In GOP primaries, Trump can hurt someone, but can he help?

In GOP primaries, Trump can hurt someone, but can he help?
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Just three years after reinventing himself as a pugilistic populist, President TrumpDonald John TrumpArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Alyssa Milano protests Kavanaugh in 'Handmaid's Tale' costume Bomb in deadly Yemen school bus attack was manufactured by US firm: report MORE has proven remarkably adept at ridding the Republican Party of far more experienced politicians who offer anything short of complete fealty.

But Trump has proven less effective at refashioning the GOP by electing like-minded candidates. He has struggled, at times, to transfer the fervor of his most ardent supporters to those candidates he publicly endorses.

In the words of one GOP strategist, who asked for anonymity for fear of alienating the White House, Trump is good at breaking things. He's not as good at building them back up.


"Voters on our side have hired him to be a mercenary to battle their enemies. Therefore, he is most effective when he identifies opponents of the cause. That's his skill set," said Brad Todd, a GOP strategist and co-author of "The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics."

Rep. Mark SanfordMarshall (Mark) Clement SanfordHouse Dems to invest in South Carolina race Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks Trump: I ‘destroy' careers of Republicans who say bad things about me MORE (R-S.C.), who lost his bid for another term on Tuesday, is the latest in a growing list of victims of Trump's political wrath.

Sanford has been critical of Trump's coarse language and his decision not to release his tax returns. As voters headed to the polls Tuesday, Trump tweeted that Sanford was "very unhelpful" and "nothing but trouble."

State Rep. Katie Arrington (R), who cast herself as a Trump loyalist, took almost 51 percent of the vote on Tuesday. Sanford took just 46 percent.

"We are the party of Donald J. Trump," Arrington said in her victory speech Tuesday.

Before his run-in with Trump, Sanford built one of the most conservative records in public life, both in Congress and as governor. He had been planning a run for the White House, before a very public scandal involving an Argentinian paramour — a scandal to which Trump referred in his tweet — ended his marriage and his national hopes.

Yet the scandal could not fell Mark Sanford. Instead, Trump’s tweet did.

Sanford joins other unquestionably ideological conservatives, such as Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Voters will punish Congress for ignoring duty on war and peace GOP Senate candidate truncates Trump tweet in campaign mailer MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSen. Warner to introduce amendment limiting Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances White House weighs clawing back State, foreign aid funding Rand Paul to ask Trump to lift sanctions on Russian leaders MORE (R-Tenn.), who have been forced out over disagreements with Trump.

Last week, Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyDem House candidate claims Russians tried to hack campaign website Tag Obama for the rise of Trump, and now, socialism Trump: My endorsement opened 'flood gates' for Roby MORE (R-Ala.), who also expressed disgust with Trump's comments on an Access Hollywood video, was forced into a runoff election. In that race, Roby will face former Rep. Bobby Bright (R), the man she beat in 2010. When Bright was in Congress, he was a Democrat. But he has attacked Roby for insufficiently supporting Trump.

So Trump can hound someone out of the GOP. What is less obvious is whether he can convince his supporters to back the candidates he actually likes.

The same day South Carolina voters dismissed Sanford, they sent Gov. Henry McMaster (R) into a runoff with a first-time candidate, John Warren (R).

McMaster is the antithesis of Sanford. Instead of running away from Trump, McMaster was the first statewide elected official to back Trump during the Republican primaries. Trump elevated McMaster to the governorship, when he picked then-Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyTreasury retweets Trump, possibly violating campaign law UN human rights chief: Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is ‘very close to incitement to violence’ Who guards the guardians? MORE (R) to serve as the administration's representative to the United Nations. And Trump endorsed McMaster early in his bid for his own full term.

But voters didn't agree, and McMaster now faces a runoff in just two weeks.

Other candidates who have received Trump's blessing have struggled to earn the loyalty of his voters, too.

Trump tweeted on behalf of Alabama Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump to GOP: I will carry you GOP strategist: Trump will be anchor around Republicans' necks in general election Trump: I ‘destroy' careers of Republicans who say bad things about me MORE (R), whom he dubbed "Big Luther." Strange lost a runoff to former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreEx-Sheriff David Clarke describes how he would have stopped anti-fascists in 1930s Germany on 'Who is America' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump to GOP: I will carry you GOP strategist: Trump will be anchor around Republicans' necks in general election MORE — who then lost the general election, even with Trump's subsequent backing.

In Florida, Trump has backed Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisDems see chance to cut into GOP governorships Election Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' Sanders to campaign for Florida Dem governor candidate MORE (R) in his run for governor. A new poll released by the Florida Chamber of Commerce shows DeSantis trailing state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (R) by a wide margin. In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Rick Saccone (R) lost a deeply conservative district in a special election even after Trump held a rally on Saccone's behalf.

Plenty of Trump-backed candidates have either won or cleared the field. On Tuesday, three Trump-backed contenders, Adam Laxalt, Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThe farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act GOP’s midterm strategy takes shape Battle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest MORE and Danny Tarkanian, easily advanced in their primary contests in Nevada. So did Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerOvernight Health Care: Supreme Court nomination reignites abortion fight in states | Trump urges Sessions to sue opioid makers | FDA approves first generic version of EpiPen Vulnerable Dem Sen. Heitkamp hits opponent on ObamaCare repeal votes Overnight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate MORE (R-N.D.), running against Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDems to challenge Kavanaugh for White House records To solve the southern border crisis, look past the border The Hill's Morning Report: Dems have a majority in the Senate (this week) MORE (D).

Republicans involved in this year's primaries say Trump's ability to cause problems for some, and his inability to solve problems for others, is a reflection of the mission conservative voters sent him on.

Arch-conservatives have been asked for years to swallow their disappointment after losing primaries and back the winning establishment-favored contenders. Now, after their side won a primary, they expect the same of the establishment they have fought for so long.

"It was not a romance," one GOP strategist said. "It was a transaction."

Trump's inability to manipulate his core backers on behalf of another candidate means those in charge of protecting Republican majorities have less influence over their own primaries than they have in recent years.

That may be a positive for conservative voters tired of backing candidates they deem insufficiently ideological. But it may exacerbate the party's challenges in this year's midterm elections, if more moderate Republicans who abandoned Trump in key districts decide they can no longer stomach other candidates who follow in his mold.