What Pandemic? Republican Primaries Are All About Donald Trump

GOP primary ads focus on loyalty to the president above all else.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the first senator to back President Donald Trump in 2016. He’s likely to lose
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the first senator to back President Donald Trump in 2016. He’s likely to lose the GOP primary in his reelection bid because Trump endorsed his opponent.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 137,000 Americans, and the number of cases is growing in nearly every state. The unemployment rate has jumped to above 11% nationally, and nearly one-third of U.S. households missed their rent or mortgage payments in July. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has set off a national debate on policing and race.

Instead of promoting policies to help the country battle its economic doldrums, its long history of racism or the rampaging pandemic, Republicans running for Congress are often arguing about who supports President Donald Trump the most or who said the meanest thing about him four years ago. 

In races set for Tuesday in Alabama, Maine and Texas, the battle on the airwaves has revolved around each candidate’s loyalty to Trump, the latest display of how internal GOP politics are dictated by the president’s whims and desires to the exclusion of even the most important policy fights.

“There’s nothing as powerful an asset in a Republican primary as President Trump’s endorsement, because he’s done what he promised and has governed as a conservative,” said Joe Kildea, a spokesperson for the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has aired ads in Maine and Alabama attacking Republicans it deems insufficiently pro-Trump. 

Sinking Sessions

The highest-profile race is taking place in Alabama, where public polling shows former Attorney General Jeff Sessions trailing behind former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in a runoff battle for the GOP Senate nomination. The winner of the race will be a favorite to reclaim the seat for Republicans against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones. 

Sessions, who held the seat before joining the Trump administration and had won reelection four times, once with nearly 98% of the vote, would normally be an overwhelming favorite. But Trump, angered by Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from an investigation into Trump’s potential collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, endorsed Tuberville shortly after the February runoff election. He called Sessions ― the first senator to endorse him in 2016 and the man who helped craft his anti-immigration platform ― “a disaster who has let us all down.”

Early in the race, Sessions tried to fight back, airing ads that highlighted comments Tuberville made criticizing Trump’s handling of trade with China and undocumented immigration. But after Trump’s endorsement, his campaign abandoned that tack. In the closing days of the race, Sessions’ team has unleashed a grab bag of attacks on Tuberville, criticizing his role in a failed hedge fund and slamming him for refusing to debate during the runoff and for living part-time in Florida.

Tuberville, meanwhile, has mostly played the hits and dodged the press. His most recent ad quotes a tweet from Trump, then plays a clip of Trump saying that appointing Sessions was his biggest regret as president. On Monday night, Tuberville tweeted out an audio clip of Trump praising him and bashing Sessions.

“Tommy Tuberville will have a call direct line in to my office,” Trump says in the clip. “We had the Jeff Sessions thing, we gave it a shot. I had no idea it could be as bad it was, but he had no clue.” 

As Tuberville and Sessions have battled over Trump’s blessing, coronavirus cases in Alabama have spiked, with 5,000 new infections confirmed this past weekend. Jones’ second ad of the campaign, released earlier this month, is a simple call for Alabamans to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of the virus.

Rescuing An Ally From Scandal

If the Alabama race shows how Trump has the power to essentially end the career of a longtime power broker, a runoff election in Texas’ 13th Congressional District shows how his endorsement can lift a candidate who might otherwise have to fight off the lingering scent of a scandal.

The 13th District, which covers much of the Texas panhandle along with parts of North Texas, is among the most solidly Republican districts in the country. Rep. Mac Thornberry held the seat for 13 terms and then endorsed Josh Winegarner, an agriculture industry lobbyist, to replace him when he decided to retire earlier this year.

But Trump chose to endorse White House doctor Ronny Jackson, whom he had previously nominated to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs before a scandal over allegations that Jackson improperly dispensed medication forced Trump to withdraw the nomination. Jackson grew up in a neighboring district and had only moved to the 13th District in 2019 after retiring from the Navy.

“He stood with Donald Trump, against the swamp,” a narrator says in one of Jackson’s campaign ads, which alleges that “the liberal left used lies against Ronny Jackson to attack President Trump.”

Winegarner and a super PAC supporting him have fought back with ads playing up his roots in the district and attacking Jackson over his scandals, calling him “the candyman” and an “Obama Republican.”

Neither candidate’s ads have mentioned the pandemic. 

Winegarner was the clear leader in the first round of voting in February, winning 39% of the vote to Jackson’s 20%. There’s been limited public polling on the race since, though two pro-Jackson groups have released surveys showing him with healthy leads in the contest. Democrats have no serious chance of winning the seat in November. 

A Trump War That’s Actually About War

Trump hasn’t endorsed any of the major candidates in the GOP primary in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, but that hasn’t stopped him from defining the race for the right to challenge Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in this swing district, which covers most of rural Maine. 

There’s an actual ideological battle occurring here: Libertarians who are skeptical of the national security state and foreign adventurism, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, are backing Eric Brakey, a former state senator, while more establishment forces are supporting former state Rep. Dale Crafts, who holds standard hawkish GOP foreign policy views. (A third candidate, Adrienne Bennett, who was a spokesperson for former GOP Gov. Paul LePage, has a chance to win but isn’t playing a central role in the fight over foreign policy. She’s described herself as a “pro-Trump Republican.”) 

This split has led to ads not about whether the United States should withdraw troops from Afghanistan or shrink its overseas military footprint, but instead about recriminations about loyalty to Trump. The American Policy Fund, a super PAC that won’t have to disclose its donors until after the election, is attacking Brakey for criticizing Trump during the 2016 race.

“He compared Trump to Hillary Clinton and even talked about setting fire to Trump merchandise,” a narrator says in the 30-second ad.

Protect Freedom PAC, which supports Libertarian candidates, responded with an ad linking the group to former national security adviser John Bolton, a hawk who published a memoir in June detailing Trump’s lack of foreign policy knowledge and unpreparedness for the presidency. (American Policy Fund and a super PAC run by Bolton have the same treasurer.)

“John Bolton lies about President Trump, and now Bolton’s henchmen are doing the same thing to Trump conservative Eric Brakey,” the narrator says.

Public polling of the race is limited, and forecasting the three-way race is difficult because of Maine’s ranked-choice voting rules. 

The winner of the GOP race will have a strong chance of picking up the toss-up seat in November. Trump won the 2nd District by 10 percentage points in 2016, while Golden ― a veteran and former staffer for Sen. Susan Collins, who is considered a strong candidate ― won by just under 1,000 votes during the Democratic wave year of 2018.