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The Right Resistance: Donald Trump, the ‘Kasich Effect’ and the calculated endorsement gamble

The calculated gamble. That’s exactly what a primary endorsement equals for a man with an exceptionally high political profile like Donald J. Trump.

One source defined calculated gamble as, “something risky that you do after thinking carefully about what might happen.” Such is the strategy when you’re the leader of a nationwide movement like MAGA (Make America Great Again) and you’re also the former president of the United States. It’s often said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but in Trump’s case, he’s attempting to help determine the outcome of selected key state GOP primary contests to foster a slate of general election candidates who will be more loyal to MAGA principles than to the stodgy, status quo loving Washington establishment.

The stakes are high; either alter the current course of America’s inexorable downward slide under the hapless incompetence of senile president Joe Biden and the Democrat Congress or else endure further deterioration and ultimate ruin, a civil war or even split the country between blue states and red.

Trump’s mission is a gamble alright. He’s got his political brand name and reputation on the line -- and in some cases, his resources. The establishment owns pretty much everything else, including decades of dominance over the American governmental system. Where the Republican Party is concerned, there is the national party (RNC) and the congressional and senate campaign committees pitted against him in many of the races Trump chose to try and steer.

It's not easy. And the “calculated” part isn’t a cinch either, since most of the individuals to which Trump elected to attach his name he knew only tangentially or because close advisors suggested that the person was meritorious of an endorsement. There are simply too many primary races in too many places for Trump to get personally involved with all of them, yet his record thus far in 2022 has been pretty good. Not perfect, but effective enough for objective observers to garner that it’s more beneficial to have Trump’s backing than not to have it.

Politics, after all, is one big calculated gamble, and victories often come by tiny margins. Is Trump doing well or not? Winning or losing? In a piece titled, “‘Kasich Effect’ propping up Trump, but for how long?”, Political consultant Keith Naughton wrote at The Hill last week:

“Dangerously for Trump, his candidates are having a difficult time in competitive races getting over a third of the vote. Ominously, in the only primary with just two legitimate candidates, incumbent Idaho Gov. Brad Little crushed Trump-endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin by over 20 points.

“The scorecard for Trump in high-profile, competitive races is not good. Trump’s best total was Mastriano at 44 percent, and he was just jumping on the bandwagon. His other totals are 32.2 percent for J.D. Vance in Ohio, 31.3 percent (but perhaps not the win) for Oz, 32.9 percent for Hines, 31.9 percent for Cawthorn (lost) and 30.2 percent for Herbster in Nebraska (also lost) ...

“The Trump mystique and power is built on winning. For Trump, he has to win every day, and he does not think about future consequences. He has been able to clean up when factionalism and ego rule the day. But November will feature one-on-one races, not multi-way fields. Based on history, current polling, and Biden administration fumbling, Republicans are likely to have a good election day. However, high profile Senate and governor races have a habit of going their own way. Trump’s picks need to work out in the fall — or he will be in for a fall of his own.”

By ‘The Kasich Effect’ Naughton leaned on the 2016 Republican presidential primaries as an example of how Trump benefitted from having former Ohio governor John Kasich (who wasn’t a factor in the race at all but perhaps helped siphon off votes from other viable candidates) hang on far longer than his polling strength would justify, which the author says made it easier for Trump to win the GOP nomination.

One could write a treatise on this false premise alone, but condensing it down to the minimum explanation, I argue John Kasich had little or no effect on the outcome of the 2016 primary race either way. If anything, Kasich captured a reasonable share of the Republican wishy-washy establishment vote that would’ve otherwise gone to Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or someone like Chris Christie (this was especially true in New Hampshire, where Kasich finished second to Trump but still lost by almost twenty points), but even after Christie and Bush bowed out, the balance of the conservative vote still went to Trump and Ted Cruz.

