There were first-time voters and straight-ticket voters and some who, this go-around, switched sides. They went to the polls considering the caravan of migrants trudging across Mexico, their health insurance and their paychecks, an impotent Congress, and the nation’s poisonous political culture that has divided even families and friends along party lines.
More than anything on this Election Day in America, in a midterm contest like no other before it, voters cast their ballots with one man in mind: President Donald Trump.
“Trump is terrifying and we need to make a change, so I’ve been encouraging my friends and family to vote,” said Samantha Bohr, a 26-year-old who lives in suburban Parsippany-Troy Hills, New Jersey. She checked the text messages on her phone as she finished voting, because her family had promised to let one another know they’d made it to the polls.
They joined millions of Americans who turned out in droves Tuesday — some lining up before the sun rose, some standing for hours or braving pouring rain or snow — to vote in an election that will determine control of Congress and render a verdict on Trump’s first two years in office. The outcome could redefine the nation’s political landscape for months and years to come.
Democrats need to gain 23 seats to take control of the House of Representatives and hope to ride the wave of liberal fury that organized after Trump’s surprising victory in 2016.
“My loathing for him knows no bounds,” said Kathleen Ross, 69, a retired professor voting in Olympia, Washington, who described herself as a lifelong progressive. She said she was confident the country eventually would reject Trumpism and the divisive governing it represents. “I tend to think the arc of the universe bends toward justice, so I don’t become discouraged.”
Trump has sought to counter some of that rage by stoking anger and fear in his base. In recent weeks, he’s put the spotlight on a caravan of Central American migrants that he calls “an invasion” of criminals and terrorists. He ran an advertisement about immigration so racially incendiary that all three major cable news networks, including Fox News, either refused to air it or eventually decided to stop showing it.
Among some Republican voters, that message resonated.
“What’s going on right now is pretty scary to me, at the border, with all those people coming, and I don’t think I’m hardhearted or anything,” said Patricia Maynard, 63, a retired teacher in Skowhegan, Maine.
When she voted for Trump in 2016, the blue-collar economy was her primary concern. Now, she said, immigration tops the list. She laments that Congress has so far failed to pass legislation to build the wall Trump promised along the border. So she voted for Republicans Tuesday, with hopes they would retain control and push Trump’s agenda.
In Jefferson City, Missouri, Linda Rice believes there are criminals in the migrant caravan. Both Rice and her husband, Richard, praised Trump’s time in office, particularly his focus on the economy and his work to secure the border. “I just don’t think that my tax money should be taken away from me and given to a person who came across the border illegally,” Richard Rice said. “Get in line. Do it correctly.”
Just ahead of Election Day, Trump sent military troops to the border— a move critics say is unnecessary and a political stunt, given the migrants, many of them women and children fleeing poverty and violence, are traveling mostly on foot and remain hundreds of miles away.
For those on the other side of the political aisle, the caravan controversy singularly represents what they find unconscionable about Trump’s presidency.
“He’s always used the scare tactics and found an enemy to band against,” said 24-year-old Enrique Padilla of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Padilla considers his own family an example of the American dream. His father migrated from Mexico as a laborer at 18, raised his family, and now Padilla has a college degree. The president’s persistent demonization of immigrants galvanized him and many of his peers to vote against Republicans, Padilla said.
In Louisville, Kentucky, Mary Cross, a 64-year-old African-American voter, said she believes Trump uses issues like immigration to distract from more important topics. “It’s manufactured fear. It’s uncivilized. It’s just a bunch of mayhem for nothing. There’s no substance to this,” said Cross, who thinks the country should be talking about the Republican-led campaign to overturn the Affordable Health Care Act that protects people with pre-existing conditions.
Cross, and others, expressed a heightened sense of unease and sadness about the state of America’s political climate. The election comes just days after a series of hate crimes and political attacks. Where Cross lives, a gunman tried to get into a majority-black church but found the doors locked and went instead to a nearby grocery store, where he gunned down two African-American shoppers in what police are calling a hate crime.
“Our president, with his rhetoric and vulgar language, continues to throw fuel on the fire. Racism has always been around, but since he’s been in office, people feel free to express it and feel good about it,” said the Rev. Kevin Nelson, the pastor of the Louisville church the gunman failed to enter. The congregation has received cards and calls from all over the country, from Christians and Jews and Muslims and atheists — and also a white man in Texas who said he was sorry about what happened and promised to cast his ballot against the rhetoric he believed to be igniting hate.
“You’re always hoping that somehow, some way, someday, it’s going to change,” Nelson said before he voted Tuesday. “I’m hopeful that it could be this time.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center released a survey on the eve of the election that showed a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics.
Odell White, a 60-year-old African-American conservative, described the country’s tribalism as veering toward civil war.
“We are dangerously close to that type of mentality — brothers fighting brothers. That’s how bad it is,” said White, who supports Trump and voted for Republicans. Friends have turned away because of his political leanings. White said he doesn’t like the president’s aggressive rhetoric, but he’s willing to overlook it because of the booming economy and the two conservatives Trump installed on the Supreme Court.
But Trumpism has proved too much for some. In Portland, Maine, Josh Rent, 43, a small business owner and registered Republican, said he voted mostly for Democrats all the way down the ballot for the first time to protest Trump, who he believes is unnecessarily dividing Americans for his own gain.
“He’s just nasty,” he said. “Life doesn’t have to be this nasty, in my opinion.”
If Democrats do win big, Tory Dibbins, a 53-year-old physical therapist from Portland, Maine, and herself a Democrat, has a warning.
“If you’re going to talk about ‘let’s end the divisiveness and be inclusive’ then you have to try to get people to be more bipartisan,” she said. “You have to win people back to the center.”
Contributing AP reporters were Adam Geller in New Jersey, Martha Irvine in Illinois, Steve Megargee in Tennessee, Jocelyn Noveck in New York, Rachel La Corte in Washington, Margery Beck in Nebraska, Kantele Franko in Ohio, Summer Ballentine and Jim Salter in Missouri, Matt Volz in Montana, Hannah Grabenstein in Arkansas and Chris Chester in Maine.