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News brief: Primary election are winding down, Imran Khan, Russia car bomb

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.

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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 and 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.

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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.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sky-high gas prices.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Rising crime.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Runaway inflation.

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

MONTANARO: (Laughter) 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. He called him a broken-down hack, criticized his wife, Elaine Chao, who you might remember was Trump's labor secretary but resigned over Trump's conduct on January 6. 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.

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INSKEEP: Authorities in Pakistan have filed terrorism charges against a former prime minister.

MARTIN: The Prime Minister is Imran Khan. He was ousted last spring in a no-confidence vote, and he's refused to accept his defeat. He gave a speech over the weekend criticizing police and a judge, and that is what has triggered the criminal charges.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Hey there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Exact words would matter here. What did Imran Khan seem to say?

HADID: He had actually threatened to file cases against two senior police officers and a female judge. But in terms of the judge, he also said she should prepare herself, as actions would be taken against her. This coming from a man whose supporters are quite notorious for taking action into their own hands and threatening people online, at the very least. So it could have been interpreted as a threat against this woman.

INSKEEP: OK. So he makes this statement. The police file this thing called a first information report, which is part of the criminal process in Pakistan. He hasn't been arrested yet, but there is a law enforcement activity against a former national leader. How have his supporters taken this news?

HADID: Well, his supporters have rushed to his palatial home in Islamabad. They've formed a human barrier around it. And his lawyers have successfully appealed to the court to prevent his arrest until at least Thursday. I should add that it's not unusual in Pakistan for former prime ministers to have these sorts of actions taken against them once they fall out of favor.

INSKEEP: Certainly there are some former prime ministers who've ended up in prison over the years, but why would the authorities, the current authorities, the coalition government that took over, go after him now if, in fact, that's the way that we should think of this?

HADID: It seems that he is losing the patience of Pakistan's security establishment, which is the country's most powerful institution. If I can step back a bit, you see; he was in power and was widely seen as being propelled to power with the military support, but he was ousted in April when he lost a no-confidence motion. And that was seen as coming around because the military had signaled that it no longer supported him. But Khan, like many civilian leaders in Pakistan, hasn't accepted that result. He's been staging large rallies around the country, where he's been critical of the military for not supporting his party. And that's key because that's pushed him into dangerous political territory here.

And it came around - in mid August, things really seemed to escalate. Authorities arrested his chief aide, whom they accuse of inciting against the military, calling on soldiers to disobey orders. They've shut down pro-Khan TV stations. And by Saturday, the government seemed to have had enough. Authorities blocked the live transmission of his speech at a rally. And when his supporters said they'd carry it on dozens of YouTube channels live, the government blocked YouTube. And then he was charged.

INSKEEP: It sounds like he still has a lot of supporters around the country.

HADID: Khan does have a lot of supporters around the country, and this crisis, which has gone on for months, has really elevated him even more. He's winning by-elections across Pakistan right now. But he's also bitterly polarized the country. He's painted the opposition as traitors. He's even claimed that he was ousted from power because of a coup that was orchestrated by Washington. There's no evidence to support that, but again, he's used that grievance to fuel his popularity even more. And now what comes next? Well, if he is arrested, that could lead to street violence between security forces and Khan loyalists.

Could it do more than that? I spoke to one seasoned analyst here, Mosharraf Zaidi. He says broad unrest is unlikely, but taking action against Khan won't help this government.

MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: What it is doing is enhancing Imran Khan's brand. Every act of desperation on the part of the military high command further reinforces the anti-status-quo brand that Imran Khan has very carefully and very fortuitously honed.

HADID: So the challenge facing the government and the military now is how they silence Khan without making him more popular.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thanks so much.

HADID: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now. A car bomb in Moscow has killed the daughter of a far-right Russian ideologue who was an ally of President Vladimir Putin.

MARTIN: Aleksandr Dugin's ideas and writing influenced the Kremlin's narrative for the invasion of Ukraine. His daughter, Darya Dugina, shared his views and spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine as a commentator on Russian nationalist TV. Russia's investigative committee has opened a criminal murder case. It is unknown whether she, her father or both were the target of the attack.

INSKEEP: Let's turn now to Max Seddon. He is the Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times. He is in Riga, Latvia, at the moment. Welcome.

MAX SEDDON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I don't want to be flip about this, but normally, it's people who criticize Vladimir Putin who get mysteriously killed. What does it mean that someone who seems to be in Putin's orbit was assassinated?

SEDDON: Well, this is the first time that there has been any real serious blowback for supporters of the war within Moscow itself. Something Putin's been very successful at throughout the war is maintaining a sense of normalcy in Moscow, not just for ordinary people but also for the elite who are, you know, part of the state TV and propaganda apparatus. Life is largely going on as normal. There isn't wartime mobilization that you would have if they, you know, officially declared a war, which they haven't done.

So this is the first time that the war has come home to them. And it's certainly a shock to a lot of the people, you know, who knew Darya Dugina, who know Aleksandr Dugin, who move in these circles. The editor of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, where Darya Dugina occasionally appeared as a guest, wrote that she has been followed around by bodyguards everywhere for the last few months because of threats to her own life. And certainly there is a sense that they are having to deal with some blowback finally here, six months into the war.

INSKEEP: Granting that authorities have said they're going to investigate, are we likely to get what we would accept as credible information about what happened here?

SEDDON: I would expect not. I think what's really going to be significant here is - so you could compare it to the murder of one of Stalin's top aides, Sergei Kirov, in 1934, where it was, yeah, decades before there was any clue from evidence as to who really was behind it, but what was important was how it was used. And I think that would be the most important thing to watch here. So if they blame this on Ukraine, will this be used as justification for further attacks on Ukraine? If they blame this on some sort of Russian dissident movement, like the one that has apparently claimed responsibility, will that be used to justify further repression inside Russia? And I think that will be the best indication of how Russia is treating this, is a - who is the victim of reprisals for this attack?

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that Ukraine has denied any involvement here. But is the Kremlin signaling who they are intending to blame?

SEDDON: The Kremlin has - from state propaganda, has obviously already blamed Ukraine. It certainly seems that professionals were involved in doing this. It was a remote-detonating bomb, according to the investigators. There's also a Russian partisan group that has claimed responsibility, but there is a lot of suspicion about whether they really exist. You know, could they be a front for Ukrainian special ops? Could they be a front for the FSB? Really, nobody knows. And what's certain is this seems like professionals were behind this, and the consequences are going to be felt for some time.

INSKEEP: Max Seddon of the Financial Times. Thanks so much.

SEDDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.