Kasich was like a weak and lonely loser who couldn’t bring himself to combine with Cruz to stop Trump and went out of his way to make it as difficult for Trump as he possibly could alone, to no avail. Therefore, the primary votes that Kasich took were essentially cast-off support for a candidate who would never have won in the first place.

That’s certainly not the picture in this year’s Republican primaries, where Trump’s “calculated gamble” endorsements are bringing home real results. While the ballot totals thus far have not indicated Trump’s nod produces a guaranteed fifteen or twenty percentage point swing, his backing is definitely sufficient to make the lucky recipient competitive in the primary race against establishment Republicans… and in some cases, other good principled conservatives.

The somewhat mixed results in Pennsylvania aren’t conclusive in either direction. As Naughton touched on, Trump was late in the game in getting behind GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and the state senator ended up winning handily -- but he already enjoyed a healthy pre-Trump lead, too. Where Trump definitely made a difference was throwing his weight behind TV doctor Mehmet Oz in the U.S. senate race, who at worst came in a virtual tie with an establishment-backed candidate who likely would’ve run away with the contest if Trump hadn’t intervened.

How many percentage points did Trump’s endorsement equate to? Is Trump using the “Kasich effect” to inspire results that wouldn’t happen organically? It’s hard to tell, but many of the Keystone State’s conservative ballots went to little known Kathy Barnette, who earned an impressive quarter of the votes. No one can say for sure what amount of Barnette’s support would’ve gone for Oz but instead ended up in her basket.

At the same time, there’s very little risk to Trump’s viability by endorsing a candidate and getting it wrong, which he did in a few instances last Tuesday. The former president has very little control over the attitudes of local voters who may or may not care where Trump comes down on their particular race. If I were examining the candidates in a primary, it would make a difference where Trump chose to endorse, but it wouldn’t be determinative of my vote (see below).

If I were a traditional Democrat voter, for example, I’d be much more worried about the “Bernie Sanders effect” on a primary race, since a Sanders endorsement virtually guarantees a nutcase socialist ideologue candidate victor who is either not electable or will make a donkey of him or herself running in the general election. Sanders makes his endorsement picks based on an office seeker’s support for programs like Medicare for All or extremely restrictive “climate change” limitations on business activity and energy production.

Trump’s endorsement simply means that a candidate is more or less a vetted conservative who will put America First. It also signifies that the person is anti-establishment, which is a quality many conservative Republican voters are demanding these days. Donald Trump didn’t run for president to preserve the ruling class’s authority; he ran because he wanted to give power back to the people.

Trump’s primary candidates are scrutinized and evaluated for their leadership potential as well. Will they stick their neck out in a tight situation? Will they rock the boat? Will they stand up for what’s right, even if it’s certain to attract media scorn and be mocked by the liberal elites? A Trump candidate isn’t a junior high school wallflower or a player content to ride the bench when the outcome of the game is on the line.

Meanwhile, Trump’s endorsement task becomes much easier in the fall when it’s a simple choice between the Republican and Democrat candidates. Trump can shift back to being the figurehead of the GOP and throw his backing behind the Republican as being better -- in all circumstances -- than the Democrat.

There’s no calculated gamble involved in the general election, no “Kasich effect” and whether that candidate wins or loses won’t have an influence on Trump’s decision to enter -- or stay out of -- the 2024 GOP presidential race. Polls show that the GOP is primed to swing large numbers of House seats and enough senate contests to ensure that “Chucky” Schumer won’t be dancing and bloviating about “changing the country and world” in the next Congress.

For the record: I don’t agree with all of Trump’s endorsements. One case in point is the Alabama GOP senate race where the former president pulled his backing of Congressman Mo Brooks, a move that’s simply inexplicable. I hope Brooks wins!

No doubt some observers will home in on whether Trump’s chosen primary candidates (the winners) go on to beat their Democrat opponents in November. Chances are there will be one or two who fail to meet expectations and may even lose. That’s the “calculated gamble” aspect of the endorsement game, which doesn’t always pay off. But it’s better to play than sit and do nothing, isn’t it?

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