As of late September, Donald Trump had the lowest approval rating of any president that far into his first term. Yet there has been remarkably little atrophy among Trump’s base. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from the same month found that 98 percent of Trump primary voters approve of the president’s job performance. Among Americans who support Trump, 61 percent don’t envision anything that would change their favorable opinion of him. A majority of Republican voters consider themselves primarily loyal to the president rather than to the Republican Party.
It’s no wonder, then, that 2018 GOP primaries are devolving into fights about which candidate in the race is most closely aligned with the Trump agenda. Take the Arizona Senate race: Jeff Flake, the incumbent, who refused to endorse Trump and wrote a book earlier this year excoriating the president, is facing a tough primary challenger in Kelli Ward, who has positioned herself as an unwavering partner to the president. Steve Bannon, back at Breitbart after being ousted from the White House, is scheming to cultivate Trump allies to challenge establishment Republican incumbents with help from the billionaire Robert Mercer, who has already pumped $300,000 into a Super PAC affiliated with Ward’s campaign.
In the murky sea of 2018 GOP candidates, the most fascinating creatures are the ones trying to capture the secret sauce that propelled Trump from laughingstock to president. Trump’s crudeness didn’t deter as many voters as pundits anticipated and Democrats hoped; nor did his embrace of the politics of white racial resentment. Down-ballot candidates have taken notice. Elements of Trump’s brand of populism are surfacing in various configurations among two types of opportunists: longtime vulgarians emboldened to run for higher office by the president’s success, and establishment politicians eager to rebrand themselves to ride Trump’s appeal among the GOP base.
Right-wing populists existed before Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy in 2015: Paul LePage kicked off his Maine governorship in 2011 by skipping a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast and then saying the NAACP could “kiss my butt”; Iowa Congressman Steve King once called Barack Obama “very, very urban,” to pick one of the many examples of racist dog-whistles since he joined Congress in 2003; and Sarah Palin’s anti-intellectualism in 2008 laid the groundwork for Trump’s ascent. But Trump is a new breed, and the success of his impersonators in 2018 is the first major test of whether Trumpism will transcend the man in the White House. An early-warning sign that the answer is yes: in Alabama’s Senate primary in late September, establishment favorite Luther Strange, who had earned an endorsement from Trump, lost badly to Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who was twice removed from the job for defying federal court orders, has called homosexuality “a crime against nature,” and still questions Barack Obama’s citizenship.
The era of Trumpism, in other words, may not even have begun.
So go ahead, meet the Trumpkins.
Corey Stewart (VA—Senate)
Trumpyness score: 9/10
For any aspiring mini-Trumps who find themselves lagging in the polls, the candidacy of Corey Stewart provides a glimmer of hope. Heading into the Virginia Republican gubernatorial primary in June, Stewart was polling more than twenty points behind his rival, Ed Gillespie. Yet on election day, Stewart, a little-known county official who ran on a platform soaked with Trumpian white identity politics, came within 1.2 percentage points of defeating Gillespie—a former lobbyist and RNC chair who outspent Stewart three to one. Now, in the wake of his surprising performance in June, he’s trying to snatch away Tim Kaine’s Senate seat in 2018.
“I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” Stewart, who chairs the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, says. “I’ve always kind of been like him and his style of brutally honest, blunt talk.” In 2007, he spearheaded the passage of a law that curbed undocumented immigrants’ access to public services and ramped up immigration enforcement from local police, later bragging that the law was “probably the nation’s toughest crackdown on illegal immigration.” Today, Stewart casts himself as a defender of southern heritage. Since the Charlottesville City Council voted in February to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, Stewart has held rallies denouncing liberals who risk “losing part of our identity here in Virginia” by tearing down Confederate monuments. “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter,” Stewart—who was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota—tweeted in April. Following the murder of an antiracist protestor by a white supremacist in Charlottesville in August, Stewart, like the president, criticized “leftwing agitators” and questioned why “we never hear about violence on the left.”
In addition to tapping into Dixie pride, Stewart has ingratiated himself with the far-right fringe. He’s prone to retweeting figures like the right-wing conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, and in February he stood at a press conference alongside Jason Kessler, the white nationalist blogger who would organize the rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville. On the Reddit page r/The_Donald, Stewart disparaged his former opponent Ed Gillespie as a “cuckservative,” the popular alt-right pejorative for mainstream Republicans seen as overly sympathetic to liberal values.
Stewart, who served as Virginia chairman of Trump’s campaign until he was pushed out, oozes with Trump-like bluster. “I’m not going to hold any punches,” he said. “I’m not going to backstab anyone. I’d rather stab them right in the gut—I don’t believe in whisper campaigns.” So far, Stewart has attacked Kaine for “race baiting” by supporting DACA and accused the senator’s son Woody of being a member of Antifa after he was arrested at a counter-protest to a pro-Trump rally.
