How the Midterms Will Test Trump’s Hold on the GOP

16 minute read

Blake Hurst has mixed feelings about his new combine. Sitting 10 feet off the ground in the cab of the half-million-dollar piece of equipment, Hurst proudly points out its cutting-edge bells and whistles, including a GPS monitor that helps track the yield of his farm crops, and remote monitoring that lets him check in on the machinery when members of his family operate it.

But Hurst, dressed in overalls, a red baseball cap and a T-shirt decorated with guns and ammo, believes President Donald Trump has made the harvester a risky investment. Since he bought the machine last fall, Hurst, who farms corn and soybeans, has watched Trump launch a trade war that has hurt the fortunes of farmers like him and changed the outlook for an industry reliant on global markets. More than 70% of farmers say they expect a decline in income of 10% or more next year as a result of the trade tensions, per a Purdue University/CME Group report.

And yet at the Hurst family farm a few miles outside Tarkio, Mo., on this late August day, three generations are sticking with Trump and the Republican Party.

To explain why, Hurst, who also advocates for farmers as the head of the Missouri Farm Bureau, points to the temperature-controlled bins they use for storing unsold crops. He’s thankful Trump nixed the Clean Power Plan, one of President Obama’s most significant climate-change initiatives that could have spiked rural energy prices and driven up the cost of holding their crops for market. He mentions Trump’s impending reversal of the Waters of the U.S. rule, an Obama-era regulation, that farmers feared could have given the federal government authority over the small streams on land in the region. And there are other issues on their mind: infrastructure funding and how the government regulates pesticides, for example.

Trade is important for farmers, Hurst says, but they are sophisticated thinkers who can hold two seemingly conflicting views of Trump at the same time. “I don’t like everything my wife does,” he says, “but I still love her.”

Trump’s strong support in the rural heartland offers a window into his resilience among Republican voters across the country. It’s not just farmers who are weighing the pros and cons of Trump’s controversial presidency and coming down on his side. The business community nationwide hates tariffs but finds plenty to like in the December 2017 tax law, which cut individual and corporate rates. Some suburban Republicans can’t stand Trump’s bombastic style but find smug, knee-jerk liberals even worse. As long as he’s owning the opposition and shaking up Washington, they’re with him.

Brick by brick, Trump has raised a wall of Republican supporters that in many ways defies the image of white male resentment that some Democrats like to project. Many of them are affluent and well-educated, and nearly half–47%–are women. Trump won 44% of voters whose family income is $150,000 or more per year and nearly 40% of college-educated white voters overall.

The result, Trump claims, is a sturdier Republican Party. “The party is a much bigger party now, and it’s like really a party for the working men and women in this country, in addition to plenty of others,” Trump told TIME in a call from Air Force One on his way to an Oct. 10 rally in Erie, Pa. “In the true sense, it has been changed, and I think that’s why I won an election nobody else would have won. If you look at the places I’ve won, nobody else would have won those places.”

In fact, there are fewer self-identified Republicans now than when Trump secured the GOP nomination. And how solid Trump’s wall of support really is remains perhaps the most important question for the future of American politics. Trump’s base are true believers: an early-August Pew poll found nearly 60% of self-identified Trump voters had backed him enthusiastically since the raucous Republican primaries in early 2016, while another 23% are former skeptics whom Trump has since won over. But the same poll found millions of Trump voters who share a sentiment rarely captured in media sketches: ambivalence. Though his job-approval numbers among Republicans, which hover in the mid-80s, are in line with what Ronald Reagan achieved, a deeper look shows a more textured picture: 18% told Pew they would give Trump a grade of 50 or less, up from 13% at the time of his election.

