A string of violent incidents has cast a pall over the final weeks of a midterm season already marked by months of bitter partisan fighting, vitriolic rhetoric and angry protests.
A week that began with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE spreading unfounded claims at a rally in Houston about Democrats and a caravan of migrants ended with arrests in a spate of attempted bombings against prominent Democrats and the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the country’s history.
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Both episodes were met with calls for unity from Democrats and Republicans alike, but neither party indicated they would cede an inch in the debate over responsibility for the attacks.
Marc Hetherington, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expressed skepticism that the rhetoric will cool in the last full week of the campaign, even as the country remains on edge.
“I don’t think anything’s going to cool tensions,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “This, on both sides, has the feel of the apocalypse if they lose.”
The chairmen of both parties’ campaign arms in the House appeared jointly on a pair of Sunday talk shows, where they delivered a message of unity.
“We should come together as a country. This should not be a political response, but rather a response at how we can further bring us together,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
His Republican counterpart, Rep. Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversGOP lawmakers say Steve King’s loss could help them in November Longtime GOP Rep. Steve King defeated in Iowa primary Five things to watch in Tuesday’s primaries MORE (R-Ohio), expressed confidence that the midterm elections would not prove to be an obstacle in efforts to unify the country.
Even as they spoke of bipartisanship, the two men regularly slipped in jabs about the other party’s campaign operation and questioned whether their opponent’s tactics were “sleazy” or “racist.”
The back-and-forth was reflective of a national conversation in recent days where politicians have alternately called for an easing of political hostilities while quickly blaming the other side for stoking them in the first place.
At the center of it all has been Trump, who struck a unifying tone in the immediate aftermath of the attempted bombings while also questioning its timing.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking about politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans go out and vote!” Trump tweeted on Friday, as authorities closed in on a suspect in the spate of attempted bombings.
Authorities eventually charged Cesar Sayoc Jr. with addressing more than a dozen explosive devices to high-profile Democrats, including former President Obama, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersMcCarthy yanks endorsement of California candidate over social media posts Top bank regulator announces abrupt resignation GOP pulls support from California House candidate over ‘unacceptable’ social media posts MORE (D-Calif.), among others. CNN’s New York City offices were also targeted.
The next day, Robert Bowers was arrested after police said he opened fire in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding six.
Democrats have seized on both incidents to draw attention to the consequences of extreme rhetoric, invoking Trump in the process.
“Honestly, I think this president’s whole modus operandi is to divide us,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats introduce resolution condemning acts of violence against the press Schiff asks if defense resources provided intelligence during protests Schiff uses Tiananmen anniversary to condemn Trump’s response to protests MORE (D-Calif.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “He gets up in the morning with new and inventive ways to divide us. And it’s not enough that on the day of a tragedy he says the right words if, every day of the year, he’s saying things to bring us into conflict with each other.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have been quick to downplay the connection between the president’s over-the-top rhetoric and the men responsible for last week’s violence.
“Look, everyone has their own style, and frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences, but I just don’t think you can connect it to threats or acts of violence,” Vice President Pence told NBC News in an interview aired Sunday.
“And I don’t think the American people connect it,” Pence added. “The American people believe that those who are responsible are the people that actually conduct these threats.”
George Selim, senior vice president of programs at the Anti-Defamation League, said the campaign rhetoric has reached a “tipping point.”
“The rhetoric has really reached a tipping point that’s gone beyond political divisiveness into acts of cold and callous murder and intent to harm,” he told The Hill.
Democrats campaigning across the country have largely implicated both sides as they walk a tenuous line between using the events for messaging without being seen as politicizing a tragedy.
Gun-control activists have shown less hesitation to draw a direct line between Saturday’s shooting and the upcoming midterm elections.
“Americans believe that gun safety is a priority and we expect them to be taking that issue into the voting booth with them,” John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told The Hill. “Certainly what happened in Pittsburgh is one more stark reminder, the fact that gun safety isn’t the left or right issue, it’s a life or death issue.”
Everytown spent $30 million total on the midterm elections, Feinblatt noted.
Hetherington, the UNC professor, said issues of gun violence and Trump’s rhetoric are likely to be fresh in voters’ minds for the midterms, particularly since early voting has already begun in many states.
“We have a new framing in a sense for the election,” he said, pointing to two issues — Trump’s divisive rhetoric and gun violence — that have once again become urgent topics in the news. “And it’s on grounds that Democrats benefit from.”