WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot or even stateside for Tuesday’s primary elections in Virginia and South Carolina. But he loomed over both states, just as he has in nearly every nominating contest this year, underscoring how the Republican Party has become the party of Trump and that its politicians cross him at their peril.
As Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina found out the hard way, in his surprise primary defeat, having a conservative voting record is less important than demonstrating total loyalty to Trump, who now enjoys higher approval ratings in his own party than any modern president except George W. Bush following the attacks of Sept. 11. And in Virginia, a far-right candidate, Corey Stewart, won the Republican Senate nomination after waging an incendiary campaign and portraying himself as a disciple of Trump.
The president’s transformation of the Republican Party — its policies, its tone, even the fate of its candidates — has never been so evident. A party that once championed free trade has now largely turned to protectionism under Trump. Sermons about inclusivity have been replaced with demagogic attacks on immigrants and black athletes. A trust-but-verify approach to foreign policy has given way to a seat-of-the-pants style in which rogue regimes like North Korea are elevated and democratic allies like Canada are belittled.
Trump’s harsh attacks, including describing the news media as “the country’s biggest enemy” Tuesday, draw muted responses or silence from most Republicans these days. The party’s lawmakers have seen what he can do to their campaigns, having witnessed how Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee saw their standing with conservative voters plummet after they tangled with him. Neither is seeking re-election.
While Trump has been reshaping Republican identity for nearly two years — starting with his 2016 nomination victory and the hard-line tone and platform he laid out at that summer’s Republican convention — he has never had this much opportunity to wield power over the party as he does now, including over immigration legislation and tariffs in Congress.
“If you criticize him, you’re siding with the media that hates him and you’re undermining what he’s trying to accomplish,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum, explaining why Trump has consolidated support. “Trump has done a good job in being a conservative president — and as much as Democrats looked past what Bill Clinton said and did, Republicans are looking past what this president says and does.”
That means Republican lawmakers are going to be further bound to Trump in the midterm elections, less likely to raise doubts about his impulsive policymaking and — perhaps most consequential for a president facing scrutiny by a special counsel — more inclined to refrain from criticizing his personal conduct and use of executive power.
“This will have a further chilling effect,” said Flake, adding, “If you want to do well in a primary, you’ve got to act accordingly.”
In addition to Flake, Trump has helped push Corker into retirement and played a part in Speaker Paul Ryan and 39 other House members leaving Congress, the most House Republicans not to seek re-election for at least 90 years.
Sanford had voted for much of Trump’s agenda, but repeatedly lamented what he called the “cult of personality” gripping the party. His opponent, state Rep. Katie Arrington, used those critiques against him to great effect, casting the primary as a loyalty test and defeating Sanford by 4 percentage points.
A week earlier in Alabama, Rep. Martha Roby, who withdrew her support from Trump in 2016 after the “Access Hollywood” video was released, faced fierce attacks for her disloyalty and will have to compete in a July runoff because she fell short of winning a majority in the primary.
Sanford’s loss also came on the same night that Stewart, a local Virginia official who has drawn attention for targeting immigrants and defending the Confederacy, claimed the Senate nomination in what was an unmistakable victory for the sort of racially tinged politics that Trump embraced in 2016.
The president exulted over both races Wednesday, crowing about his last-minute help torpedoing Sanford, a reference to an eleventh-hour tweet that called Sanford “nothing but trouble” and endorsed Arrington. And Trump argued that Stewart has “a major chance of winning” in a state that has not elected a statewide Republican in nearly a decade.
It was fitting that such a momentous day of voting took place in Virginia, because it was there four years ago that Rep. Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, was upset in his primary. And just as Cantor’s stunning defeat all but extinguished any hope for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, the results Tuesday appear to have snuffed out any room for dissent among Republican lawmakers who rely on the president’s supporters for votes.
In Congress, Senate Republicans will likely not challenge Trump over trade and tariffs, with leaders blocking a vote Corker is pushing to require congressional approval for tariffs implemented on national security grounds.
And on the immigration debate, House Republican leaders repelled an effort by moderate party members to force a vote on bipartisan measures to protect young immigrants because the president opposed them. Instead, the House will vote next week on two tougher measures that the White House is helping write to accommodate Trump.
“We are in a strange place,” said Corker, who has alternately been one of Trump’s closest allies and loudest critics. Referring to Republican fealty to Trump, he added, “It’s becoming a cultish thing.”
To Trump’s supporters, though, the fealty to Trump simply reflects the devotion he now enjoys from the party’s grass roots.
“His base is loyal and support is strong, giving him the leverage to move votes — at the ballot box and the legislative chamber,” said Brian O. Walsh, who runs the president’s main super PAC. “There’s room for negotiation, but obstruction will end careers.”
Yet what alarms Republicans, facing a House map in which the most competitive races are in suburban districts that reject Trump-style politics, is that Tuesday’s results will induce more candidates to hew closely to the president to avoid angering the party base. Doing so now may be imperative to ensure a robust turnout and retain a stable of volunteers — but it also could risk driving away independent voters who are contemptuous of Trump.
“There is writing on the wall when it comes to races like Sanford’s, but each district is also different,” said Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a Republican who is also retiring. “It might not be a good thing to cross the president in South Carolina, but outside Philadelphia, it might not matter.”
The danger in adopting Trump’s incendiary approach was on vivid display Wednesday, when Senate Republicans refused to embrace Stewart and the party braced for the havoc he could wreak in some of the heavily suburban Virginia districts where they are defending incumbents.
“The national narrative on the Virginia Senate race is that Corey is associated with extreme nativist views,” said Marty Nohe who serves on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors with Stewart. He added, “The job of those Republican nominees just got harder.”
David Ramadan, a former state lawmaker, said Rep. Barbara Comstock of Northern Virginia could encounter the most difficultly fending off questions about Stewart, who will face Sen. Tim Kaine this November.
The chairman of his board, Stewart has praised white nationalists and made racially inflammatory comments about intraparty rivals. Earlier this year, he stood outside the state Capitol assailing Republican legislators for being “flaccid,” adding, “I feel sorry for their wives.”
Virginia Republicans, who have not won a statewide race in nearly a decade, give Stewart little chance of success, but some worry that becoming the Trump party carries long-term political risks. The fear: Moderate voters will either become Democrats or register as independents and cast their ballots for Democrats, denying Republicans the sort of middle-of-the-road voter they need to win in a state with an educated and diverse electorate.
“The Grand Old Party under Trump is no more,” said Ramadan, bemoaning the Republican reorientation.
“What principles are we operating on today?” he asked. “Free trade? Family values when we’re taking children from their parents? No taxes when we are putting up tariffs? What are the principles of the Republican Party today? Whatever Trump wants to do when he gets up.”