Trump-backed nominees lost in Georgia, but can Republicans escape the specter of Maga?
Donald Trump’s big lie lost bigly in Georgia on Tuesday night. Some might take this as proof that his spell over the Republican party has finally been broken, but that is what the Republican party wants people to believe.
Related: Wins for Kemp and Carr in Georgia show Trump’s grip on GOP slipping
The former president had been waging a personal vendetta against Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp and secretary of state Brad Raffensperger for failing to overturn the 2020 presidential election in his favor.
Trump handpicked former senator David Perdue and congressman Jody Hice to challenge Kemp and Raffensperger in the Republican primaries. Both parroted the big lie and both were soundly beaten. It was a tangible sign that even many Trump voters are now weary of “stop the steal” and eager to look forward. It was also a blow to Trump in a primary season where his scattergun endorsements have come up with a decidedly mixed win-loss record.
But studying Trump’s recent record as kingmaker misses the point. In fact, it actively helps Republicans create the illusion that they have moved on from “Make America great again” (Maga) even as they continue to push its radical rightwing agenda.
It all began with Glenn Youngkin, who last year won election as governor of Virginia as a Trump-lite Republican. He never campaigned alongside the ex-president but also took pains to avoid criticizing him and alienating his base. “Don’t insult Donald Trump but do everything to keep him away,” was how columnist Peggy Noonan put it in the Wall Street Journal.
Youngkin projected the image of a safe, sane, old school Republican who could win back suburban and independent voters. But he went Maga by pushing hot button issues such as coronavirus mask mandates, transgender bathrooms and “critical race theory” and portraying his opponent as a “woke” liberal. He flirted with, but did not embrace, Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
The formula has been emulated in various ways by candidates facing extreme Trump-backed challengers. It worked for Brad Little, the governor of Idaho, and now for Kemp in Georgia. Neither should be mistaken for “NeverTrumpers” in the mould of Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger or Larry Hogan.
Kemp has recently nodded to the Trump base by signing bills that would ban abortions six weeks after conception and allow Georgians to carry guns in public without a license or background check. While he, unlike Perdue, has steered clear of the big lie, he was content to sign a voter suppression law in the name of “election integrity”.
And on Monday he campaigned alongside Mike Pence, who as vice-president was one of Trump’s principal enablers for four years. Neither man uttered a word of criticism of the Maga patriarch. Kemp told reporters: “I had a great relationship with President Trump. I’ve never said anything bad about him. I don’t plan on doing that. I’m not mad at him. I think he’s just mad at me and that’s something that I can’t control.”
Even Raffensperger, while more outspoken in denouncing Trump’s election lies, has campaigned on preventing non-citizen voting, which is virtually non-existent in Georgia or anywhere in the US, as well as putting an end to no-excuse mail-in voting,
The Trump-without-the-tweets approach is a good fit for governors, who can build rightwing legislative achievements in their own states. In the 2024 presidential election, it might prove a useful blueprint for Pence, offering a promise of Maga past, or Florida governor Ron DeSantis, offering a promise of Maga future.
Democrats are alive to the threat of the Republican party selling itself as post-Trump to swing state voters. On Tuesday the Democratic National Committee said in a statement: “From Mike Pence refusing to criticize Trump, to Republican candidates across the country running on his ultra-Maga agenda, the Republican party is Trump’s party, and there’s no turning back now.”
To underline the point, although Perdue’s defeat showed the electoral limitations of the big lie, Trump-endorsed candidates showed that Frankenstein still exercises at least some control over the Maga monster.
In Georgia, Herschel Walker, the former American football star, won a Senate primary and will now face Democrat Raphael Warnock in November. Congresswoman and conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene easily defeated a cluster of primary challengers to become the 14th district’s nominee.
In Texas, attorney general Ken Paxton defeated George P Bush, nephew of George W Bush, a former president and stalwart of the anti-Trump Republican establishment. Sarah Sanders, Trump’s former White House press secretary, is now the Republican nominee for governor of Arkansas.
In some cases, Trump jumps in late to back a candidate already assured of victory; in others, his endorsement lifts candidates, sometimes to victory. It is not always clear whether the chicken or egg came first. But it is evident that Maga can be a bottom-up phenomenon: last August there were boos when Trump urged supporters to get vaccinated.
Similarly, some voters have been comfortable with a paradox of pledging loyalty to Trump while rejecting some of his endorsements. Thousands, for example, voted for both Raffensperger and Taylor Greene on Tuesday. They sense, presumably, that even those whose faith wavers in Trump, the man remain apostles of Trumpism the movement.