In the wake of the deal that (at least temporarily) derailed the Nuclear Option on judicial nominations, the most striking thing about the reaction has been the general satisfaction of Democrats and even much of the blogospheric Left, and the glumness of Republicans, along with angry hysterics among the leadership of the Cultural Right. Sure, there’s a heap o’ spinning going on all around, but the fury of guys like Dobson and Bauer appears genuine, and there is a general agreement across the ideological spectrum that the whole incident represents a big body blow to the presidential aspirations of Bill Frist, and perhaps to his future viability as Boss of the Senate.But in terms of unhappiness on the Right, the question remains: whose idea, exactly, was it to make this issue so central to the GOP/Religious Conservative alliance? My general assumption has been that the Nuclear Strategy was forced onto the White House and the Republican Party by a Cultural Right that’s finally demanding results from their partners on an agenda–overturning abortion rights, reversing gay rights advances, and stopping all this church-state separation crap–that depends on reshaping the Supreme Court. But in an interesting essay today, the estimable Mark Schmitt, citing an exceptionally articulate post on the conservative site redstate.org, suggests that maybe it’s the other way around: the Nuclear Option is just another cynical effort by the GOP to get the Cultural Right fully invested in their D.C. power games.So, with apologies to Aretha Franklin, the question is: Who’s zoomin’ who here?Not being privy to the internal councils of the Republican Party or the Cultural Right, I talked to a couple of smart conservatives of my acquaintance, and came away convinced that there is truth to both perspectives. The general strategy of focusing obsessively on judges was forced on the GOP by the Cultural Right. But the specific tactic of the Nuclear Option was developed by legal beagles on the Hill and in the cells of the Federalist Society as a way to placate the Cultural Right without entering into an immediate and explosive national debate on the shape of the Supreme Court, and issues like abortion, gay rights, and church-state separation.Here’s pretty much, I gather, how the thing was put together. Cultural Right leaders, growing angrier for years about the excuses being made by D.C. Republicans for failure to make progress on their agenda, finally started getting fed up after the 2004 elections created the great judicial opportunity of a second Bush term, and the largest GOP majority in the Senate since 1930. Tired of hearing that Republicans couldn’t do anything about the godless judges without 60 votes, they basically said, “Figure something out.” And that’s where the Nuclear Option came in.As fate would have it, the Schiavo fiasco occurred during the run-up to the judicial confrontation, vastly increasing the investment of the Cultural Right in this issue. And then Bill Frist decided this was his ticket to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.So everybody rolled the dice and then crapped out. And the irony of the incident (unless, as is entirely possible, the Nuclear Option is revived and deployed later this year) is that while this may not have begun as a cynical beltway scam designed to frustrate the foot soldiers of the Right, that may be how it’s being interpreted by said foot soldiers at the moment.After all, some of them must be aware that the segment of Senate Republicans who are relieved about The Deal is not confined to the seven GOPers who formally signed it (dubbed “the Satanic Seven” by some angry talk show callers today, according to water-cooler intel from my semi-omniscient colleague The Moose). Arlen Specter and Trent Lott didn’t sign The Deal, and everybody thinks they were involved in cooking it up. How confident can the Cultural Right be that when push comes to shove in a future Supreme Court nomination fight, the White House can be trusted to send up a sure vote to overturn Roe. v. Wade, or that these slippery Senate Republicans will get that sure vote confirmed, through either conventional or nuclear weapons?In other words, this incident is going to vastly raise the stakes, and the penalty for failure, in future judicial fights, with the whole elaborately constructed, and politically and spiritually hazardous, relationship of the Cultural Right and the GOP hanging in the balance.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Now that we are into the 2022 primary season, it’s time to lay down some markers on how to evaluate Donald Trump’s candidate endorsement strategy, which will inevitably get attention. I offered some preliminary thoughts at New York:
Ever since he became president, Donald Trump has made a habit of endorsing a lot of candidates for office. According to Ballotpedia, as of today, he has endorsed a total of 497 primary- or general-election candidates, 192 of them since leaving the White House. Trump, of course, claims his endorsements have been a smashing success. A day after his attempt to get revenge on his Georgia enemies failed spectacularly, he was boasting of his prowess on Truth Social:
“A very big and successful evening of political Endorsements. All wins in Texas (33 & 0 for full primary list), Arkansas, and Alabama. A great new Senatorial Candidate, and others, in Georgia. Overall for the “Cycle,” 100 Wins, 6 Losses (some of which were not possible to win), and 2 runoffs. Thank you, and CONGRATULATIONS to all!”
But is Trump actually a midterms kingmaker? The answer is a bit trickier than simply checking his math. The former president has been furiously padding his win record by backing unopposed House incumbents in safe seats, so the numbers don’t tell us much. Instead, let’s look at the objectives behind his aggressive midterms enforcement strategy and how well he’s meeting each goal.
