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The top 10 storylines of the 2018 midterms
U.S. Senate candidates, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., left, and U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., debated Oct. 15, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo) U.S. Senate candidates, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., left, and U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., debated Oct. 15, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo)

U.S. Senate candidates, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., left, and U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., debated Oct. 15, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo)

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan October 31, 2018

PolitiFact has been monitoring and fact-checking the midterm campaigns of 2018 in races across the country. We’ve seen common themes emerge as the Democrats and Republicans clash. Here’s a look at what we’ve found to be the top 10 storylines of the 2018 contests. (We provide short summaries of our fact-checks here; links will take you to longer stories with detailed explanations and primary sources.)

1. Fear of immigration
2. Pre-existing conditions protection
3. Personal attacks
4. Being with or against President Trump
5. The red scare: socialism
6. Valuing military service
7. The opioid epidemic
8. Raising taxes
9. The "age tax"
10. Protecting Medicare and Social Security

Fear of dangerous outsiders is the emotional note that has driven discussions of immigration policy in 2018, with Republicans charging that Democrats don’t want to protect the United States. Their attacks are frequently exaggerated or distorted: Democrats are more open to immigration than the Republicans, but they don’t want a free-for-all at the border, either.  President Donald Trump has contributed to the debate with distortions and outright fabrications.

For example:

In Indiana, the National Republican Senatorial Committee falsely claimed that incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly was against "all efforts to secure our most vulnerable entry points," even though Donnelly was one of the few Democrats to vote in favor of funding Trump’s wall on the Mexico border. We rated the committee’s ad False.

In Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, made this charge against former Gov. Phil Bredesen: "It was Phil Bredesen who, quote, lured illegal immigrants to Tennessee. Bredesen lured illegal immigrants hundreds of miles by offering them driver certificates." In fact, Bredesen inherited Tennessee’s driver certificate program and moved to restrict it. We rated Blackburn’s ad Mostly False.

In Arizona, Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally said her opponent, U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, encouraged child trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border: "My opponent and every Democrat got on a bill that essentially says if you cross the border illegally, and you have a kid with you and you commit a crime, another crime within 100 miles of the border, you can’t be arrested. This is essentially encouraging child trafficking." McSally’s comments are inaccurate; the actually seeks to end Trump policies that separated parents from children, and it includes safeguards against trafficking. We rated McSally’s statement False.

Trump has repeatedly made false statements about immigration. During one interview on Fox News in May, we counted eight inaccurate claims in less than five minutes. Trump said that immigration policy dictates that criminals be released; that is not true. The "catch and release" policy he deplores only applies to people who have not committed other crimes. He also said Democrats have dictated the policy, when it’s been policy for years under presidents of both parties. We rated his statement False.


Democrats have used the Republican stance against the Affordable Care Act to paint the GOP as indifferent to sick people and opposed to protections for pre-existing conditions. Many Republicans do favor limited protections for pre-existing conditions, but their policies are not as robust as the Affordable Care Act. That means the Democrats’ attack ads tend to exaggerate, but are based in real policy differences.

For example:

In Florida, an ad from Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum attacks Republican Ron DeSantis: "In Congress, Ron DeSantis demanded that any new health law eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions. He’d let insurance companies deny them coverage." DeSantis actually supports reducing protections, not eliminating them. We rated Gillum’s statement Half True.

In North Carolina, Democratic congressional candidate Kathy Manning targeted incumbent Republican Rep. Ted Budd in an ad for his vote on a "repeal and replace" bill, citing the case of a woman named Lilly. The ad says Budd "voted to gut protections for pre-existing conditions like hers, letting insurance companies deny coverage for the treatment she needs." We rated Manning’s statement Half True.

In Virginia, Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic challenger in the 7th Congressional District, targeted incumbent U.S. Rep. Dave Brat with a hard-hitting ad that shows a woman with a sick child talking to the camera: "I feel betrayed by Dave Brat; he voted against protections for pre-existing conditions for families like mine." We rated the ad’s claim Half True.

Trump has fought back for Republicans, but not with the truth. Trump said Republicans would "always" take care of pre-existing conditions, adding, "Some of the Democrats have been talking about ending pre-existing conditions." We found zero Democratic candidates who were talking about that. We rated Trump’s statement Pants on Fire.

READ MORE: Do GOP proposals match the Affordable Care Act on pre-existing conditions?

