The public and punditry forget that the GOP nomination for Trump was a close-run thing in 2016. As much as Trump tapped into a latent populist fervor, the fractured field handed him critical victories. Hopeless candidates John Kasich and Jeb Bush said they wanted to stop Trump, but their refusal to quit revealed that their real priority was their own desperate need to be in the public spotlight.
The combined vote of Kasich and Bush was the difference for Trump in critical South Carolina. At least Bush got the hint. Kasich stayed in the primaries for weeks in a self-indulgent, ego-driven campaign where his vote totals were the difference between Trump winning and losing in nine states, including Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Virginia.
For Trump, 2022 has been a repeat, with his candidates eking out wins in crowded fields where the Trump imprimatur pushes a critical slice of votes. But the May 17 primaries are showing more cracks in the Trump façade and are storing up trouble for the fall.
The spotlight was on Pennsylvania, with Trump putting a lot on the line for TV doctor Mehmet Oz. Before the Trump endorsement, Oz was running behind David McCormick at 21 percent to McCormick’s 27 percent. With mail-in ballots yet to be counted, Oz leads McCormick by a razor-thin 31.3 percent to 31.1 percent. Unlike Ohio, where Trump was mostly positive toward J.D. Vance, Trump went on the attack against McCormick and third-place finisher Kathy Barnette. Yet Trump only moved the vote 10-points.
A win is a win, but an Oz win is hardly a ringing endorsement of Trump.
The Pennsylvania governor’s race was a clearer — if qualified — victory for Trump. State Sen. Doug Mastriano was running well ahead of the field with a 29 percent to 17 percent advantage in the Fox News poll and a 42 percent to 24 percent lead in the Emerson poll over former Congressman Lou Barletta just before Trump jumped on the bandwagon. But in the weeks leading up to Trump’s endorsement, Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro was running ads promoting Mastriano as the Trump candidate — which is the one great skill the Democrats have, gaming Republican primaries.
Meanwhile the rest of the GOP field was a weak squabbling mass of Kasichs. Barletta fundraised next to nothing and ran a directionless campaign. Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain was the best-funded candidate, with millions from investor Jeff Yass. Why Yass chose to put his checkbook behind a man who had never been on the ballot and was polling at 1 percent is inexplicable.
In the last week, with GOP leaders panicked at the prospect of Mastriano; there were late and mostly futile efforts toward Barletta, but it was far too little and far too late to prevent the Democrats’ preferred Republican to get the nod.
Storm clouds gathering for Trump
Away from Pennsylvania, Trump had a harder time. North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn lost to State Senator Chuck Edwards in spite of a late Trump endorsement and a seven-challenger field. With a final total of just under 32 percent, it looks like Trump had zero effect — except to anger both the potential new Congressman and the state’s senior U.S. Senator Thom Tillis. Trump’s other wins in North Carolina were not much. Bo Hines sneaked through a crowded field with 31 percent of the vote for the GOP nomination to a U.S. House seat. Ted Budd did win a solid victory for the nomination to U.S. Senate, but Pat McCrory’s candidacy had been imploding for months.
Dangerously for Trump, his candidates are having a difficult time in competitive races getting over a third of the vote. Ominously, in the only primary with just two legitimate candidates, incumbent Idaho Gov. Brad Little crushed Trump-endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin by over 20 points.
The scorecard for Trump in high-profile, competitive races is not good. Trump’s best total was Mastriano at 44 percent, and he was just jumping on the bandwagon. His other totals are 32.2 percent for J.D. Vance in Ohio, 31.3 percent (but perhaps not the win) for Oz, 32.9 percent for Hines, 31.9 percent for Cawthorn (lost) and 30.2 percent for Herbster in Nebraska (also lost).
But what makes the Pennsylvania primary a severe problem for Trump is the future. Trump has a lot riding on Mastriano and Oz (should he win). The consensus is that Mastriano will require a huge Republican tsunami to make it through. And Oz will not have an easy time with his 46 percent negative rating just among Republicans.
Trump’s own behavior in the race is damaging. Trump would not even give the most MAGA of candidates, Kathy Barnette, the time of day. After a rude onslaught of attacks by Trump and his surrogates, Barnette declared she would not back Oz in the general and threw a few barbs at Trump. The McCormick team, which includes former Trump White House general counsel Jim Schultz and uber-Trump insider David Urban, cannot be pleased he kicked them to the curb for a New Jersey TV personality.
The Trump mystique and power is built on winning. For Trump, he has to win every day, and he does not think about future consequences. He has been able to clean up when factionalism and ego rule the day. But November will feature one-on-one races, not multi-way fields. Based on history, current polling, and Biden administration fumbling, Republicans are likely to have a good election day. However, high profile Senate and governor races have a habit of going their own way. Trump’s picks need to work out in the fall — or he will be in for a fall of his own.