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The Downballot: How competitive is your House district? With Stephen Wolf (transcript)

David Beard:

Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, Contributing Editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir:

And I’m David Nir, Political Director of Daily Kos. The Downballot is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. And just as a reminder, please subscribe to The Downballot wherever you listen to podcasts, and leave us a five-star rating and review.

David Beard:

We’re back from the holiday weekend and we have a ton to cover. So what’s going to be in today’s episode?

David Nir:

Oh man, do we ever. We have the totally wild results from Alaska’s special election for its lone House seat. We have money troubles at the NRSC. Republicans are indeed in disarray. There were the results of the Massachusetts primary, which we’re going to recap, and then we will preview the final primaries of the year coming up next week in New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

David Nir:

After that, we will be joined by longtime Daily Kos Elections writer, Stephen Wolf, who will be discussing with us a brand-new data set that Daily Kos Elections is particularly proud to publish this week. We just released complete data for all 435 congressional districts, breaking down the results of the 2020 Presidential Election for the new districts that will be used in the November midterms. We have a lot to chew on, so please join us for the ride.

David Nir:

So Beard, we took off last week, which means that we missed out on covering the amazing, stunning results in the special election for Alaska’s lone-at-large House seat that Democrat, Mary Peltola, won. But the fun is by no means over yet because there’s going to be a rematch in November for the full term. So get us up to speed on this and tell us about all the craziness.

David Beard:

It has been a wild time in Alaska and really for Democrats in general after the amazing result in New York-19. To have this to follow so soon after has been really incredible. But as you said, Democrat and former State Representative, Mary Peltola, defeated former governor and Republican, Sarah Palin, by a 51-49 margin in the final round of the ranked-choice voting in the special election.

David Beard:

Now, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, Peltola had 40% of the vote in the first round, while Palin had 31% and fellow Republican, Nick Begich, had 28%. But when Begich was eliminated, obviously there was a possibility that most of his voters would go to Palin and put her over the top, but that is not what happened.

David Beard:

Begich voters did go for Palin over Peltola, but only by a 50 to 29% margin with the rest exhausting their ballots. So they didn’t put either Peltola or Palin as a second choice, and so their votes were simply eliminated for the final round.

David Beard:

This is a far bigger upset for Democrats than New York-19, which Biden won in 2020. Though of course, candidate quality was clearly a factor here where Palin was a very unpopular Republican candidate, and Peltola was a very good Democrat, but certainly Palin went a long way in helping Democrats pick up this seat.

David Beard:

Now, national Republicans are, of course, incredibly mad at ranked-choice voting for somehow causing this result, which doesn’t make any sense because as we saw, there were basically three main candidates: Peltola, Palin, and Begich. And under a normal circumstance, Palin and Begich would’ve been in a Republican primary, and presumably Palin would’ve won that primary.

David Beard:

She got more votes in what ended up being the top three. There’s no reason to think she wouldn’t have won a Republican primary and then you would’ve just had a Peltola-Palin matchup just as we did in the final round, which Peltola won by two points. So I guess there’s this idea that maybe some voters would’ve changed their mind over time if Palin had been the nominee. But that seems such a stretch when we just have a result of Peltola versus Palin and Peltola winning.

David Beard:

So really it’s just enormous sour grapes because the Republicans are mad because they lost a seat that they think they deserved to win no matter what. And so they’re just going to blame the system, blame anything else for the fact that they had a really unpopular candidate who got the most votes between her and Begich and ended up losing to the Democrat.

David Beard:

And we’re just going to see this played out again in November. Both Palin and Begich called for each other to drop out. Neither one of them did. And so as a result, they’re both going to be on the November ballot. If things stay the same, Palin will probably beat Begich and go to the final round.

David Beard:

It’s of course, conceivable, some Republicans in Alaska decide, “Maybe we should try our luck with Begich as our first choice and see if he can beat Peltola in the final round.” But it’ll be interesting to see if anybody really changes or we just end up with a very similar result as the special election since it was so recently taken.

