Opinion | Campaign

Perilous Pennsylvania, Trump's non-strategy takes another hit

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The long game does not suit Donald Trump, never has. The implosion of Sean Parnell's U.S. Senate candidacy in Pennsylvania in spite of Trump's endorsement, the scrambling to boost the candidacy of Congressman Ted Budd in North Carolina, and Trump's revenge campaign against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp are just the latest in a string of risky political moves that are building trouble for the former president. And it's only going to get worse. 

The Pennsylvania and North Carolina races are representative of the long-term problems Trump creates for himself by engaging in rash decisions, heedless of potential costs. In Pennsylvania, Trump impulsively endorsed Sean Parnell for the critical open Senate seat. That was Parnell's high-water mark. An ugly custody battle wrecked Parnell's candidacy (information available to Trump had he cared to look for it - it was certainly information known to Parnell's opponents).

The Parnell endorsement occurred in the midst of President Biden's Afghanistan debacle. Endorsing a war veteran seemed a sure way to get some publicity, and Trump probably thought it would start to clear the field. Instead, nobody dropped out. Even worse, the other candidates fought back. Fast-forward, and Trump's endorsed candidate is gone, the field has grown into a veritable swarm, and Trump has lost any control he might have thought he had over the process.

Should Trump wade into Pennsylvania again (and he probably can't help himself), his endorsement will not have nearly the cachet it once did. None of the remaining candidates have any loyalty to Trump, viewing him as a transactional figure to be used or discarded.

North Carolina is not quite the mess Pennsylvania is, but it is still a problem for Trump. Inexplicably, Trump backed Budd, a little-known hopeful, as one of his first endorsements. The race had two other Trump supporters, former Gov. Pat McCrory and Congressman Mark Walker. Surely much to his anger, both McCrory and Walker refused to bow out, and McCrory, by all appearances, remained well ahead.

Facing an embarrassing defeat, Trump worked to engineer Walker out of the race and into the Seventh Congressional district race, bumping that Republican into another district. With no public polling on the primary, only dueling internal polls are left. McCrory's camp has him up 15 points - a lead that grows without Walker, while the Club for Growth has McCrory up just 3 points. Certainly Trump's endorsement helps Walker, but the McCrory camp has dug up a raft of unpleasant facts about their opponent. Once respondents heard about the dirt, McCrory's lead grew to 65 percent to 18 percent on the "informed ballot."

This bit of political musical chairs is hardly assured of success. Not only does McCrory remain popular with Republicans, but people tend to not appreciate the meddling of outsiders in their state and local politics. The political machinations in and of themselves could cancel out Trump's popularity.

Georgia always on his mind

Impulsiveness isn't Trump's only problem. If there is one thing that consumes him, it's getting even. Trump remains obsessed with punishing any Georgia Republican who failed to overturn the 2020 results for him. To that end, Trump has recruited former Sen. David Perdue to challenge incumbent Gov. Kemp. 

Trump may well succeed in knocking Kemp out of the race, either via primary defeat or forcing Kemp to withdraw. But Trump's revenge will backfire if Perdue loses to Democratic hero Stacey Abrams. In the early polling, Kemp leads Abrams 44 percent to 41 percent. Perdue has yet to be polled, but most recently he lost his runoff Senate election. Not helping matters is Trump's celebrity candidate for Senate, Herschel Walker. Walker trails newly elected Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock by 6 points with both registered and likely voters in the most recent November poll. 

While Republicans have all the momentum heading into 2022, that might not matter as much in hotly contested states where Trump inserts himself most aggressively.

Trump may drive turnout among Republicans, but he also drives turnout among Democrats. Over the past five years, Democratic voters consistently despise Trump more that Republicans like him.

The most recent YouGov poll is typical, with Trump enjoying an 80 percent approval to 20 percent disapproval rating with GOP voters and an 89 percent disapproval to 7 percent approval rating with Democrats. But that masks the intensity of Democratic antipathy. Fully 86 percent of Democrats identify as "very unfavorable" while 56 percent of Republicans are "very favorable."

The Virginia governor's race provides a stark warning. Even though Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost, he still polled nearly 200,000 votes more than his Democratic predecessor. McAuliffe and the Democrats ran a campaign focused almost exclusively on connecting Republican Glenn Youngkin with Trump and came within 2 points of winning in spite of a disastrous autumn for Joe Biden and a series of local incidents that put the Democrats on the back foot.

Georgia and North Carolina will be real tests of Trump's popularity. But even more so, it's a test of whether Trump is a net benefit or cost to candidates in swing states. We know that Trump can mobilize GOP voters and likely can swing primary elections his way. But how much will his presence mobilize Democratic voters? In Virginia, Youngkin treated Trump like the plague and campaigned on local issues. Fortunately for Youngkin, Trump stayed away and Youngkin eked out a victory.

Trump got where he is by taking calculated risks, and his willingness to take those risks has given him an advantage in the world of politics, which is full of timid, risk minimizers. Trump's moves since leaving the White House are less calculating and more emotional.

Trump has thrived on being perceived as a winner. By being so public and promiscuous with his endorsements, he risks going from winner to loser - and that will not help him get back into the White House.

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.

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