In yet another off-year election, Republicans who cozied up to Trump lost while those who discussed issues won, once again revealing that while the former president may play well in the primary, he’s often electoral poison for Republicans in an election against Democrats.
Like 2018, 2021, 2022, and 2023, the candidates chosen by Donald Trump in the GOP primaries mostly lost what should have been easy victories, often in conservative-leaning states. No one may epitomize this trend more than Daniel Cameron, the Republican nominee for governor of Kentucky.
The Louisville Courier-Journal laid out the problem facing the GOP. Once again Republicans learned the truth about Trump—he’s great in a primary but isn’t nearly as good in a general election, even in a red state like Kentucky. There’s no doubt that Trump’s endorsement of Cameron in the GOP primary sunk his deep-pocketed rival—Kelly Craft—and helped Cameron surge to the nomination.
And in October, after falling far behind, Cameron used Trump’s endorsement again to nationalize the race and reel in Beshear, who had built up a large lead. But for as unpopular as President Joe Biden is in Kentucky (and believe me, it’s bad) Trump has his detractors, too. There are moderate, college-educated Republicans and independents in key counties in the Louisville, Lexington, and Cincinnati metro areas for whom Trump is a deal breaker.
Interestingly, in the race for Agriculture Commissioner, Republican Jonathan Shell won both a primary and a general election on the strength of a simple, nationalized message: “Stop Biden, Save Kentucky.” What Shell did not do was bring Trump into the mix, instead focusing squarely on Biden. He won by 18 points.
Rather than talk about issues, for some reason, Cameron believed that he should close his campaign by simply running on being liked by former President Trump.
Daniel Cameron’s closing argument was “I am endorsed by Mr. Trump.” pic.twitter.com/zXb4fY03A7
— Max (@MaxNordau) November 8, 2023
Trump rivals quickly jumped on the former president, reiterating the refrain discussed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds as she explained why she was picking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for her endorsement.
“I believe he can’t win,” Reynolds said of Trump during an interview, “and I believe that Ron can. And that’s a big reason I got behind him.”
Following news of Cameron’s defeat, Trump’s rival, former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, claimed the defeat in the Kentucky gubernatorial race was a “verdict” on “politicians who sell their soul to Donald Trump.”
“Daniel Cameron was a rising star in the Republican Party until he decided to throw his lot in with Donald Trump,” Christie said. “I mean, let’s face it: Donald Trump is political and electoral poison down ballot,” Christie said.
Christie went on to list the Republican losses since Trump’s victory in 2016, including the underperformance by Republicans in last year’s midterm elections, in which the GOP only narrowly won back the House of Representatives.
Chris Christie on CNN: "Daniel Cameron made a huge mistake by embracing Donald Trump and selling his soul to him. And that's what he did. And the voters — Kentucky is a very red state, as you noted — gave their verdict on politicians who sell their soul to Donald Trump." pic.twitter.com/U8Uy543DGP
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 8, 2023
“Down ballot, his endorsement has led to Republican defeats in the Senate and the House in ‘18. In ‘20, we lost the United States Senate and the White House. In ‘22, we underperformed miserably. And tonight, you’re seeing us lose again,” Christie said.
“Daniel Cameron made a huge mistake by embracing Donald Trump and selling his soul to him. That’s what he did. And the voters — Kentucky, a very red state, as you noted — gave their verdict on politicians who sell their soul to Donald Trump,” he added.
For his part, on Wednesday, Trump himself seemed to realize that his picks continually lose in the general election. Over the weekend, he took credit for Daniel Cameron’s “surge” and said “he’s not really a McConnell guy,” but after Cameron’s defeat, the former president blamed McConnell for the loss.
Trump Saturday: The voters know that Daniel Cameron isn't really a "McConnell Guy"
Trump today: "Daniel Cameron lost bc he couldn't alleviate the stench of Mitch McConnell" pic.twitter.com/As1EIkmreR
— John Hasson (@SonofHas) November 8, 2023
In 2020, McConnell won the state of Kentucky by nearly 20 percent and his campaign chairman, Jonathan Shell, won by 18 points last night.
McConnell’s campaign chairman Jonathan Shell won by 18 points last night lol https://t.co/Qgu16XvEsJ
— Michael Duncan (@MichaelDuncan) November 8, 2023
Another shocking development in the races where Republicans lost was the realization that the party was dramatically outspent this election cycle.
That’s two years in a row where Republicans get heavily outspent in winnable races that they end up losing pic.twitter.com/OdDCjAfpyD
— Greg Price (@greg_price11) November 8, 2023
The poor showing caused supporters of the former president to turn on Ronna Romney McDaniel, the National Chairman of the Republican Party.
I tried to make a list of everything Rs have lost since Ronna McDaniel became GOP Chair in 2017
At this point, are we sure she isn’t a Democrat? 😉 pic.twitter.com/5yRwwk6DsK
— Brent Peabody 🇺🇸🇺🇦 (@brent_peabody) November 8, 2023
But Trump critics pushed back, reminding the public how McDaniel received her position in the first place.
Trump made Ronna Romney RNC chair.
He bragged about it recently. Trump's words: "I was instrumental in getting her to head of the RNC."
— Pedro L. Gonzalez (@emeriticus) November 8, 2023
It has been rumored that McDaniel received the nod from Trump because she promised to help pay the former president’s legal bills, something that has stuck in the craw of many conservatives worried about winning in 2024.
The poor showing in Kentucky has seen a redoubling of complaints about how the former president spends his campaign funds. In August, Republican activists criticized the GOP frontrunner after The New York Times revealed that the “political action committee that former President Donald J. Trump is using to pay his legal bills faced such staggering costs this year that it requested a refund on a $60 million contribution it made to another group supporting the Republican frontrunner, according to two people familiar with the matter.”
Despite these objections and not seeming to have a campaign on the ground in early states, however, Donald Trump still leads in polling the Republican primary.
The GOP’s saving grace in 2024 may be that, like Trump, Joe Biden is one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history, only time will tell if Republican voters are willing to make that bet.