Over the course of the 2016 primary season, businessman and reality TV star Donald J. Trump took the GOP by storm. His enigmatic rise allowed him to triumph over more than a dozen experienced elected office holders and party luminaries that most pundits considered significantly stronger than him.
After his unlikely nomination, fundamentals across the board pointed to a victory for Hillary Clinton. No one could have predicted that Trump would crack the midwestern “blue wall” and run the swing state gauntlet to secure his improbable election while losing the national popular vote. America’s choice catapulted the Republican standard-bearer’s revivalist populism into the White House, fundamentally changing the fabric of the GOP and the nation.
The 2016 election delivered the long-sought Presidency into Republican hands after an eight year drought, a success that gave Trump near-complete control over his party’s candidates and policies. To many Republicans, Trump had shaken up the GOP enough to bring it out of the wilderness. Attaining a sort of savior status emboldened the potency of his endorsement, or at least the perception of it.
Over the remaining four years of his Presidency, GOP candidates in critical primaries would energetically vie for the President’s support. Oftentimes this competition between equally-conservative challengers seemed like little more than a petty feud between contenders trying to “out-Trump” each other.
This piece will take a detailed look at the Trump endorsement to see how relevant it remains in the post-presidency while also attempting to evaluate how strong it was in the first place. Various data will be used to answer a series of questions designed to support our conclusions.
The General Data
Ballotpedia defines the most-watched intraparty races as “battleground primaries”. Over the course of Trump’s tenure, he endorsed in 38 of these competitive contests to determine nominations for Governor, House, and Senate. Of that group of chosen candidates, only 4 did not advance to general elections. On its face, that yields an overwhelming success rating of 89% for the Trump endorsement. But there are a few questions worth answering before determining whether that figure is deceptively high or glaringly accurate.
- Did Trump mostly endorse in primaries where his candidate was very likely to win and/or had weak opposition?
- Did Trump’s preferred candidate go on to win the general election if he or she were running in a competitive race?
- Did Trump resort to backing two major candidates in closely-contested primaries in safe localities to avoid selecting a losing pick?
- In general, was Trump’s endorsement list crafted to maximize the chance of siding with a winning candidate? (Kingmaker or Kingtaker)
Generally speaking, the vast majority of Trump-endorsed candidates in battleground primaries won their contests. For that reason, it is more efficacious to look at the Trump-backed hopefuls that did not succeed in an attempt to understand what exactly went wrong and how applicable individual shortcomings are to the validity of Trump’s endorsement as a whole.
2017 Alabama U.S. Senate special
Shortly after entering office, Trump caused a vacancy in Alabama after appointing Senator Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General. On its face, the selection was not considered politically dangerous. The Yellowhammer state was as reliably Republican then as it is now. A Democratic Senator had not been popularly-elected since the days of Howell Heflin.
The three main candidates in the primary were interim Senator Luther Strange, judge Roy Moore, and Congressman Mo Brooks. All of them were profusely conservative, and each attempted to “out-Trump” the other. Trump backed Strange, the former state Attorney General. Because no single candidate received a majority of the vote, Moore and Strange advanced to a runoff.
In that campaign, the caustic Moore tried as hard as he could to paint Strange as insufficiently devoted to the President who had endorsed him. These charges were ridiculous in every realistic sense, but the intent stuck. After winning the nomination, Moore screwed up his chances at every turn.
Despite Alabama’s red tint, Doug Jones was able to benefit from depressed Republican turnout and burgeoning Democratic energy to take the state by storm. Moore’s sexual admissions certainly did not help his cause either, leading most of the GOP’s upper brass to cut him loose before the end of the campaign.
2018 Wyoming Governor
One of President Trump’s only endorsement shortcomings in a 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary came in Wyoming. Given the state’s blood red status, it is no surprise that an open governorship led to a crowded GOP field. There were three main contenders by election day: Treasurer Mark Gordon, businessman and investor Foster Friess, and attorney Harriet Hageman.
Trump and his forces decided to back Friess, a political outsider attempting to win over the hearts and minds of the primary electorate by touting his wealth and status as a stock pioneer. Gordon was the more establishment pick, drawing support from former Senator Alan Simpson and much of the state legislature. Insufficient conservatism was predictably used as a line of attack, but it did not catch on like it did in Alabama.
Because there was never any runoff requirement in Wyoming, Gordon was able to win the nomination with just 33% of the vote. Friess finished in second with 25%, followed by Hageman at 21%. It was a noted setback for Trump because Friess was in so many ways his regional twin. Republicans held the Governorship easily in November.
