WASHINGTON—It’s a referendum on President Donald Trump. According to Trump’s predecessor, it’s also a referendum on the very character of the United States.
Polarized and energized, American voters will cast their ballots on Tuesday in a midterm election that will determine control of the U.S. Congress and indicate how the country feels about Trump’s divisive presidency.
Turnout is expected to be high. A driving force, on both sides, is rage: rage toward the president; rage the president has tried to foment against migrants, the news media and Democrats, among others.
This is not a “the economy, stupid” kind of election. Despite the low unemployment rate, Democrats are favoured to win the popular vote and win control of the House of Representatives on the intensity of opposition to Trump among people of colour and college-educated white women. Trump, going with his gut over the guidance of some party officials, has chosen a fearmongering focus on immigration over a sunny-days message of rising prosperity.
In a three-rally blitz on Monday, Trump painted an apocalyptic and wildly dishonest picture of what might happen if voters pick the “Democrat mob” over Republicans: cities overrun with dangerous illegal immigrants, steel mills shut down, citizens kicked off their health care.
Democrats, who have campaigned on health care above all else, closed with a more factual warning: Republicans have long tried to replace Obamacare with laws that would weaken protections for people with pre-existing health conditions, and they will do so again if they are given new majorities.
The midterms battleground is much wider than in presidential elections, with competitive contests everywhere from the plains of North Dakota to the wealthy California coastal suburbs of Orange County. Hovering over every race is Trump, who is both a blessing and a curse for his party.
The election will be decided in two distinct kinds of places. Many of the key House races are in affluent suburban districts where Trump underperformed in 2016 and polls suggest many women have grown ever more dismayed by his behaviour. Republican House strategists worry his scorched-earth rhetoric will do more harm than good in these districts.
But many of the key Senate battlegrounds are conservative states, like Missouri and Montana, where Trump excelled in 2016 and remains popular. Republicans are favoured to maintain or slightly expand their slim 51-seat to 49-seat Senate advantage, and Trump’s ability to strategically inflame white-working-class and rural conservatives may be a key factor.
Democrats need 23 seats to take the House. Aided by Republican retirements and an unprecedented flood of donations, most of them from women, they appear to be nearly guaranteed to gain at least somewhere in the mid-to-high teens. But 23 is no sure thing: polls suggest their leads are narrow in many of the seats that could push them into the mid-20s or even the mid-30s.
The final polls varied, but they were generally good for Democrats. A CNN poll gave Democrats the largest margin, a 13-point advantage; an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had the Democratic lead at 7 points. Forecasting website FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats an 88 per cent chance to win the House, Republicans an 81 per cent chance to keep the Senate.
Even if Republicans do hold on in the Senate, a Democratic takeover of the House would be a pivotal moment in Trump’s presidency. Democrats would gain the power to thwart Republicans’ legislative agenda, launch investigations into Trump’s activities, subpoena his officials, obtain his tax returns, and, possibly, to impeach him at some point in the future.
A Democratic House victory would also serve as a warning to Republican officeholders about their policies, their devotion to the president, and the brand of campaigning they have chosen this time. Trump has closed the race with a torrent of lies, mostly about immigration, and a television ad so racist that Fox News announced it would stop airing it. “The character of our country is on the ballot,” former president Barack Obama said on Twitter on Monday.
Trump began last week to warn that a loss might be coming, suggesting it would not be a big problem: “My whole life, you know what I say? ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll just figure it out.’” Bracing for defeat, he said on a conference call with supporters Monday that he wasn’t sure the election could fairly be considered a referendum on him. But at a rally in Cleveland later, he conceded, “In a sense, I am on the ticket.”
The surest sign of Trump’s concern about the House came in an interview with conservative Sinclair Broadcasting. For the first time in his presidency, he offered an actual answer when he was asked if he had any regrets.
“I would say tone. I would like to have a much softer tone,” he said. “I feel, to a certain extent, I have no choice. But maybe I do.”
Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8