In the first midterm election of Donald Trump’s presidency, Republicans took a page from the Democratic playbook to slow anti-Trump momentum in a number of key states.
Normally, Democrats are successful in nonpresidential elections when they get lots of voters to the polls who are either new to the process or who usually vote only in presidential years.
On Tuesday, however, Republicans stayed ahead of Democrats — in conservative states at least — by mobilizing their own groups of usually unreliable voters.
Early voting data from Georgia shows that while Democrats mobilized many “low propensity” or new voters to the polls in this midterm election, there were even more Republican voters who did not vote in the 2014 midterm elections who cast ballots early this year.
Election day data will complete the picture, but what is certain is that Trump brought many new off-year voters to the polls. It’s an indication that his fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants and the GOP’s demonization of Democrat Stacey Abrams had a major impact.
Abrams had not conceded as of Wednesday afternoon, and as votes continued to trickle in, Republican Brian Kemp’s percentage slipped closer to 50 percent, moving to 50.35 percent by midday. If it were to slip below 50 percent, then the race would proceed to a one-month runoff. Kemp led Abrams by 65,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast, with about 77,000 ballots outstanding.
“We believe there are around 14,000 outstanding ballots, the majority of them from Abrams’ voters,” the Abrams campaign said in a press release.
Two factors will loom large if Kemp prevails. One is Kemp’s longstanding reputation for creating barriers to voting for African-Americans in Georgia, through a series of procedural and bureaucratic policies that disproportionately reduce the number of minority voters. Abrams, who has clashed with Kemp for the last several years over equal access to voting, called him an “architect of voter suppression” during the final days of the campaign.
Kemp, the Abrams campaign said Wednesday in a release, “has breached the public trust by running a problematic election with thousands of rejected, delayed, and provisional ballots.”
The second key if Kemp holds on will be the number of voters who backed Trump in 2016 and were not regular voters before that. How many of them had rarely or never voted in a midterm election, but were moved by Trump’s talk of a migrant caravan and Kemp’s talk of Abrams being a dangerous radical to get to the polls in 2018?
Early voting totals indicate there were quite a few.
A total of 396,246 white voters in Georgia voted early after not voting at all in 2014, according to the website GeorgiaVotes.com, which compiled data released by Kemp’s secretary of state office.
That’s compared with 223,184 black voters who voted early this year after not voting in 2014.
The contest between Abrams and Kemp broke down along racial lines. Abrams has made it her mission to register more African-American voters in Georgia over the past several years, in response to longstanding systemic obstacles to voting created by state officials that have uniquely affected people of color, as described in books like Carol Anderson’s “One Person, No Vote.”
And Kemp’s strategy in the campaign was to say that Abrams was someone to be feared. He based these assertions on policy positions, but the subtext played into deep-seated racial anxieties among white voters.
Trump, meanwhile, employed a message over the final month that played on the fears of voters about immigrants from South and Central America. Race is not the only factor to consider in understanding strong feelings among voters about border security and illegal immigration. Other issues at play are concerns about the rule of law, economic impact and cultural impact.
The point is that Trump’s messaging about the migrant caravan, which was so filled with unfounded claims and wildly conspiratorial insinuations, did not appear to cost him at all in deep red states like Georgia. Huge numbers of white voters who voted early in 2014 voted early again in 2018: 406,865 in all.
If there were a sign that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric had cost him among more traditional Republicans, that number would have been lower, and candidates in other states like Indiana, Missouri and Florida would have fared worse. But in those states with deep red constituencies, Republicans matched increased Democratic turnout with huge numbers of their own, a sign that they were able to excite and mobilize both traditional Republican voters and Trump voters who don’t regularly vote in off-year elections.
This question of getting “low-propensity” voters to the polls has traditionally been a concern of Democrats. The Republican coalition in the past has been better performing in midterm elections than Democratic voters who are reliable in presidential races.
But a key Republican operative told Yahoo News that getting “low propensity” voters — people Trump brought into the Republican Party who were not regular voters before 2016 — had become an “obsession” of GOP party officials because it is now the key for them to be competitive in a number of states.
For the moment, Trump’s ability to rouse this coalition by talking about migrant caravans may encourage him to pursue similar rhetorical and demagogic excess in the future. But it may also give him and Republicans pause that Republican Senate candidates in key Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — which delivered him the presidency in 2016 — were badly outmatched by their Democratic opponents. And in only one of those states, Ohio, did a Republican governor win.
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