WASHINGTON—Barack Obama’s first midterm was the election of the angry white man. Eight years later, Donald Trump’s first midterm is shaping up as the election of the angry liberal woman.
Democrats are heavily favoured to win back control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, an outcome that would thwart most of Trump’s legislative agenda and subject him to a barrage of congressional investigations. If they do, it will be largely because of the women he has infuriated into action.
The Resistance, as Trump’s fervent grassroots opposition calls itself, is mostly female. Democratic women have run for office in unprecedented numbers, gifted campaigns an unprecedented army of midterm volunteers, and poured unprecedented cash, a few dollars at a time, into candidates’ coffers.
They are people like Beth Headrick, 49, who makes $10.80 an hour working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at a convenience store in St. Augustine, Fla. She had ignored every midterm before this year.
Now, filled with “hate” for Trump even though she holds some conservative views on immigration, Headrick is not only a midterm voter but a midterm donor: $20 to the Democrats’ governor candidate in Florida, $20 to their Senate candidate in Texas, $10 to their governor candidate in Kansas, $12 to their governor candidate in Georgia. And she has a new goodbye for young customers at the store.
“I no longer say, ‘Hey, goodnight.’ I say, ‘Hey, don’t forget to vote,’ ” she said.
Dionne Mitchell, 38, a software developer in the Atlanta-area suburb of Buford, didn’t even watch the news before Trump was elected, let alone vote in midterms. Now she watches left-leaning political channel MSNBC, nothing but MSNBC, from morning to night as she works, worrying about the future of her 9-year-old Black boy. Incensed about Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, she “went on a rage-donate” spree, sprinkling cash to Democratic candidates as far away as North Dakota.
“I was just like: I’m so mad I gotta do something,” Mitchell said.
Monica Hutchinson, 38, spends her days knocking on doors in Black and Latino communities in central Virginia. She had volunteered for Democratic campaigns for years. But after Trump got elected, she quit her job at a pharmacy and her pre-pharmacy university program and became a full-time progressive organizer, working to mobilize the marginalized neighbourhoods that elections sometimes seem to forget.
“Me being a Black woman in America, I just don’t have time to sit around and wait. It’s now,” she said. “For me, it wasn’t so much a great awakening as much as: enough is enough.”
In Simi Valley, Calif., the women of professional singer Leanna Brand’s chapter of the resistance group Indivisible toil on the midterms every day of the week. Monday morning is for standing on highway overpasses and holding up “ginormous” signs to commuters below. Tuesday is for writing postcards to Democratic neighbours, Wednesday for hanging flyers on doors. They go back to the overpasses for the Thursday evening rush. Then they knock on doors all weekend.
Brand, 58, choked up as she contemplated Nov. 6. Like many Democrats, she sees the election as a pivotal moment for the country.
“I’ve gotta feel like, on November 7th, that I have done everything I could do,” she said. “No matter what happens, I’ve gotta feel like I didn’t leave anything in the tank.”
A Democratic victory is no sure thing. The party needs to gain 23 seats to take the House. They appear very likely to get at least somewhere in the teens, but they are not certain to get the rest.
Angered by Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault, Republican voters have closed or narrowed the gap in polls of voter enthusiasm. Republican House candidates in some states have the benefit of district boundaries gerrymandered to their partisan advantage.
The forecasting website FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats an 85-per-cent chance to win the House as of Thursday. But Republicans had an 85-per-cent chance to keep control of the Senate, where they currently hold a 51-49 advantage. This year’s roster of 35 Senate races is especially rough for Democrats: 10 involve Democratic incumbents in states Trump won in 2016, five of them states Trump won by 19 points or more.
But the president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterms, Trump’s approval rating is stuck below 45 per cent, and all those $12 donations to Democrats have mattered. Many of the party’s candidates have large cash advantages that have allowed them to hammer their opponents with television ads.
« Democratic enthusiasm has led to an avalanche of financial contributions, which has allowed Democratic candidates and interest groups to vastly outspend their GOP opponents in these final weeks,” said Cam Savage, a Republican political consultant in Indiana, where Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly is in a tight Senate race. “Republicans are being swamped not just by the billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, but by tens of thousands of contributors across the country. It’s a massive problem in this election, but a catastrophe in future elections if not righted.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, women have donated more than $308 million to Democratic congressional candidates this year. That is more than three times what women donated to Democratic congressional candidates in the 2014 midterms.
