By Caleb Herrin
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizon recently decided not to run for re-election, setting up contentious races and the potential for a major shake-up in the Senate. Both senators have decided to go out with a fight, and have become staunch critics of the current administration. Flake accused Trump of setting a bad example for children, and Corker says the White House is run ‘like a daycare’. With a small majority in the chamber already, what implication does this have for Senate Republicans, and what do each of the senators gain from this move?
First off, they have term-limited themselves, and after their replacements are sworn in, the national platform of a senator will be gone for them. If they were truly passionate about their anti-Trump positions, why would they inhibit their own resistance? Sen. John McCain, also of Arizona, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have acted as rogue senators for a long time, and they have used their power as senators to stand up for their principles and morals. However, they do this from the Senate. It will be difficult for Corker and Flake to be rogue senators from their respective front porches.
This is a particularly dangerous time for them to do this as well, as conservatism is changing as a brand. While there is honor in both men standing up for what they believe, they are risking the future of the conservative movement being left in the hands of hardliners and populists. Flake, once the poster boy of the Tea Party movement, is now being targeted by the same populists who once voted him in. With their retirement, Flake and Corker leave the door wide open for Steve Bannon. He will have far more influence in these races without these incumbents running, which is incredibly worrying. Bannon will surely count this as a victory, as he didn’t even need to mount a primary campaign against them. Considering the state of the Republican party, it’s unlikely that an establishment Republican will win these now open primaries. This leaves two options, a win for the Democrats or a win for Bannon.
Now the Republican leadership will have to figure out a way to turn the tide against the populists, and find a way to secure victories for reasonable conservatives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can only pray that what happened in Alabama will not take in place in Arizona or Tennessee. Kelli Ward is the Bannon backed candidate in Arizona who has hitched herself to the Trump Train. In the Volunteer State, Rep. Marsha Blackburn seems to be the front runner. Two things stand atop her resume for Bannon and co.: she worked on the Trump transition team and she is proud to be ‘politically incorrect’.
Bannon is certainly smiling a lot these days. He has successfully positioned ‘pro-Trump’ candidates against the mainstream of the party, and a betting man would hesitate to throw in against him. The elections in 2018 will be the litmus test for pro-Trump candidates, and it will likely shape the future of the party far more than the autopsy Republicans conducted after Romney’s defeat in 2014. The Republican Party is slowly evolving away from what it once was, and this evolution will only hasten as many GOP Senators are getting older and may start retiring. How long until the Senate will be controlled by Judge Roy Moore and his posse?