President Trump has formally endorsed 85 Republican candidates so far this year, probably far more than any other president so soon after leaving office. He’s backed incumbents, primary challengers and candidates in open races for everything from the Senate and House down to state representatives and even a small-town mayor’s office, often with statements offering his “Complete and Total Endorsement!”
Mr. Trump is likely doing this to maintain his hold over the GOP and keep open the possibility of a 2024 White House run. He also gets to enjoy a steady stream of supplicants arriving at his Mar-a-Lago estate or Bedminster, N.J., golf course to seek his backing.
Some recipients of his endorsements are Trump populists. Others are more-traditional Republicans, a few of whom didn’t seek his affirmation and learned about it from Twitter. Many are in strong GOP districts or states and lack serious Democratic opposition, leaving the impression that Mr. Trump wants to pad his win-loss record.
Settling scores is a high priority for the former president. Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez supported Mr. Trump’s impeachment following the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. Mr. Trump endorsed his primary opponent, a Trump White House staffer named Max Miller, and Mr. Gonzalez subsequently announced he wouldn’t run in 2022. The Ohio Legislature then cut up the seat in redistricting, putting Mr. Miller in a Democratic-leaning district. Mr. Trump is backing primary opponents to other Republican House members who supported his impeachment, but that hasn’t led to any other withdrawals so far.
That may be because Mr. Trump’s endorsement is hardly a guarantee of an election victory for his chosen candidate. Take two cases earlier this year. The former president endorsed a Republican in a Texas special congressional election, Susan Wright, who lost in July to another Republican, state Rep. Jake Ellzey. In the Pennsylvania Senate GOP primary, Mr. Trump’s endorsed candidate, Sean Parnell, ended his campaign in November after losing a child-custody case in which his former wife alleged he abused her and their children.
More primary defeats may be coming for Trump-backed candidates. In the Alabama Senate GOP primary, Mr. Trump endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks, who has failed to ignite much enthusiasm. Mr. Brooks’s opponent, former Business Council of Alabama president and ex-Senate aide Katie Britt, has outraised and outcampaigned him and is supported by the state’s powerful Alabama Farmers Federation. Mr. Trump was reportedly impressed when he met Ms. Britt and her husband, former New England Patriots offensive tackle Wesley Britt, at an August rally in Alabama, causing him to question his decision to back Mr. Brooks. The latest poll has Mr. Brooks at 31% and Ms. Britt at 26%, pointing toward a runoff.
Still, Mr. Trump’s political sway won’t be measured only in primary victories but also in how many of his favorites fare in general elections in swing states and competitive districts. All these candidates face a critical choice: Should they focus on Mr. Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen to protect their endorsement? Or should they make their race about providing a check on President Biden and risk incurring Mr. Trump’s wrath?
This question faces dozens of Republican candidates in Senate, House and gubernatorial races, but the clearest test of Mr. Trump’s message will be races for secretary of state in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan. He backs candidates who are making the alleged theft of the 2020 election their main issue. Is this smart? A Public Religion Research Institute poll from November suggests it isn’t. Its results show that 31% of Republicans, 72% of independents, and 92% of Democrats—and 67% of the overall electorate—rightly don’t believe the 2020 election was stolen. These three secretary of state contests will show the strength of Mr. Trump’s possible 2024 messaging.
Where many politicians are parsimonious about endorsements, carefully weighing the risks and rewards of tying their brand to the fortunes of lesser-known candidates, Mr. Trump has defied convention. His endorsement seems often to depend on how vocally a candidate is willing to support his claim that the 2020 election was stolen through widespread fraud, and not so much on a candidate’s viability. This leaves Mr. Trump backing candidates who will likely falter in the general election.
In his business career, Mr. Trump put his name on everything from steaks to menswear to vodka, with mixed results. Now he risks more than diluting his personal brand. Mr. Trump could help some Democrats hang on in an otherwise devastating election cycle in 2022 by forcing their opponents to harangue voters about an unpopular topic. If the GOP can’t learn to shake the Trump obsession with alleged election fraud, the former president could even hand Democrats the White House—again.