Early polls, off-year races, and special elections are sometimes overinterpreted as harbingers of things to come. We’ve seen breathless stories on both sides of the aisle in the handful of special elections this year, all predicting absolute outcomes for 2018 based on off-kilter and off-agenda races in Georgia, Kansas, and elsewhere, but one small race you might have missed seems to me to be a potential signal the GOP can’t ignore.
With the national political climate looking more ugly by the day, strategists and candidates are looking at the 30,000-foot factors that will play in the 2018 midterms.
Republicans start with redistricting and fundraising advantages, but that’s where the good news ends. Their president has approval ratings deep in the red zone. Donald Trump has caused a deep political schism between the members of the House and Senate and their own base voters, and his feckless leadership has led to legislative paralysis like we’ve rarely seen. The president’s DACA flip-flops promise to do for the national GOP what California’s politically disastrous Proposition 187 did to that state’s now-endangered Republicans, while betraying Trump’s fundamental promises to his base.
Top this off with rising global tensions, and reading even the obscure 2018 tea leaves becomes increasingly important. This is why a small race in a small city caught my attention last month.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and current St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman fought to a draw in the ugly primary election in an ostensibly non-partisan race. Democrat Kriseman beat Republican Baker by a mere 69 votes out of 56,500 cast. The 48.36 percent to 48.23 percent outcome means they’ll face one another in a runoff election, and the outcome may say a lot about the future of the GOP and the African-American community.
What does this have to do with 2018? Perhaps a lot.
Baker held the office for two terms and was called America’s best mayor for good reason. Rick Baker was the kind of mayor and the kind of leader Republicans saw as the future; he won over the African-American community by doing the hard work of real engagement, building relationships, and reaching across party lines to treat them with respect and to address the needs of their neighborhoods and families.
Baker won wide support in the African-American community at the ballot box because he put in the work by doing more than just talking the talk. On housing, education, crime, and race, Rick Baker was the kind of Republican that Republicans claimed they wanted and needed to be to win over African-Americans. Baker even wrote a book about how he did it all, The Seamless City.
Indeed, Baker came out of the gate in the mayor’s race with a massive financial advantage, a raft of endorsements, a stellar record, and polls that showed him beating his opponent by 44-35 percent. The same St. Pete poll showed Baker beating Krisemen with African-American voters by 43-32 percent. What could go wrong?
Rick Kriseman, Baker’s Democratic opponent, had been widely considered a trainwreck as mayor, with a history of failed city projects, overspending, and mismanagement. Kriseman, however, had two not-so-secret weapons: Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. A late endorsement from Obama boosted Kriseman, and Kriseman leveraged it to the hilt.
The real burden on Baker's campaign was Donald Trump, specifically the drag caused by the catalyzing moment of Charlottesville. Rick Baker didn’t change. He’s still the good-souled and proven leader he was before. Rick Kriseman didn’t suddenly become less of a failed mayor.
But the moment Donald Trump uttered the defining phrase “both sides,” the die was cast. African Americans (and Jews, Hispanics, Muslims, and sane people more generally) heard loud and clear that the president drew a line of moral equivalency between the Klan, the neo-Nazis, and the white separatist garbage that washed up in Charlottesville and the people protesting them.
Set aside for a moment the usual partisan Democrat hyperventilation about the Southern Strategy and redistricting, and focus on the extant case in the eyes of African Americans. They heard Trump’s genuine voice the first time when he equated a racist mob with those who opposed them. Trump’s subsequent walk-backs, follow-ups, and spin fell on deaf ears, as they should have.
Can Rick Baker win the runoff? It’s too soon to tell. His prior record was one of which most Republicans, myself included, were justly proud. Does he still have support in the African-American community? Absolutely, though the strain of Trump’s flirtation with the darkest forces in American political life has stretched that support thin. Baker has two and a half months to learn he can’t ignore the 800-pound Klansman in the room, and he has to denounce Trump’s racial arson with passion and clarity.
For the GOP, the demographics of Trump’s support—overwhelming white, overwhelming male, overwhelming fanatic—poses a problem. To call out this president risks his tweeted wrath and an avalanche of attack stories from the Breitbart/Fox cabal. To stand silent puts them in the same predicament as Rick Baker; a good man trapped by a bad president, with all his good works in the African-American community washed away by a tide of hatred and racial animus that Donald Trump refuses to truly denounce.
Off-year elections and early polls send us signals. They’re not always clear and they’re not always right, but those signals, in aggregate, paint a picture of doors closing to Republicans caught in a reflexive defense of the indefensible Trump posture on race. Republicans had a choice, and they chose a leader of the Republican Party who can’t resist flirting with the human filth who seek to divide, diminish, and re-segregate this nation. If they don’t choose another path, the warning signs of today may lead to political catastrophe tomorrow.