Trump’s unusual endorsement game
After hinting that he might do it, former president Donald Trump yesterday officially unendorsed Congressman Mo Brooks, one of several candidates running in the Alabama Republican primary for Senate. Brooks, Trump argued, had become unpopular after his campaign staff urged him to stop claiming that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen by Biden. Trump explained that this made Brooks a “woke” candidate (??) and, as a result, Trump felt he had no choice but to stop supporting him.
Trump’s explanation for Brooks’ political decline doesn’t make very much sense. True, the congressman told an unhappy crowd last August that it was pointless to keep litigating the 2020 election, and he has been falling in the polls ever since. But Brooks has also run a lackluster campaign and done poorly in fundraising, especially in comparison to his two main competitors in the primary, Katie Boyd Britt and Mike Durant.
More importantly, irrespective of Trump’s reasoning, it’s rare for a leading party figure to unendorse a candidate for electoral office (especially if they haven’t committed a crime or an immoral act). Together with Trump’s unusually high number of endorsements for federal, state, and even local elected offices, the withdrawal of his endorsement is emblematic of how post-president Trump has behaved much differently than others who have once occupied the White House.
Trump’s excessive endorsements and retreat from Brooks stem from the same motivation: his desire to improve and protect his political brand. Consider the 81 candidates whom Trump has endorsed so far for the U.S. Congress and top state offices (including governor, lieutenant governor, secretary state, or attorney general). Nearly three-fifths (59%) have been Republican incumbents, and most of them represent safe seats where Trump’s endorsement is unlikely to make a difference. But Trump will undoubtedly take full credit when they win.
To be sure, this is not the only reason that Trump endorses some candidates over others. Twelve of the 81 candidates are members of the House Freedom Caucus, the group of congressional Republicans who were among his most steadfast supporters during his presidency. Trump may be rewarding their loyalty by endorsing them.
Trump’s tendency to hold grudges also explains some of his endorsements. Of the dozen Republicans he has supported who are challengers to incumbents (including three Republican incumbents whose districts were redrawn to pit them against another GOP incumbent), almost all of them are seeking to oust officials who displeased Trump in some way, such as by voting to impeach him or by openly refuting his false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen.
Nonetheless, the most common reason why Trump supports someone for office is to make himself look like a winner. This stands in stark contrast to most past presidents, who do not worry about the ability to influence their party to nearly the same degree.
Similarly, Trump’s dis-endorsement of Mo Brooks is almost certainly an effort for Trump to cut his losses and enhance his brand. (Though Trump may also be unhappy that Brooks doesn’t want to relitigate the 2020 election, Brooks is a member of the Freedom Caucus, suggesting that the former president’s loyalty to his strongest supporters has its limits.)
It would be easy to disparage Trump’s rather naked attempt to burnish his image as the GOP’s chief kingmaker by gaming the endorsement process. But it does show that the former president understands an important axiom of politics, that perception equals power. The more candidates Trump endorses who ultimately win, the easier it is for Trump to enhance his reputation for political influence. (By dumping Brooks, he also followed the advice of the 19th century French political leader Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”)
Will Trump’s intensive efforts to endorse many election winners – and only election winners – create the perception that he alone decides who gets elected to public office? It’s not likely to impress political scientists and keen election observers, but his supporters may feel differently.
Regardless, the fate of Mo Brooks should serve as a warning to those politicians who still eagerly seek Trump’s endorsement. When Trump endorses someone, he is not doing it out of charity, or from a deep commitment to the Republican Party and the electoral candidates that best represent its values. He is doing it first and foremost for himself.