Taxes, spending and even health care have taken a back seat to the most potent new litmus test in Republican primaries: allegiance to President Donald Trump.
Even as the president spars with members of his own party and his approval rating has plummeted to historic lows, Republican Senate campaigns across the country are preparing to use instances of disloyalty to Trump to bludgeon primary opponents who’ve gotten on the wrong side of the president.
Loyalty to Trump has quickly become the most potent issue for the Republican base, according to a dozen candidates and strategists immersed in 2018 races. It has already put Sens. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller under pressure in their states, sparked bickering between GOP candidates in two of Republicans’ top 2018 targets, Indiana and West Virginia, and sunk one candidate running for Alabama’s open Senate seat.
“In any state where Trump has an approval [rating] of 85 percent or better among GOP primary voters, it’s an effective weapon,” said Steven Law, president of Senate Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while warning every state and every race is different. Ahead of the first round of voting in Alabama’s special Senate election this month, the PAC slammed Rep. Mo Brooks’ over his criticism of Trump in 2016.
Brooks went on to finish a distant third in Tuesday’s primary, a warning to candidates on both sides of the old divide between establishment Republicans and right-wing rebels. For the National Republican Senatorial Committee and establishment Republicans, it illustrates how similar attacks could damage Heller and Flake, who are also facing pressure from Democrats gunning for their seats.
The most immediate worry is in Arizona, where Flake’s constant stream of criticism of Trump in a new book, on cable news and, most recently, in a New York Times op-ed has hurt his standing among the president’s supporters. Trump, who is holding a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, tweeted in support of Flake’s primary challenger last week. “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate,” Trump wrote. “He’s toxic!”
Ward’s campaign is trying to capitalize on Trump’s visit to Phoenix with a digital ad highlighting Flake’s attacks on Trump. The campaign is targeting the ad directly at Trump rally attendees as part of a statewide buy.
“Why were you featured in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad attacking Donald Trump?,” a female narrator asks as an image of Flake shaking hands with former President Barack Obama appears on screen. “And why did you say he should drop out of the race? … Why are you still attacking the president? Just to sell copies of your new book?”
The NRSC and Senate Leadership Fund responded by reiterating their support for Flake. But the president’s ire may impede their efforts to help Flake win his primary in ways big and small.
The NRSC needs sign-off from the Republican National Committee, which is controlled by Trump appointees, to be able to spend about $500,000 of party funds in coordination with Flake’s campaign. (The Senate committee could still spend that money on independent expenditures, though they are less efficient than spending directly with a campaign.)
Republican Danny Tarkanian has not gotten a presidential shout-out for his campaign against Heller in Nevada. But both Tarkanian and Ward are focused on tagging their opponents as Trump apostates. One Republican strategist said polling shows staunch support of Trump is the top attribute primary voters are seeking in candidates right now.
At least one-third of GOP primary voters identify themselves as “Trump Republicans” (as opposed to “tea party Republicans” or “mainstream Republicans”) in state after state, according to internal polling conducted by a Republican group, with that number reaching 40 percent in some states.
Tarkanian unveiled a website this week compiling Heller’s comments criticizing the president, including Heller once declaring: “I vehemently oppose our nominee.” Not long after the site’s launch, Heller told a reporter he voted for Trump in 2016 — something he had never revealed before.
Not long after the site’s launch, Heller told a reporter he voted for Trump in 2016 — something he had never revealed before.
Though Law, the Senate Leadership Fund president, just deployed the Trump test to devastating effect against Brooks in Alabama, he and other Republicans said Flake and Heller aren’t doomed to Brooks’ fate. Both Heller and Flake are better known, with political identities defined well before Trump was elected. And Trump, who seen his approval ratings dip even among Republicans, could prove to be less popular a year from now.
Andy Roth, vice president at the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that promotes conservative candidates in Republican primaries, insists that policies are still driving Republican voters’ decisions more than blind support for the president.
“Voters are supporting Trump because they support his conservative agenda: They want to repeal and replace Obamacare and they want real tax reform,” he said. “I think voters, at the end of the day, still care about the defining issues.”
Club spokeswoman Rachael Slobodien noted that Flake has supported some of Trump’s “most significant policy and confirmation battles,” including every vote to repeal Obamacare and every single Trump nominee.
But agreeing with Trump on policy did not boost Brooks in Alabama last week. Despite blessings from the old gatekeepers of GOP conservative primary challengers — talk radio, Breitbart and tea party groups — Brooks was smothered by millions of dollars in ads attacking him as anti-Trump. By the end of the race, more Republican voters had negative opinions of Brooks than positive ones, according to operatives working in Alabama.
Disputes over support for Trump are already shaping other Republican primaries around the country. In West Virginia, Rep. Evan Jenkins has attacked Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for not committing to support Trump until after last year’s Republican National Convention.
“I supported only one candidate in the 2016 election: Donald Trump,” Jenkins said in an interview. “The story is clear: Donald Trump was not Patrick Morrisey’s choice for president.”
Morrisey’s campaign responded by attacking Jenkins, a former Democrat, as a liberal and claiming he supported Clinton in 2008.
“Morrisey voted for Trump at the RNC Convention, in the voting booth, and in the Electoral College,” said Morrisey strategist Nachama Soloveichik. “Jenkins’ lies are so ridiculous, and are clearly a desperate attempt to cover up his liberal record of supporting Hillary Clinton, cap-and-trade, Obamacare, gun control and taxpayer-funded abortion.”
In Indiana, Rep. Todd Rokita has embraced Trump’s message — his slogan is “Defeat the Elite” — and has boasted of endorsements from Trump’s chair and vice chair in the state. Rep. Luke Messer’s campaign has pushed back on the idea that Rokita has been blessed by Trump, noting his own ties to Vice President Mike Pence.
Democrats are watching the Republican rush to embrace Trump with cautious optimism. While most competitive Senate races in 2018 are taking place in conservative states that Trump easily carried in 2016, upset primary wins by Tarkanian or Ward could give Democratic opponents an easier shot at winning those seats.
Even in red states, Democrats argue, voters are still looking for a check on Trump. “What we’re seeing, even in states Trump won, is that people want a senator who is going to hold the Trump administration accountable,” DSCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen said in an interview. “They want someone who will work with Donald Trump when it will help their state and oppose him when it will harm their state.”
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