Primaries fuel questions about potency of Trump endorsements
Tuesday’s primaries are fueling questions about the strength of Donald Trump’s endorsement even as the results underscored the extent to which the former president has molded the party in his image.
While Trump’s favored Senate candidate in North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd (R), won his primary decisively, others who had received his endorsement, including Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) and Idaho Lt. Gov Janice McGeachin, were defeated. Even more disappointing for Trump, his endorsed candidate in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, Mehmet Oz, remains locked in a tight battle with hedge fund manager Dave McCormick.
While last night’s primaries are far from a defeat for the former president, they could stoke further questions about the extent to which he can clear primary fields and play kingmaker for the GOP.
“It’s a good ticket, but it’s not a golden ticket,” Republican strategist Doug Heye told The Hill of Trump’s endorsement. “As it would be a Barack Obama nomination or a George W. Bush endorsement in the past. It’s the same as that.”
“The party is more broadly turning Trumpier whether it’s with or without Trump,” Heye said. “That to me is the broader and more important story moving forward.”
Heye echoed this in a recent op-ed for CNN, writing that “the media may continue posting Trump-based scorecards like a Preakness Stakes tip sheet,” but Trumpism is in the GOP for the long term.
Even as Trump endorsed and campaigned for Oz, McCormick and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette stayed in the race and sought to portray themselves as the candidates most aligned with Trump’s brand of conservatism.
Every race in which Trump has endorsed has been watched closely. J.D. Vance’s surge from the middle of the pack to a win in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary earlier this month was seen as the first major win for a Trump-backed candidate this cycle. And last week, Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), who was backed by Trump, won his primary against Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Meanwhile, Trump-backed Charles Herbster lost his gubernatorial bid in Nebraska’s GOP primary that same night.
“The more you put yourself out there, the more likely it is you’re going to lose some, and he clearly has,” said one Republican strategist.
Operatives argue that while Trump’s pull with the conservative base may be decent, it’s not the only factor that can influence election outcomes.
Some pointed to Budd and Doug Mastriano, the newly minted GOP Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee, as two who, while benefiting from Trump’s endorsement, could have won their primaries without it. For Budd, strategists say outside spending from the conservative group Club for Growth was a boost. The group spent more than $11.2 million on ads in support of Budd over the last week alone, according to AdImpact.
“The spending they have done for Budd — if it weren’t for them, he wouldn’t be where he is now,” said North Carolina GOP strategist Carter Wrenn. “Did the Trump endorsement help him? Yeah, but was it that big of a deal? No, it wasn’t the decisive factor.”
In Mastriano’s case, he was already leading in the polls when Trump endorsed him, despite being outspent on air by the other GOP gubernatorial hopefuls — though he rose to prominence as a supporter of Trump’s claims the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
Trump’s call to give Cawthorn, who had been plagued with numerous scandals, a “second chance” did not appear to do much to help the first-term congressman. Cawthorn called one of his six primary challengers, state Sen. Chuck Edwards, to concede on Tuesday night. As of midnight on Monday, Edwards led with 33.4 percent of the vote. Cawthorn came in with 31.9 percent.
“When you step back and try to judge and assess what happened last night, there are some things that worked against [Trump] that probably aren’t his fault and some things that he did in the past that make him look better,” said the GOP strategist.
“For instance, endorsing a gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania who was going to win the nomination well in advance of that endorsement,” the strategist continued, referring to Mastriano’s primary win.
Out in Idaho, McGeachin’s loss to incumbent Gov. Brad Little (R), was more expected. Little trounced McGeachin, winning 52. 8 percent of the vote. McGeachin trailed with 32.2 percent.
McGeachin hit Little over his decision to issue a stay-at-home order in March 2020, despite Idaho’s economy reopening by June of that same year. The awkward dynamic of the lieutenant governor challenging her own governor in a primary can be traced back to McGeachin’s past clashes with Little over the pandemic. Last year, McGeachin banned mask and vaccine mandates on two separate occasions when Little was out of state.
Ultimately, though, it appears that Little had an incumbency and money advantage in Tuesday’s primary.
Pennsylvania’s Senate race is less clear-cut. As of Wednesday, Oz led McCormick by fewer than 3,000 votes.
Trump, seemingly feeling the pressure, urged Oz to declare victory as soon as possible on Wednesday.
“Dr. Oz should declare victory,” the former president wrote on his Truth Social application. “It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find.’”
The statement has some asking whether the loss could ultimately damage Trump’s brand.
“What he’s really trying to push Oz to do which is declare victory now is in his best interests and not in Oz’s best interests,” the GOP strategist said. “I think that is just yet another sign of somebody in an infrastructure that’s so desperate to keep these wins because they know what it means to them.”
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