Political Violence Heightens Divisions in Trump's First Midterms

(Bloomberg) -- Deadly politically tinged violence that stunned the nation last week likely will sharpen the hard partisan edge that is defining the first midterm election of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Grief and calls for civility have been replaced by finger-pointing by some members of both parties, including Trump, who blamed the news media for fostering hate just days after he made an appeal for unity.

Political Violence Heightens Divisions in Trump's First Midterms

“Every tragedy is a new opportunity for each side’s extremes to blame the other,” said Pennsylvania Republican Representative Ryan Costello, who is retiring from Congress.

The massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue, pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats who were critical of Trump and the killing of two black shoppers at a Kentucky supermarket add a new, uncertain element to an election next week in which control of Congress hinges on dozens of races that are too close to call.

That makes it an even more urgent test for Trump, who has labeled Democrats “the party of crime” and stoked conservative anger on immigration as he crisscrosses the country on behalf of Republican candidates.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders rejected as “outrageous” suggestions that the president’s rhetoric had any connection to the violence.

Pittsburgh Visit

Amid a full schedule of political rallies leading up to the Nov. 6 election, Trump on Tuesday is flying to Pittsburgh to meet with relatives of those killed or wounded in the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue.

The polarized political atmosphere may benefit Republicans running in states Trump won by wide margins in 2016, such as West Virginia, Indiana and North Dakota, and where Democratic senators are in close re-election contests.

But it’s a challenge for about two dozen Republicans like Brian Fitzpatrick, of Pennsylvania, who are running in districts won by Hillary Clinton two years ago.

“Does anyone want to live in a country or a community where every conversation begins with ‘what party do you belong to?”’ Fitzpatrick said. “I have not been shy to speak out against the lack of civility and the tone that I find very problematic. I’ve done that frequently.”

Independence

Fitzpatrick has emphasized his independence from his own party, earning, for example, the endorsement of gun control advocacy groups and the ire of the National Rifle Association. But he said holding onto his seat depends on how far the national mood tilts against Republicans.

Trump’s approval rating fell 4 percentage points last week to 40 percent from 44 percent the previous week in a Gallup poll taken Oct. 22-28 amid the wave of violence, an unusually steep decline for the poll.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart last week’s events could sway some close races.

“Essentially this has been a terrible week for the country, and in this kind of atmosphere voters tend to head towards comfort,” Hart said. For partisans that will mean refuge in their parties, he added, but many independents may be motivated to vote for change in Washington, where Republicans have held control for two years.

Many Democrats blame Trump for veiled threats they say encourage violence among his
supporters.

‘President’s Duty’

“A president’s duty must be to bring this nation together, not split it further apart,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said in a statement on Monday. “The president’s proclivity for attacks and name-calling must stop. This country is at a tipping point, and it’s unconscionable for the president to make things worse in order to score political points.”

Republicans, including Trump, have described Democrats as “an angry mob” for protesting and verbally assaulting GOP officeholders in public and committing their own acts of violence.

Representative Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican who’s facing a strong challenge, on Monday released a TV ad describing his experience when a gunman targeted a congressional baseball practice and seriously wounded Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a member of the GOP House leadership. The gunman was a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who challenged Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I never thought that my friends and I would have to dodge bullets from someone who disagrees with us politically,” Davis says in the ad. “Politically charged rhetoric has got to change.”

Costello said while the best chance for moderate Republicans to win re-election is to distance themselves from Trump, Democrats should also resist the urge to mirror fear-mongering. He said the only way to encourage more responsible behavior from politicians is for voters to stop rewarding the ideological extremes, or expect more expressions of hatred.

“I am not surprised that there’s so much hate out there and that there’s political violence -- at all,” he said. “I saw this coming a mile away.”

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