Trump playing a big roll in runoff races


Loyalty to President Donald Trump has defined Republican primaries since 2016. So when he chooses sides in intraparty contests, it can make a difference.

Trump-backed candidates have been overwhelmingly successful in their primaries this year. So far 82 candidates with a presidential endorsement have won their party’s nomination, according to the Trump campaign. Many are also incumbents, who often have advantages in fundraising and name recognition.

It’s not a perfect record. In the last month, Trump-backed GOP Reps. Scott Tipton of Colorado and Denver Riggleman of Virginia failed to get their party’s nod for reelection. And North Carolina Republicans rejected Linda Bennett, Trump’s choice for the seat formerly held by his chief of staff.

But the people who won those nominations all argued they were bigger Trump supporters, and Republican strategists say the president’s endorsement still carries significant weight, especially in races with potentially lower turnout such as Tuesday’s primary runoffs for two House districts in Texas and for Senate in Alabama. Trump has a personal connection to two of those races, making next week a key test of whether the value of his support has diminished.

His campaign does not think so.

“As we’ve seen in countless races this cycle, including the upcoming GOP runoffs in Alabama and Texas, an endorsement from President Trump brings unmatched enthusiasm for the candidates and this President’s successful America First agenda,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said in a statement.

David McIntosh, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, noted that in a recent Texas primary in which the club endorsed a challenger to longtime GOP Rep. Kay Granger, the group’s polling found that some voters said they were backing the incumbent because of Trump’s endorsement. Granger won handily.

“Republican voters were saying, ‘Well, I need to be loyal to President Trump. I’ll vote for the person he’s endorsed,’” McIntosh said. “And I think that is the sentiment that’s out there now.”

Taking sides

One of the races where Trump has a more personal stake is in Texas’ 13th District, where he endorsed Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician. Jackson was once Trump’s nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, but he withdrew from consideration amid allegations that he abused alcohol and mishandled prescription drugs. Jackson called the charges “completely false and fabricated.”

Now, he’s running in the open 13th District in the deep-red Texas Panhandle. Multiple Republicans said Trump’s tweet supporting Jackson a few days before the March primary helped him advance to the runoff.

Jackson has since revamped his campaign team, and Trump followed up in May with an endorsement. During the runoff, Jackson has touted his close personal relationship with the president, saying at a recent debate, “I will be … the only freshman congressman that can walk into the Oval Office unannounced and tell the president of the United States, ‘Sir, I’ve got something I got to make you aware of.’ And he will stop what he’s doing and listen.”

In the runoff, Jackson faces Josh Winegarner, a lobbyist for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, who has the endorsement of retiring Republican incumbent Mac Thornberry and a slew of other local officials. Winegarner spokesman Craig Murphy said the candidate has an advantage among voters who want someone well-versed on issues affecting the district.

“They want somebody in the room who understands agriculture and, without having to make a phone call back to an expert, will know the impact of various policy ideas and that’s what Winegarner offers,” Murphy said. “That’s why I think you’ve seen unanimously all the local elected officials be with Winegarner.” 

But Murphy acknowledged the race is expected to be close, and credited Jackson’s recent fundraising to Trump's endorsement.

Last week, Trump took sides in another Texas runoff in the competitive 23rd District along the Mexican border, where GOP Rep. Will Hurd is retiring. Trump endorsed Navy veteran Tony Gonzales, who is also backed by Hurd and other prominent Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Gonzales is running against Air Force veteran Raul Reyes, who recently earned the endorsement of Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

And in Alabama, Trump endorsed former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville shortly after he and Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, secured runoff spots for the GOP Senate nomination in March. Trump has made clear his disdain for Sessions, who recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Sessions is seeking to retake the seat he held when he was the first senator to endorse Trump in 2016, and he has compared himself to the challengers who have recently defeated Trump-backed candidates.

“The challengers were stronger advocates of the Trump agenda than the incumbents, and the challengers won,” Sessions said at an event Monday, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.

But McIntosh said the Trump-backed candidates who lost can’t be compared to next week’s runoffs because those candidates were facing “heavily local concerns.”

Rallying the base

The president’s decision to endorse Tuberville did play into the Club for Growth’s decision to support the former football coach as well. Club for Growth Action and Club for Growth PAC have spent a combined $598,000 so far backing Tuberville.

The club also endorsed Jackson after supporting a different candidate in the primary. And it found that Trump’s endorsement did move voters in the 13th District. In mid-May, a club poll found that a third of likely GOP voters knew Trump had endorsed Jackson, and 36 percent of those surveyed backed Jackson while 47 percent backed Winegarner.

After the group ran an ad noting Trump’s endorsement, nearly 70 percent of the 400 likely GOP voters surveyed in mid-June were aware that the president was backing Jackson. Forty-nine percent supported Jackson, while 41 percent backed Winegarner.

Campaigns can see a fundraising bump when Trump tweets links to their candidate pages on WinRed, the GOP fundraising platform. All three of Trump’s preferred candidates outraised their runoff opponents in the pre-runoff fundraising period from April 1 through June 24.

But rallying Trump supporters is the main benefit of his endorsement, said Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak, who is working with Gonzales.

“For people who may either not know anything about either candidate, or may know a little bit about both and have maybe not made up their mind, I think it can push people in one direction,” Mackowiak said.

In a matter of days over the recent holiday weekend, Gonzales’ campaign turned around a TV ad highlighting the endorsement, launching it this week while early voting is underway.

Mackowiak said Trump’s endorsement can also help neutralize attacks from Reyes that tied Gonzales to Hurd, who has occasionally criticized the president. A spokesman for Reyes disagreed.

“People don’t just necessarily blindly follow because someone’s endorsed a candidate," spokesman Phil Ricks said. Reyes had originally been challenging Hurd in a primary before Hurd decided to retire.

If Trump’s preferred candidates win, that could pay off for the president, McIntosh noted.

“In the end, it will pay dividends when he’s got people there that know they got elected because of him and will help him pass his agenda next year,” McIntosh said.

That’s especially true in the Alabama Senate contest and in Texas’ 13th District, where the GOP nominees are favored to win in November. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Alabama race, where Democratic incumbent Doug Jones is seeking reelection, Lean Republican. The 13th District race is rated Solid Republican.

The eventual Republican nominee faces a much tougher race in Texas’ 23rd District. Being tied to the president in that district could hurt the GOP candidate, since Trump lost the seat by 3 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race Lean Democratic.

But to reach that general election, Republicans first have to get past the primary, where Trump’s backing can be crucial to winning over the party’s base of supporters.

“It’s the single most important endorsement you can have,” Mackowiak said. 

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