GOP loyalty lasts in Trump coun­try

De­spite the con­tro­ver­sies, midterm elec­tion can­di­dates pro­claim their al­le­giance

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Maureen Groppe and Michael Collins

WASH­ING­TON – In­di­ana Rep. Todd Rokita cam­paigns for the U.S. Se­nate with a card­board cutout of Pres­i­dent Trump, boast­ing he is the pres­i­dent’s best ally to take on the elites and drain the swamp.

In Ten­nessee, where Repub­li­can Sen. Bob Corker ques­tioned Trump’s com­pe­tence a few months ago, Rep. Marsha Black­burn re­minds vot­ers that she agrees with Trump on taxes, the econ­omy and im­mi­gra­tion as she cam­paigns to suc­ceed Corker, who is re­tir­ing.

“I #Stand­with­Trump be­cause he is a strong con­ser­va­tive leader who gets things done,” Black­burn wrote in a Twit­ter post in March.

In Ari­zona’s race to re­place re­tir­ing Sen. Jeff Flake — one of Trump’s big­gest crit­ics in Congress — Repub­li­can Martha McSally com­pared her­self to Trump in her cam­paign kick­off video, de­spite hav­ing re­fused to en­dorse his 2016 pres­i­den­tial bid.

“Like our pres­i­dent, I’m tired of PC politi­cians and their BS ex­cuses,” McSally said in a video that in­cluded footage of Trump prais­ing her.

Trump is em­broiled in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into sus­pected Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion, al­le­ga­tions of a sex­ual af­fair with Stormy Daniels, a trade fight with China and an al­most weekly ex­o­dus from his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But in states such as In­di­ana and Ten­nessee, where he re­mains pop­u­lar, Repub­li­can can­di­dates are wrap­ping their arms around Trump and his agenda in this year’s midterm elec­tions.

Though Trump may have shaky na­tional poll rat­ings, he’s still the most pop­u­lar Repub­li­can among Repub­li­can vot­ers, said political an­a­lyst Nathan Gon­za­les, edi­tor and pub­lisher of In­side Elec­tions. “That’s why we’re see­ing can­di­dates run to­ward him in pri­maries,” Gon­za­les said.

Can­di­dates run­ning for state of­fice also em­brace Trump and his agenda.

Ten­nessee Rep. Diane Black, who seeks the state’s GOP nom­i­na­tion for gover­nor, ad­ver­tises her sup­port for Trump on her cam­paign web­site. Her home page promi­nently fea­tures a New York Post ar­ti­cle, head­lined “Lady & the Trump,” de­tail­ing how the con­gress­woman stands with the pres­i­dent de­spite his coarse lan­guage and col­or­ful past with women.

“Diane you are great – thanks!” reads a hand­writ­ten note scrawled across the clip­ping. It’s signed sim­ply: “Don­ald.”

A look at the num­bers ex­plains why can­di­dates in Ten­nessee are so ea­ger to align them­selves with Trump.

Trump throt­tled Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton in the Vol­un­teer State in the 2016 elec­tion, win­ning nearly 61% of the vote. It was the largest mar­gin of vic­tory in the state for a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date of ei­ther party since Richard Nixon cap­tured nearly 68% in 1972.

Trump’s ap­proval rat­ings in the state hold steady. Fifty per­cent of vot­ers say they ap­prove of the job he is do­ing as pres­i­dent, ac­cord­ing to a poll re­leased this month by Mid­dle Ten­nessee State Uni­ver­sity. Among Repub­li­cans, his ap­proval is even higher: 80% to 90%.

As a re­sult, “no one in Ten­nessee is run­ning an anti-Trump cam­paign,” said Kent Syler, a political sci­en­tist at Mid­dle Ten­nessee State Uni­ver­sity.

Not even Demo­crat Phil Bre­desen, who will prob­a­bly be Black­burn’s op­po­nent in Novem­ber. Bre­desen, a for­mer gover­nor and for­mer Nashville mayor, re­leased a cam­paign ad in early March in which he stressed that he’s run­ning to rep­re­sent the peo­ple of Ten­nessee, not against Trump.

“If he has an idea and is push­ing some things that I think are good for the peo­ple of Ten­nessee, I’m go­ing to be for it. … If I think it’s not go­ing to be good for Ten­nessee, I’m go­ing to be against it,” Bre­desen said. “I think that’s what sen­a­tors ought to do.”

In In­di­ana, Trump ef­fec­tively clinched the GOP nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent by win­ning the pri­mary with 53% of the GOP vote. With for­mer gover­nor Mike Pence as his run­ning mate, Trump car­ried In­di­ana in the gen­eral elec­tion by 19 per­cent­age points.

“Ob­vi­ously, the 19-point vic­tory would make (can­di­dates) think you want to sound like, look like and have the sup­port of Trump and his back­ers,” said Andy Downs, di­rec­tor of the Mike Downs Cen­ter for In­di­ana Pol­i­tics.

In his lat­est ad, Rokita ac­cuses his op­po­nents for the GOP nom­i­na­tion in the In­di­ana Se­nate race of try­ing to un­der­mine Trump. Rep. Luke Messer ar­gued that his record shows he will be the strong­est sup­porter of Trump’s agenda in the Se­nate.

A third can­di­date, Mike Braun, said his op­po­nents for the GOP nom­i­na­tion are the type of “ca­reer politi­cians” that Trump ran against, but he shares Trump’s out­sider, busi­ness­man sta­tus.

There are risks for can­di­dates who align them­selves with Trump, Syler said.

“The risk for some­one em­brac­ing the pres­i­dent, es­pe­cially one as volatile as Pres­i­dent Trump, is that you are trust­ing your political fu­ture to some­one who can be un­pre­dictable,” Syler said. “Ob­vi­ously, the up­side is, as long as he re­mains pop­u­lar, you’re in good shape. The down­side is, if his for­tunes go south or his for­tunes change for the worse, you’re tied to it.

“If you are a Repub­li­can run­ning in a midterm elec­tion, you’re al­ready tied to him no mat­ter what you do,” Syler said. “So I think when they look at those cal­cu­la­tions, (they think), ‘There’s no dis­tanc­ing my­self from him even if I wanted to, so I’m go­ing to em­brace the pres­i­dent and hope for the best.’ ”

In Texas, con­gres­sional can­di­date Robert Sto­vall wears a “Make Amer­ica Great Again” hat and cocks a shot­gun as he stands knee-deep in an ac­tual swamp in his de­but cam­paign ad, promis­ing to get rid of es­tab­lish­ment politi­cians who haven’t sup­ported Trump’s agenda.

“Like Pres­i­dent Trump, I re­al­ize the swamp is the prob­lem,” he says.

It’s not as easy to repli­cate Trump’s vic­tory as can­di­dates may think, Gon­za­les said.

“No mat­ter how much you might sound like Trump or think you have the same ré­sumé, you’re still not Trump,” he said. “He wasn’t just an out­sider. He started the race with univer­sal name ID and a pre-es­tab­lished brand known for lux­ury and suc­cess.”

It’s his suc­cess on the cam­paign trail that GOP can­di­dates hope to repli­cate.

SHEL­LEY MAYS/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Ten­nessee Congress mem­bers Marsha Black­burn, fore­ground, and Diane Black are among those stead­fastly sup­port­ing Trump.

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