WASHINGTON – Will the 2018 midterm election turn out more like the 2017 off-year elections or more like the 2016 presidential election?  It could be a bit of both.

Donald Trump won in 2016, in large part, due to his ability to stoke racial and sexist resentment. From the day of his announcement when he claimed Mexico was sending rapists and drug dealers across the U.S. border to his constant attacks on women, particularly black women, Trump has used denigration, hate and fear mongering to energize a predominately white male political base.

In 2017, however, this tactic failed to gain traction as Democrats won nearly everywhere an election was held. In Virginia, for example, Republican attempts to use MS-13 gangs and sanctuary cities as a wedge issue bombed as Democrats easily won a gubernatorial race some pundits believed was slipping away. They also erased a 32-seat Republican majority in the House of Delegates.

Going into the 2018 midterm cycle Democrats were favored to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives while Republicans were favored to hold on to the Senate. Now, with less than two weeks to go, there has been little net change. Democrats look to gain roughly 30 seats in the House while Republicans appear poised to hang on to their two-seat Senate majority and perhaps even add a seat or two. Democrats also have a legitimate shot at winning as many as 10 gubernatorial races — victories that would help undo heavily gerrymandered legislative districts in many states.

Still worried about Democratic gains, Trump has stuck to the script that won him the presidency. With the economy and tax cut arguments failing to energize his base, the president has taken his low road politics on the road, campaigning almost nonstop in deep red states like Texas and Montana in an attempt to bail-out  struggling Republican Senate candidates.

Everywhere he goes, Trump employs fear to motivate Republican turnout, firing off practically every wedge missile in his arsenal. His speeches are invariably laced with racial rhetoric and sexist putdowns. Middle Eastern terrorists have infiltrated the caravan of Honduran migrants. Women who come forward to allege sexual misconduct are creating a “very scary time” for innocent young men. At a recent rally, Trump even declared himself a “nationalist,” using a racially charged term that evokes white supremacy and prompting a Twitter endorsement from David Duke.

While there is evidence the Trump fear strategy is working in a few races, overall the results are mixed. In Florida, for example, Democrat Andrew Gillum appears headed to victory after the Republican nominee Ron DeSantis running as a Trump clone stumbled repeatedly over his own racist rhetoric. At the same time, Gillum’s momentum may have coattails, aiding Senator Bill Nelson in his re-election bid against Governor Rick Scott and Democratic House candidates in Florida.

Similarly, Democrats appear to be rebounding in the Midwest.  Gubernatorial races favor Democrats in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin while Ohio is a tossup. All would amount to Democratic gains. Meanwhile, previously thought to be vulnerable Senators running for reelection — Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown — appear to be in good shape. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey are coasting to reelection.  Democrats have put multiple GOP-held House seats in play in nearly every Midwestern state.

In Indiana, where Trump won by 19 points, Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly continues to hold on to a narrow lead. Businessman Mike Braun won the Republican nomination against two better-known congressmen with clever advertising. But in the general election campaign, Braun’s ads have fallen flat while he has been forced to play defense to attacks on his business practices. Meanwhile, Donnelly has deftly neutralized the immigration issue while his vote against the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination appears to have helped with the critical suburban women vote.

Of course, Trump isn’t the first Republican to use race as a wedge. Since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Republicans have made little to no effort to compete for the African American vote, in effect writing them off to maximize the vote of disaffected whites. In 1968, Richard Nixon used his “southern strategy” to win over white voters with coded language designed to exploit racial fears. Following Nixon’s lead, nearly every Republican presidential candidate since has tried to exploit racial anxiety in an attempt to drive up the white vote. What Trump brought to the calculation are his sensational appeals to race — a proposed ban on Muslims, impugning the patriotism of black professional athletes, and the use of social unrest and gang violence in his attacks on Democrats. 

Now Trump is resurrecting debunked claims of voter fraud as a way to delegitimize the 2018 election if things go badly for Republicans. The rallying cry of voter fraud, of course, is really a dog whistle for voter suppression aimed at people of color. Republican voter suppression is playing out in states all over the country. 

Efforts to suppress the minority vote is no more apparent than in the Georgia gubernatorial race where former Democratic legislative leader Stacey Abrams is facing off against Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Political forecasters at FiveThirtyEight project this as the closest statewide race in the nation. Abrams would be the first female African-American governor of any state.

Kemp as secretary of state has put on hold 53,000 recently registered voters (70% of whom are black according to an analysis by the Associated Press) because their information doesn’t match exactly as they are listed in other government databases. Some lack no more than a hyphen or a middle initial. Many of those voters will be forced to cast provisional ballots which have a reduced chance of being counted.

Hardball politics in American political campaigns is as old as the Republic, as are efforts to suppress or manipulate the vote. But presidents have generally served as unifiers, trying to stay above the fray while leaving the dirty work to others. 

Yet, Donald Trump’s polarizing rhetoric is what is driving the growing racial and gender divides in America just as his attacks on Democrats as “evil” and the media as “enemy of the people” and his general willingness to excuse violence is giving permission to radicals and crazies to commit violence. 

Americans often use elections to put a check on one party rule and out-of-the-mainstream politics. 

Today many Americans are worn out and frightened by a presidency that seems out-of-control and filled with hate. If those Americans show up at the polls on Nov. 6, there is a chance to get our politics back on course. 

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington, D.C.