Immigration, the economy, women’s issues, partisanship — all weighed heavily on voters’ minds as they cast ballots to decide control of Congress and put Trumpism to the test. Though not on the ballot, the president loomed large over decision day, among both supporters and detractors. Across the country, people talked about this election as one of the most momentous in their lifetimes — a fight for the very soul of America.
Here’s what some of them had to say.
The extreme divisions in politics helped motivate Lance Whatley, 29, to vote for the first time in his life Tuesday. Whatley was among dozens of people standing in line as a cold rain drenched their clothes outside the Vinings Library northwest of Atlanta.
“I feel like there’s a lot of polarization with the rhetoric you’re hearing on both sides,” he said. Whatley, a software engineer, was still unsure whom he would vote for in the hotly contested race for Georgia governor. His wife favored Democrat Stacey Abrams, but he was leaning toward the Republican, Brian Kemp. “It might be a game-time decision for me when I get in the voting booth.”
Rafael Acosta, a college student in McAllen, Texas, rose early on the first day of early voting in his state. The 22-year-old wanted to be sure he was at the head of the line for his first time voting. In doing so, he said he was making a statement for his many friends who are part of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrival, or DACA, program that has protected young immigrants from deportation.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Acosta watched as Trump stirred fears of the migrant caravan in Mexico, and it troubled him that troops have been dispatched to his community. “I think [the Republicans] are exaggerating,” he said. “They don’t need the Army here.”
Washington ‘out of control’?
Bonnie Slade, 45, a federal employee who lives in Potomac, Md., said politics in the nearby nation’s capital shaped her vote this year. “Washington is out of control,” she said. “The politics are kind of dirty always, but this time is a bit much … like do I want to vote? Does it really make a difference? But I felt like it’s my duty.”
Slade, who is black, said Trump was part of what motivated her to vote. “He doesn’t stand for anything that I believe in, period,” Slade said. “I’m a minority. I’m a woman. And he’s just not the best choice for me, personally, or my family.”
Keith Lesage, 50, a design engineer in Plainfield, Conn., said he was focused more on state issues but was concerned about the division he saw in the country. “It’s horrible, some of the rhetoric that’s coming out of Washington,” he said. “I’m not picking on Republicans or Democrats, but we’re all adults. Let’s come together for the American people — not this is what the red side wants, this is what the blue side wants. It’s getting to the point where it’s just dividing the country — and it’s real sad to watch.”
Stay the economic course
Richard and Aleshia Murphy took their 7-month-old daughter when they voted early in suburban Los Angeles. The couple, who moved seven months ago from Reno, Nevada, to Lakewood, Calif., said the economy was foremost on their minds.
“I want to keep things going,” said Richard, a Republican train operations manager. “My work feels the booming economy. We’re hiring more people, all positions, from the bottom to the top.”
Both Murphy and his wife, an independent, voted for Trump in 2016 and like where the country’s headed. “I’d rather have somebody who’s going to come off as a complete jerk — but you know exactly what they’re thinking because they have no filter — than a slick-haired politician that literally tells you anything you want to hear just so that you support them,” Aleshia Murphy said.
Republican Susan Riebold, 53, who owns a homebuilding business in Imperial, Mo., described herself as a nationalist and called Trump’s tariffs “amazing.” She said business in Imperial, south of St. Louis, was thriving, and she decried Democrats — including Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill — for voting against the recent tax overhaul.
“Trump has fought for the middle class and the small businesses, and Claire voted against everything that is benefiting us in the middle class,” Riebold said. “The country is more strong, confident and unified than it’s ever been, and most of the confidence and people feeling unified and patriotic again has come right before Trump got in and since he’s been in.”
Josh Rent, 43, a small-business owner and registered Republican in Portland, Maine, voted mostly for Democrats this time as “a protest vote to Trump.”
“I’m generally a fairly reliable Republican,” he said. “This is the first time I ever voted pretty much Democrat all the way down the ballot.” Of the president, he said: “I don’t think that dividing us is getting us anywhere. We need to actually solve this stuff.”
Kevin Benson, 38, a graphic designer from Westerville, Ohio, said he’s registered as a Republican, considers himself an independent, and voted all Democrat on Tuesday. Why? “Mostly Trump, just as a check. I’m frustrated with the way he’s acting,“ he said. “Plus, just Republicans in general. … I’m just kind of dissatisfied across the board with them.”
Benson said health care was his No. 1 issue and that he’d like to see a single-payer system. “We’re heading in the wrong direction.”
Health care concerns
Fred Hoy, 61, of Reno, Nevada, said he’d been out of work for 13 years but was scraping by to pay his rent and care for several ill family members and friends. Hoy has diabetes and is on Medicaid. He was taking care of his aunt in California but returned to Reno to make sure he could vote in time — and he was voting Democratic because he was worried Republicans will cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security and threaten protections for pre-existing conditions.
“If we don’t have some kind of medical,” he said, “we’re going to collapse as a nation.”
