Now that President Trump and his advisers have redefined the Washington establishment, the dividing line between the establishment and the tea party in Republican primaries has become blurred. Next month’s Republican battle royale in ruby-red Alabama is proving that the new establishment is in lockstep behind Trump, and loyalty to the president has become the pivotal issue in the heated primary.
The race pits appointed Sen. Luther Strange, an Alabama political veteran who served as the state’s attorney general, against several challengers with stronger grassroots support. His chief rival, Rep. Mo Brooks, is a classic tea-party insurgent. A stalwart member of the Freedom Caucus, he first won his seat by defeating a sitting congressman in a primary, and he frequently votes against the GOP House leadership. Like Trump, he’s an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, and his Senate candidacy is championed in Breitbart’s news coverage.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is so concerned about Brooks’s renegade ways that he’s aggressively intervening in the contested primary on Strange’s behalf. He’s even threatened to blackball consultants who work for any of Strange’s rivals.
You’d think that being a political lifer, a McConnell favorite, and receiving nearly $10 million in assistance from D.C.-based super PACs would make Strange an old-style establishment figure. But Strange’s allies have launched an advertising barrage that adroitly turns the tables. The ads, from the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, paint Brooks as a “career congressman” who sided with Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren in declining to back Trump in the presidential primary. (Brooks endorsed Ted Cruz in the primary, and kept his distance from Trump during the general election.)
Meanwhile, an ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee eagerly proclaims Strange’s Trump ties, even though he wasn’t an outspoken backer of the president, either. “Big Luther’s a Trump man. Working to pass the Trump agenda,” a narrator says in the spot.
One Republican operative with ties to McConnell told National Journal that Republican primary voters are increasingly demanding candidates in Trump’s image—and that’s informing strategy, even from establishment-minded candidates. “There’s a hunger for Trump-like candidates,” the GOP operative said. “In the past, candidates never had to explain their candidacies other than being against Obama. Everyone has to run differently than they have in the past.” In solidly Republican states where Trump’s job approval is still strong, the new GOP playbook—at least in a contested primary—is to prove one’s loyalty to the president.
It’s why West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey launched his Senate campaign with a video saying he will “stand with President Trump” and “drain the swamp.” It’s why Corey Stewart nearly stunned Ed Gillespie in last month’s Virginia gubernatorial primary simply by running as a brash Trump acolyte. Trump will be a drag on many GOP candidates in a general election, but in Republican primaries, his popularity is still sky-high.
Defining an opponent as part of the establishment was useful in the pre-Trump era. But now that Trump is part of the very establishment he railed against, it’s a lot harder to use the same insurgent playbook. And if Strange is able to successfully convince voters he’s Trump’s guy, he’ll be writing the strategy for other ambitious candidates looking to win Republican primaries.
Indeed, the divide for future Republican primaries may look a lot like Alabama’s Senate race—between pro-Trump Republicans and movement conservatives still willing to stand on their principles. It’s no coincidence that Trump and Cruz won a whopping 70 percent of all GOP votes in last year’s presidential primaries, leaving the traditional candidates in the dust. The old center-right establishment isn’t as large as party leaders wished it would be, and it has now been co-opted by the Trump White House.
McConnell may think he’s beating the establishment by utilizing Trump to get allies elected. But by using Trump’s own tactics to accomplish his goal, he’s conceding that the old way of winning Republican primaries is no longer operative.