The Secret Fear Behind Trump’s Attack on Corker

After the Alabama primary, how much value does a Trump endorsement really have?

On Sunday morning, President Trump awoke and decided to pursue a favorite weekend pastime—not golf, but starting a Twitter fight. This time, he attacked Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the respected two-term Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and once was in the running to become Trump’s Secretary of State. 

“Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election in Tennessee,” Trump tweeted. “I said ‘NO’ and he dropped out (said he could not win without…my endorsement). He also wanted to be Secretary of State, I said ‘NO THANKS.’” 

Trump’s claim is almost certainly untrue. Corker, who announced his retirement on Sept. 26, denied asking for an endorsement and, furthermore, told The New York Times that Trump had recently asked him to reconsider his decision not to run again. Having already committed to bowing out when his current term ends, Corker was free to hit back and did so with gusto. “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center,” he replied on Twitter. “Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

Like many of the president’s tweets, the attack on Corker seemed designed to compensate for a private anxiety—in this case, that Trump’s endorsement may not be all that valuable. That would be a serious blow to Trump’s ego. But it could be a bigger blow to Republicans’ electoral fortunes. 

Here’s why: GOP lawmakers have stood by Trump through countless embarrassments and indignities because they believed that his support—which remains strong among his voters—would transfer to those upon whom he bestows his endorsement. This is crucial because midterm elections are always difficult for the party in power. If voters are unhappy, they know whom to blame. And Republicans’ failure to move their legislative agenda means that many incumbents up for reelection are desperate to give them a reason why they should hold onto their jobs.

In theory, the endorsement of a popular president (at least among Republican primary voters) is just the sort of cover nervous incumbents will need to survive. The recent Alabama Senate primary, however, was a jarring wake-up call for Republican lawmakers. Trump’s chosen candidate, Luther Strange, was smoked by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, even after Trump traveled to Alabama to hold an event for Strange and highlight his endorsement.

According to survey research of Alabama primary voters conducted during the final weeks of the race by the data analytics firm 0ptimus, Trump’s endorsement of Strange had little measurable effect—even as Strange bombarded the airwaves with ads touting Trump’s support and his rally. As more voters learned about Trump’s endorsement, 0ptimus found, “There [was] no notable movement toward Strange at any point in the final week.”

Trump was apparently so humiliated by Strange’s loss that he went back and deleted tweets he’d written in support of him. But he can’t erase the fact that, at least in Alabama, his endorsement was useless. “It’s pretty clear that the target electorate had a majority favorable opinion of Trump and about 90 percent knew Trump liked Strange—and yet it didn’t matter in how they ultimately voted, not even a little bit,” says Scott Tranter, co-founder of 0ptimus. “What that means going forward is that a Trump endorsement doesn’t automatically equate to a higher vote share.”

It’s this last part that has Republicans spooked. If primary voters who think highly of Trump ignore his directive about whom to vote for, then Trump can’t protect them from an angry electorate. Worse still, Republican voters’ anger is now focused on their own party’s politicians. A confidential memo circulated to GOP donors after the Alabama debacle and obtained by the New York Times spelled this out in no uncertain terms. “The Republican Congress has replaced President Obama as the bogeyman for conservative GOP primary voters,” wrote Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC that spent almost $5 million to elect Strange.

This antipathy to the Republican Congress is certain to grow. Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist who backed Moore, is assembling a slate of insurgents to challenge incumbent Republicans in up to 15 states next year. As Bloomberg reported on Sunday, Bannon is requiring his candidates to promise to vote against Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which will sow further discord in Republican ranks. 

Bob Corker, who was squarely in Bannon’s crosshairs, opted to avoid voters’ wrath by choosing to retire rather than run for reelection. If Trump’s embarrassment in Alabama doesn’t dissuade him from making further endorsements (“It really rung his bell,” says a Trump adviser), Republicans hoping to stick around may still earn his seal of approval. But his anxiety about the power of his endorsement may be the one thing that all Republicans can agree on.

    Joshua Green
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
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