The results of Tuesday’s primary elections in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, among other races, should put to rest any lingering doubts about former president Donald Trump’s continuing sway within the Republican Party and his ability to put candidates he favors across the finish line, political analysts and strategists said.
Although opinion on the issue is not unanimous, results in this week’s races have been highly favorable to some Trump-endorsed candidates.
In North Carolina’s primary race, for the nomination to run in November for the seat of retiring Sen. Richard Burr, Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd achieved a massive victory. By Wednesday afternoon, with more than 95 percent of precincts having reported, Budd had secured 445,343 votes, or 58.6 percent of the total cast, well more than twice the 186,760 votes, or 28.6 percent, that went to his nearest competitor, former governor Pat McCrory.
“Budd ran a fine campaign with a lot of support in addition to Trump’s endorsement. Then he started to believe he was going to win, and he started talking about policy. So that was a shift, and it seemed to me that McCrory just collapsed as a candidate,” said John Aldrich, a professor of political science at Duke University.
“It was a surprise because you would have expected McCrory to do pretty decently, though he was also a problematic candidate because he shifted around a lot” on the issues, Aldrich added.
In Aldrich’s view, the leading issues in the election were the cultural ones that tend to resonate with socially conservative Republican voters generally, such as the debate over critical race theory and which books will be assigned in schools. McCrory was not on the right side of these issues, Aldrich said. But the continuing salience of these topics as campaign issues does not pave the way for anyone in a crowded field where GOP candidates are likely to say many of the same things. Rather, Aldrich believes that the endorsement of Trump was decisive in securing the overwhelming victory for Budd.
“It’s not like Budd was the Michael Jordan of Republican politics. He had some ground to make up, and in that sense, I’m sure that Trump’s support was extremely useful,” Aldrich commented.
Aldrich acknowledged that one candidate who did have Trump’s endorsement, 26-year-old Rep. Madison Cawthorn, lost the primary race against state senator Chuck Edwards for North Carolina’s 11th congressional district. But Aldrich does not see this as in any way indicative of the limits of Trump’s influence. Rather, they point to severe, widely reported missteps and weaknesses on the part of Cawthorn, such as getting caught for the second time with a loaded gun at an airport just days before the election, and the leak of a video of Cawthorn naked and in bed.
“He got Trump’s endorsement late, and he lost. And it’s kind of a surprise because he was an incumbent. But he was outlandish, and that may simply have caught up with him. I don’t think Trump’s endorsement hurt him, although it was an endorsement including a statement that ‘This guy weirds me out,’” Aldrich said.
In Aldrich’s analysis, the defeat of Cawthorn happened in a race too atypical to draw any inferences about Trump’s influence. It does not detract from the reality that voters look to Trump to guide them when making choices among candidates whose views on issues may sometimes overlap.
“It’s clearly the case that there’s nobody else who can endorse a Republican like Trump can with the same effect. Nobody seeks out other endorsements the way they seek out Trump. He’s still a big, powerful Republican,” Aldrich said.
Oz vs. McCormick
The closely watched Pennsylvania GOP senatorial primary race was too close to call on Wednesday afternoon, but with more than 95 percent of precincts having reported, Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz appeared to be edging out his rival, former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, albeit by a razor-thin margin. Oz had secured 413,742 votes, or 31.3 percent of the total, compared to McCormick’s 411,753, or 31.1 percent.
The race looks to be headed to a recount if results remain this way, given an automatic recount is triggered when the difference between the leading candidates is within 0.5 percent. An official winner might not be known for days.
But in the view of Charles McElwee, editor of RealClearPolitics, Trump’s endorsement was decisive here too for Oz, helping the candidate enormously in largely working-class counties that have voted for Barack Obama and other Democrats in the recent past.
“If you look at the map right now, and the race between McCormick and Oz at the county level, it’s quite striking, because it shows you the power of Trump’s endorsement and how it works in Oz’s favor in the working-class regions that played a crucial role in Trump’s victory in 2016,” McElwee said.
Oz carried the northeastern part of the state and did quite well in Luzerne County in particular, McElwee noted. In the latter county, Oz garnered a reported 13,109 votes, or 41.12 percent of the total, besting McCormick with 10,927, or 34.27 percent, and far ahead of author Kathy Barnette who gained only 5,342 votes, or 16.76 percent. Oz also appears to be the victor in nearby Lakawanna County.
“These counties historically were Democratic, working-class counties that fueled the U.S. labor movement. They were shaped by labor extraction industries, they did not like George W. Bush, and they went for Obama in 2008 and 2012,” McElwee noted.
“Trump’s message resonates in these counties. The Trump signs remain, it’s like the [presidential] election never ended. If Oz narrowly pulls it off, it’s because he’s driven and fortified by the power of Trump’s endorsement, and historically Democratic regions are now turning Republican because of Trump,” he said.
McElwee does not deny that McCormick ran a strong campaign and commanded significant support in a number of the rural, more socially conservative parts of Pennsylvania.
“Western Pennsylvania is McCormick’s base, and he targeted that area. It’s fascinating in the sense that, if Oz pulls this off, it does support the argument that Trump’s nod still matters in certain parts of Pennsylvania,” McElwee added.
Ohio and Beyond
Republican-leaning voters in many parts of the rust belt are largely unswayed by efforts of some mainstream media organs to paint Trump’s base as extremist. Ohio, where upstart populist candidate J.D. Vance pulled off a decisive victory with 32 percent of the vote on May 3, is a case in point, according to Noah Weinrich, director of communications at Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.
“I think that obviously, much of the media, and the entirety of the corporate media, has ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome.’ But I will say that there’s some truth that Trump has an important role in all this. Obviously, in the Ohio primary, he made the critical difference, he’s largely responsible for J.D. Vance’s victory. Former President Trump’s endorsement really pushed him up in the polls and across the finish line,” Weinrich said.
While acknowledging that Pennsylvania has a “very different dynamic” from that of Ohio, Weinrich said that the candidates in the former state have striven to show that they are in the Trump mold.
“It’s Trump or not Trump, it’s who is the most Trump. Oz has the Trump endorsement, and both McCormick and Barnette are trying to show that he’s faking it,” he said.
For all that the legacy media may wish to discredit Trump, the former president was the only candidate in 2016 who showed a real grasp of the political realities in Washington and put forth an “America First” agenda, Weinrich said. In 2022, voters know what a Trump endorsement in a local race means.
“The media don’t like to talk about the people of America, the grassroots. They don’t understand them, they don’t know them. It’s easier to write a story about Trump than go to Pennsylvania and talk to them and understand them. But Trump has proven himself, so voters know that the people he endorses will be supporting the same things, it’s not just policy out the window,” Weinrich added.
In the North Carolina race, Trump’s endorsement made the difference for people who were unsure whether to vote for Budd or McCrory, Weinrich said. Weinrich also predicts that in Georgia’s senatorial primary election next week, Trump-endorsed candidate Hershel Walker will win decisively.