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 TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated 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.

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"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 FlakeTrump's attacks on McCain exacerbate tensions with Senate GOP Schumer to introduce bill naming Senate office building after McCain amid Trump uproar Trump keeps tight grip on GOP MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Tenn.), who have been forced out over disagreements with Trump.

Last week, Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyOcasio-Cortez: 'I was stopped because it was assumed I was an intern' Insurgency shakes up Democratic establishment Dem House candidate claims Russians tried to hack campaign website 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) HaleyPentagon sends B-52 bombers to Europe for exercises amid tensions with Russia Overnight Health Care: Trump officials sued over Medicaid work requirements in New Hampshire | Analysis contradicts HHS claims on Arkansas Medicaid changes | Azar signals HHS won't back down on e-cigs 40 years of Iranian threats against Israel and few pay any attention 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 StrangeDomestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook Overnight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force Five things to watch in Mississippi Senate race MORE (R), whom he dubbed "Big Luther." Strange lost a runoff to former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore says he's 'seriously considering' 2020 Senate bid Doug Jones: Trump unintentionally giving 'green light' to hate crimes GOP candidate welcomes Roy Moore to enter Alabama Senate primary MORE — who then lost the general election, even with Trump's subsequent backing.

In Florida, Trump has backed Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum launches voter-registration campaign Republicans need solutions on environment too Republicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump 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 HellerTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary Oregon Dem top recipient of 2018 marijuana industry money, study finds MORE and Danny Tarkanian, easily advanced in their primary contests in Nevada. So did Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerOvernight Health Care: Dems demand answers on rule targeting Planned Parenthood | Senators tell FDA to speed approval of generic insulin | Nearly 8 in 10 say drug prices are 'unreasonable' in new poll Senators tell FDA to speed up approvals of generic insulin Trump applauded for walking away from 'bad' North Korea deal MORE (R-N.D.), running against Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampRed dresses displayed around American Indian museum to memorialize missing, murdered native women Lobbying World Lobbying World 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.