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News brief: Georgia runoff, GOP's 'red wave' is stopped, Russia to leave Kherson

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For a second straight time, control of the U.S. Senate may come down to a second round of voting in Georgia.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After Tuesday's election, neither candidate received 50% of the vote in Georgia. So Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker will be on the ballot again December 6. Here's the way the math works. Three Senate races are undecided. Whoever wins two of them takes control. Arizona and Nevada are still counting and may need a few days. And if they do not give either party a Senate majority, Georgia takes its turn.

FADEL: Joining us now for more is Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler. Good morning, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So why not just start by explaining Georgia's election rules and how we got to this point?

FOWLER: Sure. So Georgia is actually one of two states that requires a runoff for both a primary and a general election if nobody gets more than 50% of the vote. And with a libertarian in the Senate race, plus Georgia being a close battleground state, that's not always a given for candidates to get above 50%. So here, with very few ballots remaining, Senator Raphael Warnock is about half a percent under that cutoff and narrowly ahead of Herschel Walker. And since elections officials say there aren't going to be enough ballots left to be counted to change that outcome, Georgia is now headed to a runoff election again for the U.S. Senate.

Now, what's interesting is that Georgia runoff laws were initially enacted by segregationist Democrats trying to keep Black voters from picking a candidate of their choice, essentially ensuring all the white voters who supported different white candidates would coalesce around a white candidate in a runoff. But now, in 2022, we've got two Black candidates for one of the highest offices in the land that voters will choose from because of these runoff laws.

FADEL: Wow. So a law originally aimed at disenfranchising Black voters is the reason this runoff rule even exists. Now, Stephen, this Senate race is an outlier for Republicans, right? They otherwise dominated the election in Georgia. So what does this close race tell us about these candidates, especially Herschel Walker, really, as a Republican candidate?

FOWLER: Well, Walker is a weaker candidate like some of the other Trump-backed candidates we've seen in states that have had issues here. He's been dogged by controversies over alleged payments of abortions to ex-girlfriends, a past history of domestic violence allegations, nonsensical statements about policy and so many other things. Voting data shows, so far, Walker's underperforming Governor Brian Kemp by a large margin in very Republican counties in the state at about 5% overall, meaning 1-in-10 Republican voters in Georgia opted for somebody else in a Senate race. Now, Warnock is a well-known figure. He's an incumbent who has pitched himself as a problem-solver who works in a bipartisan manner and managed to distance himself from President Joe Biden's unpopularity. They've both raised boatloads of cash. And this is the most expensive Senate race. That spending is set to continue.

FADEL: Now, the runoff is December 6, four weeks away. That's a quick turnaround. What should voters expect in the runoff? And is either candidate favored at this point?

FOWLER: Well, they should expect a lot of ads with their Thanksgiving turkey. But it's hard to say who's at the advantage. Typically, whoever finished first in the general election usually wins the runoff. A notable exception is 2021, when fellow Democratic Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff beat David Perdue in 2021. There's also some timing things to consider. The previous runoff used to be nine weeks. Campaigns had time to gear things up. Now they're just hitting the ground running. And early voting doesn't even start until after Thanksgiving.

FADEL: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thank you.

FOWLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Republicans may yet take charge of one or both houses of Congress. But to President Biden, the relatively small change amounts to a vindication.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is supposed to be a red wave. You guys, you were talking about us losing 30 to 50 seats. And this was going to - nowhere near - that's not going to happen.

INSKEEP: Some analysts did foresee huge Republican gains on Tuesday. Although, our colleagues at NPR talked of a range of possibilities. The mixed results leave Biden's White House with a better chance of governing and Biden's party with a better chance of gaining ground again in 2024.

FADEL: We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks for being here, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Yep. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So there are still a number of races that haven't been called. But it looks quite possible President Biden will spend his final two years in office with at least a GOP-controlled House of Representatives. What did he say about how he's going to approach the next two years?

KEITH: He said that the message he took from the election was that the American people want him to work together with Congress. And to that end, he plans to invite leaders over to the White House later this month. But I have to say, he was also unapologetic. Asked what he would change about his approach, Biden said this.

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BIDEN: I'm not going to change anything in any fundamental way.

KEITH: He said many of the policies Democrats in Congress passed in recent months that they'd been campaigning on haven't had a chance to take effect yet. And he said he would defend that legislation against any efforts to roll it back by exercising his veto pen if it gets to that point. And he said he would also be open to working with Republicans. But I have to say, that sounded like just Biden being on brand rather than actually predicting a great period of bipartisan productivity. He also wished Republicans luck if they plan to spend the next two years doing investigations either of his son, Hunter, or more serious policy pursuits like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and certainly if they were to try to pursue impeachment.

