Former President Donald Trump was almost constantly present in this year’s Republican primaries. Candidates have eagerly sought his approval, with some making a pilgrimage to his estate in Mar-a-Lago to personally ask for his support.
Trump has at times used his endorsement as a revenge tool, in an effort to bring down GOP officials who have crossed him — particularly those who did not support his attempt to undo the results of the 2020 election.
But now that the primaries have been completed for several weeks, a trend has emerged: Republican voters — even those who claim Trump was a great president — are not marching in step with him. Many reject his approvals instead.
“Republican voters are not monolithic,” said veteran GOP strategist Dallas Woodhouse. “They’re not falling over each other in anticipation of who Trump supports to make their decision.” Yes, it’s a factor, Woodhouse added, “and it can be a big factor, but it’s not necessarily the determining factor.”
Some voters have no doubt been waiting for Trump. Take Kathy Deal for example. Speaking to NPR in March, the Lancaster, Ohio native was undecided and excited to hear from Trump about the state’s Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate.
“That would definitely seal it, it would seal it,” Deal said, weeks before Trump gave a belated endorsement of ” Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, who would win the nomination.
It was a very different story for a voter weeks later in Pennsylvania. Seventy-one-year-old Trump supporter Bob Rapp was unhappy that the former president had supported famed TV doctor Mehmet Oz in the GOP Senate contest there. Rapp told NPR in April that he doesn’t even consider Oz a conservative.
“Some of his views were quite liberal on his TV show,” Rapp said. “I’m just afraid he’s a RINO [Republican in name only]†
But that didn’t mean being at odds with Trump over Oz had tarnished his strong admiration for the former president.
“No, because that’s his prerogative,” Rapp said. “You don’t agree with your leaders 100% of the time.” He maintained that Trump’s endorsement would not affect him.
Oz eventually won the nomination in an extremely exciting contest. Rapp later told NPR that he had voted for businessman Dave McCormick, who relented during a recount.
A solid pass rate, but in key races it’s a mixed bag for Trump
Looking closely at how Trump’s support has fared so far, his win-loss record is strong, but that’s mostly because he tends to support popular incumbents or frontrunners, like Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who didn’t really need his support. support to secure a nomination.
In other contests, Trump’s record has been more mixed.
“Trump’s endorsement is not a magic wand or a silver bullet,” said Sarah Longwell, a longtime GOP consultant and the publisher of The Bulwark website.
She has reviewed the impact of Trump’s approvals and notes that it can give a big boost in certain situations, especially in highly competitive races with many candidates. In such contests, Trump’s support could mean increased press coverage and momentum. Longwell says this happened in the US Senate primary in Ohio.
“Where there’s a big bunch of Republicans, and they’re fighting it all out, and they’re telling the voters how terrible their opponents are, and people are a little bit unsure who they like, and when Trump comes in with an endorsement, it tends to elevate people in these races a little bit,” she said.
Longwell says that laundry list of factors all align to help Vance win in Ohio.
But not all of Trump’s picks get such a boost, especially when they’re the challenger trying to overthrow an incumbent with a high profile and track record.
Take Georgia, where Trump put his credibility on the line by backing challengers from a few Republican incumbent officials — Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Both men crossed over to Trump when they rejected his requests to use their power to undo Trump’s loss in Georgia in the 2020 election. Trump based his endorsements in these races entirely on his lie that the 2020 election was stolen and that these two elected officials betrayed him by not supporting him in that lie.
But there was a problem for Trump in these matches: Kemp and Raffensperger each had a broad base of support among GOP voters, and each had a record of achievement to rival Trump’s bid for revenge.
Longwell regularly holds focus groups with Trump supporters. In a session with Georgian voters, she heard from people like Laura (focus group members are identified only by their first name), who still had doubts about her vote, but had good things to say about the governor.
“I like what Brian Kemp has been doing,” Laura said, “and I liked how he dealt with COVID.” In emphasis, she added, “The state seems to be running smoothly to me.”
It is unknown who Laura ultimately cast her vote for, but Kemp is known to win re-election by a margin of more than 50 percentage points. Raffensperger also won his primary, also by a significant margin of 19 points.
Then there’s an example in North Carolina, where even a Trump endorsement failed to save scandal-plagued Congresswoman Madison Cawthorn in his primary.
GOP strategist Woodhouse says Trump may have helped Cawthorn in what was a very tough primary from a conservative challenger. At the very least, Woodhouse said, “No one will blame the president for Cawthorn’s loss because Cawthorn had suffered a long series of self-inflicted wounds.”
Still, he says it helps show how a Trump endorsement has limits.
When Trump’s choice loses, a Trump-esque figure still wins
Woodhouse says an important part of it all is the overall makeup of the races in the Republican primaries this year — and likely in the near future.
In game after game, the voters are not choose between a Trump-approved candidate and an anti-Trump candidate. Nearly every hopeful GOP runs on a pro-Trump list of problems. Sometimes that includes support for the lie that Trump really won in 2020, but it always includes support for Trump’s views and rhetoric on things like building a southern border wall and cracking down on China on trade — with a lot of cultural problems with it.
“I mean, all future candidates will take on those core issues that were part of the America First agenda,” Woodhouse said.
So even if his candidate loses, Trump’s problems are very much on the winning side in these primaries.
And there’s another potentially significant impact Trump has in the primaries: endorsing candidates well into the ballot, for local races, something unheard of for a former president.
Longwell said Republicans can increase their presence in key local offices that don’t normally get a lot of attention on Election Day, “allowing people who are totally unknown, and maybe even in many cases, to work unhindered for offices that people pay almost no attention to, to to raise some money, to get some profile.”
For the GOP, she said, it’s a matter of building a deep bank of office holders “to really fill it with people very much in the image of Donald Trump.”
And that could be Trump’s biggest impact on the 2022 election.