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News brief: Iranian drones in Ukraine, Ga. midterms, Biden's speech on abortion

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Over the past 10 days, Russia has effectively opened up a new front in its war against Ukraine.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Russians are attacking with long-range airstrikes, including drones, directed at civilian targets in cities across Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is following these developments. Greg, Russia is again pounding Ukraine with these air attacks. I mean, how bad did it get?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, it's continued this morning. Russia is hitting civilian targets in several Ukrainian cities, far from the front lines, on Tuesday morning. This includes the capital, Kyiv, according to Ukrainian officials and media reports. So far, the most significant damage seems to be in the east-central city of Dnipro, where electricity stations have been hit, causing power outages. And just recently, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has taken to Twitter. He says Russia has destroyed fully 30% of Ukrainian power stations since they began this round of attacks, and it's causing widespread blackouts. And he went on to say that, quote, "there's no space left for negotiations" with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

MARTINEZ: You know, Russia has fired missiles throughout this war, but these latest attacks have featured drones. Why use drones, and why now?

MYRE: Well, Russia received these drones from Iran a couple months ago, according to U.S. information. And these came amid indication that Russia was running low on its own stocks of long-range weapons. And we saw on Monday, Russia unleashed what appeared to be the largest such drone attack yet, firing more than 40 of these so-called kamikaze drones, and most were aimed at Kyiv. Now, the Russians are targeting heating and electricity plants that the Ukrainians will obviously need this winter. Residential buildings are also being hit. And we can't stress enough that most, if not all, these targets are civilian targets, not military targets.

MARTINEZ: Ukraine's air defenses, how is it coping with these attacks?

MYRE: Well, these Iranian drones have some drawbacks. They're noisy. They're often described as being like lawn mowers or mopeds from people on the ground who can hear them. They fly at relatively low altitudes and slow speeds, often just a little over a hundred miles an hour. So Ukraine's air defenses, which have exceeded expectations throughout the war, are having success in shooting many of them down. Ukraine said it shut down 37 of 43 drones on Monday. But when dozens of drones are coming in, a few get through and cause damage and deaths. Four people were reported killed on Monday.

Now, Ukraine has been pleading for more air defense systems throughout the war. The U.S. and other NATO countries are now promising to send some, including some very advanced systems. But they're not there yet.

MARTINEZ: What are the chances, though, that this Russian approach might change conditions on the battlefield?

MYRE: Well, right now the general consensus is that it won't. In fact, many analysts are saying that Russia is doing this precisely because they've been doing so poorly on the battlefield. They're looking - some way to gain an advantage. But, you know, that said, the attacks do terrorize civilians in the cities in central and western Ukraine that haven't really been hit since the early days of the war, and Russia's goal appears to be making life as difficult as possible for Ukrainian civilian. But it's just not clear that this will improve Russian forces on the front lines.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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MARTINEZ: All right, early voting is now underway in Georgia. And last night, Republican Governor Brian Kemp and his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, met on a debate stage in Atlanta.

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STACEY ABRAMS: Mr. Kemp, what you are attempting to do is continue the lie that you've told so many times I think you believe it's the truth.

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BRIAN KEMP: I will remind you that Stacey Abrams campaigned to be Joe Biden's running mate.

MARTIN: The race is a rematch of 2018, when Kemp narrowly beat Abrams. But much has changed since then.

MARTINEZ: Sam Gringlas of WABE in Atlanta has been following this race, traveling around the state and also talking to voters and the candidates. Sam, Abrams versus Kemp feels like one of those old heavyweight boxing rivalries. So last night, did they slug it out, or was the debate maybe more of a skills clinic?

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Well, Kemp and Abrams have basically been each other's archnemesis for over four years now, and so, yeah, they did not hesitate to spar back and forth. But they also both really know the ins and outs of state government, so overall, this debate was pretty substantive and at times kind of wonky. There was this one moment that got a little bit heated. The candidates were talking about a law Kemp signed allowing people to carry handguns without a permit.

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KEMP: Well, there is a...

DONNA LOWRY: Thirty seconds.

KEMP: ...Thorough background check on every individual that buys a firearm in the United States.

ABRAMS: That is not true.

KEMP: Well...

ABRAMS: Mr. Kemp, if you purchase...

KEMP: None...

ABRAMS: ...A weapon in Georgia through gun sale or a private sale...

KEMP: Well. Ms. Abrams, I haven't...

ABRAMS: ...Through gun sale or private sale, you are not subject...

KEMP: I have not...

LOWRY: All right, we are going to have to move on.

GRINGLAS: And we did have a bit of news. Kemp was asked if he'd support any laws further restricting abortion beyond the roughly 6-week ban he'd already signed, and he said no and quickly pivoted to inflation.

MARTINEZ: Now, Kemp beat Abrams by about 55,000 votes four years ago, but, Sam, a lot has changed since then.

