‘I Was Trump Before Trump Was Trump’

Don Blankenship likes to believe he knows something about rough justice and who deserves it.

“We don’t need to investigate our president. We need to arrest Hillary,” one of his campaign ads proclaims, mimicking President Trump’s crude 2016 rallying cry, “Lock her up!”

Mr. Blankenship, who has a respectable chance of winning the Republican nomination for Senate in West Virginia on May 8, is, in more ways than one, the ideal candidate for the Trump era. He spent a year in prison on charges rising from the collapse of one of his coal mines, which killed 29 people. Mr. Blankenship nurses a deep sense of grievance, and he has no political experience to speak of.

But he does have a natural inclination for one of the most distinctive and defining contributions that Mr. Trump has made to American politics: its sound.

In Republican races across the country, candidates like Mr. Blankenship are parroting the president as they try to prove to voters that they are cut from the same cloth as he is. They recite the Trump lexicon, spouting his trademark phrases and slurs like “Drain the swamp,” “Build the wall,” “rigged system,” “fake news” and “America first.”

They are channeling Mr. Trump’s belligerent and profane style of speaking, seeking to capture that essential but elusive quality that matters so much to voters these days — authenticity.

And they wear his hats.

In Indiana, Representative Todd Rokita, a Republican candidate for Senate, proudly slaps on a red “Make America Great Again” cap in a new ad as he promises to “proudly stand with our president and Mike Pence to drain the swamp.”

Not to be outdone, one of Mr. Rokita’s opponents, Luke Messer, tarred Mr. Rokita as “Lyin’ Todd,” an echo of Mr. Trump’s epithet for Senator Ted Cruz, “Lyin’ Ted.” Mr. Messer’s gripe? Mr. Rokita falsely claimed to have received the president’s endorsement.

Representative Martha McSally, a Republican who is running for the Arizona Senate seat of Republican Jeff Flake, who is retiring, offers a testimonial in one of her campaign videos from Mr. Trump about how “tough” and “real” she is. She tells a story about how she once told Washington politicians to “grow a pair of ovaries.” As further proof of her saltiness, Ms. McSally offers up an old, bleeped out quote from a news article. “McSally stood up,” the text onscreen reads, “and said let’s get this ‘@#$% thing’ done.”

Marsha Blackburn, a congresswoman from Tennessee, wants it known that she will pick the same fights as the president. In an ad announcing her candidacy for the Senate seat of Bob Corker — who also plans to retire — right after she mentions her skeet-shooting skills and the gun she packs in her purse, she promises to stand with Mr. Trump “every step of the way to build that wall.”

“I stand when the president walks in the room. And yes, I stand when I hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” she adds, nodding to the president’s spat with the National Football League after some players knelt in protest during the national anthem.

Mr. Trump has so thoroughly rewritten the rules of engagement in politics that restraint and polish have become signs of weakness for many candidates. No longer do they assume as they once did that a special set of rules applies to him, and that they would be punished for trying to mimic his behavior.

“Today the goal is linguistic,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who specializes in the words and messages that candidates use. “We are no longer rewarding policy; we are rewarding rhetoric.”

“On a personal level,” Mr. Luntz added, “it sickens me.”

Some Democrats have even begun to believe this strategy has its merits. The lofty approach of the Obamas — “When they go low, we go high” — may be unrealistic as long as Mr. Trump is leading the Republican Party.

Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton, recently wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post that advised Democrats running against the president in 2020 to “swing at every pitch.”

“Trump never says, ‘I’m not dignifying that with an answer,’” Mr. Reines went on. “He has no dignity. He leaves no attack unanswered. I spent 15 years recommending ignoring stupidity. ‘It has no legs. Don’t give it oxygen. There’s no pickup.’ I was wrong.”

In an interview, Mr. Reines said he was embracing this only as a “desperate times calls for desperate action” tactic. But as he spent time lately reading up on the guerrilla strategies of World War II resistance groups, one thing became clear: “The bigger person will lose.”

Some Democratic politicians seem to agree. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a former vice president, asserted last month that he would have taken Mr. Trump “behind the gym and beat the hell out of him” if they were both still in high school. Other Democrats like Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey have displayed their aggressive side lately; Mr. Booker’s eruption at Kirsten Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, at a recent hearing went viral.

For some Republicans, it is not enough to merely talk like Mr. Trump or say they will fight with him. They want to take credit for his style.

“Someone told me the other day that I was the first Trump, the Trump for Mississippi,” Chris McDaniel, a candidate for Senate in Mississippi, said recently.

It doesn’t always work. Rick “I was Trump before Trump was Trump” Saccone was defeated by a Democrat in March in a special election in heavily Republican southwestern Pennsylvania.

Corey Stewart, a failed candidate for governor of Virginia last year, also tried to tell voters, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.”

That all feels a long way from 2012, when Republican candidates and “super PACs” spent millions of dollars honing carefully calibrated attacks on President Barack Obama that would not be too harsh so as to alienate voters who still liked him but had doubts, and not too soft so as to lack a punch.

“There used to be a sense that if you were that over the top, voters would punish you for it,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican messaging expert who advised Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. “Now, it is less about who’s more conservative,” he added, “and more about who’s going to adhere to the Trump agenda and the Trump ideology.”

Candidates now seem most comfortable talking about vanquishing their enemies than they do about governing.

Josh Hawley, the Missouri attorney general who is running for Senate, has degrees from Yale and Stanford. He clerked for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Yet as he campaigns, he attacks “the political class” and “elites” on the coasts who see Missourians only as “empty squares out the window of a jet flying from New York to L.A.”

In a recent speech, Mr. Hawley delivered one of Mr. Trump’s signature punch lines as he accused the “Hollywood and Wall Street and the D.C. political establishment” of working together “to rig a system that favors them.”

Not everyone, of course, can channel Mr. Trump and be as convincing as Mr. Blankenship. From the moment he was released from prison last year, he started using Twitter to bludgeon his political opponents. He calls them liars and liberally employs exclamation points. He teases coming campaign announcements.

One new ad cites statistics on crime committed by undocumented immigrants and notes that the estimated 12 million people in the United States illegally amount to “six times West Virginia’s entire population.”

“Republican Don Blankenship,” the announcer assures viewers, “will vote for the wall.”

Jeremy W. Peters covers national politics in the Washington bureau. His other assignments in his decade at The Times have included covering the financial markets, the media, New York politics and two presidential campaigns.


A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: G.O.P. Candidates Echo the Sound and Fury of Trump. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe