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Republican Primaries Focus On Candidates' Loyalty To Trump


Voters in 11 states this month will elect their nominees to face off in November's general election. That includes Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and North Carolina - those primaries coming this coming Tuesday. In this year's Republican primaries, one question is dominating all the rest - who will be the most loyal to President Trump? NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: This week's Republican debate in Indiana ahead of Tuesday's primary election was not exactly a battle of ideas. As the moderator said, there just isn't much policy difference between the three candidates.


ABDUL-HAKIM SHABAZZ: They agree that when it comes to immigration, that a wall should be built along the border with Mexico. They also agree that the Russia investigation is, quote, "a witch hunt and must end now." And they're also strong supporters of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And they support arming teachers in the classroom. So we will not spend any time on those issues in the questioning.

DAVIS: The debate commission solicited questions from Hoosiers. The No. 1 topic was about support for President Trump and where the candidates might disagree with him. It was sort of like the political debate equivalent of asking a job candidate what they think their weaknesses are. So instead, Congressman Todd Rokita touted his support during the campaign.


TODD ROKITA: The president knows that I have his back when he needed it most against crooked Hillary Clinton.

DAVIS: Congressman Luke Messer praised Trump's North Korea strategy.


LUKE MESSER: President Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

DAVIS: And businessman Mike Braun said he's the political outsider in the race, just like Trump.


MIKE BRAUN: I'm on record as saying President Trump was the inspiration for why I ran, and he needs more reinforcements like me.

DAVIS: Echoes of this dynamic are playing out in Republican primaries all over the country right now. Veteran House and Senate campaign strategist Andrea Bozek says in 2018, candidates are no longer concerned with the familiar metrics that used to drive primary campaigns like their conservative vote rating score or whether they had signed an anti-tax pledge.

ANDREA BOZEK: I think now it's, how much support have you given the president in the past? And what can you do to support his agenda going forward?

DAVIS: The conservative groups that used to drive those primary issue debates like the anti-tax Club for Growth agree that the politics of Trump's personality are a deciding factor in 2018. President David McIntosh says Republican primary voters see a president under siege by Democrats and the media, and they are motivated above all else to vote for candidates who will fight for him.

DAVID MCINTOSH: Republican primary voters think we need to send people to Washington who will back him up because he's under attack. And so I think the urgency of that phenomena has created a personality test to be larger than the ideology or the issue test.

DAVIS: Ohio also holds primary elections on Tuesday. In the gubernatorial race, Republicans Mike DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor are running attack ads that sound like this.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She claims she's conservative, but Taylor refused to endorse Donald Trump for president over Hillary Clinton.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If you like President Trump, then you won't like Mike DeWine. In the Senate, DeWine voted with Hillary Clinton to let illegal immigrants receive Social Security.

DAVIS: And in West Virginia's three-way Republican Senate primary, Congressman Evan Jenkins is hoping the fact that he was the first to endorse Trump in the 2016 campaign will help him edge out rivals like Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. It's a line of attack he used at the Fox News debate this week.


EVAN JENKINS: Who did you vote for in the May primary in West Virginia? I endorsed and voted for Donald Trump. Who did you vote for?

PATRICK MORRISEY: I support the president.

DAVIS: This entire GOP strategy is bucking conventional wisdom. In midterm elections, the president's party historically loses seats and candidates want distance from the White House. Trump's campaign pollster, John McLaughlin, says if Republicans want to get the Trump voter to turn out for them, it just makes sense to run as close to Trump as possible.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The Democrats organically are getting out their anti-Trump vote. The Republicans need to get out that pro-Trump voter who didn't vote in 2014 but came out in 2016 because of Donald Trump.

DAVIS: Running as mini-Trumps could make all of these candidates more vulnerable in the general election with a more competitive and diverse electorate. But Republicans have a different calculation about 2018. Here's McIntosh again.

MCINTOSH: I think the old formula that you want the purple-y (ph) candidate or the squishy candidate so he can appeal to both sides in the general election is a recipe for failure for Republicans this year.

DAVIS: So even if the MAGA hat doesn't fit, wear it. Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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