It’s been a mixed bag for former President Donald Trump’s efforts to play kingmaker in this year’s Republican primaries. After opening 55-0 in primary endorsements for the year, he began making riskier picks. The undefeated streak came to an end this month.
Trump is still influential with the GOP rank-and-file, probably more than any other current or former elected official. He helped Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance separate from the pack and win a crowded, expensive Ohio Republican primary for Senate. His endorsement enabled Ted Budd to easily defeat a former governor and a Republican Study Committee leader for a North Carolina Senate nomination.
But Trump’s blessing didn’t prevent Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin from losing her primary challenge to the sitting governor in a landslide. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts got his preferred successor across the finish line against Trump’s choice. Trump couldn’t save Rep. Madison Cawthorn. And former Sen. David Perdue looks likely to fall flat in his Trump-backed bid against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday.
Not all Trump endorsements are created equal. Sometimes he just endorses the clear frontrunner and takes credit when they win. In North Carolina, he worked with the Club for Growth to forge a consensus for Budd. He worked against them in Ohio to boost Vance while the author and venture capitalist was still trailing in the polls.
But Trump’s endorsement isn’t always enough to salvage objectively bad candidates or campaigns. It clearly carries more weight in the Rust Belt and South than in blue states. And when Trump’s personal grudges are wildly out of step with the Republican electorate, his support isn’t infallible.
Still, Cawthorn had numerous scandals ranging from absenteeism charges to traffic violations to insider trading allegations to sex questions with the state’s soon-to-be senior senator gunning for him. He still just barely lost. Trump helped Charles Herbster, who was accused of groping women, close to within 4 points in Nebraska’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Trump’s pick for Senate in Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz, could still lose the primary in a recount. But right now, Oz is clinging to a lead of 0.1 percent that would surely be a deficit right now if it weren’t for Trump.
Trump’s endorsement remains powerful. A Republican candidate would still prefer to have it than not, especially during the primary. But it is not determinative. Moreover, Republican primary voters are disgusted with President Joe Biden. They want to beat the Democrats in the fall. If they believe Trump’s contender can do that, his endorsee will probably win the nomination. If they don’t, however, they will heed their own judgment about electability over Trump’s.
This is especially true if Trump’s motivations are personal. He soured on Kemp in Georgia for reasons having to do with the ill-fated 2020 election challenges. But even Republicans who agree with Trump on that issue are going to prefer a candidate who is polling better against likely Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams. The bigger the margin of victory, the less they have to worry about fraud. Kemp is leading more handily than Perdue, whose nomination seems more likely to lead to a tight race like in 2018 — entirely unnecessary in a more GOP-friendly cycle.
That doesn’t mean Trump has no pull with Georgia Republicans. He has certainly helped Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker. Trump has already washed his hands of Perdue days before the primary. He previously pulled his Senate endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks in the Alabama primary, though Brooks seems to have rebounded of late in the polls.
Overall, Trump’s endorsement record makes the case for him as the Republican frontrunner should he decide to run again in 2024. But it does raise some warning that if Trump decides to make that presidential election about the last one, a more forward-looking Republican could have an opening against him.
Trump lieutenants ranging from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Kellyanne Conway broke with the former president in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, speaking out against Oz. This too may test the willingness of some Republicans to run anyway if Trump throws his hat into the ring. Pompeo is an oft-rumored candidate, for example.
The Republican Party is still heavily defined by Trump. Yet it is not fully owned by him.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? You can follow home on Twitter: @Jimantle.