David Nir:

To add onto that, a huge problem for Republicans is that Begich and Palin spent the entire run up to this special election completely body-slamming one another. And pure logic and common sense says that in a ranked-choice election, that’s the exact opposite of what you should do. You should be making a play for each other’s supporters, and they simply refused to do that, Palin in particular. So like you said, there’s every reason to think the same thing will play out again.

David Nir:

And then the other half of it is Republicans and some analysts trying to hand wave this result away by saying, “Well, Palin is a particularly unpopular candidate.” Okay, she is. But guess what? So are tons of other Republican candidates on the ballot from coast to coast. We’re talking about people like Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, also in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia.

David Nir:

There are so many badly flawed, deeply problematic Republicans on the ballot everywhere. This is a huge systemic problem. You can’t just wave it away and say, “Oh, because Palin.” No. This is something that is going to cause the GOP problems everywhere across the country in November.

David Beard:

There’s a very real chance that it will cost them the Senate, and they’re welcome to keep waving it away, but that’s the reality.

David Nir:

That is the reality, and that is the perfect time for us to talk about their Senate woes. On paper, of course, it looks so easy for the GOP. It’s a midterm. They’re out of power. They only need to net one seat in the Senate. But that one net seat is looking so, so difficult.

David Nir:

We have seen many stories in recent weeks about financial woes at the NRSC, that’s the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s official campaign arm that is responsible for trying to help Republicans win a majority in the Senate. And the news really crescendoed a few weeks ago when it was reported that the NRSC had cut more than $13 million from ad reservations in four key races, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin, because of fundraising woes at the committee.

David Nir:

It’s amazing that Republicans are having such a hard time raising money since the wind, in theory, should be at their backs. But now, the extent of, and in particular, the reason for those woes has really come center stage. The New York Times published a lengthy and just absolutely delicious piece over the holiday weekend. If you didn’t read it, you should definitely Google for it. This piece dissected what has gone wrong at the NRSC.

David Nir:

Now, I’m not going to cover the entire article on this show. Like I said, you really should go and read it. But it focuses, in particular, on the abysmal leadership of Florida Senator, Rick Scott, who is the committee’s chair. And especially on the fact that the NRSC spent $23 million to try to acquire new donors through online advertising.

David Nir:

It was a huge, huge failure. Those new donors only gave $6 million. So that means for this giant multimillion-dollar experiment, the NRSC wound up losing $17 million. And in fact, there are questions about whether there were conflicts of interest in terms of the firms that were hired to run these ads. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about that. Especially if Republicans fail to retake the Senate in November. There was one GOP consultant who said in this piece, “The spending wouldn’t matter if the polling numbers looked better.” Yeah, but the polling numbers do suck and so that’s why the spending matters.

David Nir:

And as a result, there’s almost open warfare between Scott and Mitch McConnell, who recently complained publicly about “candidate quality,” talking about the poor quality of so many Republican recruits. Scott, who is truly histrionic and does not take well to criticism and does not play well in teams, responded with an op-ed in the conservative Washington Examiner, saying that complaints like that were “treasonous to the conservative cause.” He later claimed that he wasn’t talking about Mitch McConnell, but I think absolutely no one believes that.

David Nir:

Here’s the thing about candidate quality, though. There have been lots of complaints on the GOP side about the NRSC staying out of GOP primaries and allowing sucky candidates to win. The difficulty though, is that if you do decide as an organ of the DC establishment to take sides in a Republican primary, there’s a really good chance of this backfiring.

David Nir:

There’s a great example from 2010, when Republicans were ecstatic that moderate governor Charlie Crist wanted to run for Senate. And the NRSC actually endorsed him. And conservatives completely flipped their lids. And Marco Rubio, who was then in the state legislature, decided to primary Crist. And it was such a backfire that Crist wound up quitting the primary and becoming an independent and trying to win the Senate seat as an independent. And he, of course, failed. Though Rubio, it should be noted, didn’t win a majority of the vote in that race. Republicans got lucky with Rubio seizing the nomination from their anointed candidate. But in many other cases, there would be a great chance, like I said, of a total backfire against an establishment pick.

