’Tis the season for changing leaves, colder weather, the World Series and, in even-numbered years with US elections, last-minute October surprises.
A traditional October surprise is a shocking policy development or something learned (or re-learned) about a candidate late in the game that can change the course of a contested race.
Think Henry Kissinger declaring peace was at hand in Vietnam days before the 1972 election.
In 2016, there were so many October surprises – the Access Hollywood tape, a string of sexual assault allegations against now-President Donald Trump, new scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s email by the FBI and the unanimous allegation by US intelligence organizations that Russia was meddling in the election – that they may have canceled each other out.
This year, Trump is trying to change the national narrative in the final weeks of the election by barnstorming the country, drumming up fear over a migrant caravan wending from Honduras through Mexico, hitting Democrats in conservative states for opposing his Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh, and promising an unlikely new round of tax cuts even before the last set Republicans passed fully kicks in.
Whether those national storylines penetrate is unclear, but there are also a number of more localized developments this week and this month.
Be they opposition dumps from rival campaigns, axes to grind from former friends or foolish missteps, below are some of the October surprises of 2018. And note: most of these seem to feature Democrats, but the story of this election so far has been whether Democrats can make headway in Republican territory in House, Senate and Governors races.
Kyrsten Sinema’s anti-war activist past
The Democratic congresswoman is now casting herself as a moderate Democrat and the heir to John McCain, who valued keeping an independent voice and working across party lines. But you don’t have to have too long a memory to recall Sinema as a liberal activist, particularly on the anti-terror and Iraq war foreign policy McCain supported during the Bush years. The remembrances of Sinema’s past actually kicked off in September with a CNN K-File report on fliers distributed by an anti-war group she belonged to and featuring a US soldier as a skeleton inflicting terror on the Middle East. It hasn’t stopped there as old radio interviews have been unearthed. Sinema’s rival, Republican Rep. Martha McSally accused her of condoning treason during a debate. While her earlier anti-war activism wasn’t exactly a secret, renewed scrutiny of it has jeopardized Sinema’s carefully crafted image as a moderate in a state where Democrats hope to flip a seat currently held by Republicans.
Stacey Abrams flag burning and Brian Kemp’s voter suppression
Way back in 1992, as a freshman at Spelman College, Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who is now running to be Georgia’s governor, participated in a rally at which the state flag was burned. That sentence, in isolation, might sound bad, but there are some mitigating circumstances that might suggest this October surprise doesn’t have much heft behind it. First, the Georgia flag at that time included the Confederate battle flag emblem. Abrams is running to be the first black woman elected as a governor in the US. There currently is no other African-American governor in office and hasn’t been since 2015. Abrams has pointed out that her rival, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, voted to remove the confederate symbol from the flag years after she joined in that protest. But she now supports the removal of other confederate symbols, and he does not. There’s no doubt Abrams was on the right side of history here in wanting the symbol off the flag. Kemp has not overtly made it an issue, but he’s tried to paint Abrams as extreme.
Race is featuring heavily in this contest, especially since Kemp’s office has been shown to have systematically enforced stricter voting laws and moved to put 53,000 voter registrations on hold, the majority of which are for African-Americans, according to an Associated Press analysis. Kemp has called Abrams’ allegations that he’s a “mastermind of voter suppression” a “farce” because people whose registrations are on hold will still likely be able to vote in this election.
Other Georgia voters may have lost their voter registrations under a use-it-or-lose-it law that Kemp has enforced to purge the registrations of people who haven’t voted in recent elections.