Brian Kemp humiliated Donald Trump in Georgia, while Texas laid the Bush dynasty to rest.
In a small but critical set of primaries, the Trump brand got its toughest test yet this year. So did the salience of the Big Lie and, on the Democratic side, abortion rights.
With votes still being counted in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Texas, here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s so-called SEC primary:
Trump’s big flop
It’s almost impossible to overstate how bad Georgia was for Donald Trump.
There was Gov. Brain Kemp’s thrashing of David Perdue, the former senator recruited by Trump to run against him. Then there was Rep. Jody Hice, the Trump-backed candidate for secretary of state who ran so far behind incumbent Brad Raffensperger that he failed even to force Raffensperger into a runoff.
It got even uglier for Trump further down the ballot. Trump’s pick for attorney general, John Gordon, got walloped by incumbent Chris Carr, with roughly 500,000 votes separating the two. Trump’s preferred candidate for insurance commissioner, Patrick Witt, lost by a similar margin. And that’s to say nothing of two Trump-backed House candidates, Vernon Jones and Jake Evans, who were running second in their respective primaries.
Trump was not without victories — most significantly Herschel Walker in the U.S. Senate primary. But of all the states that have held primaries so far, Trump arguably had more skin in the game in Georgia than anywhere else, after losing the state in 2020 and then watching the U.S. Senate fall to Democrats there the following year.
On Tuesday, Georgia repudiated Trump once again. For the diminished, establishment wing of the Republican Party, it was proof of life.
“If there is any cosmic political karma, Brian Kemp deserves every bit of it,” said John Watson, a former chair of the Georgia Republican Party, said, “This is the payback of all paybacks.”
Jason Shepherd, a former chair of the Republican Party in Georgia’s Cobb County, in the Atlanta suburbs, said late Tuesday that “this has been a wholesale rejection of Donald Trump’s brand of politics.”
Brian Kemp’s friends in high places
A Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate lost a primary for the third time this month on Tuesday night. This time, though, a cadre of bold-faced GOP candidates crossed Trump to make that happen — adding insult to injury by rallying around the Georgia governor excoriated by Trump. All this, of course, after Trump dumped $2.5 million into Perdue’s campaign.
Former President George W. Bush appeared as a special guest at a Texas fundraiser for Kemp. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who helped beat back the Trump-green-light campaign of Charles Herbster earlier this month, joined Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, the sitting co-chair of the Republican Governors Association, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a member of the establishment cavalry coming to Kemp’s aide.
“He has been universally unsuccessful,” Christie told POLITICO of what he called Trump’s “vendetta tour” targeting Republican gubernatorial candidates. “He is winless.”
But the most dramatic incursion on Trump’s turf came from his former Vice President Mike Pence. Not only did he loan his longtime aide Marc Short to Kemp’s campaign down the homestretch, Pence also appeared at an election-eve Kemp rally in suburban Atlanta to stump.
In doing so, Pence attempted to fashion himself as a sunny party statesman — “I will always believe there is more that unites us than divides us,” he said on Monday, ahead of a possible presidential run of his own. He also framed the race as the GOP’s future versus its past grievances over the 2020 election.
It’s a sign of a GOP establishment increasingly willing to take on Trump, even as they continue to embrace his policy agenda.
Abortion rights is no clear winner
We still don’t know the fate of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the last anti-abortion House Democrat. But no matter what happens, his primary runoff makes clear that abortion rights is not a runaway winner for the party in every slice of the country.
The renewed nationwide debate over abortion access could have blown the race wide open for his progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, who made women’s health care a more central theme of her campaign in the weeks following the revelation that the Supreme Court was preparing to strike down Roe v. Wade.
Her team’s goal was to run up the margins in the counties around San Antonio, where abortion access is popular. Cuellar, meanwhile, doubled down on his opposition to abortion except in the case of “rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother.”
But Texas’s 28th District cobbles together two parts of Texas that are very different culturally, and Cuellar’s political instincts may have played out. Cisneros outperformed her March 1 primary performance in the northern part of the district, but so did Cuellar in his home base of Laredo and throughout the culturally conservative Rio Grande Valley.
Democrats hope the abortion debate will energize their base in swing seats across the country — and it still might. But this was not the most effective trial balloon. The border counties in the region are heavily Catholic and perhaps just as motivated to vote to help restrict abortion access. And Cuellar’s brand in the southern part of the district, as a moderate Blue Dog Democrat who is pro-gun, makes him more impervious to the national political trends.
The end of the Bush era
It was bad enough for the Bush dynasty that George P. Bush, the last Bush in office, lost on Tuesday.
But what was worse was the reason. Bush didn’t lose in spite of his family name. He lost at least in part because of it.
Forty percent of Republican primary voters polled by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation last month said they’d never vote for George P. Bush, two-thirds of them citing his membership in the Bush family as a reason.
The result was widely expected. Bush, the Texas land commissioner, got clobbered in his bid to unseat Texas’s scandal-plagued, Trump-backed attorney general, Ken Paxton. For now, at least, it’s lights out for a family that for decades was a giant in Republican Party politics.
The son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, George P. Bush bent over backward to distance himself from his family’s moderate credentials. He split with much of his family to endorse Trump, campaigned hard on his support for a border wall and, late in the campaign, released an ad that took his name — and its liability — on directly.
He said he was proud of his family, but that “this race isn’t about my last name. It’s about Ken Paxton’s crimes.”
As one Republican strategist familiar with the race said, Paxton “has been a conservative, he’s been a fighter, that’s what primary voters want. The rest of it, they’ll live with.”
As for Bush, he said, “I think the Bush dynasty is done.”
Election administrators versus the Big Lie
More than any other primary this year, Raffensperger’s contest was a test of the salience of Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen, after Raffensperger refused to “find” votes for him in Georgia. Trump berated him, the state GOP passed a resolution to censure him, and he drew a Trump-backed challenge from a credible opponent, Rep. Jody Hice.
Early on, most Republicans in Georgia figured Raffensperger for dead.
But on Tuesday, it was Raffensperger’s surprising vote total — not Kemp’s — that traditionalist Republicans in Georgia were texting around.
Republicans in upcoming primaries will still have an opportunity to nominate conspiracy theorists to run their state elections. But Raffensperger’s victory does not appear to be a one-off, as Republicans have now favored elections administrators with experience in a series of primaries.
Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who has pushed back against the Big Lie, won his primary. In Idaho, the primary for secretary of state went to Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, despite his acknowledgment Joe Biden won.
Polls consistently find that a large majority of Republicans still believe that the 2020 election was rigged. Election administrators are white-knuckling their way to victory. But what Raffensperger’s performance laid bare is that Trump’s obsession with 2020 may not be an especially salient voting concern — at least not for a majority of primary voters.