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3 reasons Trump's influence took a big hit in Tuesday's primaries

Gov. Brian Kemp trounced Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue in Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Gov. Brian Kemp trounced Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue in Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary.

You'd be hard-pressed to find two Republican incumbents who drew more of former President Donald Trump's ire than Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

But both won by huge margins in their primaries Tuesday against handpicked, Trump-recruited challengers who campaigned on his election lies.

Kemp won by 50 percentage points and Raffensperger by almost 20, according to results as of noon ET Wednesday.

The background: Trump narrowly lost Georgia in the 2020 presidential election. Despite multiple recounts, he falsely claimed that the election was somehow stolen.

Kemp would not go along with that and neither would Raffensperger, who is the state's top election official. Trump infamously asked Raffensperger in a January 2021 call to "find" him the votes needed.

"Fellas, I need 11,000 votes," Trump told Raffensperger and staff on that call. "Give me a break."

Trump's fury with Georgia election officials grew, and he set out to oust them from office. He recruited former Sen. David Perdue to take on Kemp and Rep. Jody Hice to go against Raffensperger.

So what happened? In the end, Trump's candidates in Georgia largely flailed — though his pick for Georgia U.S. Senate, Herschel Walker, easily won his primary, and some other allies won elsewhere, like his former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is likely to be the next governor of Arkansas.

But what happened with Kemp and Raffensperger in Georgia? Here are three theories:

1. The power of incumbency

Incumbents have a high reelection rate in this country. Once someone votes for a candidate, it makes it easier to vote for them again. They have a known record and have built a known brand.

That's certainly the case in Georgia where, Kemp, for instance, touted conservative-backed measures he's signed into law, like a voting overhaul, and his past record of defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams in a general election matchup.

2. A sustained GOP push against Trump

In most places, Trump has dictated the terms of Republican politics. He's taken over the Republican National Committee and state parties across the country, and even candidates he hasn't endorsed have gone full MAGA, kissing the ring and hoping for the light of Trump's endorsement to shine down upon them.

But Georgia was different in that the top state officials all lined up against Trump's lies, in different ways. Kemp, Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan all put a degree of distance between themselves and Trump.

Kemp appeared with some former Trump friends-turned-foes, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence. Kemp didn't as much take on Trump head on as he quietly made him irrelevant in his campaign.

Republican Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who's not running for reelection, has gone after Donald Trump.
John Bazemore / AP
Republican Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who's not running for reelection, has gone after Donald Trump.

Duncan, on the other hand, went right after Trump, creating a Republican advocacy group called GOP 2.0. It even ran ads during this campaign season.

"Inflation at a 40-year high," Duncan says in an ad. "Open borders. National security threats. But some politicians would rather talk about conspiracy theories and past losses. Letting liberal extremists take us in the wrong direction — a mistake our country simply can't afford. We must focus on the future and rebuild our party. But I am not alone in believing there is a better way forward."

Duncan wasn't on the ballot — he opted not to run again — and Trump-backed Burt Jones is easily leading his race for lieutenant governor that may go to a runoff.

The effort, though, is something Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, told NPR was necessarya year after the Jan. 6 insurrection. He accused Republicans of not "directly communicating with the base" and merely "reacting to the Trump factor."

​​"No one's taken him on directly," Madden said. "They've all been reactionary, and they've all ceded the rostrum to him."

It takes a lot to mount a sustained campaign against Trumpism, but that's happened more perhaps in Georgia than in other places.

3. Trump's erosion in favorability

There's been lots of talk of Trump's potentially waning influence on the base.

That shouldn't be exaggerated. Trump is still very popular within the GOP; he controls lots of levers of power within the party; as noted, many candidates are trying to be like Trump; and he would still be the far-and-away front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

However, Trump has seen a decline among the GOP base in one key measure — how strongly Republicans feel about him.

CNN's Harry Enten found that Trump's "very favorable" rating, in an average of surveys, has declined nearly 20 points since the eve of the 2020 presidential election.

That's a significant decline, and shows the further someone gets from power, the potentially less influence they retain.

"[W]e've got hundreds of years' worth of history that shows us the former president loses their influence every day they're out of office," Duncan told Axios. "And Donald Trump — although he wishes it wasn't the case — is no different."

Two other notes from Tuesday:

- End of Bush era: Tuesday saw the end of the Bush era in politics. George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was trounced in his bid for Texas attorney general against scandal-plagued Ken Paxton.

Bush will serve as land commissioner until the end of the year, but, as the Texas Tribune writes, Bush's loss "heralds a shift in the Texas Republican politics away from the pro-business establishment and toward a more populist, combative and harsh style of politics."

Bush even tried hard for Trump's endorsement, and, despite Trump teasing that he liked Bush, he lost. It shows where the power in the GOP in places like Texas — away from Bush and more toward Trump.

- Too close to call: Incumbent Democrat Henry Cuellar and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros remain locked in a runoff that remains too close to call. Cuellar has the name ID and power of the incumbency, but he is the only Democrat in Congress who is against abortion rights, which has gained more attention after the Supreme Court leak, and he's pushing against the new wave on the left of the Democratic Party.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.