High stakes as two-month sprint to Election Day begins

WASHINGTON (AP) – Control of Congress and the future of Donald Trump’s presidency are on the line as the primary season closes this week, jump-starting a two-month sprint to Election Day that will test Democrats’ ability to harness opposition to Trump and determine whether the Republican president can get his supporters to the polls.

For both parties, the stakes are exceedingly high. After crushing defeats in 2016, Democrats open the fall campaign brimming with confidence about their prospects for retaking the House, which would give them power to open a wide swath of investigations into Trump or even launch impeachment proceedings. The outcome of the election, which features a record number of Democratic female and minority candidates, will also help shape the party’s direction heading into the 2020 presidential race.

Republicans have spent the primary season anxiously watching suburban voters, particularly women, peel away because of their disdain for Trump. The shift seems likely to cost the party in several key congressional races. Still, party leaders are optimistic that Republicans can keep control of the Senate, which could help insulate Trump from a raft of Democratic investigations.

History is not on Trump’s side. The president’s party typically suffers big losses in the first midterm election after taking office. And despite a strong economy, Republicans must also contend with the President’s sagging approval rating and the constant swirl of controversy hanging over the White House, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice by Trump.

Despite those headwinds, Trump is betting on himself this fall. He’s thrust himself into the centre of the campaign and believes he can ramp up turnout among his ardent supporters and offset a wave of Democratic enthusiasm. Aides say he’ll spend much of the fall holding rallies in swing states.

The US Capitol is seen at sunrise, in Washington. – AP

“The great unknown is whether the president can mobilise his base to meet the enthusiasm gap that is clearly presented at this point,” said Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Because the middle won’t be there for Republicans.”

Indeed, Trump’s turbulent summer appears to have put many moderates and independents out of reach for Republican candidates, according to GOP officials. One internal GOP poll obtained by The Associated Press showed Trump’s approval rating among independents in congressional battleground districts dropped 10 points between June and August.

A GOP official who oversaw the survey attributed the drop to negative views of Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the White House’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. The official was not authorised to discuss the internal polling publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Those declines put several incumbent GOP lawmakers at risk, including Virginia Representative Barbara Comstock, who represents a district in the Washington suburbs, and Representative Erik Paulsen, whose suburban Minneapolis district has been in Republican hands since 1961.

Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take control of the House. Operatives in both parties believe at least 40 seats will be competitive in November.

Corry Bliss, who runs a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, acknowledged a “tough environment” for Republicans that could quickly become too difficult for some incumbents to overcome.

“Incumbents who wake up down in the beginning of October are not going to be able to fix it in this environment,” Bliss said. “But incumbents who go on the offense early can and will win.”

Democratic incumbents had a similar wake-up call during the primaries after New York Representative Joe Crowley, who held a powerful leadership position in Congress, stunningly lost to 28-year-old first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s among several younger minority candidates who defeated older, more established opponents, signalling a desire among many Democratic voters for generational change.