The primary contests Tuesday in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas didn’t offer the wild shifting storylines or national celebrities as last week’s (still unresolved) Pennsylvania US Senate contest. But this week’s primaries may have the most lasting impact on American politics of any held this spring.
A big reason for that? It was a bad night for former president Donald Trump.
Trump, along with rising inflation, remain the driving forces right now in national politics. However, Trump-backed candidates — some of them personally recruited by the former president — lost up and down the ballot in Georgia and trailed in Alabama on Tuesday.
What does a loss like that mean? It could portend a shift in the rhetoric surrounding the upcoming Republican primaries as the party scrambles to prevent future losses. Let’s take a look at what happened and what that might signal for the contests ahead.
Republican candidates picked up a key phrase you’ll be hearing again
There have already been endless stories about how Trump badly lost the marquee race of the day, the Georgia governor’s Republican primary. Trump was deeply mad at Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for certifying the election results and delivering a win in that state to Joe Biden in 2020, a win that ultimately proved critical to Trump’s defeat.
Trump was so mad at Kemp that he created a primary challenge, recruiting former US senator David Perdue to run against him. No candidate has ever received this much attention or money from Trump, which included spending $3 million on Perdue’s behalf, as well as appearing in ads and personally showing up to rallies.
It turned out to not even be a contest. Kemp trounced Perdue. But the story does end there. Right before the primary, Kemp uttered a phrase that Republican candidates who come upon Trump’s ire can repeat again and again: “I’m not mad at him,” Kemp said. “I think he’s just mad at me.”
It’s a good one to remember this election season.
The phrase addresses the tribal nature of Republican politics, that Republicans are sensitive to anyone who attacks Trump. It’s a way of addressing the issue, without directly attacking the former president. At the same time Kemp was appealing to what might be a growing sentiment inside Republican circles, that while candidates like Trump, it is time for him to move on.
Increasingly, scandals just don’t matter
Tuesday featured at least three high-profile candidates with very easy-to-understand scandals. All appear to be winning anyway.
What counts as a true scandal in American politics has undergone a shift in recent years, no doubt in large part to Trump, who seemed to survive everything.
To be clear, scandals can matter. Recently New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, had to step down from office. Pennsylvania Republican US Senate candidate Sean Parnell dropped out of his Trump-endorsed campaign after allegations of domestic abuse. On Tuesday, even the mayor of Anaheim, Calif., resigned after an FBI investigation into the sale of a sports stadium became public.
But what’s noteworthy about those examples is that they all the examples above involve people who decided to resign or quit.
On Tuesday the Trump approach to scandal seemed to win the day: If you just ride it out, voters might not care.
In Georgia, former NFL star Herschel Walker won the Republican primary for US Senate without much competition. He had the backing of Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. But his background, as we learned during the campaign, is something of a mess.
Here is how the Associated Press tried to sum it up succinctly: “His ex-wife said that during their marriage he held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. She later obtained a restraining order against him after he reportedly threatened her for dating other men. He claimed to have founded a chicken processing company employing hundreds but reported only eight workers when applying for a loan during the coronavirus pandemic. He lied about founding a charity to help veterans get aid with mental health — he actually is paid $300,000 a year to work as a spokesperson for a for-profit company that others founded to recruit veterans for mental health care.”
Walker got over 68 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
In Texas, two other scandal-ridden opponents also appear to have won their primaries. Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been investigated for several crimes and is currently under indictment, easily defeated George P. Bush, son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, in what could end a four-generation Bush political dynasty.
In South Texas, US Representative Henry Cuellar, who is the subject of a different FBI investigation, is narrowly leading primary challenger Jessica Cisneros though the race is too close to have a declared winner. Even if Cuellar loses, the FBI raiding his house during the campaign wasn’t a disqualifying event it might have been a decade earlier.
The question of Trump’s endorsement
In Arkansas, former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, easily captured the Republican nomination for governor despite the fact she has never before served in office.
The reason she won the primary was simple: she didn’t have actual competition. While initially the race had some big names, including the sitting lieutenant governor and attorney general, they all dropped out once Trump endorsed Sanders, who is also the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
But with Trump-endorsed candidates losing on Tuesday that may start change. If other candidates see a path to victory even without Trump’s backing they may be more emboldened to stay in their races or to run next time.
For all that has changed in the era of Trump, one thing hasn’t: the power of incumbency is huge. In fact, the dirty secret to Trump’s win-loss record in his endorsements is that almost all of the wins went to incumbents, who often went unchallenged.
On Tuesday not a single incumbent in a high-profile contest lost. Kemp, the Georgia governor, used his powers to break down the political infrastructure of his opponent. Controversial US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene used her incumbency to keep herself in the news and increase name recognition. The same was true for Paxton and, potentially, Cuellar in Texas. Even Alabama Governor Kay Ivey avoided a major primary by grabbing the microphone in front of her and raising money.