What's at stake in the midterms? Both sides warn the future of our democracy is at risk

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Democrats have midterms momentum, but remember 2016 and don’t get comfortable, says columnist Paul Brandus.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – What’s at stake? 

Democrats warn that the midterm elections on Tuesday will undermine the future of America’s democracy unless President Trump’s authoritarian instincts are curtailed. Republicans argue that the nation’s sovereignty is at risk if Democrats prevail.

“Fear is the dominant issue, bar none,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. 

That’s particularly remarkable because the economy is strong and the nation doesn’t face an instant foreign policy crisis, although there are trouble spots around the world. Instead of a sense of peace and prosperity, though, the final weeks of the campaign have been dominated by violence and conflict: the mass murder of worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the mailing of improvised explosive devices to more than a dozen leading Democrats, the images of a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers making their way across southern Mexico.

The campaign has crystallized clashing visions of what defines the nation: America First, or an increasingly diverse melting pot?

“The character of our country is on the ballot,” declared former president Barack Obama, back on the stump in Miami.

President Trump’s message is dark. “If you don’t want America to be overrun by masses of illegal aliens and giant caravans,” he warned at a rally in Missouri, “you better vote Republican.”

Trump is the dividing force in this election, the president who since his inauguration two years ago has united his party and inflamed the opposing one. While he isn’t on the ballot, he is at the center of both the conflict and its consequences. The midterm results will shape the second two years of his term and set the landscape for the re-election campaign that already is underway.

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Most combustible midterm in a generation

Calamitous language isn’t exactly new to American politics, and the assertion that just about every election is crucial has become a political trope. But the 2018 midterms have been the most combustible of any in more than a generation. The arguments are fiercer and the lines more sharply drawn than even those marked by clashes over war (Vietnam in 1966, Iraq in 2006) and scandal (Watergate in 1974, impeachment in 1998). 

“One electorate has its hair on fire and thinks that Donald Trump is a threat to the republic,” Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said of Democrats. “For Republicans, there’s an ominous warning about chaos, that the resistance movement will be the breakdown of law and order.”

Both sides see “cataclysmic scenarios,” Jacobs said.

One sign of this year’s high passions is the rise in early voting in states from Arizona to Wisconsin. By early Sunday, political scientist Michael McDonald of the University of Florida had counted a record 34.3 million people who already had voted by absentee or mail ballot, or at early voting stations. In the last midterm election, in 2014, only 20.5 million voted early; this year’s total may be close to double that. 

In an incendiary closing argument, Trump spotlighted a web video created by his campaign that asserted, without evidence, that Democrats were complicit in the deaths of two California sheriff’s deputies who were killed by an illegal Mexican immigrant. A menacing figure, he is shown mocking police in court. “Who else would Democrats let in?” the ad demands. (In fact, court records show his case was handled primarily by Republicans.) 

Critics accused Trump of exploiting the nation’s racial divisions, exaggerating the threat from immigrants, and misusing the powers of his office by vowing to ban birthright citizenship by executive order and by dispatching thousands of military troops to the southern border to repel the caravan, which – traveling on foot – is still weeks away from reaching the U.S. 

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, in line to chair the Homeland Security committee if Democrats win control of the House of Representatives, called the president’s threats “a political stunt aimed at whipping up fear and xenophobia just days before the election.”

The election returns will direct but won’t dissipate the nation’s political heat. If Democrats win a majority in the House, as nonpartisan analysts and strategists on both sides now predict, they will gain the authority to launch vigorous congressional oversight of the Trump administration in general and the president in particular. 

Democrats also are hopeful they will win governorships now held by Republicans in Rust Belt states that were key in electing Trump — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A half-dozen other states that now have GOP governors have competitive contests as well, from swing states like Florida and Iowa to traditional Republican strongholds in Georgia and Kansas.

Victories in state capitols will have repercussions for congressional redistricting after the 2020 Census and during the 2020 campaign, when presidential nominees could benefit from friendly governors’ statewide standing and their political organizations.

One thing at stake in this election, then, is the next one.

