“I’ll be here in about a year and a half campaigning against your governor,” Trump said firmly. “I guarantee you.”
The governor in question is Brian Kemp (R), who, along with other governors across the country, was responsible for the final certification of the presidential vote. Kemp stands out, though, as having been one of the most Trump-supportive governors — at least until his state’s voters decided that they preferred that Joe Biden move into the White House.
This threat against Kemp wasn’t new. On Dec. 5, at another rally, Trump publicly encouraged former congressman Douglas A. Collins to challenge Kemp in the 2022 gubernatorial primary. Nor has Kemp been the only governor to face a similar threat. Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.) was targeted last month, too.
It’s worth noting — as Trump did at Monday’s rally — that he once supported both men. He gave Ducey a resounding (if rote) vote of confidence in 2018 and helped propel Kemp to a victory in Georgia’s Republican primary that year with an endorsement. But this is how things work in Trump’s world: One day you’re a hero. The next, you’re a traitor.
That should offer some comfort to Kemp, should he seek reelection. (Ducey will be termed out.) There is a broad array of people who’ve been similarly threatened by Trump only to weather the storm.
For example, after Trump rationalized violence on the part of right-wing protesters and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) spoke out against him. Graham’s criticism was a “disgusting lie,” Trump tweeted, and he assured the senator that the “people of South Carolina will remember!”
That was then. Graham was pointed in rebuilding his relationship with Trump and eventually became one of the president’s closest allies. When Graham sought reelection last year, Trump gave him his support. Graham won.
But simply being a close ally of Trump’s doesn’t mean much. Former senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was allied with Trump and was even reportedly under consideration to serve as vice president during the 2016 campaign. But Corker, too, criticized Trump’s handling of Charlottesville, and became a focus of frequent attacks by the president. He decided against seeking reelection in 2018.
That was the same decision made by former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Flake was never an ally of Trump’s, instead serving as one of the few voices of criticism within the Republican Senate caucus. With his reelection looming and his position among Arizona Republicans slipping — with Trump’s encouragement — Flake decided against seeking another term. It ended up being a good example of how Trump’s grievances can be shortsighted, though: Flake was ultimately replaced by a Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema.
Early in 2017 Trump also attacked members of the House Freedom Caucus for being insufficiently pliant as he sought to repeal Obamacare. In a closed-door meeting, he threatened then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) with a primary should he not comply with the president’s wishes. Later, he attacked the caucus — embodied by Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — on Twitter, suggesting that he might try to oust them. That anger faded: Meadows is now Trump’s chief of staff, and Jordan is poised to receive the Medal of Freedom.
It’s hard to tell when a Trump threat is idle and when it’s real. Part of it depends on how close to an election it is. That Graham wasn’t up until 2020 gave him the space to rebuild his relationship. When Trump attacked then-Rep. Mark Sanford (S.C.) on the day of the Republican primary contest in South Carolina, though, there wasn’t anything Sanford could do about it.
Sanford lost, but it’s not clear what role if any Trump’s tweet might have played. In fact, it’s not clear how much weight Trump’s endorsements have overall, much less how much they’ll carry once he’s out of office and, to at least some extent, the public eye.
While Trump likes to brag about how he can get people elected, that was more true in Republican primaries during his presidency than in contests against Democrats. Data from Ballotpedia shows that Trump-endorsed candidates won about 86 percent of their primary contests and 69 percent of their general-election matchups.
That latter figure, though, is inflated by Trump’s having endorsed a lot of candidates in 2020 who were in no danger of losing, according to a Cook Political Report analysis. Trump’s candidates won about 58 percent of the time in contests that were rated as leaning one direction or the other. His candidates won a much better 89 percent of the time when the races were rated toss-ups.
That leads us to the other difference between his success in 2020 and his mediocre showing in 2018. Last year, Trump was also on the ballot, meaning a lot more Trump-loyal voters came to the polls. That helped him overperform polling in his own race but also aided his party down-ticket. In 2018, his endorsements were much less successful and, one analysis suggested, may at times even have served to disadvantage Republicans.
Not included in this analysis are Trump’s endorsements of the Republican candidates in Georgia’s two Senate runoff races, for which Trump held that rally Monday. The situation is a political unicorn in a lot of ways, but it also features the first contests since Trump lost his reelection bid. If a lame-duck Trump can’t get two Republicans over the finish line in a state he lost by only 10,000 votes, why would Kemp need to be worried about his influence in two years’ time?
There’s another category of Trump target that we haven’t mentioned yet and that may increasingly apply as the months pass: those who were a focus of opposition by Trump but who won reelection anyway.
Consider Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). In October, Trump compared Sasse unfavorably to Corker and Flake, suggesting that Republicans try to push him out. But it was too late. Sasse went on to win reelection by more than 40 points.
As a sign of how quickly fortunes shift in Trumpworld, Sasse’s victory is actually credited as an endorsement win by Ballotpedia. Why? Because in 2019, Trump said this about the senator.
Trump’s political positions are often like the weather in New England, as observed by Mark Twain. Not in a good place? Just wait for a few more tweets.