‘King Trump’ may not be a kingmaker

York Dispatch editorial board

What does a political party do when its most popular candidate isn’t on the ballot?

That’s the dilemma Republicans face next month as voters head to the polls. The base remains utterly enthralled with former President Donald Trump but, in many cases, less passionate about the army of mini-Trumps populating the ballots in this non-presidential election year.

Pennsylvania is a prime example. Two years after narrowly losing the state to President Biden, the one-term president remains a popular figure among the rank and file, a recent Associated Press report found. Said one fan: “He’s still the king, and the kingmaker.”

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Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks during a campaign rally at The Fuge on May 14, 2022, in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Mastriano is running for Pennsylvania governor and has the backing of Lance Wallnau, a self-styled Christian prophet. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/TNS)

But that kingmaking hasn’t been evident in two of the state’s most high-profile races. Gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz — the former a reliable foot soldier in Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election; the latter hand-picked by Trump — have trailed their Democratic opponents throughout the campaign.

Even a Trump-led rally for the candidates last month in Wilkes-Barre did little to boost the pair. Of course, Trump spent most of his time on stage talking about himself and playing to the appreciative crowd.

And therein lies the problem.

Those thousands of supporters were decked out in MAGA hats and Trumpian regalia. Much like the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, they marched under the banner of Trump, rather than that of the Republican party. Their allegiance is to a man, not a party.

And that allegiance, whether sincere or calculated, is emulated by Republican candidates and elected officials, hoping to tap into this devotion.

The subservience to the former president is so absolute that even after what some are calling a veiled death threat against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and an inarguably racist attack on his wife, the party faithful remained … well, faithful.

In a post on his Twitter-like platform, Trump ungrammatically questioned whether McConnell was going along with “Democrat sponsored Bills” and spending because “he hates Donald J. Trump,” before closing with: “He has a DEATH WISH. Must immediately seek help and advise (sic) from his China loving wife, Coco Chow!”

Other than outgoing Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, not a single congressional Republican stepped up to condemn the threatening language, defend McConnell or denounce the slander against his wife, Elaine Chao (Trump’s own transportation secretary, who resigned on Jan. 6).

It was a stunning display of mass cowardice that only emboldens Trump’s future use of violent and hate-filled rhetoric.

But it is the price Republican office-holders and -seekers must now pay to maintain political viability. Republican voters certainly aren’t going hold them to account. Just the opposite: Criticizing Trump, or telling the truth about the 2020 presidential election, are about the only punishable offenses among the GOP base.

The Republican Party has long been ideologically monolithic. From environmental issues to reproductive rights to tax-cutting fervor, there is very little deviation from the norm. (Pretty much the same among Democrats.)

But the party at least operated in the real world. Consenting to a mass fantasy about a rigged election to appease the fragile ego of a sore loser would have been beneath most elected officials. Frankly, it still should be.

But so long as Trump-loving voters in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation continue to ignore the lies, threats and bad behavior, only the most principled Republicans will risk the political fate of Wyoming’s Cheney, whose reward for defending the Constitution and speaking truth was a primary defeat by a Trump-backed challenger.

It’s a shameful reflection of the voters, the lawmakers and the party.

But it’s the political world Trump’s satellites are orbiting. Toss in the potentially turnout-dampening effects of the former president’s constant harping on voter fraud and the climb gets steeper.

Without Trump’s name at the top of the ballot, Mastriano, Oz and other Trumpian favorites may find his “complete and total endorsements” come not with coattails but baggage.