The cash disparity has widened the House battleground. Nate Silver, the prominent analyst at FiveThirtyEight, said as many as 99 seats are at least somewhat competitive — almost as many as in the anti-Obama Tea Party wave midterm of 2010, when Republicans gained 63 House seats.
Most of Democrats’ best House pickup opportunities come in affluent suburban districts. College-educated white women in suburbs around cities from Los Angeles to Miami to Denver to Minneapolis to Detroit appear to have soured on Trump’s party, creating a historic gender gap that has made long-Republican seats suddenly attainable to Democrats.
It is white men keeping Republicans competitive. In one Marist College poll in October, for example, 44 per cent of men said they planned to vote for the local Republican, 43 per cent for the local Democrat — while 56 per cent of women said they planned to vote for the local Democrat, just 35 per cent for the local Republican.
“You’re going to have a lot of suburban households where the wife is voting Democrat and the husband is voting Republican,” said Mark Weaver, a Republican political consultant in Ohio. “That’s not true in exurban (areas). In exurban, you’re going to have wife and husband voting Republican. In urban areas, you’re largely having wife and husband voting Democrat.”
With big cities largely secure for Democratic incumbents, party supporters have poured resources into nearby suburbs. Swing Left, an organization founded after Trump’s win to channel progressive energy into competitive districts, says 100,000 people have signed up to volunteer in the last four days of the election.
Hundreds of liberals have driven from Los Angeles to the surrounding cities, trying to help Democratic House candidates knock off Republicans in long-conservative communities. A remarkable 300 people showed up in California’s 25th House district on a recent Saturday to knock on doors for Katie Hill, a 31-year-old Democratic challenger who ran an organization serving homeless people.
“This is unprecedented,” Hill said while grabbing lunch near her campaign office. “We’ve never seen volunteerism like this. We haven’t seen this in a presidential. It’s massive.”
The outpouring of female enthusiasm could create lasting change in the party. The surge has produced a record number of Democratic women winning nominations for not only Congress but for state positions — and a record number of women of colour. After six years of state-level defeats under Obama, Democrats now have a chance to replenish their bench with potential female stars like Georgia governor candidate Stacey Abrams, a Black lawyer locked in a tight race with a Trump-backed Republican, and Michigan governor candidate Gretchen Whitmer, a heavy favourite in a Midwestern state Trump won.
The women leading the resistance “are not hyper-ideological but progressive and practical,” said Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank and a close adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016. “They are building a broad coalition with people of colour and millennials. And if they stay engaged, they will shift America in a more progressive direction for decades to come.”
Turnout in early voting has been much higher than in 2014, where the 37-per-cent total turnout was the lowest since the Second World War. Conversations with people in four states in October suggested a country not only deeply divided but deeply confused, each side unable to fathom how the other side views Trump the way it does.
“He’s just so unhinged,” said Dianne Hilliard, 62, retired from a General Motors plant, after she voted in Martinsburg, W.Va. “It’s scary. Why don’t these people that support him — why don’t they see it? I’m not an educated person. I didn’t go to college. But it doesn’t take a scholar to figure this out. I don’t understand. I really don’t understand.”
“He’s a brilliant man, and he’s headed in the right direction,” said fellow retiree Pat Schafer, 61, of Ebensburg, Pa. “He may not speak up to what he should be, but he’s getting stuff done. And that’s what we want. And I don’t think they’re treating him fair.”
Republicans losing the House, even while keeping the Senate, would represent a significant repudiation of the president. But a narrow House loss, in which Democrats gain only a slim majority, may give him reason for optimism going into the 2020 presidential election.
The president’s party almost always loses seats in a midterm. Republicans won back the House and the Senate in Bill Clinton’s first midterm in 1994. Democrats won both chambers in George W. Bush’s second midterm in 2006. Republicans won both chambers in Obama’s first midterm in 2010.
Trump has expressed optimism about the Senate but made clear he is uncertain about the House.
“I know we’re doing well in the Senate,” he told reporters Wednesday. ”And it looks like we’re doing OK in the House. We’re going to have to see.”
Even a slim Democratic majority in the House would radically alter Trump’s presidency. Democrats would have the power to launch investigations, subpoena White House officials for public testimony, obtain Trump’s long-hidden tax returns, and, if they wanted, to impeach him — though Democrats would not have the two-thirds votes in the Senate to remove him from office.
