Only a few months ago, it seemed as if Steve Bannon’s plan to take over the Republican party wasn’t just a fantasy. After he left the White House last summer, the former presidential adviser was talking big about a new version of the Tea Party — the uprising that knocked off several mainstream Republicans earlier in the decade. This time it would be orchestrated by the populists at Breitbart.
But Bannon staked everything on Roy Moore’s campaign to represent Alabama in the Senate. Moore beat the establishment pick in the primary, and in doing so forced many Republicans, including President Trump, to back Moore in the general election. The defeat of the deeply flawed former judge — who, between the primary and the general election, was credibly accused of sexual misconduct in years past — was the beginning of the end for Bannon’s plans.
The loss of a safe Republican Senate seat woke up the conservative movement and the party to the potential cost of Bannon’s plans. More to the point, it woke up Trump, who after a year in office has a better appreciation of the value of a GOP Senate majority than perhaps he did when Bannon was running his presidential campaign.
The fruits of that realization were on display last week, when a Bannon recruit bowed to pressure from Trump and pulled out of a Nevada primary against incumbent senator Dean Heller. Danny Tarkanian had Bannon’s support and made it clear he wasn’t happy about giving up the chance to upend a relative moderate. But after the president tweeted that Tarkanian should run for an open House seat rather than engage in a bitter primary that would probably weaken the Republicans’ chances in the general, the challenger felt he had no choice but to do as he was told.
The impact of the tweet made two things clear. The first is that Bannon’s chances for leading a populist revolt are officially over. The second, if it wasn’t already obvious, is that the Republican party now belongs to Donald Trump.
Trump’s willingness to throw his weight around in a manner that reflects Mitch McConnell’s vision for how to pick Senate candidate has to cheer the GOP establishment. It could also make it easier for Republicans to hold on to their Senate majority in 2018 or even add to it, thanks to the large number of red-state Democrats running for reelection.
But this is far from assured. To the contrary, the fact that the GOP is now Trump’s party, rather than one that can defend its congressional majorities on ideological or traditional partisan lines, is exactly why it might lose ground in November.
That the Republicans are all working for Trump in one way or another has been painfully obvious since the 2016 GOP convention in Cleveland. While a few Never Trump dissidents continue to speak out on the right, almost all have ceased pretending to have any affection for the party. The few Republican officeholders who are actively opposing Trump, such as Ohio governor John Kasich, Senator John McCain, and especially Senator Jeff Flake, do not labor under any delusion that they are anything but lonesome dissidents whose views are out of touch with those of the GOP electorate. Flake might be flirting with a quixotic run against Trump, but he openly admits he’s not running for reelection to the Senate because he knows he has no chance of winning a Republican primary.
And there’s a painful irony to being the party of Trump: The president’s flaws overshadow the GOP’s merits — but his popularity with his base does not transfer to other Republican candidates. Thus, in the end, perhaps 2018 will be no exception to the rule that midterm elections are brutal for the party in control of the White House and Congress.
Republicans can hope that a booming economy and success against ISIS will mean more to voters than do the endless speculation about collusion with Russia and the White House scandals that lead the news every night. But Trump dominates the political conversation in such a way as to ensure that every other topic is overwhelmed by the 24/7 news cycle, and social media that can talk of little else.
This is not to say that Trump is losing ground in the polls. He’s actually gaining slightly or at least holding his own in surveys of presidential approval. But as the GOP saw last week in a Pennsylvania district that Trump carried easily in 2016, his popularity among the GOP base doesn’t apply to others. Trump campaigned in the district, but his appearance was about him, not the doomed GOP candidate.
That’s a sobering thought for Republicans who know that Trump’s unpopularity in much of the country is a heavy burden for their candidates to carry. While Trump still retains the support of most of his 2016 voters, the dynamic of a midterm election means that all the passion is on the side of the opposition, not the GOP activists who administered a shellacking to President Obama in 2010 and 2014. Trump’s fans may well turn out to cheer for him, and they may give him a chance to win the same 30 states he took in 2016 when he runs for reelection in 2020. But they don’t look to be sufficiently motivated to give him a Republican House for his third and fourth years in office.
The close identification between party and president may be exactly the factor that dooms Republicans in 2018.
McConnell’s formula for a Republican Senate has involved recruiting competitive and qualified candidates to run in states where victory is possible. Despite their temperamental differences and the fact that many of his supporters think the majority leader is as much the enemy as the Democrats, Trump seems to have bought into this insight.
That makes him a responsible GOP leader, but his brand might now be so toxic that the close identification between party and president could be exactly the factor that dooms Republicans in 2018. Trump solved one big problem for McConnell, and the Kentucky senator can take grim satisfaction in the humiliation of his tormentor Bannon, who can no longer even call Breitbart a home since his ouster there. But Trump is creating other, more difficult problems for the Republicans that no amount of clever recruiting or presidential persuasion can solve.