President Trump and the MAGA movement are showing signs of moving in different directions.
In some important primaries this year, they have instead bucked his wishes — and they’re set to do it again.
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The dynamic looks like it will become starker on Tuesday, when primaries are held in Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia.
The Republican gubernatorial primary in Georgia will be the most closely watched race of all.
Trump’s fierce criticisms of incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appear unlikely to pay dividends. Kemp has a wide lead in opinion polls over Trump’s preferred pick, former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). In the RealClearPolitics polling average on Monday, Kemp led by 22 points.
The situation is cloudier in the GOP Senate primary in Alabama. There, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) has surprised Trump World by picking up steam in the final weeks.
Trump endorsed Brooks way back in April 2021 — just three months after the Alabama congressman had delivered an incendiary speech at the Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally that immediately preceded the riot at the Capitol.
But Trump rescinded the endorsement in March, apparently irked by Brooks’s statement that it was time to move on from the 2020 election — and by Brooks’s failure, at that point, to gain traction in the polls.
Brooks, in turn, spoke out about Trump’s attempts to get him to “rescind” the 2020 election result, and even by ridiculing Trump for describing the fervently conservative congressman as “woke.”
Yet, despite all that back and forth, Brooks has continued to position himself as a stalwart supporter of the “America First” populism that has characterized the MAGA movement.
Brooks is back in contention in the race. An Alabama Daily News-Gray TV poll released late last week showed him just 2 percentage points behind first-placed Katie Britt, a former chief of staff to retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
Trump is plainly irritated by the way the Alabama race has unfolded. On Monday, he issued a statement that included a link to a news story suggesting Brooks was still touting Trump’s endorsement in mailers. “Can’t do that Mo!” Trump commented.
The complexity of the situation reflects a push and pull between Trump’s personal desires and how GOP voters might see their own senator, congressman or governor.
“The endorsement is personal to Trump, so when he rescinds an endorsement, what effect does that have on the locals who may identify with Trump’s principles but resent the taking back of his endorsement?” Brad Blakeman, a GOP strategist who served in former President George W. Bush’s White House, said.
“What does Trump’s endorsement mean if the people on the ground have a different opinion?”
Tuesday’s races in Georgia and Alabama are not the first time those forces have swirled.
In last week’s Senate primary in Pennsylvania, Trump backed Mehmet Oz, better known as TV’s “Dr. Oz”. Oz may yet prevail, but if he does so it will be by a tiny margin — and probably after a recount.
The contest in the Keystone State was especially telling because Trump’s endorsement of Oz seemed mostly rooted in the candidate’s successful TV career.
Conservative commentator Kathy Barnette likely drew some votes away from Oz because she was seen by some GOP primary voters as a more authentic representative of MAGA-style populism.
In North Carolina, Trump’s support of scandal-prone Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R) was not enough to save the congressman from a primary defeat. In Idaho, a Trump-backed challenger failed to displace incumbent Gov. Brad Little.
To be sure, Trump has also scored big victories this primary season — wins in which the separation between the MAGA movement and the man who inspired it seemed vanishingly small.
The most notable example so far came with author J.D. Vance’s victory in the Ohio Senate primary, which was almost entirely attributable to Trump’s backing.
Another Trump favorite, former football star Herschel Walker, is all but certain to win the GOP Senate primary in Georgia on Tuesday.
The same is true of Trump’s former White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who will likely become the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arkansas.
Republican insiders argue that two facts are too often confused.
Trump has wrought real and lasting change on the GOP since he began his run for the presidency back in 2015, they say. But that doesn’t mean his word is the law for GOP voters in every race.
“It’s hard to tease out exactly what is going on,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy. “In Pennsylvania and Ohio especially, you had multiple candidates who were very much in that Trump lane.
“Trump made his endorsement but there were others there appealing to the same anti-elitist, populist sensibilities. There is clearly an appetite for that within the party that is not specific to Donald Trump himself.”
Virtually all Republicans agree that Trump remains far and away the dominant figure in the party. He is also the hot favorite to win the presidential nomination in 2024 if he wants it — as even internal critics like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have acknowledged.
As always, there is a danger in underestimating Trump.
But Tuesday’s primaries will show, once again, that the firmness, or otherwise, of his grip on the GOP is a complicated question.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.