One way or another, Trump is a central factor in every congressional race. Most Democrats, though, are not emphasizing him in their advertising. Rather, their overwhelming focus is health care — an issue they mentioned in 61 per cent of their television ads between mid-September and mid-October, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, three times as much as they mentioned anything else.
“We’re doing persuasion,” said Jason McGrath, a Democratic pollster involved in congressional races. “You don’t persuade somebody to like or dislike Trump. They have made their mind up for the most part. We’re trying to persuade people on things that really do affect them.”
Republicans’ 2010 midterm triumph was fuelled by voter discontent about Obamacare. In a dramatic reversal, the law is now popular, and Democrats now want to talk about it. Their ads pummel Republicans for their attempts to replace Obamacare with much weaker insurance protections for people with “pre-existing” health conditions.
The issue mentioned second-most by Democrats, at 21 per cent, is taxes. Trump and Republicans had once hoped that they could campaign on their 2017 tax cut, which favoured the wealthy and corporations. But even a humming economy has not made the law popular. McGrath said bringing up Republican candidates’ stances on health care and taxes has been a more powerful Democratic attack than even bringing up the candidates’ personal ethics scandals.
“People they have a rooting interest in what happens to their own bodies and to their own wallets,” he said. “And so we have a real advantage on this, insofar as they have overplayed their hand.”
Trump seems to be especially weak in the Midwest-and-Pennsylvania Rust Belt that put him over the top in 2016.
“I think Trump thinks that Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana … those states are ‘his states’ because he won them,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Hewitt. “But I think he’s going to be rudely awakened on election day that he’s tied those candidates to himself and he’s sunk them.”
Trump and Republicans have responded to the health-care barrage by insisting that they, too, will protect patients with pre-existing conditions, no matter what their voting records show, and by changing the subject.
Trump’s preferred subjects have been the supposed unfairness of the news media, which he has returned to gleefully calling “the enemy of the people,” and immigration, the issue that polls suggest is paramount to Republican voters. In the last two weeks of the campaign, Trump has used dishonesty and racial fearmongering to motivate his base.
Trump has attempted to gin up anxiety about a shrinking and slow-moving caravan of Latin American asylum seekers, portraying it as a dangerous horde of “very bad thugs” and “unknown Middle Easterners.” He has deployed thousands of troops to the border, supposedly to help with the eventual arrival of these migrants; critics have called this an obvious stunt. He has promised to try to eliminate “birthright citizenship,” which grants citizenship to anyone born on American soil. He has run videos featuring violent mobs, his preferred campaign word for Democratic supporters, and an unauthorized immigrant who is an unrepentant murderer.
It is a return to part of his successful 2016 playbook — but only part of it. Trump was uncharacteristically disciplined in the waning days of the 2016 election, keeping much of the news focus on Clinton. This time, his haphazard race-baiting has unnerved some Republicans in competitive House districts, who would prefer the president and immigration out of the headlines.
“Political malpractice,” tweeted Ryan Costello, a Republican Pennsylvania congress member not running for re-election, warning of the impact on suburban candidates with high numbers of immigrant voters.
The gambit, though, may be a triage attempt focused on saving the Senate. Most of the key races are occurring in heavily white states with a large proportion of very conservative voters, including North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Indiana and Missouri.
Walking a tightrope, Democratic candidates in Trump-friendly states have stretched to align themselves with the president on immigration. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said she “100 per cent” supports Trump “doing what he needs to do to secure the border.” Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly said he was open to legislation changing birthright citizenship.
As he did in 2016, Trump is ending the campaign with a rally blitz — this time 11 rallies in eight states over six days, including three rallies planned for Monday. His travel is centred around Senate races in states he won, a sign of his unpopularity in much of the most important House terrain.
Trump’s closing argument that Americans should fear foreigners, or see the left as a mob, has been undermined by the anti-Democrat attempted bombing spree allegedly committed by an American Trump devotee, and the mass murder of Pittsburgh Jews allegedly committed by an American white nationalist. And Trump’s long history of Congress-bashing has complicated his effort to motivate his supporters to vote for members of Congress. At the insistence of his aides, he eventually declared at a rally the first week of October: “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me.”
By Halloween, though, he had taken a long break from suggesting the outcome would say anything about his own popularity. At a rally in Florida, he dutifully read his prepared text about how this was “one of the most important elections of our entire lives.”
Then he improvised: “Although I will say: not as important as 2016. »
Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8