2020 U.S. House NC-11
Mark Meadows resigned his seat in Congress representing western North Carolina to take up his new role as Chief of Staff to President Trump. Three major contenders emerged to win the nomination to his reliably-Republican Congressional seat: businesswoman Lynda Bennett, motivational speaker Madison Cawthorn, and state Senator Jim Davis.
Trump backed Bennett, who narrowly finished in first place with a plurality of the vote after the initial round of voting. Surprisingly, Jim Davis was locked out of the runoff after being usurped by the 25-year-old Cawthorn. Despite having the President’s support, Bennett lost the runoff to the start-up politician by nearly thirty points.
2020 U.S. House VA-05
The 2020 Republican nominating process in Virginia’s 5th district was abnormal. As is ubiquitous to politics in the Old Dominion, the convention system was used in lieu of a classic primary. The formality meant party provocateurs held the most influence over the selection process.
Freshman Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman donned a unique brand of almost libertarian conservatism during his short tenure in office. His greatest ‘sin’ was officiating a gay wedding, an action that turned the partisans against him ahead of the convention. Far more sordid forces were likely the real driver behind his political demise.
Despite having President Trump’s backing, Bob Good was chosen as the Republican nominee. Riggleman became one of many Congressmen across party lines to lose renomination during the 2020 cycle.
Because last year was an off-year, pundits have not had many new primary races to serve as bellwethers for the strength of the Trump endorsement in his post-presidency. That is a question Split Ticket will attempt to answer in the conclusion after determining once and for all how strong we think the Trump endorsement ever was in the first place.
Early last year, some in the political world used the Texas-6 special election outcome as evidence that the former President’s endorsement was no longer the end all be all of Republican politics. In that jungle primary runoff, the Trump-endorsed widow of the former Congressman lost to fellow Republican Jake Ellzey. While that result was certainly a blow to Trump, it is unclear how disaffected Democrats affected the overall numbers in the second round.
Later on during a competitive Republican primary to fill Steve Stivers’s seat in Ohio-15, Trump’s endorsement seemed to carry Mike Carey over the finish line against numerous credible opponents. Both races aside, no pundit will really have a clear grasp of the post-presidential endorsement until the midterm nominating season is over.
Our Conclusions & 2022
- Did Trump mostly endorse in primaries where his candidate was very likely to win and/or had weak opposition? It’s a mixed bag. In primaries where no incumbent was running, his endorsement was generally more decisive. Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp are both great examples of outsider victors besting more experienced opponents. Although they were facing incumbents, Kris Kobach and Katie Arrington benefitted from the same dynamic.
- Did Trump’s preferred candidate go on to win the general election if he or she were running in a competitive race? Generally speaking, Trump endorsed candidates in safely-Republican states and districts. His picks running in more competitive states had a more denuded success record. Kemp and DeSantis both narrowly won their gubernatorial races. On the other hand, candidates like John James, Kris Kobach, and Corky Messner did not prevail.
- Did Trump resort to backing two major candidates in closely-contested primaries in safe localities to avoid selecting a losing pick? Generally he did not. The 2019 Louisiana Gubernatorial race was a notable exception to this pattern. Considering how uncertain the positioning between Eddie Rispone and Ralph Abraham was ahead of the jungle primary, Trump probably did not want to upset either candidate or his endorsement record. Despite endorsing both candidates to obviate the primary, Rispone lost the general election to Governor John Bel Edwards.
- In general, was Trump’s endorsement list crafted to maximize the chance of siding with a winning candidate? (Kingmaker or Kingtaker) As most of the competitive House primaries from the 2020 cycle showed, Trump’s endorsement was still more of a kingmaker than a kingtaker. Fundamental exceptions aside, the former President’s influence was enough to be the deciding factor for many Republican voters. This reality remains true during the Biden-era.
To get a feel for Trump’s statewide endorsements ahead of the 2022 cycle, you can check out one of my earlier pieces for Split Ticket here. As mentioned above, we simply will not understand the continuing impact of the Trump endorsement until election season is over. That said, the former President’s continuing influence and popularity within the GOP should give every analyst a healthy respect for his endorsement. There is a good chance that his win vs. loss record will be well over 50% after the summer primaries, a reality that would mostly make him a kingmaker.
Before I left Elections Daily, Kraz Greinetz proposed an idea for an article addressing the effectiveness of the Trump endorsement. After agreeing that it was a great proposal, I joined him in drafting it. Since we never got around to finishing the original piece, I decided to start from scratch on a clean slate for Split Ticket. Although the meat and potatoes of this write-up are brand new, I wanted to make sure Kraz gets the credit he deserves for getting me interested in analyzing the strength of the Trump endorsement in the first place. You can check out Kraz’s written and cartographical works on the Elections Daily website.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org