Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Conversation surrounding the Republican primaries has been dominated by assessing the effect a Donald Trump endorsement has on the race. I speak with political reporters nearly every day about these races, and it seems that nearly everything is filtered through an “All Things Trump” prism.
If a Trump-backed candidate wins, it’s presented as a “big win” for the former President. That’s how many viewed J.D. Vance’s victory in the GOP Senate primary in Ohio.
If a Trump-backed candidate loses, on the other hand, it’s seen as a stinging rebuke.
But the results so far actually reveal a different story – and suggest it’s time to stop viewing Trump as a bellwether of all things about the GOP.
Trump’s endorsement certainly gave Vance’s then-flagging campaign a boost – as did millions in outside spending by Peter Thiel – but if you look past the reporting and the money, only 32% of Ohio Republicans voted for Vance. Or, looked at another way, 68% of Ohio Republicans were apparently unswayed by Trump’s endorsement.
And in North Carolina Tuesday night, Trump-endorsed, beleaguered Congressman Madison Cawthorn not only lost the primary, but gained just under 32% of the vote – as an incumbent. Indeed, 68% of Republicans in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District rejected a last-minute, doubling-down, “Let’s give Madison a second chance” plea from Trump.
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, the Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz is locked in a still-too-close-to-call race with David McCormick, whom Trump attacked at a Pennsylvania rally earlier this month. The race seems likely headed to an automatic recount, but regardless of its outcome, the sum of Republicans who chose not to vote for Trump’s chosen candidate will tell a compelling story.
Whether they result in a win, a loss or a race that’s too close to call, the numbers for Vance, Cawthorn and Oz paint a strikingly similar picture, one that suggests two things: 1) the size of the Trump base among GOP primary voters is consistent, but small and 2) Trump’s endorsement, while helpful, is nowhere near being a golden ticket.
Indeed, the “Trump bump” that comes with an endorsement has never guaranteed any candidate to be the favorite. These three candidates are nowhere near 50% support among GOP primary voters. In in the case of Dr. Oz, some Republicans loudly protested Trump’s endorsement, while in Alabama, Trump’s endorsement of Congressman Mo Brooks had so little effect, that Trump took it back.
Trump-backed Senate candidate Ted Budd did win Tuesday’s primary in North Carolina with just over 58%. But Trump’s endorsement of Budd last summer did not fundamentally alter the race at the time. Budd’s advantage came after a long campaign, during which Budd faced uninspired opposition and the Club for Growth (a sometimes Trump rival) put in millions in pro-Budd spending. Many North Carolina political operatives, including this one, thought the race was Budd’s to lose well before the Trump endorsement.
Budd’s victory demonstrated the importance of having quality candidates and of running a good campaign. It’s why in Georgia, incumbent Governor Brian Kemp is expected to easily defeat the Trump-endorsed former US Senator David Perdue next week. And it affirmed that election rules – voter thresholds, open or closed primaries, early and absentee voting – might not fit into a tidy, viewer-friendly narrative, but matter enormously.
As a Budd campaign official told me earlier this month, a Trump endorsement opens the door to GOP primary voters, but it doesn’t seal the deal. In other words, the candidates and the campaigns have to win it on their own.
The media may continue posting Trump-based scorecards like a Preakness Stakes tip sheet. Looking at these candidates, all of whom on some level campaigned as Trump supporters, tells us that, regardless of endorsement, Trumpism isn’t going anywhere in the Republican Party.
How we focus our party on a future that isn’t defined by Trump is a more important, and more challenging, story to tell. And it’s one that won’t be told as long as we collectively have Trump on the brain.