In Juneau, Alaska, Will Muldoon, 34, considers himself nonpartisan. Health care is an issue he’d like to see Congress take up, “but that’s scary. It’s almost an ‘I don’t know that they could come up with better than what we have right now’ type of thing. My confidence in them having the competency to do OK on that’s not too high,” said Muldoon, a mainframe technician.
Cordell Chaney, 30, works at Superior Essex, a company that manufactures wire and cable products in Fort Wayne, Ind. A member of the steelworkers union, Chaney is a father of four with a fifth on the way. He said affordable health care — including maintaining coverage of pre-existing conditions — was the most important issue for him. He voted straight Democratic Tuesday, which included supporting U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly.
Chaney worries that if the Republicans remain in control of Congress, they’ll get rid of Obamacare: “It really upsets me. … Decent health insurance should be a right. Everybody should have that. Right now, it’s endangered.”
At odds over immigration
Rachel Geiger’s purple hair matched her black and purple dress and helped her stand out among hundreds of people waiting to get into an arena in Orlando, Fla., where U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke ahead of the election on behalf of Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Geiger, 33, a blogger from Ocala, said “Trump and immigration” were the two motivating issues for her when she early-voted.
“It’s completely inhumane what he’s doing,” she said, referring to policies that have included sending troops to the border, separating immigrant children from their parents and efforts to build a wall. She voted a straight Democratic ticket.
In Phoenix, substitute teacher and lifelong Republican Kay Matthews said that while the economy was important to her, immigration was just as important. She’s troubled by any influx of immigrants entering the country illegally.
“I’ve been taught as a young child that you respect the law. You don’t have to always agree with it, but you do respect it,” the 72-year-old said. Matthews doesn’t want Democrats taking control of either chamber of Congress, because she fears they would try to impeach Trump.
Melvin Rubi Avila, 19, voted in his first national election Tuesday, and he was mindful of what weight that carried. The son of a Mexican mother and Honduran father, the Raleigh, N.C., native said he was voting for an America that won’t see people like them as a threat.
“They are very proud,” Avila said, an “I Voted” sticker shining brightly from the breast of his black leather jacket. “They feel like me voting is them voting as well. His father has temporary protected status, but Trump’s rhetoric has made him fearful that his parents will be deported. “I sometimes have nightmares about it.” And as a so-called “birthright citizen,” Avila is disturbed by the president’s recent attacks on the 14th Amendment. “That’s not what America’s all about.”
A few miles north in the town of Wake Forest, N.C., Diana Zambrano — also a child of immigrants — had a different take. Wake Forest is in the 2nd Congressional District, where Republican incumbent Rep. George Holding was facing a serious Democratic challenge from Linda Coleman, an African-American. The GOP has run ads criticizing Coleman’s support of sanctuary cities. Zambrano’s mother is from the Dominican Republic, and her father is from Venezuela. Both came legally, and she was born here.
“This country provides a lot of opportunities,” she said. “So if you’re able to come here legally … I think that that should be something that is open to you. But for those that sort of circumvent that system, I don’t necessarily agree with that.” Zambrano, 43, wouldn’t reveal how she voted, other than to say “conservative.”
#MeToo still on minds
Lea Grover, 34, a mother of three young daughters in Cary, Ill., saw the midterms as a referendum on Trump and “a referendum on empathy, and whether or not we as a nation have any.”
Grover, a former independent and now a registered Democrat, was particularly outraged by the hearings over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct. “The Kavanaugh hearings were so upsetting, for every woman I know, not just because of Kavanaugh specifically but because it was an opportunity for the entire Republican establishment to say [to women], ‘We don’t care.’ Not ‘We don’t believe you,’ but ‘We don’t care.’ ”
Grover is a victim of sexual violence and works for a nonprofit that helps survivors. “My congressman has refused to speak out in defense of survivors of sexual violence. He refused to speak out against Brett Kavanaugh. He refused to speak out against the president. He has been utterly silent in the face of #MeToo.”
Natalie Pig, 31, an attorney in Arnold, Mo., said she’d back Republican candidates because she wanted to see Congress do more to support Trump. She cited what she called the “smear campaign” against Kavanaugh, calling him “a victim of the current political environment.”
“If there are facts that someone has committed a crime, I’m the first person to want to hear all about that,” she said. “But at the same time, if we’re taking measures to slander someone or defame them in a way that is going to inhibit the American process, then that’s not helping us. So we need people who are going to support President Trump.”
Moment for young voters?
At 22, Porter Nelson considers himself an independent and says he is a regular voter, but a ballot measure in Washington state creating a carbon tax motivated him even more this year.
“It seems kind of like the world’s ending and if we don’t do something pretty quick, you know, I would like to have kids that have a planet. I would like to have a planet. So anything on any ballot anywhere that I see as being for the environment … I’m all for that,” he said.
Nelson thinks Congress, too, needs to take climate change more seriously. “I would love to see our political body finally get it through their heads that the gerrymandering, the politicking, the races, the runoffs don’t matter if in 20 years the whole West Coast is on fire.”