More: Midterms: Races for governor, statehouses will help decide control of Congress for a decade

A difference in battlegrounds

Trump and other Republicans are increasingly optimistic that the GOP will maintain control of the Senate, perhaps even bolstering their current 51-seat majority.  “I know we’re doing well in the Senate,” Trump boasted to reporters, though on Friday he acknowledged for the first time that they could lose the House. “It could happen,” he said at a rally in Huntington, W.V.

That disparity reflects an accident of the map: Ten Democratic-held Senate seats on the ballot are in states that Trump carried in 2016, some by double-digit margins. That has put Democrats on the defensive in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota, and it has made winning Senate control an uphill struggle.

In contrast, many of the most crucial House battlegrounds have turned out to be suburban districts where many college-educated voters, especially women, have been repelled by Trump’s disruptive rhetoric and his hard line policies toward immigrants and others. Democrats need a net gain of at least 23 seats to take control. 

The split decision, if that happens — Democrats flipping the House while Republicans hold the Senate — would give each side bragging rights. GOP partisans would focus on the Senate outcome as “a huge validation” of Trump, Charlie Cook of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicted, while Democratic partisans would argue that the House takeover was “a huge repudiation” of him.

“Everybody wakes up the next morning happy because they heard what they wanted to hear,” Cook said. 

Up for election Tuesday are all 435 House seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats. Governors will be elected in 36 states and three territories, as will state legislators across the country. Mayoral contests are being held in 27 of the nation’s 100 biggest cities, among them Louisville, Nashville, Newark, Phoenix, Reno, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.  

More: Young voter turnout in midterm elections is often dismal. This year could be different

What’s at stake for both parties?

The power to probe. Democrats will get more than a gavel if they win control of the House. They gain the ability to set the agenda and the authority to convene hearings, call witnesses and issue subpoenas. Many of the prospective new chairmen already are making plans. At the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York says he will investigate corruption accusations against Trump and allegations of sexual misconduct and perjury against newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, now the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says he will pursue alleged fraud and abuse at the White House and in agencies, including the EPA. 

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, in line to chair the Intelligence Committee, says he will revive the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians who interfered in the 2016 election.

A Senate safety net. Maintaining Republican control of the Senate would make it easier for the White House to win confirmation of judicial nominees and of officials in the Cabinet, where turnover is expected. It would make it harder for Democrats, even if they rule the House, to pass legislation that Republicans don’t also support or that puts the White House on the spot.

In the most cataclysmic scenario for Trump, if the House considered articles of impeachment against the president, a GOP-controlled Senate could be a backstop in a trial over whether to remove him from office. 

The demography of democracy. The midterms already have broken new ground in the gender, race, religion and sexual orientation of candidates, mostly Democrats. Among the competitive races, Georgia could become the first state to elect an African American woman as governor. Kansas and New Mexico could send the first Native American women to serve in Congress. Michigan and Minnesota are poised to elect the first Muslim women to Congress.

An unprecedented number of women have been nominated by the major parties for office this year, in part spurred by opposition to Trump and by the #MeToo movement. Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics reports records at every level: 23 female nominees for the Senate, 237 for the House, 16 for governor. While women are partisans, to be sure, some academic studies have found that female officeholders tend to govern differently than male ones. If the number of women in office significantly increases, they could change the issues that get traction and the way some political coalitions are forged. 

More: Midterms 2018: Faith leaders try creative steps to urge people to vote. ‘It is an act of worship’

The democratic bargain

For some, this year’s midterms have raised fundamental questions about the way our democracy works, or doesn’t work.

Leon Panetta has a long perspective. He was elected to the House from California in 1976; served as President Clinton’s chief of staff through the Democrats’ catastrophic midterm election in 1994; and joined President Obama’s Cabinet in 2009, heading the CIA and then the Pentagon. But the debate in the country today feels ominous to him, in his view a test of the need to restore checks and balances on the president.

