Last night’s big winner: Ron DeSantis?

Yes, this is now officially a running joke on the site following Republican primaries.

But I do think it’s true about last night’s results, and not just for the usual reason of Trump’s endorsees underperforming.

Although they did underperform in Georgia (where else?), for the record:

Georgia Republican voters rebuked Donald Trump for the second time in a month Tuesday by rejecting his picks for a pair of open U.S. House seats, another blow to the former president after his attempt to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp and other incumbents collapsed.

Vernon Jones, a former Democrat who tried to transform himself into a far-right Republican, was walloped by Mike Collins in the race for the rural 10th District runoff despite boasting Trump’s endorsement.

And Jake Evans fell to Dr. Rich McCormick in the 6th District race despite a late push by Trump that described the Georgia attorney as a “MAGA warrior” who would fight for his priorities in Washington.

Trump was 0 for 2 — and to add insult to injury, Brian Kemp had endorsed Collins in the race where Collins prevailed over the Trump-backed Jones. For the second time in a matter of weeks, Kemp proved that he’s the true king of the GOP in his state. Any evidence that Trump’s influence over the party looks to be slipping is good news for that other guy who might be thinking of running for the GOP nomination in 2024. “At this point in time, the Trump endorsement is neutral. It’s not a plus and it’s not a negative,” said one local GOP chair to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the Georgia results. “People are moving beyond that.”

Remember, though, that all storylines about Trump losing his proverbial grip on Republicans come with a momentously important caveat:

You can win a Republican primary if Trump hasn’t endorsed you but there’s no evidence that you can win a Republican primary if you haven’t endorsed him. Look no further than Kemp’s candidate Collins, who turns out to be a “rigged election” crank about 2020. He told a local paper recently that Trump’s victory was “stolen,” questioned mail-in ballots being received in “stacks,” and called for all 50 states to conduct post-election audits. Does he believe any or all of that? Who knows?

But what does it matter? The point is, he feels obliged to say it. He recognized that he was probably non-viable in a Republican primary unless he embraced Trump’s most destructive lie. Viewed that way, there’s only one truly big winner among the GOP’s 2024 hopefuls from this year’s primaries. And it ain’t Ron DeSantis.

There’s another way in which DeSantis really was a winner last night, though, and it may turn out to be meaningful in a primary against Trump. Katie Britt thrashed MAGA favorite Mo Brooks in the Alabama Senate runoff, thanks in part to the endorsements of Mitch McConnell … and Donald Trump, who refused to re-endorse Brooks before the runoff after un-endorsing him previously. Brooks was bitter in defeat. “I’d be remiss if I did not congratulate the Alabama Democratic Party for helping to ensure that the Democratic nominee in the Republican primary won,” he said in his concession speech after the race was called. “Congratulations to the Democrats. They now have two nominees in the general election.”

In keeping with the timidity of nearly all professional Republicans, Brooks avoided criticizing Trump in his speech. But some MAGA fans, furious at seeing him lose to a Trump-endorsed establishmentarian, were less timid.

“Donald Trump is disconnected from the base,” said [Women for America First chair Amy] Kremer, who was an early supporter of Trump and prior to that, a leading activist in the tea party movement. “I don’t know what has happened there. I think he’s getting bad advice from the people around him, and I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s time for those of us in the movement to get back to basics, back to our first principles.”

“We were here long before President Trump came along, and we’re going to be here long afterward,” Kremer said…

[Rand] Paul has remained a steadfast supporter of Brooks, visiting the state on Friday to campaign for the congressman. He told callers to a Monday night tele-town hall that Trump has “made some big whopper mistakes.”

“Many of us were conservative, slash libertarian, slash constitutionalists well before there was a Donald Trump,” Paul said to potential voters on the Monday night call. “We were glad Donald Trump was with us on so many things, but it doesn’t make him the end-all of everything.

Among the notable populists who crossed Trump by endorsing Brooks: Paul, Ted Cruz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Chip Roy, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Charlie Kirk. Paul pronounced himself mystified as to why Trump would endorse Britt over Brooks, but there’s no mystery behind it. He looked at the polling and saw that Britt was likely to cruise to victory no matter what he did, so he opted to jump out in front of the parade and claim another “win.” Why, without Donald Trump’s endorsement, instead of Britt getting 63 percent of the vote last night, she would only have gotten … 60 percent, maybe? 58 percent?

If Trump backing a squishy Republican were a one-off thing, MAGA fans might overlook it. It isn’t. Trump also endorsed RINO Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary over populist Kathy Barnette and traditional conservative turned pretend populist Dave McCormick. That was another iteration of Longwell’s point about GOP primaries dividing into MEGA-MAGA (Barnette), MAGA-MAGA (McCormick), and MINI-MAGA (Oz). Populists were miffed in that case that he chose the MINI-MAGA over the alternatives. But they’re downright pissed that he abandoned longtime populist MAGA sycophant Mo Brooks for a McConnell-blessed center-right choice like Britt.

Were Trump not so vain and insecure about his perceived influence in the party, he’d see the peril here. The more he endorses RINOs whom he thinks will win, burnishing his vaunted win-loss record in primaries, the easier it’ll be for DeSantis to argue in 2024 that Trump has betrayed populists too often to deserve their support a third time. DeSantis can’t win a primary by running to Trump’s center, even if Republican voters are convinced that he’s more electable than Trump is. But if he can get to Trump’s right *and* maintain his electability edge, that’s dangerous territory for Trump. “Why didn’t Trump demand an end to lockdowns sooner in 2020?” DeSantis will say. “And why did he backstab a loyal Trump Republican like Mo Brooks in Alabama and support Mitch McConnell’s candidate instead?”

Trump’s ego about his endorsement record is blinding him to the opening he’s creating for DeSantis by not opting for the most MAGA candidate in every race. In fairness to him, there’s some strategic logic in not doing that — if he went full MAGA with all of his picks, he’d lose more often and the media narrative about him losing his grip on the party would accelerate. But at least he’d be protecting his right flank by doing so. As it is, he’s creating space for DeSantis. Ask yourself: Of the two, whom do you think Brooks will endorse for president in 2024?

In lieu of an exit question, read this Axios piece about Mehmet Oz quietly disappearing Trump from his campaign material now that he’s made it to the general election. I understand why — he wants suburban voters to appreciate his RINO-ness — but it’s an odd choice in one respect. Trump, after all, is probably more popular in the state than Oz is.

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