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The 2018 election was already going to be very much about race

With a stampede of last-minute race-baiting agita, President Donald Trump has diverted the national debate before the key midterm elections. These do not simply feel like dog whistles, but something closer to the President pulling a fire alarm in order to rile up his base of supporters.

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Analysis by Z. Byron Wolf
(CNN) — With a stampede of last-minute race-baiting agita, President Donald Trump has diverted the national debate before the key midterm elections. These do not simply feel like dog whistles, but something closer to the President pulling a fire alarm in order to rile up his base of supporters.

But even before Trump's efforts to make 2018 about race, it was already a key issue in Georgia and Florida, where two black candidates, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, are on the ballots in governors' races with no incumbent. There's not currently a sitting US governor who is African-American, and only two black governors have been elected in US history. Douglas Wilder served a term in Virginia from 1990 until 1994 and Deval Patrick served two terms in Massachusetts before retiring in 2015. In Maryland, former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous is the Democratic nominee, but he is not considered to be quite as competitive against the Republican incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan.

CNN's Fredreka Schouten wrote a must-read about how all three candidates could benefit from a "black wave" if a new smattering of political action groups can get black voters to the polls.

As Democrats in those races are counting on African-Americans to turn out and vote, in Georgia the race recently has featured accusations from Abrams that her opponent, Republican secretary of state Brian Kemp, has embarked on a campaign of voter suppression by pushing laws that would purge lots of mostly black voters from the rolls. They would mostly affect people in upcoming elections, but the issue of disenfranchisement has certainly played a role in the race.

Both Trump and former President Barack Obama will appear in rallies there later this week trying to get out the vote.

It is a fact of modern American politics that Democrats rely on minority voters and Republicans rely on white voters. That doesn't mean that Democrats haven't taken black voters for granted, according to Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

She said the emergence of three black general election candidates in state-wide races along with the rise of a more progressive agenda among Democrats could signal a shift.

"The Democratic Party is having its own internal reckoning about its own reticence about promoting its own candidates of color," she said, citing a previous "perception that they might not have cross-racial appeal in statewide races."

This year, Gillespie said high-profile candidates of color like Abrams and Gillum are showing they can be just as competitive in statewide races.

So much of American politics these days has so much to do with race. Ronald Brownstein has documented repeatedly how Trump's core of support is largely white, rural and less educated. Whereas Democrats have grown in urban areas, appealing to more diverse blocs of voters and educated whites.

Republicans, according to Gillespie, tend to gear their policy platforms toward the individual and have generally rejected the idea of identity politics -- even though it's very clearly a game Trump is not-so-subtly playing.

"The Republican Party has rejected the notion of group identity, and they reject that notion of identity politics, claiming that's what Democrats play. We have to recognize, though, that identities matter and groups matter—even to whites, and even to Republicans," she said.

Black voters since the civil rights era have largely sided with Democrats.

But Gillespie said both parties have failed to really energize minority voters.

Which could be part of what's behind a mystery of recent US politics: Why Latinos have not turned on Trump despite his anti-immigrant rhetoric. He did better among Latinos in 2016 than either Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008. Texas, for instance, is a majority-minority state, but still seems out of reach for Democrats, although Rep. Beto O'Rourke represents their best recent chance to change that. Gillespie argued that has a lot to do with both parties failing to effectively campaign in these communities.

That the constitutional amendment Trump pledged to undo -- which would stop people at the border from having US citizen children in the US -- was passed as a bandage during Reconstruction to guarantee no former freed slaves were denied citizenship is apparently lost on the President. It's also proof that race is an essential part of the immigration debate.

In Florida, another majority-minority state, race has also turned into a key issue after despicable racist robo-calls mocked Gillum.

Gillum fired off at his Republican opponent former Rep. Ron DeSantis during a debate that, "Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist," Gillum said.

DeSantis condemned the robo-calls, but he has also spoken at conferences hosted by David Horowitz, an anti-Muslim conservative political activist.

Trump weighed not so subtly into the fray Monday when he tweeted to his supporters to vote in Florida's gubernatorial election, and he pointed out that one candidate went to Harvard/Yale and said the other was a thief.

That the well-pedigreed candidate of his troubled analogy is white and the "thief" candidate is black could very well be a coincidence.

But probably not. That Trump has stoked divisions in recent days has been documented, chapter and verse.

A week earlier, in the Oval Office, Trump had defended his new embrace of the word "nationalist" to describe his worldview.

There's a reason the word "nationalist" makes so many people uncomfortable. Hitler was a nationalist. Many strong-men through history have been nationalists. Now the US President is calling himself a nationalist, and he's not ashamed of it.

He's not, mind you, calling himself a racial nationalist, as the white nationalists do. But the motivating issue of his presidency is keeping new people -- Muslims or Mexicans and Central Americans -- out of the US through a travel ban, a wall or by dispatching the military. He's groused loudly that getting rid of Confederate statues is "changing the culture" of the US.

Encouraging nationalism and defending the culture, as he defines it, are key elements of Trump's slogan/mantra to "Make America Great Again."

That means it's impossible for a lot of people to separate nationalism from white nationalism. Trump said he had no idea the two could be linked when asked about it by CNN's Jim Acosta.

"There is a concern that you are sending coded language or a dog whistle to some Americans out there that what you really mean is that you're a white nationalist," Acosta said.

"I've never even heard that," said Trump, despite the fact that it had dominated news coverage after he embraced the term. "I cannot imagine that."

But it's also essential to point out that in Trump's America, nationalism is encouraged. There are many kinds of nationalism. Nationalists are good and "globalists," as he calls them, are bad. A lot of people consider that word -- "globalist" -- to be anti-Semitic, by the way.

Gillespie said one thing we will learn from the Trump era is what price, if any, Republicans ultimately pay for Trump's words.

"Before Trump, we thought that politicians who openly talked about race in inflammatory ways did so at their peril," she said, arguing this is part of why he was not taken seriously in 2015, when he called Mexicans rapists to begin his campaign.

"Everyone thought voters weren't going to endorse that kind of openly racist language. And then they did."

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