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 TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens 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 SanfordTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Endorsing Trump isn’t the easiest decision for some Republicans Mark Sanford warns US could see ‘Hitler-like character’ in the future 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 FlakeProtesters who went viral confronting Flake cheered at award event Feinstein to introduce bill raising age to purchase assault weapons after California shooting Pollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCorker: 'I just don't' see path to challenge Trump in 2020 Ex-GOP Sen. Corker: Trump primary would be 'good thing for our country' Pollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge MORE (R-Tenn.), who have been forced out over disagreements with Trump.

Last week, Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill Ocasio-Cortez: 'I was stopped because it was assumed I was an intern' 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) HaleyWill Trump ignore the Constitution and stay in White House beyond his term? Trump taps ex-State spokeswoman Heather Nauert to help oversee White House fellowships Conservatives slam Omar over tweet on Gaza violence 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 StrangeDon't import prescription drugs Roy Moore 'seriously considering' another Senate bid GOP leaders dead set against Roy Moore in Alabama MORE (R), whom he dubbed "Big Luther." Strange lost a runoff to former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore wants judge who ruled against him removed from case The Hill's Morning Report - Lawmakers split over Mueller findings: 'case closed' vs. 'cover-up' Roy Moore 'seriously considering' another Senate bid MORE — who then lost the general election, even with Trump's subsequent backing.

In Florida, Trump has backed Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisTrump officials not sending migrants to Florida after backlash Dem criticizes newest calendars for Trump Interior chief as 'fake' GOP gov pushes back on Trump plan to send migrants to Florida counties 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 HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE and Danny Tarkanian, easily advanced in their primary contests in Nevada. So did Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump's immigration push faces Capitol Hill buzzsaw Lawmakers introduce legislation to improve cyber workforce funding Kushner, Miller talk immigration at Senate GOP lunch MORE (R-N.D.), running against Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOn The Money: Stocks sink on Trump tariff threat | GOP caught off guard by new trade turmoil | Federal deficit grew 38 percent this fiscal year | Banks avoid taking position in Trump, Dem subpoena fight Fight over Trump's new NAFTA hits key stretch Former senators launching effort to help Dems win rural votes 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.