President Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, but a new report from the Brookings Institution analyzing Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms indicates that the GOP doesn’t want to talk about him.
The majority of Republican nominees in the 2018 midterms don’t mention Trump on the campaign trail, according to Brookings’s analysis. Of all non-incumbent Republicans running for the House, 53 percent don’t talk about the president at all. Just 37 percent of Republican candidates talk of Trump positively. And among Republican nominees who have already won their primaries, a slimmer 33 percent talk of Trump in a positive light.
On one hand, this makes sense; Trump has had a consistently low approval rating, and the political party in power is usually disadvantaged in the midterm elections. In that regard, it’s easy to see why it would be politically expedient for candidates to distance themselves from both a controversial president and an unpopular Republican-led Congress.
We’ve already seen some high-profile examples of this in contested Republican primaries. Two pro-Trump House Republican candidates in the Indiana Republican Senate race fell short of business-minded outsider Mike Braun. In Tennessee, Rep. Diane Black, who had billed herself as the president’s pick, also lost to a more traditional business-minded Republican candidate, Bill Lee. In both those cases, House Republican candidates lost to outsiders.
On the other hand, this finding is somewhat at odds with how we have seen the Republican Party behave under Trump.
Since Trump has taken office, elected Republicans have bent over backward to defend the president, even in his most indefensible moments. Conservatives have abandoned long-held positions on open immigration, free trade, and small government to stand in lockstep behind a president who has established a xenophobic and isolationist agenda, and paid little attention to the bloated deficit. They’ve found ways to excuse Trump’s praises of dictators and his racist dog whistles.
And we’ve seen the political downfall of Trump’s biggest critics on Capitol Hill, from Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), who lost his primary to a far-right challenger, to Sens. Jeff Flake (AZ) and Bob Corker (TN), who have censured the president most aggressively and both felt pressure to retire.
When Flake announced his retirement, he warned against the Republican Party becoming the party of Trump.
“I’m aware that there’s a segment of my party that believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect,” he said then.
But perhaps, as those already in office fight to side with the president, the tide may be turning with Republican candidates on the ground.