As the final countdown begins to Tuesday’s midterm elections, the contest is turning into a tale of two presidents. The current occupant of the White House is fighting to retain control over Congress. He is also locked in mortal combat with his immediate predecessor, who is battling to hold on to his legacy.
Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, and Barack Obama, the 44th, both took to the stump on Sunday. Their first rallies of the day were separated by 750 miles of interstate highway, but in content and vision they were lightyears apart.
Trump, addressing a crowd in Macon, Georgia, set out his now familiar dystopia of an America overrun with criminal aliens and radical socialists. He unleashed his firepower on Stacey Abrams, the Democrat seeking to become the first black woman governor of any state in the union.
“You put Stacey in there and you are going to get Georgia turn into Venezuela,” Trump said. “Stacey Abrams wants to turn your wonderful state into a giant sanctuary city for criminal aliens, putting innocent Georgia families at the mercy of hardened criminals and predators.”
Obama was in Gary, Indiana. He implied that the existential threat came from his successor himself. Though he did not mention Trump by name, he laid out a picture of today’s politics that was in its own way equally dystopian, led by a man who had no qualms about lying or about playing to people’s fears.
“What kind of politics do we want,” he asked Democrats in a state where Senator Joe Donnelly is struggling to be re-elected. “What we have not seen at least in my memory is where, right now, you’ve got politicians blatantly, repeatedly, baldly, shamelessly lying. Just making up stuff.”
As Obama spoke, his voice hoarse, he banged the podium with the passion of a politician who has seen his legacy unpicked in record time. From his signature Affordable Care Act – dubbed by Democrats with affection and Republicans with equal disdain as “Obamacare” – to his actions on climate change, immigration reform, income redistribution and the composition of the US supreme court, his achievements have been brutally assailed.
Obama ridiculed Trump’s focus in the final days of the campaign on the caravan of Central American asylum seekers making their perilous way to the US border. “Two weeks before the election they are telling us that the single greatest threat to America is a bunch of poor, impoverished, broken, hungry refugees 1,000 miles away.”
But he warned: “Sometimes these tactics of scaring people and making stuff up work.”
He painted the stakes at Tuesday’s election as no less than the future of democracy itself. “There have got to be consequences when people don’t tell the truth. When words stop meaning anything, when people can just lie with abandon, democracy can’t work. Nothing works… Society doesn’t work unless there are consequences.”
Despite their conflicting approaches, Trump and Obama shared one message: that the normally lacklustre and low-turnout midterms could not be more significant this time. As Obama put it: “America is at a crossroads. The character of our country is on the ballot.”
Here’s how Trump put the same idea: “This election will decide on whether we build on the extraordinary prospective we have created or whether we let the radical Democrats take a wrecking ball to our future.”
It seems their message is working, if the response of the electorate is an indication. Some 33 million votes have already been counted in early voting, vastly more than at this stage four years ago. Turnout is on track to be the largest in a midterm election for more than 50 years.
When polling stations open on America’s eastern seaboard at 6am on Tuesday, both main parties have much to win and lose. With all 435 seats of the House of Representatives up for grabs, the Democrats look well-placed to gain the 23 they need to take back control and put a spoke in the wheel of Trump’s ambitions.
A much tougher challenge faces the party in the Senate, where 26 Democratic seats are in play compared with only nine Republican.
The intensity of the fight,on display at the presidents’ dueling rallies, was reflected too on the Sunday political talk shows, which were dominated by disputes over race-baiting. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told CNN’s State of the Union: “What you see in the closing argument is dog-whistle politics, appeals to racists, just the worst of America.”
The show’s host, Jake Tapper, engaged in a feisty to-and-fro with Perez’s Republican counterpart, Ronna McDaniel. He put to her a racially provocative attack ad made for the Trump campaign and shared on social media by the president last week, which accused Democrats of allowing into the US an undocumented migrant who murdered two police officers in California. In fact, Luis Bracamontes most recently entered the US during the administration of George W Bush, a Republican. The advert was widely condemned.
Tapper asked the RNC chair if she had any concerns about the flagrant inaccuracy of the ad as well as its blatant racist tone. She avoided replying directly, saying: “Regardless. We didn’t want [Bracamontes] in the country. He killed police. That’s not good.”
“Is that the Democrats’ fault?” Tapper pressed.
“It’s a systemic failure.”
When Tapper said that suggested both main parties were responsible, not just the Democrats, McDaniel replied: “Who’s the party saying, ‘Let’s fix it’? Who’s the party fixing all the problems?”
With so much riding on Tuesday night, Trump and Republican leadership have resorted to increasingly extreme language. A return to Democratic control of the House would allow liberals to block much of the president’s agenda, as well as to investigate him aggressively in committees wielding subpoena power.
In addition, 36 state governors are up for re-election and the Democrats hope to win back hundreds of seats in state legislatures.
Despite economic indicators that put unemployment at 3.7%, its lowest level in 49 years, and wage growth at its best since 2009, Trump has taken a big gamble in prioritizing his anti-immigration policies rather than a booming economy. On Friday at a rally in West Virginia, he said: “We have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”
The president has promised in lurid terms anti-immigrant measures, from sending troops to the border with Mexico to making it harder to claim asylum and putting an end to so-called “birthright citizenship”, whereby anyone born in the US is automatically American. His incendiary talk has been matched by others in his administration.
On Saturday, agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue spoke in Lakeland, Florida. He was trying to buoy up the chances of Ron DeSantis becoming governor instead of an African American Democrat, Andrew Gillum. Even had the neck-and-neck race not involved a black candidate, Perdue’s words would have been explosive.
“Public policy matters,” he said. “Leadership matters. And that is why this election is so cotton-pickin’ important to the state of Florida. I hope you all don’t mess it up.”
Florida joined the US in 1845 as a slave state, with half its enslaved black population working on cotton and sugar plantations.
Race is also a big issue in Georgia. Abrams’ opponent, Brian Kemp, is in charge of overseeing elections as secretary of state. In that role he has been accused of attempting to prevent thousands of largely African American residents from voting.
Abrams was asked by CNN on Sunday what she thought about Perdue’s “cotton-pickin” comment. She said: “I think there is certainly a throwback element to the language coming out of the Republican party that is unfortunately disparaging to communities. It may be unintentional, but it signals a deeper misinformation about what Andrew Gillum can accomplish, what I can accomplish.”
As Trump set out from the White House for Georgia, he told reporters his recent spate of rallies, in which he has set out his dystopian view of a nation under siege from “invading” immigrants, had sparked a fire under the conservative base.
“There’s something very interesting that’s happening the level of fervor, the level of fever is very strong on the Republican side,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy out there. I think that the rallies have been the things that have caused this fervor to start. I have never seen such an enthusiastic Republican party.”
Polls continue to indicate that Democrats have a significant lead, though after the embarrassment to pollsters of 2016 any such figures must be handled with extreme caution. The last poll from the Wall Street Journal/NBC News showed the Democrats up by seven points in terms of who respondents wanted to control Congress.
Trump’s low approval rating – CNN puts it at 44% – continues to be a challenge. In 2010 Barack Obama had a rating of 46%. He lost 63 House seats.