Why you should care
Because the Republican Party is shifting before our eyes.
Congress is run by Republicans, but as the Pennsylvania Avenue friction has proven, it’s hardly full of Donald Trump Republicans. The unconventional president showed the GOP a surprising path to power, upending the establishment vs. Tea Party dynamic that has helped define intraparty squabbles since 2010. With the Trump White House now under investigation and in turmoil, these Senate primary battles in five states the president won in 2016 are worth watching to judge Trump’s grip on his base and how much he is really reshaping his adopted party.
How Strange can the Alabama race get?
Alabama was in many ways Trump’s launching pad: His summer 2015 mega-rally in Mobile proved he was more than a flash in the pan. The state delivered huge margins, and Trump plucked its junior senator as his attorney general — creating the first Senate primary of the cycle on August 15.
Luther Strange is the quasi-incumbent, appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat in February. But the affair carried a whiff of impropriety: The 6-foot-9 “Big Luther” was the state attorney general, investigating Bentley in a bizarre corruption scandal involving the governor’s mistress. Was the appointment a payoff to make the probe go away? If so, it didn’t work: Bentley resigned in disgrace and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in April. Then the new governor accelerated the primary, diminishing any incumbency advantage.
The cloud hovering over the race does not come from Trump.…
Bentley completed a troika of top Alabama political leaders to be removed from office in the past two years. House Speaker Mike Hubbard was sentenced to four years in prison for corruption. And Roy Moore, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, was yanked for refusing to carry out the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Standing up to the feds on a matter of cultural conservatism plays well round these parts, and Moore is now mounting his own Senate campaign — with a large base across the state that makes him an instant favorite for a September runoff for August’s top two vote-getters. The other nine Republicans in the race, including U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, state Sen. Trip Pittman and former Christian Coalition of Alabama Chairman Randy Brinson, will have a hard time building their names statewide in time for the primary.
The cloud hovering over the race does not come from Trump, but from the state’s embarrassing series of scandals. “It’s not a wave of anti-corruption in Alabama — it’s a tsunami,” says Alabama Republican political consultant Angi Horn Stalnaker. “And whoever figures out how to surf that tsunami makes it into the runoff.”
But lately Trump has injected new spice into the race by publicly pummeling Sessions in an apparent attempt to force the attorney general’s resignation. Brooks rushed to Sessions’ side — even saying all the Republicans should drop out and allow Sessions to run for his old seat. The rest of the field, unsurprisingly, did not comply.
Is the tea party still alive in Mississippi?
Next door in Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel appears ready to reprise a role he had in 2014’s nastiest primary, taking on the incumbent senator. Three years ago, septuagenarian Thad Cochran prevailed in a runoff by courting Black voters who traditionally vote Democratic — amid racially charged accusations of voter fraud. (That’s not to mention a criminal case in which a McDaniel supporter illegally photographed Cochran’s wife in a nursing home.) Sen. Roger Wicker vows not to be caught off guard this time.
The lines were clearly drawn in 2014: establishment vs. Tea Party. But the low-key Wicker is much more of a conventional conservative Republican than Cochran, the appropriations maven known for bringing pork home. Wicker is close to the fairly unpopular Senate GOP leadership — he led Senate Republicans’ campaign arm last election cycle, giving him access to the party’s moneymen — but he’ll also have plenty of opportunities to stand by the president. McDaniel was an early supporter of Ted Cruz in a Mississippi presidential primary that Trump won handily, while Wicker remained neutral.
Both now are firmly on the Trump train. But as McDaniel lobs establishment-colored grenades at Wicker for his vote in favor of a status quo spending plan and his support of a health care bill that doesn’t fully repeal Obamacare, McDaniel must be careful that they don’t backfire: Trump supports both measures.
“I’m not sure if McDaniel will be able to get as much traction banging the anti-establishment [drum] against Wicker given that Trump’s in the White House and Republicans have majorities in both chambers,” says Jonathan Winburn, a University of Mississippi political science professor. As long as Trump remains popular with his base, McDaniel has a difficult fight.