David Nir:

And the other thing is it’s not really clear in a lot of these primaries that the other choices were all that much better. I mean, Josh Mandel in Ohio, instead of JD Vance. Josh Mandel sucks. We could recite the names of these runners-up until the cows come home. But this, like we said, in regard to Sarah Palin and the Alaska special election, is just an ongoing endemic problem for Republicans.

David Nir:

And there’s a good reason for it. Republicans don’t believe in majority rule. They believe in minority rule. They don’t believe in needing to appeal to a majority of voters. And that has led them down this wild rabbit hole of supporting completely unpopular positions. And then all of a sudden, when they do have to face the electorate, the candidates who believe in the GOP agenda and Trumpist ideology wind up being unacceptable to many, many voters. This isn’t really something that they can fix simply by having the NRSC stick its nose into more primaries.

David Beard:

Speaking of Republican candidates who are totally outside the mainstream and are causing problems for their own party, the Massachusetts primary was this week. And there their primary for governor, former state Rep., Geoff Diehl, who was endorsed by Trump and called the 2020 election rigged, defeated his more moderate opponent, 55 to 45 in the primary. To theoretically succeed fellow Republican retiring governor Charlie Baker.

David Beard:

But of course, Diehl is no Charlie Baker. He’s far, far to the right of Baker and any of the many more moderate Republican governors that Massachusetts has had. He lost the 2018 Senate race to Elizabeth Warren by a massive margin. He’s going to be a massive underdog to Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey in the fall. And he joins other Republican gubernatorial nominees, including Maryland state Rep. Dan Cox and Illinois state Senator Darren Bailey, as Trump endorsed candidates in blue states who are marching their own party off a cliff.

David Beard:

And as much as I haven’t liked it in the past few decades, the GOP has had a long history of successfully winning governor’s mansions in blue states by nominating moderate or even independent-minded candidates who voters who normally vote for Democrats, particularly at the federal level, are willing to support at the state level. In Massachusetts and Maryland, the GOP has held the office more often in recent years than the Democrats have. And they’ve been able to win in both red wave years and blue wave years.

David Beard:

And while there’s the odd Phil Scott in Vermont that’s still around, it’s hard to imagine that the next Vermont GOP gubernatorial nominee after Scott retires or loses is going to be as moderate if there’s a Trumpist option on the primary ballot. Ultimately, as long as Trump is a major force in the party and is more interested in personal fealty than winning elections in blue states, the GOP is not going to be able to compete like they used to in these gubernatorial races. And we are seeing this same problem throughout the GOP, as you talked about with the Senate races.

David Nir:

We do have one final primary night of 2022 coming up next week, also in New England. New Hampshire and Rhode Island will bring up the rear in picking nominees. If you ask me, it’s ridiculously late to wait for primaries, but we want to preview them nonetheless.

David Nir:

In New Hampshire, in all three races for Congress, Republicans and, or Democrats are trying to interfere in the GOP primaries, either to ensure Republicans pick the worst choice, or to avoid doing exactly that. In the Senate race, Republicans would love to be able to seriously challenge Democratic Senator, Maggie Hassan, who won by only around 1,000 votes in 2016.

David Nir:

But the candidate who was leading in the polls is retired Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who is completely Loony Tunes. He called Republican Governor Chris Sununu “A Chinese communist sympathizer running a family business that ‘supports terrorism’.” His opponent is state Senate President Chuck Morse, who is a very bog-standard Republican.

David Nir:

Like I said, the polls have Bolduc leading, but a Super PAC that is believed to have ties to Mitch McConnell is spending millions to try to stop Bolduc. Meanwhile, the Senate Majority PAC, which is the largest Democratic Super PAC that gets involved in Senate races, has spent millions of dollars trying to attack Morse to lift up Bolduc. There are even reports suggesting that the NRSC and national Republicans in general might not touch New Hampshire if Bolduc is the nominee. Democrats would be so grateful if that happened.

David Nir:

Similar things are playing out in the GOP primaries in both New Hampshire’s 1st and 2nd districts. In the 1st district, Democratic Congressman Chris Pappas, is a top GOP target. This is a swingy seat that Biden would’ve won by about six points. National Republicans are supporting their 2020 nominee, Matt Mowers, while trying to stop a 25-year-old former Trump White House staffer named Karoline Leavitt.

