Republican Candidates Stuck With The Donald Trump Albatross Around Their Necks
Whether they like it or not, Republican candidates in the midterms will have to run with the albatross of Donald Trump around their necks.
Republicans running for the U.S. Senate this year are finding that distancing themselves from Donald Trump generally isn’t an option:
Among his qualifications for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Evan Jenkins wants West Virginia voters to know that he once attended a Christmas party with Donald Trump, flew with him on Air Force One and watched two movies in the president’s private theater at the White House.
“He sat there right from beginning to end,” Jenkins (R) said of the screenings of “12 Strong,” a military thriller, and “The 15:17 to Paris,” the recent Clint Eastwood flick. “I have a great working relationship with him.”
Mitt Romney (R), a Senate candidate in Utah who called Trump a “phony, a fraud” during the presidential election campaign, recently embraced the president’s confrontational moves on trade and insisted he was tougher on immigration than Trump. And in Nevada, another Republican and former Trump foe, Sen. Dean Heller, has been praising the president’s policies in private meetings, while publicly saying that their relationship has “grown.”
Such flattery matters in GOP Senate primaries these days, even as Republicans in Washington express increasing unease with the president’s contradictory and pugilistic style of governance.
In intraparty fights across the country, fealty to Trump has become the coin of the realm. Candidates who once distanced themselves from him now declare themselves acolytes, attack rivals for any deviation from the Trumpian script and, in one case, even don his cherry-red campaign cap in ads.
“I’ll proudly stand with our president and Mike Pence to drain the swamp,” a hat-wearing Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) says in a recent ad, which started airing days before the Associated Press republished a 2016 interview in which he called Trump “vulgar, if not profane.” Rokita is seeking the nomination to run against Sen. Joe Donnelly (D).
At the root of the fawning rapprochements are two defining features of the Senate landscape: Trump enjoys enormous popularity among Republican primary voters, and most of the contested races are in states Trump won in 2016.
“I haven’t seen a state where among Republicans his favorables are anything less than 80 percent,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who has polled for Trump. “The challenge is going to be for the Republicans, whether it’s the congressional races or the Senate races, to get the bases motivated.”
That candidates for the Republican nomination in states where Trump remains popular among Republicans are remaining largely loyal to the President, or at the very least muting or seeking to move past their previous criticism of the President as Romney seems to be doing, is hardly surprising. As McLaughlin notes above, for better or worse the fact of the matter is that the President remains hugely popular among Republicans, especially in states that are historically Republican, and a candidate who seeks to distance himself from a President who is that popular with the base is going to open themselves up to challenges from the right, not to mention the potential of direct attacks from the President himself. Further evidence of the President’s popularity among Republicans can be found in the national job approval poll, which shows that more than 80% of self-identified Republicans nationwide approve of the job President is doing while less than 15% say that they disapprove. This means that a candidate in any primary is going to put themselves in a difficult position if they try to distance themselves from the President because it would risk angering the base and causing their opponents to run to their right in the primary.
The problem that this creates for some Republican candidates, of course, is that showing fealty to Trump during the primary could pose problems in the General Election. This won’t be an issue for candidates in deeply red states like West Virginia and Utah, of course, but it could be a problem for whoever Republicans nominate in more purple states such as Virginia, Florida, and potentially also Arizona where fealty to Trump in the primary could come back to bite these candidates as they run head-to-head against strong Democratic candidates. The dilemma they face, of course, is that even trying to back away from Trump in the General Election could end up causing base voters to back away from them while appearing to cozy up to the President could hurt them with the independent voters they’d arguably need to win the General Election. How this dynamic continues to play out over the next seven months will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the battle for control of the Senate, which already hangs in the balance given the fact that the GOP majority is now down to just a single seat.