The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is gambling big in Wisconsin and Arizona. Losses there could be painful.

Former president Donald Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association annual meeting in Houston on May 27. (Michael Wyke/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Donald Trump took a body blow when Georgia Republicans decisively rejected his endorsed candidates in a panoply of Peach State races two weeks ago. Now, the pugnacious former president is punching back by endorsing little-known outsiders in races in Arizona and Wisconsin. Losing those risky bets would likely fatally damage the idea that he is an all-powerful figure and endanger his chances of winning the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

It wasn’t long ago that Trump’s endorsement was viewed as the golden ticket in Republican politics. Candidates flocked to his seaside estate at Mar-a-Lago to lobby the man for his support. His embrace, they thought, could make or break them.

The political parade has proved personally lucrative for Trump, with wannabe Trumpkins spending tens of thousands of dollars on fundraisers at his posh club. Those who won his support surely know by now that the cost — both financially and in terms of personal dignity — was not worth it.

Trump’s acolytes inflate his endorsement winning percentage by including wins by uncontested incumbents, the political equivalent of including spring training games in a baseball team’s record. Before the Georgia primary, a number of Trump endorsees, such as Nebraska’s Charles Herbster, had lost their primary battles. Others barely squeaked through with uninspiring wins. Trump’s record plummeted after Georgia, with former senator David Perdue and Rep. Jody Hice losing their races for governor and secretary of state, respectively. Two of Trump’s congressional endorsees in contested primaries, Jake Evans and Vernon Jones, couldn’t even get a quarter of the vote.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

That makes Trump’s latest endorsements a key test of his continued power. His pick in Arizona’s U.S. Senate primary, Blake Masters, is a first-time candidate backed with $13.5 million from his former boss, tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Trump’s endorsement could help Masters, but the primary was a close three-way race in polls taken before Trump’s selection. There’s no guarantee Masters will prevail.

Trump’s selection in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race, business executive Tim Michels, is even riskier. Michels hasn’t run for office since his 11-point loss to then-incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2004, and he has relied on his personal wealth to flood the airwaves with television ads to boost his standing.

Michels was so little known that he received only 2.8 percent of the delegate votes at the Republican State Convention this year. He is running against former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who has locked up the support from Wisconsin’s powerful GOP establishment. Two other candidates, state Rep. Tim Ramthun and 2018 Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, are also running as conservative outsiders. Nicholson in particular will have staying power as he is backed by Dick Uihlein, one of the GOP’s biggest megadonors. Trump’s move won’t clear the field.

Nor is Trump’s endorsement a guaranteed boon for Michels. A recent Marquette University Law School poll found that only 49 percent of Republicans said a Trump endorsement would make them more likely to vote for a candidate. That might sound like a lot, but polls in Georgia consistently found that Trump’s endorsement would help Perdue, too. On Election Day, Perdue got only 22 percent of the vote as a record number of people cast ballots in the GOP primary.

The voting rules in Wisconsin and Arizona also potentially favor the candidates running against Trump’s choice. Wisconsin, like Georgia, does not have partisan voter registration, allowing independents and Democrats to participate in the Republican race. Arizona does have partisan registration, but it permits independents to vote in either party’s contest. Trump’s foes in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, clearly benefited from such crossover voting. The person who emerges as Michels’s or Masters’s main adversary could be helped by something similar.

Of course, Trump’s picks could win. His late endorsements of J.D. Vance and Mehmet Oz in the Ohio and Pennsylvania senatorial contests clearly helped them narrowly prevail. The same could be true in Arizona and Wisconsin. In fact, one poll showed Michels had pulled even with Kleefisch before the endorsement. Vance and Oz moved up in polls by a few points after Trump anointed them, suggesting something similar could make Michels and Masters the front-runners as their campaigns head into the final stretch.

The question, then, will be whether that’s enough to hold up against the barrage of negative ads coming their way. One of Masters’s main foes, business executive Jim Lamon, is already bashing him for his Big Tech past and controversial statements he made as a college student. Michels’s foes will surely go negative on him, too. These races are going to get ugly, quickly.

Trump has to win with both of these picks to stay strong. Lose with either, and his potential 2024 foes will see there’s a lane in which to challenge him.