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How Democratic messaging in Pennsylvania is resonating with voters there

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In President Biden's speech Thursday, he pressed voters to go to the polls. Now, that's a typical message in an election year for an elected leader, but his reasoning was anything but typical. He said this year, it isn't just a matter of his party winning or losing seats in Congress but of people who don't actually believe in democracy taking control of the reins of government.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose.

MARTIN: Needless to say, he was referring to the political movement around his predecessor, former President Trump, who, not surprisingly, responded in his own speeches on Saturday when he held a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., with the candidates he's endorsed.

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DONALD TRUMP: He's an enemy of the state. You want to know the truth? The enemy of the state is him and the group that control him, which is circling around him. Do this, do that, Joe. You're going to do this, Joe, right?

MARTIN: With all that going on this weekend, President Biden is also scheduled to be in Pittsburgh for the Labor Day parade. We thought this would be a good time to talk about the state of the midterm races in Pennsylvania, to ask why the state matters so much and how the voters there are taking all this in. For that, we called Jonathan Tamari. He's a national political reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer, and he is with us now. Welcome, Jonathan. Thanks so much for joining us.

JONATHAN TAMARI: Sure thing. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first of all, why is Pennsylvania so critical this year that, as we said, the president not only set his primetime speech there, former President Trump's spending a lot of time there. Why is it so important?

TAMARI: Well, this year it has two of probably the most important elections in the country for governor and for U.S. Senate. The Senate race could very easily decide control of the Senate and who has the majority starting next year - one of a handful of seats that could do that. And the governor's race is really huge for a number of reasons. There's a Republican legislature in the state now and a Democratic governor. And that right now allows Democrats to kind of block a lot of more conservative ideas that might move through, like abortion restrictions or voter ID laws. And the winner of the governor's race then will be in position to either continue vetoing those laws or signing those laws.

The other important factor in this governor's race is that whoever wins is going to lead the administration that oversees the certification of the 2024 presidential election. And as we saw in 2020, there was intense pressure from Trump on Pennsylvania and other states to undo the results. And so the winner of the governor's race will determine whether there is somebody in office who is friendly to Trump and potentially sympathetic to a repeat attempt in 2024 or a Democrat who would resist his attempts if he does try again to alter the presidential election results the next time around.

MARTIN: So speaking of that, the - Trump-backed candidates are running in two key races in Pennsylvania. They prevailed in their primaries - Doug Mastriano running for governor, Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor, running in the state's open U.S. Senate seat - both of them, you know, very clearly tying their campaigns to President Trump and President Trump tying his endorsement to them. What is it about them that voters were attracted to?

TAMARI: Mastriano rose to prominence, you know, based on really channeling a lot of Trump's style of kind of being aggressive on culture wars, being someone who's seen as someone who will really fight the liberal and the media elites and even, you know, buck people within his own party. And Oz, meanwhile, he really - he got the endorsement from Trump. And that was extremely important in his Senate primary because there were a lot of Republican opponents and voters who questioned his commitment to really conservative beliefs based on some of his past statements. And his response to all that was basically, look, Trump endorsed me. I'm good enough for him. I should be good enough for you, Republican voters. And it had to make a difference because he won by fewer than a thousand votes. And you would think that that - that the Trump endorsement is certainly worth that in a Republican primary. Trump is still extremely influential among Republican voters.

MARTIN: So it seems that Democrats, then, are relying on two key issues to strengthen their side of the argument. One is abortion, which you've already mentioned. It's been a rallying cry for Democrats after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And the second is the argument that President Biden laid out last week in his speech that it's really - it's not just a matter of party. It's a matter of core values at this point. How are those two messages resonating with voters in Pennsylvania?

TAMARI: Well, I think Democrats think that abortion is absolutely resonating and has turned the tide in their favor - now, maybe not entirely in their favor but, at the very least, has improved the picture from their perspective compared to what it was a few months ago. And they think abortion is really motivating their own voters and motivating some of those swing voters who were maybe edging towards the Republican Party and now might be coming back their way.

The issues around democracy - I think you've actually seen Democratic candidates talk less directly about that than President Biden did. I think they feel that that is an issue that is kind of baked in at this point. But instead, what they do is they use that as a piece of a wider picture that they say, in their view, shows Republicans to be too extreme. So they tie that into abortion restrictions, and they tie that into voting restrictions and questions about whether same-sex marriage will withstand potential challenges.

MARTIN: I want to go back to the two speeches that - sort of the competing speeches that we started our conversation with. The former president, in his speech Saturday night - I think even by his standards of stridency, that was a pretty much - that was a barnburner of a speech. I mean, obviously, he was focused primarily on his complaints about the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate, where they found classified documents and so forth. So is this an intensity election? I guess the question is that - because there are a lot of analysts who have said that this has kind of revived President Trump in some way and that his supporters are infuriated by this. I guess the question is, who seems more fired up at this point?

TAMARI: Well, I think Democrats had definitely seen a boost in intensity after the decision overturning Roe v. Wade. But I do think that this is something - and the response from the crowd last night said that the Biden speech is also something that could very much galvanize Republicans. Trump has a talent for finding statements that he can tell his supporters are insults. You remember how they made hay out of Hillary Clinton's comment using the phrase deplorables. And that is - he signaled in his speech last night that he intends to do the very same thing with Biden's condemnation of MAGA Republicans, that he's going to use this to say that people are looking down on them and disrespecting them and use it to energize his supporters to go out and vote.

MARTIN: Jonathan Tamari is a national political reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jonathan, thanks so much for talking with us.

TAMARI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.