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Opinion Trump’s primary winning streak shows he’s still king of the GOP

Former president Donald Trump gestures as he departs Trump Tower in New York City on Aug. 10. (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

Donald Trump has had a remarkable run of success in the Republican primaries lately, including a big upset win in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race on Tuesday. The question now isn’t whether the former president is the most significant force within the Republican Party; he clearly is. It’s whether his candidates can win swing states and districts in the fall.

Trump looked like he was on the ropes earlier this year. His early prominent endorsees, such as Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania and Mo Brooks in Alabama, faltered. Others were struggling to raise money, and his high-profile attempt to take down his arch nemesis, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, lost steam. It looked like Trump’s hold over the GOP was finally beginning to fade.

That’s when he did a characteristically Trumpy thing: He gambled. He conferred his endorsement on candidates who were either behind in the polls or running against strong, well-financed establishment-backed Republicans. If these contests had gone south, Trump would have started to hear even more discontented rumblings.

Instead, most of Trump’s gambles have paid off. J.D. Vance and Mehmet Oz came from behind to win the senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively, and Kari Lake and Blake Masters led a Trump-endorsed slate to victory in Arizona. His candidates won in House races, too. John Gibbs and Joe Kent won narrowly against two pro-impeachment Republicans in Michigan and Washington, while Dan Cox won Maryland’s gubernatorial race against the candidate endorsed by outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

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Trump didn’t win every race. Loren Culp, for example, did not unseat Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse, who voted to impeach Trump. But the former president’s overall record would make the 1927 Yankees proud.

This winning streak confirms that Trump remains the man to beat in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination race. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is gaining adherents and has clearly emerged as the leading — perhaps the only — viable alternative to Trump. But most national polls still have Trump in front, and these primary results suggest DeSantis would start behind in most states if he were to challenge the "mayor of Mar-a-Lago.”

This doesn’t mean that Trump’s word is law within the GOP. Plenty of Republicans still voted against his choices, and it appears somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of Republicans would prefer a less Trumpy party. But as of now, that large group is still a minority, which means anyone who wants to challenge Trump’s dictums must tread carefully.

Still, Trump cannot rest on his laurels. Winning a primary is only the first step to holding public office. His endorsees in strongly Republican areas should prevail in the fall, given the winds at the GOP’s backs. Politicos therefore will be carefully watching how his candidates do in marginal areas to see if a kiss from Trump is a kiss of death.

Each of the five closest states from 2020 have at least one controversial Trump nominee in key races. Lake and Masters in Arizona need to convince highly educated independents in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan area to switch sides, while Herschel Walker must attract former Republicans in the Atlanta suburbs to return to the party. Masters and Walker start behind the Democratic incumbent senators they are challenging. They must prove they are ready for prime time in states where Trump’s embrace repels as many votes as it attracts.

Pennsylvania will be ground zero for this analysis. The state was extremely close in both 2016 and 2020, and statewide partisan registration figures show Republicans have been gaining on Democrats. Both of the Trumpian candidates, Oz and gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, start behind their Democratic foes. State polls have often overstated Democratic leads here in recent years, but no one seriously maintains that either candidate is currently ahead.

Michigan and Wisconsin also feature Trump-backed statewide nominees. Both Michigan’s Tudor Dixon and Wisconsin’s Tim Michels, the GOP’s gubernatorial nominees, had run strong races on their own before receiving Trump’s support. Both face Democratic incumbents in states not known for ditching someone after only one term in office. Wisconsin hasn’t done that since 1986. In Michigan, you have to go back to 1962 for the last time voters tossed out a first-term chief executive. Republicans in both states will need to run great campaigns to beat their tough opponents.

Trump’s candidates probably need to win at least five of these seven races for him to claim victory. Anything less will lend credence to the argument that he’s political poison to swing voters. If Trump’s people can’t win in a great year for Republicans, how can Trump expect to win these states himself? That won’t sway Trump’s acolytes, but it will hold water with many conservatives who just want the White House back.

Donald Trump remains king of the Republican Party, for now. But he should remember the old adage: uneasy the head that wears the crown.