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Election: Is America itself on the ballot? Depends on who you ask

In the end, what is it all about?

The question hangs over Tuesday’s election, like a star-spangled flag on a windless day waiting to be blown one direction or another by a breeze from the ballot box.

In the view of those who are calling this the most important election of our lifetimes — and that includes people from all corners of the political universe — the upcoming midterm is less about specific policy proposals, individual candidates and congressional-majority math than it is a gut-level choice between competing visions of America in the era of President Donald Trump.

“This is almost not about the issues but (about) emotion and, in some way, what American identity is,” said Noah Edelson, a progressive activist and network creative director who lives in Sherman Oaks.

“That’s why I’m out campaigning,” said Lupe Navarro, a San Bernardino retiree who does volunteer work for the Redlands Tea Party Patriots and Republican Sean Flynn’s campaign for Congress in California’s 31st District.

These are the climactic days of campaigning for state and local offices, ballot measures and congressional seats, including five particularly hard-fought House races in Southern California. Those races could help to determine if Democrats achieve the 23-seat net gain they need nationwide to capture a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. If not, and if Republican hold onto their majority in the U.S. Senate as expected, the GOP will keep control of government in every federal branch as well as most states.

At this potentially pivotal moment, the Southern California News Group spoke with activists, party leaders, campaign professionals and political scientists — and monitored candidates’ final campaign pitches — to figure out what is being decided on Nov. 6. We’ll do it again, after the election, to figure out what was decided.

Some of the respondents say the country’s political divisions aren’t as new as they feel, some think talk about the national soul being at stake is overdone, and some believe elections in California should be about state issues instead of national themes.

But the consensus view is that voters in the 2018 midterm elections will be motivated by competing feelings about which direction is right for the state and nation, and competing fears that an ideal version of America is under threat as Trump leads the Republican Party farther to the right and Trump’s foes in the Democratic Party sound increasingly strident.

“This election is about Donald Trump, pure and simple,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican spokesman and strategist who now is a professor at USC’s Annenberg Center. “But it’s not just about Trump the individual. It’s about the things he represents to different people.

“Trump forces a choice in a way that very few American presidents ever have. Voters who want to protect their version of America, that they worry is slipping away, line up on (Trump’s) side. And those who worry that their emerging version of America is being shut out line up on the other.

“So the biggest question of the midterms is whether Trump motivates his supporters more by what they fear than he motivates his opponents by what they fear.”

For many liberals, the fear is that Tuesday’s election results in individual congressional districts will entrench “minority rule,” keeping Republicans in charge of all of the levers of federal government even though the national electorate is divided or even Democratic-leaning. In that liberal nightmare, Trump and Republicans are emboldened by midterm election success to run roughshod over Democrats and tear down the inclusive, protective version of America promoted by President Barack Obama.

“For Democrats, we have seen some of the best things that Barack Obama did, frankly that George W. Bush did too, being stripped away,” said Eric Bauman, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “If there’s a fear for us, it’s that we’re moving into an era where we’ve living in a nation that stops caring about those who at the greatest risk, who are the ‘least among us.’”

Christen Hebrard, a Mar Vista resident who is president of Black Los Angeles Young Democrats, said she sees hope for African Americans and other minorities in strong campaigns being run by Stacey Abrams for governor of Georgia, Andrew Gillum for governor of Florida, and Ben Jealous for governor of Maryland.

“Who is America? We’re all America. And America deserves leadership that is representative of us all,” Hebrard said.

Edelson, who is active in Indivisible 30, a progressive group in California’s 30th Congressional District, said he fears an entrenched Trump administration would chip away at democracy.

“America has lost its integrity. That’s the thing that has happened over the past two years (since Trump took office),” Edelson said. “Somehow we’ve allowed this — I’ll say it — fascist attitude to take hold. He (Trump) doesn’t want to see anything that isn’t his way. That sense of compromise is being lost, and that’s what democracy is all about.”

Describing his view of conservative voters’ beliefs, Edelson said: “It’s not a rich, white, male America anymore, but they’d like it to be.”

Not quite, conservatives say. For many, their fear is that Tuesday’s election will give Democrats a new foothold in Congress and allow them to impede the progress they see Trump making in rolling back Democratic excesses.

Navarro, the Inland Empire activist, notes that her heritage is Mexican — she calls herself “American Mexican” — and says Democrats are using a “scare tactic” if they say Republicans are a party of white people uncomfortable with the rising presence and power of minorities and immigrants.

She supports Trump, she said, because “I just felt we were moving in the wrong direction, and he’s trying to turn around a lot of things that were being overlooked … with taxes, with bringing jobs back to America, with talking with other (countries’) leaders and trying to establish a relationship.”

A Democrat until she re-registered as a Republican in 2000, Navarro said she sees Democrats increasingly “aligning themselves with socialism.” She was “ashamed” of California Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein for the way they “chastised” U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in his confirmation hearings. She wants California to “return to the state it once was.”

“I’m a native Californian, and I’ve seen this beautiful state go progressively downhill,” Navarro said, citing the “sanctuary state” policy and widespread homelessness. “I want to see candidates go in there and reverse this.”

Some Republicans say California Democrats are playing up dramatic, national themes in attempt to distract voters from Democratic failures in the state.

“While Democrats and many in the news media have tried to make this election about national issues, the voters I have spoken with are concerned by the future of our state,” said Cynthia Bryant, executive director of the California Republican Party. “Issues like affordability, underperforming schools, homelessness, public safety and infrastructure are what’s on people’s minds, not insider fights in (Washington).”

Republican-Democratic difference are best summed up in the issue of immigration, said Cal State Northridge political science professor Tom Hogen-Esch: Trump’s supporters like to hear the president exaggerate the danger of the migrant caravan from Central America, which allows him to say, “I’m protecting America from an invasion.” Democrats are fired up, too, by Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, including his proposal to eliminate birthright citizenship, a symbol of U.S. inclusiveness.

“To some extent, both parties are kind of comfortable fighting on this turf because it energizes both bases,” Hogen-Esch said.

The immigration debate is nothing new, he noted.

“The conversation now would be understood by an American from 100 years ago.”

And today’s national divisions would be understood by Americans who witnessed bitter election seasons from many decades past, experts said.

“What ultimately gets us through these periods is good people on both sides of the divide looking for common ground,” USC’s Schnur said.

Larry Levine, an L.A.-based Democratic campaign consultant who isn’t involved in a current election, said this time it might have to be voters who lead a return to less divisive politics.

Said Levine: “I think if voters said, ‘We’re not all-in on this Trump guy,’ Republican elected officials would say, ‘Me too! Which way is the parade going?’ “

The decisive factor will be which groups of voters are most fired up, said Bob Stern, a veteran California political reformer.

“Will young voters (and) people of color vote at a higher rate than in the past? That is absolutely the key question,” Stern said. “If they do, we will see Democrats win big. If not, Republicans may hold on to both the House and the Senate, as well as key governors’ contests in Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan and Ohio.”

Navarro said there’s only one solution for people on both sides: “Get out there and vote.”

Source: Orange County Register

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