For the past few years, there has been no greater endorsement in American politics than Donald Trump’s.
In a general election, it is hard to see how any endorsement carries sway — those from newspaper editorial boards especially. But inside of a Republican primary, the Trump endorsement in this era has had an impact unlike any other. Unions and interest groups like EMILY’s List can be hugely influential in a Democratic primary, but they don’t single-handedly pick the winner like Trump can arguably do.
Though maybe this is changing.
On Tuesday, the Trump-backed candidate lost a special election for Congress against another Republican. The pair of Republicans advanced to the two-person runoff after Democrats largely didn’t turn out in the primary to get their own candidate through.
And here is the thing; the non-Trump candidate, Jake Ellzey, had a solid win that some saw coming for a while. And not even $1.3 million in last-minute outside spending to prop up opponent Susan Wright helped make it remotely close.
It could be a giant problem for Trump politically going forward if this continues, and it might. There are at least a few places where it looks like Trump backed the wrong candidate, and could very well lose again.
Leaving the White House, Trump was expected to preserve his hold over the Republican Party in two ways. First, he would use his social media accounts to drive the message of the day and to hold Republicans accountable to his agenda. Second, he was going to lean in fully on the endorsement game and make Republicans candidates grovel for his backing.
To be clear, his backing has mattered: He had a nearly perfect record in hundreds of GOP primary endorsements in the 2018 and 2020 elections. In some cases, this meant he effectively handpicked the winner of a primary. In others, the incumbent would do or say something to appeal to Trump early to secure an endorsement and prevent a primary in the first place.
Today, Trump’s Facebook and Twitter accounts remain suspended. And his endorsements might be losing their power.
To be fair, in the race on Tuesday, the loss probably had to do with the candidate he backed. Wright is the widow of the representative who held the seat before dying from complications due to COVID-19.
She was a bad candidate. She raised significantly less money compared to Ellzey, did very few interviews, didn’t court any conservative elites, and refused to debate. As the Washington Post put it, “the Texas race was a test of just how little a Trump-backed candidate could do while still coming out ahead.”
Some in Trump-world knew she was a bad candidate. Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who served as Trump’s energy secretary, backed the eventual winning candidate and said Trump got bad advice.
Now other people on the ground in Alabama and North Carolina are saying the same thing about Trump’s endorsements in the Senate races there in 2022. Trump veered away from the hand-picked successors of retiring Alabama Senator Richard Shelby and former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory and instead backed different candidates, both of whom have been trailing their respective opponent in fund-raising.
And then there’s Ohio, where Politico reports that the candidate Trump endorsed has a history of being physically abusive toward women, including Trump’s own former White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham.
While the logistical problem might be that Trump is picking bad candidates, the reality is that it doesn’t matter when it comes to his power. Whether bad candidates are losing or Republican voters are rejecting Trump, either way he loses. And every time he loses, his power over the Republican Party erodes.
If Trump was thinking he could use the midterm elections to cement his status as the leader of the Republican Party going into the 2024 presidential primary — perhaps as a springboard for his own candidacy — then we might be on the brink of watching this hope fall apart.