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Trump’s biggest Republican critics paid the price in their primaries on Tuesday

There’s a pattern to which Republicans are most likely to lose in a primary.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) faced a tough primary in Virginia on Tuesday.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) faced a tough primary in Virginia on Tuesday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There was a moment back in the summer of 2016 when it seemed reasonable to think that Donald Trump was doomed after an Access Hollywood tape surfaced featuring him claiming he liked to grab women “by the pussy.”

It wasn’t exactly controversial for Republican women to be upset: Rep. Barbara Comstock said the remarks were “vile,” and Rep. Martha Roby said Trump’s behavior made him “unacceptable as a candidate for president” and vowed not to vote for him.

But fast-forward to 2018 and it’s not Trump who is paying the price for his comments. It’s the women who spoke up. Comstock faced a serious primary on Tuesday from Shak Hill, who tried to paint her as a Never-Trumper, and won with a less-than-inspiring 60 percent of the vote. Two weeks ago, Roby failed to secure enough votes to win renomination outright in Alabama and will battle the Trump-aligned Bobby Bright in a July runoff election. Both Congress members voted with Trump’s agenda 97 percent of the time.

The Access Hollywood tape is an extreme example of a broader trend playing out in Republican primaries across the country. On Tuesday, the biggest surprise loss was the most vocal critic in the Freedom Caucus: Rep. Mark Sanford. It’s now clear that any Republican whose loyalty to Trump is in doubt is on the ropes. And those who’ve stuck by him through everything, particularly through the tape saga, are reaping the rewards.

Trump critics are on the ropes around the country

Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) developed a brand of criticizing Trump.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) developed a brand of criticizing Trump.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rep. Mark Sanford, who once gave an interview to Politico titled — a little too appropriately— “I’m a Dead Man Walking” looked like he was going to lose his South Carolina primary on Tuesday, racking up yet another loss for those critical of Trump. Rep. Katie Arrington won the nomination with 51 percent of the vote, handing Sanford an embarrassing loss.

Though Arrington nominally ran against Sanford by calling him a “Washington insider” who is responsible for “obstructionism” — coupled with a sprinkling of references to his “Appalachian Trail” scandal — is was Stanford’s criticism of President Trump that ultimately did him in.

Sanford has made a brand for himself criticizing Trump. In an interview after the June 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice, he said Trump was “partially” to blame for “demons that have been unleashed.” He also said Trump should “just shut up” and stop focusing so much on his critics during the campaign. On election day, Trump made it clear he was not pleased.

In races across the country, from Virginia to Alabama to South Carolina, the political careers of Trump haters are starting to crumble. Life is better for those who’ve atoned.

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, the most endangered Senate Republican in November’s midterms, has also been critical of Trump at times, once holding a press conference in the throes of Obamacare repeal that criticized the efforts of Nevada’s popular moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

But Heller, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall when Trump publicly called him out during a meeting on Obamacare repeal, reversed course and voted in favor of every single bill aimed at repealing the health care law. His backpedaling was rewarded, and Trump tweeted that Heller’s primary challenger, Danny Tarkanian, should drop out of the race. (He did.) Heller won his primary on Tuesday easily.

Nevada has become bluish; it went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and a Senate seat left open by retiring House Minority Leader Harry Reid was easily won by Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto. The Cook Political Report rates Heller’s Senate seat as a D+1. Heller would have every reason to distance himself from Trump, but he knows that doing so would be political suicide in his primary.

One of the most amazing transformations to watch has been former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He’s made an extreme about-face after calling Trump “a con man, a fake,” in a high-profile speech during the 2016 election.

Now that he’s running for Senate in Utah, he’s singing a very different tune. “He has departed in some cases from the truth and has attacked in a way that I think is not entirely appropriate,” Romney said in a recent interview, leveling mild criticisms at Trump. “I think that his policies have been, by and large, a good deal better than I might have expected.”

As my colleague Tara Golshan observed, “Romney’s recent remarks are surprisingly forgiving toward Trump’s repeated lies, offensive and inflammatory comments, and often rash policymaking tactics, given his position throughout the 2016 election cycle.”

Parties always go through ideological realignments and come up with new litmus tests when new party leaders take over — for example, defending Obamacare became key to Democrats’ survival during the previous presidency. But these days, the only test for Republicans that seems to matter is personal loyalty to Trump.

The message from Republican primary voters is clear: If you’re not on board with Trump, we don’t want you.

Some sitting Republicans saw the writing on the wall early. Their solution: Just quit.

That’s the lesson Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake learned after his public criticism of Trump suggested he would probably lose his primary to the Trump-aligned Kelli Ward. Rather than face an embarrassing primary loss, Flake said he would not run for reelection in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor. He still occasionally makes critical remarks about Trump, but he hasn’t gone so far as to actually put Trump’s agenda in serious jeopardy. Despite threatening to withhold his vote on Obamacare repeal efforts and the Republican tax bill, he ultimately voted for both.

It’s the same with Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a deficit hawk who seemed to raise objections about the lack of pay-fors in the Republican tax bill, only to mysteriously come around to supporting it. Corker, too, realized his endless TV interviews criticizing Trump would likely cause him to lose his primary to Rep. Marsha Blackburn. He retired, and now Blackburn is running for his vacated seat.

Never-Trumpers are doomed in the Republican Party

Kellyanne Conway calls Republicans who stuck by Trump the “October 8 coalition.”
Kellyanne Conway calls Republicans who stuck by Trump the “October 8 coalition.”
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Republican Party has gone through a bit of a journey on Donald Trump. Back in the primary, many debated whether Trump could ever crack his “ceiling” of 30 percent support. The prominent conservative magazine National Review devoted an entire print issue to never voting for Trump.

We know how that worked out. Trump managed to win the election with a minority of the vote and a majority of the Electoral College — something he likes to continually remind everyone of.

Kellyanne Conway calls this the “October 8 coalition,” saying the fact that some stood by Trump amid those accusations “tells you something about their tenacity and loyalty,” she said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

Though that’s the biggest loyalty test, it tells you a lot about how the Republican Party has begun to think of itself in relation to Trump: Either you’re with us or you’re against us.

These days, most Republicans have accepted reality and lined up behind Trump. But the principled few spend time speaking out against Trump, even if the threats wind up seeming empty. After all, Republicans in Congress have still passed all of Trump’s agenda items (save Obamacare repeal, which came within one vote of passage) and haven’t actually followed through on threats to leave the party.

As my colleague David Roberts writes in a lengthy rebuttal to prominent Never-Trumper Jerry Taylor, Republicans who don’t like Trump really only have one option:

From where we are now sitting, the conflict looks inevitable: America’s dwindling white Protestant majority, facing off against an unwieldy coalition of challengers, increasingly driven to “authoritarian, blood and soil politics” in defense of privilege. As that new study in PNAS puts it, what motivates Trump voters are trends that “threaten white Americans’ sense of dominant group status.”

That battle must play itself out. The GOP will only change when white-grievance politics is consistently rejected at the ballot box, as it is in California. Only if that happens will the party be open to change.

And if the party wants to change, it will seek reformers willing to return home.

That battle could take years, even decades. But by Taylor’s own reckoning, if the blood-and-soil contingent wins, American democracy could be lost. There is only one alternative to that outcome: the other side winning.

Like it or not, there are only two parties that matter in the US. For a Trumpist GOP to lose, the Democratic Party must win. ‘Tis math.

It seems like if they don’t leave, the party will force them out anyway.