The tumultuous 2018 midterm campaign, shaped by conflicts over race and identity and punctuated by tragedy, barreled through its final weekend as voters prepared to deliver a verdict on the first half of President Donald Trump’s term, with Republicans bracing for losses in the House and state capitals but hopeful they would prevail in Senate races in areas where Trump is popular.
The president was set to storm across two states Saturday, two Sunday and three Monday in an effort to pick off Senate seats in Indiana, Florida and a handful of other battlegrounds where Republicans hope to add to their one-seat majority in the chamber. Democrats and liberal activists, galvanized by opposition to Trump, gathered Saturday to knock on doors and make turnout calls from Pennsylvania to Illinois to Washington to try to erase the GOP’s 23-seat House majority.
The run-up to the election, widely seen as a referendum on Trump’s divisive persona and hard-line policy agenda, has revealed deep strains in the president’s political coalition and left him confined to campaign in a narrow band of conservative communities. Republicans’ intermittent focus on favorable economic news, such as the Friday report showing strong job growth, has been overwhelmed by Trump’s message of racially incendiary nationalism.
While Trump retains a strong grip on many red states and working-class white voters, his jeremiads against immigrants and penchant for ridicule have proved destabilizing, with the party losing more affluent whites and moderates in metropolitan areas key to control of the House.
Republicans have grown increasingly pessimistic in recent days about holding the House, as polls show a number of incumbents lagging well below 50 percent and some facing unexpectedly close races in conservative-leaning districts.
In several diverse Sun Belt states where Republicans had shown resilience, such as Texas, Florida and Arizona, their candidates have seen their numbers dip in polling as Trump has given up the unifying role that U.S. presidents have traditionally tried to play.
Democrats are also in contention to retain or capture governorships in rust belt states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that were pivotal to Trump’s victory and fertile ground for Republicans for much of the last decade.
Despite these worrisome signs, some Republican leaders saw reason for measured optimism. While Trump said Friday that Republicans losing the House “could happen,” Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, who leads the GOP House campaign committee, has continued to predict that his party will narrowly hold its majority. Republican strategists have argued that about two dozen races are within the margin of error in polling; should right-of-center voters swing back to them on Election Day, they say, Democrats could fall short of winning enough seats to take control of the House.
Republican officials were more confident about their prospects in the Senate, where they had an opportunity to enlarge their majority in an otherwise difficult year. Nearly all of the most important Senate races are being fought on solidly conservative terrain, including North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, where Democratic incumbents are in close contests for re-election. Trump won all three states by landslide margins in 2016.
There was an unmistakable dissonance between the relative health of the economy and the dark mood of a country as voters prepared to go to the polls just days after a wave of attempted mail bombings and a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead.
“The nation is in political turmoil,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who is facing a difficult re-election in part because of Trump’s unpopularity. “The economy is roaring but the mood is so sour. It’s a very sad time in this country.”
The mood that has imperiled lawmakers like Curbelo has buoyed Democrats across the country. A class of first-time candidates has been lifted by an enormous surge of activism and political energy on the left, as a loose array of constituencies offended by Trump — including women, young people and voters of color — has mobilized with a force unseen in recent midterm elections.
These voters have helped nominate a record number of female candidates for Congress and delivered Democrats a wide and unaccustomed financial advantage toward the end of the campaign.
Political spending in the election is expected to exceed $5 billion, making it the most costly midterm contest in history, according to a report by the Center for Responsive Politics. The report found that Democratic candidates for the House had raised more money than their Republican competitors, by a margin of more than $300 million.
But many Senate Democrats have also decisively outraised their contenders, a sobering reminder to Republican officials about the rise of small-dollar and billionaire contributors on the left.
It is the House, though, where Republicans face greater peril.
Most critical to determining control of the chamber are likely to be prosperous, culturally dynamic suburbs — around cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles — where Republicans are defending several dozen districts packed with voters in open revolt against Trump. Democrats have won over many swing voters in these areas with a message focused on Republican health care and tax policies that are even less popular than the president himself.
“I don’t think you can find a race in the country where health care hasn’t been a dominant issue,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said.
Trump has appeared to turn his attention in the last few days away from the effort to keep control of the House, and toward shoring up Republicans in coveted Senate races. He has focused predominantly on electrifying the right rather than soothing some of the swing voters who backed him over Hillary Clinton two years ago.
In the final weeks of campaigning, Trump has delivered slashing attacks on immigration, railing against birthright citizenship, linking immigration without evidence to violent crime and amplifying debunked conspiracy theories about a migrant caravan in Latin America. In a possible portent of how he might react to electoral defeat, Trump lashed out at House Speaker Paul Ryan on Twitter after Ryan criticized his dubious proposal to void the constitutional guarantee of citizenship to anyone born on American soil.
Trump’s approach may resonate in several of the states with the closest Senate races, though it has the potential to backfire in several diverse states where Republican-held seats are at risk, including Nevada, Arizona and Texas.
“It turns off independent voters,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., head of the Democratic Senate campaign arm, arguing that such states offered his party “a narrow path” to a majority.
Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster, said the Democratic message, focused on health care, was “more relevant” to most voters than what Trump was offering them in his final argument. Likening the election to a tug of war, Matthews said the president was trying to energize his predominantly white and male base even as moderate women recoil from him.
“On one end, you’ve got white college-educated women pulling hard, pulling back from what we’re seeing,” Matthews said, likening the election to a tug of war. “On the other side of the rope, you’ve got non-college-educated men pulling hard in the other direction.”
At no point this fall has a majority of voters approved of Trump, and while some surveys have shown improvement in his standing recently, the Gallup poll found at the end of October that just 2 in 5 Americans rated his performance favorably.
If many of the most closely watched elections are at the federal level, governors’ races around the country may be the most consequential elections, long term, for both parties. Democrats are hoping to elect a history-making set of candidates, including Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, who would be the first African-Americans to lead their states. And Republicans are struggling to defend their dominance across Midwestern state governments, from Michigan and Ohio to Wisconsin and Iowa.
Should Democrats capture several of those governorships, it could help them redraw congressional district lines to their advantage after 2020. And Republican losses at the state level could complicate Trump’s path to re-election, strengthening the opposition party in crucial battlegrounds where he failed to consolidate support after the 2016 election.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster closely involved in the fight for the Senate, said both parties were likely to emerge from the midterms with their identities transformed.
Democrats, he said, were increasingly defined by a young and diverse cohort of activists and candidates, while Republicans were ending the campaign branded indelibly by a single overwhelming personality.
“The Republican Party has become wholly owned and operated by Donald Trump, and its only organizing principle is the Trump base,” Garin said. “And the Democrats have really become much more of a grassroots activist party.”