Trump takes two punches from GOP
It’s been a tough week for former President Trump.
Trump’s preferred candidate in a special House election in Texas lost on Tuesday to another Republican who was likely boosted by some protest votes against the former president. And on Wednesday, 17 Senate Republicans voted to advance a bipartisan infrastructure deal that Trump spent weeks railing against.
While Trump remains a towering figure in the GOP, the back-to-back blows have led some to question whether his influence may have started to wane since he left office.
“Trump has not had a big win in quite a while,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, said. “I think without wins, his political capital is depleted.”
“Donald Trump does not have a post-presidential strategy,” he added. “He is overexposed at the same time that he’s not getting enough attention. He’s giving lots of speeches and traveling the country, but other than his narrow base no one’s really paying attention and I think that limits his influence.”
Trump received a blow to his endorsing power this week when Susan Wright, his candidate of choice in a runoff election for Texas’s 6th Congressional District, lost to fellow Republican Jake Ellzey.
One former Trump adviser dismissed the idea that Wright’s loss on Tuesday and the Senate’s infrastructure vote had dealt a blow to the former president’s influence over the GOP, blaming the upsets on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the conservative Club for Growth, which had encouraged Trump to endorse Wright.
“It’s absurd to think that you can take anything away from the Texas race or the Senate vote,” the adviser said. “There are a million issues at play here and it’s got nothing to do with President Trump.”
Trump himself disputed Wright’s defeat will damage his reputation in primaries, arguing the GOP won the race regardless.
One former Trump White House official similarly downplayed the long-term significance of Wright’s defeat, but acknowledged Trump must be careful in rushing to endorse candidates. The official said some allies have pushed the former president to endorse early in competitive contests like the Ohio Senate race but that doing so could backfire.
Some Republicans are already worried that could be the case in Georgia, where Trump has thrown his weight behind former NFL player Herschel Walker.
Others have expressed similar concerns in North Carolina, where Trump has endorsed Rep. Ted Budd in a hotly contested GOP Senate primary. Budd is up against two high-profile challengers, including former Gov. Pat McCrory, who has a better fundraising record than Budd — and a track record of winning statewide.
Trump’s grip over House Republicans remains solid, those close to the former president say. House GOP members regularly travel to meet Trump at his properties in Florida and New Jersey, and the caucus has largely purged itself of Trump critics.
But the same cannot be said about the Senate, where Republicans appear more willing to move on from the former president.
A Wednesday vote by the Senate to advance a sweeping infrastructure package only served to deepen questions about Trump’s influence. The former president had lobbied against the deal for weeks, issuing half-a-dozen statements urging Republicans to abandon negotiations with Democrats.
It wasn’t just Trump’s Republican detractors who broke with him on the infrastructure deal. Among the 17 Republicans who voted to take up debate on the proposal were some of his most ardent allies, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). Several GOP incumbents facing reelection next year also voted to advance the proposal.
The Wednesday infrastructure vote was also seen as a major win for President Biden, bringing him one step closer to fulfilling a crucial piece of his agenda. That in itself is a knock against Trump, who has openly teased he may run for president in 2024.
Cramer told reporters on Thursday that Trump’s frustration may stem from his inability to get a similar agreement during his four years in office. Asked what effect Trump’s efforts to derail the deal seems to have had, Cramer indicated it didn’t move the needle much.
“I think it’s on the minds of some people, particularly people in cycle thinking about primaries, I suppose,” said Cramer, who is up for reelection in 2024. “But this is one where I think people know intuitively and by research that the American public, including the majority of Republicans, really do support a reasonable, robust infrastructure package.”
Conant, the Republican strategist, noted that Trump’s opposition to the infrastructure deal may carry more water in the House, where loyalty to the former president runs deeper among GOP members.
“Trump spends so much time attacking Senate Republicans, we shouldn’t be surprised when they ignore him on big votes. Why would Mitch McConnell, who Trump belittles on a weekly basis, care what Trump says about anything?” Conant said. “The House is slightly different. A lot more of those members are a lot more loyal to Trump, but they’re also the minority, so they have less influence.”
Trump lashed out at Senate Republicans on Thursday morning, blaming McConnell and so-called RINOs — Republicans in name only — for capitulating to Democrats and costing the GOP closely watched elections in Arizona and Georgia.
He also urged Republicans to back away from the bipartisan infrastructure package, saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
“Fight for America, not for special interests and Radical Democrats,” Trump said in a statement. “RINOs are ruining America, right alongside Communist Democrats.”
Trump had endorsed a $2 trillion infrastructure bill with Democratic leaders in 2019, then revived the idea in 2020. But he called off talks the first time around, and no such bill ever materialized last year amid the pandemic.
“Infrastructure week” became a recurring punch line during the Trump presidency as lawmakers and administration officials frequently discussed hopes for a deal, only to see it fall through or overshadowed by the latest controversy.
Since leaving office in January, Trump has been fixated on maintaining his hold on the GOP. His ability to do so will prove important not only for his legacy, but also for his political future. He has repeatedly floated a potential 2024 presidential campaign and maintaining the loyalty of Republicans will play a critical role in securing the party’s nomination yet again.
To be sure, Trump remains a dominant force among Republican voters nationally. Polling released this week by The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago found that the vast majority of GOP voters — about 81 percent — believe the former president should wield at least some influence over the Republican Party and its future.
It’s also difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about Trump’s political influence based on a single runoff contest in a year without any regularly scheduled federal elections.
Trump’s brand will be put to the test again in an Ohio special election next week. The former president has backed Mike Carey in a crowded GOP primary field where the winner will be favored to replace former Rep. Steve Stivers (R). Stivers has endorsed a different candidate, as has Debbie Meadows, the wife of Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows.
One Republican strategist pointed to the race in Texas as evidence that Trump’s endorsement alone won’t necessarily be enough to push a candidate across the finish line — especially next year when Trump is hoping to topple several GOP incumbents in primary contests.
“Trump’s political support has never been transferable,” the strategist said. “In most cases, he’s tended to endorse candidates who were going to win anyway. When candidates he supports lose, it’s normally because of other factors in the race or that he just happened to pick a losing horse.”
Jordain Carney contributed.