For the better part of a decade, the contingent of Americans hopeful that Donald Trump’s spell over the Republican Party would soon break have been dealt with setback after setback. The night of May 24th proved to be a respite. In two closely watched Republican primary elections held in the state of Georgia, two incumbents—Brian Kemp, the governor, and Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state—managed to keep their seats despite vigorous challengers stirred up by the former president. Is the Trump wizardry wanting?
Before 2020, both Mr Kemp and Mr Raffensperger were seen as rock-ribbed Republicans. But when Mr Trump could not face the fact that he had narrowly lost Georgia to Joe Biden, he and his surrogates resorted to a campaign of extraordinary pressure on the state’s top election officials to reverse the result. When they refused, they earned the president’s permanent ire.
In the end, it was not particularly close. Mr Kemp won 73.7% of his vote, smashing David Perdue—an ultra-wealthy former business executive and senator. Mr Perdue, who unconvincingly reinvented himself as a conspiratorial nationalist with no discernible character traits save Trumpism, has probably authored his permanent and ignominious exit from politics. By a smaller margin of 19 percentage points, Mr Raffensperger fended off a challenge from Jody Hice, a pastor and congressman whose higher calling appears to be chanting about fraud in the 2020 election and returning Mr Trump to power.
However real, the repudiation is not wholesale. Early data show that registered Democrats, who are allowed to participate in Georgia’s open primary, came out in record numbers—not enough to seriously dilute the heavily Republican electorate, but perhaps enough for Mr Raffensperger to avoid a run-off. (There is no doubt that even among true Republicans, Mr Kemp delivered a walloping to Mr Perdue.)
More importantly, the race was not a referendum on Trumpism. Both men were careful never to betray any animosity towards the former president. “I’m not mad at him. I think he’s just mad at me,” Mr Kemp said before the vote. He received an endorsement visit from Mike Pence, the former vice-president whom Mr Trump now regrets because he, too, would not overturn a democratic election. “In all the Trump-Pence administration, there was no greater champion of the conservative agenda [than Mr Kemp],” said Mr Pence at an election-eve rally held in Kennesaw, carefully avoiding criticism of his ex-boss.
That reticence is perhaps more telling than Mr Trump’s endorsement win-loss record (which remains very high). Aside from avenging his personal vendettas, Mr Trump has been careful in most cases to endorse candidates with little chance of losing. He has been so mindful of ensuring that his position of him as party kingmaker not be challenged that he unendorsed one candidate for senator from Alabama, Mo Brooks, who was flagging in the polls—allegedly because his zealotry for “stopping the steal” had cooled too much
It is not hard to find signs of Mr Trump’s continuing power. On the same night as the Georgia primary, Republican voters in Texas chose to keep Ken Paxton, a scandal-tarred, Trump-endorsed culture warrior, as their attorney-general candidate. That Mr Paxton handily beat George P. Bush, the scion of the family that produced two Republican presidents, is an apt microcosm of the party’s continued evolution. And Republicans in Arkansas voted overwhelmingly to reward Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mr Trump’s pugnacious former press secretary, for making her the likely next governor of the state.
The American primary season is long, stretching all the way from March to September. But the results so far suggest that the Republican Party that emerges at the end of this marathon will be fashioned more in the image of Mr Trump—not less. And given the national environment that Democrats face, which includes painful inflation and a general malaise with a flagging Biden administration, it is likely that general-election voters in November will elect a good number of hardened Trumpists. Those who wished that Mr Trump would fade away still face a long wait. ■