Republican Senate Candidates Are Gambling on Trump

11 minute read

When Leah Vukmir, a Republican state legislator in Wisconsin, set out to run for the U.S. Senate this year, she first had to win a tough GOP primary. To do so, like many other Republicans, she hugged President Donald Trump as tightly as possible, pledging loyalty and parroting Trump’s hard-line positions on issues like immigration.

Once Vukmir won the primary, Democrats braced for the Big Pivot. It’s campaign strategy 101: in purple states, you’d expect Republican nominees to tack toward the middle in the general election, gently distancing themselves from the unpopular President to appeal to independent voters. There would be a little tap dance about how they generally supported him but didn’t always agree with his decisions, or disapproved of some rhetoric even as they cheered the strength of the economy.

That’s not what Vukmir did. “I’m pleased with how the President is doing,” she told TIME in an interview on a recent evening here on the campus of Marquette University, where she’d just finished speaking to a small group of College Republicans. “I just got asked this question in a debate, and I gave him an A.” Trump’s main shortcoming, she said, was not enough Republican support in the Senate to do things like repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Vukmir is not alone. Instead of the Big Pivot, Republican Senate candidates across the country have stapled themselves to Trump, for better or worse. It’s a testament to the way Trump has remade the GOP in his image that his party has, with few exceptions, gone all-in on the President. But will it work?

In some places, being pro-Trump makes sense. There are 10 Democratic incumbents up for reelection in states Trump won in 2016, and half of them represent states that went for Trump by at least 18 percentage points over Hillary Clinton: Missouri, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia. But the other five Democrats in Trump Country represent battlegrounds that narrowly went red: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan—and Wisconsin, which went for Trump by less than 1 point. These are the states that won Trump the presidency, but they’re also places where his popularity today is middling at best. In these states, hugging the President is a political gamble. Candidates like Vukmir are betting that Trump’s gravitational pull on the party base is too powerful to resist.

For the most part, it looks like a losing bet. Vukmir’s opponent, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, is ahead by double digits in nearly every recent poll. It’s a similar story in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Florida is still a toss-up, but the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, holds a narrow lead over Governor Rick Scott, an early Trump backer who bounded onstage with the President at a rally Oct. 31. “These are states that never had a Trump majority, where because of the dynamics in 2016 he could win with 48% of the vote, and the President is not as popular in these states as he was two years ago,” said Liam Donovan, a D.C.-based GOP strategist. “And none of these [Republican] candidates are running against Hillary Clinton.”

Thanks to the electoral geography of 2018, Republicans may retain or even pick up seats in the Senate even if Democrats win a national landslide and retake the House of Representatives. But the bigger implications go beyond the midterms. What does it say about Trump and Trumpism that the states that won him the presidency appear poised to reject candidates who’ve followed his example? Pro-Trump strategists like White House adviser Stephen Miller and former campaign chief Steve Bannon believe Trump’s brand of nationalism—with its “America First” ethos, racially charged appeals and intense emphasis on stopping immigration—appeals powerfully to Rust Belt voters, particularly rural whites, in a way the old Reaganite doctrine didn’t. Trumpism, they argued, would cement GOP dominance in the heartland.

This year’s Rust Belt Senate races aren’t exactly validating that idea. “Wisconsin has a long tradition of mavericky politicians, but Vukmir’s messaging is, ‘I’m going to be a complete Trump loyalist,'” said Charlie Sykes, a “Never Trump” conservative whose Milwaukee-based talk radio show once helped drive the state’s rightward political march—before Trump’s victory split him from his party. “It’s an odd choice, and I don’t feel that it’s a winning strategy in 2018 in Wisconsin.” The President has succeeded in reshaping the Republican Party into what his critics regard as a cult. But in doing so, those critics say, he may be driving it into the ground.

In her speech at Marquette, Vukmir started by telling the students how much she pitied them for having to deal with the current climate of political correctness on campus. She insisted Republicans would protect the health care of people with preexisting medical conditions, despite Democrats’ claims to the contrary, and assailed Baldwin for supporting socialized medicine, which she said would destroy seniors’ coverage. “She literally is taking Granny and throwing her off the cliff,” Vukmir said. “She’s dismantling Medicare, and no one is picking up on it.”

In the interview, Vukmir called immigration and health care the most important issues this year. She vowed to support the construction of a border wall and decried “chain migration” even as she recalled helping her Greek immigrant aunts and uncles study for their citizenship tests.

Vukmir’s current persona is a Big Pivot in its own right. Back in 2016, when she backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Marco Rubio for president, Vukmir called Trump “offensive to everyone.” Now she dodges questions about his divisive statements and insulting tweets. She backs Trump’s insistence that the special counsel investigation is a partisan charade. “They just continue to try to find ways to bring this President down,” she said, “and I think it’s time to move on.”

