When Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, appeared on Fox News on Wednesday morning to talk about the latest primary results, she was in a buoyant mood. In the eagerly watched Pennsylvania contests for the U.S. Senate, the Republicans had turned out about a hundred thousand more voters than the Democrats, demonstrating, McDaniel said, that the G.O.P. was the party with the energy on the ground. As she spoke, the Republican contest was still too close to call, with about five per cent of the votes still uncounted, including thousands of postal votes. The carpetbagger celebrity doctor from New Jersey, Mehmet Oz, whom Donald Trump had endorsed, was running narrowly ahead of David McCormick, a former Treasury official in the George W. Bush Administration who grew up in Pennsylvania but has spent the last decade in Connecticut getting rich helping to run one of the world’s biggest hedge funds.
McDaniel expressed confidence that either Republican would prevail in November, claiming the Democrats, in choosing the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, would be putting forward an unelectable left-winger. “If you look at what [Bill] de Blasio did to New York City, that is what Fetterman would do for Pennsylvania,” she quipped. The Fox interviewers, Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino, didn’t challenge McDaniel’s characterization of Fetterman, a bearded, six-foot-eight-inch former mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, who exudes a plain-spoken populism that some Republican strategists see as a threat. The interviewers also waited until the end of the interview to bring up the elephant in the room: Donald Trump.
When they did, Hemmer pointed out that the former President, in fact, had a mixed night. In the G.O.P. Senate primary in North Carolina, the three-term congressman Ted Budd, whom Trump endorsed, won easily. So did Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who scored a last-minute endorsement from Trump in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, and who made 2020 election denialism a core part of his candidacy. But Trump also backed some losers, including Madison Cawthorn, the controversial and soon-to-be former congressman from North Carolina. McDaniel, a Trump loyalist going back to 2016, quickly brushed off the suggestion that he might not be politically omnipotent. “He’s at ninety-six per cent,” she said. “In baseball that’s a thousand.”
Whether McDaniel’s math is accurate, Trump’s endorsement boosted Oz this Tuesday (just as it aided J. D. Vance in Ohio a couple of weeks ago), upending a race in which some of his own former flunkies, such as Hope Hicks, were already working for McCormick. With Trump’s help, a formerly pro-choice Muslim-American doctor who owes his career to the Democrat Oprah Winfrey and lives in a mansion on the Hudson, appears to have gained the support of a plurality, or a near plurality of Pennsylvanian G.O.P. voters. It’s hard to imagine this happening absent Trump’s endorsement.
The complicating factor is that about one in four G.O.P. primary voters rejected Oz and McCormick in favor of the right-wing firebrand Kathy Barnette, a homophobic Christian fundamentalist, who once tweeted out a story with the headline “Pedophilia Is a Cornerstone of Islam.” Barnette’s strong showing—achieved with a far smaller budget than her opponents’—shows that many Trump hard-core supporters will support the most zealous MAGA candidate, even one who doesn’t have Trump’s imprimatur. But as McDaniel’s cloying praise of Trump showed, it didn’t shake the belief among Republicans in Washington that the former President remains, by far, the most powerful person in the Party; and that you must never, ever, challenge him.
This rule applies even as Trump continues to demand adherence to his seditionist lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Even as he backs extremist candidates like Mastriano, who is most certainly the Republican candidate that Pennsylvania Democrats would most like to face in November. And even as he asks Republicans to give a “second chance” to a wacko candidate such as Cawthorn, whose short but calamitous tenure in Congress included two airport stops for carrying a loaded gun, a leaked video of him in bed naked with another man, and claims, from him, that other Republican legislators were doing cocaine and taking part in orgies.
Whatever establishment Republicans such as McDaniel privately think of the Faustian pact they have made with Trump, they aren’t going to break it anytime soon. With inflation at a forty-year high and Joe Biden languishing in the polls, they believe they are headed for a blowout victory in the midterms—and many Democrats privately agree with them. The one thing that Washington Republicans are asking of the former President, in return for their unceasing public fealty, is that he not do anything so outrageous that it sabotages their chances in November. With Trump, this is a big risk.
On Wednesday morning, he inserted himself into Pennsylvania’s vote count, posting on his social media site Truth Social, “Here we go again! In Pennsylvania they are unable to count the Mail-In Ballots. It is a BIG MESS.” A bit later, in the same venue, he went further, implying that somebody may be plotting to deprive Oz of a primary win. “Dr. Oz. should declare victory. It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find,’ ” Trump said.
This inflammatory statement, like so many others, appeared to be baseless. With thousands of votes still to be counted, there had been no suggestion of any malfeasance. While Oz and McCormick had both expressed confidence that they would ultimately win, neither had suggested anything was amiss. The official in charge of the count, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of state, Leigh Chapman, told CNN that the election had been “very smooth.” Since the vote was so close, a recount seemed likely, and Chapman said she would know next week whether one was necessary.
Trump, of course, was following his November, 2020, playbook, when he declared, without a shred of credible evidence, that Democratic state officials in Pennsylvania had stolen the state’s twenty electoral votes from him. He kept up these incendiary and discredited claims through the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and to this day. McDaniel, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans of their ilk would dearly love to put all this behind them and concentrate on winning in November. With his intervention on Wednesday, in which he once again sought to undermine public faith in the electoral system, Trump showed just how forlorn this hope is.