As President Donald Trump jetted back from a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, he got some more very good news in Tuesday’s primaries: A prominent Trump critic lost in a GOP primary in South Carolina and a one-time Trump acolyte secured the Senate nomination in Virginia.
The clear message in both races was this: Support Trump and you have a better-than-average chance of winning in a Republican primary. Oppose him – even occasionally – and run the risk of losing for your apostasy.
“We are the party of President Donald J. Trump,” South Carolina state legislator Katie Arrington declared proudly after defeating Rep. Mark Sanford in the 1st District Republican primary.
Sanford may wind up as the poster boy for what crossing Trump gets you: The South Carolina Republican, who had never lost a race in a political career that spanned more than two decades, lost to Arrington in a campaign entirely cast as a referendum on Trump support.
“[Sanford] talks about working with President Trump on the border wall,” Arrington said in one campaign ad. “He was one of only five Republicans who refused to support our President and voted against Trump’s border wall. We’ve all seen Mark on TV attacking our President. Who does he think he’s fooling?”
Trump doubled down on that attack just hours before polls closed in the Palmetto State, tweeting that Sanford “has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA.” Trump followed that up with a self-congratulatory tweet Wednesday morning; “My political representatives didn’t want me to get involved in the Mark Sanford primary thinking that Sanford would easily win - but with a few hours left I felt that Katie was such a good candidate, and Sanford was so bad, I had to give it a shot. Congrats to Katie Arrington!” he tweeted.
While Sanford’s loss will get the lion’s share of attention – for a lot of reasons including Sanford’s own personal transgressions of the past – the victory by one-time Trump aide Corey Stewart in Virginia is at least as big a story. Stewart served as the Virginia director of Trump’s campaign for part of 2016. He was fired from that job in fall 2016 after organizing a rally outside the Republican National Committee to protest the RNC’s alleged lack of support for the party’s nominee.
Stewart remained an ardent Trump loyalist. He ran in the Republican primary for governor against Ed Gillespie in 2017 – and nearly won. During that campaign, he waded deeply into the fight over the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville. He was at a press conference with the white supremacist leader of the protests in that city that eventually led to the death of a counter-protester. Stewart cast the violence of the white supremacists as a “both sides” problem.
Trump cheered Stewart’s victory – telling people: “Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!”
Former Virginia Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling had a different view of Stewart’s win. He 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.”
Trump’s celebration and Bolling’s dejection are the new normal for the Republican Party. This is Donald Trump’s party now. Opposition voices will not be tolerated.
What Trump’s candidacy in 2016 portrayed in stark relief was that the base of the party was miles away from the establishment of the party. While the establishment was touting people like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the base was responding to Trump’s dystopic and angry vision of the state of the country. Everything wasn’t great. These people – and by that Trump met politicians in both parties – have lied to you. They’ve failed. It’s time to do something very, very different.
There was some expectation among Republican establishment types in the wake of Trump’s victory that GOP voters had gotten that –Trumpism, broadly writ – out of their system. Their anger had been purged. Now things could return to normal-ish. (Not even the most optimistic establishment types thought that Trump as President would be just another normal pol.)
Turns out that Trump’s victory was a feature, not a glitch. Before Sanford’s loss and Stewart’s win, Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, who had criticized Trump’s personal conduct, found herself in a runoff with a candidate positioning himself as a pure Trump loyalist. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s on-again, off-again feud with Trump made his reelection bid in 2018 a dicey proposition – and he decided to retire rather than risk it. In Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R) much-publicized book calling into question not just Trump but the Republican Party for acquiescing to him made him enemy No. 1 for the President. Trump was relentless in his attacks on Flake – and the incumbent’s numbers collapsed, forcing him to choose an uphill primary fight against candidates more outwardly loyal to Trump or retirement.
He chose the latter.
Sure, Sanford had issues. He had resigned as governor in 2009 after lying about an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman. And he made a lot of enemies during his time as governor – particularly among state legislators – with his go-it-alone style and what many saw a political grandstanding. But, had he never said anything negative about Trump, it’s hard to see how Arrington (or anyone) beats him in this primary. After all, Sanford had all those same flaws in 2013, but he managed to win a special election to reclaim his old 1st District seat.
The developments of the last 24 hours cement this reality: If you come at Trump, you are in for a world of hurt within the Republican Party. And that makes Donald Trump very, very happy.