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Opinion

Trump faces growing dilemma after Georgia

The Republican primary season started out with a bang for Donald Trump in Ohio, but Georgia and Alabama are leaving the former president whimpering. Trump is finding out the hard way that party politics is a lot more complex than he thought. His imperial, non-strategic obsession with controlling every Republican from Alaska to Florida is not working, and his undisciplined behavior is costing him.

The trio Trump blamed for his 2020 loss in Georgia — Gov. Brian Kemp, Attorney General Chris Carr and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — all won handily in yesterday’s Republican primary. Kemp eviscerated former Sen. David Perdue by 50 points, besting his final Trafalgar poll estimate by over 20 points. Carr won by over 40 points against Trump endorsee John Gordon. Most remarkable is the win by Raffensperger, who faced Congressman Jody Hice. A primary focus of Trump’s ire, Raffensperger turned away the challenger by over 15 points and surprisingly avoided a run-off.

But the headline races were just part of the main story, which is that Georgia Republicans ignored Trump all over the ballot.

Raffensperger won everywhere except in Hice’s congressional district. Both Kemp and Carr outperformed Senate nominee Herschel Walker, who ran against barely any opposition. In two heavily contested congressional primaries, Trump candidates all trailed badly, with Jake Evans losing to Rich McCormick by 20 points and Vernon Jones losing to Mike Collins in a tight race. Both districts will go to runoffs.

Alabama was also rough on Trump, with Katie Britt, top aide to retiring Trump basher Sen. Richard Shelby, to face Congressman Mo Brooks, who won — and then lost — Trump’s endorsement, in the runoff.

How Trump wheedles his way out of this race will be something to see.

After bailing on the flailing Brooks, will Trump reverse course or will he sidle up to the Shelby crowd backing Britt?

The Georgia and Alabama primaries are a continuation of the same story for Trump: In seriously contested races his candidates can only win in multiway fields where there are more than two competitive candidates. Hice may have been crushed by Raffensperger, but he did set a record for Trump-endorsed candidates in actually getting over one-third of the vote (barely). In the other one-on-one contests, Trump candidates were humiliated, with less than 25 percent for Perdue and roughly 26 percent for Gordon. Trump’s congressional endorsees could not exceed 30 percent.

Since J.D. Vance’s win in Ohio, Trump’s record has been in a constant slide. His candidate lost for Nebraska governor, and his meddling in the Pennsylvania primaries has not been appreciated, even by his allies. Even if his endorsed candidate, Mehmet Oz, manages to hold off Dave McCormick for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, the Republican Party is hardly unified. Trump candidates win when either they have no real competition or benefit from the “Kasich Effect” — where no-hopers won’t get out and split up the non-Trump vote.

Looming general election disaster for Trump

In American politics, primaries are just the preseason. What really matters for political power is the general election. And Trump is facing mounting problems and complications that will necessitate some hard strategic thinking — hardly Trump’s strong suit.

The House is highly likely to flip to the Republicans. These are lower-profile races where the overall trend is with national sentiment — and that sentiment is strongly against Biden and the Democrats. Trump has done well in these races, endorsing incumbents and pushing his acolytes over the finishing line where voters are paying much more attention to higher-profile Senate and governor races.

The problem for Trump is that the general election landscape is complicated and littered with landmines. GOP voters are not so interested in what a Florida retiree thinks about their state races, leaving a Republican slate of candidates that have obligations to Trump varying from a lot to none. Trump needs his endorsed candidates to win the high-profile races in the fall. But if the candidates he did not endorse lose, he could be stuck with the blame.

The normal course of events would be for Republican leaders to rally around the winners and unite for the fall.

But Donald Trump is not a normal politician. And he has quickly reverted to the same old playbook of attack combined with playing the victim. For Trump, winning today is the only thing and tomorrow doesn’t exist. There is no hedging. Effective in the past, this feral behavior is not working so well anymore.

In Pennsylvania Trump went after Dave McCormick and Kathy Barnette very hard. Both opponents to Oz were espousing Trump issues, and Barnette is about as MAGA as you can get. Yet, they were in the way and Trump bulldozed them. Now a sullen Barnette is not interested in helping Trump’s celebrity friend Oz, and McCormick is fighting hard on a recount that might put him over the top.

Trump, unthinkingly, is claiming McCormick is trying to steal the primary and that the process is rigged against his favorite. Not only is there zero evidence of this, Trump’s promiscuous use of this accusation undermines his charges about the 2020 election. Even Republicans are likely getting tired of the same song and dance.

Trump is stuck in Georgia with no good options. His attacks against Kemp and Raffensperger failed spectacularly. If he keeps bashing them and the Democrats win in the fall, Trump will catch the blame. If he decides to endorse, it feels like weakness — which Trump detests. His hand-picked Senate candidate is down 5 points in the most recent general election poll. Trump is essentially responsible for both the Pennsylvania and Georgia Senate races. If Republicans fail to gain the majority due to losing those races, Trump will take a huge hit.

Make no mistake: Trump is still popular in the Republican Party. The most recent YouGov poll puts him at 80 percent favorable to 18 percent unfavorable among Republicans (38 percent to 55 percent overall), but that is trending down and is low for GOP presidents.

Trump’s power comes from being viewed as a winner and having intimidated away any prominent opposition within the Republican Party. Both of those advantages are slipping away.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

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