In both Kansas and Georgia, Trump’s favored gubernatorial candidates defeated Republicans who were seen as more polished and electable. And in Minnesota, the attempted comeback of the one-time GOP darling Tim Pawlenty went bust when he lost his primary.
“The Republican Party has shifted,” Pawlenty concluded after his defeat. “It is the era of Trump, and I’m just not a Trumplike politician.”
Of course, many of the victorious candidates likely would have won without Trump’s support. But by bending over backwards to get it, they have ensured that they’ll be beholden to the president once they’re in office.
Meanwhile, some of Trump’s most prominent Republican critics in Washington are exiting the stage. Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake—whose running condemnations and critiques have served as irritants to the White House, if nothing else—are retiring. And the death earlier this year of Senator John McCain stripped the party of a respected elder statesman who often stood up in defense of the old guard’s traditions and norms.
Read: An existential moment for Democrats
Heading into Election Day, some commentators have argued that the best way to de-Trumpify the GOP would be to hand the party a stinging defeat by flipping control of the House. That’s certainly possible. But the same electoral dynamics that have placed that goal within reach could also, counterintuitively enough, end up tightening Trump’s grip on the caucus that remains.
With so many of this year’s campaign battlegrounds located in suburban districts that are trending blue, it stands to reason that the Republicans who lose their seats Tuesday will be those whose constituents don’t demand absolute fealty to the president. The result, in this scenario, could be a smaller Republican caucus, yes—but one populated almost entirely by die-hard Trumpists.
As Trump has turned to culture war and conspiracy theories in the final weeks of the election, establishment groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund have diligently amplified his message. In some alternative political dimension, these organizations might be laser-focused on the booming economy. Instead, they are running attack ads linking Democratic candidates to Colin Kaepernick, the black quarterback known for kneeling in protest during the national anthem, and warning darkly of an immigrant caravan marching toward the border that’s allegedly full of criminals and gang members.
Helping to shape these narratives are populist right-wing websites like Breitbart News, which now play an important role in any Republican’s press strategy. Not long ago, one GOP strategist told me, it was common for candidates and lawmakers to assign specialized staffers to deal with these unseemly elements of the conservative media. They were to be appeased when necessary, but kept at arm’s length. Now, he said, they’re so influential and omnipresent that press secretaries are on the phone with them every day.