Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks

Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks
© Getty Images

For weeks, Republican strategists sent polling data to the White House that showed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) would struggle to beat a Democrat in November. The same polls showed Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) easily winning a full term. 

The goal, according to two Republicans with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, was to keep President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE from endorsing Kobach, a firebrand conservative best known for his hard lines on voting rights and illegal immigration.

On Monday, Trump endorsed Kobach anyway, by presidential tweet.

A day later, Kansas voters cast what amounts to a split decision: Kobach leads Colyer by just 191 votes, out of more than 250,000 cast. Thousands of provisional and mail-in ballots remain to be cast.

The close results underscore the political risks Trump has embraced in anointing favored candidates, even those who are not seen as the favorites in their own states. Previous administrations have sought to avoid being seen as meddling in primaries, a caution this president does not heed.


Instead, Trump’s nods in the primary season have largely followed two common threads: He either rewards loyalty, as with Kobach, who led Trump’s so-called voter integrity panel until it was disbanded, or punishes those who have not demonstrated fealty, like Rep. Mark SanfordMark SanfordMark Sanford calls Graham 'a canary in the coalmine' on GOP's relationship with Trump Top cyber Pentagon official overseeing defense contractor project placed on leave Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP MORE (R-S.C.), who lost his primary in June. 

Trump has also offered endorsements in states that will be important to his own reelection bid in 2020, such as Georgia, Michigan and Ohio.

Taken together, the endorsements have cemented Trump’s power and influence over a Republican Party that he acquired by hostile takeover in the 2016 presidential election. 

“He’s been very supportive and loyal to those members of Congress who are supporting his agenda to get the economy back on track,” said House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseOSHA faces big challenge with Biden vaccine mandate Overnight Health Care — Nicki Minaj stokes uproar over vaccines Republicans ask FDA for details on any White House pressure on boosters MORE (R-La.), who speaks often with Trump about the political landscape. “President Trump’s support amongst Republican voters has never been stronger.”

Trump’s public involvement is a departure from his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees MORE. In those administrations, the White House usually worked behind the scenes — and always in coordination with party officials in Washington and around the country — to avoid publicity during contentious primary battles. 

The White House’s political affairs team, led by White House political director Bill Stepien and deputy director Brian Jack, routinely liaise with party leaders at the Republican National Committee and committees that oversee House, Senate and gubernatorial races. 

But those committees do not always get a heads up before Trump makes an endorsement — the Republican Governors Association was surprised by Trump’s decision to back Brian Kemp in Georgia, and again by the Kobach endorsement.

“The process is systematic. It is methodical. The president seeks to find those candidates who are the most consistent supporters of his agenda, those that can best carry his message, the party’s message, and those that can win in November and those that will be the best partners once in office,” said a senior party official familiar with Trump's thinking.

White House officials said Trump is looking for candidates who will side with him on contentious agenda items, hoping to avoid scenarios like the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, doomed to failure by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE’s (R-Ariz.) thumbs down.

“The ultimate goal for the president, after attempting for 18 months to work across party lines, is to find some like minded members of Congress to work with him,” the party official said. “The ultimate goal for the president is to elect more Republicans to pass the agenda that the American people supported in 2016.” 

Republicans running for office in crowded primaries this year have plotted strategies for winning — or blocking others from receiving — Trump’s endorsement. 

Some have offered fiery support for Trump’s policies. Kemp was a regular on Fox News, taking a hard line on immigration that earned Trump’s notice. Colyer wrote an opinion piece backing Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. 

Others — like Kobach — have traveled or sent emissaries to Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, Trump’s private clubs, to bend his ear or put in a kind word.

Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) asked Trump for his endorsement aboard Air Force One, before he won a contentious primary on Staten Island. Rep. Clay HigginsGlen (Clay) Clay HigginsNY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House Louisiana delegation asks for additional relief funding after Ida MORE (R-La.) asked Scalise to buttonhole Trump after Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, endorsed one of his opponents; Trump publicly backed Higgins.

“Clay’s been incredibly supportive of the president’s agenda to get the economy back on track,” Scalise said. Trump’s endorsement “sent an important message.”

Still others rely on their relationship with Vice President Pence, a strategy that has proven less effective. 

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, running for governor against Trump favorite Rep. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFlorida landlord requiring proof of vaccinations from tenants Anthrax was the COVID-19 of 2001 Governors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight MORE (R), appealed to Pence to hold off any endorsement. Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackBottom line Overnight Health Care: Anti-abortion Democrats take heat from party | More states sue Purdue over opioid epidemic | 1 in 4 in poll say high costs led them to skip medical care Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee MORE (R), running for governor in Tennessee, personally asked both Trump and Pence for their support, citing her work shepherding the Republican tax cut passed late last year.

Trump delayed formally endorsing DeSantis, but he eventually backed the third-term congressman and held a rally for him in Tampa last week. Pence endorsed Black, but Trump did not; she finished third in her primary.

The president’s penchant for a last-minute endorsements reflects a White House prone to making last-minute decisions. 

In South Carolina, Trump tweeted his support for Sanford’s opponent, state Rep. Katie Arrington (R), just hours before the polls closed. He endorsed Kobach only a day before the Kansas primary.

In Georgia and Michigan, his endorsement helped solidify front-runners. In Nevada and Ohio, he helped clear crowded primary fields.

Officials with past administrations hardly recognize what they are seeing. 

“Our endorsements were aligned with what the party apparatus wanted to happen,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican who worked in Bush’s political shop. 

The Bush White House avoided a potentially costly primary fight in Minnesota in 2002, when former Vice President Dick Cheney told then-state Rep. Tim Pawlenty (R) to run for governor instead of the U.S. Senate. 

“Bush was the head of the Republican Party and believed deeply in the strength and the structure of the Republican Party. So we never went rogue,” Jennings said. 

Trump “may go off the reservation and endorse people who go against the wishes of his operatives,” Jennings added. “He doesn’t feel bound necessarily by what the party structure wants.”

The Obama White House worked for months to convince Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to switch parties, though they could not avoid a primary that Specter eventually lost to Rep. Joe Sestak (D).

Trump’s team has similarly worked behind the scenes in states like Nevada, where Republicans convinced Danny Tarkanian to drop a primary challenge against Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Democrat Jacky Rosen becomes 22nd senator to back bipartisan infrastructure deal 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 MORE (R) and run for an open House seat instead.

“Everything that happens here happens by his will. He was finding the best fit for all of us to win,” said Michael McDonald, chairman of the Nevada Republican Party.

Trump’s ability to reshape the Republican Party’s roster of elected officials by tweet remains unknown, subject in part to thousands of unopened absentee ballots in Kansas that will determine the fates of Kobach and Colyer. But he has candidates once again seeking a presidential endorsement, a power his predecessors did not always command.

“Prior to the Trump era, endorsements were largely seen as symbolic and not that meaningful,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist. “And now, with his Twitter handle, Trump has sort of breathed new life into the power of endorsements, at least in the primaries.”