Midterms 2018: Five key election races to watch before US voters go to the polls

From California to Florida, a polarised electorate returns to the ballot box

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Monday 05 November 2018 10:05
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US Midterms 2018: The five big questions

As the US prepares to go to the polls for the midterm elections in November, the country has seldom felt more polarised.

Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are finding it harder to make their voices heard in an ever more combative political arena in which the rhetoric of the debate often demands total allegiance to one side or the other.

The recent controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing has only served to widen the gap between red and blue.

Many commentators are characterising the vote as a referendum on Donald Trump’s first two years in the Oval Office, but each state has its own often deeply personal concerns to resolve at a local level.

Here’s The Independent‘s pick of five key races to watch as campaigning enters its final weeks.

1. Texas Senate – Beto O’Rourke vs Ted Cruz

Who are the candidates?

While Texas has traditionally been a dependable red state, Democratic senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, 46, is hoping to summon a “blue wave” to oust incumbent senator Ted Cruz, 47.

The candidate from El Paso has called for the impeachment of Donald Trump and expressed his admiration for NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s divisive “take a knee” national anthem protest, regarded by some as unpatriotic and disrespectful but encouraged as a symbol of healthy debate by Mr O’Rourke.

His progressive example has seen his party’s voter registration double and his campaign break fundraising records, building an impressive $39m (£30m) war chest from small grassroots contributions while rejecting donations from wealthy lobbying interests.

Texas Republicans have, however, been fired up by the midterms in the wake of Mr Kavanaugh, with many incensed by the treatment of President Trump’s preferred candidate for the bench after sexual assault allegations were made against him.

Senator Cruz’s defeat would represent a major personal humiliation for the former would-be presidential candidate.

What are the key issues?

Immigration and abortion will be key topics of contention, with Mr O’Rourke confronted by a conservative heckler at a debate in San Antonio, who angrily accosted him over his beliefs. “I believe in a woman’s choice,” he coolly responded.

Access to healthcare will be another important issue, with Texas being one of the least insured states in the union.

Voters’ attitudes towards President Trump will certainly be a factor. Despite regularly deriding him as “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” when the men were rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, the president has now given his backing to Mr Cruz, praising him on Twitter for boosting the state’s employment statistics through “massive cuts in taxes and regulations”.

US representative Beto O’Rourke and US senator Ted Cruz take part in a debate for the Texas US Senate seat on 16 October 2018 (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News/AP)

Mr Cruz has supported the president’s “zero-tolerance” policy on illegal immigration but also worked to ensure families separated at the border are reunited.

President Trump has meanwhile inevitably attacked Mr O’Rourke as “lightweight” and “a flake”.

2. Georgia gubernatorial race – Stacey Abrams vs Brian Kemp

Who are the candidates?​

Democrat Stacey Abrams, 44, is seeking to become the first black woman to serve as a state governor, a major milestone in the history of the South and for America as a whole.

The significance of a potential victory cannot be understated and will depend on her winning the votes of liberal residents of Atlanta, the birthplace of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Much of the rest of Georgia remains fiercely Republican.

Stacey Abrams at the podium

Her opponent is the unabashedly Trumpian Brian Kemp, 55, Georgia’s secretary of state, who has called the contest a battle for “literally the soul of our state”.

A self-styled “politically incorrect conservative”, Mr Kemp has proudly brandished a shotgun in a TV spot for his campaign and boasted of owning “a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself”.

What are the key issues?

Education, immigration, gun control and healthcare are all at the heart of the contest in Georgia, particularly the lack of hospitals and jobs in rural areas.

Another cause of particularly pressing concern is voting itself, with the state’s “exact match” law seeing 534,000 registrations purged from the electoral roll since 2016 and 53,000 registrations still pending with less than two weeks to go before the vote, 70 per cent of which relate to black voters who might be expected to turn out for Stacey Abrams.

Brian Kemp makes his case in Athens, Georgia (Jessica McGowan/Getty)

Civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit over the issue but Mr Kemp – whom Ms Abrams called the “architect of voter suppression” on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah - has insisted the matter is a diversionary tactic on behalf of her supporters to distract from her “extreme” agenda.

Critics of the Ms Abrams have attacked her over what they characterise as her tax and spend approach to policy, particularly in light of the revelation that she herself has an outstanding bill with the Internal Revenue Service.

3. Florida gubernatorial race – Andrew Gillum vs Ron DeSantis

Who are the candidates?​

Democrat Andrew Gillum, 39, mayor of Tallahassee, is hoping to bring the blue wave to the beaches of the Sunshine State but is having to fight against ex-congressman Ron DeSantis, 40, in the battle to succeed Rick Scott.

“He’s presided over a crime-ridden city. He’s involved in corruption. He’s not the guy to lead our state,” the Republican Iraq War veteran said of his rival in their first debate.

Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum lock horns in their first televised debate (Reuters)

For his part, Mr Gillum has worked to paint Mr DeSantis as a Trump “acolyte” while insisting he himself would be happy to work with the president, despite considering him “a bully”.

