‘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.
Andrew Gillum’s Hamilton tickets
There are far weightier things at stake in this election than Hamilton tickets, but it is text messages about the musical that have reinserted an FBI corruption probe into the Florida governor’s race. Federal officials have long been known to be investigating whether developers were able to influence city projects in Tallahassee. The FBI even inserted an undercover agent into Mayor Andrew Gillum’s inner circle. Gillum has said he did go to Hamilton, but that he got his ticket from his brother and not the FBI agent, who went by Matthew Miller. Text messages to his longtime friend Andre Corey published this week, however, complicate Gillum’s explanation. He has said the FBI is not targeting him in the probe. In a state ravaged by hurricanes and where other key issues like the economy and health care are at the top of voters’ minds, Hamilton tickets aren’t likely to change minds. But a rule of thumb in US politics is it’s never good to be anywhere in the vicinity of an FBI influence-peddling probe. This could remind voters that’s exactly where Gillum is.
The Donnelly family’s outsourcing
Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly has made attacking Republican Mike Braun over his company’s outsourcing to China a key feature of his campaign despite the fact a company owned by his brother employs the same tactics. Donnelly hasn’t been officially involved with his brother’s company for more than 20 years, and he sold stock he had when the outsourcing was uncovered. But a CNN report this October uncovered that Donnelly helped create a European subsidiary for his brother’s company in 1994 and that it later used Chinese products. Like the US economy and its reliance on foreign products and material, it’s a complicated subject, especially for a candidate like Donnelly, who has long criticized outsourcing.
Kevin McCarthy’s family’s Native American contracts
The LA Times reported last week that a company owned by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s in-laws obtained no-bid contracts reserved for minorities based on a claim of Native American blood by McCarthy’s brother-in-law. The contracts, paid for with federal funds, were worth more than $7 million between 2000 and 2008, some of it for work in McCarthy’s district, according to the Times. McCarthy’s wife’s brother, William Wages, claims to be one-eight Cherokee, in an application approved by the Small Business Administration. But a genealogy specialist quoted by the Times doubted the claim and the Northern Cherokee Nation, which is not federally recognized. McCarthy, whose seat is considered Solid Republican by CNN’s Key Race ratings, is in line to be the next Republican leader when House Speaker Paul Ryan retires in January. He told the Times in a statement he did not help Wages obtain the contracts.
Devin Nunes’ California dairy in Iowa
The California Congressman has long touted his family roots in California’s Central Valley. But CNN Contributor Ryan Lizza wrote a very long story for Esquire on the last day of September that the Nunes family has actually quietly relocated away from their old home and moved to Iowa, even though Nunes had still been talking about his family’s dairy in California. Plus, Lizza wrote that he found dairy farmers who said the industry was wholly dependent on undocumented labor.
Lizza billed the piece as a shocking development, but Nunes’ district is less within reach for Democrats than some others.
Not all surprises are in the Fall
And there have been other, earlier surprises this election season. For instance, two of President Trump’s earliest supporters on Capitol Hill are both the subject of federal corruption charges, for separate cases, but both levied in August. Both men are seeking reelection and have a good chance of surviving in Congress even as they stare down federal trial. They had months to work on reelection after the bombshell of an indictment. No such luck with an October surprise.