The latest round of Republican primaries revealed a former president in Donald Trump who is hardly invincible in individual contests but who amid stumbles and suspect decisions is refashioning the culture and politics of the party in his populist image.
Trump-endorsed candidates suffered glaring defeats in Idaho, where incumbent Gov. Brad Little trounced his challenger, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, and in North Carolina, where Rep. Madison Cawthorn was ousted in the 11th Congressional District by state Sen. Chuck Edwards. In battleground Pennsylvania, Trump’s pick for Senate, Mehmet Oz, was clinging to a 0.12-percentage-point lead over David McCormick that threatened to evaporate as final batches of mail-in votes were counted.
Even in certain instances in which the former president’s endorsed candidates won big, his success looked like a Pyrrhic victory. For instance, Trump’s questionable decision to back conspiracy theorist Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania bitterly divided Republicans there and elevated perhaps the most flawed candidate in the field. Mastriano begins the general election campaign an underdog despite a developing red wave poised to rebuke President Joe Biden and deliver the GOP congressional majorities.
David Urban, a Republican operative who was Trump’s top adviser in Pennsylvania in 2016, flatly predicts Mastriano will lose to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) expanded on that sentiment on Twitter earlier this month. “Trump handed a winnable [governor’s] race to the Dems,” he wrote. “PA GOP leaders were angry about the Oz endorsement; the Mastriano endorsement is infinitely worse.”
TRUMP-ENDORSED REP. TED BUDD WINS GOP SENATE NOMINATION IN NORTH CAROLINA
The former president is obsessed with furthering his unsupported claims that the 2020 election was stolen and that Biden is an illegitimate president. That compulsion has dictated many of the endorsements Trump has handed out in the 2022 election cycle; he has rewarded several candidates, such as Mastriano, who echo his stolen election claim while overlooking their serious flaws and the danger they pose to his own credibility as a GOP kingmaker.
But these myriad controversies mask the deeper impact Trump is having on the Republican Party more than a year into White House exile.
The 45th president’s relationship with grassroots conservatives is strong, a dynamic motivating Republican primary candidates up and down the ballot to seek his favor. Not all do so by embracing his dubious claims about the 2020 election; Oz has not. But nearly all are adopting Trump’s populist agenda as it relates to key cultural issues and policy positions. And many reflect the former president’s provocative pugilism in their own campaigning.
It's no different for many candidates Trump opposes or badmouths. Rather than attempting to escape from the former president’s shadow, they wrap themselves in his “America first” slogan and vow to earn his endorsement in the general election (see: McCormick.) In this way, high-profile losses in key primaries are failing to dislodge Trump as the party’s dominant figure or thwart a populist remodeling project seven years in the making.
“The success/failure of Trump’s endorsed candidates is a poor litmus test of Trump’s influence within the Republican Party because almost all the GOP candidates are running on a Trump message/platform,” tweeted Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan political handicapper. “This is still Trump’s GOP whether his endorsed candidates win or not.”
However, the fact that Trump’s endorsement is not foolproof has emboldened prominent Republicans to buck his leadership in a way that, in the past, they dared not. And that willingness, in certain Republican primaries, to reject the former president’s demands for fealty, have helped create the conditions to defeat his handpicked candidates and at least challenge the otherwise firm grip he has on the GOP.
In North Carolina, Cawthorn’s scandal-plagued first term in Congress was not the only factor in his narrow loss. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) was an outspoken critic of the congressman down the stretch of the campaign. He led a coalition of so-called establishment Republicans in the state who backed Edwards with critical resources and advertising that highlighted Cawthorn’s controversies that would not have materialized without their involvement.
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Even a last-minute plea from Trump was not enough to save who did everything he could to present himself to Republican voters in his conservative, western North Carolina district as the embodiment of the 45th president.
“Republicans chose [Edwards] tonight because he is the embodiment of Mountain values who will fight for them every single day in Congress with honor and integrity,” Tillis tweeted.
Ironically, Cawthorn did one thing that was very unlike Trump upon media outlets calling his race for Edwards: He telephoned his opponent and conceded.