The G.O.P. Is Standing by Trumpists Ahead of the Senate Midterms

There’s no shortage of threats to democracy this political season, and, during a debate last week in Ohio, two candidates for the U.S. Senate were asked what they thought the greatest danger might be. Representative Tim Ryan, the Democrat, who spoke first, said that it was “extremism,” and then got more specific: his opponent, J. D. Vance, he said, has no ability to stand up to his own party, or “to anybody.” At a recent rally in Youngstown, Donald Trump had bragged, “J.D. is kissing my ass, he wants my support.” But what was even more troubling to Ryan was Vance’s response, which was to join Trump onstage, “shaking his hand, taking pictures.” Ryan said, “I don’t know anybody I grew up with—I don’t know anybody I went to high school with—that would allow somebody to take their dignity like that.”

With the midterms now only a few weeks away, one shouldn’t expect an overflowing of dignity in any of the half-dozen or so states, including Ohio, where Senate seats are being seriously contested. At the rally, Vance, who came to prominence as the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and then reinvented himself as a MAGA man, said that Ryan doesn’t seem like an Ohioan because he’s a fan of yoga. Vance has also suggested that President Joe Biden was letting fentanyl stream across the border in order to punish Republican voters—an insinuation that G.O.P. candidates around the country have echoed. Recent polls have Ryan and Vance within a few points of each other, but Trump won the state in 2020 by more than eight points.

According to projections by the research firm AdImpact, a hundred and thirty-eight million dollars will be spent in the Ohio race on media advertising alone. Roughly a quarter billion dollars is expected to be spent on ads in Senate races in Nevada, in Arizona, and in Pennsylvania, and two hundred and seventy-six million is the estimate for the most expensive race, in Georgia. The motive for these outlays is clear. A sitting President’s party usually loses seats in the midterms, and that seems likely to happen in the House, where the Democrats have a margin of just eight. Barring a blue wave, Kevin McCarthy, not Nancy Pelosi, will be Speaker in January. But the Democrats have a decent shot at holding on to the Senate, which is now evenly divided, and even of picking up a seat or two.

It helps that, of the thirty-five seats being contested, twenty-one are held by Republicans. And, owing to Republican retirements, there are open seats that now seem to be in the Democrats’ reach in Ohio and in Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman, the hoodie-wearing lieutenant governor, is in a close race against Mehmet Oz, the Trump-endorsed television doctor. The situation is similar in North Carolina, where a Democrat, Cheri Beasley, is running a strong race against Representative Ted Budd. Beasley, who would be the state’s first Black woman senator, is a former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court; Budd has said that the January 6th assault was “just patriots standing up.”

In the House, Budd co-sponsored a bill that would ban abortion nationwide after about the six-week mark, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Democrats around the country appear to be benefitting from public anger at this summer’s Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and made bills such as Budd’s plausible. Republicans, in turn, have focussed on discontent with inflation and, in attacks that are more and more crudely drawn, on immigration and crime. In Wisconsin, ads for Ron Johnson, the most vulnerable G.O.P. Senate incumbent, portray his challenger, Mandela Barnes, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor, as an inciter of mobs who wants to empty prisons and unleash havoc in the streets. The January 6th committee linked Johnson to Trump’s “fake elector” scheme; the Senator called the allegation a smear and said that he’d been involved for only “a couple seconds.”

Pennsylvania, however, has been seen as the Democrats’ best pick-up chance. The Fetterman campaign gained ground by portraying Oz as a huckster whose true home is New Jersey. The question is Fetterman’s health. He had a stroke a few days before the primary, in May, and by his own account has not fully recovered. He has spoken at some rallies, but still has difficulty with auditory processing. In interviews, he uses transcription software: he reads what is said to him, then responds. That technological work-around will get its biggest test on October 25th, when the candidates debate. The health discussion has exposed the lowness of Oz’s campaign, which at one point said that, as a debate accommodation, it would let Fetterman “raise his hand and say ‘bathroom break!’ ” More recently, Oz has focussed on claiming that Fetterman is weak on crime, calling him “Free-Them-All Fetterman.”

The Democrats also need to hold on to the seats they have. In Arizona, Senator Mark Kelly has had a small but steady lead over Blake Masters, a Trumpist who is funded by Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire. (Thiel is also backing Vance.) In Nevada, though, in some polls, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is falling behind Adam Laxalt, the grandson of Paul Laxalt, the late Nevada senator. Earlier this month, Laxalt appeared with Trump at a rally where the former President said that, because of Democrats, American cities are “drenched” in blood.

But the most concentrated locus of G.O.P. indignity is in the race in Georgia between Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who won a special election in 2020, and Herschel Walker, whose tight connection with Trump extends back to his stint, in the nineteen-eighties, with the New Jersey Generals, a team (in the ill-fated U.S. Football League) that Trump briefly owned. In the latest spectacle—in a campaign that has been full of them—a woman told reporters that Walker had pressured her to get an abortion and had paid for it. (She is also the mother of one of his children.) Walker, who supports an abortion ban with no exceptions, has offered bafflingly phrased denials—as he does on many subjects. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, is still standing behind Walker. Last week, Senators Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and Rick Scott, of Florida, joined Walker at a campaign stop.

Cotton said that fans of the Razorbacks, the University of Arkansas football team, had not forgotten how Walker dominated them when he played for the University of Georgia Bulldogs. But, Cotton said, “they have no hard feelings, because they want Republicans back in charge in Washington.” The message to G.O.P. voters is that they all need to see themselves as indulgent Razorback fans. The Republicans are going after the Senate with Trump’s team, and they have stopped caring what it takes to get over the line. ♦

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