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Where it mattered most, Trump’s Texas endorsement didn’t get the job done

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a rally in support of President Donald Trump in D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

It did not take long for Donald Trump to start bragging.

Less than three hours after polls closed in Texas, Trump’s political action committee released a statement from the former president.

“All 33 candidates that were Trump endorsed have either won their primary election or are substantially leading in the case of a runoff,” it read. “Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick have won in a landslide.” Then, an incongruous “thank you,” before he offered his congratulations to the winners.

During a lengthy conversation with his friend Maria Bartiromo on her Fox Business television show Wednesday morning, Trump again worked the same line into the conversation. Thirty-three for 33, he boasted, adding that “nobody’s going to write that.”

I was going to anyway, for what it’s worth, because Trump’s presentation once again glosses over some important qualifiers.

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Compiling data from Ballotpedia and Trump’s website, I pulled data on all 33 of those endorsements. They mostly fell into two categories: endorsements in federal House races and endorsements for state positions in the executive and legislative branches. He also endorsed two local candidates in Tarrant County.

And, as he says, all 33 of those candidates either won outright — earning more than half of the vote — or are leading as the contest heads to a runoff. You can see all 33 below, with the percentage of the vote each candidate earned (as of Wednesday morning) shown from bottom to top and the candidate’s lead shown from left to right.

You’ll notice a few things off the bat. The first is that most of the candidates being endorsed were incumbents — 25 of the 33. In other words, most of the candidates Trump endorsed would have probably been favored anyway, given the advantages that accompany incumbency. You can see that more than half of the candidates endorsed by Trump were incumbents who earned more than 60 percent of the vote, generally a sign that the opposition they faced was not particularly robust. Seven of his endorsees were House incumbents who didn’t face opponents, a group for which Trump doesn’t really deserve credit.

If he wants to count those in his total then he actually went 33 for 34. After all, in October, Trump lashed out at state House speaker Dade Phelan (R) for not rolling over on election fraud claims. He pledged that he would target Phelan in the primary — but Phelan ran unopposed and won with 100 percent of the vote.

The interesting group of endorsements isn’t the layups. It’s the new candidates and, in particular, the embattled incumbents. In the case of the former, half of Trump’s endorsed candidates won outright and the other four made it to a runoff. In the case of the latter, the picture is much murkier.

Here I’m not talking about candidates such as Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who faced more opposition than in his past primaries but still won relatively easily. I’m talking pretty specifically about Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R).

While new candidates would certainly like to have Trump’s endorsement for a Republican primary, it’s candidates like Paxton who actually test Trump’s clout. Paxton has been involved in several scandals, including a long-standing criminal probe alleging fraud and whistleblowing allegations from more than a half-dozen staffers that he violated the law while in office. But Paxton also leaned into his support for Trump after the 2020 election, leading a multistate lawsuit attempting to have the results of the contest thrown out in a number of states that backed President Biden. The lawsuit was laughed out of court, but it demonstrated a loyalty that Trump rewarded with an endorsement.

Paxton’s reelection bid also had him facing off against a Republican political dynasty that Trump has long disparaged: After failing to earn 50 percent of the vote, he’ll face George P. Bush, son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, in a runoff. The younger Bush had tried to appeal to Trump’s bases of support in a way that often broke from the criticisms his family had offered of the former president, but he’s still a Bush, and a Trump-backed candidate losing to a Bush is a very particular kind of rebuke.

It was this race, then, that really tested Trump’s clout. Could he drag a scandal-plagued ally across the finish line against a representative of a family that Trump’s attacked more than any other family not named Clinton? Turns out that the best he could do was get Paxton to a runoff. While Paxton has a healthy lead over Bush as of Wednesday morning, more than 57 percent of voters backed someone other than the incumbent. It’s safe to say that in the runoff, Bush will consolidate a significant portion of that vote.

This isn’t the story Trump wants to tell, of course. He hypes his king-making power in the primaries because he wants fealty from Republican elected officials. He wants them to want his endorsement and he wants to be able to tell them he helped them win (even when he didn’t, as in the case of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)). He likes to tout his lopsided endorsement record, often leaving out general election contests where his success is about evenly split. He constantly endorses people who are obviously going to win and uses them to pad his numbers.

But if you’re a Republican incumbent who is wondering whether Trump’s endorsement can single-handedly clear your path forward, the results in Texas are not strong evidence that it can.