There was a time not so long ago when Jon Huntsman Jr. and Jeff Sessions were wildly popular politicians. Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, once posted a 90 percent approval rating in his home state. Sessions, in his last Alabama Senate campaign in 2014, won reelection essentially unopposed.
But that was in the pre-Donald Trump era.
Both fell short in recent efforts to regain their former offices, casualties of a new Republican Party that Trump continues to remake at every level even as he struggles in his own reelection bid.
Regardless of the president’s fate in November — Trump trails Joe Biden by double-digits, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll released Wednesday — the 2020 primary season is ensuring that the GOP will be imprinted with his political DNA for years to come.
After steamrolling many of the GOP’s biggest national stars to win the nomination in 2016, Trump’s first term has seen scores of other one-time presidential prospects sidelined or defeated since then — Huntsman, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford among them. A new presidential bench has taken shape, filled with candidates like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who are more attuned to Trump’s style of politics.
The House and Senate have been similarly overhauled. Since Trump took office in 2017, according to the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, nearly half of the House Republican conference “have either retired, resigned, been defeated or are retiring in 2020.” Many of the GOP newcomers to Congress will be MAGA through and through, having won primaries where fealty to Trump was a determinative issue.
“Whether the president wins or loses, his policy views and style have firmly taken over the Republican Party – nationalism and white grievance, those kinds of things,” said Matt Moore, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I don’t think that Trumpy politics will be leaving the stage anytime soon.”
The drubbing of Sessions, the former attorney general who drew Trump’s ire, in the Alabama Senate primary runoff Tuesday served both as a punctuation mark on four years of chaos for the party’s entrenched class — and as a reminder that the humiliation is likely to endure.
“He got Trumped,” Jonathan Gray, a Republican political strategist based in Sessions’ hometown of Mobile, said on Tuesday night, even before as the race was called for Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach backed by Trump. Sessions had been the first senator to endorse Trump in 2016, then saw Trump turn on him, transforming him into a pariah.
Sessions succumbed to Trump’s direct rebukes — what Gray called “brutal punches to the face from the president of the United States.” But his defeat also appears to have reflected a sea change that Trump has accelerated — and that will outlast him — elevating personality politics over platform-based campaigns.
Within that environment, there was no room for a textbook conservative like Ryan, who elected not to run for re-election in 2018. Nor was there any space for Sanford, a one-time South Carolina governor, who embarked on a quixotic primary campaign against Trump after being abandoned by his party. He said he hoped to “raise and elevate a discussion and debate about where are we going as a country” but quickly abandoned the effort.
Concluding the obvious, Sanford said at the time, “There is no appetite for a subtle discussion of issues on the Republican side.”
Then there was Huntsman, who failed to get his old job back this year, losing in Utah’s Republican primary last week to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
“[Trump] has transformed the party in his image, for sure,” said Bill McCoshen, a Republican strategist based in Madison, Wis. “The base is a little bit different than it was even one or two cycles ago, and Trump has a lot to do with that. These are people who are impatient, they are looking for stuff to get done … If you are not an agent of change, they’re going to look for a different option.”
Trump didn’t directly torpedo Huntsman, who had served as his ambassador to Russia, the way he did Sessions. But the anti-establishment hostility that he has foisted upon his party is not abating at all as Trump falls behind in his own re-election campaign. If anything, it is worse for the Republican institutionalists than it was before.
Asked what happened to Huntsman and Sessions, Brent Buchanan, a Republican political strategist with years of experience in Alabama politics, said, “Huntsman and Sessions are boring … Nobody said, ‘Oh, that guy hits me in the feels.’ But they did about Trump and Obama and Bernie [Sanders].”
“The whole person-over-policy is only exacerbated in the Trump era,” he said, predicting campaigns across the country in 2022 and 2024 in which “we’re going to see a resurgence of personality-based candidates.”
The current election cycle has already provided a glimpse of what’s to come. Cotton, the 43-year-old Republican from Arkansas, drew national attention for his controversial op-ed in The New York Times calling for the deployment of U.S. troops to stop riots following the death of George Floyd.
In Colorado, Lauren Boebert, a restaurateur and gun-rights activist, defeated Rep. Scott Tipton, who had Trump’s endorsement. She is one of a growing class of Republican candidates who have expressed at least some support for QAnon, the conspiracy theory about deep state forces in conflict with Trump. At least two of them, Boebert and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, are favored to win House seats in November.
The Republican Party after Trump — whether that’s in 2021 or 2025 — will still have familiar Republican heavyweights like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley. But it is difficult to know what flavor of Republican candidate will sell — a looming uncertainty that is in large part a function of Trump, a politician who has not yoked his political fortunes to ideology in the way that previous presidents have.
“The thing that I think is interesting about [Trump] is that his brand and the defense of his brand goes beyond a party platform or a set of principles,” said Brett Doster, a Florida-based Republican strategist who served as the state’s executive director for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential reelection campaign. “When we do get beyond Trump … the question is, ‘What is the Republican Party?’ I don’t know that anyone’s really looked at the platform beyond Trump’s Twitter account for the last four years.”
He said, “For the last four years, it’s been easy for people to say, ‘Are you for Trump or are you not for Trump,’ and that litmus test is not going to be there” when Trump is gone, whether that happens next year or four years later.
Ed Brookover, a partner at Avenue Strategies who managed Republican Ben Carson’s presidential campaign in 2016 and later was a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, described the GOP as undergoing a “slow changing of the guard” that is “bigger than one person,” dating back at least to the beginning of the Tea Party movement in 2009. He sees a Republican Party tilting increasingly to politicians who “came of age a little bit later in the process, since 2010, 2012.”
“Those who have been around for a while,” Brookover said, may not be perceived to “accurately reflect the Republican electorate.”
Calling the political landscape unfavorable for “the more traditional, elite part of the party,” Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina, suggested that the GOP has become a more blue-collar-oriented party under Trump, with his trade policies and “America First” messaging. And he suspects that will last.
“I think you’re going to have more populist candidates in the future, and the trick’s going to be getting the populist candidate that also can appeal to the suburban voter, which we can’t lose,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans are going to find some future, conservative AOCs.”