‘I don’t like everything my wife does, but I still love her.’ Blake Hurst, on how he views the Trump presidency
‘I don’t like everything my wife does, but I still love her.’ Blake Hurst, on how he views the Trump presidencyBarrett Emke for TIME

What these figures show is that Trump’s support is durable but more dynamic than most realize. There are millions of conventional Republicans of all stripes who are continuously assessing, as Hurst does, the benefits and drawbacks of two years of disruption. That helps explain the reason why many Representatives on Capitol Hill have engaged in running battles with the President. It also explains why so many in the party have embraced Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination as a uniting factor that may have saved the Senate for the GOP and improved Republicans’ chances of staving off huge losses in the House.

Trump himself has pitched the midterm vote as a verdict on his leadership. But there is even more at stake. The Nov. 6 elections will test the strength of Trump’s hold on the party and show just how lasting an imprint his unique mix of populism and nationalism will make on the GOP–and America–for years to come.


Inside a deafening hockey stadium in Wheeling, W.Va., a cranked-up sound system blared John Denver as Trump walked out to the lectern, swaying his arms to the music and basking in the cheers. During his Sept. 30 speech, the boisterous crowd chanted “Build the wall” when he brought up immigration and “Lock her up” when he mentioned Hillary Clinton.

It’s not hard to find Trump’s most avid supporters at rallies like this. Many in the crowd worked in the steel and agricultural industries in West Virginia and believe Trump’s actions have improved the economy. “He’s a man of action,” says Timothy Pesta, 61, who works for a steel company and grows corn and wheat on a family farm. Pesta, who has seen his fortunes rise in the past year, says he understands why Trump evokes such a polarizing response around the country. “People aren’t used to that kind of radical change.”

Including many Trump supporters. At a Dauphin County Republican Party get-out-the-vote rally in suburban Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 6, state representative Sue Helm says she doesn’t always see eye to eye with Trump. For starters, the retired realtor would like more regulation of her former industry, a position at odds with the President’s deregulatory push. But she says Trump has earned Republican support. “People are starting to realize he is doing good,” she says as she passes out yard signs for her re-election bid. “He wasn’t a politician, and it takes a while to get his momentum.”

The financial elite have similarly come around despite their reservations about Trump’s style. One-third of Trump’s supporters during the presidential election were affluent, according to a March 2016 NBC News/SurveyMonkey tracking poll, with incomes above $100,000. When Trump was elected, many well-to-do Americans worried his volatility would roil financial markets.

Two years on, the economic picture for top earners is bright. The S&P 500 hit record highs in late August. GDP bumped up at an annual rate of 4.2% in the second quarter of this year. Unemployment is at its lowest since 1969. Jonathan Corpina, who manages sales and trading at Meridian Equity Partners in New York City, doesn’t like the “bantering” and “division” he’s seen Trump unleash across the country. “But when I take a step back and I look at where are we today, as compared to a month ago, a quarter ago, a year ago, five years ago,” he says, “the numbers support that our economy is stronger.” Despite the President’s attacks on individual companies and his spats with world leaders, many on Wall Street laud the Administration’s deregulation efforts and have benefited from the Republicans’ tax overhaul. Even some people who were not already wealthy have been gratified by wage increases and a generally stable economy. In a recent Washington Post–Schar School poll of voters in battleground districts, 77% of respondents described the nation’s economy as “good” or “excellent.”

That’s a big reason the Republican donor class, once almost universally opposed to Trump’s candidacy, has in large part come to support him. GOP donors don’t agree with everything he does and think many of his comments and tweets are self-imposed setbacks. But they have gotten what they wanted on key issues, including tax cuts, judicial nominations and the Administration’s tough stance against Iran and on behalf of Israel. “Style-wise, I wish for Obama: more cerebral and respectful,” says Dan Eberhart, an Arizona Republican donor who backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in the 2016 presidential primary. But “donors focus on what he does, not on what he says,” he explains. “The President may be unorthodox, but he’s delivered on his campaign promises.”