“In the past, while there’s been a lot of the politics and the ugliness we see today, I always felt it was in the end about the future of the country and what needed to happen,” Panetta said. “This one lacks that sense of where this country needs to go in the future, and it’s more about trying to tear down the institutions that are there. It gives you the feeling that this country in many ways is at a real turning point.”

A study sponsored by the Baker Center for Leadership Governance at George Washington University found that Americans now view even basic institutions through a partisan lens: Democrats tend to trust the FBI and the press; Republicans don’t. Republicans tend to trust the executive branch; Democrats don’t. With a Republican in the White House, more than three of four Republicans say they are satisfied with how democracy is working; fewer than half of Democrats agree.

And there’s this: One-third of Democrats and of Republicans say they believe that members of the opposing party are a “very serious threat to the United States and its people.”

While some of the findings simply reflect the current state of hyper-partisanship, political scientist Joshua Tucker of New York University says the risk is that “common touchstones” are being eroded and the basic bargain of democracy — that it’s acceptable and to be expected that the other side will sometimes prevail — is being challenged. “The percentage who think the other party never has the interests of the country at heart at all?” he said. “That is going to translate to making it harder to govern.”

That would be after Election Day.

More: 2018 midterms: Racial justice motivating factor for young voters of color, poll finds

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People stand cast their ballots ahead of the Tuesday, Nov. 6, general election at Jim Miller Park, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Marietta, Ga. Less than two weeks before Election Day, early voting returns forecast a midterm election turnout not seen in decades, with Republicans and Democrats demonstrating engaged bases on each end of the political spectrum. Mike Stewart, AP

