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2015 and 2023: Donald Trump On the Eve of Primary Season
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2015 and 2023: Donald Trump On the Eve of Primary Season

Plus: Rep. Alex Mooney’s true-conservative pitch against Gov. Jim Justice in West Virginia’s Senate primary.

Happy Friday! We hope nobody had too much fun watching the DeSantis/Newsom debate last night.

Up to Speed

  • New York’s George Santos is no longer in Congress. The freshman Republican was expelled Friday morning in a 311-114 vote. GOP House leadership announced in the minutes leading to the vote that they would unanimously vote to permit Santos to remain—an implicit acknowledgement of his importance to their razor-thin House majority. It didn’t matter: 105 Republicans, roughly half the conference, voted with nearly every Democrat to expel him. 
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom went head to head Thursday night in a “Great Red State vs. Blue State Debate” moderated by Fox News host Sean Hannity. The two traded one-liners and accusations about each other’s governance, and Hannity peppered Newsom with questions about his state’s high taxes and high crime rates. But as the two governors aren’t currently running against one another for anything, there was little fresh information to be gleaned from the proceeding. One typical exchange featured Hannity and DeSantis hammering Newsom on whether he would support abortion restrictions at any stage in a pregnancy, to which Newsom did not respond. Newsom then asked DeSantis if he would sign a national abortion ban as president, to which DeSantis declined to respond.
  • Donald Trump has had a busy week on social media. On Tuesday, he revived old calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act, saying in a post on his website Truth Social that he is “seriously looking at alternatives” to the 13-year-old law—a claim the Biden campaign has already pounced on as a possible political vulnerability. He has defended himself from the charge that he’s been mixing up Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s names at rallies, insisting he does so only “sarcastically.” And he’s made reams of posts accusing family members of the judge presiding over his New York civil trial of anti-Trump animus—amplifying a discredited rumor begun by MAGAworld conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer that Judge Arthur Engoron’s wife had posted messages suggesting Trump was headed for prison on an anonymous Twitter account.
  • Axios has the questionnaire Trump allies are using to pre-screen hires for a potential second term, a document seemingly designed to ensure all employees and appointees are both ideologically simpatico with and personally loyal to Trump himself. “What part of Candidate Trump’s message most appealed to you and why?” the questionnaire asks. “Briefly describe your political evolution. What thinkers, authors, books, or political leaders influenced you and led you to your current beliefs?” And: “Have you ever appeared in media to comment on Candidate Trump, President Trump, or other personnel or policies of the Trump Administration?”
  • Michigan’s Sandy Pensler is running for U.S. Senate to “take the Senate back from the morons,” the private-equity businessman announced Friday morning. His candidacy will further crowd a busy Republican field jostling to replace Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is retiring. It’s Pensler’s second stab at the Senate; in 2018, he was defeated in the Senate primary by now-Rep. John James. 

Trump Then, Trump Now

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on November 8, 2023, in Hialeah, Florida. (Photo by Alon Skuy/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on November 8, 2023, in Hialeah, Florida. (Photo by Alon Skuy/Getty Images)

In the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses on January 15, Donald Trump is leaving an unusually limited impression in the national conversation—a stark difference from the media saturation that surrounded his first run for the GOP nomination eight years ago. 

Much of the current coverage of Trump is dominated not by his debate appearances (he hasn’t made any) or his campaign events (which are few and far between) but instead by his ongoing civil fraud trial in New York. The former president will be in court on December 11 to testify for the second time, this time as a witness for his defense team. His scattered appearances in the Manhattan courtroom and the drama over his criticism on social media of the judge, the prosecutor, and court officials have been the primary way the Republican frontrunner has made news.

His occasional campaign rallies and appearances on TV—including an upcoming town hall in Davenport, Iowa, with Sean Hannity on Fox News—have garnered less attention. Trump’s apparent plans for an “aggressive” December of campaigning in Iowa would be an uptick from his relatively light travel to the Hawkeye State thus far. But in the manner of an incumbent running for reelection, Trump has done little in the way of campaigning and nonetheless remains secure at the top of polls of GOP primary voters nationally (where he’s at 62 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls) and in the early states. 