David Nir:

And the 2nd district — this is the bluer of the two districts, but one that has been competitive in the past — Republicans are trying to unseat Democratic representative, Annie Kuster. Democrats in this case, have spent more than half a million to try to boost former Hillsborough County treasurer Robert Burns, who is the real Trumpist candidate here. Republicans haven’t stepped in here, but would prefer Keene mayor, George Hansel, who has Sununu’s endorsement and, remarkably, identifies as pro-choice. Good luck to him winning a GOP primary.

David Nir:

And finally, there are a couple of races to keep an eye on in Rhode Island. Governor Dan McKee was elevated to the top job when Gina Raimondo left to join Biden’s cabinet last year. He faces several opponents in the Democratic primary. His main rival seems to be Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and former CVS executive Helena Foulkes is also in the race. The contest has gotten rather nasty in the last two weeks, but it seems to be a very close one.

 

And then there is also the state’s open 2nd congressional district where several Democrats are running to succeed retiring Congressman Jim Langevin. The front runner appears to be state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who is also very well funded. Republicans think they might be able to snatch the seat, though, in the general election. The winner would face Allan Fung, who’s a former mayor of Cranston and ran for governor twice in recent years. Biden would’ve won this district by a 56-42 margin. But the GOP thinks that [Fung] is a more moderate choice and would give them a chance to flip this seat.

David Beard:

We’ll definitely be covering the results of the New Hampshire primary next week, but stick with us. Coming up: long-time Daily Kos Elections writer Stephen Wolf joined us to discuss the huge project that was just released by Daily Kos Elections that calculated all of the results of the 2020 presidential election for the new congressional districts that are going to be in use this year. Stick with us.

David Nir:

Joining us today for the first time is longtime Daily Kos Elections writer Stephen Wolf, who has been analyzing redistricting plans and drawing many of his own maps for years. Stephen, it’s great to have you here.

Stephen Wolf:

It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

David Nir:

So as Beard mentioned, just before the break, Daily Kos Elections just finished this monumental project to calculate the results of the 2020 presidential election for the new congressional districts that were just created as a result of the most recent round of redistricting. In other words, this is how the 2020 election would have gone had these districts been in place at the time. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about why this data is so important and so widely used, and in particular, if you’re an ordinary person, how this data might be useful to you?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah, so the presidential result in a district is one of the most important data points you can have about how competitive it might be in the next election, and that’s because the decline in split-ticket voting among the electorate means that the presidential results have become very highly correlated with congressional results, especially in the last few election cycles.

Stephen Wolf:

So, what this means is that these results can be very useful for readers because you can look at any district in the country and get a sense of whether it’s likely to be competitive just based on the presidential margin. For instance, a district that voted for Biden or Trump by a single-digit margin is far more likely to be competitive than a district where either candidate won by 20 percentage points or more. And those sorts of districts are almost never competitive.

David Nir:

So you mentioned ticket splitting, and that’s something I’d like to get into a little bit more. One thing analysts often talk about is crossover districts. And what that means is a district that voted for one party for president, but the other for the House. In other words, it voted for Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, but then voted for a Republican member of the House, or vice versa. And that number has declined a lot in recent years. Why did that used to be so high? Why were there so many crossover districts and why have they cratered?

Stephen Wolf:

So in previous decades, candidates or incumbents who were very well known locally, had a moderate reputation or had a record of delivering a lot of tangible results for their district used to have a much greater advantage in vote share over a more generic candidate, and ideologically extreme candidates used to face a much greater penalty. However, in large part because politics has become so much more nationalized and polarized today, those factors can have a much smaller impact on vote choice. However, they can still be very important and closely divided districts for even a very small advantage could prove decisive.

David Beard:

So maybe the most important single number from this data set is what’s known as the ‘median district.’ But before we get into which district is the median district in this set, can you explain the concept for us and why it’s important?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah. So the median district aims to address the question of which party, if any, has an advantage over the other in terms of their share of the national popular vote in a hypothetically tied election. So the way we use it is by determining the margin between the two candidates in every single district and then sorting all the districts from Biden’s biggest margin to Trump’s biggest margin of victory and then looking at the one in the middle. So if we compare the median district to the national popular vote and they’re out of sync with each other, it means that one party has an advantage over the other and the difference between the median district and the national popular vote gives us a rough estimate of how big of a margin the disfavored party needs to win the popular vote by in order to win a majority of districts.

