For Republicans on the ballot, it’s tough to totally reject Trump

July 17, 2018 5:00 am

President Donald J. Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews | May 10, 2018 (Official White House Photos by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Much has been made of longtime respected Republicans calling for voting against their own party.

Steve Schmidt, a lifelong GOP activist and the man who, as John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008, brought us Sarah Palin, recently resigned from the party and said he would support Democrats this fall. George Will, the conservative columnist who has an historic quote from somebody on just about everything, also called on his brethren to vote against Republicans.

Closer to home, Bill Bolling, the former Republican lieutenant governor of Virginia, tweeted: “I am extremely disappointed that a candidate like Corey Stewart could win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. This is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served. Every time I think things can’t get worse they do, and there is no end in sight.”

John Whitbeck,the chair of the Virginia GOP, announced his resignation just three weeks after Stewart secured the nomination.

While these are big guys making big news, the fact is that neither Schmidt nor Will nor Whitbeck has ever run for anything, and Bolling’s days as a candidate are over. They’ve been big rooters, and sometimes among the loudest, but in the end they aren’t carrying the ball.

Until Monday, the Republican men and women who are, those running for election or re-election this year, were either uniformly pro-Donald Trump or judiciously quiet about Trump. Think Stewart and Dave Brat – Trumpists to the core.

Think also of Barbara Comstock. She’s perhaps the most vulnerable Republican in the country, and she knows it. When it comes to questions about Trump, she tends to keep her head down and keep moving. She knows she needs his voters to have any chance; she knows he’s killing her.

Comstock won her primary in a blue district by threading the needle. Stewart won by out-Trumping his opponents. He has famously bragged that he was Trump before Trump.  Brat, too, has positioned his big grin right beside Trump’s dour puss.

Not so Scott Taylor, the 2nd District GOP congressman trying to fend off a challenge from Democrat Elaine Luria. Taylor has had to twist himself into knots over whether he supports Stewart and Trump. The University of Virginia’s Center of Politics rates the 2nd District a “toss-up,” by the way.

And now, at long last and in the shadow of a truly awful performance by the president, a few Republicans who are running for office – or at least we assume they’re still running — have managed to screw up their courage and criticize Trump.

Of course, this comes only after the man went so far as to publicly bend a knee to the thug who runs Russia.  Taylor had a few negative words to say, though instead of condemning Trump, he said in a written statement that he was disappointed. Comstock issued a statement condemning Russian aggression, election meddling and backing the intelligence community, but conspicuously did not mention the president. Brat said nothing. His district? Also a “toss-up.

The strongest Republican criticism still appears to come from those who aren’t running — Paul Ryan, John McCain, Bob Corker among them.

One guy who was running and decidedly didn’t position himself with Trump, long before Trump’s unbelievable press conference with Putin on Monday, was Mark Sanford of South Carolina, he of the fantasy walk along the Appalachian Trail all the way to Argentina.

Sanford has pointed out that his extra-marital affair of a few years ago, when he was governor, and most importantly his lying about it, cost him his job, a lot of money and led to major changes in his life. The day after he lost his primary to a Trump supporter, Trump met with the Republican caucus and called Sanford a “nasty guy.”

Trump claimed that the members in the room applauded and laughed at what he said. That, several of those members have said, is not true.

Sanford later told CNN: “A buddy had called me about it last night and he said, ‘Well I guess you know his account will be the one that wins the day.’ And I said, ‘Well, if that’s true, we got a much bigger problem,’ because if truth is determined by whoever has the loudest microphone, then we have a fundamental crisis with regard to the way that our society works.”

Sanford is a conservative member of Congress who has spoken out against Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party to serve his own needs and it cost him his seat in Congress.

Stewart, Brat, and even Comstock all won their primaries, as did most of the candidates who openly supported Trump, but they were primaries – Republican vs. Republican. Republicans who vote in the primaries are the voters who voted for Trump – they’re the hardcore believers, not the one-timers who came out in 2016 for anybody but Hillary. The primary season is behind us now, and as my mother would have said in her curious Germanic syntax, “now comes with the hair out.”

J. Tucker Martin, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s former communications director, said, “Life is tricky right now for Republicans in Virginia.” Trumpism plays well for Republicans in places like North Dakota or West Virginia, where the electorate as a whole is more supportive, but not in Virginia, where Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by five points.

The Republican candidates who survived the primaries will each have his or her own name on the ballot, but every single one of them will be running as Donald J. Trump. Come November, a vote for any Republican will be a vote for Trump, and a vote against any Republican will be a vote against him.

Martin said “the crux of the problem” for Republicans in Virginia is that the candidates have cast their lot with Trump in order to win their party’s nomination. “Doubling down on Trump in Virginia is a bad fit,” he said. “Virginia Republicans need to create a brand” that is separate from Trump.

Martin pointed to Vermont, Maryland, and Massachusetts, traditionally Democratic states with Republican governors, as models.

But he doesn’t see a working model for Virginia this year.

“In some states Trumpism works; in Virginia it doesn’t,” he said.

And he said that before Trump’s disastrous display Monday, which was a bridge too far for many a Republican.

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Gordon Hickey
Gordon Hickey

Gordon Hickey is a lifelong reporter and editor who worked for more than 20 years at The Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch covering law enforcement, courts, and politics. He also served as Gov. Tim Kaine's press secretary and most recently was director of communications at the Virginia State Bar.