The rise of the Trump agenda in this year's races for governor

Republicans in a number of key gubernatorial contests want to pursue priorities in state government aligned with the former president's platform. Will the strategy work to win over voters?

Posters of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are seen during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in Orlando.

Posters of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are seen during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in Orlando. Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s sliding poll numbers suggest some Republican voters are growing weary of the former president. But among the crop of conservative candidates running for governor this year, the Trump brand remains strong. 

They've embraced his platform and stood alongside him at campaign rallies. And they mimic his talking points and amplify his baseless claims about ballot fraud.

The former president has endorsed 19 candidates for governor: Seven incumbents and 11 challengers. But notably, the list does not include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. 

Still, Republican gubernatorial candidates from across the country have fought for Trump's endorsement:

— Doug Mastriano, the Trump-backed Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, has pledged to enact new restrictions on voting, ban abortion and clean up the “Harrisburg swamp,” borrowing one of Trump’s favorite metaphors.

— In Wisconsin, Tim Michels, one of four Republicans running for governor but the only one with Trump’s seal of approval, says he’ll restore election integrity and “drain the Madison swamp.’’  

— And at a rally in Prescott Valley, Arizona, Kari Lake, a former television news host who is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, stood on stage with Trump and vowed to finish his border wall. She also took aim at “that liar, Dr. Fauci.”

Trump, who hasn’t revealed whether he’ll run for president in 2024, also held rallies recently in Illinois, Alaska and Maryland to stump for congressional and gubernatorial candidates. In August, he’ll visit Milwaukee to support Michels.

“It is rare for an ex-president to be running again for president and campaigning for candidates in midterms,’’ said Barbara A. Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Of course, Trump is an outlier on so many measures that it is hard to predict how successful he will be in campaigning, especially with the [January 6] committee taking a toll on him.” 

It’s even more unusual for a former president to pick a side in a contested primary and play an outsized role in governor’s races, which traditionally remain a step removed from national politics and focus instead on local concerns. (In addition to the gubernatorial candidates, Trump also has endorsed dozens of Republicans running for statewide office, state legislature and a smattering of far-down ballot contests such as county commission and district attorney.) 

Former presidents “either stay out of these races entirely or they pick their spots very carefully,’’ said Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “Trump is not being all that careful with his endorsements and he does have a mixed record.”

Trump’s decision to jump into intra-party battles for governor appears to be driven by both a desire to burnish his front-runner status for his potential 2024 presidential run and a quest to extract vengeance on his political enemies.

With primary season winding down, Trump’s scorecard has nine wins and three losses. Seven primaries, including high-profile contests in Wisconsin and Arizona, won’t be held until August.

Among the losers was David Perdue, whom Trump backed in the Georgia gubernatorial primary over incumbent Brian Kemp. (Trump blames his 2020 loss on Kemp, who refused to overturn Georgia’s election results.) 

“Trump’s influence is diminishing,” Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, declared recently on NBC’s Meet the Press. Hogan, a GOP moderate and vocal Trump critic who is term limited, is backing Kelly Schulz over Dan Cox, Trump’s pick. 

“Brian Kemp won by 52 points … all the incumbent governors that Trump went after have won their primaries,’’ Hogan said.

Clamoring for Trump Endorsements

Even so, Republican gubernatorial candidates across the U.S. have clamored for his support. 

“He connects with the Republican base,’’ Chergosky said.

Trump’s pull with GOP activists is evident in Wisconsin, where Michels shot to the top of a crowded Republican primary field after receiving Trump’s blessing. Michels, a construction executive who is pitching himself as a political outsider, didn't formally enter the race late April; by late June, he was essentially tied with former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, according to a poll released that month.

“The Republican establishment here in Wisconsin has tried to flex [its] muscle and clear the field for Kleefisch,’’ Chergosky said, noting that Kleefisch has been endorsed by business groups and several powerful politicians, including former Gov. Scott Walker.

But the boost Michels received after winning Trump’s backing “speaks to who really connects with the Republican base and it’s not the business groups or the Republican establishment,’’ Chergosky added.

Democrats have been eager to keep the focus on Trump. The party has even been running ads in Maryland that highlight Trump’s endorsement of Cox. The spot ends with the tagline, “Dan Cox–too close to Trump, too conservative for Maryland.”

Sam Newton, deputy communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, said Trump has elevated a group of “dangerous GOP nominees who are all in on the radical MAGA agenda.

“In states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin and more—Trump’s iron grip over the Republican party has led to divisive GOP primaries for governor about false conspiracies and radical plans to strip away fundamental rights, like reproductive rights, voting rights and the right to earn a good living and raise your family free from discrimination,’’ Newton said.

Republicans running for governor in some states are studiously avoiding any mention of the polarizing former president. Instead, they are focusing on inflation, crime and President Biden, whose poor job approval numbers have proven to be a boon to GOP candidates.

The Republican Governors Association, which typically does not get involved in primaries except to defend incumbents, is taking a similar tack.

“In races up and down the ballot, Democrats are throwing every issue they can think of at the wall in the hopes of distracting voters from the overwhelming stress Biden’s inflation is having on their monthly budget, but it’s just not working,’’ said Joanna Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association.

“While Democrats hide from or outright dismiss voters’ anxieties, Republican governors and candidates are addressing them directly by telling voters about the policies that led to stronger recoveries in Republican-led states compared to their Democrat-led counterparts.”

A version of this story was first published on Route Fifty

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