'The litmus test is loyalty to an individual.' How Trump has reshaped the GOP

WASHINGTON — In the Republican Party, Roy Moore is in and Jeff Flake is out.

That reality, which hit home last week, shows how President Trump has reshaped the GOP just under a year since his election.

One telling signal arrived in late September, when Republican voters in Alabama handed their Senate nomination to Moore, a bomb-throwing ex-judge who was twice kicked off the bench for disobeying federal court orders, who has said homosexuality should be illegal, and who has questioned Muslims’ ability to serve in Congress.

The bookend came last week, when primary voters in Arizona helped force out Flake, a consistent fiscal conservative whose political support crumbled for the sin of criticizing Trump as dishonest, divisive, and dangerous to the country’s civic life.

“Prior to Donald Trump, we had litmus tests in this party, and the litmus test was: Are you ideologically doctrinaire enough?” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.). “Now, since Donald Trump, the litmus test is loyalty to an individual.”

Flake, for example, had crusaded against government waste and “earmarks” for spending, scored a 96 percent from the economically conservative Club for Growth, and backed Trump on the Senate floor 90 percent of the time, including in his marquee effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But in supporting compromise on immigration reform and attacking the president’s slashing style, the senator fell out of step with a GOP base roused by the cultural grievances Trump feeds. The president’s allies savaged him as basically a Democrat.

With little chance of winning reelection, Flake will join another mainstream Republican, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, in retiring.

“Through the process of subtraction, the Republican Party in the Senate will become more conservative and more pro-Trump,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has studied the chamber.

In the House, Dent is among several of the more pragmatic Republicans also calling it quits rather than trying to fight the Trump tide.

Meanwhile, Moore is favored to join the Senate after a December special election, having scored a Trump-style primary victory by attacking the GOP establishment — even as Trump supported his rival. A day after Flake spoke, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn, announced his support for Moore, whom he had previously criticized.

Trump-aligned candidates will also make a push next year to replace Flake and Corker. And Trump’s tone has seeped into governor’s races in such blue states as New Jersey and Virginia, where Republican candidates launched blistering TV ads warning of the dangers of Hispanic gangs and “sanctuary cities.”

In Pennsylvania, a close Trump ally and crusader against illegal immigration, Rep. Lou Barletta, is favored to be the GOP nominee for Senate next year — while the moderate Rep. Pat Meehan chose to sit it out — and one of the party’s top candidates for governor, State Sen. Scott Wagner, has tried to claim the Trump mantle, calling the president “a mini-Scott Wagner.”

This is the political environment that consumed Flake.

“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party,” Flake said in a Senate floor speech that grabbed national headlines. “We have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment.”

He added that “anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”

His words built on recent criticism from Corker and GOP elders such as Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush, who have cast Trump as a threat to fundamental norms of American democracy.

But those making the argument are people with nothing to lose politically — unlikely to ever face voters again.

Republicans who’d like to keep winning elections have rarely challenged Trump or his base, seemingly aware of the political risks and wary of taking on the man whose pen can turn their agenda into law.

Polls show that the vast majority of Republicans approve of the president’s performance, even as much of the country recoils.

“I’ll stand up when I need to,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has previously lashed Trump’s conduct but said he is now focused on results. “I’m trying to get taxes cut, Obamacare repealed, and win a war we can’t afford to lose.”

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), in a statement, called Flake “a friend of immeasurable decency” who “has provided a principled, conservative voice to civil debate.” But asked about Flake’s call for action, Toomey told the Associated Press he had not had time to read his colleague’s searing speech.

“The GOP as it was died in Cleveland. Flake’s decision authenticates this,” wrote Ben Domenech of the conservative web site the Federalist, referring to the national convention where Trump accepted his party’s nomination in the summer of 2016.

Michael Dougherty, a senior writer at the conservative National Review, tweeted, “What Flake doesn’t get is that Trump’s culture war belligerency is the first time many GOP voters feel the party is doing something for them.”

Establishment allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announced a plan to hit back in next year’s Senate primaries, taking aim at Trump’s nationalist adviser Stephen Bannon and his chosen candidates. Bannon has declared “war” on the old GOP — including McConnell and other incumbents — in a fight for the party’s future.

The danger for the conventional Republicans is that the voter fury they harnessed during the Obama years may have spread out of their control — with Trump adding gasoline and the flames now licking at their doorsteps.