WASHINGTON — Ever since President Trump's election, Hannah Laurison has had an eye on Nov. 6, 2018.
So stunned the morning of Trump's victory that she couldn't find the words to tell her daughters, the Philadelphian found her voice soon after. After commiserating and crying with friends, Laurison helped organize weekly protests outside Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's offices in Pennsylvania, and now leads a coalition of grassroots liberal groups working across the state.
She is part of a wave of activism sparked by Trump, as the president and the backlash against him have become the defining forces in American politics. In less than 60 days those competing elements face their most significant test in a midterm election freighted with epic implications.
"My world is people who are on fire about politics," Laurison said.
Trump and his supporters, meanwhile, warn that a roaring economy — and his very presidency — is under threat in what amounts to the first national measure of his tenure.
"There's a decision here whether we want to continue the prosperity and all the good things with the economy," said Jim Worthington, a Bucks County businessman who founded a grassroots group to support Trump
Every national election carries significant stakes, but this campaign is charged in a way like few in recent memory, crackling with the furious energy of 2016 that in many ways has only grown more intense during Trump's presidency.
Most directly at stake is Democrats' chance to gain a foothold in Congress, and the power to slow Trump's agenda and probe his administration, set against Republicans' hopes to enact conservative policies for at least two more years.
The symbolic stakes run even deeper.
Former President Barack Obama has taken to the campaign trail, describing the election as "one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States needs to determine just who we are, and what it is that we stand for."
In calling for rejection of Trump's politics "of fear and resentment" and to "restore some semblance of sanity to our politics," Obama joined a chorus of Democrats, and some Republicans, warning of fundamental threats from Trump's serial dishonesty, racially charged rhetoric, attacks on the news media, and calls for law enforcement officials to investigate his enemies, while complaining they are too hard on his friends.
Those concerns also ran through the recent memorial services for Republican Sen. John McCain, which morphed into a rally for decency, integrity, and dignity — and a warning that those values are endangered.
"I think Trump has exposed something that's very fundamentally dangerous," Laurison said. "The midterms are just such an important point to put a brake on him and to test whether all of this resistance energy and political fever that so many of us have been experiencing can be translated."
A Democratic wave might offer the political reckoning that many expected in 2016, and signal that even though Trump's incendiary style worked then, it might still carry a political price. If Trump and the GOP again beat expectations, though, and hold the House, it could validate the president's unconventional approach and again show that his appeal runs far deeper than public surveys suggest. It would further decimate the old political rules.
Trump supporters like Worthington argue that too much criticism has focused on the president's tweets, rather than his results. A Trump delegate in 2016 who now serves on the president's council for sports and fitness, Worthington said GOP tax cuts have put money in his workers' pockets and helped him undertake a $12 million expansion of his Newtown Athletic Club.
Trump, at a rally in Montana last week, cast the election in existential terms: If Democrats win, he said, they will impeach him. "If it happens, it's your fault because you didn't go out to vote," he told his supporters.
The stakes show in public surveys: 65 percent of registered voters told a Washington Post/ABC poll in August that it's more important to vote now than in past midterms. Among Democratic-leaning voters the figure was 75 percent. For those who lean Republican, it was 57 percent.
The odds, and history, favor Democrats. The party in the Whites House has lost House seats in all but three midterms since the Civil War, and Trump's approval ratings are historically low. But Trump defied predictions and polls in 2016 with a victory that fit into a pattern of seismic upsets around the globe as voters have raged against traditional institutions and politicians — adding to the uncertainty and tension surrounding this midterm.
Further fueling the apocalyptic mood is Trump's all-consuming personality, which has kept supporters and critics inflamed. Every week arrives with the exhausting velocity and unpredictability of peak campaign season — now going on year three.
"Our whole days have been reconfigured," said Larry Sabato, an election analyst at the University of Virginia. "The first thing you do whenever you get up in the morning is grab Twitter to see what the latest tweets have been."
Liberal activists interviewed for this story stressed that beyond personality, they are also fighting on tangible issues that affect everyday people, such as taxes, health care, workers' rights, and the Supreme Court. Some Republicans, pointing to high marks for the U.S. economy, have argued that the president's policies are broadly popular, if they can somehow divorce his divisive personality from the equation.
But Trump's reality-show style overshadows everything, analysts said.
"People made up their minds about Trump a long time ago and it's not like-dislike," said Sabato. "It's love-hate."
With many voters in moderate, suburban areas turning against the president and the GOP, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California are the three states most critical to control of the House, said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia.
Democrats, who need to add 23 seats for a House majority, are considered a near lock to gain at least three seats in the Philadelphia region — based in Chester, Delaware, and Atlantic Counties — but are targeting much more. If a true wave emerges, they might net double-digit gains across Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The fight for the Senate is on more conservative turf, where 10 Democratic incumbents are running in states Trump won. That includes Pennsylvania, where Democratic Sen. Bob Casey is seeking a third term against U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a close Trump ally. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez faces a stiff challenge after a corruption trial ended in a mistrial.
Even if a Democratic wave emerges, it may not predict Trump's future. Democrats suffered a disastrous 2010 midterm, but Obama won reelection two years later.
Meanwhile, the left is wrestling with its own upheaval.
In some cases Democrats have nominated centrists, like Rep. Conor Lamb, in Western Pennsylvania, who have appealed to swing voters. In other instances they opted for hard-charging liberals, particularly women and people of color, who have challenged the old order — most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Boston.
The different approaches will offer a test of competing strategies as Democrats prepare to confront Trump directly in 2020.