There’s a new operational rule in Republican Party politics these days: To survive in an election year, Senate Republicans need to stand with President Trump. Even senators representing swing states—where the president isn’t popular—have a lot more to lose in breaking with the White House than they do by representing the interests of their constituents.
That was the remarkable takeaway from Thursday’s Senate vote in support of overturning Trump’s border emergency declaration, which passed with a bipartisan coalition of 59 senators. But only one of the 20 Republican senators on a ballot next year (Maine's Susan Collins) voted against the president. This, even though a dozen other Republicans across the ideological spectrum—from Mitt Romney to Roger Wicker—opposed Trump’s assertion of unchecked executive power.
The Trump allies included the roster of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection next year, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Martha McSally of Arizona. The list also included Nebraska's Ben Sasse, one of the most anti-Trump Republicans in Congress, who happens to be on the ballot in 2020 and faces the risk of a primary challenge from his right.
Tillis was one of the most surprising names on the list, given his early desire to show he opposed Trump’s attempt to get his way without congressional authority. He even wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post last month warning that supporting Trump’s emergency declaration would be tantamount to allowing a future Democratic president to have unchecked powers. “There is no intellectual honesty in now turning around and arguing that there’s an imaginary asterisk attached to executive overreach—that it’s acceptable for my party but not thy party,” Tillis wrote.
So much for intellectual honesty. Tillis soon learned the cold political reality that a vote against Trump would likely bring him a serious primary challenge, with any anti-Trump posture serving as a rallying cry for the Right. For a freshman who barely won his first election, losing any support from the conservative base would be politically devastating. He threw away his closely held principles in warp speed, knowing all too well that a stray presidential tweet could end his political career.
Even more instructive was the positioning of Gardner, one of the most politically-attuned members of the caucus. As chairman of the Senate’s campaign committee last year, Gardner witnessed the no-win situation that Republican senators faced when forced to choose between the politics of their base and their closely held principles. He watched Sen. Dean Heller face friendly fire after initially opposing the GOP’s Obamacare-repeal legislation before becoming a reliable party-line vote thereafter. (Heller lost anyways.)
So even though Gardner represents the most Trump-unfriendly state on the GOP’s 2020 Senate map, he nonetheless acquiesced to the president’s wishes. He claimed the president had “clear legal authority” for the emergency declaration, even as rank-and-file members held deep qualms about its legality. It’s a remarkable decision demonstrating that, even in a state where the president won a measly 43 percent of the vote, the smarter political play is to avoid losing support from that base.
It’s important to recognize that the GOP’s slavish loyalty to Trump is a demand-side problem, not a supply-side challenge. Republican voters overwhelmingly support Trump, and want representatives that cater to their interests. Outspoken critics of Trump, like former Sen. Jeff Flake and former Rep. Mark Sanford, have seen their careers ended for being too tough on the president. When one of the most principled conservative critics of Trump (Sen. Ben Sasse) feels the need to stay in line, it’s a sign that he knows his political career is threatened.
Purists argue that it’s more important to maintain one’s values than cater to the whims of a polarized party. But taken to its logical conclusion, that means occasional Trump critics from within will be replaced by slavish Trump loyalists in future elections. Sen. Lindsey Graham, also up in 2020, defends his flip-flops by arguing that his alliance with Trump has given him influence in preventing an abrupt withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
These political machinations aren’t unique to Republicans. It’s the same type of political calculation that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made this week when she told her caucus that she opposes impeachment because such a drastic measure didn’t have enough support from the public. While supporting impeachment hearings could be seen as the principled plan, it lacks enough public support for it to be worthwhile for her party. Stick to your principles at all costs, and House Democrats would risk handing Trump a second term in office.
If politics is about compromise, Republicans are now making their own internal compromises between the rigidity of their base and the principles they hold most dear. They’re willing to trade conservative judges and low taxes for higher tariffs and nativist immigration views. They’re willing to overlook executive overreach but are holding the line on a hawkish foreign policy. That’s democracy in action.
What’s most concerning isn’t that politicians are responding to the whims of their voters, but that voters have become so polarized and radicalized in the age of Trump. The collapse of traditional news outlets and the rise of social media have created a constituency of ill-informed voters living in ideological echo chambers. Fixing that larger challenge requires a lot more than simply raging against politicians for acting in their own interest.