- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2018

Traditional conservative groups that have long dominated Republican Party politics have found themselves locked out of the White House on crucial issues on which President Trump goes his own way, most glaringly on get-tough trade policy and his use of tariffs to squeeze trade rivals.

But in the era of Trump, most of these powerful conservative advocates do not entirely buck the president and have swallowed their pride to support pro-Trump candidates who also break with free-trade orthodoxy.

“The landscape is changing,” said former Rep. David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth, an organization that scores conservative voting records in Congress and prides itself on taking on any lawmaker who does not adhere to free market, limited-government principles.

He said the landscape hasn’t forced his group to abandon its allegiance to free trade, but the Club for Growth is taking a broader view of a president and candidates with whom it agrees more often than not.

“The key part of any Republican or conservative group right now is to support the conservative policies of the president and to make it clear they are going to fight the liberal Democrats who want to take him out and eliminate it,” said Mr. McIntosh.

Trade isn’t the only policy issue on which traditional conservative groups disagree with Mr. Trump. Some strike a more conciliatory stance on immigration. They support amnesty of some illegal immigrants in exchange for border wall funding without the major changes to immigration laws that Mr. Trump wants.

Mr. Trump’s bold rhetoric on trade and immigration resonated beyond traditional Republican voters, attracted blue-collar Democrats and helped secure his unexpected win in 2016.

The president’s determination to follow through on those promises in office has thrilled his base but has irked the Republican establishment and further hardened the “Never Trump” faction of the Republican Party.

Conservative groups, including the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and The Heritage Foundation, championed Mr. Trump’s tax cuts and massive rollbacks of federal regulations.

They also have been at the table in the White House while these plans took shape during the first year of the administration.

When the focus turned to policy that free-traders view as protectionist and potentially harmful to U.S. consumers and businesses, the White House wasn’t interested in hearing their objections.

In the most prominent Senate races, in which incumbent Democrats are running in states that Mr. Trump won in 2016, conservative groups are overlooking the trade issue to support the leading pro-Trump candidates.

The Club for Growth threw in with Republican Senate candidates Josh Hawley, the Missouri attorney general, and Matt Rosendale, the Montana state auditor, who both vouched for tariffs as a negotiating tool; and Kevin Nicholson, a Marine Corps veteran in Wisconsin who also defends the president’s tariffs.

However, these candidates likely wouldn’t be taking a position on tariffs if Mr. Trump were not wielding them in the White House. Some might not even be running if Mr. Trump hadn’t shaken up the Republican Party in 2016.

Republican Party strategist Chris Wilson balked at the idea that conservative groups have been “Trumped.”

He argued that conservative groups can’t make every issue a litmus test. They have to evaluate the candidates they support one by one in the context of their races.

“There’s no such thing as a single unified Republican position that encompasses every single issue, and there never has been,” said Mr. Wilson. “Not all candidates who are saying, ‘I back the president,’ which is a thing all Republican candidates ought to be saying, are necessarily in lockstep with him on every single policy position.”

Americans for Prosperity, a nationwide grass-roots conservative advocacy group founded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch, took a different tack.

Rather than overtly supporting pro-Trump candidates, they are concentrating their efforts on defeating incumbent Democrats in the top midterm races.

“We think it is an important difference,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity.

They have a ground operation and are on the airwaves with ads attacking incumbent Democrats in the marque Senate races in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and Wisconsin.

“We’ve just said the incumbent senators have been a disaster on the issues and impact the lives of citizens of their state. So we have not endorsed any — except Marsha Blackburn,” Mr. Phillips said.

Mrs. Blackburn, a Tennessee congresswoman running for an open Senate seat in the reliably Republican state, is the exception on many endorsement lists. She has amassed a rock-solid conservative voting record in the House. She has opposed or raised concerns about tariffs but has won an endorsement from Mr. Trump.

“There is no question that this is becoming President Trump’s Republican Party,” Tom Dupree, a deputy assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, said on Fox News’ “Outnumbered.”

Mr. Trump’s poll numbers and the results of primaries show that “the president is reshaping the Republican Party in his own image,” he said.

“The big question, and I say this as a Republican, is: Where we are going to be in a post-Trump world?” he said. “Is this coalition that the president has brought together of people who are longtime Republicans and also some blue-collar Democrats — is that going to stay stable and together, or are we going to see a schism in the Republican Party between the Trump faction and the ‘Never Trumpers’ once the president has left office? That’s the big question.”

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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