A little over three weeks ago, I set out two simple tests to determine whether “Trumpism,” as a set of ideas distinct from Donald Trump’s personality, was taking over the Republican Party. Those ideas could broadly be described as hostility to “globalism,” manifesting itself in hostility to immigration and trade and skepticism of the GOP’s orientation since the 1950s towards an active overseas foreign policy. They might also feature a blunter, more confrontational and sometimes racially divisive form of campaigning. One of those tests is how Trump runs in November as compared to normal Republicans on the ballot with him, especially in Senate and Governor’s races; the jury is still out, but polling consistently shows most Republicans running ahead of Trump.
The other test was decidedly Trumpist primary challenges to three of the GOP incumbents most hated by the anti-globalists, the alt-right, and the Breitbart set (to the extent those are not all the same people): Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and John McCain. Well, the numbers are in, and as Jim and Charlie both noted already, Rubio (like Ryan) annihilated his opponent, while McCain faced a more serious test but still won by a comfortable double-digit margin.
Ryan was an easier loss for the Breitbart crowd to take (despite the Breitbart site touting polls showing Ryan well below 50%): it’s just a House seat, one that Trump lost in the primary in one of his worst states. But Trump had won both Florida and Arizona by almost twenty points back in March, with just under 46% of the vote in each state (a higher share than he was drawing in most other places at that stage of the race); if there’s such a thing as “Trump states,” those should be high on the list. And sure enough, Breitbart just two days ago ran a Breitbart/Gravis poll claiming that McCain was only up 37-33, a far cry from his final 52-39 margin. Yet, despite the much lower turnout in Senate primaries as compared to presidential races, both Rubio and McCain came close to matching Trump’s vote totals. According to the official tallies at this writing, Rubio got 1,029,000 votes (a hair under 72% of the vote), not only beating his own showing in the presidential primary by some 400,000 votes, but nearly matching the 1,079,870 votes for Trump in the March 15 primary; McCain got 251,068 votes and counting, compared with 286,743 votes for Trump in the March 22 primary. And in something of a mirror image of the Arizona presidential primary, when Trump won on the strength of his dominance in the early voting, McCain’s victory was powered by an 18-point walloping of Kelli Ward in early votes, swamping her 10-point margin among election day voters.
It’s not surprising that McCain’s opponent got more traction than Ryan’s or Rubio’s; at 80 years old and after three and a half decades in DC, the “maverick” Senator has irritated or enraged many traditional GOP constituencies beyond the “anti-globalists” and provides a prime target for anti-incumbent, anti-establishment and anti-Beltway sentiment generally (although it’s easy to forget now the years from 2000-2004 when McCain was considered the #1 archenemy of the party establishment). But with McCain winning a majority, Rubio clearing 70% and Ryan clearing 80%, the Trumpist movement is very clearly not the same without Trump.
“But,” say the Trumpists, “those guys are well-known incumbents! Incumbents are supposed to win!” Yes, that’s true – it’s one reason why Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin could get slaughtered by 30 points by Mitch McConnell, then turn around the following year (albeit as a slightly more seasoned and well-known candidate) and win both the primary and general elections for Governor. But it’s also true that individual candidates always matter, and that Trump himself benefitted from a colossal advantage in free media as well as being a lot more famous than any of his opponents besides possibly Jeb Bush (a related dynamic is why John Kasich could romp to victory with 47% of the vote in the Ohio primary after finishing in single digits in 17 prior contests that weren’t his home state).
Kasich, in the primary, repeated the Jon Huntsman/John Weaver strategy of painting himself as a “different kind of Republican” more palatable to educated moderates. As their candidacies have shown, while Republicans like that can win statewide in some places (think: Susan Collins), they are really no more than 10-15% of the party as a faction, and can win elections only with strong candidates who have appeal outside that faction and/or with the benefit of divided opposition. So too with the Trumpists. So too with the libertarians, who are probably closer to 5% of Republicans than 10%. And so too with the “true conservative”/Ted Cruz/Tea Party faction, which in most states is no more than a quarter or a third of the voters, far less in others.
Like it or not, the Republican electorate these days is a coalition of factions. Uniting them is going to require learning to work together.