Trump and Republicans have slid backward on primaries

We all lament the “uniparty” Republican governors and senators who appear to care more about Ukraine than America and more about woke special interests than the general welfare. Yet the GOP rank and file continue to sleep through primaries every cycle, enabling the worst offenders to win renomination, even in deep red states. How do we expect to change the party if we reflexively renominate the same swamp creatures, such as four-term U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)?

Primaries are largely driven by money and name ID, which is why the grassroots has always struggled to beat the country-club Republicans, especially because almost all of them have the mendacity to run on our issues during a primary.

During the past few cycles, not a single milquetoast Republican governor or senator has lost a primary, including those who pushed masks and lockdowns.

Beginning with the Tea Party in 2010, however, Republicans began to gain momentum in the primaries, culminating with the stunning defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) by Dave Brat in June 2014.

But ever since the 2016 cycle, we have lost ground in primaries. Why?

It’s a reflection of a paradoxical trend: The party supports Donald Trump overwhelmingly but then re-elects the very swamp creatures down the ballot whose impotence served as the impetus for Trump’s rise in the first place.

The prevailing sentiment among today’s right-leaning chattering class is that “the primary is over.” Sure it is — among the presidential candidates. But the down-ballot primaries are just beginning in March.

Yet for the fifth cycle in a row, the non-presidential contests have little energy or intensity behind them. Trump has dominated the presidential race. He has also endorsed a host of establishment Republicans in House and Senate races. As a result, Trump will defeat Nikki Haley by more than 50 points in most states while down-ballot Republicans well to Haley’s left will defeat conservative candidates by equal margins.

Defeating incumbents in a primary is nearly an impossible task, and beating better-funded established candidates even in open seats is an uphill battle. Trump could have been a great equalizer by lending his support to the underdog candidates for the past four or five cycles — and he could have changed the party single-handedly.

The problem is Trump’s criteria for an endorsement. It needs to be personal to him, and it must appear likely from the get-go that the good guy will win so he can boast of his winning record.

The trouble is that most insurgency candidates start out as severe underdogs (which is why they need Trump’s high-profile support), and most establishment Republicans got smart and learned to “say nice things” about Trump even as they undermine Trump and his base on core issues. Thus, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott can be Ukraine-firsters, but because they gave Trump a “beautiful endorsement,” Trump returned the favor.

Inexplicable endorsements

It’s become a kind of ritual for establishment Republicans, except instead of painting their doorposts with the blood of a lamb, they don the red MAGA cap to secure Trump’s blessing. They could still do the bidding of the health care cartel and the Chamber of Commerce, but if they mouth the correct pieties, Trump will lend his support no matter how superior the challenger may be.

When Trump and his movement are focused on a certain primary — usually only when it is deeply personal to the former president — you can easily see the success and begin to wonder what the party would have looked like if we had paid greater attention to excellent candidates across the board.

Take Wyoming, for example. Former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney didn’t simply lose her primary in August 2022. She was humiliated with just 29% support. Yet on that same night, Governor Mark Gordon — who is to the left of Cheney on some key fiscal issues — trounced his primary challenger by 32 points. To Trump’s credit, Gordon was one of the few incumbent RINOs he declined to endorse. But unlike in Cheney’s race, Trump didn’t endorse Gordon’s challenger, either. And the results show.

This year, John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, is up for renomination in August. Although he looks more conservative than Gordon and Cheney on paper, he is part of the same Mitch McConnell leadership that is reliably pro-Ukraine and believes we must avoid a government shutdown at all costs. Trump has already endorsed Barrasso, which forecloses any opportunity even to recruit a superior candidate.

Senators Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) are superb examples of red-state RINOs who are sailing to re-nomination this cycle with Trump endorsements. Wicker is being challenged by Dan Eubanks, a co-founder of Mississippi’s House Freedom Caucus. Knowing Wicker’s lukewarm record, it would stand to reason that the entire Trump movement – including Trump himself – would get behind Eubanks. But we can’t have nice things.