All of this is remarkable because of how it contrasts with his position in December 2015, where the reality TV star and real estate businessman was inescapable in newspapers, on cable news, and online. Yet his inevitability in the Republican primary was still, at that point, not established. After a slew of primary debates, Trump had emerged as a clear leader of the large pack of GOP candidates—though he remained at 28.5 percent in the Real Clear Politics average on December 1. That would change over the course of that month, however, as a confluence of outside events and Trump’s populist impulse gave him a critical bump that carried him through the early primary states and on to GOP nomination.

The November 2015 Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris that included a deadly mass shooting at a concert in the Bataclan theater were followed by the December 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by a Muslim couple (including a Pakistani national) who the FBI later determined were inspired by radical jihadists overseas. The growing concern over terrorism since the rise of ISIS in the Middle East shot to the top of the list of important issues among Republican primary voters. Trump made the issue a priority in his campaign with his announcement on December 7 for a “total and complete shutdown” of the entry of Muslims to the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

This proposed Muslim ban prompted outrage from nearly every corner of the political class—his Republican rivals, elected leaders in Congress, Democrats, and most of the news media. Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan said of the proposal, “This is not conservatism” and then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence called Trump’s plan “offensive and unconstitutional.” Hillary Clinton called it “both a shameless and a dangerous idea.”

The New York Times printed pages on Trump’s proposed ban in the days and weeks following. There were numerous columns and op-eds in response to the proposal, along with letters to the editor denouncing Trump. There were news articles about Muslim Americans in Trump’s hometown of Queens and a petition in the United Kingdom to ban Trump from entry

But Trump’s proposal resonated deeply with populists, as this quotation from a December 10 Times story indicates.  

Bennie Stickley, a 75-year-old in Gilbertville, Iowa, who retired from a John Deere factory, said he was supporting Mrs. Clinton but agrees with Mr. Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims. “I’m for him on that,” he said. “We shouldn’t be letting those people into the country,” he added.

The bottom line is that at this point in the 2016 presidential cycle, Trump was the inescapable political story, even as the Republican primary field still appeared wide open. But it was his ownership of a concrete policy proposal that—whatever its questionable constitutionality, efficacy, and decency—helped catapult him to the top. By the end of December, his national polling average had jumped 8 points. Trump’s narrow loss to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses on February 1 was the only true bump in the road left between this Muslim-ban-induced boost and his securing of the nomination.

Eight years later, Trump’s position atop the field and the Republican Party is far more secure, yet his focus is on his own legal issues and political retribution—at the expense of any populist agenda items. All of it demonstrates how radically Trump has shifted the center of the primary campaign from the issues that voters say they care about to the only issue that seems to matter: Donald Trump himself.

Do West Virginians Want an Ideological Senate Primary?

Guys like Alex Mooney are built to win Republican primaries. The three-term West Virginia congressman, now running for U.S. Senate, is a rock-ribbed conservative, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, and a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump.

He’s also—if you believe the polls, which Mooney thinks you shouldn’t—about 40 points behind. The man he’s trailing is Jim Justice, the state’s popular two-term governor. Justice was heavily courted  for the race by national Republican groups, who believed him the pol best positioned to finally take out Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Justice has enormous structural advantages in the primary: He’s well liked and far better known than Mooney statewide, he’s significantly better funded, and he’s been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

But Justice, a former Democrat who publicly switched party registrations at a 2018 Trump rally, is also a relative centrist. And Manchin’s out of the running now, having announced last month that he will not run for reelection next year—meaning whoever wins the GOP primary is all but guaranteed to win the Senate seat next November.

So Mooney’s underdog challenge to Justice makes a test case for an interesting question: In a populist-leaning state like West Virginia, how much stock do primary voters still put in ideological purity tests?

