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Trump’s Loyal Senate Republicans

They're crippling the party and bucking the voters because they're afraid of President Trump.
January 24, 2019
Trump’s Loyal Senate Republicans
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). (Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Republicans in Congress are sticking by President Trump in his shutdown debacle and don’t try to talk them out of it. To hell with the bad polling, the hit to GDP, the struggling workers rationing their medicine, or the security threats posed by the effects on the Coast Guard, TSA workers at the nation’s airport, or the FBI. To the congressional Republican caucus, Trump is worth it.

The president spent Wednesday morning tweeting excitedly about “Great unity in the Republican Party” (among other things) and issued his devotees a new mantra: “BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL! This is the new theme, for two years until the Wall is finished (under construction now), of the Republican Party. Use it and pray!” he tweeted.

For real. (The wall isn’t under construction now, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)

On one count Trump is right: Despite the fact that he preemptively owned the government shutdown on live television more than a month ago there really is tremendous unity in the Republican party right now. The Washington Post reported that interviews with 40 senators and staffers showed “lawmakers have all but surrender to the president’s will,” despite polls showing “the GOP bears the brunt of the blame for a standoff few in the party agitated for.”

Indeed the polls, like the economic damage caused by the shutdown, are getting worse by the week. As of Wednesday surveys showed President Trump’s job approval heading in the wrong direction and now at a net -15 in the RealClear Politics average. The public blames Trump for the shutdown by wide margins with voters see the shutdown as a bigger crisis than the border (and that’s from a Fox News poll). And Nancy Pelosi fares better than Trump in the standoff by double digits as Democrats continue to unite behind resisting “government by tantrum,” and Trump’s decision, as they say, to take federal workers, the economy and the nation’s security “hostage” for a campaign promise that Mexico was supposed to take care of.

And yet, Republican officeholders would rather cross the voters than cross Trump, even as the bottom is falling out on the numbers. Take Sen. John Cornyn, who’s up for re-election next year. Cornyn has complained about the damage being done by the shutdown, saying that it’s “Outrageous that federal prosecutors at Department of Justice and investigators at FBI, who we depend on to enforce the law are missing paychecks because of shutdown.” Yet after years of expressing scepticism about the efficacy of a border wall, he tells the Washington Post that he now won’t vote for a bill to reopen government without wall funding because, he said, “the president won’t sign it.”

For his part, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (also up for reelection next year) could put spending bills that have passed the House—which would open all shuttered agencies except the Department of Homeland Security while negotiations continue—up for a vote on the Senate floor. But since the bills might pass, embarrassing Trump and risking a presidential veto, he won’t.

What’s driving this partisan unity is not ideological solidarity, but fear. So far only Senators Lisa Murkowski, Cory Gardner, and Susan Collins (the last two of whom are up for reelection in states Hillary Clinton won) have advocated for reopening the government before negotiating on a wall. When Murkowski was asked by the Post if she believed her GOP colleagues were afraid of the president she replied, “I think some are, absolutely.”

Senator Mike Crapo told (warned?) the Post that his GOP colleagues would pay a price for crossing Trump. “If the president did not agree to a solution and Republicans tried to force a solution, then there’s a political cost to that,” he said.

Crapo may be correct. According to the new CBS poll, some 31 percent of voters want the president to refuse any budget deal without wall funding. Some of those 31 percent dwell in the states Republicans must defend in 2020. But 31 percent doesn’t win elections and the same poll shows that 66 percent of the public want Trump to approve a budget without wall funding. So what Crapo doesn’t say is that this sword has two edges and there will be a cost for keeping the shutdown going, too. The question is really where a senator wants to take their chances: In a potential primary, where their incumbency advantages are comparatively large. Or in a general election where they’ll have to fight not only a Democratic challenger and outside interest groups, but the macro environment, too.

Steve Bannon’s dreams of primarying establishment Senate Republicans died in 2017 when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell overpowered him early in the cycle, months before Trump dumped him as chief strategist. It’s now hard to imagine Trump recruiting serious challengers to run against Cornyn, McConnell, Martha McSally, David Perdue, Joni Ernst, or Thom Tillis. Neither Trump’s administration nor his movement has ever been strong on organization. At most, he might recruit a serious challenger for one of those seats. And even that would be a stretch. If you look at the early match-up polling, Donald Trump is going to have his own problems to worry about in 2020.

But it’s easy to imagine that the poll-defying GOP solidarity on the unpopular border wall, which is extending an unpopular shutdown, will cost Republicans running for reelection next year across the board. Democratic energy will be a threat in Arizona, where McSally lost a Senate race before being appointed to fill out the term of the late Sen. John McCain and in Georgia as well, especially if Stacey Abrams, who lost a close race for governor, runs for Senate. And probably in North Carolina, Texas, and Iowa too.

Trump’s record on primary challenges hasn’t been great. He felt good going after former Rep. Mark Sanford, endorsing Katie Arrington instead, who went on to beat Sanford. But Arrington then lost the general election. So Trump’s primary champion did nothing but flip South Carolina’s first district Democratic. (It’s weird how all of the “binary choice” logic goes out the window when Trump is the one doing the choosing.)

And maybe that’s the reason Senate Republican fear Trump: Because normal presidents are not interested in primarying members of their own party if it means losing seats. But Trump isn’t normal. He’s much rather have a Democrat than a Republican who isn’t loyal to him. Remember “Mia Love gave me no love”? After the midterms, Trump trashed vanquished moderate Republicans who didn’t “embrace” him. He almost seemed to enjoy the Republican losses. For Senate Republicans, living with a president from your own party who would rather lose control of the Senate than lose face must be a new and terrifying proposition.

On Monday, the Washington Post published excerpts from Cliff Sims’s Team of Vipers in which Trump had a phone conversation with Paul Ryan after the then-speaker disavowed white supremacists following Trump’s praising of the fine people “on both sides” at deadly rallies in Charlottesville.

Over the phone, according to Sims’s account Trump said

“Paul, do you know why Democrats have been kicking your a– for decades? Because they know a little word called ‘loyalty,’ ” Trump told Ryan, then a Wisconsin congressman. “Why do you think Nancy [Pelosi] has held on this long? Have you seen her? She’s a disaster. Every time she opens her mouth another Republican gets elected. But they stick with her . . . Why can’t you be loyal to your president, Paul?”

The tormenting continued. Trump recalled Ryan distancing himself from Trump in October 2016, in the days after the “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged of fondling women first surfaced in The Washington Post.

“I remember being in Wisconsin and your own people were booing you,” Trump told him, according to former West Wing communications aide Cliff Sims. “You were out there dying like a dog, Paul. Like a dog!”

Republicans are in the process of risking their Senate majority and their own reelections, not for an important policy, or the good of the party, but for Trump.

At least if they lose like dogs, they will have been loyal to their master.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.