Donald Trump has decided to weigh in on the primary elections of Republicans in 2022 in a significant way. Rather than sit back and allow these battles to play out, he has put his endorsements behind multiple candidates — some obvious, some surprising — and in so doing, he takes on a degree of risk given the potential for failure.
How big a degree of risk? That’s a question, and a significant one. Certainly from Trump’s perspective, he never fails — he is only failed by others. From his perspective, he’s never lost an election. If the candidates were better, he would not have to deal with their losses. But that isn’t necessarily the way that his potential losses are viewed by voters and supporters.
What seems odd to me is how much Trump has gone against his purported whisperers in a number of different contests. The world is full of people who promise, essentially, that if they are hired by a campaign, they can deliver a Trump endorsement. But not only do they often fail in this effort — see David McCormick in Pennsylvania — it’s also an open question as to how much value Trump’s endorsement delivers.
Trump’s hatred has to this point proven more valuable than his endorsement. If he hates you, truly hates you, he can drive down your numbers and make you off-limits and ultimately, in the case of many politicians, make it more in your interest to resign, give up, and retire rather than try to run into the teeth of Trump and his supporters.
But in Georgia, you see how little this hatred and endorsement has done in impacting the Kemp-Perdue race. Trump’s endorsement of Perdue was obviously justified in his own mind by the difference in reactions to the 2020 election, but he is also a former Senator with high name ID, running against an incumbent governor who did not have a reputation as a political powerhouse. Yet Perdue hasn’t been able to keep the race close at all — since February he’s been lagging by double digits, even in a race where Herschel Walker is running away with his primary and Brad Raffensperger will be forced into a runoff.
Most recently, Trump has taken the surprising step of endorsing J.D. Vance in Ohio’s highly competitive Senate race. Vance is a particularly interesting endorsement case because he was vocally very critical of Trump in the past, and as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, was for a time held up by the media as a Trumpian critic who came from the world of his supporters. (This is an oversimplification, about which you can see a bit in an interview Chris Bedford and I did last year.) But still, it’s not exactly a classically Trumpian move to go in this direction, and Vance is locked in a competitive fight, not running away with this.
The question I have is: what happens if most of these choices, or even a plurality of them, lose in their primaries? In addition to the all but certain Perdue loss, it is certainly possible for Lisa Murkowski to win based on her fundraising and the massive money Mitch McConnell is spending to bring her back. It is possible Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who angered Trump over his response to 2020, ends up as the nominee in Arizona as Jim Lamon pours money into the race and Blake Masters fades. Dr. Oz is at best a coin flip in Pennsylvania and has liabilities in a state that is trending culturally very red. And it is of course possible for Liz Cheney to win based on her incumbency and record fundraising.
So why even do this? Trump doesn’t have to endorse anyone, but he is anyway, despite the risk of becoming a factional leader instead of a unifying one. Yuval Levin’s thoughts are here:
The candidates he has endorsed may well yet win, of course. The next six weeks will tell us a lot. Michigan’s primary on April 23, Nebraska’s on May 10, Pennsylvania’s, Idaho’s, and North Carolina’s on May 17, and then Georgia’s and Alabama’s on May 24 all involve Trump-endorsed candidates in one way or another.
But however those go, it’s likely that Trump’s decision to endorse as widely as he did this year will alter his place in the Republican ecosystem and leave him diminished. To see why, it’s worth thinking about his strategy through the lens of the political science of party factions...
In that way, endorsing candidates in party primaries around the country can be a sign of strength — helping lone-wolf politicians join together into a powerful intra-party force. But Trump is moving in something like the opposite direction. He does not begin as a weak, lone-wolf politician but as the most powerful figure in the GOP — a figure with whom almost every Republican candidate would like to identify to some degree. He could easily stand apart from the primaries in all these races and let essentially all the candidates claim him and thereby reinforce his dominance of the party. By choosing instead to endorse some candidates over others, he is choosing to narrow his reach and to constrain the meaning of Trumpism within the GOP. He is not going from lonely voice to factional leader but from party leader to factional leader.
This would be true even if all of Trump’s endorsed candidates won their primaries. The range of Republicans willing to say they support Trump is much broader than the victory that any of these endorsed candidates would win, so that in every one of these primaries Trump’s endorsements are creating Trump-friendly Republican voters who are choosing to reject Trump’s endorsed candidates and so to position themselves in some respects outside of Trump’s orbit in the party…
Trump’s endorsements will tend to create more Republicans who aren’t anti-Trump and yet don’t feel like they are in his camp. And that includes not only voters and party officials but also politicians who will feel they don’t owe him anything. As a practical matter, there should already be many such politicians, since many Republican members of Congress ran ahead of Trump in their own states and districts. But a lot of them still feel like they have been working in his party over these past six years, and can’t afford to really get crosswise with him. Yet if Trump gets crosswise with them and they still win, they would feel much less compelled to keep chasing him.
The Republican Party is still Donald Trump’s party. That hasn’t changed, and even if he goes down to defeat in many of these primary contests, it won’t change. But it will be a sign that the party seems ready to move on from being subject to the vagaries of his impulsive political endorsements. The voters have the luxury of being alone in the voting booth and not having to personally receive the wrath of Trump for rejecting Perdue in favor of Kemp.
But. But if at the end of this cycle, if Trump is not viewed as a winner who always wins, will it be taken as an indication among some Republicans — leaders, donors, and voters alike — that he is no longer king of the jungle?
If so, that could be very significant indeed.
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