Donald Trump’s endorsees can’t stop winning.
From Staten Island to South Carolina, Alabama to Athens, Ga., Republicans blessed with the president’s endorsement in primary contests this summer have notched victory after victory—proof that even when he’s not on the ballot, Trump can persuade and turn out his base, a reality with significant implications for this fall’s midterm campaigns.
When it comes to moving Republican votes, said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, a Trump endorsement is “determinative.”
“At this point,” he said, ticking through a number of primary contest results, “a Trump endorsement can totally change the complexion of a race.”
Nowhere was that clearer than in this week’s Georgia gubernatorial primary runoff, where polls showed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s standing begin to plummet the day Trump endorsed his opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Kemp, who had been trailing only days before according to some tracking numbers, went on to win by nearly 40 percentage points.
“Simply because Donald Trump said ‘I’m supporting the other guy,’ [Cagle’s] image took a 30-point hit,” marveled one shell-shocked national Republican strategist familiar with the Georgia race. “If you got caught in a sex scandal or Anthony Weiner-type situation, I don’t think your numbers move that quickly.”
Now, as general election season arrives, Republican operatives in some battleground states are working to harness the potency of a Trump endorsement to drive GOP turnout and re-energize voters who may have turned out for Trump in 2016, but aren’t necessarily committed to a particular political party—or to voting regularly.
“He did it largely with disaffected former Democrats and infrequent voters,” said Brad Todd, a senior GOP strategist involved in marquee Senate races. “We have to find a way to get a good chunk of those folks out in the midterms. His endorsement, his enthusiasm, is a good way to do that.”
For many Republican House candidates running in more moderate or Democratic-leaning districts, that strategy is fraught with peril. But, especially on the Senate side where some of the most competitive contests are playing out in states Trump won, Republican strategists looking to counter unbridled Democratic energy are, ever more confidently, turning to Trump.
This wasn’t always the case—indeed, Trump’s ability to juice Republican turnout was once in question. Last year his initial favored candidate in an Alabama special election primary runoff, Luther Strange, lost despite Trump rallying for him in one of the most pro-Trump states in the country. Trump went on to back Roy Moore, the GOP nominee in that race accused of child molestation, who also lost—nearly unthinkably in deep-red Alabama—to a Democrat.
But more recently, his chosen candidates have been on a winning streak, from his choice in the South Carolina gubernatorial primary runoff to his pick in a Staten Island House primary and an Alabama House runoff. It’s evidence that, whether with blue-collar voters on Staten Island or with evangelicals in the South, Trump has the ability to move GOP votes.
Republicans are hoping he will do just that as general elections near.
Todd is an adviser to Republican Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general who is seeking to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in one of the most closely-watched contests in the country. Hawley appeared with Trump at an event with veterans, and the president headlined a fundraising luncheon for him in Kansas City this week.
“We hope he’ll come as many times as he’s willing to put the plane down,” Todd said.
Certainly, Missouri is a state Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points. While his margins were even bigger in a number of other states with competitive Senate races—from North Dakota to West Virginia—his favorability is also underwater in a host of competitive House districts.
That creates a challenge for candidates there who want to motivate their base—and know that there is no better GOP motivator than Trump—without alienating centrist voters who despise the president.
“In states or districts where Trump’s job approval is above 50 percent, then obviously that’s a good move” to embrace his endorsement, Ayres said. “In states or districts where Trump’s job approval is below 50 percent, it becomes far more problematic in those districts. Those Republicans need all of the Trump supporters, plus a chunk of people who do not support the president. That becomes, strategically, a finer line to walk.”
Added the national GOP strategist in an interview Wednesday, referencing the Georgia race, “where you have people like last night that will do whatever the hell he says, you also, on the flip side, have people who are going to go out and vote, and violently vote, against anybody endorsed by him.”
But Todd said that for many Republican candidates, associations with Trump are baked in—and it makes sense to embrace that.
“Three-quarters of the way into the Democratic coalition from left moving to the right, those voters already think every Republican is tied to Donald Trump,” he said. “The only question becomes, can you get people who like Trump better than your candidate to show up?”