FADEL: OK. So this idea of bipartisanship, I mean, not the norm these days, right, Tam? So how is he going to get anything done in the next two years?

KEITH: There were a couple of bipartisan successes in the last couple of years.

FADEL: Yeah.

KEITH: If Democrats are able to hang onto the Senate, then Biden would at least be able to keep getting judges confirmed, which is something he has already done at a record clip. With narrow margins, Democrats, in the last couple of years, already had Biden scaling back his ambitions. And he had to do some things through executive actions like student loan forgiveness, which is getting hung up in court, as often happens with executive actions. So you could expect to see more of that. Republicans, if they do win majorities, will have very narrow ones and will likely face their own internal battles. There are just a few things that truly have to get done, like funding the government.

FADEL: Right.

KEITH: And Biden, in his press conference yesterday, predicted that those ultimately will be bipartisan efforts. They kind of have to be.

FADEL: OK. So the big question after a midterm is whether the president plans to run for reelection. So how did Biden answer this time?

KEITH: Well, he answered it in a couple of different ways. He reiterated that he does plan to run and that the midterms didn't affect that. He was asked about the possible rivals of Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

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KRISTEN WELKER: Who do you think would be the tougher competitor, Ron DeSantis or former President Trump? And how is that factoring into your decision?

BIDEN: It'll be fun watching them take on each other.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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KEITH: Russia's Defense Ministry has ordered its troops to pull out of a strategic city in southern Ukraine.

INSKEEP: The planned retreat from Kherson is one more setback for Moscow's forces in this war.

FADEL: NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us from Dnipro, Ukraine, to tell us more about this. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

FADEL: So how significant is this withdrawal by Russia?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Well, first, while we are seeing evidence that Russian troops are starting to depart, they haven't yet entirely pulled out of the city.

FADEL: OK.

BEAUBIEN: Ukrainian officials, including President Zelenskyy, are still quite skeptical about this whole move by Moscow and are approaching the announcement quite cautiously. But if the Russian military does withdraw to the east bank of the Dnipro River, as the Russian Defense Ministry is calling for, this is a major win for the Ukrainians. You know, for months, Ukraine has been slowly and steadily closing in Kherson. But the big fear was that Russia could try to fiercely defend the city, and things might deteriorate into a disastrous situation like we saw in Mariupol or a street battle...

FADEL: Yeah.

BEAUBIEN: ...Like what happened in Aleppo with Russian troops there. If this all goes to plan, it could seem like we're going to avoid the bloodbath that people were really worried about potentially happening in Kherson.

FADEL: But you mentioned all the skepticism from Ukrainian officials.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

FADEL: Why the skepticism?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, they're skeptical because the loss of Kherson City would be a major embarrassment for the Kremlin. This is the capital of one of the regions that Moscow claimed to have formally annexed into the Russian Federation in September. And President Putin said it's going to be part of Russia forever. And also, it's the only regional capital that Russia has seized since the invasion. There had been word that Russian military officers had asked to retreat earlier but were ordered to stay. You know, and there's still concern in Kyiv that, potentially, this is a trap, that Moscow is trying to lure Ukrainian troops into Kherson, where they'd be ambushed.

FADEL: So help us understand a little bit more about what the Russian Defense Ministry actually announced. Does this mean Russia's abandoning Kherson entirely?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. That's an important point. The Russians say they're simply pulling back to a more strategic position. And they're doing this to save Russian troops. But it's still a very dangerous retreat, in part because they have to cross the largest river in Ukraine. And the Ukrainians have blown up the bridge that's going out of Kherson. And the Russians could be doing this retreat under Ukrainian fire the whole time. The order, as I mentioned, is for them to withdraw to the east bank of the Dnipro River. And that's just on the other side of the water from Kherson. So Russia will still be able to lob artillery shells. Tanks will still be able to fire at the city. They can drop mortars on it. You know, this is in no way the complete liberation of Kherson. And we are seeing some evidence that Russian forces are digging in trenches and building fortifications there on the east bank.

FADEL: OK. But this must be a morale boost for the Ukrainians, right?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, absolutely. It comes after other major victories by Ukrainian forces in the east of the country. For months, Russia has been steadily losing the territory that it seized early in the war. And this is one more major city that's now slipping out of their control. Also, the fact that this happened before winter fully sets in here is key. I mean, it's already quite cold here. But there was a lot of concern about how difficult it was going to be for Ukrainian troops to launch counteroffensive operations out there in the snow. So you know, even though Ukrainian officials are being cautious, saying that they'll believe this retreat when they actually see it, this is being celebrated here as another significant win and evidence that the war - you know, although things are still quite tough, it's moving in the right direction from a Ukrainian perspective.

FADEL: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Dnipro, Ukraine. Thanks, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: 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.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.