With less than one week to go before a crucial U.S. midterm congressional election, Americans are on edge in the aftermath of a massacre at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh and the arrest of a man who allegedly sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump.
Voters will elect a new Congress on November 6th, and the results could shift the balance of power in Washington and have a profound impact on the next two years of the Trump presidency.
The mass shooting in Pittsburgh and the arrest of Cesar Sayoc for allegedly sending pipe bombs to several prominent Democrats and critics of President Trump have heightened the tension and uncertainty in the campaign run up to Election Day, November 6.
“Well, the country is in pain,” Brookings Institution scholar John Hudak told VOA. “This is a set of circumstances that unfortunately happens in America all too regularly, that is, acts of violence and acts of aggression toward fellow Americans by Americans.”
Trump was quick to condemn the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and “the historic evil of anti-Semitism.” He also appealed for unity. “We come together as one American people,” Trump told a farmer’s group meeting in Indiana.
But the violence in Pittsburgh and the discovery of the pipe bombs targeting Democrats have sparked calls across the political spectrum for candidates to tone down their rhetoric even as the midterm campaign heats up.
Among those urging calm was former Vice President Joe Biden, on the campaign trail for Democrats in Ohio.
“I know sometimes the anger, the hatred, the viciousness seem like they are going to overwhelm us,” Biden told a rally in Youngstown, Ohio. “And it is on our leaders to set the tone, to dial down the temperature and to restore some dignity to our national dialogue.”
Some Democrats say the president’s partisan, sometimes personal attacks have contributed to the politically charged atmosphere.
That brought an impassioned denial from the White House. “The very first thing that the media did was blame the president and make him responsible for these ridiculous acts,” charged Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. “That is outrageous that that would be the very first reaction.”
Many news organizations took issue with Sanders’ contention.
Trump's Immigration focus
Trump has vowed to campaign aggressively right up to Election Day on issues important to his supporters, especially immigration.
The president has highlighted the slow progress of a caravan of Central American migrants north through Mexico and ordered more U.S. troops to the southern border.
“The Democrat Party is openly encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders and bankrupt our country,” Trump claimed at a recent rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Democratic Party officials have rejected Trump’s claim.
Democrats push health care
For their part, Democrats have focused on health care for much of the campaign, but there is no denying that Trump also looms large.
“Democrats want to make this about health care and the tax bill and about Donald Trump. And let’s face it, this is going to be about Donald Trump,” said Jim Kessler of the center-left policy group Third Way.
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll found that more than two in three registered voters said their impression of President Trump will factor into their decision on Election Day.
Democrats expect to make gains in the House of Representatives on November 6th, and they need to gain 23 seats to reclaim the majority.
But in the closing days of the campaign, the Republicans are favored to hold their narrow 51 to 49 majority in the Senate, according to John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
“Some of what has happened in recent days with the (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh hearing and Republicans kind of coming home as a party are helping in that area. So it will be mostly a win for Democrats with probably a bright spot in the Senate for Republicans.”
Both Fortier and Kessler were recent guests on VOA’s ‘Encounter’ program.
Presidents historically suffer party losses in congressional midterm elections, with House losses often ranging from 25 to 35 seats. The losses can go higher if the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent. Trump’s average approval rating, according to the non-partisan site RealClear Politics, is about 44 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove.
Gallup pollster Frank Newport said the key unknown for Democratic success in the election is their ability to spur a large voter turnout.
“Under the expectation that Republican voters typically are more likely to turn out (in midterm elections), can Democrats energize people who identify with the Democratic Party to turn out and vote for their candidates?”
The stakes are enormous. A Democratic House could block the Trump agenda and launch numerous investigations of the Trump White House, complicating the president’s re-election hopes in 2020.