The Rattling of the Cages: Republican Senators Seeing Rude Awakening To New GOP Order – Fueled By Leader Himself
Tweet of the Day: “They’re not carving people into Mount Rushmore because they won Twitter arguments.” – Josh Holmes, a former Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
“The Rattling of the Cages” is my name for the potpourri of news that breaks involving any upcoming election – House, Senate and Governor. The happenings are typically sundry – candidates announcing, departing, the release of new polls or a major development that greatly impacts the trajectory of a race. But this column is unique in that so many developments have been forthcoming in races where GOP Senators are facing re-election in 2018. That is, the pro-Trump, anti-establishment ire that seems to be ripping and gripping an already fractious GOP primary electorate. And that threatens the political lives of these Senators hoping to extend their tenures another six years.
Tennessee may literally qualify as a quintessential rattling of the cages – as in, Senator Bob Corker rattling Trumps cage and the president responding in-kind. It started of course post-Charlottesville when Corker noted that the president “has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.” What a different a year makes. Not only was Corker seriously considered for the position of Secretary of State bit his name was at least mentioned as a possible vice-president (who really knows if Corker asked Trump “repeatedly” if he should run again in ’18 and who really cares. The point is, Trump is popular among Tennessee Republicans. He won the primary. More ominously, the state’s other Republican Senator, the durable Lamar Alexander, is a moderate former Governor with a voting record similar to Worker’s- and he only won re-nomination in 2014 (a year Trump wasn’t even on the horizon), by a tepid margin.
Some of Corker’s Republican colleagues facing the voters next year may also receive blank stares in return.
Three of the four Mountain West Republican Senators facing the voters may not return (only Wyoming’s John Barrasso seems safe from the anti-Trump brigade –
for now). Orrin Hatch has yet to announce his decision about seeking an eighth term but the betting is that, nearing 84, he’ll decide to hang up his hat. Either way, it might not matter. The Utah GOP electorate has increasingly moved away from Hatch and a poll showed that nearly eight in ten Republicans in Utah do not want him to run again.
In Arizona, Trump has been going after both Senators but the ailing John McCain would not face re-election until 2022. Jeff Flake is up next year and even if GOP unity was at its best, Flake would have a tough road to hoe. But Lord Knows it’s not at its best and the President, tweeting “Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border” has made his distaste known. Senate leaders have furiously gotten behind their embattled colleague but “Beehive State” Republicans appear to be very unmoved. A recent poll showed that just 21% of Arizona Republicans want to see Flake re-elected. And even if her were to survive, Democrats are waiting in the wings and Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio will fuel minority voters in a state Trump barely won. Flake’s only true option may be to run as an Independent but there is little evidence that he is considering it.
Flake’s Nevada colleague Dean Heller, as the only Republican up in ’18 from a state Hillary Clinton carried, was already walking an electoral line filled with glass. He has often tried to bolster his standing among moderates with public hemming and hawing, particularly on the Betsy DeVos nomination and the Affordable Care Act repeal but has usually come down on the president’s side. During the healthcare debate, Heller was the recipient of the Trump treatment at the White House when he was sitting one chair over. Trump told the cameras that Heller, “was the one we were worried about. You weren’t there. But you’re gonna be. You’re gonna be. Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he? And I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they’re gonna appreciate what you hopefully will do” (Heller just laughed it off). But playing both sides has taken a toll. Not only is his approval among Democrats low but he trails his announced GOP opponent, frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian in match-ups. Tarkanian has already garnered the backing of Sarah Palin.
Heller vowed to not back Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes but now says he did vote for him. That has led Tarkanian to call him Trump’s new BFF but even if it helped him survive his primary, it will further hurt him among more centrist voters in a state that, even before Trump, was moving further and further away from the GOP. That is also the reason that Heller – even more than Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, is the most endangered Senator up for re-election next year.
The president has also publicly chided Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (and to a lesser extent Susan Collins of Maine) but they don’t have to worry about re-election for a few cycles. Still, one GOP aide said, “this member-specific focus is not helpful” and that is certainly the cae.
Pollster Kristen Anderson tweeted recently that it is “way too soon to tell, but all these primary battles in the GOP have it looking more and more like 2018 could be Christine O’Donnell-land.” And while that has occurred in bits and pieces in the past, it is now becoming increasingly universal.