Comment: What Trump’s election scorecard says about GOP voters

His mixed record on primary endorsements means GOP voters aren’t zombies, but Trumpism isn’t dead.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

Let’s be clear about the lessons that can be drawn so far from this year’s Republican midterm primary elections: Republican voters are not behaving like zombies who automatically do what former President Donald Trump tells them to do.

With Pennsylvania, Idaho and North Carolina speaking on Tuesday, a strong pattern regarding candidates endorsed by Trump has emerged.

• In Ohio on May 3, J.D. Vance won the Senate nomination with 31 percent of the vote.

• In Nebraska a week later, Charles Herbster lost the gubernatorial nomination with 29 percent of the vote.

• In Pennsylvania this week, Mehmet Oz has 31 percent of the vote in a Senate primary that’s still too close to call.

• And in Idaho, also this week, Janice McGeachin lost the nomination for governor with around 29 percent of the vote.

Trump’s endorsed candidates did better in two other contests. In North Carolina, Ted Budd won the Senate primary with almost 60 percent of the vote, but experts attributed that more to heavy spending from the conservative Club for Growth than to Trump’s endorsement, which was one of many for Budd. And Trump jumped very late onto the bandwagon of gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, but I doubt many will attribute much of his 44 percent showing to the last-minute endorsement.

On the other hand, while many House incumbents Trump endorsed won easily, as incumbents almost always do in primary elections, one of them lost: North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn, with 32 percent of the vote.

Win or lose, then, Trump’s candidates are winning about a third of the vote. That’s not nothing, but it does mean that two-thirds of Republican primary voters are either ignoring or opposing his wishes.

Trump’s real effect is surely smaller than that. Yes, there’s a good chance Vance would have wound up as a single-digit also-ran without the endorsement. But McGeachin is lieutenant governor of Idaho and the radical portion of the party that backed her challenge to sitting Gov. Brad Little is strong in that state; it seems likely that Trump added very little there. Surely Oz’s fame as a celebrity TV doctor would have won him some votes in Pennsylvania, Trump or no Trump.

There’s more to the story of Trump’s influence than the fact that most Republican voters ignore or oppose his endorsement. But I’ll disagree with elections analyst Nathan Gonzalez, who tweeted on Wednesday, “This is still Trump’s GOP whether his endorsed candidates win or not.”

I think political scientist Nadia Brown is closer to the mark in her comment about Pennsylvania: “The hot takes will all be about Trump & his influence. I’m so over this angle of reporting. Trump is the kingmaker because everything he does is covered & less attention is paid to the candidate.”

What I’d add is that party actors — the Club for Growth, big individual funders such as the Silicon Valley billionaire and Vance backer Peter Thiel, politicians with local clout such as Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, a big player in Cawthorn’s defeat, and most of all Republican-aligned media such as Fox News and talk radio hosts — are probably a much bigger story in terms of actually moving votes than Trump is.

Moreover, while it’s convenient to slap the Trumpism label on the radicalism of the dominant coalition within the party, it’s far from clear that Trump has much say in what Trumpism actually means. Sure, he’s successfully pushed candidates to talk about fictional fraud in the 2020 election, but Republicans were obsessed with fictional voter fraud long before Trump began his 2016 campaign, and resentment has been a winning theme in Republican politics far longer than that.

So when the Washington Post’s Annie Linskey says that “Trumpism is having a better record than Trump himself tonight,” I’d say that the strain of the party that emerges as Trumpism or Tea Partyism or Gingrichism or Nixonism or McCarthyism — and yes, there are differences among those incarnations of right-wing radicalism but it’s not hard to see continuity as well — is particularly dominant within the party now, but it just doesn’t have all that much to do with Trump.

None of which is to dismiss Trump as a major player in Republican politics. His endorsement may not be treated as holy writ, but it doesn’t have to be to make a difference in close primaries. He’s popular among Republican voters. He may well win the party’s presidential nomination in 2024. He’s probably the single Republican most able to focus resentment and grievance. And should he regain the presidency, he remains dangerous to democracy precisely because he’s so bad at normal politics, not to mention unusually contemptuous of the rule of law.

But the Republican Party was dysfunctional before Trump joined it, and if he decided tomorrow to quit politics, the party would still be dysfunctional and a threat to U.S. democracy. So while these primary results will have some diminishing effect on Trump’s clout within the party, and that’s important too, do not imagine that today’s Republican Party will become anything like the one led by Ronald Reagan or Bob Dole or Howard Baker, regardless of what happens in the rest of this year’s primaries.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, July 3

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Junelle Lewis, right, daughter Tamara Grigsby and son Jayden Hill sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Monroe’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Happy Independence Days, America

Linked by history and promise, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July should be celebrated together.

Comment: America’s 250th offers opportunity to look forward

The bicentennial in 1976 focused on America’s history. We can use the ‘semiquin’ in 2026 to look ahead.

Downtown Everett perfect location for Sorticulture

I was at Sorticulture this year and what a great turnout (“Sorticulture,… Continue reading

No way to treat Lady Justice

Dear Lady Justice, your blindfold seems to be slipping down. Sir, my… Continue reading

Saunders: U.S. policy luring people to risky border crossing

Providing amnesty to those who have previously crossed illegally will only lead to more deaths.

FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2016 file photo, a man fishes for salmon in the Snake River above the Lower Granite Dam in Washington state. Three Republican U.S. House members from Washington state are criticizing Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., for opposing their legislation that would prevent the breaching of four dams on the Snake River to help improve endangered salmon runs. (Jesse Tinsley /The Spokesman-Review via AP, File)
Editorial: Waiting could force bad choice on dams, salmon

Work should begin now to begin replacing what four dams on the Snake River provide.

Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school's football field. After losing his coaching job for refusing to stop kneeling in prayer with players and spectators on the field immediately after football games, Kennedy will take his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 25, 2022, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying at midfield after games. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Editorial: Court majority weakens church, state separation

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision does more to hurt religious liberty than protect a coach’s prayer.

A pregnant protester is pictured with a message on her shirt in support of abortion rights during a march, Friday, June 24, 2022, in Seattle. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion has cleared the way for states to impose bans and restrictions on abortion — and will set off a series of legal battles. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Editorial: Court’s decision a subtraction from our rights

Using a cherry-picked history, it limits the rights of women and will extend the reach of poverty.

Most Read