With no primary opponents, Corey Stewart has a clear shot at Tim Kaine. True, no Republican has won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and Kaine had a 53 percent to 36 percent edge in the first poll of the Senate race. But Stewart has outperformed the polls once already and is betting he can do it again.
Shiva Ayyadurai (MA—Senate)
Trumpyness score: 8
Electability score: 2
An immigrant entrepreneur from India with four MIT degrees who has studied under Noam Chomsky and quotes Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious from memory, Shiva Ayyadurai has little in common on paper with a president who brags about his affection for the “poorly educated.” Yet Ayyadurai is waging a scorched-earth campaign in the Republican primary in Massachusetts to unseat Senator Elizabeth Warren by kindling the same dark impulses of the Breitbart and Infowars right that boosted Trump’s candidacy.
Born in Mumbai to an “untouchable” caste, Ayyadurai brands himself as a “real deplorable,” and he relishes abrasive, goading political tactics. Trump famously loves to denigrate Warren by calling her “Pocahontas,” a reference to revelations that she once listed her ethnicity as Native American in a Harvard directory in the 1990s. Ayyadurai is taking it one step further, running on the promise that “only a real Indian can defeat a fake Indian.” For Warren’s birthday, he mailed the senator a DNA test kit, baiting her to prove her indigenous ancestry. (She sent it back to him.)
A first-time candidate who, motivated by Trump, voted for the first time in 2016, Ayyadurai has been a serial entrepreneur, founding an email management software company in 1994 now called EchoMail that has included Nike and the U.S. Senate as customers. Ayyadurai’s contempt for the establishment seems to harken back to his widely disputed claim to have invented email as a fourteen-year-old in New Jersey. It’s a claim on which Ayyadurai refuses to give any ground; his personal website is inventorofemail.com, and after Gawker wrote a brutal takedown of his “inventor of email” shtick, he sued, settling with the now-defunct publication after its coffers had already been drained by a lawsuit from Hulk Hogan.
When I caught him on his cell phone in early September, Ayyadurai punctured his stream-of-consciousness rants against Warren, the military-industrial complex, and “academic elites” with not infrequent F-bombs. Like Trump, he’s impossible to quite pin down: he laments the power of Monsanto and GMOs while, in the same breath, laying out a case against the Paris Climate Accords. The common thread of his political ideology appears to be disdain for the mainstream media, big business, and, especially, academia—the “fake news behind the fake news,” he calls it.
As a Senate candidate, Ayyadurai has cozied himself up to the fringe right, occasionally joining Alex Jones on Infowars, and partying with Mike Cernovich after CPAC earlier this year. He has referred to minorities (including himself) as “darkies” and released a YouTube video likening Trump’s proposed border wall to a cell membrane, implicitly equating Mexicans with viruses.
In reliably blue Massachusetts, Trump won under a third of the vote, and Warren remains popular, so Ayyadurai’s quest to become the state’s “real Indian” faces a series of hurdles, including a tough GOP primary. A June poll has Ayyadurai trailing Warren 61 to 25 percent, but, in his mind, that’s precisely the underestimated, outsider position that he’s overcome his entire life.
Joshua Mandel (OH—Senate)
Trumpyness score: 6
Electability score: 7
Joshua Mandel has the best electoral chances of anyone on this list. Trump won Ohio, long a quintessential swing state, by almost nine percentage points, even while losing the national popular vote. Trump’s support in the Buckeye State hasn’t been lost on Mandel, a forty-year-old making his second bid to defeat Senator Sherrod Brown.
Mandel, who looks and sounds like a high school freshman, has made a meteoric ascent through the ranks of Ohio state politics, boosted by a polished resume, a groomed persona, and, until recently, a mainstream conservative ideology. An Iraq War veteran and two-term student body president at Ohio State, Mandel married into one of the wealthiest families in Cleveland. He won a seat on the Lyndhurst City Council fresh out of law school at age twenty-six by campaigning door to door on a promise of fiscal conservatism, eventually implementing the town’s first-ever property tax cut. He has positioned himself for higher office ever since, turning a stint as a state representative into his current role as state treasurer in 2010, then narrowly losing to Brown in 2012.
In his current Senate campaign, Mandel has flirted with xenophobia and Islamophobia. In May, not long after he announced his campaign by noting his commitment to protecting “Judeo-Christian values,” he traveled to the southern border to meet with border patrol agents and write tweets assailing the “liberals & squishy repubs” who oppose Trump’s border wall. Since signaling his intention to challenge Brown again, Mandel has established himself as one of the Ohio public officials most fervently opposed to sanctuary cities, supporting an ill-fated bill in the state legislature that would have banned sanctuary cities and held local officials who violated the law liable for the crimes of undocumented immigrants.
