Donald Trump-endorsed candidates this year now officially have a 56-1 record, after a candidate he backed in Nebraska’s GOP primary for governor was defeated Tuesday night amid a slew of sexual assault allegations.
But those close to the former president fret that the first few rounds of primary contests were the easy ones and more losses could start piling up this month.
Trump’s ability to propel candidates over the finish line in tight primary contests is one of the most closely watched dynamics of the midterm primary elections cycle. It’s a test of his current clout in the Republican Party and a measure of how much he controls it as he eyes a comeback bid for the White House.
His first primary loss came on Tuesday, when Charles Herbster finished second in the Nebraska gubernatorial primary.
But the night wasn’t a total loss. The victory by Trump-backed Rep. Alex Mooney in a West Virginia House primary just didn’t command nearly as much attention.
The Nebraska defeat wasn’t a complete surprise to Trump’s political operation. Herbster was a flawed candidate, accused by eight women of inappropriate touching. And, former president’s allies argue, Trump has endorsed 169 candidates and counting, too many to expect him to notch a perfect record.
But even as they try to set expectations, the results of the coming contests will be seen as indicators of Trump’s popularity, while deciding the fate of some of his loudest supporters.
On May 17, two Trump-endorsed candidates face tough primaries for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania and for governor in Idaho. A week later, Georgia Republicans will vote in the gubernatorial primary, where a Trump-recruited challenger is currently trailing. On the same day, his candidate in the Texas attorney general’s race, incumbent Ken Paxton, faces a runoff against Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush of the Bush family political dynasty.
“May is a murderer’s row for the [former] president,” said one Trump insider, who has discussed endorsements and the upcoming races with the former president and spoke on condition of anonymity to detail private discussions. “He knows it could really suck and that Herbster could be the first domino.”
Trump hates to lose.
So he’s calling allies to boost his chosen candidates, especially in Pennsylvania and Georgia, where he’s gone all-in. He plans pre-primary tele-rallies in those two states. He held a rally on Friday in Pennsylvania and plans to travel to Texas on Saturday.
Yet even if Trump’s candidates lose the marquee races in those four states, Republican and Democratic insiders alike say the former president will still remain the GOP’s undisputed leader. Despite losing his re-election, he can still fill arenas, sell merchandise, raise more money than either political party and out-poll any potential rival for a 2024 White House race. There has been a parade of Republicans to his home in Florida asking for his endorsement. And his endorsements have managed to propel candidates struggling in the polls to victory.
“What he did with J.D. Vance was just impressive, and I’m not impressed with much in politics. Vance was dead, and Trump brought him back to life,” Republican consultant Jeff Roe said.
Plus, voters may not connect the losses much to Trump.
“It doesn’t dull the luster,” Roe said. “He’s salty.”
Trump has never had broad-based appeal and his support has always been driven by his core voters.
“One time during the  campaign, I said to him, ‘It’s amazing, you’ve gone through a global pandemic, an economic shutdown that was like a depression, urban unrest, and your base is still rock solid,’” John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster, told NBC News. “And he said to me, without missing a beat, ‘You left out impeachment.’ He understands how to keep the base intact.”
Trump is stubborn, as well.
He stuck by Herbster despite the sexual assault allegations that would end many campaigns. (Herbster has denied the allegations, calling them a “smear campaign.) The winner on Tuesday, Jim Pillen, was backed by the state’s outgoing governor, Jim Ricketts, who commands a powerful political machine and sizable personal wealth, some of which he poured into boosting his preferred candidate.
Before Trump’s rise, a conventional view of modern politics was that endorsements hardly mattered and that voters cared little for what politicians thought of one another.
But endorsements matter to Trump.
The former president considers endorsements a sign of his strength within the Republican Party, and he closely tracks his wins and losses. During an interview once in the Oval Office, Trump boasted about his record, summoning a political aide who produced a spreadsheet that he gladly handed to a reporter.
Ever aware of the importance of a win-loss record, Trump has padded his stats with dozens of endorsements of candidates and incumbents who’ve faced token opposition. So, only a few of the 56 Trump-backed candidates who have already won were really involved in difficult races.
Though Trump often describes his endorsements as “complete and total,” they’re not always ironclad. Last year, for example, he endorsed Republican Congressman Mo Brooks in the Alabama Republican Senate primary race, touting the “COURAGE” and “FIGHT” he had shown (Brooks was among the speakers at the Trump Jan. 6 rally preceding the mob’s attack on the Capitol). In March, Trump withdrew the endorsement as Brooks’ campaign struggled to gain ground.
Trump is attuned to whether his allies follow in lockstep or ignore his selections and pick rivals. Last week, he spoke by phone with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and discussed endorsements they’d made in Nebraska — where they both backed Herbster — and other states, a person familiar with the conversation told NBC News on condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to publicly disclose private conversations.
Noem is considered a potential Trump running mate in 2024 and he seems to want their endorsements aligned.
“The president seemed to indicate that he was happy that Gov. Noem was supporting the same candidates that he was, because that’s not the case with many others in the party right now,” this person said.
Trump isn’t pleased that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is campaigning for David McCormick in the Pennsylvania Senate race, according to this source and another confidant of Trump’s who also spoke anonymously because they didn’t have authorization to discuss private conversations publicly. Trump has endorsed Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about his views on Cruz’s support.
Explaining why Cruz, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other Trump allies have chosen to back McCormick, David Urban, a former Trump campaign adviser and McCormick supporter, said: “Oz plays a doctor on TV, and he plays a conservative in politics.”
Those familiar with Trump’s thinking say he has the lowest expectations for David Perdue, the former senator who lost re-election in a 2020 runoff, which Republican critics at the time attributed in part to Trump insisting that the November election had been stolen. Trump recruited Perdue to run against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp because Trump was displeased Kemp didn’t help him overturn his election loss there.
Trump has done more to help Perdue than any other candidate he has endorsed, but Kemp continues to lead in the polls.
Still, it’s a testament to Trump’s clout that he was even able to find a top-tier candidate to challenge the popular Kemp and force him to spend money to stave off an upset, said former Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland.
“I’ve never seen a former president get involved in this many races or be this powerful,” Westmoreland said. “I’m a big Trump supporter. But I just don’t know if his endorsement is enough to beat Kemp, but his endorsement definitely has an impact.”
Regardless, Democratic insiders say their party shouldn’t make too much of any losses by Trump-endorsed candidates.
Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic adviser to multiple presidential campaigns, said Trump’s effect on the overall electorate is “toxic” to the GOP, but the party can’t help itself. And Devine marveled: “I’ve never seen a loser of a presidential campaign command such loyalty … It’s completely unique.”
As for the Herbster loss and the upcoming May GOP primaries, Devine said, “You can’t endorse this many people and have a perfect record. Trump is going to lose races. But I don’t think he’s going to lose his ironclad grip on the Republican Party.”