Several statewide candidates owe everything to the 45th president. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
One of the recurring subplots of the recently completed Republican primary season has been Donald Trump’s effort to place his stamp on the GOP by endorsing candidates. It’s a waste of time to try to calculate his winning percentage because he padded the record by endorsing an awful lot of incumbents who were at no risk of losing. Generally speaking, he did pretty well with the exception of one really bad night in Georgia on May 24 when four of his endorsees lost (and a fifth lost in a June runoff).
But obviously the final tally will only be available after the general election on November 8. And in assessing Trump’s personal performance then, it’s appropriate to focus on the GOP nominees who would not have won their primaries without Trump’s backing. Picking and choosing them is necessarily a subjective exercise, but I’m limiting myself to candidates for Senate and governor who won close primaries with a very obvious boost from Trump and have a prayer of prevailing in the fall (that last qualification excludes gubernatorial nominees Darren Bailey of Illinois and Dan Cox of Maryland, among others). As it happens, all of these worthies are looking pretty shaky in terms of November, when their success or failure will reflect on their ex-presidential supporter. Let’s look at them by state:
If the primaries in the battleground state of Georgia represented a low point for Trump this year, Arizona may have represented peak MAGA with lots of 2020 election deniers winning nominations. One of Trump’s earliest endorsees there was former local TV anchor Kari Lake, who aims to succeed the not-so-Trumpy and term-limited Doug Ducey as governor. Though Trump didn’t execute a late intervention in this primary, there’s little doubt that without his backing Lake would not have survived a late and very well-funded surge by the GOP Establishment-backed rival Karrin Taylor Robson. Lake is now in a very competitive grudge match with Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of State and villain of all the Arizona election-theft fables. Lake is leading Dobbs by a single point in the RealClearPolitics polling average, but it’s worth noting all the pollsters publishing recent surveys in Arizona have reputations for producing happy numbers for Republicans.
Peter Thiel factotum Blake Masters won his primary by a more comfortable margin than Lake. But his much later Trump endorsement was a crushing, decisive blow against chief rival Jim Lamon, who ran on a pure MAGA platform. Masters, who has distinguished himself by some sneaky repositioning on abortion, has been running steadily a few points behind incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly, who has also led him in fundraising.
Though he was a lot better known nationally going into 2022 than his fellow Thiel beneficiary Blake Masters and had also enjoyed a lot of favorable attention from Tucker Carlson, best-selling author J.D. Vance almost certainly would not have emerged from a large pack of candidates to narrowly win a Senate nomination in Ohio if Trump hadn’t blessed him with a well-timed endorsement. Vance has something else going for him now that Masters can only envy: He’s running in a state that Trump easily carried twice. He clearly needs that advantage because Democrat Tim Ryan has been running circles around him on the campaign trail. Ryan has been reprising Sherrod Brown’s populist playbook on Vance, who despite his recent career in finance has struggled to raise money and isn’t exactly campaigning very effectively. But it’s Ohio, so Vance has maintained a narrow lead over Ryan in most polls. It would shock no one if Vance managed to lose. He’s worked at it.
Trump’s support was crucial for both the statewide nominees in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano would have probably been written off as an unelectable kook had not Trump lent him respectability. And Senate candidate Mehmet Oz won an extremely close Senate primary over early front-runner David McCormick after Trump surprised MAGA-land by backing the TV doctor with no real ideological profile (although Melania apparently liked him).
Mastriano is mostly famous as an outspoken 2020 election denier (he would supervise Pennsylvania elections if he wins) but has a host of extremist positions on many issues, particularly abortion. He’s also struggling to raise money against his well-positioned Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro. But in the polarizing atmosphere of 2022, he’s not that far behind Shapiro in the polls and is very close in some. If a pro-Republican breeze swells up in November, anything is possible.
Oz is less controversial but has also run a bumbling campaign up until very recently with odd lapses in campaigning and weird ads and videos, like his notorious screed on the cost of crudités. More recently, his contest with Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has predictably tightened, and Oz may have gotten traction by casting doubt on his opponent’s fitness for office given the stroke he suffered just prior to the primary. A lot may depend on their October debate.
Former football great Herschel Walker didn’t really need a Trump endorsement to win the May Senate primary in Georgia; his universal name ID and heroic image made that a virtual certainty from the get-go. But he belongs on the Team Trump roster anyway. Trump reportedly talked him into moving from Texas to his native Georgia to make the race. Beyond that, the Heisman Trophy winner literally did play on Trump’s team after leaving the University of Georgia, signing his first pro contract with the mogul’s USFL team, the New Jersey Generals. (They’ve been close ever since, with Walker appearing with Trump on Celebrity Apprentice.)
While Walker won his primary easily, his general-election fight with incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock has been a real struggle, punctuated by the Republican’s tendency to toss word salads along with regular revelations about his troubled background (some of it revealed by Walker himself in a 2008 memoir about his own mental illness; some of it dug up by reporters). The two candidates are very close in the polls, and if Walker manages to lose, Georgia really will be a cursed state for him in both 2020 and 2022.