Thrice married, twice divorced and caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the genitals, Trump is an unlikely champion for the Christian Right. But in 2016, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, according to exit polls. Revelations surrounding the President’s personal involvement in paying off porn star Stormy Daniels, with whom he allegedly had an affair, may have strained their patience. But those fumbles were not enough, many evangelicals say, to overshadow his effective execution of their long-standing agenda. Trump has moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and repeatedly elevated antiabortion advocacy on the national stage, two of the community’s top priorities. Nearly two years after his election, his popularity remains sturdy with white evangelicals: 71% approve of the job Trump is doing, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted in late August and early September.

Nothing endeared Trump to evangelicals, and Republicans generally, more than his appointment of two conservative Supreme Court Justices. “We say we have three co-equal branches of government, but we know that’s not really true,” Dallas evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress tells TIME. “The judiciary is by far the most powerful branch of society, and that is why evangelicals have been so intent on changing the makeup of the court.”


Just as Trump has won over and kept ambivalent Republican voters, his efforts to make peace with the party leadership and advance a unified agenda in Washington has been a work in progress. It is no coincidence that his battles with congressional Republicans have reflected the same conflicting interests that voters have had to balance these past two years.

Trump was in many ways a nightmare for GOP leaders from the start. For generations, the party has tried to reconcile its isolationist, nativist bloc with its internationalist, pro-market establishment. Decades of careful political management had maintained an uneasy peace between competing interests, with the elites offering their working-class brethren socially conservative policies in exchange for support of pro-wealthy economic programs.

Trump seemed ready to blow that up. He embraced protectionism, eschewed pro-business immigration policies and abandoned attempts to broaden the party’s base. Where past GOP leaders carefully discussed issues of race, shifting gender dynamics or Muslim immigrants, editing their language to avoid prejudice, Trump was willing and sometimes eager to fan the flames of cultural division both at home and abroad.

Once elected, Trump seemed to intuit that long-term success required some collaboration. When top advisers Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller wrote a fiery election-night speech that took aim at the Republican establishment, Trump balked, choosing instead to deliver a more conciliatory version. He hired established GOP operatives into his White House and agreed to spend his political capital on conservative legislative priorities, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, rather than the infrastructure plan the President preferred.

The marriage has not been easy. His surprise decision to bar travelers from several Muslim-majority countries may have pleased his hard-line base, but it infuriated Republicans who need the votes of minorities and civil libertarians and found the notion antithetical to American ideals. His decision to fire FBI Director James Comey and to attack his own Justice Department over its investigation of Russia’s influence operation against the 2016 election drove a wedge between law-and-order Republicans and antiestablishment activists.

Over time, Trump has become more aggressive and incendiary, leaving the GOP standard bearers, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the difficult task of managing the divisions. McConnell and Ryan have been forced to watch as Trump assailed GOP free-market principles with tariffs, drove away longtime allies, accommodated Russian President Vladimir Putin and repeatedly rained down distractions on lawmaking with his scandals and inflammatory statements.

Trump retains strong support among evangelicals, like the congregants of this Baptist church in Luverne, Ala.
Trump retains strong support among evangelicals, like the congregants of this Baptist church in Luverne, Ala.Michael S. Williamson—The Washington Post/Getty Images

But the concessions have not come without reward. With Trump, Republican leaders have been able to fulfill a decades-long project to remake the federal judiciary in a conservative mold, deliver deep corporate tax cuts and strip away banking and environmental regulations. The past few weeks have shown that when the union works, it can be powerful. The brutal battle over Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of teenage sexual assault, brought together all the factions of the GOP. Traditional Republicans like Kavanaugh’s pro-business, country-club conservatism. Evangelicals see a fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade or at least constrain abortion rights. And Trump’s base relished the fight. “The Kavanaugh process has ticked a lot of people off,” Brian Zook, a construction project manager, explains at an Oktoberfest celebration in Carlisle, Pa. As a difficult midterm election draws closer, Republicans appear energized.


