Republicans once hoped that if the GOP controlled Washington, a shared focus on legislative goals—and the power of the White House political office—could defuse the intense factionalism that has fueled nasty primaries for the last seven years.
Instead, as voters head to the polls to vote in Alabama’s hotly contested primary on Tuesday and other GOP primary races take shape across the country, it’s apparent that party divisions in the Trump era are only widening.
Republican lawmakers offered some of their most pointed criticism of their president this weekend after President Donald Trump failed to directly blame neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead.
But they had already been starting to lean away from him. In the span of a month, Trump has found himself at odds first with Republicans in the Senate as he publicly berated one of their friends and a former colleague, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and then with the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell himself, over health care. This weekend, Trump faced pushback from the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Cory Gardner, who called on the president to explicitly condemn white supremacists. (Trump still has not directly done so, instead sending a message through a spokesperson 36 hours after protests erupted.)
These acute tensions with a president many lawmakers distrust only exacerbate the already deep divisions that have plagued the party for years. Now, the disunity is playing out in concrete ways through the GOP primaries.
“It’s different because you’ve got a Republican in the White House, and not everyone in the party is in lockstep behind him, and of course that’s going to play forward in primaries,” said Austin Barbour, a veteran Republican operative based in Mississippi. “We see that in Arizona and in Nevada, and we’ll certainly see it in other states as well. That is very much the exception, not the rule, for both Republicans and Democrats.”
In deeply conservative Alabama, McConnell has made a major push on behalf of incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, while Strange’s more hardline conservative opponents are seeking to make the race a referendum on the majority leader, buoyed by Trump’s recent criticism of McConnell.
Trump ultimately handed Strange an endorsement, putting the president on the same page with McConnell, the NRSC and major GOP outside groups, to the relief of national Republicans.
But that hardly means a unified front on other issues.
Days before the Alabama race, Trump publicly turned on his party’s Senate leader, blaming McConnell for failed efforts to repeal Obamacare after the senator from Kentucky had remarked that Trump had “excessive expectations” over how fast the legislative process works.
Even as many GOP senators circled the wagons to protect McConnell, Rep. Mo Brooks, a conservative candidate challenging Strange, pounced—previewing the way other conservative candidates running in primaries may react, especially if the Trump-McConnell tensions continue.
The whole episode laid bare the sharp divisions still roiling the GOP—and more often than not, Trump himself is in the middle.
That is especially the case in primary contests beyond Alabama—in particular, those in less robustly Trump-friendly states, such as Arizona, where the successful candidate will need to hang on to enough of the Trump-loving GOP base to survive a primary, while also maintaining enough centrist appeal to power through a general election.
In Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake, one of his party’s most vocal Trump critics, has expressed public support for McConnell as Trump publicly scolded the majority leader. This weekend, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, he retweeted Gardner’s call for Trump to “call evil by its name.”
Flake faces a challenge from former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who this weekend lamented “the hate, violence & rhetoric on both sides”—an echo of Trump’s widely criticized condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” language some Republicans saw as muted and equivocating.
Ward unsuccessfully primaried Sen. John McCain last cycle, but her super PAC is receiving a $300,000 boost from major Trump donor Robert Mercer, according to POLITICO. The White House has met with several other potential Flake challengers as well, and the administration hasn’t ruled out the possibility of supporting a Flake opponent.
National Republicans see Flake as the best-positioned to win a general election, and argue that backing a primary opponent with an uphill climb next November throws the entire GOP agenda into jeopardy.
“It would be helpful if Trump and the administration didn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, where having a Republican in Arizona, regardless if it’s a moderate Republican, is better than” a Democrat, said one national Republican operative involved in several Senate primaries who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “What gives you a better chance of getting your agenda through, a Republican or a Democrat? Obviously I think the answer is a Republican. Obviously it doesn’t help to be teeing off at incumbent Republicans in the Senate when you need them to get your agenda through.”
In Nevada, Sen. Dean Heller is facing a challenge from perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, who announced for Senate on Fox News—a move observers perceived as intended to garner Trump’s attention. He insists that he is “proudly on the team of President Trump,” and on Thursday quickly sided with Trump over McConnell.
Earlier this summer, a pro-Trump outside group launched a $1 million ad buy against Heller, who had opposed a version of an Obamacare repeal plan. The spots were ultimately pulled after senators including McConnell and his allies complained vociferously—but they haven't been forgotten.
Another Republican operative working in a contested primary noted that during the presidential primary, Trump—who reveled in producing harsh nicknames for his opponents—pulled no punches with his Republican rivals.
“People always say childbirth is a super painful process to go through, and the body forgets it so you have more kids. That same situation played out for Republicans, with what happened in the [presidential] primary,” said this operative, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We kind of forgot, during the [general election] campaign…how he treated Republicans. Guess what? We were totally wrong, it’s as painful as childbirth is, and now we’re having to deal with it.”
The White House did not respond to questions about intentions for involvement in upcoming GOP contests.
The Trump White House would hardly be the first to involve itself in primaries, should it choose to engage. Done well, strategists say, such involvement could be smart and effective. Many establishment-minded Republicans who cringe at the tensions with Flake and Heller are nonetheless happy to see Trump going to bat for Strange in Alabama, though certainly some pushed for him to get involved earlier.
“In that instance, the president stepping into the foray with his tweet is a huge net positive for the party, for the team, for a sense of unity,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
Coleman knows from White House involvement in primaries.
President George W. Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove, was legendary for intervening and seeking to ensure that the White House’s preferred candidate secured the nomination. Take, for example, the run-up to the 2002 Minnesota Senate race, in which both Rove and ultimately Vice President Dick Cheney personally urged Republican Tim Pawlenty to step aside for Coleman (Pawlenty would go on to become governor, Coleman to be senator).
“It wasn’t about personality or relationships, simply the numbers showed that I had a good chance of beating the incumbent,” recalled Coleman. “Mine, I think, were highly unusual circumstances, but it certainly shows the power of the White House. This president has that power within the party, he’s the strong voice within the party, the faithful are still the faithful.”
At the same time, many Republican senators who were on the ballot with Trump last November ran ahead of him, and senators such as Flake or Heller are hardly expected to step aside, or get in line, just because they have faced some fire from the White House and its allies.
“It’s very rare that you have instances like this,” Barbour said, “where you have elected officials from the party that occupies the White House who potentially are on the completely opposite side in an election than their president.”