Two years of political volatility will culminate Tuesday when voters for the first time since the stunning 2016 election render a nationwide judgment on whether Trumpism is a historic anomaly or a reflection of modern-day America.
As the midterms roared into their final weekend — with the biggest names in both parties exhorting their followers to vote — uncertainty enveloped the contest amid signs that tightening races appeared headed toward dramatic finishes.
Just how many House seats Democrats might pick up — they need a net gain of 23 to win the majority — remained unclear. Republicans are favored to keep control of the Senate, but enough top-tier races from Florida to Nevada to Tennessee and Missouri were sufficiently close that the outcome was in doubt. And in two closely watched gubernatorial races, where African American Democrats in Georgia and Florida are seeking to make history, the contests looked to be coming down to the wire.
Much is on the line.
Tuesday brings the first test of whether the outpouring of liberal energy — visible in the sea of pink hats during the Women’s March as well as the record number of female candidates, the protesters who showed up at airports after the Muslim travel ban and the activists who coalesced around “the resistance” — can be converted into votes for what had been a beleaguered Democratic Party. It also will demonstrate whether Trump can mobilize his army of backers — “the silent majority,” as he termed it in 2016 — to vote for other Republicans when his name is not atop the ballot.
The outcome will set the tone for the bigger battle to come, the 2020 presidential race, with Trump testing his messages and what is likely to be a crowded field of Democrats scouring the landscape for clues about how to challenge the president.
The anxiety, and energy, are palpable on both sides.
Trump, closing the campaign with racially charged warnings about an approaching migrant “invasion,” told cheering supporters in Indiana that the country will decide whether “we let the radical Democrats take control of Congress and take a giant wrecking ball to our economy and to our future.”
Former president Barack Obama, who has emerged in the campaign’s closing days as an aggressive campaigner for Democrats, told supporters in Miami that the “character of our country is on the ballot.”
A sense of foreboding, meanwhile, was setting in for many Democrats, who want to believe the experts who say their party has an edge in the battle for the House but recall the pain of their misplaced optimism two years ago. They are haunted by the failure in 2016 to turn out enough black, Hispanic and young voters — and can’t fathom how they will feel about their country if the Trump-led GOP prevails again.
“It all started in 2016. I sat there and cried that night,” said Stacee Wilhite, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom who became involved in politics this year for the first time, campaigning for a Democratic candidate north of Los Angeles. “We tell each other, ‘We can’t let up. We have to keep pushing. Just look at what happened in 2016.’ We could lose by one seat. That’s what makes us so nervous.”
The intensity on both sides has been apparent in the surge of early voting. More than 33 million early votes have been cast, surpassing the 2014 midterm voting totals and in some places approaching presidential-level turnout, according to Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who tracks early voting.
Adding to the tension are the simmering, raw emotions that remain after an outbreak of apparently politically motivated violence. First there was a string of mail bombs sent to Trump critics by a supporter of the president. Then came the massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, allegedly carried out by an anti-Semitic gunman who had espoused anger at the same caravan of Central American refugees that has drawn the ire of Trump and his allies.
Many Democrats have argued that Trump’s response to those tragedies — further stoking fear and trying to run ads that CNN deemed too racist to carry — have helped them attract previously pro-GOP suburban voters, just as Trump built a new coalition in 2016 by usurping working-class voters who had been loyal Democrats for a generation.
“It is different from two years ago in terms of unequivocal enthusiasm that [Democrats] have to vote, how open independents are to hearing an argument and how necessary it is to make sure we correct whatever vile suppression of the vote is being put out there by the Republicans,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an interview.
If Republicans see large losses, losing control of one or both chambers of Congress, Trump could be forced to recalibrate and give Democrats a chance to pounce — issuing subpoenas, launching investigations and potentially starting impeachment proceedings.
But if Republicans maintain control, their victory could reaffirm Trump’s vision of the country, emboldening him to pursue his immigration policies, crack down on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and renew efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“Handing the Democrats the keys to our government in 4 days would be no different from handing matches to an arsonist,” read a fundraising email from the Republican National Committee on Friday. “They would have full power to launch any investigation they want against anyone they want, and without any corroborating evidence.”
Trump, who has thrown himself into the campaign fray with an intensity unusual for presidents in midterms, is trying to do what then-President Obama failed to achieve in the 2010 and 2014 elections: Motivate the legions of supporters who cast ballots for him for president to vote in midterm elections for other Democrats.
