The stunning loss of former president Donald Trump’s preferred candidate in the runoff election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District has led to people wondering if Trump’s influence has waned.
Similarly, when 17 Republican Senators voted to advance President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, many considered that his threat for “lots of primaries” was now hollow and Trump might be losing his grip on the party which he has dominated for the past five years or more.
There is no doubt Mr Trump is in a diminished position compared to a year ago. For one, he’s no longer president and without his Twitter account, he can no longer cause seismic shifts in GOP policy positions as soon as he presses send. But the former president still has plenty of influence within the Republican Party.
First, let’s focus on that race in Texas’s 6th District. Mr Trump doesn’t like losers; it’s famously one of his go-to-insults and he still refuses to admit he lost to Mr Biden. But it’s important to remember the Texas race was a runoff election to a special election after US Rep Ron Wright died, and his wife Susan Wright ran to fill the seat, meaning it was always going to be an extraordinarily low-turnout race.
How low was it? In the May 2021 special election, 23 candidates tried running for the seat and there were 78,374 votes. By comparison, only 39,116 turned out to vote in the race this week . Similarly, because there was no Democrat in the runoff (Texas Democrats never fail to disappoint), Mr Trump’s endorsement might have had an adverse effect and led to Democrats voting for Jake Ellzey.
“They were not excited to vote for only Republicans,” Dr Allison Campolo, the chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, told a CBS affiliate. “There were no Democrats in the race. But they certainly were not interested in voting for somebody who Trump endorsed.”
Similarly, Mr Trump has made bum endorsements a few times, like when he endorsed appointed-Sen Luther Strange in Alabama only for him to lose the primary to Roy Moore before Mr Moore’s allegations of sexual impropriety with underage girls. Mr Trump also endorsed Lynda Bennett, a close friend of his chief of staff Mark Meadows, only for her to lose to Madison Cawthorn, who himself became an enthusiastic defender of the former president and spoke at the Stop the Steal rally.
What do all three of these races have in common? They were all runoffs in which turnout was low; it’s nearly impossible to extrapolate more broadly from the races.
Now, about those 17 Republican senators. On the surface, it looks embarrassing. But some of them are retiring, as is the case with Sens Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, while Chuck Grassley of Iowa, currently the longest-serving Republican senator, has not indicated whether he will run for reelection.
In addition, plenty of Republicans who voted to advance the bill have just won re-election, as was the case with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sens Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Jim Risch of Idaho and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. This means they don’t have to worry about the fury of a challenger from the right until 2026, and voter memory is almost never that long, especially on something as vanilla as infrastructure.
Furthermore, Ms Collins is from a state Mr Biden won and needs to worry as much about general election voters, which diminishes the power of a potential conservative challenger. Meanwhile, Mr Cassidy voted to convict Mr Trump during his second impeachment and has already faced criticism from his state party for doing so. What’s a little more heat when there’s a target on your back?
The only senators who face real challenges are Lisa Murowski of Alaska, John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Todd Young of Indiana – who are up for reelection in 2022 – and Mitt Romney of Utah and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who are up in 2024.
But even then, there are significant caveats. Ms Murkowski, who is facing a Trump-endorsed primary challenger in Kelly Tshibaka, won a write-in campaign in 2010 when she lost her primary to a Tea Party challenger and now her state has ranked-choice voting as well. Mr Romney has also been a vocal critic of Mr Trump since his 2016 candidacy.
But Mr Young, who is from Indiana, might have a tougher time coming around. He has also voted largely in line with Republicans on other topics, so his fate is unclear at the moment. Mr Trump was so popular that even when the state’s then-governor Mike Pence endorsed Sen Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Mr Trump still won the state and then made Mr Pence his running mate.
Mr Cramer will likely be in trouble if Mr Trump backs another candidate, especially in a state like North Dakota, where the former president is popular, especially because Mr Trump pressed the flesh to convince him to run, which he initially rejected before jumping into the Senate race in 2018.
The Trump post-presidency will inevitably be different from his presidency. But his influence is far from diminished. The fact this article even needs to be written is proof positive of that.