Trump Endorsements No Longer Look Like a Golden Touch

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A very bad day for Donald Trump capped off late Tuesday night with the defeat of his endorsed candidate, Foster Friess, in the Wyoming Republican gubernatorial primary. The winner, state treasurer Mark Gordon, will be heavily favored in that very Republican state over Democrat Mary Thorne.

I’ve been impressed with Trump’s recent successes in primary endorsements. After the fiasco in the Alabama Senate special election, he’s been picking likely winners who then won, making Trump look good — and he’s restrained himself and stayed out of some contests in which the winner was difficult to determine in advance or where the Trumpiest candidate seemed unlikely to win. That streak ends in Wyoming.

The first tangible consequence for Trump is that he’ll most likely have a Wyoming governor who resents the president’s attempt to defeat him.

But the real danger here is that Republican politicians begin to believe that Trump isn’t a threat to them after all. My guess — and it’s only speculation — is that this has been true all along. While a presidential endorsement might move quite a few votes in low-interest primary elections because voters are looking for any kind of cue about who the acceptable candidate might be, it’s a lot harder for endorsements to move votes against an incumbent. Not impossible, but difficult. 

If Republican politicians do start believing that they have little to fear from Trump, that would eliminate (or, more likely, just reduce) the incentive to avoid confronting him, at least after the midterms are over. And that could be a huge blow to Trump, with implications for everything from legislation and nominations to oversight to the possibility of a nomination challenge or even, perhaps, impeachment. Politicians do more than just respond to incentives — but they’re far more likely to do things when they have good political reason to do them. And there’s no bigger incentive than fear for their reelection. If they’ve believed Trump could defeat them, that explains a lot of their behavior. If that belief fades or fully evaporates, their behavior may well change.

Granted, we’re in the world of interpretation and perceptions here. One election defeat for a Trump-endorsed candidate might have little effect on his reputation for electoral clout among Republican voters — or it could have major effects. That part is impossible to know so far. All we do know with some confidence is that Republican politicians watch carefully what happens to politicians the president endorses in primary elections. And Trump has squandered at least some of something he’s worked hard to build. 

1. Rick Hasen on the Michael Cohen plea

2. Dan Hopkins has a comprehensive look at the effects of voter identification laws

3. Matthew Green and Douglas Harris at the Monkey Cage assess Nancy Pelosi’s position

4. Seth Masket on how elections are interpreted within a party, and why that’s so very important.

5. Mikhaila R. Fogel, Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic, Benjamin Wittes at LawFare on the Cohen and Manafort news.

6. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Stephen Mihm explains why “fundamentals” models of midterm elections predict Democratic gains this cycle – and why those models usually work. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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