President Trump smiles during an April roundtable discussion on tax policy in West Virginia. Republican Senate candidates Rep. Evan Jenkins, left, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, to the president’s right, appeared with him and are seeking his approval. (Evan Vucci/AP)
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Among his qualifications for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Evan Jenkins wants West Virginia voters to know that he once attended a Christmas party with Donald Trump, flew with him on Air Force One and watched two movies in the president’s private theater at the White House.
“He sat there right from beginning to end,” Jenkins (R) said of the screenings of “12 Strong,” a military thriller, and “The 15:17 to Paris,” the recent Clint Eastwood flick. “I have a great working relationship with him.”
Mitt Romney, a Senate candidate in Utah who called Trump a “phony, a fraud” during the presidential election campaign, recently embraced the president’s confrontational moves on trade and insisted he was tougher on immigration than Trump. And in Nevada, another Republican and former Trump foe, Sen. Dean Heller has been praising the president’s policies in private meetings, while publicly saying that their relationship has “grown.”
Such flattery matters in GOP Senate primaries these days, even as Republicans in Washington express increasing unease with the president’s contradictory and pugilistic style of governance.
In intraparty fights across the country, fealty to Trump has become the coin of the realm. Candidates who once distanced themselves from him now declare themselves acolytes, attack rivals for any deviation from the Trumpian script and, in one case, even don his cherry-red campaign cap in ads.
“I’ll proudly stand with our president and Mike Pence to drain the swamp,” a hat-wearing Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) says in a recent ad, which started airing days before the Associated Press republished a 2016 interview in which he called Trump “vulgar, if not profane.” Rokita is seeking the nomination to run against Sen. Joe Donnelly (D).
At the root of the fawning rapprochements are two defining features of the Senate landscape: Trump enjoys enormous popularity among Republican primary voters, and most of the contested races are in states Trump won in 2016.
“I haven’t seen a state where among Republicans his favorables are anything less than 80 percent,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who has polled for Trump. “The challenge is going to be for the Republicans, whether it’s the congressional races or the Senate races, to get the bases motivated.”
But in most of the competitive House races, Republican candidates have been taking the opposite approach of their peers who are running for the Senate — carefully distancing themselves from Trump and trying to establish their own brand. The moves come as concerns are rising among Republicans that Democrats are now favored to seize control of the House this fall, a fact that was highlighted this week with the decision of Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) not to seek reelection.
In total, 46 Republicans have so far retired or said they will not seek reelection, and many of them come from the more moderate wing of the party. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats in the House and two seats in the Senate to gain control of the chambers.
While the decisive Senate races play out in states Trump won, often by large margins, the more competitive House races are in districts Hillary Clinton either won or came close to winning. These are parts of the country where Trump is currently less popular, including the suburbs of liberal cities or the rural areas of blue states such as New York and California. Republican strategists have urged those candidates to make clear their disagreements with Trump if it would help them hold disaffected independent voters.
“I am not running to be ‘The Apprentice,’ ” Dino Rossi, the leading Republican candidate in the race to replace Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), explained in a recent interview with the Seattle Times. “The Apprentice” was Trump’s reality television program.
After bottoming in the mid-30s late last year, Trump’s national approval rating has ticked up in most surveys this year. It now sits at 41 percent in the Gallup poll, which is still a historic low for a modern president at this point in his tenure.
But most consequential elections depart from the mean. The seven most competitive Senate races are in states where Trump’s 2017 Gallup approval rating was above the national average — sometimes by significant amounts. In North Dakota, 57 percent of residents approved of Trump over the course of the year, while 61 percent in West Virginia approved.
As a result, the campaigns there are playing out like a tribute.
At a forum for Republican candidates in Martinsburg early this month, each of the candidates was quick to make clear his claim to the Trumpian movement. The businessman Tom Willis mentioned that he owned a hotel. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said that he had been filing legal motions to support the Trump agenda. Jenkins talked of his time in Washington working with Trump.
The candidate most attuned to Trump’s persona was the fourth person on stage, the former coal baron Don Blankenship, who is campaigning while on probation after serving time in federal prison for conspiring to break mine safety laws. In 2010, a coal-dust explosion at a West Virginia mine run by his company killed 29 miners.
“I’m the most popular hostile campaigner in America, probably,” Blankenship said in a low, rumbling delivery. “I’m not running to make friends with the candidates up here.”
Before the event, Blankenship declined to answer questions from a Washington Post reporter. “I’m afraid of The Washington Post,” he said. But his campaign manager, Greg Thomas, later explained that the Blankenship candidacy was based on a set of policy priorities that matched the Trump agenda and a similar devil-may-care attitude of a brawler who will fight for the state’s residents.
Blankenship’s rivals “want to say, ‘Trump likes me the best,’ where what we are trying to do is say, ‘We are the most like Trump,’ ” Thomas said.
In Arizona, all three of the Republican Senate candidates have made their support of Trump a central campaign message.
Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has claimed Trump as his reason for running, even claiming a sort of psychic connection to the president. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who was a critic of Trump last year, has quoted the president describing her as “my friend” in her campaign ads.
Former state senator Kelli Ward has also claimed Trump’s mantle and has repeatedly attacked McSally for her past criticism. “Times have changed. People are looking for a different type of Republican,” Ward said. “They don’t want Mitch McConnell’s pawn.”
In Utah, Romney explains his turnabout from his March 2016 criticism, in which he called Trump’s promises “as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” with a terse “I’m not going to look backward.”
A similar race for the Trump mantle is playing out in Indiana, where all three candidates have been trying to outdo each other. Television ads for Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) feature a clip of Trump’s inaugural address before the candidate announces that he backs the Trump agenda.
Another candidate, businessman Mike Braun, who previously served in the state House, has cast himself as a straight talker from the private sector. “Last year’s presidential election showed that Hoosiers know outsiders with business experience are the country’s best hope to fix the broken political system in Washington,” he said in a statement when announcing his campaign.
The candidates have also been criticizing each other for their failures to support the Trump agenda in the past. Braun voted in Democratic primaries for years. Messer spoke out against Trump during the 2016 campaign, saying he was not presidential and might have an “odd personal tick” that prevented him from controlling what he said. Rokita, who supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) earlier in the presidential primaries, also was critical of Trump.
Trump has so far declined to weigh in on the race, but the candidates have still scrambled for his approval. On Monday, Rokita announced the endorsements of the chair and vice chair of Trump’s 2016 Indiana campaign.
In an interview, Rokita said he was confident that his effort to attach himself to the Trump brand would not hurt him in the general election, if he wins the nomination. He also defended Trump’s escalating confrontation with China, despite the threat of retaliatory tariffs lowering prices for Indiana farmers.
“I’m willing to go along with President Trump in trying something different,” Rokita said. “I think all Americans who want to make America great again and who want America to come first want their president to be successful.”