President Trump came to town last week and raised $750,000 for Karen Handel, the GOP candidate in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. “You’d better win,” Trump told Handel at her fundraiser, a half-joking indication of the high stakes in the race.
Handel in turn was appreciative, in one interview pledging that she backs Trump 100 percent.
“To be able to have the president’s support is a good thing,” Handel said later on Fox News, “especially in a very solid Republican district. With that said, it’s the press and the Ossoff folks and the Democrats who want to make this about the president.”
That last part? It’s not true.
This otherwise obscure off-year congressional race is on pace to become the most expensive House race in American history, and the reason is Trump. The reason that the president attended Handel’s fundraiser and by all accounts is almost obsessed with the race is because he knows that it’s a referendum about him. Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff came within 1.9 points of winning outright in this “very solid Republican district,” and while Ossoff seems to be growing more confident and sure-footed as a candidate, his showing was solely because of Trump.
Prior to last fall’s election, we saw a lot of rhetoric from GOP leaders about their willingness to act as a check on Trump should he somehow become president. There was talk that they would somehow tame him and teach him how to be a real Republican and hold him to conservative ideology.
That is not how this has played out.
What we’ve seen instead is Trump quickly consolidating power and transforming the Republican Party into his image. It’s The Donald who now defines the party, and memories of the GOP as the party of Ronald Reagan are all but gone. The small-government, free-market ideology that once was the party’s catechism has been replaced by Trump’s big-government, aggressively nationalist approach.
He’s going to tell CEOs what they can and cannot do. He’s going to tell House Speaker Paul Ryan what bills he wants voted on, and when. Conservative media outlets that once looked skeptically upon Trump are now competing to lavish praise on his every move. And some Republican politicians and leaders are now hailing him in glowing, worshipful terms that seem dangerously disconnected to his low poll numbers among Americans in general.
At the NRA convention last week, for example, Sen. David Perdue gave Trump “absolutely an A plus” for his first 100 days in office, gushing that if a higher grade was possible, he’d award that instead. Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. proclaimed last week that in Trump, evangelical Americans have finally “found their dream president.” More and more, loyalty to the Republican Party is now gauged in terms of personal loyalty to Trump.
Put another way, the party is losing its own identity and losing the ability to separate itself from Trump when the time comes. And believe me, that time will come. You can’t watch the chaos and incompetence in Washington and conclude that this is a stable situation, and a lot of smart people within the party must see that too, even if they cannot yet say it.
That too raises the stakes in this race. If Handel wins next month, the transition of the GOP toward a cult of personality will be allowed to continue at least a while longer, with growing consequences. Should she lose, it would be seen within the party as a sign that the emperor indeed wears no clothes, and that it is not just safe but necessary for the party to begin backing away.
So yes, it’s all about Trump. Every little bit of it.