Come November, will Americans be voting on the right issues?

Voters are often more drawn to issues that politicians can't control in the short run than those they can

Donald Trump tosses Save America hats to the crowd at a campaign rally in Mesa, Arizona, this week. AFP
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One of the strangest mid-term elections in US history is in its final stretch, with just a month to go. The campaign would typically be a de facto referendum on the new president, rather than a preview of a looming rematch between Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump.

This strange race has also involved a dramatic shift to the extreme right by much of the Republican Party aligned with the former president. And that has produced a set of candidates who are loudly campaigning on racist and Christian nationalist positions that, until now, would have been regarded as outrageous and disqualifying, including by doctrinaire conservatives.

Mr Trump won't be on the ballot, but his presence is pervasive, although a number of Republican candidates who won primaries because of his backing are of a remarkably low calibre.

The former president and his fixation on the 2020 presidential election – in a recent speech he boasted about the size of the January 6 rally that degenerated into the attack on Congress, clearly glorying in the moment – give Democrats solid prospects of retaining the Senate and an unlikely but not impossible shot at keeping control of the House of Representatives.

Democrats are also hoping that the Supreme Court ruling last year eliminating any constitutional protection for abortion rights will help drive turnout. The ruling seems to have had a bigger impact than initially expected, but its full effect remains untested.

Conventional wisdom holds that the two issues most Republican candidates are emphasising – the surges in inflation and crime – are more powerful and emotive than the Democratic themes of abortion rights and protecting democracy from persistent attacks by Mr Trump's movement. Yet, as The Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman notes, if that's true voters would be exhibiting a troubling lack of understanding about what elected officials at the federal level can effectively address.

Rising crime rates – primarily state and local concerns – result from a complex set of socio-economic factors. And while there are theories, baseless or not, that the Biden administration’s spending may have made inflation worse, it is a macro-economic and global phenomenon strongly linked to international catastrophes such as the pandemic and the Ukraine war. Moreover, Republicans under Mr Trump exhibited no greater fiscal prudence than Democrats under Mr Biden.

The public may well be eager to punish Mr Biden and his party. But there's very little, if anything, that a new member of Congress, or even a cadre of them, could do that would have much impact on either problem, especially in the near term.

Trump won't be on the ballot, but his presence is pervasive

By contrast, abortion rights and protecting democratic processes are immediately within the grasp of Congress, as well as state and local officials. These key Democratic themes may be widely seen, possibly including by much of the public, as more "abstract" and "theoretical". But, in fact, they are precisely the kind of concerns that elected politicians can and will address, one way or another.

In the campaign in general, however, it's not just Republicans shouting about inflation versus Democrats shouting about abortion. There’s also the wave of unheard-of weirdness, extremism and incompetence on the Republican right.

A case in point is that of Herschel Walker, the Republican Georgia Senate candidate who is campaigning on a total abortion ban, even for rape victims. He's also been heavily critical of absentee fathers, especially in his own African-American community. And yet, the former American football star's own family life has become the subject of intense media scrutiny in recent days. He has been credibly accused of extraordinary levels of hypocrisy, with numerous aspects of his personal life apparently at extreme odds with his professed beliefs and policies on these two issues.

The response of his supporters has been blunt. From state party leaders to rank-and-file voters, countless Georgia Republicans have said, in effect, that they don't care if any of the myriad allegations are true, or if he's lying to them, or anything except putting him in the Senate to reliably vote with fellow Republicans. Mr Walker's campaign reports a significant uptick in donations since the eruption of the allegations.

The race remains tight with his Democratic opponent, incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, maintaining a slight edge.

Georgia Republican US Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks to the media in Wadley, Georgia, this week. EPA

Most striking is the rise of "Christian nationalism" – the American equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood – on the Republican right. This joins other themes like a resurgent QAnon conspiracy cult, 2020 election denial and support for, or even participation in, the January 6 insurrection, and a resurgence of openly vicious racism.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a first-term Georgia congresswoman whose QAnon-inflected radicalism has catapulted her into overnight party stardom, has repeatedly called herself a Christian nationalist and is an ardent proponent of the racist and anti-immigration Great Replacement Theory.

The narrative that "they" want to dispossess "us" doesn't stop with immigrants. In one of the most overtly racist speeches by a major US politician in years, Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville conflated Democrats, criminals, and "people who want reparations" – an obvious reference to African Americans – “because they want to take over what you got".

Along with immigrants and African Americans, Jews aren't being spared. Republican Pennsylvania governor candidate Doug Mastriano, another avowed Christian nationalist with close ties to racist and anti-Semitic extremists, said that his opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, demonstrated “disdain for people like us” because as a child he attended a Jewish school.

Such toxic candidates for Congress and governorships of major states are a key reason Democrats have a better chance in the mid-term election than expected. Even if this radicalised and ascendant Republican faction ultimately fails, it is already doing tremendous damage to American political culture.

The results in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan – where Republicans are running extremists and/or manifestly unfit candidates for vital governance roles – will do much to measure and shape the viability of the emerging, refashioned Christian nationalist and racist Republican Party.

Published: October 12, 2022, 4:00 AM