In addition to the predictable battles that normally occur between the Republican and Democratic parties, this year’s US primary election contests are featuring significant struggles being waged within both parties.
On the Republican side, the internal conflicts are not ideological. Instead, they are personal – about Donald Trump, his legacy and leadership. And even though one high-profile candidate backed by Mr Trump faced an electoral setback on Tuesday night, most Republicans are running on the same platform that brought the former president to power in 2016. It is an agenda focused on a range of “cultural” issues: fear of excessive immigration from non-European countries; restrictions on abortion; rejection of efforts to educate young people on matters of racial justice and gender equity; rejection of efforts to introduce reforms to police behaviour; and rejection of any gun control.
These cultural issues have been framed by Republicans as matters of personal freedom or the protection of traditional values. As such, they have succeeded in tapping into the discontent and sense of loss experienced by a broad swath of middle-class, middle-aged, non-college educated, mainly white Christian voters who have deep insecurities brought on by dramatic transformations in the economy, culture and demographics of the US over the past half century. By embracing and racialising them, Republicans have refashioned themselves as the party of the forgotten white middle class promising, in Mr Trump’s words, to “make America great again” – which his supporters have understood to mean taking the country back to an imagined past glory.
While this approach has won the support of many in the struggling white middle class, the actual Republican agenda has been one that has given free rein to conservative economic policies that have lowered taxes on the wealthy, ended government regulations that protected health, safety and environment, cut back on needed social services, and appointed ideological officials and judges that support these policies.
Gone are the days of the moderate Republican. Former presidents George HW Bush (1989-1993) and George W Bush (2001-2009) both rejected Mr Trump’s crass appeal. As did the 2008 Republican Party presidential nominee, the late senator John McCain. Even Senator Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee, no longer feels at home in the party he once led.
With Trumpism having taken over a section of the Grand Old Party today, the question that remains is whether the former president still leads the movement he helped to take to victory in 2016.
There are pretenders to the throne, including some of those who served in Mr Trump’s Cabinet: Mike Pence, the former vice president, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN. Also a contender is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. On most issues, all of them, except one, are playing to the Trump base.
Mr Trump has continued to insist that he won the 2020 presidential election against Joe Biden, the current incumbent, only to have his victory stolen by Democrats and faithless Republicans. However, not all of his erstwhile competitors are as obsessed with this issue – especially Mr Pence, who Mr Trump and his faithful still hold responsible for certifying the electors who gave the White House to Mr Biden.
So, Mr Trump’s ideology is not being actively debated by this year’s Republican candidates for Senate and Congress, but loyalty to Mr Trump is. It has been fascinating to watch the hoops that Republican candidates in this year’s midterm election have felt it necessary to jump through to secure his endorsement – the most important of which has been to demonstrate their agreement with him that his 2020 “victory” was stolen by Democrats and to refuse to acknowledge Mr Biden as the legitimate president of the US. And so, the primaries to date have not been about differing policies, since they all largely agree. Rather it’s been about who can court Mr Trump sufficiently enough to secure his endorsement and pledge to support the kind of electoral “reform” polices that will give Republican governors and legislatures the power to undo the voters’ will in future elections.
On Tuesday night, the Trump camp suffered two setbacks – both in the southern state of Georgia. In the gubernatorial primaries, former senator David Perdue was decisively defeated by current incumbent Brian Kemp, a conservative politician who had famously rejected Mr Trump's pleas to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia. Meanwhile, the state's top election official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who also refused to co-operate with Mr Trump in 2020, won his bid for re-election.
All is not lost for Mr Trump in Georgia, however, as another candidate – Herschel Walker, a well-known former American football player – has won the right to challenge Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock in the midterm election.
In any case, Trump-endorsed candidates have fared well in the primaries, with his chosen candidates having won important contests in Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Most of those who won are 2020 “election deniers". Some are so-called white Christian nationalists. And a few are advocates of the racialist “replacement” theory. They have averaged about one third of the vote in competitive multi-candidate races – demonstrating that Mr Trump still has substantial political clout, notwithstanding Tuesday night's results.
All this has left more moderate, traditional Republicans in a quandary. Some left the party in 2020. Others are struggling to find a new home. With the Senate and House Republicans and most of this year’s nominees now in lock step behind Trumpism, what remains to be seen is whether Trumpism continues to be a winning formula for Republicans in November and whether the former president’s power at the polls can propel him to win the Republican nomination should he run again in 2024. To a great extent, the outcomes of the 2022 and 2024 elections will depend on how Democrats resolve their internal squabbles. And whether they continue to surrender white voters to Mr Trump and company.