Primary candidates 'lean in' on Trump's popularity within conservative corners

Some see President Trump as a key factor in winning their primary challenges.

March 08, 2018, 9:35 AM
PHOTO: Donald Trump speaks during the White House Opioid Summit in the East Room of the White House, March 1, 2018.
Donald Trump speaks during the White House Opioid Summit in the East Room of the White House, March 1, 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

A number of Republican candidates in tough and crowded primaries are hoping that an open embrace of all things Trump will help them stand out to conservative voters.

The first test of the strength of Trump touts seems to have turned out well for Republicans in Texas on Tuesday. Four people the president tweeted his support of won their contests with enough of the vote to avoid a runoff race.

Take the race for Texas Land Commissioner, which featured George P. Bush, the son of the president’s former rival Jeb Bush. The younger Bush embraced Trump in his effort to stave off Republican primary challengers and avoid a May runoff election.

He retweeted Trump’s tweet of him.

"Texas LC George P. Bush backed me when it wasn’t the politically correct thing to do, and I back him now." - @realDonaldTrump . RT if you stand with President Trump!

— George P. Bush (@georgepbush) February 28, 2018

At the end of the night he had garnered the more than 50 percent of the vote he needed on election day.

It is unclear whether his embrace of Trump was the decisive factor in his win.

However, the move is a tactic playing out across the country.

Republican candidates in the Arizona and Indiana Senate races are all trying to out Trump each other — a trend also playing out in the Republican primary in the Colorado gubernatorial race.

All of these contests feature multiple candidates in contested primaries and are part of ABC News’ 18 for 18 races to watch.

The calculation on casting a lot in with Trump comes in spite of his relatively low approval rating, which was 39 percent according to Gallup's most recent weekly average.

But the president does have a strong base of his own.

ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd, who was the chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential bid, said the move to "lean in" to Trump is likely an effort to gather support from Trump loyalists among the party faithful — a group which will likely turnout in primary elections.

Turnout in midterm elections is historically lower than it is in presidential years, but the party stalwarts typically turn out, which is another reason these candidates court them.

"The GOP has pretty much become the Trump party. The voters fully support him and what he is doing and how he acts as president, and thus GOP candidates can’t stray very far from him or they risk losing primaries," Dowd said. "But as they move close to him, they make themselves incredibly vulnerable in the general election."

Some key races where Trump is a factor

George P. Bush’s success on Tuesday may have candidates elsewhere doubling down on their pro-Trump embrace.

Rep. Todd Rokita, who is running for the Senate in Indiana in a tough primary against fellow GOP Rep. Luke Messer, released an ad last week that described himself as "pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-Trump."

The ad slams "liberal elites" with pictures of a kneeling football player Colin Kaepernick, resistance protests, and it then goes on to list his support for Trump-friendly issues. Rokita says "it's time to build the wall, make English our official language, and put America first."

That primary is May 8.

“Putting America first” and “make America great again” (MAGA) are two phrases associated with Trump that have been echoed on the campaign trail by the candidates who embrace him.

And in Colorado’s gubernatorial race, several GOP candidates generally support the president but one candidate in particular is using it as a selling point.

Stephen Barlock regularly signs his social media posts with Trump-friendly hashtags like #MAGA, #AmericaFirst and #ColoradoFirst.

Barlock isn’t leading the crowded field financially, but his attempts to paint himself as the Trump candidate of the race is one way he’s standing out in crowded field of seven candidates for the June 26 primary.

“Thank God Donald Trump is president,” he said at one recent campaign event.

Candidates in Arizona compete over closeness to Trump

One of the races where there are the most candidates are trying to out-Trump each other is the Arizona Senate contest. In that contest, the top three GOP candidates are all jockeying to be perceived as the closest to Trump ahead of the August 28 primary.

Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio campaigned with Trump in 2016, received a presidential pardon from him last year, and says that while he doesn’t plan on explicitly asking for the president’s endorsement, he regularly brings up how they share a birthday.

He also told ABC News that he agrees with 95 percent of what Trump says.

PHOTO: In this Jan. 26, 2016, file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is joined by Joe Arpaio at a campaign event in Marshalltown, Iowa.
In this Jan. 26, 2016, file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is joined by Joe Arpaio at a campaign event in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Mary Altaffer/AP, FILE

Rep. Martha McSally regularly shares video clips and news reports about her meetings with Trump at the White House.

And Dr. Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. John McCain in 2016, received a tweet of support from Trump in August before either Arpaio or McSally had announced their candidacies.

But while the embrace of the president could pay off for these candidates in the primary, should they get the nomination it could cost them votes in the general election.

Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor of public policy and government at Georgetown University, told ABC News that some Republican candidates have to walk a tightrope: embrace the president too closely in the primary could cost votes in the general. But if they don’t tout him enough in the primary, his supporters won’t turn out for them.

“There's no easy solution to the dilemma,” he said.

Dowd agreed that the support the candidates could get from Trump in the primary could hurt them when they try to run a wider-appeal campaign in the general election.

"President Trump has become a two-edged sword for GOP candidates," Dowd said. "He has high approval ratings among GOP voters and very low ones among Democrats and Independents."

ABC News' Alisa Wiersema and Jeffrey Cook contributed to this report.

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