During the past few cycles, not a single milquetoast Republican governor or senator has lost a primary, including those who pushed masks and lockdowns.

In 2022, Governors Greg Abbott of Texas, Kay Ivey of Alabama, and Mike DeWine of Ohio all won re-election despite credible primary challengers. The former two secured Trump’s endorsement in the primary, and although Trump waited until the general election to endorse DeWine, it’s shocking he didn’t support DeWine’s primary challenger given the governor’s liberal record.

It’s one thing for Trump to support Republican incumbents as a sitting president (although he was billed as a different kind of Republican), but it’s quite another to interfere on behalf of the establishment once he left office.

In the notorious 2022 Pennsylvania Senate race, Trump interfered on behalf of Mehmet Oz, one of the most liberal and self-destructive GOP candidates in recent memory, at a time when conservative Kathy Barnette was surging. And that was an open race.

We also got the much more moderate Katie Britt over the more conservative Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama because Trump switched his endorsement due to a personal spat. Never mind that Brooks was such a loyal Trump supporter that he was nearly arrested in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot.

Lengthy list of lukewarm candidates

You go down the roster of names of lukewarm Republican incumbents from 2020 and 2022, when Trump endorsed even in the primary, and the list is painfully long. Using Ballotpedia’s list, I would include the following red-state senators among Trump’s primary endorsements in 2020 as individuals who are wasting a red seat:

  • Dan Sullivan (Alaska)
  • Jim Risch (Idaho)
  • Joni Ernst (Iowa)
  • Mitch McConnell (Kentucky)
  • Bill Cassidy (Louisiana)
  • Cindy Hyde-Smith (Mississippi)
  • Thom Tillis (North Carolina)
  • Lindsey Graham (South Carolina)
  • Mike Rounds (South Dakota)
  • John Cornyn (Texas)
  • Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia)

And here is the list of from 2022:

  • John Boozman (Arkansas)
  • Mike Crapo (Idaho)
  • Chuck Grassley (Iowa)
  • Jerry Moran (Kansas)
  • John Hoeven (North Dakota)

I only picked the names that anyone with a modicum of MAGA cred would necessarily concede are antithetical to our values and wasting red seats. Yet Trump endorsed them all. Not all of them had challengers, but because it became known that Trump would reflexively endorse any incumbent who didn’t call him a name, most credible challengers didn’t embark on the impossible task.

The chilling effect of a Trump endorsement is real. After I worked to recruit against Mitch McConnell in 2014, he became extremely unpopular with Kentucky voters even though he won his primary easily that year. But we had no chance to recruit against McConnell in 2020 because Trump endorsed him, along with Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) over conservative Chris McDaniel that same year.

This cycle, we are stuck with Democrat-in-all-but-name Jim Justice for U.S. Senate because Trump endorsed him early.

Nice words vs. great deeds

The even greater danger comes from the possibility that the McCarthy-McConnell axis will use Trump to attack conservatives.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) hates House Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good (R-Va.) and Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) because they led the fight to remove him as speaker of the House. McCarthy and McConnell are supporting a primary challenger to Good in Virginia and recruited a candidate in Montana to run against Rosendale for the Senate seat he is seeking.

Trump has endorsed McConnell’s candidate against Rosendale, and his inner circle is working against Good and Rosendale — in Good’s case, because he initially endorsed Ron DeSantis, and in Rosendale’s case because he refused to take Trump’s phone call pressuring him to support McCarthy.

Talk about MAGA coming full circle!

Hard-core Trump supporters often bristle defensively at the criticism that the GOP has not changed in any meaningful way since Trump’s rise to power. They argue that it’s the Republicans’ fault, not Trump’s. Trump is awesome. Blame the RINOs for screwing up his presidency. Or so the argument goes.

If that’s true, then Trump deserves the blame, not plaudits, for refusing to back an army of candidates as awesome as he is. He hasn’t drained the swamp; he’s refilled it. Do we want candidates who will only say nice things in public about one man, or do we want candidates who will do great things for the country?

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