Opinion Trump’s picks won in 94 percent of GOP primaries. So, does he own the party?

A billboard sign in Laramie, Wyo. Trump-backed Harriet Hageman beat Rep. Liz Cheney in the state's GOP congressional primary on Aug. 16. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A billboard sign in Laramie, Wyo. Trump-backed Harriet Hageman beat Rep. Liz Cheney in the state's GOP congressional primary on Aug. 16. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Ever since Donald Trump left office in 2021, he’s been trying to purge the GOP of his enemies, elevate his loyalists and tighten his control over the party. Among his tools: endorsements. During the 2022 election cycle, he endorsed 222 candidates in House, Senate or statewide primaries — and, so far, his preferred candidates have won 94 percent of the time.

But there’s more to the story than wins and losses.

Trump’s stamp of approval was more valuable in some races than in others. His endorsement had the highest value in contests with open seats, where two incumbents have been left by redistricting to fight over the same territory, and districts defended by pro-impeachment candidates. Many of these races were close.

But in races where voters had already settled on a reliable conservative, Trump often just followed the party rather than led it — and, on a few occasions, voters rejected his choice.

Trump’s strength: Bringing order to chaos

Trump’s 94 percent win rate — a number padded by easy wins in uncontested and uncompetitive races — is not that different from his 92 percent win rate in wide-open primaries, and an 86 percent win rate against pro-impeachment Republicans.

Wide-open primaries — contests with no incumbents or where two sitting members of Congress were redistricted into the same seat — are typically chaotic. Voters often know little about their choices; low turnout confounds polling; and multiple candidates inevitably claim to be the only true “Trump” Republican.

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But Trump broadly prevailed these races.

Trump’s exact strategy varied. Sometimes, he picked a favorite early: he helped Herschel Walker clear the field of serious opposition in Georgia’s Senate race, and, in the North Carolina Senate race, he gave Rep. Ted Budd an early endorsement over former governor Pat McCrory. Both Walker and Budd won by wide margins. In other races, Trump’s endorsement came later. He gave J.D. Vance a much-needed boost just three weeks before the Ohio Senate primary — helping him win by just eight points.

Trump’s other striking achievement: his 86 percent win rate against anti-impeachment House members. Trump backed challengers against seven of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him — and six of his endorsees won.

When Trump followed the party

But Trump didn’t just lead the party — he also let the party lead him. The clearest examples come from uncontested and landslide races, which made up the bulk of his endorsements.

In some of these races, Trump’s early endorsement helped clear the field (as in the case of Walker in Georgia). But in many others, Trump only endorsed a candidate after voters had picked a favorite.

Doug Mastriano, a candidate for Pennsylvania governor, is one example. He’s imitates Trump on style and on policy; he attempted to overturn the 2020 results in his state; and he led in every poll in the six weeks leading up to the election. But Trump sat on his hands, backing Mastriano only three days before the primary. Trump was certainly happy with Mastriano’s eventual victory — but voters picked Mastriano first, and Trump simply blessed their verdict.

It’s tough to determine how many times Trump tried this: There’s a thin line between races where Trump made a strategic, late endorsement and cases where he belatedly hurled himself onto a winning candidate’s bandwagon. But Mastriano wasn’t an isolated incident — in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama and numerous other states, Trump backed unopposed candidates just days before the election.

In many uncompetitive races, Republicans didn’t even ask for Trump’s endorsement. They cleared the field or beat competitors on their own — and Trump, who arrived late to the party, pretended to be the key player.

When the voters pushed back

Eleven of Trump’s picks also lost races. A pattern emerged in these results: when an incumbent Republican built a conservative record and signaled loyalty to Trump, voters were more willing to forgive them for occasional apostasies.

The strongest examples came from Georgia. Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are very conservative Trump supporters, but they refused to try to overturn their state’s vote for Joe Biden in 2020. Trump loudly promoted revenge-driven challengers against them — along with two other statewide candidates — but Georgians stuck with their incumbents.

Similarly, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) — who had criticized Trump but voted against impeachment — beat back a challenge from a Trump endorsee. And conservative Idaho Gov. Brad Little dispatched Lieutenant Gov. Janice McGeachin, who had clashed with Little on covid-19 restrictions.

Not every Republican fits this pattern: Charles Herbster of Nebraska lost to establishment-backed Jim Pillen after groping allegations against Herbster surfaced, and Trump disciple Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) was beset by scandal. But, generally speaking, GOP voters were most willing to push back against Trump when he picked a fight with a loyal Republican.

Trump owns the party — but the relationship is complex

As primary season winds down, Trump will continue to brag about his endorsement record and claim ownership over the party. And he’s largely right — the GOP will look more like him after 2022 than it did before.

But Trump’s relationship with the GOP is complicated. Republican hopefuls increasingly copy him, and voters follow his lead in open races. But he also takes direction from the party, which is attracting candidates who are taking Trumpism down new and unpredictable paths.