DOTHAN, Ala. — Heading into the midterm elections, President Donald Trump has become a one-man litmus test in some of his party’s primaries, imperiling incumbents in races where policy issues seem to matter less to voters than personal loyalty to the president.
Perhaps nowhere has this been seen more acutely than in Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, where Republican voters face a peculiar choice in a runoff:
A congresswoman who condemned Trump but has since voted nearly in lock step with him, or a challenger who was once a Democrat who supported Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but now sounds much like the president.
“It’s like a lot of elections: Which is the best of a bad choice?” said Brandon Shoupe, a Republican and county commissioner in southeast Alabama who has not endorsed either the incumbent, Martha Roby, or her runoff rival, Bobby Bright. “You’ve got an unpopular flavor of Republican currently holding the office, and then you’ve got a former Democrat that’s running.”
But the unusual pairing barely fazed many Republican voters. Indeed, Linda Lane-Overton, who lives in Alabama’s Wiregrass region, said she had comfortably arrived at a two-part test for making her decision.
“We have to look at both candidates and feel sure that our vote will be for the candidate that can win the election in November — and be loyal to our president,” she said Thursday.
The fact that an incumbent like Roby has been forced into a runoff by questions of personal fealty illustrates the potency of the issue in this year’s Republican primaries. Another test of just how dangerous it can be for a Republican lawmaker to cross Trump looms Tuesday.
Republican voters in a South Carolina district will decide whether they want to nominate Rep. Mark Sanford for another term or replace him with Katie Arrington, a state lawmaker who has made Sanford’s criticisms of the president the centerpiece of her insurgent campaign.
Sanford has spent nearly $400,000 on advertising in recent months to try to hold on to his Charleston-based district, airing a commercial in which he says, “Overwhelmingly, I’ve voted with the president.”
Yet Sanford, a libertarian-leaning conservative, is plainly uneasy that some in his party are demanding loyalty tests to a president who does not share his small-government convictions.
“We’re at an interesting inflection point in American politics,” he said in an interview. “If somehow dissent from your own party becomes viewed as a bad thing, then we’re not really vetting and challenging ideas in the way the Founding Fathers intended.”
Broadening his argument, Sanford said America was meant to be “a nation of laws, not men” and that “we weren’t a cult of personality.”
Sanford said he recognizes that Republicans in his district, which Trump carried by 14 points, want him to line up with the president, and cited a survey saying he had voted with Trump in Congress 89 percent of the time. “I love my brother and sister, but I don’t agree with them 89 percent of the time,” he said.
Still, his opponent, Arrington, has made extensive use of clips of Sanford taking aim at Trump. She argued in a debate this month that “our first job is to listen to the captain” and that “Mark Sanford has spent the better part of two years bashing our captain.”
Roby, by contrast, has not staked out a position of anything approaching regular dissent; she essentially opposed Trump in public only for a short period near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, over his personal behavior. After a recording surfaced of Trump making vulgar comments about women, she said he was “unacceptable as a candidate for president” and urged him to step aside.
“When she came out against Trump, the people down here in this part of the state — oh my God, they hate it,” said Will Matthews, a Republican lawyer in Ozark. “She showed her true colors to kowtow to the traditional Republican Party people.”
On Election Day, Trump easily carried the 2nd District, but Roby won re-election with only 49 percent of the vote; two years earlier, she had taken about two-thirds.
Things only seem to have gotten worse for her since then. Facing better prepared opposition than the last-minute write-in campaign her critics mounted in 2016, Roby managed to attract just 39 percent of the vote in the five-way Republican primary this past week, necessitating a runoff July 17.
Her primary performance, dismal for a four-term incumbent, stemmed from a political reality of the Trump era: Republican primaries often draw voters with enormous, and largely unquestioning, affection for the president.
Recognizing that reality, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi have been jockeying over who is the most faithful to Trump — a striking echo of a Senate race last year in Alabama.
Roby’s district, covering all or part of 15 counties, was ripe for just such a contest, with voters scattered from Montgomery’s northern suburbs down Highway 231 toward the peanut farms around Dothan, near the Florida border. Indeed, the danger for Roby, especially in a part of the 2nd District known for its conservatism as well as the texture of its grass, was clear almost immediately after she questioned Trump’s fitness.
Party activists quickly distanced themselves from her, and when she visited Dothan in October 2016 to address a Republican group, protesters gathered outside. Lane-Overton, standing next to Roby, delivered a public tongue-lashing as television cameras rolled.
With a campaign treasury befitting a favorite of many congressional leaders, Roby is expected to spend the weeks before the runoff on television, hammering away at Bright’s history as a Democrat and emphasizing her voting record, in which few of her detractors find much fault.
A spokeswoman for Roby, Emily Taylor, said the congresswoman has “a shared conservative agenda with the Trump administration” and that “she wants nothing more than for the president to be successful.”
Bright, whose campaign produced a video asserting that Roby “turned her back on President Trump when he needed her most,” is not buying it. “She’s doing it to try to make amends,” he said in an interview.
Although a recycled sign at his campaign office near Montgomery bore a union label — a relic, he said, of his bygone days as a Democrat — Bright is trying both to persuade voters he is the most favorable to Trump’s agenda and to explain his past support for Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. Roby makes for a ready-made foil.
“She injected her personal political beliefs over those of her constituents, and that’s what the people resent,” Bright said, as he repeatedly championed Trump while insisting that he did not condone any personal misconduct.
There is little dispute that Roby, whose spokeswoman said she was unavailable for comment for this article, would be on safer ground now if she had held back in 2016. But her predicament has begun to stir questions, even in a decidedly pro-Trump district, about the implications of setting up devotion to the president as the paramount test for candidates, even those who, like Roby, have reliably backed the party’s legislative agenda.
“I don’t think that eight years of Trump is going to be enough to totally divide the party, with people who are just that intensely loyal and won’t support anybody that doesn’t support him,” said Donna Horn, who runs a beer distributorship in Pike County. “But I do think who is the president after that is going to be a test of whether they can pull back or not.”
There are indications that top Republicans, including Trump, are preparing to try to defuse the situation, at least in this race. At the urging of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaker of the House, Vice President Mike Pence nearly interceded on Roby’s behalf in the primary. But after deliberating with top aides until nearly the day of the vote, he held off, because Trump had not decided whether to forgive Roby and did not offer his own public endorsement. Republican officials now believe that both Trump and Pence will endorse her in the runoff.
Voters like Lane-Overton, who attended Trump’s inauguration after Roby came up with tickets for her, are watching.
“If he gives the endorsement to her, I think Republicans would be crazy not to back her,” Lane-Overton said. “If he says that he endorses her, there’s no doubt that he means it. He could just as easily slam her.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.