“I just point back to that he raised taxes, he’s for some gun control measures, COVID lockdowns—he would literally be the most liberal Republican senator if he won,” Mooney told The Dispatch. Justice didn’t support Republicans’ 2018 attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, he adds, and backed President Joe Biden’s $1.3 trillion infrastructure bill. “West Virginians want and deserve an actual, true conservative, and I’m the only one running.”

Fact-checkers have routinely dinged Mooney in recent months for overcooking his critiques of Justice, but there’s truth to some of this. Justice signed off on hiking taxes on gas and car purchases in 2017 in order to shore up funding for crumbling state highways. (He also signed an income-tax cut he billed as the largest in state history this year.) He has publicly mulled the possibility of raising the age threshold for purchasing high-powered rifles to 21. And he has embraced Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion as a boon to the population of his state, which is routinely ranked among the nation’s poorest and least healthy.   

Justice’s campaign has scoffed at Mooney’s attacks. “Alex Mooney is a desperate, losing candidate who is being propped up by one of the largest Never Trump Super PACs in the country in a state where President Trump is tremendously popular, has strongly endorsed, and will campaign with Gov. Jim Justice,” Roman Stauffer, campaign manager for the  Justice campaign, told The Dispatch. “Jim Justice has a solid conservative record of enacting the largest tax cut in state history, created thousands of jobs and grew our economy, protected life, and has been called the most pro-Second Amendment governor that West Virginia has ever seen by the NRA.”

In some ways, Justice’s profile resembles Trump’s—a person of instinctual rather than systematic conservatism, who sometimes arrives at positions that run afoul of longstanding party orthodoxy. It’s no surprise that the Club for Growth, an organization that exists to champion small-government policies, is backing Mooney to the hilt in the primary. For such instinctual right-wingers, dedication to curtailing federal spending is often one of the first things to go. (The Club, which has also spent money this cycle opposing Trump’s renomination, is the super PAC alluded to by Stauffer above.)

Mooney insists that Justice’s heterodoxy will hurt him as voters tune in more. “I think Republicans who vote in primaries are fiscally conservative,” he says. “They are worried about our national debt and what that brings—the debt itself brings other things, inflation, interest rates have gone up because of the spending. Threats from China—you know, China’s buying our debt. China’s buying this whole world up if we’re not careful.”

And he notes he’s been counted out of races before—most recently in 2022, after redistricting forced him to run in a primary against another incumbent, Rep. David McKinley, in a redrawn district in which former McKinley constituents outnumbered his own 2 to 1. Mooney ultimately won that primary by 19 points. 

But other state observers think Justice’s record is strong enough on the issues West Virginians care about most—abortion, gun rights, economic development—to fend off these attacks.

“How do you get to the right, or how do you pierce the conservative skin around Jim Justice?” prominent West Virginia pollster Mark Blankenship told The Dispatch. “He’s been arguably the most pro-life governor in the history of West Virginia. He signed some of the most pro-gun legislation in the history of the state. He’s presided over a lot of the economic development that’s gone on. So, you know, where’s the vulnerability on that ideological front that you want to exploit?”

That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of conservatives in West Virginia who might be more ideologically compatible with Mooney than with Justice. But because they already know and like Justice, persuading them to look elsewhere is a Herculean task—particularly after the Trump endorsement.

“A strong voter, a voter with strong opinions, is so much harder” to bring around than one with soft opinions, Blankenship adds. “When you’re driving a car, it’s a whole lot easier to get a car from neutral to drive than from reverse to neutral to drive, right? And Mooney’s gotta get it from sixth gear to fifth gear to fourth gear to third gear—you know, he’s gotta go the whole gamut here. And that’s just gonna make it really, really difficult.”

Notable and Quotable 

“There are profound differences tonight, and I look forward to engaging them. But there’s one thing in closing, that we have in common, is neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”

—Gavin Newsom to Ron DeSantis during their Fox News debate, November 30, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.