U.S. Representative Mark Sanford is the latest Republican to learn a tough lesson – challenging President Donald Trump can be political suicide.
The South Carolina Republican congressman’s upset loss on Tuesday to a primary opponent who questioned his commitment to Trump, along with a recent setback for Trump critic Martha Roby in Alabama and the Senate nomination of a controversial anti-establishment Trump supporter in Virginia, reinforced the degree to which loyalty to Trump has become a party litmus test.
While fealty to the Republican president may be a requirement to win low-turnout Republican primaries dominated by conservative activists, it could prove a tougher sell against energized anti-Trump Democratic forces in midterm elections this fall.
“A lot of Republicans who hid behind Trump’s toga in the primary are going to pay a price in November,” said veteran Republican consultant Rich Galen, a former aide to ex-U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“It’s the tyranny of small numbers,” Galen added. “In a primary in an off year, a few votes make a difference. But the 35 percent that are Trump voters will represent a small minority in the general election.”
Democrats need to pick up 23 seats in the House and two seats in the Senate in the Nov. 6 elections to regain control of those chambers, allowing them to block Trump’s agenda and possibly launch investigations or even impeachment of the president.
While Trump is popular with Republicans, opinion polls show his general approval hovering in the low 40s percent overall. Many key political battles of the midterms will be fought in swing House districts and big battleground states where loyalty to Trump is not necessarily a badge of honor.
“If those are the candidates we are nominating in swing districts – those who are pro-Trump first and foremost – that could cause problems in November,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said.
Trump’s power among Republicans in nominating primaries was evident when Sanford lost just hours after Trump issued a tweet criticizing him and endorsing his opponent.
The result is likely to be a cautionary tale for other Republicans considering questioning Trump’s personal or policy choices, even when the president strays from long-held party principles on issues like free trade and federal debt.
“It’s Trump’s party now. If you criticize the president, you will face the wrath of the Trump voter,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, a former congressional aide.