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The myth of the all-powerful Trump

The votes were not even fully counted in the South Carolina First Congressional District primary before the verdict w...

Posted: Jun 17, 2018 6:36 PM
Updated: Jun 17, 2018 6:36 PM

The votes were not even fully counted in the South Carolina First Congressional District primary before the verdict was decided. Congressman Mark Sanford, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, had lost to uber Trump supporter Katie Arrington. His loss was about far more than his election -- it was a warning that any Republican critical of Trump will face a firing squad from Republican primary voters.

"Mark Sanford of South Carolina found out the hard way, in his surprise primary defeat," the New York Times reported, that "having a conservative voting record is less important than demonstrating total loyalty to Mr. Trump."

Certainly, the Republican National Committee feels that way, too, as evidenced by RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel's Wednesday tweet: "Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake."

The tweet garnered a lot of attention and fit perfectly with the instant analysis the media decreed. But, hang on a second.

What has been largely lost in the rush to judgment is a hard look at a basic fact: Sanford ran a terrible campaign and, once he realized he was in trouble, still failed to go all-in to save the seat, having more than $1.6 million cash on hand at the end of May.

In other words, he ran a bad campaign -- and a strategic, policy-focused campaign is still critical to winning elections.

But we've seen this sort of media declaring a forest before looking at individual trees phenomenon in previous election cycles.

In the 2010 "Tea Party Wave" elections, the Republican Senate primary victories of Sharron Angle, Joe Miller and Christine O'Donnell led to story after story about "extremist Republicans" and how they would define the party -- in part because so many stories served as effective and negative branding. Yet, rarely mentioned was that Sharron Angle emerged from an extremely weak field, Joe Miller defeated a Lisa Murkowski campaign that did not take his campaign seriously, while in Delaware, Republican Mike Castle acted as if he should be appointed to the seat, seeming to look down on campaigning, and it showed.

Had those three races turned out differently, which they could and should have, a big part of the 2010 narrative, and that going forward, would not exist.

This exact scenario played out again in 2012, when in the Indiana Republican Senate primary, the epically bad Richard Mourdock defeated longtime incumbent Dick Lugar only because Lugar was so epically bad himself that he was initially unable to vote in his home district.

And, as a former aide to Eric Cantor, I can speak with some painful authority that the campaign team did not take challenger Dave Brat seriously and, by running so many negative ads against him, may have boosted Brat by raising his public profile.

Then there is the Hillary Clinton campaign, a lackluster operation that never found its footing and depended on Trump's unpopularity, while dismissing its own. And this at the same time that most of Washington -- and, to be clear, this included Trump campaign and RNC staff -- simply assumed Clinton would win because of the nationwide organization she had built. Which is akin to judging the Yankees' chances of winning on the World Series solely on the size of their payroll.

Of course, Trump loyalists want those Republicans critical of Trump to feel heat. But that's nothing new. Less than one month into the Trump administration, White House adviser Stephen Miller declared that the President's national security policies "will not be questioned."

But it's on policy where we see plenty of Republicans stand up to Trump -- think Marco Rubio (R-FL) on ZTE or Ben Sasse (R-NE) on trade -- to name just two. Their disagreements have been loud, but unlike Sanford, focused on policy. They've separated the policies from the personality -- granted, a difficult thing to do with Trump. And they certainly have avoided insulting Trump voters as outgoing Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has by suggesting his GOP colleagues are in a cult, a comment that codifies the belief of many Trump voters that Washington openly disdains them.

Following Tuesday's elections, it's clear many have convinced themselves that Trump is somehow simultaneously the bumbling man behind the curtain in Washington and the great and powerful Oz in congressional districts.

The truth may ultimately be somewhere in the middle. But in the meantime, it's clear that those who remain focused on the policies affecting their districts and campaign smartly should ultimately avoid a political guillotine.

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