GOP loyalty lasts in Trump country
Despite the controversies, midterm election candidates proclaim their allegiance
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.
Tennessee Congress members Marsha Blackburn, foreground, and Diane Black are among those steadfastly supporting Trump.