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  • Arthur Kleinman

Primary Wins for Establishment Republicans keep the Senate in play - but at what cost?

The current outlook for the GOP is nothing if not grim. At the turn of the year, many on the right were bullish about the impending election. While the current president remained a divisive figure, unpopular with large swathes of the American public, he was nevertheless a first term incumbent presiding over an outwardly robust economy – a position which seldom proves to be electorally disadvantageous.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, almost custom built to highlight Trump’s shortcomings as an administrator, a fact borne out by the US having both the highest number of cases and deaths in the world. Unsurprisingly, this has turned a not insignificant proportion of the electorate away from the incumbent, and as such what had hitherto been shaping up to be a genuinely unpredictable and competitive race could now realistically produce a Democratic landslide. The stakes for the congressional GOP – let alone the Trump presidency – have become existential. It is against this backdrop that extensive media attention was directed toward two recent Republican Senate primaries in Kansas and Tennessee, both of which pitted (relatively) moderate, ‘safe’ establishment candidates against more bellicose Trumpian populists.

To grasp the significance of these primaries, one need only glance at a few opinion polls taken within the last couple of months. According to the RealClearPolitics tracker, Joe Biden (as of the time of writing) holds an average lead of 6.9%, with many recent polls projecting an even wider gap. Notably, this lead holds in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three erstwhile Democratic states that were key to Trump’s victory in 2016; that said, polls taken in these states prior to the 2016 election mistakenly indicated a similarly optimistic outlook for the Clinton campaign. Much more concerning for Republican strategists is the fact that Biden is challenging Trump in traditionally red Texas and Georgia, let alone enjoying a persistent lead in other 2016-Trump states such as Arizona and North Carolina. In particular, if the GOP loses Texas – a distinct possibility at this stage – it is extraordinarily difficult to imagine Trump returning to the White House. Meanwhile, the mutually perpetuating health and economic crises induced by the pandemic are only deepening, and the Biden campaign remains flush with cash.

If the presidential race is looking difficult for Republicans, the House of Representatives is at this stage perceived by many among their number to be a lost cause. Rather than adopting an offensive poise and attempting to reclaim their majority as originally planned, the GOP is being pushed by necessity toward a strategy of retrenchment. This development can be attributed to Trump’s increasing unpopularity in hitherto solidly red suburban areas, and the Democratic Party’s robust support and fundraising for their own candidates running in said areas. There is reason to believe that the Republican establishment, having realised the realities on the ground, has subsequently given up on meaningfully contending the House this cycle; reports that the Republican National Committee denied funding to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which works to help elect GOP candidates to the House, are highly indicative in that regard.

That leaves the Senate as the last potential vestige of Republican governmental power. In November, 35 of the upper chamber’s 100 seats will be contested: 23 of which are held by Republicans, and 12 of which by Democrats. Currently, the former hold 53 seats to the latter’s 47 (including liberal independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders). If the Democrats are to win a majority, they will need to increase their haul by four seats, or three if Joe Biden wins the presidency. This is further complicated by the fact that Doug Jones, the party’s senator in Alabama, is almost certain to lose having primarily won the seat in 2017 due to the array of credible sexual assault allegations levied against Roy Moore, his Republican opponent.

Nevertheless, due to the overriding political circumstances, this gap is nowhere near insurmountable for the Democrats. North Carolina, Maine, Arizona and Colorado in particular present the most lucrative opportunities for the left; all host vulnerable Republican incumbents who have consistently trailed their Democratic challengers in polls over recent months. Additionally, Republican held Senate seats that would ordinarily be considered longer shots – such as those in Montana, Iowa and South Carolina – are also increasingly in play thanks to the unpopularity of Trump and a robust Democratic campaign effort.

With this in mind, the objective of the GOP Senate leadership has been to minimise the number of seats vulnerable to Democrats by supporting the nomination of less divisive candidates. The Kansas and Tennessee primaries proved to be a ‘ground zero’ of sorts for these efforts.

The former race saw hard-line conservative stalwart Kris Kobach pitted against erstwhile House-member Roger Marshall, a one time endorsee of John Kasich, who whilst having since dialled up his pro-Trump rhetoric, remains a more moderate, establishment-inclined figure within the party. In contrast, Kobach initially built his controversial profile as Kansas’s Secretary of State, becoming known for his harsh approach to undocumented migrants and prolific, dubious claims regarding voter fraud. In both these areas his win could anticipate a Trump victory. The president most likely recognised this, and as such opted to endorse Kobach in his bid to be nominated for the 2018 Kansas gubernatorial race. Kobach won that primary, but would go on to lose the election against Democrat Laura Kelly (despite Trump winning the state by 21 points in 2016).

This time around, the President withheld his endorsement, and various GOP grandees – among them Pat Roberts, who had previously held the Senate seat being fought for, and Newt Gingrich – came out in support of Marshall. Gingrich in particular criticised Kobach as an unelectable “[Chuck] Schumer candidate”, implying that the latter was favoured by Democrats. Interestingly enough, this claim wasn’t unsubstantiated; a Democratic PAC spent $5 million on television ads supporting Kobach, almost certainly in the hopes of preventing a victory for the steadier Marshall.

At an immediate level, the Tennessee Senate primary adhered to a similar dynamic; Bill Hagerty, previously the US ambassador to Japan (appointed by the current administration) and an established figure within Republican circles, faced off against Manny Sethi, a belligerent conservative populist. However, this race was distinguished by its remarkably vitriolic character and the extent of external interest it garnered.

Over the course of the campaign, Sethi repeatedly lambasted Hagerty for what he alleged was the latter’s personal and political proximity to Mitt Romney – for instance, citing the ex-ambassador’s enthusiastic support of the Utah senator’s 2008 and 2012 presidential bids. He even went as far as asserting that individuals like Romney (who famously voted to impeach the President) had “no place in the Republican Party anymore” and commented that “Bill Hagerty represents that [tradition]” in an interview with POLITICO. Likely in response to Sethi’s aggressive cultural rhetoric – including overt hostility to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests following the murder by police officers of George Floyd – Hagerty also moved to bolster his credentials as a cultural populist, describing the BLM movement as “anti-Semitic”, “Marxist” and anti-Christian.

Not only did the Tennessee primary unearth the reams of toxicity circulating beneath the GOP’s uniform exterior, but it also indicated what the ideological contours of the party might look like in a post-Trump world. Sethi garnered the endorsements of outspoken libertarian Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and self-styled outsider Ted Cruz of Texas, while Hagerty received the support of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (also of Kentucky) and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, in addition to that of the President himself.

Both Marshall and Hagerty ended up winning their primaries, and will compete to secure the open Senate seats of Kansas and Tennessee respectively in November. Republican grandees are undoubtedly content with this outcome; both candidates are more likely to comfortably fend off Democratic opponents than their populistic counterparts would have been. This, in turn, will further insulate the GOP against the prospect of losing one of their safer races, and thus allow its operatives to allocate more resources toward the protection of exposed incumbents such as Susan Collins in Maine or Cory Gardner in Colorado. However, both primaries – Tennessee in particular – have starkly highlighted the tensions bubbling under the surface amongst Republicans, and the increasingly likely scenario of a Trump defeat could serve to blow them into the open in a dramatic and destructive fashion. Sooner or later, the American right will have to concretely determine its political and cultural identity.

Image: Flickr// Geoff Livingston

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