The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 45 – This week:
- Trump’s foes within the GOP are on the run
- Gillespie making a late fight of it in Virginia
- Hatch retirement rumors resurface
It’s Trump’s party: If it was ever in dispute, it isn’t any more. The Republican Party under President Trump has an entirely new character. Its old players and its old heroes are gone, replaced with a new order, at whose center Trump stands.
What’s more, Trump has taken it up another notch in terms of shaping the party in his own image and likeness. Republican officeholders who don’t get with the program are starting to find their days are numbered, and are heading for the exits.
Two of Trump’s more serious critics within the ranks of the party’s elected officials are now on their way out, and very likely to be replaced by Trump loyalists. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., had not been completely silent in criticizing Trump, but he definitely stepped up his criticisms since announcing his retirement at the end of September. And this makes his complaints seem like an increasingly impotent clatter. Only now, upon admitting defeat, Corker has essentially denounced Trump as a failed president (“unable to rise to the occasion”) and assailed him for “debasing” America. He has also asserted that Trump is “devolving,” a bookend to what he said in April 2016 (that Trump was “evolving” as a politician) when he praised Trump during the GOP primary.
The other Trump critic to call it quits, and quite abruptly last week, was Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. As we have previously noted, Flake was looking worse and worse in his quest for re-election, facing both a primary and a general election in which he began as the underdog. With Trump literally rallying opposition to Flake within his own state, plus even encouraging other Republicans to run against him, Flake has become just another victim of the ersatz Trumpist purge. His political demise is probably a relief for Republicans in the state — it will be much easier to hold on to his seat
Flake made the mistake of going head-to-head with Trump just ahead of his own re-election season. Republican voters have, to date, looked to Trump and to Trump-like and Trump-supportive Republican candidates ever since his election. Incumbent Republicans have been pusillanimous in going out of their way to avoid crossing Trump. The experience of Flake and Corker confirms that the voters of a given party truly and strongly desire to defend and honor their own party’s president.
Then again, time will tell how other Trump-critical Republicans do — whether they become even more endangered, or whether they regain a foothold in the party. Figures such as Sen. Ben Sasse and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., are becoming rarer and rarer in Republican politics, but each of those two has their own committed base of support, and neither is at present especially unpopular.
Virginia: With Election Day closing in, Democrats continue to be favored and have an upper hand. But Republican Ed Gillespie is definitely making a late move.
As of mid-October, Gillespie hadn’t led Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in any poll since March. Now he’s leading in three of the last six polls. And although those three aren’t by the most reputable pollsters in the field, they still offer Republicans at least a slim hope that they can swipe an unlikely victory.
Democrats are still favored, but it’s telling that they are now talking about this race in hushed tones as a desperate must-win contest, something their party will suffer without, rather than the straightforwardly attainable victory they had been expecting. It’s even more telling that their campaigning has taken a sharp negative turn. Northam’s campaign mailers now try to link Gillespie, a former RNC chairman, to the white nationalist rally that afflicted Charlottesville earlier this year.
A Democratic loss in this race would be by far the most demoralizing event for the party since Trump’s election. It is customary for the party out of power in the White House to win the Virginia governor’s race — the win in 2013 by exiting Gov. Terry McAuliffe was quite unusual. What’s more, McAuliffe’s presidential ambitions would be completely destroyed, as Democrats began a new round of angry infighting. The state party establishment’s backing of Northam over former Rep. Tom Perriello would be sharply questioned and second-guessed.
Florida: Another week, another poll that shows Gov. Rick Scott, R, easily competitive for the Senate seat currently held by Democratic three-term Sen. Bill Nelson. This time, he trails by just one point.
Given that Scott hasn’t spent a dime on this campaign yet, and is likely to spend tens of millions of his own money on the race, Republicans have every reason to focus on the Sunshine State as one of their best pickup opportunities, provided he actually does decide to run.
Mississippi: Eighty-year old Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s physical and mental frailty have become all the talk on Capitol Hill, and the result has been a lot of speculation in the press about what will happen if he steps down. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant would have the chance to replace him temporarily, and the subsequent primary for the GOP nomination would surely become another bruising contest pitting the GOP Senate leadership against Steve Bannon and other conservative insurgent groups.
Utah: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R, is once more putting out signals that he will retire so that Mitt Romney can run for his seat. The interesting idea here is that it runs counter to the trend we described at the top of this week’s newsletter. In most of the GOP, Trump critics are on the retreat. But we would see the opposite were we to replace Hatch (a staunch Trump supporter in an anti-Trump Red state) with Romney (at one point an outspoken and even strident Trump critic).
In any event, the seat won’t be seriously contested by Democrats either way.