If Donald Trump’s brand of populist nationalist progressivism represents the future of the Republican Party, it’s hard to find any evidence to support that contention beyond Trump himself. Recently, some rather prominent insurgent Republicans seeking to primary entrenched GOP officeholders by running a Trump-style campaign have found that simply doing their best Trump impression just doesn’t cut it.
Quite unlike most typical anti-incumbent election years, 2016 has not been typified by a wave of incumbents who have lost their elections to relative unknowns amid the fury of the voters. On the Republican side, redistricting saw prominent Trump supporter Representative Renee Elmers lose her bid for reelection to another incumbent despite winning both the endorsement and active support of Donald Trump. Tea Party favorite Kansas Representative Tim Huelskamp lost his race to a candidate backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the agriculture lobby after the incumbent fell out of favor with the “establishment” House Republican leadership.
It would be a fraught prospect to draw broader conclusions about the mood of the electorate from these races, but nor can observers dismiss these results entirely. They would appear to disconfirm the notion that the anti-establishment sentiment that characterized the GOP presidential primaries is widespread within the Republican Party primary voting base.
It is, however, easier to draw some firm conclusions about the mood of the Republican Party from last night’s primary races in Florida and Arizona. There, Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio faced challenges from two candidates who fashioned themselves into mini-Trumps. The results of those races suggest clearly that Trumpism, whatever that is, does not win elections without Trump.
Rubio’s challenger, Carlos Beruff, presented himself as heir to all things Trump. A wealthy real estate developer with a brash style and an uncompromising stand on immigration, Beruff ran as a figure who would serve as a stalwart Trump ally in Congress. To the extent that Beruff ran on his policy preferences, they included “securing the Southern border” with a wall and a temporary travel ban on all individuals entering the United States from the Middle East. He even got himself into racially charged controversies like Trump, including calling President Barack Obama an “animal” for “dismantling the military.” In a state in which Trump sailed to victory in the GOP primary with a nearly 19-point margin over Rubio, Beruff’s style seemed like a reasonable gamble.
Beruff put $8 million of his own money behind his bid for the U.S. Senate, but the candidate never caught up to Rubio in the polls—despite the Florida Senator’s decision to break his pledge not to run for a second term. In the end, Rubio out-performed public opinion surveys and defeated Beruff with 72 percent of the primary vote. The Florida homebuilder did not take his loss well. “With regard to young Mr. Rubio, in my judgment, he made a life mistake,” He said in a statement.
Elsewhere in the Sun Belt on Tuesday, McCain’s primary challenger, Arizona state Senator Kelli Ward, also ran as the second coming of Trump. “I know that the people in Arizona know that Donald Trump and Kelli Ward will be an unstoppable force in Washington, D.C., because President Trump is going to need a policy expert like me,” Ward told CNN. The state senator had the support of some of Trump’s most unflappable defenders. “Gun Owners of America supports Kelli Ward in defeating ‘Gun-grabbing globalist John McCain,'” read the Breitbart News headline. She, too, ran as an immigration hardliner whose victory would serve as punishment for McCain’s membership in the Gang of Eight. McCain won his primary race on Tuesday with a majority of the vote, defeating Ward among Republicans by over 11 points.
Ward and Beruff join Paul Nehlen, the insurgent Republican who challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan as a champion of the Trumpian fringe, who lost by a 70-point margin.
The picture being painted by the congressional primary process on the GOP side is a clear one: Donald Trump’s success is not duplicable. He has no policy prescriptions that are concrete enough to endorse, and his style is too mercurial to emulate. His national celebrity affords him the kind of earned media exposure that cannot be bought. It is to the benefit of conservatives that Trump has made an ostentatious display of rejecting them and their philosophy. His likely loss in November will leave a gaping ideological void in the Republican Party, and conservatives had better be ready to fill it.