Donald Trump has described one of his own party’s most vulnerable incumbent senators as “weak on crime” and “toxic.” The Republican National Committee’s chairwoman has warned that Republicans who oppose Trump offer a “cautionary tale.”
But for all of the veiled barbs and explicit broadsides against Republicans who criticize the president, the national party is fully prepared to offer them support if they survive their primaries.
That includes Jeff Flake, the senator who has gone further than any other Republican in Congress to distance himself from Trump, even authoring a book that sharply rebukes the president.
“To write a book criticizing a Republican president was wrong, he shouldn’t have done it and the voters of Arizona are going to decide whether or not that’s disqualifying for him to be the nominee of the Republican Party,” said Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck in an interview here at the Gaylord Opryland Resort as the RNC’s summer meeting got underway Wednesday. “But if he’s the nominee, then it’s our job to support the nominee for the party, just like it’s our job to support our president.”
The idea that the RNC would stay neutral in primaries and actively support the party’s nominees was once a given. (“The RNC helps GOP nominees win their general elections,” RNC spokesman Rick Gorka said when asked for comment on this story.)
But Trump has put the entire GOP in a uniquely uncomfortable position with his attacks on his Republican critics, leaving some operatives and donors wondering just how full-throated the RNC can be in support of Republican lawmakers at odds with the Republican president.
One major GOP fundraiser said the donor community is keeping close tabs on the RNC’s activities, “watching whether their money is used productively to elect Republicans and support a conservative agenda, versus being used at Donald Trump’s whim for a pet project.” (Certainly, the RNC has had no trouble raising money, pulling in $86.5 million in the first seven months of the year, compared to the Democratic National Committee’s $42 million).
“Traditionally, the RNC’s job is to support Republican officeholders at all levels,” said this source. “This president is unique in his willingness to attack members of the party he joined, and you’re already seeing, with Republican U.S. senators who are critical to maintaining the Senate majority, that he and his team are actively undermining them.”
These tensions played out Tuesday, when Trump tore into Flake at a campaign rally in Arizona just as RNC members were checking in here at the resort and gathering for a private dinner at the hotel.
Anxiety over Trump’s treatment of his own party members is percolating among some RNC activists as Trump continues to jab Flake, who, many operatives believe, stands the best chance among Republican contenders in the Arizona Senate race of being successful against a Democrat in the general election.
“There is discomfort,” said one longtime RNC member. “We understand the president’s frustrations. We also understand the senator’s frustrations with the president.”
Flake is hardly the only Republican with whom Trump has clashed. The president has a growing and public rift with his own Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, for starters, and his allies attacked vulnerable Nevada Sen. Dean Heller earlier this summer.
“We understand the president has disagreements with his own party, but I think a lot of us would like the president to remember Ronald Reagan’s axiom: someone who votes with you 70 percent of the time is your friend, not your enemy,” the RNC source said. “Jeff Flake, despite criticism of the president, has been very supportive of the president and the Republican agenda.”
There is “no question,” the RNC member continued, that the party will support nominees, including Flake if he wins his primary.
There is also no doubt that, just as some RNC members are bothered by Trump’s attacks on fellow Republicans, many others--perhaps a majority of them--are furious over what they see as intransigent GOP senators foiling Trump’s agenda. They are much more willing to place blame for tensions on lawmakers than on the president, and see people like Flake as instigators of the drama to begin with.
“It’s not my business, because thank God, I’ve got two senators who understand the need to push the agenda forward. But I think in their respective states, if indeed you can find a viable primary opponent who can raise money and the organization has potential…I don’t think that’s a bad thing, either,” said Iowa Republican national committeeman Steve Scheffler, pointing to Trump critics such as Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Flake.
Other GOP groups, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, are committed to defending Flake and other incumbent lawmakers in the primary, a point that leaders have made explicit recently as Trump has engaged in Twitter tirades against Flake.
But the RNC and its affiliates, given traditions of staying out of primaries and maintaining close ties to the White House, are walking a more careful balancing act.
“If you work at the RNC, you work for the president, and if you’re not comfortable with what he’s doing, that’s maybe a separate conversation you’ll need to have,” said Doug Heye, a former RNC communications director who is now a Trump critic. “Does it make the job harder? No question about it. His comments just in the past week alone, and even before that, makes the job at the RNC harder. But the job is still the same.”
Asked recently by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham about a primary challenge to Flake, RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel entertained the question by outlining the obscure rules that would allow the state leadership to make that possible, and then went on to warn of past political consequences for Republicans who opposed Trump.
“If you look at 2016, the senators that did not support the president, and let's look at Joe Heck and Kelly Ayotte, they fell short in those Senate races,” she said. “So there is a cautionary tale there because voters want you to support the president in his agenda."
In fact, Ayotte of New Hampshire ran ahead of Trump in her state — as did some other winning Republican senators who did not support him in 2016 — and Trump also lost both Ayotte’s state and Heck’s, of Nevada.
McDaniel stressed the party would be active in Arizona for the general election: “We’re going to stay in Arizona no matter who comes out of the primary. We need to be prepared for the general. So we’re doing voter registration and the ground game, the data, the get out the vote. And that’s organic and we’re building on it right now.”
But Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, suggested that there will be little chance of enacting a GOP agenda if Trump weakens candidates by attacking them before they face a general election.
“This president really needs to be very careful in how he approaches these upcoming midterm elections,” she said. “If he wants any chance of advancing any part of his agenda, we need to maintain those Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.”
“And what he is doing when he tries to stoke battles with incumbent Republicans undermines the potential for us to be able to maintain those majorities.”