Trump wants to keep the focus on himself.
Everyone knows Trump is self-centered to an extreme degree, but there is a rational motive for him wanting to enter every political conversation: It keeps his name in the news and his opinions on people’s minds. This requires some effort given Trump’s loss of key social-media outlets and of the levers of presidential power.
He’s meeting this objective well so far. It’s a rare 2022 Republican primary in which Trump’s support or opposition is not an issue of discussion. He has endorsed 16 gubernatorial candidates, 17 Senate candidates, 110 House candidates, 20 non-gubernatorial statewide elected officials, and even 18 state legislators and three local elected officials. That means a lot of jabbering about Trump and a lot of speculation about who might win his support. And even where his candidates have fallen short, the signature MAGA themes of immigration, “election security,” and “America First” have been on most candidates’ lips. Arguably, Trump nemesis Georgia governor Brian Kemp ran a MAGA campaign.
Trump wants to get revenge on his enemies.
Some of Trump’s endorsements are meant to settle old scores with Republicans who thwarted his efforts to reverse his 2020 loss or supported one of his two impeachments. In addition to punishing figures such as Representative Liz Cheney, Trump hopes withholding his support from disloyal Republicans will serve as deterrent to anyone who might disobey him in the future.
This is why the victories of Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia were so damaging to Trump’s brand: These two men (especially Raffensperger, who not only mocked Trump’s election-theft fables and defied his orders to “find” votes for him but wrote a book about it) stood up to the boss on an important matter and didn’t lose their jobs over it. That could be dangerous for Trump if it continues.
Trump wants to show he still runs the GOP.
Trump demonstrates his power through his ability to instruct Republicans on how to vote and by making his good will the coin of the realm for Republican aspirants to office. From that point of view, the ideal primary for the former president was probably Ohio’s Senate contest on May 3. All but one of the candidates spent months seeking his favor, and the lucky beneficiary of his endorsement, J.D. Vance, surged to victory on the wings of MAGA support. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Trump managed to get multiple Senate and gubernatorial candidates to dance to his tune before settling on Doug Mastriano for governor (a win) and Mehmet Oz for the Senate (a possible win; his duel with David McCormick has gone to overtime with a recount and a court case).
Trump didn’t do so well in instructing his voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Georgia, losing gubernatorial primaries in all three. But he barely lifted a finger on behalf of Idaho lieutenant governor Janice McGeachin against Brad Little, and you can’t really blame him for his Nebraska candidate, Charles Herbster, being accused of groping multiple women (though you can certainly blame him for not only sticking with Herbster after the allegations emerged but also advising him to deny everything and fight back).
Here, again, the results in Georgia were devastating for Trump. Voters in the state emphatically rejected Trump’s repeated and incessant instructions to vote again Kemp and Raffensperger; in the gubernatorial race in particular, there was no doubt about his wishes. Yet Kemp won with nearly three-fourths of the vote. That level of voter disobedience hurts.
Trump wants to get in front of the Republican victory parade.
If we assume Trump is running for president in 2024, then it makes perfect sense for him to attach his name to a midterm Republican campaign effort that, for reasons that have nothing to do with him, is likely to be successful. Getting in front of a parade that is attracting larger and more enthusiastic crowds is a surefire way to look like a leader without the muss and fuss of having to make strategic decisions, formulate message documents, raise money, or plot the mechanics of a get-out-the-vote campaign.
Trump’s success in making himself the face of the 2022 Republican comeback will, of course, depend on what happens in November. At least three of his endorsed Senate candidates (four if Oz prevails in the Pennsylvania recount) are already Republican nominees in top November battlegrounds. He has also endorsed Senate candidates in future 2022 primaries in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Wisconsin, which should be close and pivotal races in November. If the Senate candidates Trump has handpicked underperform (e.g., Georgia’s Herschel Walker, whose personal and business backgrounds have come under scrutiny) or, worse yet, cost the GOP control of the upper chamber, you can bet Mitch McConnell and many others will privately or even publicly point fingers of angry accusation toward Mar-a-Lago. The same could be true in states holding crucial gubernatorial elections.
Portraying himself as the leader of a Republican midterm wave may conflict with some of Trump’s other goals. For example, he may need to put aside his thirst for vengeance against Kemp to back the GOP’s crusade against Democrat Stacey Abrams (whom Trump once said he’d prefer to Kemp). More generally, if Trump makes himself too much of the 2022 story, he could help Democrats escape the usual midterm referendum on the current president’s performance. In that case, 2022 could serve as a personal disaster rather than a bridge to his 2024 return to glory.
Georgia’s primaries presented multiple danger signs for Trump’s 2022 strategy of aligning himself with winners, intimidating his enemies, and remaining the center of attention. But despite his recent setbacks, there are no signs Trump is shifting tactics, and it’s a long way to the final reckoning in November.