Republicans spurned by Trump in primaries still embrace him
Republicans who missed out on former President Trump’s coveted endorsements are grasping for ways to tie themselves to him and his political movement, betting his message will prove more powerful in contentious primary races than the man himself.
The strategy is playing out in GOP primaries across the country, including in South Carolina, where Trump last week endorsed Republican Katie Arrington’s primary challenge to Rep. Nancy Mace, a once-loyal ally who drew the former president’s ire by criticizing him following the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Mace, a first-term congresswoman who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, responded by filming a video of herself praising the former president and touting her support for him outside Trump Tower in New York City.
“I remember in 2015 when President Trump announced his run. I was one of his earliest supporters,” she said. “I actually worked for the campaign in 2016. I worked in seven different states across the country to help get him elected. I supported him again in 2020 because of policies I believe in.”
— Nancy Mace (@NancyMace) February 10, 2022
Mace’s video underscores the conundrum that several Republicans are facing: how to use Trump’s message to appeal to Trump’s voters without the backing of Trump himself.
“The titular head of Trumpism is Trump himself, and yet, when he’s endorsing in these races, you’re still seeing traction by candidates who have found their own embrace of Trumpism but don’t have the titular head behind them,” one GOP strategist said. “And a lot of them have a good fighting chance here.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is employing a similar strategy in his primary fight against former Sen. David Perdue (R), who jumped into the race late last year at Trump’s urging and was promptly endorsed by the former president.
Just days after Perdue unveiled his first campaign ad — a 30-second spot featuring Trump himself touting his support for the former senator — Kemp’s leadership committee responded with an ad spot of its own hammering Perdue for outsourcing jobs throughout his lengthy business career despite Trump’s campaign promise to bring back jobs sent overseas.
“President Trump worked hard putting America first,” a narrator says in the ad. “But David Perdue sent American jobs to China over and over again, by the thousands, and made millions.”
That line of attack has become familiar in other Republican primaries that Trump has weighed in on.
In the Alabama GOP Senate primary, Republican Katie Britt accused her Trump-endorsed primary opponent Rep. Mo Brooks of turning on the former president when he described two of Trump’s judicial appointees in Alabama as “liberal, activist judges” after a three-judge panel rejected a new congressional map passed by the state legislature.
Likewise, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) on Tuesday attacked Rep. Ted Budd, his Trump-backed rival for the state’s Republican Senate nomination, for voting against legislation supported by the former president, including a 2018 immigration and border security bill that included funding for Trump’s long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’m more conservative than my two opponents,” McCrory said on the conservative podcast “Locked In.” “I mean, I cannot think of anything that Ted Budd has accomplished in six years. In fact, he voted against the wall. He voted against the immigration bill that Donald Trump wanted.”
More than a year after losing the 2020 presidential election and leaving the White House, Trump remains the most sought-after endorsement for Republican candidates.
But while he’s managed to crown front-runners in some primary contests, other preferred candidates of his are still facing tough nominating fights as Republicans who missed out on his endorsement decide to take their chances against their Trump-backed rivals. While a few — including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a favorite target of Trump — are doing so by putting significant distance between themselves and the former president, more seem to be trying to prove to GOP voters they’ve loyally aligned themselves with Trump and his policies.
“He’s wading into primaries and people just aren’t dropping out. They’re not running away from him,” Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said. “No one is running away from him on these primaries, and I think it’s showing he’s still important but there’s an erosion.”
There’s also some evidence that Trump’s endorsement — at least in some races — may not be as powerful as he and his allies had hoped. A Quinnipiac University poll out of Georgia late last month found that only 44 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who has Trump’s support, while 50 percent said his endorsement does not make a difference to them.
That same poll showed Kemp leading Perdue 43 percent to 36 percent.
And while Democratic opponents could seize on their appeals to Trump in the primary contests — as Annie Andrews, the Democrat challenging Mace, did almost immediately — not having Trump’s outright endorsement could prove to be an asset for some GOP candidates heading into the general election.
A recent NBC News poll found that only 21 percent of voters said that they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate backed by Trump, while 42 percent said his endorsement would make them less likely to vote for a candidate. Thirty-six percent said it wouldn’t have an impact on how they cast their ballots.
Still, Trump is particularly eager for his preferred candidates to emerge from their respective primaries, seeing their victories as a reflection of his own political strength, especially as he eyes a potential White House bid in 2024. In a statement this week, the former president insisted upon the strength of his endorsement, saying that it is “much stronger today than it was even prior to the 2020” election.
Trump is also set to step up his midterm campaigning in the coming weeks and months, including holding a rally in South Carolina, where he’s endorsed primary challenges against two Republican incumbents, Mace and Rep. Tom Rice.
Whether such rallies will actually give his preferred candidates the boost that they need, however, is an open question.
“When he’s doing these rallies, he’s not doing them for one candidate. The candidates are just the sideshow,” one Republican operative said. “These rallies are more of a Trump show than they are an endorsement show.”