The Senate primary in West Virginia derailed at such a poor time for Republicans—the weekend before the election—that President Trump has been coaxed into putting his neck on the line.
“To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”
Blankenship, the ex-con coal baron, is surging back to the lead, if multiple internal polls that leaked late in the weekend are to be believed. (Caveat: They may not!) That may be due in part to the fact Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey have thoroughly torched each other as opportunists, with strong evidence on both sides. Blankenship, meanwhile, has maximized his unearned media coverage by making racist comments designed to goad the media into calling him a racist, and then capitalizing on the resentments of primary voters who hate the media calling people racist, to build a modest plurality. He’s also turned the attacks against him—sponsored by national Republican groups with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—into further evidence that he’s not beholden to the party establishment.
It’s not a bad model for what can be described euphemistically as an “outsider campaign” in a GOP primary. Another guy tried it a couple of years ago, and now he runs the world.
But after watching Roy Moore implode in Alabama, Trump now wants to ensure that only conventionally “electable” candidates emerge from these primaries. That’s a tough sell for a couple of reasons.
His very election to the White House is compelling evidence that voters should ignore concerns about electability in primaries. The president’s argument now is the same kind of political calculation that had Republican pundits pleading with Ted Cruz and John Kasich to divvy up the primary map in early 2016 in a desperate effort to block an “unelectable” candidate from facing Hillary Clinton. Don Blankenship versus Joe Manchin in 2018 is a different beast than Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton in the 2016 cycle, but good luck to Trump trying to explain that to his base, after he won by running against that very logic.
What Trump could have done differently, though—and still could—to help keep the Senate is to stop pounding on congressional Republicans and the “establishment” to protect his own image. When Trump excoriates the “swamp” in Washington, he’s implicating the candidates he’s lately been trying to help: Alabama ex-Sen. Luther Strange, a former lobbyist; Evan Jenkins, a sitting Republican congressman; and Patrick Morrisey, who left a lobbying career (if not a lobbyist wife) to serve in elected office. Perhaps Republican primary voters in deep-red states might be less hostile to professional politicians if the president consistently had their backs and wasn’t intent on using them all as scumbag props.
Consider when the House was voting on the $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations act in March. A majority of House Republicans—145 of them—put their necks on the line to vote for a bill they didn’t really like because, they were told, they needed to support the president’s military spending boost. They were assured that the president was on board and needed their support.
But the president, after catching an Ann Coulter segment or two railing against the bill, issued a veto threat the day after the bill passed. He eventually signed the bill, though not without scolding the lawmakers who had passed it. Jenkins voted for it, and Morrisey and Blankenship have weaponized that vote against him ever since.
Jenkins, like Strange, has suffered from the (correct) perception that he’s the candidate of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Republican base’s loathing of McConnell now is almost equal to its loathing of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton—an unusual situation, since McConnell has been the most consequential Republican legislator of his generation. Bashing McConnell may not make much sense, but it does the trick, and it plays so well with his base that even Trump can’t resist.
The president has made it clear that he doesn’t really view McConnell as a partner in his presidency. There was a period last summer, after the Obamacare repeal failed on the Senate floor, that Trump went after McConnell in a highly public barrage of tweets and interviews. They kissed and made up well enough when Congress returned that fall.
If Trump had done more throughout the last year to emphasize that he and McConnell were partners in Republican rule, there would likely be less traction for the kind of anti-McConnell campaign that centers on the evils of “Cocaine Mitch.” Trump hasn’t raised a word in defense of McConnell since Blankenship began that line of attack, nor has he reprimanded Blankenship for the racist charges against the “China family” of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a member of his own Cabinet.
Now that he’s in office, Trump doesn’t want to use his cachet with the Republican base to temper resentments against the GOP “establishment.” He wants to keep riding that resentment and dump any dissatisfaction with his own performance onto other Republican officeholders. “All his supporters will blame us for what we have or have not done, but he hasn’t led,” an unnamed Republican congressman recently vented to Erick Erickson. “He wakes up in the morning, shits all over Twitter, shits all over us, shits all over his staff, then hits golf balls. Fuck him.”
It’s hard to provide meaningful support to electable candidates when you position yourself as the ultimate enemy of the establishment.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus