The Battle for the Future of the Republican Party: What is Trump’s Role?

Introduction

When New York businessman Donald Trump first announced his Presidential campaign in June 2015, few mainstream pundits took him seriously. Over the ensuing year, Trump shocked the political establishment by spearheading the successful defeat of over a dozen capable officeholders – each of whom was well-groomed to seek the Presidency. In so doing, Trump ignited a spirit of right-wing populism that reshaped the GOP and guided him to the oval office against all conventional wisdom.

During his term, Trump’s endorsement was the most valuable accolade that any aspiring candidate could receive in a competitive primary election. The 2018 cycle, in particular, saw Senate and Gubernatorial contenders attempting to “out-conservative” each other in an effort to please the President.

Given the enthusiastic base of supporters that Trump had commanded since winning the nomination, along with the fact that he alone was perceived as having brought Republicans out of an eight year political wilderness, it is perfectly sensible that his endorsement had enough influence to make him a kingmaker.

In 2020, after one of the most hard-fought Presidential campaigns in modern history, former Vice President Joe Biden defeated President Trump. Since that momentous shift in the balance of power, the pundit world has been left wondering just how much influence Trump and his endorsement still have within the GOP.

On its face, the former President remains more beloved by his fellow Republicans than any other GOP officeholder, but some internal rumblings have hinted at the possibility of power shift. Even if Trump does not end up being the party standard-bearer in 2024, it is clear that his rhetoric will continue to dominate the national Republican organization.

When it comes to Trump’s remaining influence in the primary process, the jury will remain out until the 2022 primary cycle is complete. If most of the former President’s high-profile picks (i.e. Perdue & Budd) falter, it could be a sign that Republicans across the nation are ready to move in a fresh direction. Such a changing of the guard would probably be beneficial to the GOP’s long-term Presidential aspirations, even if it means adopting more establishment rhetoric. (Read more here)

As of this writing, only the Texas primaries are in the books. Trump-backed Attorney General Ken Paxton took a plurality of the vote (as expected) and will face Land Commissioner George P. Bush in a May runoff. Bush is the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a frequent critic of the former President. Despite numerous accusations of unethical behavior, Paxton’s strident commitment to populist conservatism has kept him in Trump’s good graces. The outcome of the runoff election will be one of the most important litmus tests in the battle between “establishment” and “anti-establishment”.

In Texas’s 8th Congressional district, CLF-endorsed candidate Morgan Luttrell avoided a runoff in a race that was expected to be much closer. The campaign against Christian Collins, who often questioned Luttrell’s conservatism, was brutal. Though Trump did not endorse here, Luttrell’s comfortable win constitutes a major victory for the Republican Congressional Leadership. Collins had been endorsed by the likes of Marjorie Greene and Madison Cawthorn. The Houston suburbs generally have an affinity for traditional Republicans, though, so it is unclear if the establishment will have the automatic upper-hand in future primaries elsewhere.

(Van Taylor’s decision not to contest his runoff against conservative challenger Keith Self following revelations of marital infidelity is a victory for the more populist wing of the party, though Trump did not endorse in this seat either.)

House

Most of the Trump-endorsed House candidates are secure incumbents like Kay Granger (TX) or challengers running in open Republican primaries such as Bo Hines (NC). These contenders have generally not drawn much attention from political observers. The Trump-backed candidates that have attracted the nation’s eye are those running against incumbent Representatives that the anti-establishment wing of the GOP views as insufficiently conservative.

Three of these vulnerable incumbents (Fred Upton, Rodney Davis, and David McKinley) are fighting off Trump-endorsed challenges from the right in double-bunking primaries. These unique contests arise when reapportionment and redistricting force two or more incumbents into the same seat. If Bill Huizenga, Mary Miller, and Alex Mooney manage to topple their more experienced opponents, it could be a sign that Trump’s endorsement remains strong enough to overwhelm conventional advantages one incumbent might have over another.

The other endangered incumbents are the ten Republicans who voted to impeach the former President after the January 6th protests. Of that group, three (Katko, Kinzinger, Gonzalez) are retiring, two (Valadao, Meijer) face uncertain general election prospects, and five (Cheney, Rice, Upton, Newhouse, Beutler) are at risk of losing to Trump-endorsed primary challengers. Defeating these members in upcoming nomination contests is critical to completing the former President’s revenge and will certainly determine how much influence he still wields over the GOP going forward.

