WASHINGTON — Democratic nominees for governor include three African-Americans, two of them in the old Confederacy, a prospect that not long ago would have been unthinkable. Record numbers of women are competing in congressional races. Elsewhere, Muslims, gays, lesbians and transgender people will be on the ballot for high-profile offices.
That diverse cast is teeing up a striking contrast for voters in November at a time when some in the Republican Party, taking their cues from President Trump, are embracing messages with explicit appeals to racial anxieties and resentment. The result is making racial and ethnic issues and conflicts central in the November elections in a way that’s far more explicit than the recent past.
Mr. Trump and his Republican allies have made crime, violence, gangs and societal unrest a centerpiece of their attacks against Democrats in this election, often linking them to causes that have a common racial thread — the policies of liberal leaders in heavily minority cities, illegal immigration and Mr. Trump’s continuing campaign impugning the patriotism of professional athletes, many of whom are black.
A possible preview played out Wednesday barely 12 hours after Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee, won a surprising victory in Florida’s Democratic primary for governor.
Mr. Gillum’s opponent, Ron DeSantis, described Mr. Gillum in an interview on Fox News as an “articulate spokesman” for far-left views and said voters should not take a gamble on him because he would “monkey this up” — referring to the progress made under Florida’s current Republican governor, Rick Scott.
Democrats immediately denounced Mr. DeSantis’s words, which are freighted with a condescending and racist meaning for many black people. Fox News issued a rare statement disavowing the remarks. Mr. DeSantis, who paid homage to the president in a campaign ad showing him teaching his daughter to read by sounding out “Make America Great Again” from a Trump placard, insisted that he was being purposely taken out of context.
Racial discord has never been far from the surface of American politics. But critics say any effort by Republicans in recent years to tread lightly around racially sensitive issues has been tossed aside by Mr. Trump, who has created a permission structure for other politicians to mimic his behavior, political strategists said.
Peter Wehner, a former aide to President George W. Bush, noted how different the tone was under leaders like Mr. Bush and his onetime rival John McCain, the Arizona senator who died last week. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Bush went to an Islamic center in Washington and declared, “Islam is peace.” Mr. McCain in 2008 challenged a woman who told him at a public forum that Barack Obama was an Arab.
“Some of these sentiments were beginning to percolate, but it was the task of political leadership to keep the ugliest elements in check,” Mr. Wehner said, offering a damning conclusion about Republicans today versus then: “It was a very different party.”
Mr. Trump’s hyperbolic, confrontational approach to taking on opponents — Hollywood stars, television news anchors, professional athletes and just about anyone else who offends him — has left as much of an impact on modern politics as his policies, if not more, strategists said.
He set the tone early, opening his presidential campaign in 2015 with the startling declaration that Mexico was sending its rapists and criminals rushing across the southern border.
Some Republicans say following the president’s lead will only hurt the party’s candidates.
“Everything is being seen through the filter of Trump,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican consultant who is working with Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, whose Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, is black. Mr. Hogan has been one of the rare Republicans to successfully create a groove for himself in the party that is entirely distinct from Mr. Trump.
When you try to act too much like Mr. Trump, Mr. Schriefer added, “You’ve come to the consciousness of the voters based on that, so it’s a lot harder to escape.”
Many candidates, however, see little reason to want to escape Mr. Trump’s shadow given his overwhelming popularity with Republican voters — which Gallup measured at 85 percent in its most recent poll.
And many of the issues that involve race and ethnicity are part of the party’s core messages on subjects like immigration. In many ads, Republicans are invoking the Latin American MS-13 gang as a growing menace. They are linking Democrats to the left-wing movement to “Abolish ICE,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
And in the last week conservatives lawmakers, media personalities and Mr. Trump have found a new cause in the murder of a 20-year-old Iowa college student, Mollie Tibbetts. The police arrested a Mexican national, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who the authorities said was in the country illegally. Her death, Republicans said, was directly related to Democrats’ refusal to tighten immigration laws.
Republicans argue that they are pointing out major policy disagreements with Democrats on serious matters like public safety. And their polling shows that many voters — especially women — are less inclined to support a candidate once they find out that the candidate supports policies that would hinder immigration enforcement like getting rid of I.C.E.
“This is yet another example of how out of touch the Democratic Party is with today’s world,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC that is running ads attacking Democrats on many of these issues. “In the voters’ minds, ‘Abolish ICE’ is code for open borders and more drugs coming into their communities,” he added.
Mr. Trump has a vision of the Democratic Party as radical and violent that he often shares in public and private, as he did this week when he told a group of Evangelical leaders at the White House that Democrats “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently” if Republicans lose control of Congress in the midterm elections.
At political rallies across the country this summer, he has sought to put a face to that threat: Representative Maxine Waters of California, a black Democrat who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the president. “The new leader of the Democrat Party, Maxine Waters,” Mr. Trump said at a recent campaign event. His more regular insult for Ms. Waters — “low I.Q.” or “very low I.Q.” — hits a theme he has used before in criticizing black people who take him on.
There was CNN’s Don Lemon, “the dumbest man on television,” according to the president. LeBron James, the basketball player Mr. Trump went on to insult in the same Tweet, looked smart compared with Mr. Lemon, Mr. Trump said, “which isn’t easy to do.”
In ads and campaign messages, the racial subtext is sometimes more subtle than Mr. Trump.
A new ad produced by the Republican Governor’s Association attacks the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, for “tapdancing” around issues. It shows a pair of dancing feet, reminiscent of an African-American performer like Sammy Davis Jr. and then criticizes Ms. Abrams for failing to pay her taxes. Ms. Abrams’s Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, became known for his provocative ads, including one in which he revs the engine of his pickup truck and says he’ll use it to “round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself.”
Race continues to surface in other ways, some of which may prove important on Election Day. In Florida, voters will decide whether to restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. Black lawmakers have long complained that the law disproportionately affects people of color.
And in Colorado, the Republican candidate for governor, Walter Stapleton, is having to confront his family’s dark past. His great-grandfather, a longtime mayor of Denver, was a powerful Ku Klux Klan leader.
His Democratic opponent, Representative Jared Polis, would be the first gay and Jewish governor in the nation.
Alex Burns contributed reporting.