Many attacks in the 2018 campaign have worked to portray the other candidate as unacceptable, whether the facts back up the attack or not. Candidates for office have been portrayed as criminals fleeing arrest; treasonous; fond of strip clubs or psychopathic liars.   

For example:

In Minnesota, an ad says that U.S. House candidate Joe Radinovich, a Democrat, has "spent his life running from the law, charged with 18 crimes." Most of Radinovich’s offenses were driving-related and petty misdemeanors. We rated the ad’s claim Mostly False.  

In Kansas, congressional candidate Paul Davis saw this ad against him: "After Davis was caught with a stripper, he voted to allow strip clubs to open near our homes, churches, schools and even daycare facilities. Shady Paul Davis can’t be trusted." It’s true that Davis was arrested at a strip club in 2014; he’s said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But we found no evidence that Davis was pushing for strip club interests as a legislator. We rated the ad’s claim Half True.

In that same race, Democrats launched this ad against Republican Steve Watkins: "Steve Watkins caught lying again. For months, Watkins bragged to voters that he built his own company from scratch, but it was all a lie." Watkins did suggest that he owned the company he helped build when he actually was not an owner. But the work itself was not a lie. We rated the Democrats’ claim Half True.

President Trump is a polarizing figure, to say the least. On the campaign trail, Democrats and Republicans have used him against each other, claiming opponents are either too supportive or not supportive enough. The accuracy of such attacks varies.

In California, Democrats attacked Mimi Walters for voting with Trump "99 percent of the time." She voted with him most of the time, though you can debate the usefulness of how this kind of stat is calculated. We rated that Mostly True.

In Virginia, Republican Corey Stewart accused Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of opposing "everything Trump does." We found a few isolated instances of agreement between Kaine and Trump. But they’re mostly opposed. We rated that Mostly True.

In North Dakota, Republicans said incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of voting "against Trump 68 percent of time." This number doesn’t take into account how often Heitkamp voted in favor of Trump appointees.  We rated the statement Mostly False.

In Wisconsin, Republican candidate Leah Vukmir said, "I have always been there with" Donald Trump. Actually, she supported several other candidates in the 2016 GOP presidential primary. We rated her statement False.

Call it the red scare of 2018. Republicans say that Democrats are so liberal that they’re socialists. But if you take the charge seriously and investigate, it becomes clear that what some Democrats want is not socialist. The accusation is just not accurate.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, running for Senate as a Republican, said that incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson was a socialist. Actually, Nelson is one of the most centrist members of the Senate. We rated Scott’s statement Pants on Fire!

In Ohio, one of the GOP’s primary losers said that incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown’s policies "reflect that interest in Marxism" and a fondness for communism. Brown has spoken out against human rights abuses in communist countries many times. We rated the attack line False.

Taking the kitchen sink approach, the outside spending group Future 45 suggested all Democrats are socialists. In a TV ad, it claims that voting for "any Democrat" gets you "socialism ... undefended open borders ... immediate tax increases ... 100 percent government-run health care … ." That’s Pants on Fire!

Most politicians vocally support the military — so much so that they attack their rivals for not valuing the military enough. We’ve seen several attacks this cycle where candidates suggest their opponent dissed the military or military service in some way. Most often, they’re wrong.

In Kentucky, Democrats accused Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of belittling military service. After criticizing Barr on tax policy, the ad says Barr was "even dismissing the importance of military service" while onscreen text displays a quote from him that reads: "We both served our country. I’ve served in a position where ideas matter." Barr did say that statement, but in context, he clearly wasn’t dismissing the importance of military service. We rated the Democrats’ ad Mostly False.

In Arizona, McSally has been hammering Sinema for protesting against the Iraq War. Sinema was opposed to the war, but McSally says Sinema’s protests including denigrating troops, which we found no evidence of. McSally’s ad says, "While we were in harm’s way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service. The world is a dangerous place. We need strong leaders who understand the threat and respect our troops. Kyrsten Sinema fails the test." We rated that claim Mostly False.

In Florida, a controversy started over Gov. Rick Scott’s habit of wearing a Navy cap; Scott is running for U.S. Senate. A veterans  group ran an ad that says this: "I see Rick Scott wearing that Navy hat everywhere he goes. But let me tell you what he did to veterans. His hospital company stole millions, defrauding the military’s health care program. Scott pled the Fifth and walked away with a fortune." The ad is tough, but it isn’t inaccurate. Scott’s former health care company defrauded government health care programs, including Tricare, which serves the military and their families. We rated the statement True.