Mandel tweeted out his support of Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec in July against accusations from the Anti-Defamation League that the two right-wing trolls have dabbled in white supremacy. Mandel, who is Jewish and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, opted to align himself with provocateurs who have argued, respectively, that “date rape does not exist” and that Hillary Clinton has ties to a (nonexistent) sex cult in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor. Mandel has embraced full-blown Islamophobia, retweeting a tweet that reads, “I am so sick and tired of PC idiots worrying about defending Islam. I stand with Israel and my Judeo-Christian culture and I find Islam offensive.”
In May, he tweeted out a local news story with the caption “Ohio Mosque chains kids to wall & beats them for not reading Quran. We must protect women & kids from these people.” He failed to mention that the article he shared was from 2013, and that the story had been widely debunked, including by the news channel that originally published it.
Mandel poses a serious threat to Brown: a prolific fund-raiser, he has already raised more than $4 million in a state that’s trending more reliably red than purple. With an endorsement from Ohio GOP heavyweight Senator Rob Portman, he lacks any competitive primary opponents.
Joe Cicero, a registered independent and the former mayor of Lyndhurst, takes a dim view of Mandel’s latest branding as Donald Trump 2.0: “He fooled everyone in the city. He was opportunistic from the start, one of the worst things that ever happened to Lyndhurst. Josh Mandel is inadequate as a human being.”
Lou Barletta (PA—Senate)
Trumpyness score: 7
Electability score: 6
Borders not secure, laws ignored. Now a plan to relocate unaccompanied minors to Hazleton & other towns. Must stop.http://t.co/kFfTVkq64o
— Lou Barletta (@RepLouBarletta) July 1, 2014
A decade ago, Lou Barletta, then mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania—a working-class, post-industrial town of 25,000 tucked into the foothills of the Poconos—rammed through an ordinance aimed at ridding the town of its burgeoning undocumented population. Now a congressman, Barletta wants to take his nativism to Congress’s upper house, running a campaign to defeat incumbent Democrat Senator Bob Casey.
Latinos began to flood Hazleton in the early aughts when low-skill warehouse and meatpacking jobs arrived in town after the city promised tax-free development. After two undocumented immigrants were accused of shooting a man in Hazleton in 2006, Barletta seized on the incident by fear-mongering about a nonexistent “crime wave,” and promising to wage “a war on the illegals.” (Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges.) He drafted the so-called Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which cracked down on landlords and businesses involved with the “hiring or harboring of illegal aliens,” imposing a $1,000-per-day fine on any landlord who rents to an undocumented immigrant, and declaring English the city’s official language. Donning a bulletproof vest the day he signed the law, Barletta declared, “[To] the illegal citizens, I would recommend they leave. . . . What you see here tonight, really, is a city that wants to take back what America has given it.”
While the ACLU successfully blocked Barletta’s law in federal court, it propelled his political career, helping him win a seat in Congress amid the Tea Party wave of 2010. Barletta hasn’t toned down his anti-immigrant fervor as a congressman, introducing a law that would strip all federal funding from cities that don’t enforce federal immigration laws, and advising the Federation of American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant organization with white supremacist origins. (The group’s founder, John Tanton, once said that “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority”).
Trump urged Barletta, an early supporter who served on the presidential transition team, to run for the Senate after Barletta reportedly turned down an offer to serve as labor secretary. As by far the highest-profile name in the crowded GOP primary, in a state that went for Trump, he’s got a serious shot at snatching Casey’s seat.
Jamie Longazel, a Hazleton native and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote a book, Undocumented Fears, about Barletta’s use of anti-immigrant paranoia toward political ends. “Part of the reason that this part of Pennsylvania—and Pennsylvania more generally—moved toward Trump is because the seeds had already been planted by Barletta,” he said.
Scott Wagner (PA—Governor)
Trumpyness score: 8
Electability score: 5
Notable Facebook post:
A wealthy businessman who made an improbable ascent to power against the wishes of many in his own party and whose political shtick is rooted in bullying and intimidation. Sound familiar? It’s no coincidence that Scott Wagner, a freshman state senator, has been referred to as “our Donald Trump” by Pennsylvania Republican operatives. Wagner now wants to take his politics statewide, running in the GOP primary for a chance to replace Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.
Wagner, a self-described “garbage man without a college degree,” has populist credentials that Trump could only dream of. As a teenager, he shoveled horse manure on his family’s farm for $5 a week; today he’s worth a reported $20 million as the president and CEO of Penn Waste, a trash-hauling company. In 2014, Wagner became the first write-in candidate to win a race in state history, blowing away his competitors by injecting his own wealth into his campaign.
