President Trump’s ability to read politicians out of the Republican Party shows no sign of diminishing even as the coronavirus crisis intensifies and criticism of his administration’s handling of the pandemic erupts among Democrats and Washington pundits.
The latest Republican to run afoul of the president is Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who pressed for a recorded House vote on the coronavirus emergency spending package in a move that sent lawmakers scurrying back to D.C. to ensure the legislation passed. Members of both parties were outraged, but none more so than Trump, who called Massie a “third rate Grandstander” and urged GOP congressmen to “throw Massie out of the Republican Party!”
Massie isn’t the first Republican to run into this problem. Jeff Sessions ran second in the first round of balloting in the Alabama GOP primary to reclaim his old Senate seat. Trump, still angry that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation as attorney general, endorsed his primary opponent Tommy Tuberville, who finished first. Sessions and Tuberville will face each other in a runoff, but the competitiveness of the race illustrates Trump’s power within the party — the last time Sessions ran for this seat, he was unopposed in the general election and won 97.5% of the vote.
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan was a frequent Trump critic, but he broke most decisively with the president by supporting impeachment even before the Ukraine scandal, after special counsel Robert Mueller released his report. Trump replied by calling the congressman a “loser” and “lightweight.” Amash has since left the Republican Party and is running for reelection as an independent.
An election day Trump tweet helped lead to the defeat of Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican who had previously served as the state’s governor. “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA,” Trump said while endorsing his primary challenger Katie Arrington, who won the nomination — though she went on to lose in November. Sanford ran a short-lived campaign for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, dropping out before the first votes were even cast.
The other two prominent Republicans who ran against Trump have also since dropped out. Former Rep. Joe Walsh received just 1.1% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld took 1.3% and failed to break 10% against Trump in New Hampshire.
Once resisted by the Republican establishment, Trump’s seal of approval has become important in the party. The candidates he endorsed in the 2018 midterm primaries did well. Intraparty critics like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee ended up packing their bags and leaving Washington. The president’s approval rating among Republicans in the latest Gallup poll stands at 92%.
“Massie was guarding against the word getting out that he isn’t exactly the strongest supporter of Trump in Congress,” said Kentucky-based Republican strategist Scott Jennings. “Trump has ramped this problem up to Defcon 1.”
The congressman sees it differently. “I think I strengthened the president’s hand with Nancy Pelosi,” Massie told the Washington Examiner. “She can’t run the tables with nobody in Congress.” Massie argued that when Pelosi pushes a fourth coronavirus spending bill, she’ll have to think about the need for a quorum in the middle of a pandemic.
“Everything I did didn’t delay this by one minute. [Trump] got his bill signing on time,” Massie said. “What I did was I forced Congress to come to work, I forced them to follow the Constitution.”
“The truth is Congressman Massie is a candidate who was born out of the populist tea party movement just like President Trump,” said Nicholas Everhart, a GOP strategist who advises Massie. “They ran and have both succeeded because they were fed up with Washington being broken, getting in the way, and serving the elite instead of the hard-working people who make this country great … It’s refreshing to be able to work for someone who doesn’t need to take a poll to know what they believe.”
But it is not easy for a Republican to be a Trump target, especially on an issue dominating the headlines. The Republican Jewish Coalition has already endorsed Massie’s primary challenger. “When Trump says ‘jump,’ people tend to say, ‘How high?’” Jennings observed.
“This is where Massie miscalculated,” Jennings added. “He’s gotten away with bucking Trump on other issues. But in this case the politics are so different. This isn’t some post office renaming. It’s the biggest issue for Trump’s reelection.”
Massie points out that Trump tweeted angrily about the Freedom Caucus during the Obamacare figh,t and now Rep. Mark Meadows, one of the Republicans tagged in that tweetstorm, is about to be White House chief of staff. Still, he is not unrealistic.
“For people who said I did this for political advantage, this might cost me my reelection,” Massie said. “I did it anyway.”