Against the Grain

Trump’s Golden Touch in GOP Primaries

The president has the power to transform the future faces of his party, even as some Republicans are wary of White House involvement in intraparty fights.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, speaks during a unity rally Thursday in Peachtree Corners.
AP Photo/John Amis
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 29, 2018, 6 a.m.

If there’s any doubt that the Republican Party has been reshaped in President Trump’s image, just look at the impeccable record that his endorsed candidates have achieved in primaries this year. Trump is the GOP’s King Midas, turning even some underwhelming candidates into unbeatable juggernauts—at least among rank-and-file Republican voters.

Ever since Trump awkwardly waded into the Alabama Senate race, his endorsees have won nine of the last 10 contested races—including a clean sweep in primaries. He transformed a neck-and-neck Georgia gubernatorial primary between Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle into a Kemp rout. He revived the flagging fortunes of ethically embattled South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, one of his earliest supporters, who was facing the prospect of a tough gubernatorial runoff. He single-handedly turned embattled Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, a onetime GOP critic of the president, into an ally—and, more importantly, a winner in a competitive primary.

The latest Republican to benefit from the Trump touch is Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a hard-line conservative whose campaign for governor was originally seen as a long shot. He’s facing Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has been eyeing the governorship ever since he left Congress back in 2010—and looked like the clear favorite for most of the race. But after Trump’s endorsement, Putnam’s campaign has been sputtering. A new poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon, found DeSantis leading by 12 points over Putnam—consistent with numerous other public polls showing a surge by the Trump-endorsed congressman.

At the same time, those who cross Trump suffer: Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had survived a humiliating sex scandal as governor, couldn’t overcome the political headwinds from a Trump tweet. On Election Day, Trump’s Twitter endorsement of little-known lawmaker Katie Arrington was the final blow in a highly competitive race against the entrenched congressman. Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona were forced into early retirements after their criticisms of the president, with once-sterling approval ratings among Republicans collapsing in short order.

Even when Trump doesn’t endorse, his words speak volumes to his supporters. When he tweeted at West Virginia Republican voters not to support scandal-plagued Don Blankenship in the state’s Senate primary, the antiestablishment campaign immediately flatlined. In Arizona’s Senate race, Trump has steered clear of the contested primary, but even the establishment-favored Rep. Martha McSally has belatedly embraced Trump’s hard-line position on immigration to win over Republican voters. Many suburban swing-district Republicans are scared of distancing themselves too much from Trump, knowing they need those partisan votes in close races.

This tribal dynamic is creating uncomfortable choices for GOP candidates in general elections. Republicans can’t win without holding onto their base, but in most competitive races, being seen as too close to Trump is a major turnoff with independents. Trump’s only election loss this year occurred in an off-year contest pitting a Republican against a Democrat—in a blue-collar Pennsylvania district that Trump had carried by 20 points in 2016.

Given our country’s increasingly tribal politics, Trump will be commanding loyalty from his voters for the foreseeable future. He holds higher approval from within his party than any other Republican president at this point in their tenure, save for George W. Bush post-9/11. Even when rank-and-file Republicans deviate from the president on issues such as trade or Russia, it’s awfully hard to break their loyalty to Trump himself.

In hindsight, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s aggressive efforts to contain Steve Bannon’s political influence on the president was prescient—and may be one of the more underappreciated strategic decisions of the election cycle. Imagine if Trump had embraced his former adviser’s guidance to back insurgent challenges to conservative senators. Even if a Bannon lineup of Republican revolutionaries were unsuccessful, they would have become massive headaches for otherwise-safe senators.

Instead, Trump has channeled his energies to supporting Republican Senate challengers in deeply red states, a dynamic that has given Republicans hope of expanding their Senate majority even with the possibility of a major blue wave. McConnell may be compromising conservative values by kowtowing to Trumpism, but given Trump’s hold on his party, did he have any other options?

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