The president is always the leader of his party — even when he rose to power in the face of fervent opposition from the party’s leadership and congressional caucuses. But with that power comes responsibility, which means it’s time for President Donald Trump to start throwing his weight around in the manner of traditional party leaders. He must pull every lever available to him to ensure that two problems in particular aren’t on the ballot in November 2020.
The problems are named Steve King and Roy Moore, and it’s vital for both Trump and his party that they do not win Republican primaries next year. If they do, the GOP will risk losing an Iowa House seat and an Alabama Senate seat that the Democrats shouldn’t have any chance of winning — but more important, these men will serve as an unnecessary and dangerous distraction to a president and a party that will be fighting for their lives in 2020.
While the president has earned himself a reputation as a frequent caller to congressional Republicans to discuss their television appearances and key votes, he has been content, as have many of his predecessors, to let congressional campaign committees manage party slates. In these two races, thus far he has joined the GOP in endorsing a primary challenger to King and tweeted that Moore “cannot win.” Yet he needs to become far more active.
King is seeking his tenth term in a solidly Republican district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1992. Up until 2018, his position as one of the most conservative and controversial members of the House hadn’t harmed him much with Iowans. But that year, he barely squeaked by with a 50–47 percent victory. Iowans may have viewed with distaste comments he made about Hispanic immigrants, as well as his connections to the racist far right.
Then, in January of this year, King questioned why “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” were derogatory terms, causing fellow Republicans to regard him as a liability they were no longer willing to tolerate. Motivated in part by a desire to clean house before criticizing Democrats for their toleration of anti-Semitic remarks by members of their caucus, the House Republican leadership stripped King of all his committee assignments.
But rather than resigning or announcing that he wouldn’t seek another term, King is working hard to get reelected. Democrat J. D. Scholten, who nearly beat King in 2018, is hoping the incumbent is renominated. Democratic consultants quoted by the New York Times give Scholten only a one-in-three chance of flipping the district, but that’s not a chance that either Trump or the GOP should want to take. Nor is King a man they should want carrying their banner. Which is why they’re backing the primary challenge to King from state senator Randy Feenstra.
But Trump has to do more than publicly give his blessing to Feenstra. So long as King is on the ballot next year, he will give liberal journalists and Democrats an excuse to hang him around the necks of other Republicans, whether they oppose him or not. If Trump can’t persuade King to back out of the race, he will have to lend the full weight of his support to his challenger.
The same is true in Alabama, where Judge Roy Moore is threatening to play the same destructive role he did in 2017, when his scandal-ridden candidacy was enough to turn a certain defeat for Democrats into an unexpected victory.
Like King, Moore has always been an outlier among Republicans. Years ago, when he was on the bench, he famously flouted rulings regarding church–state separation issues, earning him a populist following in the state. And after the state’s governor appointed colorless placeholder Luther Strange to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions (who left to become U.S. attorney general), Moore handily defeated Strange — 55–45 percent — in a primary-runoff election.
At that point, two things happened. Trump endorsed Moore in the general election, and evidence emerged about Moore having engaged in predatory behavior with underage girls. Though Senate Republicans signaled that having Moore in their caucus in 2019 would be more of a problem than losing the seat to a Democrat, Trump — and Moore’s backers at Breitbart — stuck with their man in the general election. But the accusations discredited him with enough Republican voters to narrowly swing the election to Democrat Doug Jones.
Since then, most observers have assumed that the electoral fluke that brought Jones to the Senate was sure to be reversed in 2020. But still burning for revenge against his detractors, Moore has announced that he will run again. Though renominating Moore would seem like handing the seat to the Democrats again, it would be foolish for Republicans to assume that he doesn’t have a chance to win their primary again.
This time around, Trump needs to signal that he’s had enough of Moore’s behavior — and his giving gifts to the Democrats. The president needs to pick a more presentable primary opponent and use the full weight of his prestige and power to induce other Republicans to withdraw so as to make the Senate primary a test of Trump’s prestige and not that of the already-discredited state GOP establishment that Moore trounced two years ago.
The responsibility for stopping King and Moore belongs to Trump. If Trump insists on the GOP being loyal to him, it will be up to him to do whatever is necessary to avoid losing either of these seats to the Democrats.