Is this Arizona incumbent a bad hombre?
Another senator faces a fierce challenge from the right from a repeat candidate in Arizona. Here, Trump is most certainly going to be an issue.
In 2013, Jeff Flake helped negotiate an immigration plan that would lead to a path to citizenship for some people in the U.S. illegally, and last year he refused to vote for Trump in the general election. In turn, candidate Trump taunted Flake as “very weak and ineffective.” The scrap drew Flake a 2018 challenger before Election Day 2016 in Kelli Ward, an emergency room doctor and state senator who lost a primary against Sen. John McCain and now vows to “make Arizona great again.” The threat has hardly prompted the first-term senator to back off the president: Witness Flake’s reaction to Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey.
I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) May 10, 2017
A sunny Mormon who has spent his congressional career battling pork-barrel spending, Flake has similar problems with the Republican base as does McCain, and less of a history of desert voters pulling the lever for him. State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who chaired Trump’s Arizona campaign, could join the primary fray as well.
Trump could at least use the threat of campaigning against Flake as leverage for forthcoming Senate votes. And if the two men continue to spar, you could see a clash of a sitting Republican president and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which exists to protect its incumbents. Arizona also represents one of only two realistic pickup opportunities for Democrats, and a weakened — or dethroned — Flake could be a gift to the opposition party.
The Trump model, or the Toomey model?
After Pennsylvania turned red at the presidential level for the first time since 1988, Republicans have their eye on taking down two-term Sen. Bob Casey Jr. — the son of a two-term governor who has an easygoing style and moderate persona, if not voting record.
The Republican field is fluid, with several shades of Trumpism and no firm front-runner. State Rep. Rick Saccone is an early Trump backer from outside Pittsburgh, but stylistically a world apart — a Ph.D. and Air Force veteran who wrote a book titled God in Our Government. Jim Christiana, a 33-year-old also from the west, is emphasizing bipartisanship. The political outsider role could be filled by Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer making his first run for office — though he’s also a well-connected Republican donor who’s been active in Philadelphia Jewish politics.
A pair of congressmen who are among Trump’s biggest boosters are looking but have not yet hopped into the pool: Mike Kelly, a bombastic car dealer who’s fond of football metaphors, and Lou Barletta, the former small-town mayor who made his name by cracking down on illegal immigration. They would have a bigger base to start with but could be scarred by four terms in Congress, including their support for House Republicans’ health care overhaul this year.
Republican strategist Charlie Gerow says a successful candidate won’t replicate the unique Trump model, but the “Pat Toomey model,” based on Pennsylvania’s senator who won re-election last year: “Conservative without a hard edge.”
Can this primary stay Wisconsin nice?
The barrier-breaking term of Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin— the first openly gay senator — owes partial credit to a bloody Republican primary in 2012. Once again, the competition will be fierce, and Republicans hope they’ve learned their lesson and can save their invective for the liberal incumbent, who’s already drawing attack ads.
The biggest splash so far has come from Kevin Nicholson, a management consultant, Marine veteran and former Democrat making his first run for office — with an Illinois mega-donor plugging $2 million into a super PAC for him. Businessman Eric Hovde, the runner-up in that brutal 2012 GOP primary, could command big money and a statewide network if he attempts a re-run.
State senators Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader; Dale Kooyenga, a lanky policy wonk; and Leah Vukmir, one of the body’s most conservative members, are also building buzz. State GOP spokesman Alec Zimmerman says, “Wisconsin Republicans are energized and organized early.” They’re inspired in part by last year’s unexpected triumphs by Trump and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. While the field is different from 2012 in that there’s no big target dominating the contest — as former Gov. Tommy Thompson took the arrows last time before winning the nomination — the wide range of well-funded contenders suggests a brawl to come. One thing the possible field shares so far: an eagerness to talk about Baldwin, and not about the president.
Even though Trump is not on the ballot anywhere in 2018, his whirlwind presidency will be a persistent shadow over races from coast to coast — whether Republicans embrace him or keep their distance.