That vote will tell America a lot about how sturdy the union between the President and his party really is. History is on the Democrats’ side: the party holding the presidency loses an average of 40 House seats and five Senate seats in the first midterm on average when the President’s job approval is below 50%. And Democrats, already building a wave of support among women after 2016, are hoping the fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination and his ascension to the court will turn one or both chambers of Congress blue. Trump, who knows the midterms will be viewed as a referendum on his leadership, has issued ominous warnings about the stakes. “You’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got,” Trump told evangelical leaders at a White House dinner in late August.

Which is why Trump is working closely with the Republican National Committee (RNC) and plans to travel extensively in coming weeks to boost GOP candidates. An endorsement from Trump is “worth its weight in gold,” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. At every rally, attendees’ RSVP information is logged by the RNC and Trump’s re-election operation, and locals are contacted by organizers and recruited to help build turnout in their neighborhood. “We see a huge influx of new people coming into our program every time the President holds a rally,” says RNC political director Juston Johnson. At Trump’s Wheeling rally in late September, for example, the RNC collected information from 8,400 RSVPs. More than one-third were registered Democrats or independents, according to figures provided to TIME by the RNC.

At his rallies, Trump is eager to jump into divisive cultural issues, like NFL players’ kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. To critics, coded rhetoric like this represents a dangerous attempt to stir supporters by awakening barely dormant racial animosity across the country. “With something like Charlottesville, he appeals to the fringe,” says Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA and co-author of Identity Crisis, a new book about the 2016 election, “but also to these mainstream Midwestern white Americans who really do have the feeling they’re being left behind and neglected.” For liberals, Trump’s appeal to racial divisions proves the Republican Party has long been a vehicle for the maintenance of social and economic hierarchies and the denial of women’s and minorities’ full equality.

Trump says there’s a method behind his often harsh rhetoric. On foreign trade, for example, he says he has to talk tough. “If I don’t talk that way, I’m never going to get the point across and I’m never going to be able to make the deal,” Trump tells TIME. “I can say it nicely or I can say it less than nicely. The bottom line is a lot of people agree with me. Oftentimes, you can’t be overly nice. Look, our politicians have been nice for many years, for decades. And look what’s happened.”

Will the uneasy marriage of ardent believers and pragmatic loyalists last beyond Trump? The President’s biggest fans say his unusual blend of populist and nationalist rhetoric has changed the party forever. “Trump’s legacy is that he reforms the Republican Party into a party for the 21st century,” Bannon tells TIME. “He brought in people like working-class Democrats and the working class. Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and the Kochs are going to be forgotten.”

If the past few years were a war for control of the GOP, the guns have gone silent now. “The battle is over,” Luntz says. “And Trump has won.” But long after Trump leaves the scene, the voters who propelled him to power will remain. That includes those who view Trump with ambivalence. And where they end up is likely to have more to do with his effect on their day-to-day lives than the drama that drives debates in the halls of Washington and on cable TV.

On Oct. 9, Trump held a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, touting his recently delivered increase in federal support for ethanol. Traditional Republicans have long decried government handouts, like the $12 billion the Trump Administration announced in July to give to farmers battered by the President’s trade policies. After all, when Democrats propose bailouts, Republicans call them socialists. But such unorthodox tactics are one crucial way Trump is staying in good graces with the constituency his tariffs are hurting. And for now, it’s working. “They make promises, and you hold them to their promises,” says Greg Olsen, general manager of an ethanol plant in Corning, Iowa.

Trump doesn’t need to look far back in time to see what happens if he doesn’t. American farmers had a long history of supporting Democrats until President Jimmy Carter imposed sanctions on the Soviet Union that killed demand for their products and launched a rural recession. In response, farmers switched their parties. The parallel is so clear that farmer after farmer in the Midwest still mentions it. “Rural America has supported the President and continues to overall,” says Ray Gaesser, a corn and soybean farmer in Corning. “As you have more and more financial pressure, that might change.”


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