“Nobody thought of the midterms as being that big a deal for years — for years,” Trump said at a Thursday night rally in Columbia, Mo. “You know, you hear ‘midterms,’ it’s like let’s go to sleep, right? This year, we’re breaking every single record in attendance for the midterms.”
Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rallies are ostensibly orchestrated to help lift local Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, House and governorships, but Trump has been focusing mostly on himself — and has sounded more like a candidate for reelection than a surrogate for others. He speaks for an hour or more at each stop about what he describes as record-breaking accomplishments and what he terms “the greatest political movement in American history.”
At a rally in the past week in Estero, Fla., Trump singled out two area congressmen up for reelection, Reps. Francis Rooney and Matt Gaetz. But he said nothing to tout their records in Congress on behalf of Floridians and instead praised each for cable-television battle scars suffered on Trump’s behalf.
“So great to me on television,” Trump said of Rooney. “I love it when he defends me.”
The election on Tuesday will also help answer the question of whether Trump’s movement is lasting, broad and transferrable — or whether, like so much else, it is singular to him.
Many House incumbents struggling to hold seats in suburban areas are keeping their distance from the president because he is so toxic in their districts, while some Senate candidates in red states are casting themselves as mini-Trumps.
Consider the contrast between two Republican Senate challengers who campaigned this past week with Trump. In Florida, a perennial swing state, Gov. Rick Scott has trod carefully in his dealings with the president as he runs for Senate. Scott has appeared with Trump mostly at official events, such as the president’s visit last month to survey hurricane damage in the Florida Panhandle, but Scott took a gamble and hugged Trump on stage at Wednesday’s rally in Estero. Moments later, however, Trump railed about birthright citizenship and suggested “criminals” and “drug dealers” were benefiting from the constitutional right to citizenship for children born in the United States, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, complicating Scott’s appeal to Latino voters.
The next night in Missouri, a state Trump won by 19 percentage points in 2016, Senate candidate Josh Hawley was gushing in his adoration of Trump, praising the president’s record on border security, taxes and judicial nominations. “Because of the leadership of Donald Trump, on November the 6th, we’re going to call Claire McCaskill fired!” Hawley said, handing the lectern over to Trump.
If Democrats are successful Tuesday, it could be a day of firsts.
More women than ever are running for Congress this year. More than 120 candidates are running for the House for the first time.
Democrats have nominees that could become the first Muslim women, the first Palestinian American, the first Native American woman in Congress.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is 29, is poised to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Stacey Abrams in Georgia could become the country’s first female black governor, while in Florida, Andrew Gillum could become his state’s first African American governor.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jared Polis in Colorado could be the first openly gay person elected as governor.
The challenge for Republicans can be seen in voters like Donald Burch, a 68-year-old semiretired salesman who attended Trump’s rally Friday night in Indianapolis.
“I’m pretty happy because he kept his promises he made when he was running and he’s willing to stand up and be counted,” Burch said. “You can’t argue with his results.”
But even as he stood in a snaking line to attend Trump’s rally, he would not publicly commit to voting for Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun. Burch said he is considering voting to reelect Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) because he believes “without a doubt” it makes for better government when one party holds the presidency and another controls Congress.
“No one power can go unchecked,” Burch said.
Some GOP allies are concerned that congressional Republicans have not sufficiently adopted the policies on which Trump won in 2016. They floundered on an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and now many are running on a pledge to preserve its most popular provision, which ensures health-care coverage for those with preexisting conditions.
They passed a tax-cut bill that many initially touted but which could cost Republican seats in suburban areas because it limited real estate tax deductions that are popular in upper-middle-class enclaves. Republicans have also continued talking about hard-line immigration proposals even though they have not been able to pass any legislation even though they control all levers of power.
“If I asked you right now what Trump’s slogan was two years ago, you could tell me,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican consultant who was Trump’s 2016 campaign pollster. “What’s the Republican slogan for Tuesday? What’s their message for Tuesday? There is no message. People vote for a reason. You need a reason.”
“Right now, the only one with a message is the president. The president is single-handedly keeping them in the game,” he added. “We should be doing better, but, unfortunately, we didn’t pass most of the president’s agenda. We didn’t repeal health care, we didn’t build the wall . . . If we don’t win the House, it’s because we didn’t get enough done.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.