As with Beto O’Rourke versus Ted Cruz in Texas and Stacey Abrams’s battle against Brian Kemp in Georgia, the contest between these two is being read as emblematic of the national situation.

What are the key issues?

In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland earlier this year, gun control will be firmly on the minds of the voters. Mr Gillum has backed tighter controls, but been criticised as “dangerous” by Andrew Pollack, grieving father of one of the slain pupils.

Healthcare and the future of Medicaid will be a major talking point here too, as will climate change – with the Florida panhandle regularly bearing the brunt of tropical storms developing in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, most recently suffering considerable damage as a result of Hurricane Michael making landfall.

The economy is another key battleground, with Mr DeSantis arguing his opponent would reek devastation of his own by raising corporate tax and the minimum wage, driving investment away.

Mr Gillum, potentially the state’s first African-American governor, has also repeatedly called out Mr DeSantis for making the contest about race, taking particular offence at the latter’s incredibly ill-considered use of the phrase “monkey up”.

“I’m not calling Mr DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists consider him a racist,” he said as the men sparred in Davie.

Mr DeSantis has also faced criticism for stoking fear over law and order, suggesting in debate that “undocumented immigrant child molesters” could stalk the streets of sanctuary cities, a claim rubbished by his opponent.

4. Missouri Senate – Claire McCaskill​ vs Josh Hawley

Who are the candidates?​

In what was once known as the Bellwether State, the home of Harry Truman and moderation, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, 65, finds herself in danger from Republican challenger Josh Hawley, 38, the state’s attorney-general.

The two-term senator recently sought to reassure voters she is “not one of those crazy Democrats” in a radio advert that sought to portray her youthful rival as “a man in a hurry”.

Senator Claire McCaskill and her Republican challenger Josh Hawley

“You don’t have to like her,” a war veteran says in the same spot, damning with faint phrase.

As in Texas, Mr Hawley is hoping to turn Republican anger at the treatment of Mr Kavanaugh to his advantage and pick up the votes of Trump supporters.

What are the key issues?

Abortion has become a divisive issue among Missouri Democrats, with State House veteran Joan Barry suffering an angry backlash after seeming to welcome pro-lifers into the party in a bid to broaden its support-base.

Left-leaning young women were particularly aghast at the gesture, regarding it as a betrayal rather than the broad church pragmatism Ms Barry says she intended.

Senator McCaskill has so far attempted to sidestep the issue – expressing her opposition to Mr Kavanaugh on campaign finance grounds rather than the possibility he might help to repeal Roe vs Wade from the Supreme Court, a stance that many appear to regard as evasive and insufficient.

Employment is an important matter for the state – and President Trump’s 54 per cent job approval rating plays into the hands of Josh Hawley, who overall appears to be in a strong position to upset the incumbent.

5. California 39th congressional district – Gil Cisneros vs Young Kim

Who are the candidates?​

The fight for Orange County – once the home of Sun Belt Christian conservative ideology – promises to be an interesting contest.

The Democrats already hold the 38th, 46th and 47th congressional districts and stand a good chance of turning the 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th blue. Should they manage to capture the whole county from the Republicans, it would go a long way to helping them flip the 25 seats they need to win control of the House of Representatives and begin drafting impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump.

Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros, a former naval officer and lottery winner

In the 39th, Democrat Gil Cisneros, 47 – a former naval officer turned philanthropist after winning $266m on a lucky Mega Millions lottery ticket in 2010, having just been laid off by snack manufacturer Frito-Lay – faces off against Young Kim, 55, a Republican hoping to become the first Korean-American to be elected to congress.

Mr Cisneros’s campaign was hit by controversy in May when he was made the subject of a sexual misconduct allegation, accused of soliciting sex in exchange for a campaign donation by fellow Democrat Melissa Fazli - a charge he vehemently denied.

She subsequently recanted her accusation on 1 October, saying she had “misunderstood” a conversation they had and apologised. The claim had provided the basis for attack ads against Mr Cisneros run by a Republican super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund.

Republican candidate Young Kim would make history if elected

Ms Kim, whose candidacy reflects the changing demographics of a region with strong ties to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, offers her experience of the American Dream as the child of an immigrant family as her calling card.

A former aide to outgoing 13-term congressman Ed Royce, she has been unafraid to distance herself from President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

What are the key issues?

Healthcare and cost of living are central concerns for Californians as is immigration in a county with a growing Asian and Latino population.

President Trump and the broader national picture is a bigger concern here than in other states mired in more regional concerns.

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Mr Cisneros, endorsed by Barack Obama, has been outspoken against the current president as part of his appeal to Hispanic voters and worked hard to portray Ms Kim as a Republican stooge.

She, however, enjoys core support from Asian-Americans and approval for her work tackling domestic violence and homeless and in support of veterans and children.

This article was amended on 30 October 2018 to include the withdrawal of Melissa Fazli’s allegations against Gil Cisneros

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