Almost since the moment of his inauguration, former President Donald Trump has been the kingmaker of the Republican Party. In both the 2018 and 2020 elections, Trump-endorsed candidates won almost every Republican primary they competed in. (Of course, many of Trump’s endorsees were already well on their way to victory, but it was still a hot commodity among candidates, serving as evidence of their pro-Trump bona fides. And in several cases, Trump’s support really did appear to influence the outcomes of primaries.)
Now that Trump is no longer president, however, one of the big questions of the 2022 midterms is what degree of influence he still wields within his party. We won’t really know the answer to that question until next year’s elections get going in earnest. But one thing we already know is that Trump’s endorsement strategy looks pretty different from when he was in office. Here are three patterns we’ve noticed so far:
1. He’s endorsing earlier than usual
First, Trump is endorsing more candidates earlier. So far in the 2022 midterm cycle (as of Dec. 7), he has endorsed 46 candidates in Republican primaries to fill roles in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and state governorships. That’s more than three times the number of candidates Trump had endorsed by the end of December 2019.
The fact that Trump is endorsing earlier could do a couple of things: One, it could dissuade other Republican challengers when Trump isn’t endorsing them — more on that in a bit — and two, it helps Trump solidify his influence in the party.
On that first point, consider that Trump endorsed Sen. John Kennedy, one of the former president’s top allies, for reelection to his Louisiana Senate seat back in March — 20 months ahead of the state’s November 2022 jungle primary. No Republican has announced their intention of challenging Kennedy, and Trump’s endorsement could keep it that way. Even in crowded fields like the North Carolina Senate race, Trump’s early endorsement of Rep. Ted Budd could signal to the former president’s supporters who the most Trump-aligned candidate is and stop other candidates from gaining traction.
But perhaps most importantly, with Trump no longer in office, his early endorsements are the biggest signal that he has no intention of leaving politics anytime soon. And with recent polling suggesting that Republican voters want Trump to maintain a major role in politics, endorsements could be a key way for him to keep his base engaged.
2. He’s taking more risks with his endorsements
A big reason why Trump-endorsed primary candidates have had such stellar records is that most of them were already heavily favored to win their elections. For example, in the 2020 election, Trump endorsed 113 candidates in GOP primaries for Senate, House and governor — but 21 of them ran completely unopposed, and another 67 were incumbents (who rarely lose renomination). That means Trump endorsed only 25 non-incumbents in contested Republican primaries for those three offices. In other words, only about 22 percent of his 2020 primary endorsements were actually risky.1
So far in the 2022 elections, however, Trump has endorsed 21 non-incumbents in contested Republican primaries for these offices — 46 percent of his total endorsements.
|Sarah Huckabee Sanders||Arkansas||Governor|
|Anna Paulina Luna||Florida||House|
|Virginia Foxx||North Carolina||House||✓|
|Ted Budd||North Carolina||Senate|
|Henry McMaster||South Carolina||Governor||✓|
|Tim Scott||South Carolina||Senate||✓|
|Alex Mooney||West Virginia||House||✓||✓|
|Derrick Van Orden||Wisconsin||House|
What’s more, Trump has actively tried to unseat 10 incumbent members of his own party: He has endorsed primary challengers to Rep. Liz Cheney, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Rep. David McKinley,2 Rep. Peter Meijer, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Fred Upton, and he also endorsed challengers to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez — before both announced they would not seek reelection (decisions that may have been influenced by Trump’s opposition). Opposing the reelection of an incumbent from your own party is quite rare, even for Trump. In 2018 and 2020 combined, Trump endorsed only two candidates who were challenging incumbents: Katie Arrington against Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Kris Kobach against Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer.
These two facts suggest a clear shift in Trump’s endorsement strategy: Instead of trying to pad his win rate by endorsing in a bunch of uncompetitive primaries, he is actively putting his clout on the line more often in hopes of installing more of his loyalists in Congress and governor’s offices — and purging the GOP of his critics. Cheney, Gonzalez, Herrera Beutler, Meijer and Upton all voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, while Murkowski voted to convict him. Baker, Kemp and Little, as governors, played no role in Trump’s impeachment, but Baker did express support for it, and Kemp earned Trump’s wrath for certifying President Biden’s win in Georgia.
3. He’s endorsing down-ballot candidates, especially in election-administration roles
Finally, not only is Trump endorsing earlier in national races, but he’s also backing candidates in state-level elections, particularly for secretary of state.
Trump has endorsed candidates for secretary of state — a state’s top election official — in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan. This is an unusually niche endorsement for a president to make; Trump didn’t endorse in any secretary of state primaries in 2018, for instance. But the logic here is clear: These three secretaries of state in question refused to overturn the 2020 presidential result in their states, and Trump is now attempting to fill these positions with officials who baselessly think the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
The candidates Trump is backing for these offices are all supporters of the “Big Lie,” or Trump’s unfounded claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election. For instance, Georgia Rep. Jody Hice, the Trump-backed secretary of state candidate, believes the 2020 election was unfair and voted against certifying the election. It’s a similar story in Arizona, where Mark Finchem, a current state representative, has continued to call for the decertification of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County. And finally, in Michigan, Kristina Karamo claimed that as a poll challenger she saw fraud during the state’s absentee ballot counting in the 2020 election.
Related: What 2021’s Biggest Upset Elections Tell Us About The Losing Parties Read more. »
Taken together, Trump’s endorsements so far paint a picture of an ex-president who is eager to maintain his influence within his party — perhaps even paving the way for the (possibly illegitimate) continuation of his own political career. By endorsing early, he’s trying to fill a power vacuum at the head of the GOP caused by his own loss in the 2020 election. And by endorsing in more competitive races, he’s also taking a more active role in ensuring that the direction of the Republican Party remains a Trumpy one. Finally, by trying to replace his critics with those who support the Big Lie, he is trying to create a scenario where a Republican-controlled state government or Congress might refuse to certify a Democratic victory in the 2024 election, potentially returning him to the White House despite losing the election. Such a scenario would trigger a constitutional crisis — but, of course, Trump’s endorsees will first have to win their elections to make this possible. Be sure to stick with us throughout the primary season as we once again track the success rate of Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primaries.
CORRECTION (Dec. 8, 2021, 11:50 a.m.): An earlier version of this article said that for the 2022 midterm cycle, former President Donald Trump had endorsed 31 candidates in Republican primaries to fill roles in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and state governorships so far. In fact, he has endorsed 46 candidates. The story and the charts have been updated to reflect his endorsements of Greg Abbott, Gus Bilirakis, John Carter, Dan Cox, Pat Fallon, Chuck Fleischmann, John Gibbs, Paul Gosar, Charles Herbster, Michael McCaul, Janice McGeachin, Alex Mooney, August Pfluger, Matt Rosendale and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.