The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans grow bolder in endorsing against Trump

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is the latest to make a statement endorsement in a high-profile proxy battle

A protester holds a sign denouncing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) after the 2020 election. Ducey declined to go along with then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to invalidate the presidential election in Arizona. (Caitlin O'Hara/FTWP)

Among the many Republicans who earned President Donald Trump’s ire for their refusal to go along with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, perhaps none were as high-profile as Vice President Mike Pence, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

Pence and Kemp got a measure of revenge in Georgia’s primaries. And now Ducey has stepped into his own proxy battle against Trump, with significant implications — both for Trump’s stranglehold over the GOP and for his attempt to install election truthers in high offices.

Ducey on Thursday announced his endorsement of Karrin Taylor Robson over Trump-backed Kari Lake in the GOP gubernatorial primary. (Ducey is term-limited.) And it’s merely the latest high-profile decision among prominent Republicans to endorse against Trump.

That Ducey would endorse in his home state’s governor’s race isn’t hugely surprising, but he also happens to be the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, which makes his decision to get involved more interesting.

Ducey didn’t endorse in his capacity as RGA chairman, but NBC News reports that Ducey is considering asking RGA donors to fund a political action committee that supports Taylor Robson. NBC’s Allan Smith and Marc Caputo also report that Ducey’s backing could presage a Pence endorsement — a move that would ramp up the showdown between Trump and high-profile, establishment-oriented Republicans who seem intent on turning the page and avoiding extreme Republicans like Lake.

Lake has offered bogus claims about that the 2020 election was stolen. Taylor Robson has said that the election was “not fair,” but she hasn’t gone nearly as far as Lake, including at a debate last week in which she was the only candidate to decline to say the election was stolen and corrupt.

Lake has regularly polled as the front-runner in the Aug. 2 primary. But former congressman Matt Salmon’s recent decision to drop out of the race and endorse Taylor Robson appears to have worked to Taylor Robson’s benefit. The most recent polls suggest it’s a tight race, and a come-from-behind win by Taylor Robson would be a significant setback for Trump.

But, it wouldn’t be the first. High-profile Republicans have picked their spots in endorsing against Trump, but they’ve often picked to Trump’s right.

Pence’s big entree into the 2022 endorsement game came two months ago in Georgia, when he endorsed Kemp over Trump-backed former U.S. senator David Perdue. Kemp wound up trouncing Perdue, 74 percent to 22 percent. An emboldened Kemp later endorsed against Trump in a key House runoff, in which his candidate Mike Collins defeated Trump-backed Vernon Jones by a remarkably similar 74 percent to 26 percent.

That Kemp and Collins won wasn’t hugely surprising — both endorsements came after each appeared to be on his way to victory — but the margins by which they won were surprising. Collins had led Jones by four points on primary day but defeated him by nearly 50 points in the runoff. Kemp’s win also was significantly bigger than in any pre-primary poll.

The other big endorsement showdown between Trump and an incumbent governor came in Nebraska, where outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) went all-in for Jim Pillen over Trump-backed Charles Herbster. Pillen won by five points. Again, it’s not clear how much that had to do with Ricketts’s endorsement — Herbster faced well-publicized sexual misconduct allegations late in the race — but it was one of the first big setbacks for Trump.

More Republicans are working to undermine Trump endorsements

Such, also, was arguably the case in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama. Trump backed Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) early, but Brooks struggled. Meanwhile, Katie Britt clearly had the support of the establishment, with outgoing Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and other senators endorsing her. Trump had attacked Britt as the candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (McConnell never publicly endorsed in the race.) Ultimately, Trump withdrew his Brooks endorsement and, when it became clear Britt was the favorite in the runoff, endorsed her.

It didn’t pan out quite as well for high-profile Republicans who endorsed against Trump in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. Both Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and former Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo backed David McCormick over Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz, but Oz eked out a narrow victory on primary day.

These races account for 4 of Trump’s 10 primary losses (depending on how you count Alabama). So, when high-profile Republicans have stepped forward, they’ve often been successful.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, particularly when it comes to the timing of the endorsements. But what’s clear is that establishment-oriented Republicans are becoming less shy about endorsing against Trump in some very high-profile races.

The goal might be more about getting more electable candidates nominated than sending a message to Trump. But, unlike Kemp, both Ducey and Pence have seen their political futures arguably short-circuited by Trump’s post-2020 crusade and attacks on them, with Ducey opting against a U.S. Senate run (Trump had said Ducey “could not get the nomination”) and Pence seeing his numbers plummet among Republicans, imperiling his chances of ever becoming president.

Given that history, asserting some ability to guide the party in a different direction from Trump — and elevating Republicans like themselves over Trump’s election truthers — provides at least a consolation prize.