A few election cycles ago, opioids were not an election-year issue. Today, we found discussion of addiction to heroin, fentanyl and prescription drug medication in campaigns across the country. In many cases, candidates urged more treatment options. But politicians didn’t always get their facts right when talking about policy specifics.

Donald Trump, at a Republican rally in Ohio, said, "I'll soon sign into the law the largest legislative effort in history to address the opioid crisis where just this year we got $6 billion from Congress — thanks to (Ohio Republican Sen.) Rob Portman and a lot of others …. (But with) very little Democrat support." His comment about Democratic support is totally wrong. Virtually every Democrat voted in favor of the bill. We rated Trump’s statement Pants on Fire!

In Tennessee, Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen said his opponent Sen. Marsha Blackburn weakened DEA opioid enforcement. It’s complicated, but we rated his statement Mostly True.

In Florida, Republican candidate for Florida governor Ron DeSantis said, "The bulk of the problem with the opioid epidemic is the fentanyl and all the synthetic drugs coming across the southern border." Actually, many synthetic drugs come from China. We rated his statement Half True.

Republicans’ biggest achievement of the past two years has been the wide-ranging 2017 tax cuts, and they’ve pounded on Democrats who didn’t support it. They’ve claimed that Democrats are against tax cuts for the middle class and are planning immediate tax increases if they take office. Many Democrats did oppose the Republican tax bill, but most opposed it because of its tax cuts for the wealthy.

In North Carolina, a Republican ad claimed that congressional candidate Dan McCready "did admit he opposes middle class tax cuts." McCready admitted nothing of the sort; he actually said the middle class didn’t get enough benefit out of the tax law. We rated the ad’s claim False.

In Nebraska, the Republicans said that Democratic candidate Kara Eastman would vote to "eliminate your tax cuts" and that "your family" would have to pay $2,500 more a year as a result. The $2,500 number is questionable, and Eastman hasn’t said she would raise taxes. We rated the statement False.

In New Jersey, Republican Leonard Lance said that Democratic congressional candidate Tom Malinowski "supports a full repeal of the 2017 tax law, which includes vital tax incentives" for New Jersey communities. Malinowski supports repealing the law, but also replacing it. We rated Lance’s statement Half True.


In another health care-related attack, Democrats have accused Republicans of supporting an "age tax." No, Republicans are not in favor of taxes based on how old you are. It’s a euphemism that Democrats are using to explain the Republican position of allowing health insurance companies to charge higher rates for old customers. The term "age tax" lacks accuracy and takes a good bit of explaining, but it is based on the GOP’s health care position.

In New York, Democrat Antonio Delgado said incumbent Republican Rep. John Faso voted for an "age tax" on seniors. We rated this Mostly False, because not only is it not really an "age tax," but also because New York provides specific protection against charging seniors more for insurance.

In California, Democrats said that U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican, supported a health care bill that "slaps an age tax on older Californians." We rated that Half True.

In Arizona, Sinema said she voted to stop a new "age tax" under which "Arizonans age 50 & over could be charged 5 times more for their health care." In addition to not being an actual tax, the provision only applied to people who bought insurance through the individual and small-group markets. We rated Sinema’s claim Half True.

Medicare and Social Security, the popular government-run retirement programs, dominated elections in previous years. In 2018, a common messaging theme is arguing about which candidate would help or hurt the programs. Our advice? Rare is the politician who openly campaigns for curtailing these benefits; the attacks are often exaggerated.

In Nevada, U.S. Senate candidate Jacky Rosen took a shot at incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller: "Unfortunately, Sen. Heller is yet another Washington politician who wants to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare to pay for tax cuts for his ultra-wealthy donors." Overall, Heller’s policies could make it more likely that spending on entitlements would be reined in. There is reasonable debate whether those changes would lead to a cut in benefits. We rated Rosen’s statement Half True.

In Wisconsin, Republican Leah Vukmir said that Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s "Medicare for All" plan means senior citizens would "no longer have" Medicare. (It’s an attack line we’ve seen in other races, too.) But it’s not as though senior citizens would lose Medicare and be left with nothing. In fact, as proposed, Medicare for All would provide them more benefits than they get with current Medicare. We rated Vukmir’s statement Mostly False.

In Maine, the state Democratic Party prompts accused Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent Republican in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, of "voting to gut your retirement benefits," making detailed critiques of his positions on Social Security and Medicare. The mailer presents Poliquin’s positions in the worst possible light and goes too far. We rated the claim Mostly False.


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The top 10 storylines of the 2018 midterms