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Opinion: Will 2018 Midterms Follow Scorched-Earth Playbook?

Look to lessons from 2017

Polls that showed a tight race were no predictor of the result in Charlotte's mayoral contest Tuesday, which saw the outspent Democrat Vi Lyles win by nearly 20 points. (Courtesy Vi Lyles/Facebook)
Polls that showed a tight race were no predictor of the result in Charlotte's mayoral contest Tuesday, which saw the outspent Democrat Vi Lyles win by nearly 20 points. (Courtesy Vi Lyles/Facebook)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It was a nice little mayor’s race in the largest city in North Carolina, considering that Charlotte has gone through a lot of mayors (seven) in the past nine years. And that’s even taking into account Democratic incumbent Jennifer Roberts losing, in the primary, her chance to defend her spot because of her part in a “bathroom” bill that labeled the state in all the wrong ways and her handling of protests that turned violent after a police-involved shooting.

But all that aside, the scorched-earth campaign between two mild-mannered city council members competing to move into the mayor’s office was a bit unexpected. It reached a heated crescendo with a digital ad from the N.C. Values Coalition, which supported Republican Kenny Smith. The ad said Democrat Vi Lyles “is Jennifer Roberts” and featured an ominous voice-over, a man entering a bathroom to the frightened chagrin of a girl already claiming the space, scenes of rioting and the image of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a blurred severed head.

In Charlotte, with the prize not quite that glittering — control lies mainly with the city manager and council — the most expensive mayoral race in the city’s history featured big money, some from outside groups, and outsize representations of the two candidates, who had previously worked pretty well together.

Pre-election yard signs were divided mostly, though not exclusively, by neighborhood and demographics. Polls that showed a tight race were no predictor of the result, which saw the outspent Lyles win by nearly 20 points in the heavily Democratic city.

President Donald Trump, busy with diplomatic duties in Asia, did not tweet about Charlotte. But he did tweet about the Virginia gubernatorial race, which also resulted in an unexpectedly easy win by the Democrat, Ralph Northam, and his party colleagues down the ticket.

The over-the-top ads of the Republican Ed Gillespie featured threatening gangs; campaign rhetoric had the lobbyist and former Republican National Committee Chair with New Jersey roots putting up a spirited defense of Confederate monuments. He did stop short of changing his middle name to Beauregard. (It’s already taken by the U.S. Attorney General from Alabama, Jeff Sessions.)

A premonition?

Was the nastiness a preview of what the country can expect in the 2018 midterm races with control of the House and Senate in the balance, or were the results a sign to be wary of culture-war tactics that might have worked for Donald Trump but may be wearing thin?

In Charlotte, the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina supported Lyles and have congratulated the winner on her vision “to move equality forward in the Queen City.” When I interviewed Lyles after her victory, she herself promised unity despite the fact that the city’s “had a tough go of it the past couple of years” and said Charlotte needs “more optimism, more trust and more ideas.”

In Virginia, Democrat Danica Roem defeated 13-term Republican state Del. Bob Marshall, who had called himself the state’s “chief homophobe” and had referred to Roem, who is transgender, by male pronouns.

Tuesday night may not have been that surprising in Virginia, which has been trending blue in recent elections as Northern Virginia shows its muscle, or in Charlotte, one of those blue cities in a red state.

Still, Republicans must be a little uncertain of their 2018 moves. Polls show Americans having doubts about a 2020 repeat run for Trump and giving him low marks as a leader, yet GOP lawmakers are so far standing — or crouching — with him. Candidates, particularly those in safe GOP districts, have been counting on Trump’s coattails. They were reminded this week that he is hardly a reliable ally.

A Trump robocall for Gillespie, touting his bona fides on crime and vets over those of former Army doctor Northam, turned post-election into a a swift kick under the bus. The candidate’s mistake was not holding him close enough, Trump tweeted.

Also lurking in the wings is Steve Bannon, threatening primary challenges for midterm candidates not quite pure enough. In North Carolina, that means the Karl Rove-backed Rep. Robert Pittenger, with a voting record in near-perfect alignment with the president, has Mark Harris, the pastor he barely bested the last time around, on his right with reported possible interest from Bannon. And this time, despite the 9th District’s solid Republican status, a first-time Democratic challenger, veteran Dan McCready, is raising quite a war chest before his own primary. Does Pittenger try for middle ground, a place with which he is unfamiliar?

Some disarray

Both parties face potential internecine battles, but after Tuesday, Republicans, for a change, are looking more confused than Democrats. Democrats always have the capacity to not take advantage of obvious advantage. “Not Trump” is not enough to sustain support and enthusiasm, especially in states and districts where they will need a share of Republican votes.

But Republicans have to decide whether to go full-on Trump in 2018 or distance themselves and earn the president’s wrath — win or lose. There is also the path taken by critics such as Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who chose to lose his office instead of his integrity.

The year-old hopes that the job would make the president more presidential are pretty much gone. The office has not changed him — but he has definitely changed the office. And 2012 Republican goals to reach out to minorities seem far in the past.

In Charlotte, GOP candidate Smith amiably and graciously conceded well before bedtime Tuesday night; he has said the city is in good hands with the mayor-elect — the first African-American woman elected to the office — an experienced administrator who has been budget director and assistant city manager and who was pictured in victory holding a granddaughter in each arm.

In Charlotte, with big-city problems that will take all hands to solve, the election fever seems to have broken — for now.

But as a national stage is set for 2018, is the rancorous fever of the 2017 election season just starting to spread?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

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