With 11 states holding primaries next month, a clear pattern is emerging from the messages of GOP candidates across the country: They’re all aboard the Trump train. In Indiana, all three of the candidates vying to challenge Sen. Joe Donnelly are testing messages that mimic themes from Trump’s successful presidential campaign. In West Virginia, one of the GOP Senate candidates launched an ad showing a boulder crashing on the Capitol, with a distinctly Trumpian message of “blowing up” Washington. Down-ballot GOP candidates running in competitive primaries, even those in suburban districts, privately concede there’s no benefit to creating any space between their campaigns and the White House.
If the acquiescence of Republicans running in red states isn’t convincing enough, just look at the actions of some of the biggest Trump critics of yesteryear. Arizona Senate candidate Martha McSally, who didn’t endorse Trump in her 2016 House race, is now a reliable cheerleader for the president. Sen. Ted Cruz, who became Trump’s top GOP enemy during the convention, made amends with the president and has embraced a general-election campaign centered on cultural issues—even in a diversifying state where Democrats have gained some ground. National Review editor Rich Lowry reflected the altered mood within the party in a recent column, urging Republicans not to “pretend that he’s just going away, or that he’s a wild outlier in the contemporary GOP.”
What’s telling is that the party’s newfound eagerness to embrace Trump is coming at a time when he’s moving on his promises to upend conservative orthodoxy, making it tougher to justify a steadfast alliance of convenience with the president. During his first year in office, Republicans had good reason to stick closely with Trump, since his rhetoric was often at odds with his administration’s policies. Republicans were willing to tolerate chaos as long as the president appointed conservative judges, worked at rolling back Obamacare, and passed wide-ranging tax cuts.
But Republicans don’t appreciate how much things are changing in Trump’s second year in office. The president is now moving forward with the nationalistic agenda he campaigned on, slapping tariffs on Chinese products, threatening trade wars with allies, and pushing to hastily withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He’s abandoned any pretense of negotiating to protect the children of illegal immigrants, reverting to the hard-line rhetoric on immigration he utilized during the presidential campaign.
This is leading to political incoherence from many leading GOP candidates. They need to pledge unyielding support to the president—his job approval among Republicans is comfortably above 80 percent these days—even when that makes it harder to define their policy prescriptions.
“There’s a strong belief among Republican voters that Republicans shouldn’t undercut the president on policy—you can’t disagree with him on policy,” said one leading Republican operative involved in Senate races.
The Indiana Senate primary offers a revealing case study on the scrambling strategies forming. Rep. Todd Rokita is positioning himself as the strongest Trump loyalist, but he’s been a champion of free trade throughout his congressional career. Rep. Luke Messer, who holds an establishment-friendly pedigree with close ties to Vice President Pence and former Gov. Mitch Daniels, aired an ad proclaiming he “backs Trump’s agenda—tax cuts, pro-life, and funding for our troops.” And state Rep. Mike Braun, a self-funding businessman who until recently voted in Democratic primaries, is running most aggressively on Trump’s protectionist trade agenda. “Indiana lost good manufacturing jobs, while politicians kept theirs,” Braun says in a recent ad.
It’s hard to figure out who is the Trumpiest candidate, or what standing with Trump even means anymore. Rokita proudly put on a red “Make America Great Again” hat in a new commercial, but his campaign is wary of embracing the president’s protectionism. Last month, Rokita said he’d take a wait-and-see approach to the Trump trade plan: “I assume the president starts from a strong position and then negotiates…I’m intrigued by the approach and will be interested to see how it plays out.” A Rokita spokesman told National Journal: “Todd’s always with the president. On the tariffs, we can always change them later. We can see how things go and always stop it if it’s not working.”
Braun, who is facing criticism for his past Democratic affiliation, is the only candidate running an ad focused on the president’s signature issue of trade.
Even though it seems like obvious politics to stand by Trump in a GOP-friendly state like Indiana, there are real long-term risks. Responding to Trump’s tariffs, the Chinese government announced retaliatory levies on agricultural goods like soybeans, which happen to be a top crop in several red-state Senate battlegrounds. Trump voters involved in farming may like his aggressive negotiating posture now, but will they maintain their support for the GOP if their bottom line takes a hit?
And outside the most pro-Trump confines, aligning so closely with the president risks blowback from independents and threatens to aggravate the anti-Trump base further. Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina is facing a primary challenge from his right next month and a bona fide Democratic recruit in the general election in November. Even though he’ll need to hold onto enough suburban voters disenchanted with Trump to win reelection, a campaign strategist told National Journal it would be self-destructive to break with the president when polling shows nearly all GOP partisans support him.
It’s a catch-22. Critique the president and the base won’t show up. Embrace him closely and swing voters will defect. Partisanship has become so all-consuming that it won’t be long before Republicans cast ballots entirely out of tribal loyalty, without any fidelity towards specific policies.
Indeed, it now feels like ancient history when Republicans believed they could make the midterm elections about tax cuts and the growing economy. Trump isn’t cooperating with that strategy, instead engaging in trade wars and picking polarizing cultural fights that do little to boost his party’s bottom line. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, dismayed by the gloomy trends, all but conceded a Democratic wave and the likelihood of the House flipping in a home-state interview this week.
There’s little Republicans can do to turn things around at this point. They’re marching to the beat of Trump’s drum and heading closer to the political cliff.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Braun’s campaign slogan was “Defeat the Elite”; it’s Rokita’s campaign slogan.