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US midterm elections: Trump’s gamble on fear and division pays off with Senate wins

Republicans won Senate seats from Democrats in states where Trump repeatedly journeyed for raucous, red-meat-filled rallies, including Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota.

world Updated: Nov 07, 2018 17:45 IST
Shannon Pettypiece and Toluse Olorunnipa
Shannon Pettypiece and Toluse Olorunnipa
Donald Trump,Senate,US midterm elections
US President Donald Trump gestures during a rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana on Monday.(Bloomberg)

Donald Trump bet on fear and it paid off.

The president’s decision to stoke his core supporters’ anxieties over immigrants and economic insecurity at the cost of alienating political moderates helped his party maintain control of the Senate.

Republicans won Senate seats from Democrats in states where Trump repeatedly journeyed for raucous, red-meat-filled rallies, including Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. Trump allies won governors’ mansions in Florida, Iowa and Ohio.

Trump’s party lost control of the House of Representatives. Democrats took at least 26 seats held by Republicans.

Trump thrust himself into the national midterm campaign more aggressively than any recent predecessor, concentrating on motivating his most loyal supporters. He ignored congressional leaders’ advice to focus on the strength of the economy and instead ratcheted up his rhetoric on immigration.

“They all say speak about the economy. Speak about the economy. Well, we have the greatest economy in the history of our country, but sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy, right?” Trump said at a West Virginia rally over the weekend. He painted a dark portrait of America with Democrats in control of Congress, claiming they would allow the country to be swamped by undocumented immigrants, crime and drugs.

Rally Strategy

Trump is keenly aware of the political and personal risks he faced from a Democratic Congress, advisers said. Democrats have vowed a wave of investigations into everything from his family business to scandals involving Cabinet members. A Democratic Congress is also much more apt to start impeachment proceedings if Special Counsel Robert Mueller finds wrongdoing by Trump’s campaign in his investigation into Russian election interference.

The president campaigned for 33 candidates since August, holding the vast majority of his rallies in places he won handily in 2016 rather than traveling to swing districts. His discursive speeches -- regularly in excess of an hour long and frequently departing from prepared remarks -- drew from a familiar palette of boasts, exaggerations and falsehoods.

White House advisers had struggled over the past year over how to deploy Trump in the campaign. A Trump rally can dominate local news for days and in many cases generate media coverage in neighboring states. In the wrong places, that could cost the GOP votes with moderate Republicans and independents, particularly suburban women.

Trump steered clear of blue states and swing districts, including in California, New Jersey and Michigan. Rather than targeting specific congressional districts, advisers sent him to places he could draw large crowds and energize his base. In Florida for example, he avoided Miami and Tampa, traveling instead to more Republican areas in the Panhandle and near Orlando.

During the summer, Trump mostly stuck to standard talking points at rallies, and Republicans tried to focus voters on the strength of the economy and their tax law. But as the election neared, White House advisers grew increasingly nervous about Republican voter apathy. Trump’s talk of a “red wave” stopped and White House aides privately predicted major losses.

Kavanaugh Bump

Then came the sexual misconduct accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The confirmation battle fired up Trump’s base and advisers saw Republican enthusiasm growing. Making the calculation that moderates and independents were unlikely to turn out for Republicans in the midterm races anyway, Trump leaned into the Kavanaugh controversy, throwing his full-throated support behind the nominee, even mocking one of his accusers at a rally.

Trump’s team decided it was their best chance. If Republicans were to win, it would be driven by Trump’s core supporters -- and the president needed to stoke their passions, primarily the racially charged issues of crime and immigration.

“The strategy of narrow-casting to his base to get the voter turnout up, there was no downside for him,” Trump’s former communications director Anthony Scaramucci said Tuesday on CNBC. “Because if he doesn’t win in the House, he goes out and says ‘Well, Obama didn’t win it, Reagan didn’t win it, Bush didn’t win it. It’s tough to win it. But that was his best strategy — that narrow-casting.’’

Trump’s strategy of intensifying his divisive rhetoric reflects his conclusion that fear is a greater motivator than hope — one that proved successful at this moment in U.S. politics, said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

“He made that determination during the midterms to go with fear and xenophobia rather than the economy,’’ she said. “He made this determination to go for the base, and to go for the base instincts of his base.”

Trump’s decision to focus almost exclusively on a political appeal to his base voters demonstrates his certainty that traditional Republican voters would ultimately vote for a Republican candidate despite their unease with the president’s approach, she said.

“It’s a winning strategy and he should be given credit for choosing that strategy,’’ she said.

His success will encourage other Republicans to follow the same path, she predicted -- casting aside concerns about racial and gender sensitivities in order to appeal to core Republican voters. “Why would you depart from that as a member of the GOP in 2020?” she said.

First Published: Nov 07, 2018 16:06 IST