x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Crucial test for the Democrats ahead

Obama is waging an intense campaign to prevent Republicans from taking control of both chambers of the US Congress.

BECKLEY, WEST VIRGINIA //A small but steady stream of voters cast early ballots last week at the Beckley courthouse in West Virginia's third district for the US House of Representatives.

So far, a clerk said, 1,400 people had voted since early polling started on October 13, not bad for a county with 52,000 registered voters. The apparent enthusiasm may reflect the fact that for the first time in decades many of the state's Congressional races in this midterm election are competitive.

Democrats are expected to lose nationwide, in spite of a late campaign effort by Barack Obama, the US president, to rally Democrats to vote Tuesday. Republicans could even seize control over both houses of Congress, the House and the Senate. If they do, it could have serious ramifications on critical Middle East issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Iraq withdrawal, Iran policy as well as arms deals with countries in the region.

The third-district race is playing out in a political environment that is being fuelled by big money from anonymous donors and harsh rhetoric about terrorism, Muslims and mosques. This is true of the West Virginia race in which Nick Rahall, the Democratic incumbent who is a Christian of Lebanese descent. His ethnicity has been raised as an issue in three TV ads aired this month.

One, paid for by the West Virginia Conservative Foundation, included clips, accompanied by sinister music, of Mr Rahall speaking about his involvement in Arab-American issues and his support for Mr Obama. It ended with: "Call Nick Rahall and tell him what you care about."

The foundation's website lists only a post office box address, and no information about how to easily contact anyone at the foundation. A recent US Supreme Court ruling allows independent groups to pay for political advertising but no longer requires such groups to disclose where their money comes from. The ruling has been richly exploited by conservative groups and Democrats are citing it as a major reason for the party's likely losses on Tuesday.

Two other adverts paid for by Mr Rahall's Republican opponent, Spike Maynard, try to link Mr Rahall to Arab terrorism. Both accused him of accepting "terrorist" campaign donations. One claimed that such money had come from the Arab-American Leadership political action council (PAC), which was characterised as "a group with terror ties". The other said Mr Rahall had received donations from a "convicted terrorist", Abdurahman Alamoudi, who is serving a 23-year jail term in the US for "illegal dealings" with Libya.

The advert, predictably, failed to mention that Alamoudi had donated the money in 1996 and that he gave to both Democrats and Republicans. When Mr Rahall learnt in 2003 about Alamoudi's dealings with Libya, he gave the donations to a local church.

The allegations about the Arab-American leadership PAC appear to be based on stories by Joseph Farah, a conservative Arab-American journalist. The Arab American Leadership PAC, moreover, is a political action committee and is legally required to disclose where it gets its money.

The adverts appear to have had little impact. Mr Rahall continues to hold a commanding lead - the latest poll shows him with a 16 per cent lead. Mr Rahall has held the seat since 1977 and is running primarily on his long record. The Rahall campaign declined to comment for this article.

The Maynard campaign told journalists the ads were an attempt to show Mr Rahall as "outside the mainstream" on Middle East issues. But Mr Maynard is struggling to overcome his links to local industrialist, Don Blankenship, president of the Massey Energy company. An explosion at a Massey mine in April killed 29 miners.

Nevertheless, the ads are a reflection of a US political climate that has become particularly chilly for Arabs and Muslims. "Generalised anger over the economy and social unrest over job losses and mortgage foreclosures" has been exploited by conservatives and "morphed into a nativist anti-Muslim phenomenon", said James Zogby, the head of the Arab-American Institute.

The ads are unlikely to have much impact on Mr Rahall, according to Dawn Dayton, the managing editor of the Beckley-based Register-Herald newspaper.

"There have been some ads in the past mentioning Rahall's background," mostly in the context of well-publicised meetings Mr Rahall held with the late Yasser Arafat, but they were never "as in-your-face as now".

Having just cast her vote at the Beckley courthouse, Ruth Baker, a retired teacher, dismissed the adverts as "outside interests based on fear mongering". They would not, she said, affect Mr Rahall, known by locals as "Nick Joe".

More broadly, however, she said, "racism was a factor", particularly as Republicans try to take advantage of the tangible and growing anger at Mr Obama among ordinary voters.

okarmi@thenational,ae