President Donald Trump’s support for a primary challenger against a sitting senator in his own party has little precedent. In fact, you’d have to go back nearly 80 years to find a similar example, a top historian says.
On Thursday morning, Trump followed through on weeks of thinly veiled threats when he tweeted his support for Arizona State Sen. Kelli Ward’s primary challenge against Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ).
“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!” Trump wrote on Twitter. He is expected to further denigrate Flake at a campaign rally in Phoenix next Tuesday, and may give a formal endorsement of Ward or a different GOP challenger.
Trump has shown repeatedly that he isn’t afraid to publicly chastise those who cross him—including his fellow Republicans. And Flake was an obvious target. Although the senator has the overwhelming support of his Republican colleagues, as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a group dedicated to maintaining and growing the Republican majority in the upper chamber, Flake has been highly critical of Trump.
Still, in issuing that tweet, Trump did something historic in the modern political era.
The last time a president so actively campaigned against a sitting senator of his own party was in 1938 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to purge conservative Democrats from the party, according to Susan Dunn, a history professor at Williams College.
Dunn wrote “Roosevelt’s Purge,” a book detailing what she describes as an attempt at party realignment on the part of the 32nd president. Ahead of his re-election to a third term in office, Roosevelt wanted a number of conservative Democrats who were opposing his New Deal programs to leave the party and join the Republicans so that the country could have two operative political parties. Roosevelt’s strategy was clear in the 1938 midterm elections: if they won’t have my back, there will be consequences.
In particular, Roosevelt took aim at Sens. Walter George of Georgia, Guy Gillette of Iowa, Millard Tydings of Maryland, and Ellison Smith of South Carolina, all of whom routinely sabotaged Roosevelt as he was trying to push through his legislative agenda and pack the Supreme Court with justices who would rubber-stamp his New Deal platform. He traveled to those states as part of an active effort to purge them from the Democratic party and from their elected office.
Tydings in particular drew Roosevelt’s ire. Roosevelt routinely singled him out for opposing nearly every legislative measure that was intended to help the country recover from the Great Depression—from the National Labor Relations Act to to Social Security, for which he only voted “present.” Roosevelt’s vitriol towards Tydings was profound. Dunn writes that the president once said he wanted to “take Tydings’ hide off and rub salt in it”—a Trumpian dig for the Great Depression era.
“Roosevelt and [Democratic National Committee Chairman James Farley] might have felt some affection for a conservative like Walter George, but they had nothing but loathing for Tydings,” Dunn writes.
At the time, Roosevelt was criticized for inappropriately wading into congressional elections where he was not welcome. In fact, he initially pledged during one of his famed “fireside chats” to not choose sides in the Democratic primaries in his capacity as president, Dunn writes in her book. But Roosevelt viewed himself not only as the leader of the U.S. government; he also believed he had a duty to do what was best for the Democratic party as its leader.
That meant purging the Senate of those “who say ‘yes’ to a progressive objective, but who always find some reason to oppose any specific proposal designed to gain that objective,” Roosevelt once said during a fireside chat.
But Roosevelt ran into a problem: the challengers he backed in those races were politically ineffective. Each lost—many of them by double digits. As the general election approached, it was clear that Roosevelt’s crusade against members of his own party would backfire. Democrats retained their supermajority in the Senate, but lost seven seats, meaning Roosevelt ended up with fewer allies in Congress. At the time, Democrats were worried it would spell trouble for his re-election bid in two years.
Roosevelt’s plan may have failed. But Dunn noted that those same Democrats whom he wanted to defeat ended up becoming some of his most vocal supporters as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II. On top of that, Roosevelt coasted to reelection in 1940, handily defeating Republican Wendell Willkie to win a third term.
Flash forward 79 years, and American politics is experiencing the closest thing to a rerun of that Roosevelt-era moment. Flake hasn’t shunned Trump to the degree that Tydings did to FDR. In fact, he’s voted with him more than 90 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight. But he is playing a similar role as an antagonizer of the president.
Trump, in turn, is doing his part to go after members of his own party whom he deems insufficiently loyal. Only, Dunn says, his strategy lacks the precision and sophistication of Roosevelt’s.
“Roosevelt had an intelligent, well-thought out plan for party realignment that he felt was necessary in 1938,” Dunn told The Daily Beast. “And Trump doesn’t have any such plan. This is simply a personal reaction of vindictiveness and personal animosity [toward Flake].”
The end result in 2018 could be the same as 1938: an effort to reorganize the party ranks that ends up depleting them. Republicans now fear that if Trump is successful at propelling Ward to the Arizona GOP nomination, her controversial past could provide Democrats with a viable opportunity to flip Flake’s seat. Ward, a vocal Trump supporter, has alienated many voters in the state for her recent suggestion that Sen. John McCain should resign due to his brain cancer diagnosis, and that Arizona’s Republican governor should appoint her in his place.
Flake has been consistently critical of Trump, and recently wrote a book denouncing the ideals Trump espouses as well as the Republicans who don’t directly call out the president. But amid the president’s attacks, the Republican party apparatus has rallied to his side and not the president’s.
“The NRSC unequivocally supports Senator Flake in his reelection bid,” National Republican Senate Committee Chairman Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said in a statement emailed to The Daily Beast.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has also found himself the target of Trump’s tweets as of late, issued a statement in support of Flake as well. “Jeff Flake is an excellent senator and a tireless advocate for Arizona and our nation. He has my full support,” McConnell said.