David Beard:

And that of course, is most important for the House where obviously control of the House is based on who wins a majority of the districts. So the new median district and the new data set is Michigan’s 8th district, which is based around Flint. It’s a city a lot of Americans are familiar with, of course, thanks to the infamous water crisis in recent years. Now, Democratic representative Dan Kildee is the incumbent. He’s running for reelection there against Republican Paul Junge. So how would the 2020 presidential election have played out there under the new lines, and why is that significant?

Stephen Wolf:

Biden would’ve won the new eighth district by 50 to 48, which is a margin of about two percentage points. Now, Biden won the national popular vote by about 4.5 percentage points and the difference between the national margin and the margin in the median district is a difference of roughly 2.4 percentage points.

So what that means is that, based on the median district, Democrats would have to win the popular vote by about 2.4 percentage points to have a chance of winning just a bare majority of the districts nationally.

David Nir:

So put another way, Democrats could easily win a majority of the national House vote… in other words, you add up every candidate running as Democrat, every candidate running as a Republican nationwide… Democrats could win a majority of that vote, but still not win a majority of seats in the House?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah, that’s exactly right. And this very thing happened 10 years ago in 2012, where Democrats won the popular vote by over a million more votes than Republicans but Republicans had a very solid majority because they had drawn many more of the congressional districts nationally than Democrats have.

David Nir:

So getting back to the median district as Michigan’s 8th, not only is it 2.4 points to the right of the country as a whole, it’s also to the right of the old median district. Tell us about what that old median district was and why did the median move even further to the right than it already was?

Stephen Wolf:

So one important reason why the new median district is to the right of the old median district is that many previous gerrymanders have become less effective over the past decade as support for the parties in different directions in different places and different areas of the country grew or lost population at different rates. For instance, the Republican gerrymander in Texas was optimized based on Obama-era partisanship, but it came close to breaking down by 2020 thanks to how Trump scrambled the party’s voter coalitions. And under the old gerrymander, Trump and Republicans had very narrowly won several seats in the state, but Republican mapmakers were able to make all those seats double-digit Trump districts in the most recent round of redistricting. And a similar process played out in other states too.

David Nir:

We had a situation where, under the old maps, the median district was already to the right of the nation as a whole, and now it’s even further to the right than it used to be. And it sounds like you’re saying that increasingly aggressive Republican gerrymandering is responsible for taking what was an already tilted playing field in their favor and tilting it even more in their favor.

Stephen Wolf:

That’s correct. Although one silver lining is that the new median district, even though it’s worse than the old median district, is still much better than it was 10 years ago when Mitt Romney won the median district by 5.5 percentage points more than his national margin, meaning he won a majority of districts in 2012 despite losing the national popular vote. And that didn’t happen for Biden and Trump under the new map.

David Nir:

What was that old median district that Mitt Romney managed to win?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah, in the 2012 election, the median district was Washington’s 3rd, which Mitt Romney won by 1.6 percentage points, even though Obama had won the national popular vote margin by 3.9 percentage points.

David Nir:

So we started the decade with the median more than five points to the right of the nation as a whole, and ended it with it only two points to the right of the nation as a whole. Is that a trend that you think we might see again in the coming decade?

 

Stephen Wolf:

It’s really hard to say. Gerrymanders do have a tendency to kind of decline in strength over the course of a decade like we saw in Texas in the last decade, but there is also a distinct possibility that the United States Supreme Court will make it much easier for a lot of these Republican legislatures to draw even more extreme gerrymanders as soon as even next year.

David Nir:

So, Daily Kos Elections has really become the gold standard for this type of congressional data. And it’s really interesting because I think most people would expect that you could just go to the government for this, the federal government would have this data somewhere, or at least all the states would have the data that were easily accessible, but that’s not really the case, is it?