Adam Alhanti was a typical high school student looking forward to graduating. Turning 18 and voting wasn’t really on his mind. But after his classmates and teachers were gunned down at his Parkland, Fla., school in February, everything changed.
“I realized there’s so much more going on than what’s in my city,” he said. “There are so many things that we need to take charge of, and we can really make a difference — not just in our nation but right down to our local communities with who represents us in office.” He’d like to see Congress take up gun reform. “Gun violence … is something we really need to talk about more. Even though it seems like it’s something being spoken about day after day, there’s nothing being done — not a single thing that will really save the lives of American citizens.”
A steady stream of voters turned out in a light drizzle in the Albany suburb of Guilderland, N.Y., Tuesday morning. Lauryn Schrom, 27, a graphic designer, did not vote in the last off-year election but made a point to do it this time because of her dissatisfaction with the Trump administration. She said recent political events had “opened my eyes” on issues like civil rights and women’s rights.
“If you are not engaged enough in the political process, then you can lose your rights,” she said, holding an “I Voted” sticker. “I have a significant number of friends who are LGBT, and it’s disturbing that they could lose civil rights as well.”
Keri Cook, 47, a Democrat from Westerville, Ohio, said she voted for Democrats straight down her ballot, including Danny O’Connor in his U.S. House rematch against Republican Rep. Troy Balderson. “I’m hoping that the House flips,” Cook said, adding that Democrats’ stances on health care and gun control factored into her vote and she wanted Trump out of office. “I think he’s poison. … His stance on the LGBTQ community, on women, on African-Americans, on immigrants — is just, to me, hate.”
Judy Jenkins, 60, a Republican who works in accounting, also cast her ballot in Westerville, Ohio, and also went straight ticket: for all GOP candidates. She said she used to vote for people from both major parties but was so upset by how Kavanaugh was treated that she vowed not to vote for a Democrat again. “I’m not even going to consider it because of the hell they put his family through. No one should have to go through that, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”
Test of Trumpism
If the midterm elections are a referendum on Trump, then Patricia Maynard, a 63-year-old retired teacher in Skowhegan, Maine, is clear: “I think he’s doing a great job. … He’s doing better than I expected. I’m not saying that I always like his rhetoric; I wince when I hear that. But I feel like he really loves this country and has a good head on his shoulders as far as his ability to get things done.”
She goes on: “I think he’s very capable and very smart, a lot smarter than people think he is. Some people think he is too high and mighty to get along with the common people, but I think that’s where he feels most comfortable, with average people. And he feels their pain.”
Republican Tina Kazee, a 50-year-old hospital worker from Canal Winchester, Ohio, said she stuck with her party when voting early. She said Trump has “his flaws,” but she feels he and the Republicans have done a good job for the country. “I think he’s helped our economy. I think there’s more for him than there is against him, as far as my standards and my beliefs. I don’t think he’s a perfect man, but I think he loves America — I think his heart is for America — and I stand for that. … It’s just that his tone needs to be turned down a little bit. Speak from the heart, but do it a little bit softer.”
Morris Lee Williams, a 67-year-old member of Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis and an Army veteran, said he’s worried the country “is going down the tubes.”
“We’ve forgotten our decency. We’ve forgotten the truth. We’re supposed to be a group of people, Americans, who are supposed to be that light in the world. Instead of a light, it’s turned into a nightmare.” Williams said Trump is the catalyst “for a lot of crazy stuff going on, inciting people into hatred, to doing things that go against what this country stands for. It’s just so divisive. It’s almost as if he wants the country to go back to the way it was in the 1920s and before. Everybody’s got their place and a certain group of people rule. … This is supposed to be a place where if you have the desire, the education, the guts and the fortitude to do better, you can do better.”
Mourning the lost middle
Family law attorney Patrick Markey, 43, voted in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. He generally votes Democratic but has supported Republican candidates in Illinois, including in this election. Markey dislikes the two-party system because the polarization that dominates Capitol Hill creates a logjam. “It’s almost two tribal camps. I’d like to see more [elected officials] with middle-ground views who can vote conservatively sometimes and sometimes more liberally. … I think that most of the country is like that. But in order to get into politics, you have to kiss the ring of the party. … A lot of the normal moderate people just feel left out.”
Virginia Gollin, 75, describes herself as a moderate Republican but says she changed parties to become a Democrat because moderates are “like a dinosaur.”
“I’m not by nature a progressive. But we’re at a point in our country where all of the things I think we should have are being fiercely attacked,” said Gollin, a retired airline worker in Hopatcong, N.J. She cited as an example the Affordable Care Act, which she does not want to see gutted.
Tory Dibbins, a physical therapist from Portland, Maine, said she’d like to see more independent candidates, but she understands that many voters believe there’s too much at stake to risk vote-splitting. The 53-year-old Democrat cast her ballot Tuesday. If Democrats do win big, she said, they should show they’re willing to compromise. “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. … You have to win people back to the center.”
Voice of America