governor of the state. It's a measure, really, of which party has the enthusiasm right now in a fairly even-divided district. You know, Trump won it in 2016. Biden won it in 2020.

And I often like to look at candidates' ads to see what they're focusing on. These give you a pretty good idea. First, here's an ad from Ryan, who's an Army veteran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He fought for our families, for our freedom.

PAT RYAN: And freedom includes a woman's right to choose. How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women's bodies?

MONTANARO: Meanwhile, Molinaro is focusing on something entirely different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sky-high gas prices...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON YELLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Rising crime...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON YELLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Runaway inflation...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON YELLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are to blame.

MONTANARO: So very dramatic there. But you can hear how this has become a proxy fight in the messaging wars on abortion rights versus inflation, the two big issues that both parties really want to focus on nationally.

INSKEEP: Well, how big an indicator could a special election like this be?

MONTANARO: Well, you never want to overread special elections, but they have been indicators in recent years of which party is most fired-up and which way elections that are upcoming are headed. You know, Republicans did well in special elections earlier this cycle, but after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Democrats have overperformed in places like Minnesota and Nebraska. And Democrats are looking to build on their momentum after a big win in Kansas on an abortion-related ballot measure.

INSKEEP: With all that said, we should be clear. Republicans still have a good chance to win a lot of seats this fall, and we'll see how things turn out. But they've had some difficulty recently. So what is Donald Trump saying about this, particularly given that so many Republican candidates have pledged fealty to him?

MONTANARO: Well, we heard that clip from McConnell. And Trump unloaded on McConnell on his social media platform. Trump called him a broken-down hack and criticized McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, who you might remember was Trump's transportation secretary and resigned over his conduct during the January 6 insurrection. And he said that he thought McConnell should spend more time and money helping Republican Senate candidates get elected. Ironically, though, it's McConnell's outside group that's tied to him, the Senate Leadership Fund, that's spending some quarter-billion dollars in these elections. And Trump is the one who's spending pretty much nothing to support them. And McConnell-backed aides really feel like Trump has handed them a slate of candidates who are weaker, who they need to now try to push over the finish line.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.