Trump Did Not Invent Awful Republican Primaries

To read the coverage of the still-young midterm primary season on the Republican side is to read of royalty. Former President Donald Trump is “the Republican Party kingmaker” whose “endorsement is worth its weight in political gold” and who has “enduring power.”

Kingmaker Midas Trump’s enduring power, we are told, is the “cause of [the] unrelenting nastiness” between candidates and that even when the former president isn’t involved, the races “are mostly about Trump anyway.”

We are here reminded of one of the key rules of politics in the past seven years: The only reliable point of agreement between Trump, the political press, and Democrats is that Trump should always be the focus of the discussion. It needn’t be explained why a man who refers to himself in the third person would want it that way. But less obvious is why Democrats believe, often wrongly, that this works in their favor with voters. News organizations believe, often rightly, that Trump will drive traffic.

Trump is most certainly the single most influential individual in the Republican Party today, and his faction is quite powerful because of its cohesion and intensity. A shameless demagogue with followers of such zealous abandon that he can produce a savage mob to sack the Capitol is not someone to take lightly. But what so much of the discussion around Trump and the 2022 primaries forgets is that the “unrelenting nastiness” that we see not only predates his majesty of Mar-a-Lago, but that Trump himself was a product of it in the first place.

So let’s go back a bit.

It wasn’t that incumbent Republican senators never got challenged by members of their own party before 2006, or that GOP Senate primaries in general were all rainbows and cuddles before then. Just two years earlier, Republicans had seen the titanic struggle in Pennsylvania between then-Rep. Pat Toomey and incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, which Specter just narrowly survived on his way to winning a fifth term.

But it was the 2006 Senate primary in Rhode Island that pointed at the way of things to come.

It was a bad year for Republicans as public frustrations with the Iraq War and sky-high gas prices left George W. Bush in the dunking booth and his party distancing itself from the unpopular incumbent. Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island had gone farther than most, saying that he hadn’t even voted for Bush in the previous presidential election. Chaffee said he had written in Bush’s father instead, saying he preferred that version of the GOP. It was a suitably obtuse answer for Chaffee, whom you may remember from his 2016 presidential campaign, when—by then running as a Democrat—he made converting to the metric system a key policy point.

Republicans were galled by Chafee’s opposition to the Iraq war (he was the lone Republican to vote against authorizing it), the Bush tax cuts (he opposed them), and key nominees (Chafee voted against confirming Justice Samuel Alito), and so complaints about Bush not living up to his fathers’ legacy must have been head-exploding.

But Chafee knew most in the GOP understood that any kind of Republican senator from the most Democratic state in the union was worth having. Grover Norquist, then the bête noire of the Democrats and many in the political press for his intransigence on tax increases, put it this way to the New York Times: “A Republican from Rhode Island is a gift from the gods, and is not to be looked at askance.” Just as Joe Manchin is as good as Democrats could ever hope to do in West Virginia today, Chaffee was about all Republicans could hope for in Rhode Island. The GOP had a five-seat majority in the upper chamber, but faced hard times in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Montana.

Partly inspired by Toomey, the mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, Steve Laffey, decided to launch a primary bid against Chaffee. But where Toomey was a restrained and disciplined candidate who had already found a way to win three times as a small-government conservative in a pro-union, historically Democratic congressional district, Laffey was bombastic, unprepared, and angry. 

Laffey’s attacks went beyond the incumbent and turned into an indictment of the entire Republican Party. Toomey had accepted his role as challenger knowing that the party would move to protect an incumbent, and moved forward from a narrow loss to eventually drive Specter from the party and then win the seat in 2010. Laffey, after losing by 9 points, continued his attacks and signed a book deal and wrote a mean-spirited memoir of the campaign called Primary Mistake, that posited that the reason the GOP got creamed in 2006 was, you guessed it, failing to have more candidates like him.

In truth, Chaffee, like the other six Senate Republicans who lost that year, might have been doomed even without the added baggage of having to fight an expensive, damaging, divisive primary race. But surely his 7-point defeat to still-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse would have been closer without Laffey’s suicide mission, and most certainly Republicans could have used elsewhere the money and time spent on trying to keep Chaffee.

We all know what followed. In the 2010 midterm elections, we got to meet Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, who, while not a witch, was able to perform a neat trick of blowing an easy win for the GOP by defeating longtime Rep. Mike Castle in a primary there. In Alaska, Sarah Palin, who had just quit the governorship, backed a challenger to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The challenger won the primary, but proved an odd enough duck that Murkowski beat him with a write-in campaign in the fall.  John McCain, the party’s nominee the previous cycle, faced an intensely negative primary attack from a former congressman turned talk radio host. In Nevada, Republicans picked Tea Party radical Sharron Angle after a bitter primary and then let a very vulnerable Harry Reid off the hook. In Connecticut, Republicans chose Linda McMahon, the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, and let another winnable race go.

The carnage continued in 2012 with a loss in Indiana after Sen. Richard Lugar went down to a primary challenge and a shockingly wasteful and divisive Senate primary in Georgia that helped sow the seeds for this year’s gubernatorial goat rodeo there. In 2014 in bright-red Kansas, the Senate primary was so bad that Republicans had to scramble to hold on in November against an independent candidate. In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell had to spend a pile of money big enough to burn a wet elephant to deal with his own primary challenger.

In the span of a decade, Republicans had shifted from a party Democrats envied for its discipline to a factious, fractious mess. That was the party that was a sitting duck for Trump in 2016. He did not have to create divisions, only exacerbate and exploit them. 

So just remember: If the former president wasn’t involved, the 2022 Republican primaries would still be awful, wasteful, and full of “unrelenting nastiness.” Trump is a symptom of the intense antipathies within his party just as much as he is a cause of them.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Broken News, a book on media and politics available August 23.

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