Campaign reporters react slowly when unorthodox candidates upend the verities of politics. The rise of Donald Trump and the unexpected appeal of Bernie Sanders in 2016 are prime illustrations of the tendency by the press corps to assume that every election resembles the prior one.
But the media can be equally slow to recognize that the emperor has no clothes. Although it is too soon to know for sure—and hope can cloud judgment—a case can be made that Trump (yes, the All-Powerful Donald J. Trump) is beginning to lose cachet among Republican primary voters—even if his views have been embraced by the candidates running in 2022.
Tuesday’s Georgia Republican primaries will almost certainly help demystify Trump. His favorite target—incumbent GOP Governor Brian Kemp—is cruising to a double-digit victory over Trump’s anointed challenger, former Senator David Perdue. In every poll since early April, Kemp has crossed the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Even more than Kemp, Brad Raffensperger should be doomed if the GOP was still fully entranced by Trump. The Georgia secretary of state, an otherwise orthodox Republican, held firm during Trump’s infamous phone call “to find 11,780 votes” and overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state. While polling for his race has been scarce, Raffensperger is likely to run strongly enough to head into a June 15 runoff against Trump’s chosen candidate and stolen-election zealot, U.S. Representative Jody Hice.
What is equally telling is that leading Republican officials in Georgia—now the ultimate swing state—have almost all endorsed Kemp despite Trump’s rage at the governor. As Patricia Murphy, the political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently noted, “There was a time in Georgia when Republicans were too scared of Trump’s retribution to do anything that might anger him. In the race for governor, at least, those days are over.”
While reporters are obsessively keeping track of Trump’s batting average with his endorsements in GOP primaries, they have, for the most part, missed a consistent pattern in these Trumpified races. Candidates who have received the official hands-on blessing from Mar-a-Lago tend to be limited to around one-third of the vote. That can sometimes result in a plurality that will propel someone to the general election in a crowded primary race but isn’t exactly evidence of a resounding victory.
J.D. Vance won his Ohio Senate primary with 32 percent. In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor, is locked in a still-undecided Senate race with 31 percent. Janice McGeachin, whom Trump endorsed for governor, was walloped in the Idaho primary by incumbent Brad Little. McGeachin limped home with 32 percent of the vote. Madison Cawthorn, who is unlikely to be invited to a congressional orgy ever again, lost his North Carolina House primary with (wait for it) 32 percent of the vote. And two recent Georgia polls put Perdue at 30 and 28 percent.
Maybe these numbers are a coincidence. And it is true that in some of these races—particularly the Ohio Senate primary—almost all the major candidates vied to come across as Trump-can-walk-on-water zealots. One more caveat: Without the Trump endorsement, it is hard to imagine that Cawthorn (who may have set the all-time first-term congressional record for scandal) would have even won one-fifth of the vote for election.
But there are also hints that the Republican romance with the defrocked president has its limits. A surprisingly high 43 percent of Republicans in an early May NBC News poll said it was time to look forward to a new party leader rather than Trump. This fits with a late-April Washington Post-ABC News poll that found that 34 percent of self-identified Republicans believed that the GOP should not follow Trump’s lead in the future. In similar fashion, only 44 percent of Republican voters in a new CBS News poll want to make Trump’s favorite cause—refighting the 2020 election—a key issue. This below-the-surface Trump skepticism is an echo of 2016. It’s easily forgotten that the reality TV star became the de facto GOP nominee after he had won only about 40 percent of the delegates. And even that figure was inflated by the Republican love of winner-take-all primaries to artificially create an early decision.
The current glimmers of dissent among the Republican rank and file tend to be overshadowed by the religious passion with which most Republican officeholders genuflect in Trump’s direction. When the forty-fifth president endorsed her opponent in the South Carolina primary, Representative Nancy Mace filmed a video in front of Trump Tower in New York proclaiming her abject loyalty. A New York Times study revealed that almost half of Republican legislators in nine swing states have tried to overturn aspects of the 2020 election. And in Pennsylvania, Douglas Mastriano—who plotted to have the state legislature overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory—romped home in the May 17 Republican gubernatorial primary with 44 percent of the vote. True, Trump did endorse Mastriano, but only on the eve of the primary, when his victory was all but assured.
None of this is to deny the Republican lurch to the extreme right and the wild popularity of conspiracy theories and nutcase politics. It is telling that 66 percent of Republicans, in a new Gallup Poll, believe that the pandemic is over, even as Covid cases are climbing. But there is a difference between the Republican contagion of Trumpian beliefs and a passion for another Trump term in the White House.
Politics is almost invariably about the future. But Trump—who will never psychologically accept defeat—is permanently mired in November 2020. As the Georgia primaries are likely to demonstrate, sometimes the circus moves on and the chief clown is left behind where the big top used to stand.