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Six Months Away from the American Midterm Elections

Candidates Brace for a Long, Hot Summer

Representative-elect Conor Lamb, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, right, stands with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, during a mock swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 12, 2018. (Getty Images)

by Joseph Braude

 America’s forthcoming Congressional midterm elections are gaining attention in the United States, with six months remaining before polls open on November 6. With Republicans leading both houses of Congress and the White House, all eyes are on the opposition Democratic party as it strives to take back the legislature. The greater promise for a Democratic sweep lies in the House: Over three dozen seats controlled by Republicans will be in play due to incumbent retirements, and Democrats can potentially establish a majority by winning 24 of them. The Senate will be considerably more challenging for the opposition, because only one third of Senators who will be running for reelection, the vast majority of whom are Democrats, and most Republicans are in “safe seats.”

REPUBLICANS: FOCUS ON THE ECONOMY, RELIANCE ON CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVES

A mainstay of Republican strategy in 2018 is to focus on the economy, a traditional area of strength for the GOP and currently one that trends in the party’s favor according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. In making their case on economic grounds, Republicans have the opportunity to tout an unusually low unemployment rate under Republican legislative and executive report; a robust stock market; and the recent passage of new tax cuts. But as senior Republican strategist Mike Duhaime observed in an interview with Time magazine, “The economic messaging, which is positive, is being obscured by the day-to-day back-and-forth over the latest controversy and tweetstorm, and right now that is a problem.” The remark alluded to President Trump’s penchant for irate Tweets, often on bawdy matters such as his reported sexual trysts with porn stars and centerfold models, which tend to lead the headlines. Nor is it helpful to Republican lawmakers that their flag-bearer in the White House suffers from a lower approval rating than other first-term presidents at the equivalent moment in their four-year trajectory. Add to this the widespread hostility toward Trump in much of the media and ongoing allegations of collusion with Russia, and the challenge for Republican Senate and Congressional candidates appears daunting. Nor does it help that in America’s modern electoral history, a party that enjoys full control of the executive and legislative branches of government has generally operated at a distinct disadvantage during midterm elections.

The remark alluded to President Trump’s penchant for irate Tweets, often on bawdy matters such as his reported sexual trysts with porn stars and centerfold models, which tend to lead the headlines.

Republicans are expected to be able to count on at least one key constituency, however: Evangelical Christians, who number in the tens of millions and enjoy a vast network of religious and civic institutions to help “get out the vote.” On the face of it, religiously conservative voters might seem an odd match for a President who has faced successive sexual scandals. But on key policy issues of paramount concern to Evangelicals, Trump has delivered. These include his strident stand against abortion rights, resistance to the rising transgender rights movement, staunch support for legislation to empower religious organizations politically, and the landmark decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, center, speaks during a press conference previewing the committee’s findings on Russian election meddling at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Getty Images)

DEMONCRATS: BETWEEN LEFT AND CENTER

Democratic party candidates, for their part, face the key strategic question of whether to tilt further toward the left in order to galvanize a rising constituency of Democratic progressives, or adopt a more centrist stance in an attempt to siphon off disaffected conservatives who formerly supported Trump. The stakes are unusually high in this dilemma: As noted earlier, more than three dozen House Republicans have decided to retire ahead of the November elections, bringing seats into play that had been locked down by the GOP for years. In seeking to tap these opportunities, Democrats are mindful of shifting demographics in a variety of urban and suburban areas, including portions of Houston and Dallas, Texas; Miami’s South Beach; Milwaukee; and Cincinnati. As always, the party will seek to leverage its advantage with minority ethnic groups and college-educated white Americans. Each candidate will enjoy latitude to adjust his or her degree of distance from the political center on the basis of their local fields of play.

They are buoyed by a new Gallop poll indicating that 59 percent of the electorate believe Trump does not deserve to be reelected.

If there is one central campaign theme likely to galvanize Democrats nationally, it is of course their visceral opposition to Trump — and desire to make the midterm elections a referendum on the President’s fitness for office. They are buoyed by a new Gallop poll indicating that 59 percent of the electorate believe Trump does not deserve to be reelected. Much local- and state-level political reporting indicates that anger at Trump has sparked an upswing in political activism among Democrats which has the potential to translate into votes this November.

Thousands of protesters converge in downtown Los Angeles during the Women’s March January 20, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Getty Images)

FEARS OF RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE

Leading figures in both parties have meanwhile raised alarms about the possibility that foreign elements will seek to intervene in the Congressional elections. It is widely believed that the Russian government waged an aggressive campaign to influence the outcome of America’s 2016 elections. The effort included the strategic planting of disinformation, on a grand scale, via social and traditional media. It also included the hacking of sensitive Democratic party e-mails, including those of senior Clinton campaign officials, and strategic leaking of the content via proxies. Many also allege that the Trump campaign itself colluded with Russia against the Clinton campaign — the subject of an ongoing Special Counsel Investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller.

Americans tend to share a concern that the forthcoming midterm Congressional elections will be “hacked” as well.

Thus Americans tend to share a concern that the forthcoming midterm Congressional elections will be “hacked” as well. In many jurisdictions, voter registration systems are antiquated and vulnerable to online interference, opening the possibility that hackers will delete or fabricate voter entries. In some districts, the voting machines themselves are similarly vulnerable. In February, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate intelligence community, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceived its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations.” Earlier in April, officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, and their counterparts in the United Kingdom warned of likely Russian smear campaigns targeting American midterm election candidates, among other threats emanating from Moscow. But on April 24, a different view was expressed by Jeanette Manfra, the ranking cybersecurity official for DHS, during her testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Committee. Asked by a Senator whether the government had seen “any activity” on the part of Moscow to “hack” the forthcoming November 6 elections, Manfra said, “We have not at this time.” Manfra indicated that she was more alarmed by Russian cyber-threats to American energy, water, aviation, and manufacturing infrastructure.

In any case, the outcome of these fraught elections is well beyond political analysts’ ability to predict. As storied Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn famously remarked, “In politics, six months is a lifetime.”

 

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Joseph Braude
Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is Advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and tweets@josephbraude.

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