GRINGLAS: Well, more than 1.6 million new voters have registered in Georgia since 2018. Kemp is now an incumbent with a long conservative legislative record. And Abrams has become a global celebrity, buoyed in part by her role activating new voters and helping turn Georgia blue in 2020. But unlike the last midterms, when a blue wave kind of swept across the country, Trump is not in the White House, and the current occupant, Joe Biden, has approval ratings that are underwater. The country is different, too. States like Georgia have drastically curbed access to abortion. And persistent inflation is driving up costs of groceries and gas.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, both candidates are fighting to not only turn out their voters but also speak to people who might be on the fence, and that battle might be most pronounced in Atlanta suburbs where you, Sam, have spent a lot of time lately. What have you found out?

GRINGLAS: Well, a big question that's hanging over these midterms in Georgia and, frankly, around the country is how many suburban voters who helped propel Biden into office will stick with Democrats now. I met a woman named Krista Wagner, who voted for Trump in 2016 and then Biden in 2020. But her flip to the Democrats, it was not permanent. She's voting Republican for governor. And she says her concerns about inflation outweigh her opposition to that restrictive abortion law that Kemp signed.

KRISTA WAGNER: I'm upset with that, but I'm also really worried financially. I know that there are other states that will keep it. If there's ever a woman who needed my help, I'd take her there.

GRINGLAS: Now, a million new residents have arrived in Georgia over the last decade, many of them people of color, settling in metro Atlanta. So the suburbs will probably keep trending toward Democrats in the future, but right now Georgia's elections are decided by such slim margins that even small shifts can shape the outcome of these races.

MARTINEZ: Sam Gringlas is WABE's politics reporter. Sam, thanks.

GRINGLAS: Thanks so much.

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MARTINEZ: President Biden is scheduled to make what the White House is billing as a major speech later today about abortion rights.

MARTIN: Yeah. So the big question is whether abortion is going to motivate Democrats to the polls, even though voting is already underway in some states.

MARTINEZ: We're going to pose that question and more to our senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. All right, so what are the details of today's speech, and why is the White House saying that President Biden is focusing on this now?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, the White House says this is part of the ongoing effort by the president and the administration to try and call attention to, quote, "an assault on access" to women's health care by Republican officials. And he'll likely talk about federal and state attempts at restricting abortion rights. You know, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been out there talking about this issue plenty over the last several months, but it's no coincidence that this is coming exactly three weeks to go until ballots have to be cast in these midterm elections, and abortion rights are playing a pretty prominent role all across the country.

MARTINEZ: All right, so how has abortion rights been used in these elections that - and has that focus made a difference?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, it's really changed so much in these elections. It's become Democrats' sharpest line of attack against Republicans since the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision in June, which overturned Roe and - that had guaranteed the right to an abortion in this country. It's been so salient for Democrats because people were overwhelmingly opposed to the outright overturning of Roe.

Now, we have seen Republicans and Democrats take some liberties in ads in many places. They're accusing the other of being extremists. And if you follow these ads, it seems like every candidate either wants no restrictions or no exceptions, even when that's actually not true in lots of cases. But overall, the divide is pretty clear between most Democrats and Republicans. And for Democrats, it's really been energizing. You know, they've seen huge sums of money and activism go into campaigns and a big surge of enthusiasm. When you combine that with how much Republicans were already fired up with them out of power, all signs here are really pointing to a record turnout for this midterm election.

MARTINEZ: I know polls can be tough to trust, but they do continue to show that Americans list inflation as their top concern. So could Democratic candidates then be making a mistake in leaning too much into the abortion messaging?

MONTANARO: Yeah, and that's pretty consistent across the board, and it's something that has worried some Democrats, especially in those swing districts. People like Elissa Slotkin, congresswoman in Michigan, have tried to make a point of talking about what she and other Democrats have done, and here's something she said in a recent debate about that.

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ELISSA SLOTKIN: I authored a bill that said we should suspend the federal gas tax, pressured the president to open up the strategic national reserves because gas under - the price of gas underlies so much of that inflation. And then taking costs off people's books - right? - passing prescription drug legislation that starts in January that lowers the price of insulin, of drugs in general, for anyone on Medicare. So it's not perfect. If there was a silver bullet on inflation, it would have been fired.

MONTANARO: Yeah, so there's the problem there is that it's difficult to make a positive case on inflation when there aren't easy fixes. And Democrats control the White House and Congress. We know presidents get far more credit and far more blame for the economy than they deserve. And people are in a very sour mood right now. Seventy percent of people in our last poll said that the country is headed in the wrong direction. And voters are saying they trust Republicans more on the economy. That makes it much easier for Republicans to simply blame Democrats, especially in those swing districts, most of which are in center-right places.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks a lot.

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

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.