Primary Loyalty - Word&Way

Primary Loyalty

“Tell them about the Trump endorsements,” the former president told Sen. Lindsay Graham.

During an interview with two reporters, the Republican from South Carolina had called Donald Trump. Graham dutifully honored the demand and told the reporters about Trump’s endorsement power.

“I’ve never seen it quite like this,” Graham said. “President Trump’s endorsement is the most consequential endorsement of any politician I’ve seen in my 20-something years.”

That claim will soon be put to the test as Trump-backed candidates face off against other GOP hopefuls in a series of Republican primaries. Yet, these contests are more than intraparty battles. In significant races, Trump has found himself at odds with a key constituency: his White evangelical base. What happens when the preferences of his faithful supporters collide with those of the former president?

That question worried Trump back in 2016. After denying the need for God’s forgiveness, almost placing his offering into a communion tray, and infamously referencing “Two Corinthians,” the presidential candidate sought to solidify his conservative Christian base by selecting Mike Pence as his running mate. Of course, he would go on to win 81% of the White evangelical vote in that election and performed similarly well with the constituency in 2020 (though the label is problematic).

Still, the relationship remained an awkward one. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called Trump a “baby Christian” in 2016 and claimed Trump had a recent Christian conversion, but other religious leaders and Trump himself offered conflicting timelines about his confession of faith. Some clergy portrayed Trump as a “King Cyrus” figure, an outsider God uses to deliver a chosen people. Such depictions created a pretense for excusing Trump’s excesses and transgressions in the name of partisan power.

Despite Trump’s propensity for taking the Lord’s name in vain and allegations he mocks his Christian supporters behind closed doors, their loyalty persists. Churches promoting Christian Nationalism idolize the former president, even at Christmas. Such sanctuaries remain hotbeds for conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Many evangelicals now seem to prefer hanging with Trump over Pence. The man whose lifestyle defies so many conservative Christian values and who previously pandered for their votes now sits atop the evangelical political throne.

Yet, Trump’s endorsements for 2022 races suggest he doesn’t return that loyalty. In competitive and consequential U.S. Senate primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, Trump and key evangelical leaders are betting on different horses.

The approaching 2022 midterm elections provide the first measure of Trump’s post-presidency power among White evangelical voters. In this edition of A Public Witness, we look at his impact on key races and where his desires don’t align with evangelical leaders. We then consider potential outcomes and what they could mean for Trump and White evangelicals.

Primary Picks

Donald Trump has made a slew of endorsements for congressional and gubernatorial races, as well as for less prominent positions like Georgia’s insurance and fire safety commissioner (which we know you were wondering about). Many of these candidates are running unopposed or face only marginal competition in their respective primaries. The most interesting races are the ones where Trump risked his capital to wade into crowded political waters.

In all three of the competitive primaries for the U.S. Senate where Trump is currently backing a candidate, he put himself at odds with key evangelicals over who deserves support. His vision for an ideal U.S. senator appears to be based on values at odds with the “values voters” aligned with him.

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