2022 midterms

Trump’s Midterms Endorsements Are Beginning to Go Awry

Trump’s expressions of admiration for Senate candidate Katie Britt of Alabama are undermining his earlier endorsement of Mo Brooks. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

With primary-election season now under way, Donald Trump’s strategy of aggressive intervention in the 2022 midterms via candidate endorsements is finally being tested. Unsurprisingly, the former president is boasting of a 100 percent win ratio for “his” candidates in the March 1 Texas Republican primaries. Most of them, however, were unopposed or heavy front-runners; his marquee endorsee in a competitive statewide race, Attorney General Ken Paxton, faces a runoff with George P. Bush that could go either way.

Elsewhere Trump is beginning to get some blowback from his supporters for making endorsements in primary contests where most or all of the candidates are MAGA enthusiasts. This is particularly evident in the Fifth Congressional District of Tennessee, which is smack-dab in the middle of one of the Trumpiest parts of the country. In January, Trump shocked locals by pre-endorsing former Fox News personality and State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, who had just moved to the state and didn’t live in the district and hadn’t even announced her candidacy (she subsequently did). Now local Republican officials are retaliating despite the risk of incurring the Boss’s displeasure, as NBC News reports:

[Trump’s endorsement] has irked some state and local Republicans enough to mount a significant challenge to her candidacy — and the backlash may soon come to a head as the April 7 deadline to qualify nears. Legislation that would require congressional candidates to live in the state for three years to qualify for primary ballots sailed through the state Senate, while insiders familiar with the process also said they expect her candidacy to soon be challenged before the state GOP’s executive committee.

In the fine print of the state GOP’s bylaws, it says Republican candidates are required to have voted in three of the last four party primaries. If the legislation to disqualify Ortagus fails, backers of other Fifth District candidates may instead seek to enforce this rule to exclude her from the race. If they do, they could knock candidate Robby Starbuck, a Cuban-American movie director from California, out of the primary as well.

Backers of more locally rooted if less flashy candidates, like former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, would be happy to eliminate both transplants from the race. But nobody wants to offend Trump. One legislator backing Harwell, who disparaged Ortagus in an interview with NBC, hastened to emphasize his love for the ex-president. “I’ve got a Trump hat on right now!” he said.

In Alabama, the second-guessing about a Trump endorsement seems to be coming from … Trump himself. Nearly a year ago, the former president endorsed one of his staunchest congressional allies, Representative Mo Brooks, for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Richard Shelby. But more recently Trump has gone out of his way to express friendship and admiration for Brooks’s most formidable opponent, former Shelby chief of staff Katie Britt.

Trump got interested in Britt after a conversation with his buddy New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who once coached Britt’s husband, Wesley Britt, according to CNN. Soon Trump and Katie Britt were chit-chatting by phone, and suddenly she was at Mar-a-Lago for a face-to-face meeting, an event that was in itself legal tender in Alabama politics and probably shocked Mo Brooks. Britt came away with a vague but valuable assurance from Trump that he would find some way to assist her candidacy or would at least speak positively of her.

In assessing this development, you have to appreciate that Brooks has been to hell and back with Trump. He was the first — and for a while the only — member of Congress to pledge to fight Joe Biden’s confirmation as president-elect during the (usually) pro forma joint session to count electoral votes on January 6, 2021. On that day, Brooks was one of the opening speakers at Trump’s “Save America” rally, ranting about the need for Trump supporters to “kick ass” and put their lives on the line to stop Biden from becoming president. He is the deranged voice of the hard-core MAGA base.

Britt, meanwhile, is someone Trump should regard as a deadly creature of the Swamp. As top aide to Senator Shelby, the former chairman (and now ranking minority member) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she was at the center of the big-spending, influence-peddling machine that MAGA “populists” are supposed to revile. And then she went back home to run the Business Council of Alabama, the state’s leading corporate lobby. Sure, like every other Alabama Republican, she pledged allegiance to Trump. But there’s no way she could be compared to Brooks as a warrior in the vengeful pursuit of socialists and RINOs, and the faithful may be wondering what their leader is thinking.

A third Trump endorsement hasn’t backfired just yet, but the early signs are bad. Career Democrat Vernon Jones, a veteran Black politician from an inner suburb of Atlanta, got a lot of media attention for abruptly endorsing Trump’s reelection, then switching parties. After parading around Georgia with Trump during the extended effort to overturn Biden’s win in the Peach State, Jones jumped into the 2022 governor’s race, challenging incumbent and Trump bête noire Brian Kemp. Ultimately Trump convinced a far more formidable candidate, former U.S. senator David Perdue, to challenge Kemp. Before too long, Jones pulled out of that race and leapt into a crowded primary for the open House seat in Georgia’s very Republican Tenth Congressional District, although he has never lived anywhere close to that mostly bucolic area. He got a quick endorsement from Trump, which must have been an unpleasant surprise to the candidates already in the race who were deeply engaged in a Trumpier-than-thou competition.

Probably the strongest among them, trucking executive Mike Collins (best known for driving around a big rig with the words TRUMP AGENDA emblazoned on the trailer), blithely asserts that Trump doesn’t really support Jones; he only gave him an endorsement to get him out of the governor’s race, in which he threatened to take votes away from Perdue. Accurate or not, the claim rings true to MAGA folk who don’t exactly view Jones as one of their own. He’s fine for owning the libs and all, but is a Black urban pol who once defended himself against a rape allegation by claiming he was engaged in a consensual three-way sexual encounter a good cultural fit for the sober white Evangelical Republican voters of the Tenth? In a big field, a Trump endorsement, sincere or not, is worth some votes, but Georgia’s majority-vote requirement likely means Jones for Congress — and the embarrassment to Trump it represents — will come to an abrupt end no later than a June runoff.

Perhaps Trump’s troubles in these races help explain why he has yet to make endorsements in the crucial Republican Senate primaries in Arizona, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In all of those primaries, there are multiple self-proclaimed MAGA champions. If he picks a candidate who subsequently fails, loser-cooties could rub off on him. And while Trump’s clumsy endorsements in Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia aren’t likely to produce Democratic wins in November, those Senate contests outside the South will be competitive. If the former president’s meddling results in a bad nominee, that will be risky business for the GOP. Trump is clearly more interested in demonstrating his own strength than aiding his party, but backing losers in races where Republicans are expected to win big would still be “sad,” as he likes to say.

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Trump’s Midterms Endorsements Are Beginning to Go Awry