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For Easter, Trump plays Judas

Donald Trump puts a premium on loyalty. He demands it from his employees, his followers and everyone in his orbit. But when Trump is faced with a loyalty test himself, he turns into Judas Iscariot, only Trump is playing for much bigger stakes than 30 pieces of silver.

The latest Trump betrayal was in the Pennsylvania Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Pat Toomey’s retirement: Trump endorsed New Jersey TV talk show host Mehmet Oz, kicking to the curb a slew of other hopefuls, all of whom are loyal Trump backers. Candidates Jeff Bartos, David McCormick and Carla Sands all had Trump ties and had supported Trump through his administration and reelection effort, yet that counted for nothing. Even worse was Trump’s dismissal of Army veteran Kathy Barnette, the only Black candidate in the GOP primary: Barnette is the most hardcore MAGA of all the Republican hopefuls, but she never had a chance with the mercenary, self-involved Trump.

In addition to their support of Trump, all the non-Oz candidates have much deeper Pennsylvania ties (which is easy, as Oz’s ties are through his wife – which makes him a Pennsylvanian-in-law, at best), and all have a history in the Republican Party and of supporting other Republicans. Trump has no interest in any of that.

Trump is all about celebrity, sycophancy and himself. In the Oz endorsement, that works. Oz is a celebrity like Trump and is practiced in appealing to his audience. An open text like Trump must have been putty in the hands of an expert showman like Oz. But Trump himself gains something. Endorsing the front-runner, McCormick, would not generate much news — but plumping for a national TV talk show host gets national publicity. Trump loves that.

But Trump has a problem. Candidates and voters are not falling into line. Trump’s endorsements have rarely cleared the primary field. None of the serious candidates are getting out of the Pennsylvania race. Nor has Trump been able to intimidate Republicans in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee or Alabama.

And his hand-picked candidates are not doing that well in competitive races. In Alabama, Mo Brooks is doing so badly that Trump canceled his endorsement. In Georgia, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump blames for his loss in 2020, has withstood Trump’s attacks and leads handily in recent polls. The North Carolina Senate race remains competitive, with Trump’s candidate pulling ahead but still unable to crack 40 percent. Bad news keeps coming, with Trump’s favorite for Nebraska governor recently accused of harassment.

In Pennsylvania, Oz leapt into a big lead upon his entry into the race, moving past Barnette, Bartos and Sands. But when McCormick got in the race, he started pounding Oz with negative ads. Oz’s dual citizenship, views on gun control and support for COVID-19 lockdowns are a problem. Prior to Trump’s pronouncement, McCormick had jumped to a significant and durable lead, with Oz’s support falling from a high of 27 percent to the low teens.

GOP activists and even hardcore Trump loyalists have declined to fall in lockstep with Trump. Quite the opposite. On the heels of the Trump endorsement, the senior Republican member of Congress, Glenn Thompson, endorsed McCormick and Barnette took direct aim at Oz.

All that said, it is amusing to watch the trail of supplicants make the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to beg for the blessing of Trump. I have little doubt he enjoys the attention — and giving most of them the back of his hand. And why not? To date, Trump has not paid a price for his modern-day American Judas act. Most of the Republicans he’s stabbed in the back have declined to lash back. Some exhibit clear signs of Stockholm syndrome. Others recognized that Trump still is the big name that holds sway over a sizable chunk of the GOP electorate.

But that calculation could change once the 2022 primaries are over. Naturally, any loss by Trump’s hand-picked candidates will seriously dent Trump’s “mystique” as a winner. But even winning the primaries will not necessarily benefit Trump. If his endorsement cannot secure a majority of Republican support, it will call into question how deep support for Trump really is within the party.

Come what may this year, the losers and their supporters will still be around. And not all of them will crawl back to Trump. Mo Brooks is one of the few jilted loyalists to air dirty laundry about Trump. Any Republican with some gravity who challenges Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination will have a built-in national network of betrayed Trump supporters to tap into.

Trump’s polling remains terrible nationally. Even with President Biden in free fall, Trump cannot get to 50 percent against him and is actually trailing in several polls. Trump’s approval rating is barely better than Biden’s inflation-ravaged numbers.

Trump has had a good time running roughshod over the Republican Party and any conservative that gets in his way — but the bills are piling up, and he may well pay the price in 2024. Judas was able to cash in on betrayal, but it didn’t turn out well for him either.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags betrayal Brian Kemp David McCormick Donald Trump Glenn Thompson Loyalty Mehmet Oz Mo Brooks Pat Toomey Pennsylvania Senate race Republican Party The Dr. Oz Show Trump endorsements

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