STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It wasn't so long ago that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on this program that the Republican Party was at an all-time high. Some people guffawed, but it was true then that Republicans dominated everything but the White House. And now, President Trump will soon be able to send Supreme Court nominees to a Senate where McConnell's Republicans still hold a majority after last night's voting. Republican incumbents survived strong challenges, among them Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
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PAT TOOMEY: Let's face it - this was a tough campaign. This was quite a battle. There was an all-time record amount of money spent against us. A lot of the ads were just outright false. But, you know, the voters were smart enough to figure it out, as they usually are.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about what happened here. NPR's Domenico Montanaro is still in our studios, and we're joined now by NPR's Ailsa Chang, who covers Congress and is, this morning, in Nevada. Hi, Ailsa.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey there.
INSKEEP: How did Republicans manage this? They were favored - or Democrats, rather, were favored to win.
CHANG: Right. Right, I mean, there was sort of the wide consensus that the Democrats would gain between four to six seats in the Senate, but we saw nothing near that. In fact, even though it was a Trump year, a Trump wave, Republican incumbents hung on - Richard Burr of North Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Roy Blunt of Missouri, who's been on Capitol Hill for two decades, Marco Rubio of Florida - Florida, Rob Portman of Ohio. It's a long list of Republican incumbents who held on to their seats despite it being an anti-insider, anti-establishment year.
INSKEEP: Domenico, did some of these Republican senators get coattails from Donald Trump, even though they were running away from Donald Trump in many cases?
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I think a lot of people in this election weren't quite sure what Donald Trump would mean. And you saw a lot of Republicans doing this dance - you know, endorsing him, un-endorsing him, moving...
INSKEEP: Criticizing him while...
INSKEEP: ...Saying they'd vote for him but not endorse him.
MONTANARO: Trying to - trying to walk this line. They weren't sure what he would mean. And I think a lot of those Republicans wound up being helped over the finish line, frankly, by Donald Trump, surprisingly, even to them.
INSKEEP: So one of the lawmakers...
CHANG: That's absolutely...
INSKEEP: Go ahead. Go ahead, Ailsa.
CHANG: I was going to say, that's absolutely right. I mean, there were so many races that came down almost, you know, narrow, if not absolutely narrow - virtually tied in the last weeks leading up to the election. And the common wisdom was, whoever won those states, either Clinton or Trump, would sort of tip the balance in favor of the Senate Candidate of that party. So, you know, because Trump won so many states, surprisingly, it's - you know, based on that common wisdom, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that so many Republican incumbents won.
INSKEEP: So one of the lawmakers who did this dance, who endorsed Donald Trump but distanced himself from Donald Trump, was the speaker of the house, Paul Ryan. And it's very interesting now to listen to this clip of tape from Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is also keeping his job. He said the following.
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RON JOHNSON: I'm a big Paul Ryan fan, and America's going to lean on Paul Ryan and his agenda to save this country.
INSKEEP: America's going to lean on Paul Ryan and his agenda. Ailsa Chang, is Paul Ryan's agenda the same thing that Donald Trump just ran and won on?
CHANG: That is a great question. The two of them actually have a lot of distinct policy differences. First of all, the Muslim ban and religious tests - both Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized that idea from the get-go. Ryan, in fact, said the Muslim ban idea is not conservatism, it is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it is not what this country stands for.
Other positions of Trump on immigration - Ryan has said that he doesn't support mass deportation. He would be game to find a way to pass some path to legal citizenship for a vast majority of people here in the U.S. illegally. I can tick more differences off - trade. Paul Ryan has adamantly defended trade deals. Trump is against the Transpacific Trade Partnership. Entitlement reform - ryan wants to privatize Medicare. He wants to cut Social Security.
Trump does not support cutting entitlement benefits. He says he can save Social Security, for instance, by growing the economy. The list goes on. Ryan has adamantly defended the role NATO plays. Trump has been disparaging of NATO. So it's unclear whether the agenda of Paul Ryan will - will seamlessly overlap with the agenda of Donald Trump. I think one problem we're all having is what - what exactly is the policy agenda of Donald Trump. It's - it's not clear right now.
INSKEEP: And some of the promises that he made were big and bold and splashy but - but vague, and they would change over time.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about something else that we heard in that little bit of tape from Ron Johnson. He referred to saving this country, which picks up, in a way, on Donald Trump's approach to this election, saying that the country is in dire trouble. Of course, there's a lot of Americans who would note the economy is growing, that we're more prosperous than we were a few years ago, that a lot of things would seem to be going right. But there was this view of things going very wrong. And I know that we have heard that when going around talking to many voters who - who voted for Donald Trump. Domenico, are people expecting huge changes here?
MONTANARO: I - I think one thing that we've missed all along is that this election's not about issues at all. I don't think it's about what they expect Donald Trump to do or pull off. They like the fact that he was channeling what they felt and that he was giving voice to a group of people who felt disaffected, who felt condescended to, who felt like they weren't part of the political process that exists now. And whether that meant sending a clear, direct and blunt message to Washington and to the establishment, to the elites, to the media, to whomever, that's what they did.
CHANG: Yeah, I think a lot of people voted for Donald Trump because, frankly, they kind of wanted to throw a brick through the window. They wanted to shake things up. You know, they're - Republicans and - congressional Republicans and Donald Trump may be able to find some productive areas of overlap. We know that Donald Trump has not been a big fan of the Affordable Care Act.
INSKEEP: A couple seconds.
CHANG: We will probably be seeing attempts on the Hill to repeal, if not all, but large parts of the Affordable Care Act.
INSKEEP: One thing they can agree on, even if they have not necessarily said what they would replace it with. Ailsa Chang in Nevada, thanks very much.
CHANG: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And NPR's Domenico Montanaro's here.
MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.