Against the Grain

Republicans Turn to Party-Switchers in Upcoming Primaries

Former Democrats are thriving in Republican primaries despite attacks on their past history. It’s another sign that Trump has reoriented the party in a more-populist direction.

Rep. Evan Jenkins (left) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey watch as President Trump arrives for a roundtable discussion on tax policy on April 5 in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 29, 2018, 6 a.m.

In next month’s pivotal Senate primaries in Indiana and West Virginia, the two leading Republican candidates have an unusual characteristic on their resumes: They both have past affiliations with the Democratic Party.

Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is facing West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for the nomination, served for nearly a decade as a Democrat in West Virginia’s legislature. Indiana businessman and former GOP state Rep. Mike Braun voted in Democratic primaries until 2012, including the high-profile 2008 presidential clash between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But despite being attacked for being liberals-in-disguise by their primary rivals, their past partisan apostasy hasn’t diminished their political prospects. Braun holds the late momentum in his primary against two sitting GOP congressmen, Todd Rokita and Luke Messer—despite Rokita slamming Braun as a “lifelong Democrat” on the airwaves. Meanwhile, Jenkins is running neck-and-neck against Morrisey, with one new public poll showing him with a narrow advantage. The congressman’s standing hasn’t been dented by Morrisey’s persistent argument that Jenkins is a closet progressive.

If Braun and Jenkins win their respective nominations, they’ll be joined by newly appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi as leading GOP Senate candidates who until recently were dependable Democrats. In addition, one of the two Republican contenders against Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (Kevin Nicholson) is the former national president of the College Democrats of America. If President Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign accelerated a realignment of some working-class white Democrats into the GOP fold, this year’s Senate class is a demonstration of how that shift is translating down-ballot.

Indeed, the candidates’ unique backgrounds are part of what make them so appealing—even to rank-and-file Republican primary voters. Braun’s emphasis on trade protectionism allowed him to draw a stark contrast against Rokita and Messer, who both had taken votes supporting numerous free-trade agreements.

Jenkins’s past Democratic affiliation is what makes him a stronger opponent against a perennially popular Manchin. West Virginia is filled with conservative Democratic voters—a federal inmate won 41 percent of the Democratic primary vote against President Obama in 2012—and many GOP operatives believe that a candidate who speaks to their interests would be a stronger matchup against Manchin. Morrisey is a favorite of movement conservatives for his legal challenges to the Obama administration’s environmental policies, but is originally from New Jersey (where he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000).

And in Mississippi, Hyde-Smith’s Democratic background isn’t hurting her ability to consolidate Republican support. In the latest public poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon, the former state agriculture secretary is winning 84 percent of Republican voters against former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy in a one-on-one runoff. Her tea-party-aligned Republican rival in the race, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, is only winning 72 percent of GOP voters against Espy, and is trailing the Democrat by 2 points in a head-to-head matchup.

That shouldn’t be a surprise to observers of Southern politics. A sizable share of Mississippi Republicans were once Democrats themselves, and care more about ideology than partisanship. Hyde-Smith’s transition into the Republican Party mirrors the movement of many one-time Democrats into the GOP fold in recent years. (As recently as 2010, Democrats held the majority in the Mississippi House and Senate.) Without Trump’s blessing, McDaniel will have a much more difficult time harnessing the antiestablishment energy that nearly led him to upset Thad Cochran in 2014.

Trump has been a driving force behind the success of these party-switchers. It’s easy to imagine that attacking them as flip-floppers would once have been damaging—before Republicans elected a president who was, until recently, a generous Democratic supporter. But with an ideologically malleable president in office, GOP voters are much more willing to overlook their candidates’ partisan history.

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