Governor’s races spoil Trump’s once-unblemished endorsement record

Former President Trump’s once-unblemished record of exercising his influence over Republican primary voters has run into a rough patch with voters who are picking nominees in gubernatorial contests, where his unrivaled authority is not always proving a winning ticket.

Idaho voters on Tuesday rejected Trump’s chosen candidate, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (R), who picked a fruitless fight against Gov. Brad Little (R). With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Little had claimed 53 percent of the vote, a 20-point rout over McGeachin. The AP called the race in his favor. Little had spent the remaining days before the primary campaigning for allies in the legislature, so assured was he of his own chances.

Those results come a week after Nebraska voters chose university regent Jim Pillen (R) over Charles Herbster (R), a rancher and major Trump backer who had been accused of harassment by multiple women. And in Georgia, voters are a week away from delivering another likely blow to Trump’s record; polls show Gov. Brian Kemp (R) easily outpacing former Sen. David Perdue (R), one of the few candidates for whom Trump has actually spent money.

When it comes to federal races for U.S. Senate or House seats, Trump’s record of picking winners is formidable. But political observers say voters think differently about gubernatorial contests, the winners of which will have to handle more mundane tasks like building roads and bridges and managing disasters.

“Races for governor are different. When people vote for governor, they are thinking about state-level issues,” said John Pitney, a former research director at the Republican National Committee (RNC) and a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. 

Pitney pointed to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) — once a student of his — along with former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R). All won gubernatorial elections in states that generally favor the other party, and all lost subsequent elections for U.S. Senate seats even though voters gave them high job approval ratings.

“People generally look at governors differently than they do other elected positions,” said Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman and lieutenant governor of Maryland who ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 2006. “Voters looked at me differently. The expectations were much different on me as a federal candidate than as a statewide candidate. Not more or less, just different.”

Though Trump’s influence is less powerful in gubernatorial contests, it is not meaningless, and it has not stopped even incumbent governors from seeking his endorsement. Trump has publicly backed incumbent governors of Texas, Alaska, Tennessee, South Carolina, South Dakota and Oklahoma this year. 

Showcasing Trump’s hold on his party, he made his endorsement of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) conditional on Dunleavy staying neutral in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R) reelection bid, a condition to which Dunleavy agreed.

But where Trump’s nod once cleared Republican primary fields, gubernatorial candidates who do not win his blessing are no longer shrinking away. 

Trump backed Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) only in the closing days of the commonwealth’s primary, long after it became clear Mastriano — who was in Washington during the Jan. 6 insurrection — would win the Republican nod. He has backed candidates in Nevada and Arizona who lead their respective fields, though they have not yet won.

Trump’s “supporters — and the former president himself — are more energized by national ‘hot-button’ issues and less by the more managerial challenges governors generally must address,” said John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers. “So they may be more open to parting ways with him when evaluating potential state chief executives.”

If the first two gubernatorial losses Trump suffered are outliers — Herbster’s accusers put their names on the record in a series of explosive stories before primary day, and McGeachin made the mistake of challenging a sitting incumbent who had not committed a fireable offense — next week’s election in Georgia may represent a different set of cracks in Trump’s armor. 

Trump and Perdue have relentlessly attacked Kemp for two years for the Georgia governor’s apostasy of failing to overturn Trump’s lost election, over which Kemp had no control. But Trump’s attempt to bring his national cry of a stolen election — for which he has offered no evidence — to a state-level race apparently has not swayed those who are supposed to be his core voters. 

What was once a close race, in which Kemp and Perdue were running virtually tied, has exploded into a rout, and recent polls show Kemp will win the Republican primary without the need for a runoff.

The false allegations of a stolen election “is the most polarized national issue, forced on the states,” said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at the University of California-San Diego. “Wins by gubernatorial candidates who resist the ‘Stop the Steal’ narrative can be taken as evidence of the limits of the appeal of that message in races for the most pragmatic and responsible office in American politics, where voters look for someone they can fully trust.”

— Updated at 7:03 a.m.

Tags brad little Brian Kemp Charles Herbster David Perdue Georgia Georgia governor's race Idaho Janice McGeachin Jim Pillen Nebraska primaries Trump endorsements
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