Senate

There are a few crowded Republican Senate primaries worth touching on, though Trump has not yet endorsed in all of them. In some states, like Nevada and Georgia, Trump-backed candidates in the mold of Adam Laxalt and Herschel Walker remain strong primary favorites. Other seats, like Missouri and Ohio, will probably be anyone’s ball game whether the former President endorses at all.

Let’s start with competitive primaries in states where Trump has endorsed a candidate: North Carolina and Alabama.

In the Tar Heel State, Trump is supporting Congressman Ted Budd in a three-way primary against former Governor Pat McCrory and ex-Congressman Mark Walker. Polling has shown a tight race, but McCrory has generally taken narrow leads. In North Carolina, a candidate must receive at least 30% of the vote to avoid a runoff. (It is generally more difficult for an individual Congressman like Budd or Walker to compete for name recognition with a former statewide officeholder, though this is hardly an assurance of a McCrory victory.)

Alabama has been even more perilous for the former President. His candidate of choice is 5th district (Huntsville) Congressman Mo Brooks, a bomb-thrower of unmatched proportions. Running against him are Katie Britt and Mike Durant, both of whom could advance to a runoff ahead of Brooks if the Congressman’s precipitous recent polling drop is to be believed. Even in a hypothetical Britt v. Brooks runoff, the former CoS to revered Senator Richard Shelby would probably be a commanding favorite. (Trump himself has reportedly been expressing buyer’s remorse on Brooks, suggesting a potential horse change to Britt.)

The other marquee primaries (Arizona, Oklahoma Special, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) appear to be breaking down on traditional establishment versus anti-establishment lines. Trump has not endorsed in any of these uncertain races yet, but has stated his intentions to eventually do so.

In Pennsylvania and Arizona, frontrunning candidates David McCormick and Mark Brnovich mainly face opposition from “outsiders” Mehmet Oz and Blake Masters. Important Republicans in each of the state parties would appreciate Trump endorsing the frontrunners, but the former President’s recent criticisms of Brnovich for perceived inadequacies with regards to reexamining Biden’s victory in Arizona have pointed to a potential Masters endorsement.

Jim Inhofe’s decision to resign his seat early next year has prompted double-barrel Senate races in Oklahoma. Congressman Markwayne Mullin (Little Dixie) is contesting the open primary against Inhofe CoS Luke Holland, former State House Speaker T.W. Shannon, and two other contenders. Alex Gray formerly served in the Trump Administration, but it remains unclear if that will be enough to receive the former President’s support.

Missouri and Ohio round out the list of heated primaries. A lot of that absolute uncertainty has probably driven Trump’s hesitance to make a choice in either state. Like any political leader, the former President does not want to tie himself to a losing candidate (as he might very well have done in AL).

In the Show Me State, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler are the top two “establishment” candidates running against disgraced former Governor Eric Greitens. Greitens would remain a strong favorite in a Missouri general election in any environment (especially a Republican one) but would likely force the dispersion of additional funds to a contest that would otherwise not be on the board.

Ohio businessman Mike Gibbons seems like a leading contender for the Trump endorsement following his polling rise in recent weeks. The new “Gibmentum” has dislodged Josh Mandel from frontrunner status, much to the relief of national Republicans. Portman-endorsed hopeful Jane Timken and populist favorite JD Vance both appear to have fizzled out in recent polling. A fifth candidate, Matt Dolan, is in a similar position in the race.

Governor

Trump has also pitted himself against incumbent Governors Brad Little and Brian Kemp. In Idaho, Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin appears to be trailing her colleague heavily in primary polling. She announced her bid for the state’s highest office after spurning Little’s coronavirus policy while he was out of the state. In Georgia, recent polling shows Governor Brian Kemp amassing increasingly-comfortable leads over former Senator David Perdue.

Conclusion

There is still a lot of time left in the primary season this cycle, but some of the evidence we have seen thus far suggests that Trump’s endorsement record could be damaged by high-profile losses. If that does happen across the board, it could embolden the voices of those conservative Republicans pushing for a new standard-bearer in 2024.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying 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, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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