Western Republicans will fawn Trump in 2020,
and not just because of the election
It’s a sign of the times that Lisa Murkowski seems radical. Just a few years ago, the Alaska senator was considered by many a pragmatist with mainstream conservative positions. Oh, how three years can change things. This decade begins with deep Republican fealty to President Donald Trump, a man whose politics are more ostentatious than conservative, and whose mannerisms are downright vulgar. So when Murkowski recently said she was “disturbed” by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to work “hand in glove” with the White House during the upcoming impeachment trial — disturbed, in essence, that the Senate’s leader may be forfeiting Congressional oversight — it made national headlines.
Murkowski is a rare Republican who defies the president with any sort of consistency. She voted in line with Trump’s positions only about half the time last year, and she offered high-profile opposition to the attempted Affordable Care Act repeal and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. So what, if anything, could make Republicans channel their inner Murkowski and oppose Trump's actions as 2020 campaigning kicks into high gear? In all likelihood, nothing. But don’t chalk it up to electioneering with “the base” that is so fond of the president. It’s simpler, really: When it comes to the modern Republican party’s relationship with Trump, the ends justify the meanness.
It’s important to remember Republicans are not governing from a position of popularity. Trump received nearly 2.88 million fewer votes than did Hillary Clinton; in the 12 Western states, Clinton outgunned him to the tune of 4.46 million votes. What Trump does have is a tremendous approval rating among Republican voters, leading many pundits to conclude that GOP candidates should align with the president.
Cory Gardner, the Colorado senator up for reelection this year in a state that’s trending Democratic, illustrates that notion. A recent Colorado Sun story, thick with pollster and campaign adviser interviews, laid out the scenario Gardner faces: Trump is more popular than the senator among Republicans in Colorado, so Gardner must hitch his campaign to Trump’s to have a chance at winning.
That's the common thinking, but Westword writer Chase Woodruff, in one of the more astute recent pieces of political analysis, deconstructed that notion.
“Gardner,” he wrote, “is not walking a tightrope; he is not ‘threading a needle’; he is not ‘in a bind’ or a ‘pinch’; he is not ‘between a Trump and a hard place.’ He’s exactly where he wants to be — serving as a loyal, valued member of Trump’s Republican Party, proudly celebrating a long list of major victories that the party has won since Trump took office in 2017, and looking forward to four more years of the same.”
Viewed through that lens, it’s unlikely Gardner — or any other Republican — supports Trump solely to boost their odds of reelection. Trump’s base is a small and shrinking slice of the U.S. population. Kowtowing to them delivered the presidency, but Gardner and other Republicans on the ticket in 2020 don’t get the advantage of an electoral college — they, unlike Trump, need more votes than their opponents to win. And Gardner is running in a purple-leaning-blue state that supported Clinton and advanced Democrats in every statewide election in 2018. Colorado has more registered independents than Republicans or Democrats. Under those circumstances, it would seem Gardner can’t win by exclusively appealing to the hardcore Trump supporters, especially against his presumptive opponent, moderate Democrat and former Governor John Hickenlooper.
If Gardner were thinking exclusively about reelection, he’d probably take on a more reserved voice akin to Murkowski’s. Instead, he’ll point to the wins. For every Charlottesville, there’s a massive tax cut. For every Muslim travel ban, you get a BLM headquarters delivered to your state. Mistreatment of migrants at the border? That’s the cost of doing business, if your business is confirming as many conservative judges as possible.
“Why on earth,” Woodruff wrote, “wouldn’t Gardner support a president who is overwhelmingly popular among members of his party, and who has been extraordinarily successful in advancing Republican policy interests?”
Gardner, beginning in 2016, followed a familiar arc of Trump support: tepid acknowledgement of a shockingly flawed candidate, vociferous opposition after the Access Hollywood tape dropped, and then robust support once Trump took office. Republicans nearing the end of their patience (Murkowski), their political careers (Jeff Flake), or their lives (John McCain) stood firm when Trump did things that were wildly out of line with political norms or public safety. Gardner? He already endorsed Trump’s reelection a year ago.
Republican lawmakers have gotten a taste of governing with Donald Trump at the helm. While Murkowski and a few others express reservations, it seems most, like Gardner, would happily sit for a second course.
— Jake Bullinger