  • A line forms for early voting at the Hamilton County Board of Elections, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Cincinnati. 1 of 32
  • Voters go to the polls during early voting at the Hamilton County Board of Elections, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Cincinnati. 2 of 32
  • Tammy Versing and her dog Ben Ben provide water to voters at an early voting polling station at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, Calif. on Nov. 4, 2018. The midterm elections take place on 06 November. Voters waited hours in line to cast their ballots. 3 of 32
  • A voter marks his ballot at an early voting polling station at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, Calif. on Nov. 4, 2018. Voters waited hours in line to cast their ballots.4 of 32
  • A polling station worker helps voters at an early voting polling stations at West Los Angeles College, as hundreds of people waited hours in line to cast their ballots in Culver City, Calif. on Nov. 4, 2018.5 of 32
  • Voters line up to cast their ballots for early voting at the Johnson County Arts  Heritage Center Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in Overland Park, Kan. Poll workers said turnout this election is way above average with about 22,000 early votes cast so far at this location.6 of 32
  • People vote at outdoor booths during early voting for the mid-term elections in Pasadena, Calif. on Nov. 3, 2018.7 of 32
  • A woman places her ballot paper in the box during early voting for the mid-term elections in Sylmar, Calif. on Nov. 3, 2018.8 of 32
  • Voters wait in line at Boise City Hall in Boise, Idaho, to cast ballots in early voting Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. An unusually high number of Idahoans have voted early, and two high-profile ballot initiatives appear to be driving some of the turnout. 9 of 32
  • Felicita Subhita, left, reviews her ballot as she uses curbside voting services during early voting Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in San Diego.10 of 32
  • Supporters attend a campaign rally with U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto ORourke (D-TX) at Willow Creek Park Nov. 2, 2018 in Plano, Texas. As Election Day approaches, winning swing votes in the suburbs that surround Dallas and Fort Worth will be crucial in a statewide victory for ORourke and his opponent incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). 11 of 32
  • There was a steady stream of voters in Great Barrington, Mass., for the last day of early voting, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. 12 of 32
  • Residents vote early at the Douglas County Election Commission office in Omaha, Neb., Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. 13 of 32
  • Michael Mah examines his ballot before filling it out at the Pittsfield, Mass., City Hall, on the last day of early voting in Massachusetts, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. 14 of 32
  • People wait in a line during early voting Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in San Diego. 15 of 32
  • Voters wait in a line to cast their ballots on the last day of early voting at the Green Hills Library in Nashville, Tenn. on Nov.1,  2018. More than one million voters went to the polls during the early voting period. It was an unusually high turnout for a midterm election because of a race between Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn for an open US Senate Seat that could determine the balance of power in the body. 16 of 32
  • Voters wait in a line to cast their ballots on the last day of early voting at the Green Hills Library in Nashville, Tenn. on Nov.1, 2018. 17 of 32
  • In this  Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 photo, students enter a polling place to cast their ballots during a Vote for Our Lives event at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. Nine months after 17 classmates and teachers were gunned down at their Florida school, Parkland students are finally facing the moment theyve been leading up to with marches, school walkouts and voter-registration events throughout the country: their first Election Day.18 of 32
  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, photo, a voter drops off his ballot in Salt Lake City. If a Utah race is too close to call on election night a distinct possibility in the slugfest between Republican Rep. Mia Love and Democrat Ben McAdams residents and candidates will have to wait patiently because the state's deliberate vote release schedule recommends counties wait three days before posting more results. 19 of 32
  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, photo, voters cast their votes in Salt Lake City. If a Utah race is too close to call on election night a distinct possibility in the slugfest between Republican Rep. Mia Love and Democrat Ben McAdams residents and candidates will have to wait patiently because the state's deliberate vote release schedule recommends counties wait three days before posting more results.20 of 32
  • Voters arrive to vote early at the Franklin County Board of Elections, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. 21 of 32
  • Voters use electronic polling machines as they cast their votes early at the Franklin County Board of Elections, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. 22 of 32
  • In this Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, file photo, rejected mail in ballots sit in a box as members of the canvassing board verify signatures on ballots at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, in Miami. Voters go to the polls in the midterm elections Nov. 6. Long lines, broken voting machines and poll worker confusion are all common at polling places across the country on Election Day. With more people voting early, some of these issues are already popping up in this years midterm election.23 of 32
  • People stand cast their ballots ahead of the Tuesday, Nov. 6, general election at Jim Miller Park, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Marietta, Ga. Less than two weeks before Election Day, early voting returns forecast a midterm election turnout not seen in decades, with Republicans and Democrats demonstrating engaged bases on each end of the political spectrum. 24 of 32
  • A woman votes at an Early Vote Center in Huntington Beach, Calif. on Oct. 27, 2018, as voting begins in the traditional Republican stronghold of Orange County.25 of 32
  • Voters stand in line for early voting ahead of the Nov. 6, General Election at Jim Miller Park, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Marietta, Ga. Less than two weeks before Election Day, early voting returns forecast a midterm election turnout not seen in decades, with Republicans and Democrats demonstrating engaged bases on each end of the political spectrum.26 of 32
  • Iva Woke, a 100-year-old resident living in Chestertown, Md., takes her ballot to the voting booth as she is the first to enter the Kent County Public Library to vote in Maryland's early voting on Oct. 25, 2018. 27 of 32
  • People cast their ballots at a community center during early voting Oct. 25, 2018 in Potomac, Maryland, two weeks ahead of the key US midterm polls.28 of 32
  • Voters fill out their ballots at the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters office Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, in Norwalk, Calif. The general election takes place on Nov. 6th. 29 of 32
  • In this Oct. 22, 2018, file photo, Megan Heckel of Plano holds her daughter Lily as they wait in line for early voting outside Maribelle M. Davis Library in Plano, Texas. Some Texas voters are complaining that while casting Democratic or Republican straight-ticket ballots, voting machines used in 80-plus counties changed their selections to the other party for key races, including the Senate contest between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke. The Secretary of State's office says the problem is occurring on Hart eSlate machines, when voters submit ballots before their choice is fully rendered. It says the machines aren't malfunctioning and instead blames user error.30 of 32
  • About 75 people were in line before doors opened for early voting Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2018 at the Howard Office Building on 2nd Ave in Nashville, Tenn.31 of 32
  • Voters wait in line for up to two hours to early vote at the Cobb County West Park Government Center on Oct. 18, 2018 in Marietta, Ga.  Early voting started in Georgia on October 15th. Georgia's Gubernatorial election is a close race between Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp.32 of 32

 

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