Stylistically, Wagner channels Trump’s tendency toward threatening rhetoric. After his election in 2014, Wagner warned his new colleagues in a radio interview that he’d “be sitting in the back room with a baseball bat. And leadership’s gonna start doing things [that] Pennsylvania needs done.” He’s established himself as a thorn in the side of his fellow Republicans, leading the push to oust a top Republican state senator from a leadership position for being insufficiently conservative. Of the governor, meanwhile, he has said that state Republicans had him “down on the floor with our foot on his throat and we let him up. Next time, we won’t let him up.”
Wagner’s aggression has gone beyond mere rhetoric at least once. At a campaign event at a country club in early May, he spotted a tracker from the opposition research PAC American Bridge who was quietly recording his speech. Wagner stormed to the back of the room and yanked the camera out of the tracker’s hands, bloodying his finger. “We’ve never had an incident like that before,” said Lizzy Price, a spokesperson for American Bridge. Wagner escaped criminal charges, but he never returned the memory card from the camera he confiscated.
Wagner’s climate denialism is Trump-like in its absurdity and free association. “I haven’t been in a science class in a long time, but the earth moves closer to the sun every year,” he told a reporter earlier this year. (It does not.) “We have more people. You know, humans have warm bodies. So is heat coming off? Things are changing, but I think we are, as a society, doing the best we can.” Wagner has never been a white nationalist type, but he has begun to master the art of racial dog-whistling—he has refused to apologize for a rant in which he referred to George Soros, the billionaire liberal donor and bogeyman for the right, as a “Hungarian Jew” with “a hatred for America.” Governor Tom Wolf’s poll numbers are in the 40s (though trending upward), so he’s vulnerable to a Republican opponent. So far, Scott Wagner only has one Republican opponent—a political newcomer—and with his deep pockets, don’t be shocked if this “garbage man” moves into the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg in 2019.
Jim Renacci (OH—Governor)
Trumpyness score: 5
Electability score: 3
Jim Renacci, a mild-mannered congressman representing northeast Ohio, isn’t prone to Trump-style bellicosity or hyperbole. But as the fight to replace Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is term-limited, in 2018 devolves into a civil war between the Trump and Kasich wings of the GOP, Renacci, a staunch Trump supporter, is wielding his anti-establishment credentials to imitate the president and boost his underdog candidacy.
A former mayor and city councilman now in his fourth term in Congress, Renacci was lauded as a freshman for a professed desire to wade beyond partisan lines. In 2011, he formed a bipartisan breakfast club with a Democratic counterpart to send a message to fellow House members that, as he wrote in the Washington Post, “progress is more important than politics and partisanship.”
Even though he has held elected office since the 1990s, Renacci casts himself as an outsider. “I’m not a career politician,” he told me. “I’m a career businessman.” He has distanced himself from the Kasich allies in the primary race by promoting the benefits of “a Columbus outsider and career businessman like me.” Like Trump, Renacci launched his political career following success in the business world: he is among the richest members of Congress, with a net worth reportedly north of $50 million, amassed from a handful of business ventures ranging from car dealerships to nursing homes to a stake in a minor-league baseball team. Renacci’s campaign slogan—“Ohio First”—pays homage to Trump’s “America First,” and he ends his campaign videos by urging voters to “join us as we make Ohio First again.”
Renacci’s disinclination toward Trumpian bluster may explain why, in a July poll, 70 percent of likely Ohio voters didn’t know who he was. Lately, however, he has adopted components of Trump’s pugilism, mostly directed at Secretary of State Jon Husted, a primary rival with broad name recognition in the state. Trump made a habit of denigrating opponents with epithets—“Little Marco” Rubio, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Crooked Hillary” Clinton—and Renacci has taken to referring to Husted as “Dishonest Johnny,” claiming that Husted spread misleading stories about him. “He embodies the self-serving, dishonest political establishment that will say or do anything to dupe voters into believing that they’re something that they’re really not,” Renacci told me. “He’s never run against me before, and I think he’s learned that the jig is up and I won’t let him do it any longer.”
The primary isn’t until May, but Renacci is lagging behind his better-known opponents: Mike DeWine, the attorney general and former senator, so far leads the four-way race with 42 percent versus of likely voters versus just 5 percent for Renacci. Renacci is doing all he can to show his close ties with Trump, reiterating that he was the first member of Ohio’s congressional delegation to back him and hosting a fund-raiser with Corey Lewandowski, the president’s first campaign manager. Mike Pence praised Renacci in a June visit to Ohio, applauding the congressman for being a “strong partner of this administration” and claiming, “I was for Jim Renacci before it was cool.” Renacci has also gotten endorsements from two grassroots pro-Trump groups, Bikers for Trump and Citizens for Trump. But for that to translate into electoral victory, Renacci needs to hope that the antiestablishment gusts of 2016 are once again swirling in 2018.