Advisers worry that a second embarrassing loss would raise questions about the power of Trump’s endorsement — his most prized political commodity, which candidates from Ohio to Wyoming are scrambling to earn before next year’s midterms. More broadly, losses could undermine his standing in the Republican Party, where his popularity and influence has protected Trump’s relevance even as a former president barred from his social media megaphones.
Some in the former president’s orbit worry that he’s been too prolific in endorsing candidates running in contested primaries, potentially diminishing their overall power. Trump — who as president frequently bragged about his near-perfect record in endorsing in Republican primaries — rarely endorsed during 2020 nomination contests, and he occasionally got burned when he did, lashing out at those who urged him to back a losing candidate in a North Carolina primary. This time, Trump is getting involved early in an array of primaries, including those for Alabama and North Carolina Senate.
“A loss is a loss, and for someone who touts himself as the ultimate winner, putting your thumb on the scale and then losing tarnishes that brand within the party,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican National Committee official.
Trump advisers say they first became alarmed about their prospects in Texas around a week ago, when they quietly commissioned a survey through the former president’s leadership political action committee showing Republican Jake Ellzey with a 15-point lead over Wright. The Trump team mobilized, with a pair of Trump-aligned groups, Make America Great Again Action and Citizens United Political Victory Fund, purchasing last-minute airtime. Other Trump allies sent word through the former president’s network that Wright could be in trouble.
But allies of Wright — the widow of the late Rep. Ron Wright, whose death in February from complications related to Covid-19 left his seat vacant — pushed back on that idea and reassured the former president’s team that she was in solid shape, pointing to another survey showing her ahead.
That did little to allay the fears of Trump lieutenants, some of whom had warned him against getting involved in a race pitting Republican candidates against one another. (Wright and Ellzey finished first and second in the all-party primary in May, locking Democrats out of the special election.) Some had advocated for Ellzey, a 51-year-old state legislator from the Dallas area.
Others vented about the growing influence of McIntosh, whose organization forcefully opposed Trump during the 2016 primary but has since become one of his closest allies. McIntosh, a conservative former Indiana congressman, speaks frequently with Trump and also proved influential in encouraging Trump to endorse another Republican primary candidate, North Carolina Senate hopeful Ted Budd, early in his multi-way primary.
And others disagreed with how the Club for Growth was waging its Texas campaign. The organization focused its efforts on promoting Trump’s endorsement of Wright. While touting Trump’s support proved valuable in helping Wright advance from the crowded May 1 special election, it proved less effective during the all-party runoff race by encouraging moderate Republicans and Democrats to turn out for Ellzey.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an Ellzey backer who served as energy secretary in the Trump cabinet, attacked the Club for Growth on Wednesday, saying it had “fed” the former president “a bill of goods” by encouraging him to get behind Wright.
Some Republicans, however, pin partial blame for Wright’s loss on Trump. While the former president sent out statements reiterating his support for Wright and hosted a late tele-rally for her, he did little to help her build her campaign war chest — something he could have done using his vast small donor network. Recently released finance reports showed Ellzey significantly outraising Wright.
“This result shows Trump must be all-in in endorsements. He didn’t raise money or show up in district,” said Texas-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who also faulted Wright for waging a flawed campaign.
Focus is now turning to next Tuesday’s special primary for a vacant Columbus, Ohio-area congressional seat, which is also shaping up to be complicated. Mike Carey, a Trump-endorsed former lobbyist, has found himself at a steep spending disadvantage, thanks in part to an unexpected figure: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Paul, long regarded as a Trump ally, is backing a rival candidate, former state legislator Ron Hood, and a Paul-aligned super PAC has hit the airwaves with an aggressive TV advertising blitz.
Paul’s move has infuriated Trump and his allies, some of whom have been reaching out to people in the senator’s orbit — to no avail. During the final week of the contest, the pro-Paul Protect Freedom PAC is set to spend nearly $130,000 on the airwaves, about three times as much as Carey’s campaign. Former GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, who resigned from the seat to take over as president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, is also spending heavily from his old campaign account to boost a candidate, state Rep. Jeff LaRe.
Another Trump ally, Debbie Meadows, the wife of former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, had earlier announced her backing of another Carey rival, church official Ruth Edmonds. But Meadows appears to have since backed off and is no longer promoting her endorsement.
In a scenario reminiscent of what unfolded in Texas, the former president’s lieutenants are rushing to Carey’s aid. Make America Great America PAC, the principal pro-Trump super PAC helmed by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, has made a last-minute decision to spend $300,000 bolstering Carey during the final week of the contest. Trump himself released a statement Tuesday praising Carey and knocking his rivals for “saying” they have Trump’s endorsement “when in actuality, I don’t know them, and don’t even know who they are.”
A Republican strategist familiar with internal polling data said it shows a contest between Carey and Hood. Predicting the outcome may be difficult: Like the Texas race, the Ohio primary is taking place in the dead of summer, when turnout is all but certain to be low.
But those close to Trump acknowledge the stakes are higher for the former president. Unlike the Texas election, where voters from both parties were allowed to vote, the Ohio contest is a Republican primary. Trump allies say that means it will be a purer test of his ability to shape GOP nomination contests. At the same time, they argue that the more conservative nature of the race increases the odds that Trump’s endorsed candidate will be successful.
Some Republicans contend that Tuesday’s loss highlights a trend in Trump’s post-presidency: His endorsement doesn’t carry as much weight as when he was in office. After being kicked off social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Trump has been forced to promote his endorsement largely through email blasts. It is then up to the candidates and their allies to get the word out about his support.
In Wright’s case, even after a big spending effort to make sure that people knew about Trump’s endorsement, only about two-thirds of voters knew that she had the former president’s support by the end of the race, according to a person familiar with the figures.
Others say the outcome illustrates why Republican candidates need to do more than vie for Trump’s endorsement. While the former president’s support can help influence Republican primary voters, they argue, it’s up to candidates to sell the party faithful on other reasons why they’re the best option — especially in a world where most Republicans are portraying themselves as Trump Republicans.
“Trump’s endorsement is significant, but it does not automatically determine who will win a primary,” Heye said. “Trump-backed candidates have lost before, and they’ll lose again.”