• Mon. Sep 25th, 2023


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Primaries Show Limits, and Depths, of Trump’s Power Over G.O.P. Base

The tumultuous start to the Republican primary season, including a down-to-the-wire Senate race that divided conservatives in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, has shown how thoroughly Donald J. Trump has remade his party in his image — and the limits of his control over his creation.

In each of the most contentious primary races this month — including two closely watched contests next week in Alabama and Georgia — nearly every candidate has run a campaign modeled on the former president’s. Their websites and advertisements are filled with his images. They promote his policies, and many repeat his false claims about election fraud in 2020.

But Mr. Trump’s power over Republican voters has proved to be less commanding.

Candidates endorsed by Mr. Trump lost governor’s races in Idaho and Nebraska, and a House race in North Carolina. In Senate contests in Ohio (where his pick won earlier this month) and Pennsylvania (which remained too close to call Wednesday morning), roughly 70 percent of Republicans voted against his endorsement. In contests next week, his chosen candidates for Georgia governor and Alabama senator are trailing in polls.

Long known for being dialed into his voters, Mr. Trump increasingly appears to be chasing his supporters as much as marshaling them. Republican voters’ distrust of authority and appetite for hard-line politics — traits Mr. Trump once capitalized on — have worked against him. Some have come to see the president they elected to lead an insurgency as an establishment figure inside his own movement.

Trumpism is ascendant in the Republican Party, with or without Mr. Trump, said Ken Spain, a Republican strategist and former National Republican Congressional Committee official.

“The so-called MAGA movement is a bottom-up movement,” Mr. Spain said, “not one to be dictated from the top down.”

The primaries aren’t the first time conservative voters in Mr. Trump’s red-capped constituency have demonstrated their independence from the patriarch of the Make America Great Again movement.

In August, at one of Mr. Trump’s largest post-presidential campaign rallies, the crowd booed after he urged them to get vaccinated against Covid-19. In January, some of the most influential voices in Mr. Trump’s orbit openly criticized his pick for a House seat in Middle Tennessee, Morgan Ortagus — who had served in the Trump administration for two years as State Department spokeswoman but was deemed insufficiently MAGA.

These mini-rebellions have tended to flare up whenever Mr. Trump’s supporters view his directives or endorsements as not Trumpy enough.

“There’s no obvious heir apparent when it comes to America First — it’s still him,” said Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and White House counselor. “But people feel they can love him and intend to follow him into another presidential run — and not agree with all of his choices this year.”

Still, Republican candidates remain desperate to win Mr. Trump’s endorsement. In Georgia’s Senate race, Mr. Trump’s support for Herschel Walker kept serious rivals away. In some contested races, his endorsement has proved to be hugely influential, as it was in North Carolina’s Senate primary on Tuesday, where Representative Ted Budd cruised to victory against a former governor and a former congressman.

But the emergence of an autonomous wing of the MAGA movement — one that is more uncompromising than Mr. Trump — has allowed even candidates without Mr. Trump’s endorsement to claim the mantle.

“MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” Kathy Barnette said during a Pennsylvania Senate primary debate in April.

The late surge from Ms. Barnette, who portrayed herself as a higher-octane version of Mr. Trump, eroded support for Dr. Mehmet Oz, the longtime television personality whom Mr. Trump endorsed, from conservatives who questioned his political credentials. As a result, Mr. Oz was running neck-and-neck with David McCormick, the hedge fund executive who had withstood a flurry of criticism from Mr. Trump. Still, Mr. Oz held about one-third of the vote.

Outside Ms. Barnette’s election night party on Tuesday, Diante Johnson, a Republican activist and the founder and president of the Black Conservative Federation, said she was proud of how the conservative author and commentator fought against the party powers that be.

“The knife came to her and she didn’t back up,” Ms. Johnson said. “Every Trump establishment individual that came after her, she stood there and fought.”

Ms. Barnette’s rise stunned Mr. Trump, who never considered the possibility of endorsing her candidacy, advisers said.

But his base’s increasing autonomy should surprise no one.

As president, Mr. Trump governed in a constant state of concern about tending to his supporters. Even though he was elected in part as a deal-making political outsider — he had spent much of his adult life toggling between political parties — he rarely made a significant decision without considering how his base would react.

Those instincts prevented him from reaching a significant deal with Congress over immigration policy and fueled battles with Democratic leaders that led to repeated government shutdowns. His fear of appearing weak to his base voters drove his decision to not wear a mask in public for months into the pandemic.

While Mr. Trump has indicated he is inclined to run for president for a third time in 2024, some advisers said the volatile and intensely fought primaries have risked alienating some of his supporters.

Advisers have urged Mr. Trump to make amends with former primary rivals. But the former president hasn’t called Jim Pillen, the Republican nominee for governor in Nebraska who beat Mr. Trump’s preferred candidate, Charles W. Herbster. In Ohio, about 718,000 Republicans voted for someone other than the Trump-endorsed victor, J.D. Vance.

And there is plenty of dust still to settle.

In the Pennsylvania governor’s race, Mr. Trump backed Doug Mastriano last week over Lou Barletta, a former congressman who was an early supporter of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“Where in the hell is the loyalty?” said former Representative Tom Marino, another early Trump 2016 supporter, at a campaign rally last week.

“Loyalty to what?” Mr. Trump shot back in an interview on Monday. Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Barletta for losing a 2018 Senate bid and not fighting harder to back the former president’s bogus claims that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election.

“My loyalty is to a guy that was in there fighting,” Mr. Trump said. “And Mastriano was the guy that was fighting. I didn’t even see Lou Barletta fighting for it.”

Chris Christie, who is also believed to be considering a presidential campaign in 2024, suggested the results of the primaries so far demonstrate a desire to move on from the baggage that Mr. Trump imposes on the party.

“What I think the majority of these primaries are going to tell you is that the party wants to go back to winning,” Mr. Christie said. “Between 2018 and 2020, we lost the House, the Senate and the White House. That’s the second time that’s happened in our party’s history. The other time that happened was when Herbert Hoover was president.”

Other Republicans caution against reading too much into Mr. Trump’s endorsement scorecard. Tony Fabrizio, a pollster who has worked with Mr. Trump for several years, described the early contests as a jumble, providing no single insight into what Mr. Trump’s backing has meant.

Each race was shaped by the candidate, the rivals and the politics of the state, he said. In Ohio, Mr. Vance’s history of criticizing Mr. Trump made voters skeptical. Similarly, Dr. Oz’s previous support for abortion rights was an impediment with Pennsylvania conservatives in the base. In North Carolina, however, Mr. Budd was a better fit.

“In Ohio, it was a test of Trump papering over never-Trump deficiencies,” Mr. Fabrizio said. “In Pennsylvania it is a test of Trump papering over ideological deficiencies. And in North Carolina, it is the perfect harmony of no never-Trump or ideological deficiencies.”