Kentucky presidential primary worth watching, even if it doesn’t matter

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

When Mitch McConnell voted not to convict Donald Trump on impeachment for the assault on the Capitol, the Senate Republican leader excused himself on grounds that Trump had left office. That was an untested legal theory; McConnell had already tested the politics of his members, and voted with most of them.

Then President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell shown at the White House in 2017. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But then he laid the wood to Trump, saying the rioters “did this because they’d been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth,” who displayed “a disgraceful dereliction of duty. . . . There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

After making his legal argument that impeachment was about removal and Trump’s term had ended, McConnell said Trump “didn’t get away with anything, yet. Yet. We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”

McConnell clearly expected President Biden’s Justice Department to hold Trump accountable, and clearly hoped that would keep Trump from seeking another term. But Attorney General Merrick Garland (kept off the Supreme Court by McConnell) dithered, and now the only trial Trump may endure is the current one in New York over “hush money.” He is Republicans’ presumptive nominee, so McConnell has endorsed him, doing what he sees as a party leader’s duty.

But that endorsement is about as tepid as an endorsement can get, and many of McConnell’s fellow Kentucky Republicans have similar antipathy to Trump. Yes, they are surely in the minority; Kentucky was one of Trump’s best states in the last two elections, and McConnell’s antipathy is unlikely to change that. He remains the most unpopular U.S. senator in his own state, according to first-quarter polling by Morning Consult.

But now that Trump has finally been forced to the bar of justice, he is showing greater weakness among Republican voters. On April 23, the day testimony in his trial began, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has suspended her campaign, got 16.5 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania’s primary — better than she did in any of the four primaries held on April 2, even though most of those had allowed registered independents to vote. On May 7, in Indiana’s open-to-all-voters primary, Haley did even better, getting 22%. And on May 14, she got 20% in Maryland, 9.4% in West Virginia and 18% in Nebraska (which, unlike the others, barred independents from voting).

(Getty Images)

My gut, heart and head tell me that most Republicans who have voted or will vote for Nikki Haley cannot abide Trump and are unlikely to vote for him in the fall. So I’ll be watching Kentucky Republicans closely and hopefully on Tuesday night.    

On Tuesday, May 21, Trump’s trial will be winding down and Kentucky will conclude a primary that is open only to registered Republicans, so it could be an even better barometer of long-term Republican antipathy toward Trump. Kentucky was often a bellwether state in presidential races, until its conservative Democrats tired of their party’s increasing social liberalism, but it remains near the mainstream; it recently reelected a Democratic governor and rejected an anti-abortion amendment to the state Constitution.

Porn star Stormy Daniels’ graphic testimony at trial “underscored Trump’s challenges with women voters, which some GOP lawmakers view as his biggest liability heading into November,” Alex Bolton of The Hill noted in a report that quoted several Republican senators. “A troubling sign for Trump is that Republicans who show up to vote in primaries tend to be consistent voters, and as such are a key piece of the GOP base. While they are unlikely to vote for Biden, many of them may simply stay home in November.”

In Kentucky, some Republicans might see staying home as abandonment of their party, but they could still go to the polls and not vote for president. They could rationalize and say that they’re not abandoning their party, but that it has abandoned them by becoming a personality cult for a lying egomaniac with no respect for the rule of law. As one such Republican told me, “People shouldn’t leave the church because they don’t like the preacher.”

Trump is no preacher, of course. His latest “sermon,” at a rally on the Jersey shore, was vulgar, profane and occasionally unhinged. He yelled at journalists, “You guys suck. F— fake news. Go f— yourselves.”

Many Kentuckians are offended by such words, but not by such feelings. Trump’s anti-elite, populist message still appeals to many who want simple solutions to complex problems and think the political system is so corrupt that whatever corruption Trump adds to it doesn’t matter. For him and them, nothing’s on the level.

I hope that doesn’t describe the majority of Republicans, my partisans of heritage, but I fear it does. As for the remainder, my gut, heart and head tell me that most Republicans who have voted or will vote for Nikki Haley cannot abide Trump and are unlikely to vote for him in the fall. So I’ll be watching Kentucky Republicans closely and hopefully on Tuesday night.

This column is republished from the Northern Kentucky Tribune, a nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter. Kentucky Lantern stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Donate to Kentucky Lantern here.