The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s GOP kingmaker status is on the line as some endorsees struggle in polls

Then-Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) joins then-President Donald Trump onstage during a rally on Dec. 5, 2020. Perdue is one of many candidates Trump endorsed facing tough races that will test Trump's kingmaker status in the GOP. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Among the many things Donald Trump is prone to hyping and often vastly overselling, his endorsement record is near the top of the list.

The events of the next several months will severely test his ability to sell that record, as his 2022 endorsements are in many cases struggling to deliver an early return on his investment — and at a crucial time when it comes to Trump’s campaign to retain his hold on the GOP.

Politico reported Friday that Trump has floated a series of dual endorsements in key races. The potential strategy is born of the fact that his own aides and top allies are often splitting between candidates. But a helpful side effect would seem to be that spreading his bets might help Trump might avoid what he fears most: losing.

There’s a distinct chance, based upon his current endorsements and early polling, that he could be in for a fair amount of it.

The Politico piece pinpoints some of Trump’s diciest endorsements so far, including Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania (who dropped out of the race amid personal scandal) and Reps. Ted Budd in North Carolina and Mo Brooks in Alabama, both of whom are struggling for traction despite Trump’s early intervention.

But those are hardly the only races where early evidence suggests that Trump’s endorsees are up against it.

Both Budd and Brooks are indeed in tight races, with early polling showing them neck-and-neck with more establishment-oriented candidates — notably former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory and Katie Britt, a former aide to Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.).

The situation is somewhat similar in the Maryland governor’s race, where there’s little polling but where Trump-backed Dan Cox isn’t raising big money against Kelly Schulz, who is backed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Schulz, the state’s former commerce secretary, has raised $1.5 million to Cox’s $344,000.

It’s also happening in Nebraska, where Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) this week endorsed an ally, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, over Trump-backed businessman Charles Herbster. Ricketts had previously gone so far as to say Herbster wasn’t qualified to be governor. (There is no good polling available, apart from internals.)

And ditto in Idaho, where Trump has endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (R) against Gov. Brad Little (R). A poll released this month showed Little ahead by a lot, 59 percent to 18 percent. (Little has not said he will run, but it sounds as though he will.)

That race and North Carolina’s, like others, feature a common problem for Trump: multiple candidates with real Trump-y cred running who could split his supporters’ votes. In Idaho, it’s Ammon Bundy, whose family’s standoffs with the federal government Trump embraced at the time and for which he later issued pardons. In North Carolina, it’s Rep. Mark Walker, who still hasn’t swapped his Senate campaign for a House reelection bid despite Trump’s nudging.

It’s also the case in the Georgia governor’s race, where former Democrat and Trump’s Republican National Convention speaker Vernon Jones is still in the race even though Trump has endorsed Republican former senator David Perdue’s challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp (R). That state would feature a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of the vote, though. Post-Trump-endorsement polls show Kemp and Perdue tied at 34 percent.

One of Trump’s most significant endorsement tests will be in Alaska, where Trump-backed Kelly Tshibaka is attempting to unseat Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who voted to convict Trump in his most recent impeachment. A straight primary matchup would likely be more fruitful for Tshibaka, but the state now has ranked-choice voting. A poll over the summer showed Murkowski leading Tshibaka by 10 points in a head-to-head matchup among all statewide voters, though a liberal group’s poll suggested Murkowski might struggle to make the final matchup if a prominent Democrat were to run.

Several other of Trump’s statewide endorsees look more solid as at least the presumptive GOP nominees, including Kansas gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt, Arkansas candidate for governor and former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker and Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt (although Laxalt’s GOP opponent is raising significant money). Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake also looks like the early favorite, despite facing opponents including former congressman Matt Salmon. But in just about each case (save perhaps for Sanders), the candidates could face tough general elections against incumbents or in swing states.

In short: Trump has put his kingmaker reputation very much on the line in a series of primaries as he seeks to make sure the party remains in his image; he has often backed those who went further than most other Republicans in echoing his false claims about voter fraud. Doing so, though, often involves endorsing politicians who actually believe that stuff, which in many cases means they come from the political fringe. And how those candidates actually perform in the coming months is very much an open question.

In all of these races, it’s early, and voters might not even be familiar with his endorsements. But Trump has ventured further into guiding GOP primaries than he has before, and with that come potential pitfalls.