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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Will Democrats take full advantage of GOP divide?

Election watchers say most candidates will try to localise polls and stress their authenticity in the midterms

Donald Trump in Tampa, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty
Donald Trump in Tampa, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty

With the economy booming, Donald Trump should be feeling fairly optimistic about November’s elections.Traditionally the party in power loses ground in the midterms.

However, it is the Democrat incumbents who face the trickier Senate races this time around and they need to flip 24 House seats to win control of Congress.

But when Mr Trump addressed a rally in Tampa, Florida, his focus was on voter fraud and pressing the case for strict election ID laws.

This was, of course, all part of the narrative he has pursued since the election when Hillary Clinton polled 2.9 million more votes than he did.

According to Mr Trump, this was because millions of people cast their votes illegally.

This is palpable nonsense and earlier this year Mr Trump even disbanded the commission he set up to investigate alleged voter fraud.

The question is why the president decided to highlight the issue at all in Florida.

It suggests that Mr Trump and his allies are less than confident about the outcome of the midterms and are trying to get their retaliation in first.

An analysis by Real Clear Politics shows that 35 House races and seven Senate elections are too close to call. Even though Mr Trump’s ratings have been improving a bit, the Republicans have suffered a number of defeats in an array of special elections over the past year.

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“The Democrats should feel fairly confident – history is on their side with losses by the sitting president’s party – and this president is quite unpopular with everyone but his hardcore base,” says Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy at Harvard School of Government.

He says the Democrats’ biggest problem is the Senate, with the numbers they have to defend versus those the Republicans have to defend, adding the Democrats could conceivably take the House and lose seats in the Senate.

Certainly, all is not sweetness and light within the Republican ranks.

There has been a wave of departures with at least 44 Republican members of the House announcing they are quitting.

On the one hand, this does mean that the GOP will lose the advantage that incumbent candidates normally enjoy but on the other, their successors are more likely to support Mr Trump.

Over the past few months, Trump supporters have secured Republican nominations in a number of states including Virginia, South Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania and Nebraska.

At the same time, Mr Trump’s protectionist trade policies have triggered a row with the Koch Brothers, who are among the Republican party’s biggest donors.

Last month Charles Koch released a video warning of the rise in protectionism and the damage a trade war could do to American farmers and industrial workers.

“This protectionist mindset has destroyed countless businesses,” he warned.

Assorted Koch-linked groups have pushed back against the policymaking in a pointed pitch to the very workers who swept Mr Trump to power in 2016.

The brothers have expressed their displeasure via Americans for Prosperity, one of the groups they fund, which has refused to back Kevin Cramer in his bid to snatch a vulnerable Democratic Senate seat in North Dakota from Heidi Heitkamp.

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Mr Trump’s response has hardly been emollient, using his Twitter feed to retaliate.

“I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas,” he said as he described the brothers as a “total joke in Republican circles”.

A united Democratic party would be well placed to exploit the GOP divisions but it is split between the establishment and an insurgent left, which has scored a number of notable victories over the past few months.

The most notable example was the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old political novice who unseated Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, in a congressional primary in New York.

In another political upset, Ben Jealous won the Democratic primary for governor.

The results suggest that the “resistance” message which nearly swept Bernie Sanders to the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 is still resonating among party activists in some parts of the country.

Of course, there have been attempts to paper over the cracks.

In the wake of the presidential election defeat, Mr Sanders and Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, went on a national tour to appeal for unity.

Given the ferocity of the primary battles, it is hard to avoid the sense that the Democrats are as bitterly divided as the Republicans.

Election watchers say most candidates, particularly incumbents, will try to localise polls and stress their authenticity. They will try to make each campaign about themselves rather than their party.

Given how fast US politics is moving, making a prediction about the outcome of the midterms would be rash, save for a sense that Congress is likely to be fairly lively once the votes are counted.

John Kennedy once cited the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live interesting times”.

That could very well come to pass.

David Millward is based in the United States

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