Stephen Wolf:

No, it isn’t. And this is in large part because many states don’t have a centralized process or website where they process election results and publish them. And instead, they rely on county or sometimes even municipal governments to do it for them. And oftentimes, these local election offices are very badly underfunded and they’re relying on outdated technology, meaning some don’t even publish results in their websites. And in those cases, we had to contact them individually to ask them for their results.

David Nir:

So some states, though, are pretty good about this. Minnesota, for instance, I think does a really good job. They typically calculate what we call Pres-by-CD, the presidential results by congressional district, themselves. But some states are notoriously awful. Why don’t you tell us about some of the worst of the worst?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah. So two definitely come to mind for different reasons. And one is one you would guess, it’s Mississippi, where they are publishing all the results by county, but instead of using spreadsheets or even HTML formatting, they’re uploading scanned PDFs of hand-filled charts, some of which are so badly rotated that the computer can’t even scan it, and you have to translate it into a spreadsheet number by yourself.

David Nir:

Wait, so you’re saying that these are handwritten election results?

Stephen Wolf:

That’s right. So they have some election official filling out a chart with the number of votes in a given precinct in the county, and then they’re scanning a picture of that and uploading it to their website.

David Nir:

That’s completely wild. So what was your other favorite example?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah, so this one was in the city of Detroit in Michigan, where the elections office there has a way of publishing absentee ballot results differently than election day results. And the absentee ballot results are tied to their own set of precincts in the city that don’t correspond to election day precincts. But instead of just putting these numbers for the absentee results in a spreadsheet, what they did was they created a spreadsheet where they inserted clip art into the cells to tell you which absentee voter precincts correspond to each particular election day precinct.

David Nir:

I didn’t even know clip art could do that.

Stephen Wolf:

No, and it’s funny, because someone clearly had these data points in a spreadsheet format and then decided to turn them into clip art. I mean, that would just never have occurred to me in a million trillion years. But the stuff that you find from some of these local election offices is truly amazing.

David Nir:

So in this big data set, are there any superlatives or really interesting details that stand out to you now that we have a finished set?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah. So some of the most interesting data points involve looking at things like which district is the closest in the nation. And in this recent round of redistricting, that ended up being Arizona’s 6th district, which is in the Tucson area. Joe Biden won that by a 49.3 to 49.2 margin, which was 0.1 percentage point margin, roughly about 300 votes. And unsurprisingly, the Arizona 6th is home to a very competitive election in this cycle. The data also tells us which district is the reddest or bluest in the country, and in terms of the reddest, that’s Alabama’s 4th district, in the northern part of Alabama. Trump won that seat by 80 to 19. The bluest district in the country is approximately a tie between Maryland’s 4th congressional district, which is in the D.C. suburbs, and Pennsylvania’s 3rd district, which is in Philadelphia. And both of those districts backed Joe Biden by 90 to 9.

David Nir:

It is safe to say that those two districts will not see competitive general elections in November. But, of course, this data is important nonetheless, because primaries can matter so much in districts like that. So it is very useful, nonetheless. Now, of course, you’re a part of the DKE team, Stephen, and folks can find your contributions in our newsletter, the Morning Digest, but where can they find you on Twitter?

Stephen Wolf:

Yeah, my handle is at @politicswolf, that’s “politics” followed by W-O-L-F.

David Nir:

Great, well, thank you so much for joining us. We have been talking with Stephen Wolf about a new data set just released by Daily Kos Elections, the 2020 presidential results broken down for the new post-redistricting congressional districts that will be used in the November midterms. Thank you so much for joining us.

Stephen Wolf:

Thanks for having me.

David Nir:

So, of course, you’re wondering where can I find this awesome data? The easiest way is to go to our Twitter account, that’s @DKElections, and find our pinned tweet. That’ll take you to a post that has all the data you could ask for.

David Nir:

That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Stephen Wolf for joining us today. The Downballot comes out every Thursday, everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing thedownballot@dailykos.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to The Downballot, and leave us a five-star rating and a review. Thanks to our producer, Cara Zelaya, and editor, Tim Einenkel. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.

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