A socially conservative nurse from suburban Milwaukee, Vukmir got her start in politics as a school-choice activist, then joined Governor Scott Walker’s mission of steering the state to the right. She was elected to the state Assembly in 2002 and moved up to the state Senate, where she serves as the assistant majority leader, in 2011. She serves on the board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a national group that pushes conservative state legislation. Vukmir cut her teeth, in other words, in the conservative movement of Walker and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“I’ve known her for more than 20 years, and I’m amazed at her transformation,” said Sykes, who was an early mentor. It was on his show that Vukmir made the “offensive to everyone” comment. “She’s gone full Trump in a very crude, harsh way. It’s really surprising. But maybe it’s a sign of the times that she feels she has to campaign that way.” Earlier this year, Sykes recalls, Vukmir tweeted a depiction of her opponent alongside the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, calling Baldwin a member of “Team Terrorists.”

“I texted her, saying you need to get rid of whatever staffer did this, but she never responded, and that was our last communication,” Sykes said. “I’m afraid the reason is it wasn’t a staffer.” Rather than apologize, Vukmir defended the graphic. If anything, her campaign has gotten more slashing, not less: on Nov. 2, she put out a press release noting that Baldwin would be campaigning with Massachusetts Senator “Elizabeth ‘Pocohantas’ Warren.”

One theory for the GOP field’s pro-Trump bent is that it’s not a political pose: these candidates simply share the President’s nativist attitudes and conspiratorial mindset, even if they were once loyal to a different brand of conservatism. That’s certainly the case for Pennsylvania Senate nominee Lou Barletta, a congressman who first made a name as an anti-immigration small-town mayor, long before Trump entered the political fray. And it seems to be the case for the Republican rank and file, who support Trump more strongly than they have any previous GOP president, despite his scandal-ridden tenure.

Still, it’s a rare politician who can’t bring herself to triangulate rhetorically if doing so seems like the right political play. It could be that they’re terrified to draw the President’s ire. But Republican incumbents in many swing congressional districts have vocally criticized him, in hopes anti-Trump independent voters will see them as more than mere yes-men. Gubernatorial candidates like Walker­—whose electoral hopes appear substantially better than Vukmir’s—have tacked to the center and avoid mentioning Trump whenever possible.

Another possible reason for the Senate strategy is that it represents the only chance for candidates like Vukmir, conventional wisdom be damned. This theory holds that, in a nationalized election where Democratic voters are energized and independents have soured on the GOP, Republicans’ only hope is to get more of their own dispirited voters riled up. And Trump is the best tool for that. “You can try to make a case for how you’re different, but the Whole Foods moms are too pissed off to listen,” Donovan said.

To many political professionals, this year’s election looks like a mirror image of 2010, when another angry grassroots movement (the Tea Party) rose up in reaction to a polarizing first-term president (Barack Obama). In 2010, candidates from Obama’s party—including senators in states like Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—tried to run away from him, refusing to appear with the President or discouraging him from campaigning in their states.

They lost anyway. Democrats ceded the House in a massive wave in 2010, but narrowly held onto the Senate. One Democrat who hung on to win that year was Harry Reid of Nevada, then the majority leader, who welcomed Obama to his state and focused on juicing Democratic base turnout. If there’s a political strategy lesson from 2010, it might be that running away from an unpopular President doesn’t work.

Baldwin may appear safe now. But it was hardly inevitable. Right-wing interest groups began airing television ads against her shortly after Trump was inaugurated, spending more than $13 million to dent her image long before Republicans even had a candidate—the largest amount spent against any Democrat in that period. As a former congresswoman from ultra-liberal Madison with a solidly left-wing voting record, Baldwin—a hard-working but not particularly high-profile senator—looked vulnerable to Republicans.

But the incumbent has solidified her position by taking a different approach than the challenger. While Vukmir runs as Trump’s mini-me, Baldwin isn’t trying to be the face of the anti-Trump Resistance. Instead, she’s the one moving toward the middle, championing her bipartisan bona fides and her work on issues affecting the rural areas that swung from Obama to Trump, like opioids and dairy tariffs. Indeed, Baldwin can’t seem to get more than a couple of sentences into any topic without finding a way to mention the dairy industry, which faces a crisis exacerbated by Canadian trade duties.

On a recent night in Portage, a small town north of Madison, Baldwin showed up at the local Democratic headquarters, a musty storefront festooned with candidate signs and American flags. She got up to speak after a young field organizer and a first-time woman candidate, a former teacher in a long-shot state legislative race. But Baldwin’s message focused on taxes, super PACs and especially healthcare, hammering, as Vukmir had done, on the issue of preexisting conditions. She barely mentioned Trump, the man most responsible for the current political climate.

In an interview, Baldwin marveled at the increased turnout she’s seen at Democratic gatherings in all parts of the state this year, testament to the party’s grassroots enthusiasm. But Wisconsinites, she said, aren’t looking for a senator who simply resists Trump at every turn. She touted Trump’s support for an issue she’s worked on, “Buy America” legislation, and noted she’d met with the President when many of her colleagues were boycotting him.

“If the President is putting forward ideas that help Wisconsinites, my constituents want a senator who’s going to fight for Wisconsinites,” she said. “We can work together.” It was the kind of hedged message you might expect to hear from a Republican candidate. But this year it’s the Democrats making the pivot.

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