One reason there are so many Democratic Senate seats at stake in this year’s midterm elections is that the Donkey Party had a boffo performance in Senate races six years ago. And a major contributor to that success was the tendency of Republicans to nominate teeth-grinding wing nuts who said really dumb and self-destructive things during the general election campaign — especially dumb and self-destructive things about abortion.
Most famous was Missouri’s Todd Akin, who threw away a probable win against Claire McCaskill by insisting (in the context of opposing rape-and-incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban) that “legitimate” rapes don’t produce pregnancies. Similarly, Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock faded after arguing that rape pregnancies were part of God’s plan, and lost an entirely winnable race against Democrat Joe Donnelly. Arguably, these acts of piggish idiocy marginally hurt Republican candidates all over the country by dramatizing their party’s extremist stance on reproductive rights. And they wouldn’t have occurred if Republicans had not nominated the most ideologically conservative candidates available in competitive primaries (Akin beat two competitive GOP rivals while Mourdock purged “RINO” senator Richard Lugar).
The specific mistakes made by Akin and Mourdock probably won’t recur this year; Republicans (particularly a certain consultant named Kellyanne Conway) spent a lot of time after 2012 training conservative candidates that it’s never a good idea to tell rape victims why they should be forced by the government to carry pregnancies to term. But looking at some of the hotter GOP primaries this year makes you wonder if another problem for Republicans is emerging: too much MAGA.
Given the dynamics of the Republican Party at present, it’s understandable that candidates facing primary opposition will want to snuggle up to the president. The most reliable primary voters, after all, are members of the party’s conservative “base,” and at the moment there is no easier way to pander to them than going over the top in support of the wild man in the White House. But that could have consequences in November, since Republican “base” affection for Trump is not shared that widely among swing voters, and may also help energize Democrats.
Perhaps the clearest example of this dynamic is in Arizona, where Jeff Flake’s Senate seat is ripe for the plucking by Democrats (and their likely nominee, U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema). Trump’s average 2017 Gallup approval rating in the state was an anemic 41/53. The GOP Establishment favorite, Sinema’s House colleague Martha McSally, is being opposed by two hard-core conservative rivals, Kelli Ward (who built name ID in a 2016 challenge to John McCain) and the ever-infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the only candidate anywhere who can boast of a Trump pardon for criminal contempt of a federal judge’s order. McSally has been pursuing Trump like a smitten teenager, as Jonathan Martin noted earlier this year:
[W]hen she entered the Republican primary to succeed the retiring Senator Jeff Flake, Ms. McSally veered right. She gleefully describes her budding relationship with President Trump, a commander in chief she harshly criticized and may not have even voted for in 2016. Ms. McSally, the first female fighter pilot in the Air Force, recalled how at a West Wing meeting with Mr. Trump last year, she made the case for the A-10 Warthog by calling her old jet “a bad-ass airplane with a big gun on it.”
In Indiana, another close three-way Senate primary is also producing a Trump-a-palooza, where bitter enemies and U.S. House colleagues Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, and self-funding former state legislator Mike Braun have all, as Cameron Joseph puts it, “bear-hugged President Trump in the race, attacking one another for not being sufficiently pro-Trump.” Rokita could well be the poster-child for outspoken Trumpism in the Senate field:
You might think this would be a safe tactic in Mike Pence’s home state. But Hoosiers aren’t as mad for MAGA as you might think: Trump’s average 2017 approval ratio in Indiana, according to Gallup, was a less than dazzling 44/51. Democrat Joe Donnelly could win again, particularly if his opponent goes out of his way to make the election a referendum on Trump.
Even in West Virginia, where Trump really is still popular, the competition to praise him is causing trouble. Ex-coal baron and ex-con Don Blankenship is depicting himself as Trump’s best friend in the state — and as a victim of a conspiracy by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that led to his imprisonment for complicity in a horrific mining disaster. The president recently helped out West Virginia Republicans (who fear that Blankenship would be a weak nominee against Democratic senator Joe Manchin) by appearing with both of his rivals, Representative Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. But with the May 8 primary rapidly approaching, the Trumpian intervention against hyper-Trumpian Blankenship could be too little, too late. Blankenship has outspent his rivals on television ads, and in a race with virtually no independent public polling, seems to be running at or near the top of the pack.
While competing for the MAGA mantle makes sense in West Virginia, the phenomenon is occurring even in hyper-blue California, where the big issue between the state’s two Republican gubernatorial candidates, wealthy businessman John Cox and state legislator Travis Allen, is whether the former can live down his admitted vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson over Trump in 2016. Cox allows as how he’s a big fan of Trump now, but Allen seems to have the grassroots right-wing mojo going for him. Cox, however, is probably the GOP’s best hope to place a candidate in the general election under California’s top-two primary system; after some heavy ad spending, he was running second behind Gavin Newsom in one recent independent poll. Allen’s attacks on him for being insufficiently committed to the president could easily drag him down to third (another Democrat, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to spend a small fortune to make the general election matchup with Newsom), and Cox certainly won’t be helped in the general election itself by association with a president who is very unpopular in the Golden State.
All in all, the GOP competition to show love for Trump is an important wild card in a midterm election cycle that is already likely to revolve around perceptions of the 45th president. Normally members of an unpopular president’s party avoid being associated with him (there weren’t a lot of Republicans in competitive races running intensely pro-W. campaigns in 2006, or Democrats in close contests insisting on identification with Barack Obama in 2010). But Trump’s not your normal president, and he is impossible to ignore. Maybe Republicans are just embracing the inevitable association and trying to make hay with it while the sun shines on Trump in the primary season. But the MAGA hat may not fit on their heads so comfortably come the fall.