Analysis: Trump puts stranglehold on GOP — and woe to any Republican who objects

Rep. Mark Sanford's loss in South Carolina's GOP primary was his first election defeat and grew largely out of his criticism of President Trump.
(Wade Spees / Associated Press)

Mark Sanford blew up his marriage and became a national laughingstock when he sneaked off his job as South Carolina governor for a tryst with his Argentine lover.

After he forsook his presidential ambitions and spent time in political purgatory, voters forgave Sanford’s trespass and, in 2013, elected him their representative in Congress.

But on Tuesday, Sanford was tossed from office by his Republican constituents for committing a far graver sin: criticizing President Trump.


With his bulldozing personality, Trump has transformed the GOP from a party of anti-communist cold warriors to one that coos over North Korea’s communist dictator, from a champion of free trade to an instigator of trade wars.

And woe to those within the party who challenge his direction or judgment.

“If you’re a Republican member of Congress who wants to speak out against Trump, you have a couple of choices,” said David Wasserman, who handicaps House races nationwide for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Retire or lose your next primary.”

The Trump takeover, which seemed shaky after his favored candidates in a 2017 Alabama Senate race faltered and fell, now seems complete.

A candidate elected over the strong protestations of the Republican Party establishment, who failed to win the popular vote and has consistently earned the lowest approval ratings of any president at this stage in his term, has emerged, at least so far as the GOP is concerned, as its kingmaker supreme.

A well-timed Twitter post even helped lift the nondescript Republican John Cox past Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor, into the gubernatorial runoff against Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in deep-blue California.


Part of Trump’s strengthening grip on the party may reflect passage of a sweeping tax cut, a page from Republican gospel, which reassured the faithful that Trump could deliver on some of their priorities.

Part may also stem from Trump’s success in convincing Republicans he is under siege by what he describes as a politically motivated “witch hunt” into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign.

Sanford faced an opponent, state lawmaker Katie Arrington, who made the South Carolina contest an explicit referendum on loyalty to the president. She labeled Sanford an obstructionist — though he voted the overwhelming majority of the time for the president’s agenda — and ran a TV ad splicing together Sanford’s assorted criticisms of Trump.

“I respect the office of the president,” Arrington said during an election-eve debate with her opponent. “You can’t have a seat at the table in the Oval Office because you have offended the president numerous times.”

In another ad, she took a veiled swipe at Sanford’s affair and his phony alibi — that he was off by himself, hiking the Appalachian Trail — when he was out of the country with his lover. “Bless his heart,” she said, “but it’s time for Mark Sanford to take a hike — for real this time.”

Hours before the polls closed Tuesday, Trump weighed in from Air Force One with a taunting tweet:

Arrington scratched out a narrow win, 51% to 47%.

The president wasn’t golden in every race he touched. In South Carolina’s gubernatorial primary, incumbent Henry McMaster, one of Trump’s earliest 2016 supporters, was forced into a runoff despite Trump’s endorsement.

But the president’s electoral impact Tuesday was undeniable and concerning to those who fear the Grand Old Party has surrendered its core principles and become “a cult of personality,” as Erick Erickson, a conservative talk radio host and prominent political blogger, put it in an election night tweet.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee used much the same language Wednesday, telling reporters, “It’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of, purportedly, the same party.”

For their part, Republican voters seem much less concerned than Corker and the like, and it is their judgment that matters far more to any GOP lawmaker wishing to extend his or her lease on political life.

The most recent weekly Gallup survey put Trump’s approval at 90% among Republicans, the peak of his presidency and a mark approaching George W. Bush’s high-water standing in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

The GOP is not as divided as Trump critics would like to portray, said John Feehery, a former aide to the Republican House leadership. Say what they will, the party rank-and-file are united behind Trump.

Tellingly, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 GOP rival and one of Trump’s fiercest critics, now has a higher job approval among Democrats than Republicans, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll of the state; he needn’t worry about partisan detractors, however, as term limits prevent Kasich from running a third time.

If you’re a Republican member of Congress who wants to speak out against Trump, you have a couple of choices. Retire or lose your next primary.

— Political analyst David Wasserman

Indeed, it is no accident that two of the president’s harshest and most publicly vocal Republican critics, Corker and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, have announced they will step aside rather than seek reelection in November.

Corker mocked his Senate colleagues earlier this week in a floor debate for opposing a measure that sought to constrain Trump’s power to impose tariffs, the spark in a brewing trade war with U.S. allies.

“‘No, no, no, gosh, we might poke the bear,’ is the language I’ve been hearing in the hallways,” Corker scoffed. “‘The president might get upset with us as United States senators.’”

Sanford, though perhaps the most clear-cut example, is not the only Republican who has suffered for showing insufficient fealty to the president.

Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama never went as far as Sanford, who, among other criticisms, called for Trump to release his tax returns, accused him of fanning “the flames of intolerance” and suggested at one point in the 2016 campaign that “he just shut up” and stop obsessing over his critics.

Roby’s heresy was withdrawing her endorsement of Trump after a videotape surfaced in which he bragged how his celebrity allowed him to grope women as he pleased. The four-term incumbent was forced into a July runoff with a Democrat-turned-Republican, Bobby Bright, who accused Roby of “turning her back” on Trump “when he needed her most.”

In Virginia on Tuesday, a little-known upstart won nearly 40% of the GOP primary vote against Rep. Barbara Comstock, who called for Trump to drop out of the presidential race after broadcast of the 2005 videotape. Voters also nominated Corey Stewart, a Prince William County supervisor and commonwealth carbon of Trump — best known as a defender of Confederate symbolism — to take on Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in November.

South Carolina is a staunchly conservative state, and there is no question that Arrington, having won the GOP primary, will go on to represent the 1st Congressional District, which takes in Charleston and runs along much of the coast.

The defeat is the first in Sanford’s 20-plus year in politics, and Trump, never one to miss a chance, celebrated Wednesday with a gloating tweet, saying he overrode the recommendation of advisors to lend Arrington his support.

Feehery, a communications strategist under former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, said his advice to GOP lawmakers was to focus in their reelection campaigns on tax cuts, the economy, rising business confidence and other good tidings.

As for the president, Feehery’s counsel was something Mom might suggest: “If you can’t say anything nice about Trump, don’t say anything at all.



2:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and analysis.

This article was originally published at 11:50 a.m.