Roy Blunt rumbles down a Missouri highway, headed to another campaign rally, the next luncheon, the next news conference. He’s asking the state’s voters to send him back the U.S. Senate this fall, and the clock is ticking.
“I feel good about it,” the Republican says by cellphone, but “we can’t take anything for granted.”
As he speaks, the ground below him is shifting.
Like most GOP candidates, Blunt faces the almost-daily challenge of reacting to his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Just last week Blunt issued a statement gently chiding Trump for his treatment of the Muslim family of a deceased American soldier.
But something else is going on this year, and it might not be just about Trump. Increasingly, analysts and activists believe, the Republican brand — what it means to be a Republican — is changing in a more fundamental way.
The party of business, small government and a robust foreign policy may be turning into something else: A party of workers and tradesmen, not just bosses and elites. Isolationist. Protectionist. Less concerned with deficits and taxes, more concerned with infrastructure and retirement security.
“We’re in a realignment period,” said Ryan Johnson of the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a conservative advocacy group.
The realignment turns a lot of Republican orthodoxy on its head. Yet if Blunt and other Republicans are to be elected, analysts say, they must respond to new concerns without alienating the bank president or the small business owner who still provide much of the backbone of GOP politics.
It’s a tough needle to thread.
Candidates like Blunt “are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scholar and author at the American Enterprise Institute. Trump is “fundamentally challenging the character of the party.”
To be sure, Democrats face their own fractures. The success of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign forced nominee Hillary Clinton into some awkward flip-flops: on foreign trade, for example. Clinton now seems more popular with wealthy Americans, and Wall Street, than Trump does.
Blunt’s Senate opponent in Missouri, Democrat Jason Kander, will have to answer for Clinton’s positions too.
But Sanders lost his race. While Clinton’s leftward shift is clear, her campaign is still recognizable to most Democrats — she wants a higher minimum wage, expanded Social Security, a bigger government role in child care and education.
Trump, by contrast, has called for a government infrastructure construction program double the size of Clinton’s. He promises to leave entitlement spending untouched. He, too, wants a higher minimum wage.
He supports the traditional Republican position on guns, but only recently flipped to a pro-life position on abortion.
Trump has threatened to pull back from NATO, and — in the party of a president who once called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” — he’s praised the Russian president and appeared to acquiesce in the Russian occupation of Crimea.
Those views and others have left many traditional Republicans aghast. On websites and in newspaper columns, they’ve berated the nominee for his apostasy. They’ve worried Trump’s rhetorical excesses may further tarnish the party’s image.
Yet those positions and those words carried Trump to the nomination. They’ve brought thousands of Trump voters to rallies across the Rust Belt, where the presidential race may be won or lost.
“All the energy in the Republican party is in the insurgency,” said John Lamping, a former Missouri state senator and a Republican. “The energy and the growth and expansion and the dynamic aspects of the party are all in the … populism, that wave.”
Blunt and other Republican candidates — Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Rob Portman in Ohio, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire — hope to capture that energy in the fall.
But the populist enthusiasm has a downside, some Republicans said.
“There’s a harshness,” said Greg Musil, a Republican who once ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat in Kansas. “There’s a desperation, us-versus-them. There’s not an end game.”
And the quest for populist support has another complication: it is deeply anti-government and highly suspicious of incumbents.
Last Tuesday, for example, Republican primary voters rejected Tea Party favorite Rep. Tim Huelskamp in Kansas, dismissed officeholders in state House and Senate races, and nominated newcomers Eric Greitens and Josh Hawley for statewide office in Missouri.
Trump is the ultimate outsider, of course, having never held elective office.
Blunt has been in Washington since 1997. There are signs Kander might make Blunt’s career a bigger issue than any possible Blunt-Trump links.
“Folks are tired of having a senator who does whatever his political party tells him,” Kander said last week.
For his part, Blunt says he’s happy to run on his record — mental health, energy, fewer federal regulations. And he says he shares values with many Trump supporters.
But he also said he thinks Missouri voters will judge him apart from Trump.
“I’m comfortable with who I am, on how to talk about those issues,” he said.
Some Republicans said Blunt might be able to pull off the delicate balancing act.
“You cannot say that Trump is the same brand as Roy Blunt,” Johnson said. “It just is not true. I think voters will be able to see that.”
Johnson also said the transformation of the Republican parpty might not be permanent — Trump may be a “black swan,” he said, a rare one-time phenomenon with little effect on other campaigns.
John Hancock, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, agreed.
“The real question as to Donald Trump’s impact on the Republican brand,” Hancock said, “is going be whether (he’s) a six-month experience, or whether he fundamentally changes the Republican Party.
“We don’t know the answer. ‘To be determined’ is the best I can tell you.”
Jim Staab, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri, said “this might be a one-time situation. It’s going to take some time to assess whether it will have a transformative effect.”
But others said the Trump effect might be locked in place, at least for now. If Trump loses, they predicted, a bitter GOP argument will ensue.
“There’s going to be a fundamental struggle for control of the party for some years to come,” Ornstein said.
Some have even predicted the collapse of the Republican party itself, or of both major parties.
Joel Paddock, a political science professor at Missouri State University, said such concerns are exaggerated. “The Republicans are likely to survive this,” he said. “They have been around since the 1850s.”
But he — like others in and out of the party — said the Republican brand is changing, perhaps in irrevocable ways.
“The party will clearly have to evolve, and adjust not only to the conflicting demands of their current coalition, but also to an increasingly diverse electorate,” he said.
“This will not be an easy task.”