When President Barack Obama sought reelection in 2012, he faced no serious opposition from within his own party. After the bruising and extended primary battle against Hillary Clinton in 2008, Obama could largely ignore the 2012 primary and focus on his eventual Republican opponent.
That doesn’t mean all the Democratic primaries were walks. In two states, challengers to Obama managed to accrue more than 40 percent of the vote. One of those states was West Virginia, where a guy named Keith Judd managed to secure 40.7 percent of the vote. Judd wasn’t a traditional candidate, crisscrossing the state to gin up support.
He couldn’t. He was in prison.
Judd’s success was not about showing support for Judd. It was about showing dislike for the establishment, in the form of Obama. He was the beneficiary of a trend that has become important in understanding politics at the moment, a trend that has another former convict, Don Blankenship, in the hunt for the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in November.
It’s easy to see why the Republican establishment is balking at Blankenship, pouring money into the state in an effort to keep him from winning the nomination. Blankenship’s conviction was for conspiring to violate mine safety standards, violations that are believed to have contributed to the deaths of 29 men following an explosion in a mine in West Virginia run by Blankenship’s company. Blankenship’s campaign has not assuaged concerns that might have been raised by his criminal background. His most recent ad warns about job creation for “China people,” a phrase he defended by saying, “We’re confused on our staff as to how it can be racist when there’s no mention of race. There’s no race. Races are Negro, white Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian. There’s no mention of a race.”
Blankenship isn’t leading in the Senate primary, it seems, but he’s in contention, which in itself seems remarkable. Except when you consider things like Keith Judd or, really, Donald Trump.
President Trump weighed in on the primary on Twitter on Monday morning.
This is a remarkable tweet for a variety of reasons. One is that the phrasing was common among members of the Republican establishment two years ago, but with the warning about being unable to win the general election targeting Trump in the Republican presidential contest, not Blankenship. Trump is all the counterexample that Blankenship needs to rebut Trump’s tweet: Trump won the general election, despite predictions, and Trump is viewed as hugely successful by the people who voted for him.
It’s remarkable, too, because of the “Remember Alabama” comment. It’s a reference, of course, to Roy Moore, the candidate in Alabama’s special election last fall who lost in an upset to Democrat Doug Jones after The Washington Post reported that Moore had been accused of improper sexual conduct with a young teenage girl. In that race, Trump played the role played by the Republican establishment in 2016: first opposing Moore’s candidacy out of concern he might lose the general election then backing Moore as a better option than Jones. Unlike those Republicans who reluctantly supported him, though, Trump didn’t get lucky enough to have Moore win.
Mostly, though, it’s remarkable because Trump is pulling up the ladder behind him. Trump rose to the nomination in the same way as Blankenship, if less clumsily: Targeting the Republican establishment and people of color as the opposition. Trump’s background may have been less obviously troublesome than Blankenship’s, but his strategy was the same: I’m the guy who will take a wrecking ball to D.C. corruption. Blankenship’s “China people” mumblings are a way of criticizing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan. Blankenship’s unsubtle criticisms of McConnell and his family include calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” which is both far afield from anything related to McConnell and about the last charge that anyone would have ever expected McConnell to face.
In response to Trump’s tweet Monday morning, Blankenship said in a statement: “As some have said I am Trumpier than Trump, and this morning proves it.”
That’s true, in at least one key context.
The Republican Party again finds itself in a difficult position, as it did in Alabama: wanting to undercut a candidate it sees as an electoral risk while understanding that publicly opposing the candidate will likely boost his candidacy. A lot of voters engage in politics out of opposition to things they dislike more than in support of things that they do like, a description that seems to describe much of the conservative Republican base, in particular.
The New York Times’s conservative columnist Ross Douthat put it like this over the weekend.
“A core fact of our era is that the national Republican Party is politically effective only as a vehicle for anti-liberalism, a rallying point for all the disparate groups who feel threatened by having our cultural elite in full control of government. Which means the G.O.P. is often more popular the less it attempts to legislate at all.”
This is true of Trump, certainly. Last August, Pew Research Center asked supporters of Trump why they liked him, because of his approach and personality or because of his policies and values. More than half said the former; Trump supporters picked his personality over his policies by more than 4 to 1.
There’s an increasing antipathy from members of one party toward members of the other, as tracked by Pew. In 2017, their pollsters found that more than 4 in 10 Republicans and Democrats viewed the opposing party very unfavorably. In March, the data suggested that for 7 in 10 Republicans and 6 in 10 Democrats, the other party’s policies were seen as harmful to the country.
Opposition, sometimes called negative partisanship, is a central feature of politics. It overlaps with the anti-establishment fervor that’s also common.
Much of the base of each party also targets party leaders. In February, McConnell’s overall favorability rating in Quinnipiac University polling was 15 percent; 36 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), by contrast, was viewed favorably by 28 percent of Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans.
“Trumpy” means a few things, among them a willingness to violate the taboo against racially loaded rhetoric and a willingness to target the establishment of the Republican Party. In that sense, Blankenship is necessarily Trumpier than Trump, because Trump is necessarily part of the Republican establishment. Trump’s still popular among the voters Blankenship is courting, mind you, so he had to thread a needle of his own, saying in that same statement that “[t]he establishment is misinforming [Trump] because they do not want me to be in the U.S. Senate and promote the President’s agenda.”
It’s hard to be an outsider when you’re deep inside the establishment. It’s particularly hard to be an outsider when you’re the president. Trump no doubt has been convinced that, in fact, Blankenship will have an uphill fight against Manchin and, desperate for a robust Senate majority, believes that undercutting Blankenship to win that seat is critical. But that’s establishment-talk, right or wrong, and it gives Blankenship something else to run against.
That’s always been the irony of Trump’s election: He could no longer argue that he was a pure outsider. He became part of the thing that people like him would run against.
Imagine President Keith Judd, recently inaugurated during a quiet ceremony in his cell block, offering his thoughts on the Democratic primary in West Virginia. (One government facility is the same as any other.) Inevitably, some other candidate would certainly point out that, since becoming president, Judd had just become part of the Democratic swamp.
Juddier than Judd.