Republicans surrendering to Democrats is not a new concept — and this past week’s border bill “negotiations” is just another example.
After scheming in secret with Democrats for weeks, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Senate GOP leadership unveiled one of — if not the — worst immigration bill in the modern era. Not only does the legislation include roughly three times as much funding for Ukraine than U.S. border security, but it also seeks to effectively enshrine President Biden’s existing border crisis into law.
While enough Republican opposition has seemingly killed the measure for the time being, that hasn’t stopped Lankford or McConnell’s acolytes from lashing out at the bill’s biggest critics. During a recent Senate floor, for example, Lankford misconstrued comments by commentator Jesse Kelly to push the left’s phony claim that conservatives aren’t interested in stopping the invasion at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Several weeks ago, Kelly vowed to “destroy” Lankford’s “entire professional life” over his surrender on border negotiations, arguing that conservatives must send a message to Republicans that selling out their voters won’t be tolerated. Lankford distorted these remarks during his Senate speech, claiming a “popular commentator” told him, “If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you because I do not want you to solve this during the presidential election.”
Acting as Democrats’ useful suckers isn’t the only commonality shared by McConnell and Lankford, however. Both senators were overwhelmingly supported by the majority of GOP primary voters in their last reelection bids. In 2020, 82.8 percent of Kentucky Republican primary voters cast their ballots to re-nominate McConnell for his seventh term in the Senate. Meanwhile, Lankford garnered 67.8 percent support in his 2022 primary, with his closest competitor accumulating 26.4 percent.
Voters are more than welcome to support whichever candidate they choose. But lackluster performances by Republicans such as McConnell and Lankford raise the question: Why do GOP primary voters keep reelecting the same politicians who consistently betray them on the issues that matter, when they matter?
A Garden Filled with Weeds
McConnell and Lankford are not anomalies within the GOP. As it turns out, some of the “reddest” states in the country elect the worst Republicans.
Take, for example, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. The Hawkeye State’s junior senator ran virtually unopposed during the 2020 GOP Senate primary and went on to defeat her Democrat challenger by 6.5 points in the general election. Roughly 26 percent of the voters who supported Ernst in the general voted in the Republican Senate primary.
Since winning reelection, Ernst has sold out her constituents on a myriad of fronts. In June 2022, she sided with more than a dozen of her GOP colleagues in helping Senate Democrats pass gun control legislation that — among other things — incentivized states to adopt red flags. Several months later, Ernst again helped Senate Democrats pass the misnamed “Respect for Marriage Act,” which opened the door for LGBT activists to use the legal system as a means of harassing religious Americans who believe in the true meaning of marriage. The Iowa senator and several of her GOP colleagues more recently sided with Democrats in nuking Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s protest of the Pentagon’s radical and unlawful abortion policy.
Another example of a weak-kneed Republican from a “red” state is Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Cornyn secured 76 percent of the vote in Texas’ 2020 GOP Senate primary. His closest challenger, Dwayne Stovall, came in a distant second with 11.9 percent support. Only 32.4 percent of voters who supported Cornyn in the general voted in the aforementioned primary.
Similar to Ernst, Cornyn has betrayed conservatives on numerous occasions since winning reelection. In addition to spearheading the effort to pass the previously referenced gun control bill, Cornyn was one of 18 Republican senators to join Senate Democrats in advancing a pork-filled, $1.7 trillion spending package at the end of 2022. The bill’s passage effectively took away any and all leverage the House’s then-incoming Republican majority had over spending issues for most of 2023.
The Trump Factor
It’s impossible to discuss GOP primaries without mentioning former President Donald Trump. As the Republican Party’s leading figure, the 45th president wields a considerable amount of influence among large swaths of the conservative electorate.
While Trump has often sought to advance “America First” policies, several of the candidates he’s endorsed oppose his — and, more importantly, his voters’ — agenda. Case in point: Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, whose political career was all but dead until Trump rescued it from the depths of irrelevancy. After reportedly considering the former Massachusetts governor to be his secretary of state in 2016, Trump threw his support behind Romney’s bid to run for Utah’s 2018 Senate seat.
Since taking office, Romney’s voting record has resembled that of a Massachusetts moderate more than a Utah conservative. In recent years, Utah’s junior senator helped Biden and Democrats pass legislation declaring war on the institution of marriage and religious liberty, targeting Second Amendment rights, and increasing federal spending. He also partook in the Democrats’ attack on Tuberville, supported Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, voted to keep mask mandates on children, and voted to convict Trump on impeachment charges (twice).
A similarly terrible endorsement came during Pennsylvania’s 2022 Republican Senate primary, in which Trump backed television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz. This endorsement came after it was revealed that Oz promoted childhood transgenderism on his TV program in 2015. The celebrity doctor also previously praised communist China’s Covid lockdowns, saying the best way to beat the virus is “to copy what [China] did, take their blueprint, and repeat it here in this country.”
After winning the GOP nomination, Oz went on to lose the general election to Democrat John Fetterman.
Republican establishment types have figured out that they don’t need a strong conservative track record to win Trump’s endorsement. They just have to regurgitate the Republican talking points of the day and praise the former president to acquire his much-coveted support. While voters are able to make their own choices, and Trump’s endorsement doesn’t guarantee victory in any given primary (see Alabama’s 2017 GOP Senate contest), it certainly doesn’t hurt for a candidate to have the backing of the party’s leading figure.
It Doesn’t Have to be This Way
Contrary to the current composition of the GOP, conservatives have shown they can be a powerful influence in kicking establishment figures to the curb.
When reports circulated in December indicating Trump was allegedly considering Nikki Haley to be his running mate, conservatives (justifiably) became outraged. Trump supporters and conservative influencers implored the former president to scrap the idea. Roughly a month later, Trump seemingly poured cold water on it.
Imagine how different the Republican Party would look if conservatives employed this same type of focus and drive to oust establishment candidates in GOP primaries at every level of government. And consider how instrumental Trump’s endorsements could be if his supporters pushed him to back candidates who supported the “America First” agenda.
Changing the Republican Party into a political body that works for its voters is no small feat. It’s an effort that demands conservatives look beyond irrelevant factors like name ID and re-discover what it means to be a self-governing citizenry. After all, these politicians work for the people — not the other way around.
Shawn Fleetwood is a staff writer for The Federalist and a graduate of the University of Mary Washington. He previously served as a state content writer for Convention of States Action and his work has been featured in numerous outlets, including RealClearPolitics, RealClearHealth, and Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnFleetwood
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