President Donald Trump is now the biggest issue in the 2018 election.
That’s regrettable. In a perfect world, candidates would talk about health care, taxes, deficits, schools, immigration and the Supreme Court. Those issues matter to voters, too.
But Tuesday’s stunning guilty plea by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen changes the equation. The president now stands credibly accused of participating in a felony violation of campaign finance laws.
Voters understand the scandal involving pre-election payoffs to a pornographic film star and a former nude model. Candidates in Kansas and Missouri, and across the country, must now state clearly if they support the president’s behavior, or if they condemn it.
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Josh Hawley, for example, is the Republican candidate in the Missouri race for U.S. Senate. He has fully embraced Trump, appearing with the president in Kansas City. Trump is expected to visit the state again on Hawley’s behalf before Election Day.
Hawley is the current Missouri attorney general. Voters will certainly ask if the state’s top law enforcement official endorses the president’s alleged lawless activities. Are secret payoffs to former lovers acceptable for candidates, or occupants of high office?
In Kansas, GOP gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach is also a big Trump fan. He lobbied unsuccessfully for a job with the administration. He endorsed then-candidate Trump prior to the state’s Republican presidential caucus. Kobach has said that Trump’s last-minute endorsement was key to his thin primary victory earlier this month.
Kobach has made criticism of illegal behavior a centerpiece of his public career. Now, Kansas voters must compare that record with the rampant illegality around Trump.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, is a convicted felon. Other associates are under investigation or have admitted to crimes. The investigation into alleged collusion with Russians continues.
Will Kobach condemn this behavior, or does he think some kinds of illegal activity are acceptable?
The challenge in the Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District is even broader. Trump has explicitly endorsed Rep. Kevin Yoder, who will now have to decide if he’ll aggressively defend the White House. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the district in 2016.
Two of the Kansas congressman’s House GOP colleagues, both Trump supporters, are now under federal indictment. The Washington swamp remains fetid, and Yoder is the incumbent. That’s a tough place to be.
All three Kansas and Missouri Republicans will resist the Trump connection, of course. Yoder wants to make the election about Nancy Pelosi. Kobach is planning on moderate Kansans splitting their votes between his Democratic and independent opponents. Hawley will highlight Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Republicans will make sure Democrats face the impeachment question, too. The right answer: not yet. But maybe.
Trump remains popular with some voters. He famously suggested he could shoot someone in broad daylight and still win an election, an assertion that now faces an explicit test. Until this week, Republicans could make a plausible case that a calamity would be avoidable, notwithstanding Trump’s daily outbursts.
That seems less likely now.
Donald Trump is on the ballot in November, even as he inches closer to the courthouse door.