Republican race-baiting dominates debate as midterm elections loom
By Ed Pilkington of The Guardian
As the final countdown begins to Tuesday’s midterm elections, an already rancorous battle for Congress that will determine the fate of the Trump presidency has erupted into open name-calling over Republican efforts to mobilise voters through racially tinged propaganda.
When polling stations open on America’s eastern seaboard at 6am on Tuesday, the stakes could not be higher. With all 435 seats of the House of Representatives up for grabs, the Democrats look well-placed to gain the 23 they need to take back control and put a spoke in the wheel of Trump’s ambitions.
A much tougher challenge faces the party in the Senate, where 26 Democratic seats are in play compared with only nine Republican. But with 33 million votes already counted in early voting, and with turnout on track to be the largest in a midterm election for more than 50 years, few pundits are daring to make firm predictions.
As an indication of the intensity of the fight, exacerbated by the anti-immigration rhetoric deployed by Trump, the Sunday talk shows were dominated by disputes over race-baiting. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told CNN’s State of the Union: “What you see in the closing argument is dog-whistle politics, appeals to racists, just the worst of America.”
The show’s host, Jake Tapper, engaged in a feisty to-and-fro with Perez’s Republican counterpart, Ronna McDaniel. He put to her a racially provocative attack ad made for the Trump campaign and shared on social media by the president last week, which accused Democrats of allowing into the US an undocumented migrant who murdered two police officers in California.
In fact, Luis Bracamontes most recently entered the US during the administration of George W Bush, a Republican. The advert was widely condemned.
Tapper asked the RNC chair if she had any concerns about the flagrant inaccuracy of the ad as well as its blatant racist tone. She avoided replying directly, saying: “Regardless. We didn’t want [Bracamontes] in the country. He killed police. That’s not good.”
“Is that the Democrats’ fault?” Tapper pressed.
“It’s a systemic failure.”
When Tapper said that suggested both main parties were responsible, not just the Democrats, McDaniel replied: “Who’s the party saying, ‘Let’s fix it’? Who’s the party fixing all the problems?”
With so much riding on Tuesday night, Trump and Republican leadership have resorted to increasingly extreme language. A return to Democratic control of the House would allow liberals to block much of the president’s agenda, as well as to investigate him aggressively in committees wielding subpoena power.
In addition, 36 state governors are up for re-election and the Democrats hope to win back hundreds of seats in state legislatures.
Despite economic indicators that put unemployment at 3.7%, its lowest level in 49 years, and wage growth at its best since 2009, Trump has taken a big gamble in prioritizing his anti-immigration policies rather than a booming economy. On Friday at a rally in West Virginia, he said: “We have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”
The president has promised in lurid terms anti-immigrant measures from sending troops to the border with Mexico, to making it harder to claim asylum and putting an end to so-called “birth citizenship”, whereby anyone born in the US is automatically American. His incendiary talk has been matched by others in his administration.
On Saturday, agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue spoke in Lakeland, Florida. He was trying to buoy up the chances of Ron DeSantis becoming governor instead of an African American Democrat, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum. Even had the neck-and-neck race not involved a black candidate, Perdue’s words would have been explosive.
“Public policy matters,” he said. “Leadership matters. And that is why this election is so cotton-pickin’ important to the state of Florida. I hope you all don’t mess it up.”
Florida joined the US in 1845 as a slave state, with half its enslaved black population working on cotton and sugar plantations.
Race is also a big issue in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams is vying to become the first black woman to be governor of any state and the first Georgia governor not to be a white man. Her opponent, Brian Kemp, is in charge of overseeing elections as secretary of state. In that role he has been accused of attempting to prevent thousands of largely African American residents from voting.
Abrams was asked by CNN on Sunday what she thought about Perdue’s “cotton-pickin” comment. She said: “I think there is certainly a throwback element to the language coming out of the Republican party that is unfortunately disparaging to communities. It may be unintentional, but it signals a deeper misinformation about what Andrew Gillum can accomplish, what I can accomplish.”
Trump waded into the Georgia race, staging a rally in Macon. As he set out from the White House, he told reporters his recent spate of rallies, in which he has set out his dystopian view of a nation under siege from “invading” immigrants, had sparked a fire under the conservative base.
“There’s something very interesting that’s happening the level of fervor, the level of fever is very strong on the Republican side,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy out there.
“I think that the rallies have been the things that have caused this fervor to start. I have never seen such an enthusiastic Republican party.”
Polls continue to indicate that Democrats have a significant lead, though after the embarrassment to pollsters of 2016 any such figures must be handled with extreme caution. The last poll from the Wall Street Journal/NBC News showed the Democrats up by seven points in terms of who respondents wanted to control Congress.
Trump’s low approval rating – CNN puts it at 44% – continues to be a challenge. In 2010 Barack Obama had a rating of 46%. He lost 63 House seats.