The fierce battle for control of Congress and the nation’s governorships has turned toward blatant and overtly racial attacks rarely seen since the civil rights era of the 1960s.

A new robo-call going out to voters in Georgia features a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Stacey Abrams, who is running to become the nation’s first black woman elected governor, “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.”

In Florida, the Trump administration’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue urged voters not to elect Andrew Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor, with a colloquialism widely seen as having racial connotations: “This election is so cotton-pickin’ important.”

Some Republicans drew a line on what words they found offensive when they suddenly scrambled, following the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, to distance themselves from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. The moves came after King defended his ties to a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties, only the latest in a years-long alliance by King with white nationalist individuals and groups. But much of the party was silent.

The 2016 election confirmed that a potential president could run – and win – after stoking racism. Now, in their closing days, the midterms have shaped up as a demonstration of whether the entire Republican Party can succeed by following his lead.

By running so overtly on racially tinged messages, the GOP is putting that explosive form of politics on the ballot. If Republicans maintain control of the House, the notion of running a campaign built on blunt, race-based attacks on immigrants and minorities will have been validated. A loss, on the other hand, might prompt a number of Republicans to call for a rethinking of the party’s direction – but that would collide with a sitting president who, if anything, relishes over-the-edge rhetoric.

The stakes for the party’s future are immense. Republicans now are an overwhelmingly white party, whereas Democrats represent a multiethnic coalition. The problem for Republicans is that the nation is moving swiftly in the direction of Democratic demographics.

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