The Republican Party isn’t looking for the next Donald Trump. They’re still looking for the next Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.The GOP and its congressional affiliates are busy recruiting candidates ahead of the 2018 midterms, but in both style and substance, most of the people Republican officials consider strong candidates look more like the 16 other Republicans in last year’s presidential primary than the populist brawler who took the White House.
In fact, almost none of the declared or potential candidates for Senate in 2018 endorsed Trump during last year’s primary, instead opting for more traditional Republicans like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio. Most of these 2018 hopefuls look, sound, and talk like the upper-middle-class, free-trade, chamber-of-commerce Republicans who’ve been the bedrock of Republican politics for decades.“Almost all of these candidates would probably have been running even if Trump had lost,” a GOP source close to Senate races told VICE News.In other words, the Republican Party post-Trump is acting a lot like the Republican Party pre-Trump. Publicly, the GOP from the national level to the local level is loyal and supportive of the president, but their actions suggest that they see Trump’s surprise victory as a one-off, a reality TV–created black swan event rather than a sign of a fundamental shift in the American electorate.“There is only one Donald Trump, and I think voters see him as an anomaly,” John Brabender, a longtime Republican consultant and the senior strategist on Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns, told VICE News. “I don’t think he has redefined the Republican Party. I think Trump is a unique character [and] it’s very hard to transition that into other candidates.”
And some Republicans, like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, are actively fighting Trump’s recent injection of populism. In his recent book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” Flake argues that the Republican Party “lurched like a tranquilized elephant from a broad consensus on economic philosophy and free trade that had held for generations to an incoherent and often untrue mash of back-of-the-envelope populist slogans.”
“There is only one Donald Trump, and I think voters see him as an anomaly.”
But there are some early, if tentative, signs that populism is here to stay and that the GOP’s base is craving more Trumps and fewer Paul Ryans; candidates with anti-establishment styles and nativist “America First”-style policies — or an “economic nationalist movement,” as White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon once put it.In the Republican primary election for Virginia’s governor this past June, Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart came within 1.2 points of defeating GOP standard bearer and former head of the Republican National Committee Ed Gillespie despite being outraised by over $4 million and nearly every Republican establishment figure endorsing Gillespie. Stewart’s main issues? An unapologetic adherence to Trump, warning about undocumented immigration, and fighting to preserve the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, that later became a symbolic rallying point for white supremacists.“The jury is out on whether the Trump election was the beginning of a new movement or whether it was a one-off election,” Stewart told VICE News in an interview. “I think that that battle is happening right now and 2018 will be the first indicator about whether the party is going to continue to nominate establishment Republicans or whether we’ve taken to a more populist type of Republican who can actually communicate with the working class.”Stewart has already declared that he will run a “vicious, ruthless” race against Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018. Other, more conventional Republicans are still thinking about jumping into the race.
And in the race to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions in Alabama, the national Republican favorite Luther Strange lost the first round of voting on August 15 to former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore 39-33 percent. Strange got a tepid Twitter endorsement from Trump, while Moore has zoomed along in the anti-establishment lane and has recently earned the backing of Bannon, according to Politico.The 70-year-old former judge has upended the race with a campaign promising to take on “silk-stocking Washington elitists,” rolling out endorsements from the likes of former Gov. Sarah Palin and Chuck Norris, and a history of defying the federal government (he was suspended from being chief justice for ordering the state’s probate judges to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex partners).Rich Hobson, Moore’s campaign manager, told VICE News that he sees the race as an insider-vs.-outsider contest. “I don’t know anything about Senate recruitment in 2018. All we know there’s a lot of money coming from Washington, D.C., to support the other candidate in this race, and we believe that’s the Washington insider.”If Moore wins the Sept. 26 election runoff as well, it could be yet another sign that the national GOP is either not anticipating the populist fervor or actively fighting against it.
And choosing the right candidates is critical for both parties in 2018. Republicans have a good chance to expand their Senate majority as 10 Democratic senators are running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016. Whether they expand that majority could become critical for Trump’s presidency since it has so far proven difficult to achieve consensus among the slim majority of 52 Republican senators.
“The GOP will be, from now on, the party of the American worker.”
The Democratic Party, for its part, has reacted to Trump’s upset victory by trying to label every candidate and policy idea they have as “populist.” Despite the changed messaging, however, many of the “new” Democratic proposals so far are recycled and repackaged from the Clinton campaign.Meanwhile, many Trump loyalists — perhaps unsurprisingly — are telling anyone who’ll listen that Trumpism doesn’t begin and end with the man in the White House. Rather, they see Trump as just the beginning of a new era of politics.Behind Trump’s bluster, they argue, was a winning political platform that attacked elites and defied GOP orthodoxy. Trump pledged not to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid a mere four years after Republicans embraced Paul Ryan’s overhaul of Medicare and other entitlements. Trump proposed tax hikes on Wall Street in a party where tax cuts, particularly for businesses, were considered sacred. He ravaged free trade deals like NAFTA that were largely supported by Republicans. And he denounced foreign entanglements like the Iraq War started by George W. Bush.Trump also appears to believe that his victory sets the party in a new direction. “The GOP will be, from now on, the party of the American worker,” the president said in a February speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.That has yet to be seen.