US midterm elections poised for verdict on Trump’s America

Midterm election fever is driving some US voters early, like these in Los Angeles’ Lake View Terrace neighbourhood (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: Donald Trump’s whirlwind campaign hits three states Monday in the final effort to stop Democrats from breaking his Republicans’ stranglehold on Congress in midterms elections seen as a referendum on the most divisive US president in decades.

Cleveland, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; then Cape Girardeau, Missouri: it will be well after midnight before the real estate billionaire and populist showman gets back to the White House — and only a few hours more before polls open Tuesday across the world’s largest economy.

“Don’t fall for the Suppression Game. Go out & VOTE. Remember, we now have perhaps the greatest Economy (JOBS) in the history of our Country!” he tweeted on Monday before setting off for the furious final round of campaigning.

Trump is not on the ballot in the midterms, which see the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate up for grabs.

But in a hard-driving series of rallies around the country Trump has put himself at the centre of every issue.

With a characteristic mix of folksiness, bombast and sometimes cruel humour, he says voters must choose between his stewardship of a booming economy and strong focus on security and what he claims would be the Democrats’ hard-left policies.

The bid to make it all about Trump is a gamble, as is his shift from touting economic successes to a bitter — critics say racist — narrative claiming that the country is under attack from illegal immigration.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote Trump has sent thousands of soldiers to the Mexican border, suggested that illegal immigrants who throw stones could be shot, and tried to persuade Americans that the Democrats would turn the country into a crime-and-drugs black hole.

“They want to impose socialism on our country. And they want to erase America’s borders,” Trump told a raucous rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee late Sunday.

That worked for Trump in his own shock 2016 election victory but has turned off swaths of Americans, giving Democrats confidence that they could capture at least the lower house of Congress.

According to polls, the Republicans are comfortably on track to retain the Senate. But with polls often too close for comfort and turnout being the crucial unknown factor, both parties are braced for potential surprises.

In traditionally Republican Texas, popular Democrat Beto O’Rourke is trying to dethrone Senator Ted Cruz, while Republican Pete Stauber might flip a House Democratic stronghold in Minnesota.

In Florida and Georgia, Democrats are aiming to become the states’ first African American governors.

Fight for US soul

The Democrats rolled out their biggest gun in the final days of the campaign: former president Barack Obama, who on Sunday made a last-ditch appeal for an endangered Senate Democrat in Indiana.

Laying into the tangled legal scandals enveloping the Trump administration — especially the possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russian operatives — Obama scoffed: “They’ve racked up enough indictments to fill a football team.”

And describing the election as even more consequential than his own historic 2008 victory as the first non-white president, Obama said more than politics is at stake.

“The character of our country’s on the ballot,” he said.

Storm clouds on horizon

The party of a first-term president tends to lose congressional seats in his first midterm. But a healthy economy favours the incumbent, so Trump may yet defy the historical pattern.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggested that while Democrats retain an edge in the House, Republicans could take advantage of rosy economic news and the focus on border security.

It found registered voters preferred Democratic candidates for the House over Republicans by 50% to 43%, but that was down from a 14-point advantage in August.

A second poll, by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, also showed Democrats holding the same seven-point advantage.

In what could be a warning for Republicans, the NBC poll reported college-educated white women — the so-called suburban moms — favour Democrats by a substantial 61% to 33%.

In the end, polls mean nothing if people don’t actually vote, so even stormy weather forecast for Tuesday in much of the east of the country could end up having an impact.

“It’s all about turnout,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen told Fox News Sunday.

Violence and rhetoric

Perhaps the biggest wild card is how voters will react to the increasingly extreme rhetoric and politically inspired violence in the last two weeks of the campaign.

Trump has repeatedly ratcheted up his warnings about Democrats wanting to encourage the immigration of violent criminals and rapists. In speeches, he has transformed a dwindling group of a few thousand impoverished Central Americans trying to walk to the United States — though still hundreds of miles away — into a ferocious threat.

“We’re not letting these people invade our country,” Trump says.

This may work with Trump’s ultra-loyal base. However, misgivings rose over the president’s rhetoric after a Florida man and ardent Trump supporter was charged with sending homemade bombs to more than a dozen senior Democrats and other high profile opponents.

Just after, a man allegedly inspired by Trump’s anti-immigrant stance walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and shot 11 worshippers dead.