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In 2022, GOP is built around the 'MAGA-verse,' if not always Trump himself

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The Republican Party of 2022 consists of a veritable “MAGA-verse,” a sprawling franchise akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, centered and branded by Donald Trump's agenda but not always controlled by Trump himself.

A series of Republican primaries have shown that Trump and his official imprimatur still carry the most weight in the party. But the old party establishment, and an even more extreme version of MAGA-style candidates, have demonstrated the limits of the former president’s sway, according to interviews with more than a dozen GOP campaign strategists, elected officials and others this week.

The party is sprawling and at times nebulous in its identity — not unlike Marvel’s blockbuster franchise, which used to center on the mega-money "Avengers" movies, but which has since spun off multiple Marvel-themed enterprises with only passing connections to the original.

Donald Trump, with a grim expression, at the microphone.
Former President Donald Trump at a rally May 1 in Greenwood, Neb., where he was supporting Charles Herbster, who lost the state's gubernatorial race. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In Ohio, Trump’s pick for a Senate seat, J.D. Vance, the author of "Hillbilly Elegy," who has worked in Silicon Valley in venture capitalism, changed his colors from an ardent Never Trumper to a full-bore populist and won a strong plurality of support. All but one of Vance’s primary opponents fought over who represented Trump’s MAGA movement better, and won a fair share of the vote in the process — but not enough to beat Trump’s pick.

But when Pennsylvania held its Republican senatorial primary two weeks later, an insurgent candidate, David McCormick, who said the MAGA movement was not Trump’s alone, ran a race that appears to be headed for a recount. As of Friday morning, McCormick was still locked in a tight battle with Mehmet Oz, Trump’s pick.

In another indication at the other end of the spectrum that Trump's imprimatur isn't everything, Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano won the Republican gubernatorial primary even though the former president chose not to endorse him until a few days before the election. A Trump loyalist who attended the Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally, he worked with Trump’s legal team to try to overturn the 2020 election results, and his far-right views seemed to resonate with a substantial number of Pennsylvania Republicans voting in the primary.

“It’s fair to say at this point [that] MAGA [is] moving on from Trump’s complete control. He’s endorsing late, leading from behind, as some of his early picks [in Pennsylvania’s Senate race and Georgia governor’s races] aren’t necessarily doing well,” said Michael Cohen, a longtime Republican pollster (not the former Trump lawyer). “But it’d be inaccurate to say that he doesn’t have a strong hold on the GOP; it’s just not total one-way loyalty, which he demands.”

Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance at a podium with a poster saying Save America.
J.D. Vance at a rally in Delaware, Ohio, on April 23. (Joe Maiorana/AP)

The core tenets of the GOP built in Ronald Reagan’s image hold fast — opposed to taxes, staunchly anti-abortion — and Republicans who stick to the old-guard image crafted around Reagan still do well, often in the face of Trump’s attacks.

But Trump’s rise introduced key MAGA tenets of today's GOP, including trade protectionism, opposition to U.S. intervention on the global stage and a refusal to accept election results — violently so in the case of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The populist wing of the GOP is not Trump’s alone

Republican operatives described a powerful brand of populism, which jelled around Trump but is not necessarily beholden to him alone.

“I’ve read some of the speculation that maybe the Trump movement is [moving] beyond just being Trump's, and I think there's some truth to that,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a former head of the House Republicans’ campaign arm.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely viewed as one of the strongest contenders for the Republican nomination in 2024 — with or without Trump in the race — picked a fight with Disney, he couched it in terms of ending corporate handouts.

Gov. Ron DeSantis makes his point emphatically in front of a microphone.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press conference at Seminole State College in Sanford, Fla., on Monday. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via ZUMA Press Wire)

Leading figures on the right, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel, seem to be eclipsing Trump in terms of influence and power. They have pushed Republicans to take an isolationist stance against aiding Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion.

The most recent vote in Congress on $40 billion for Ukraine showed the power of the populist wing, which appears to include roughly one-quarter of the Republicans in the House and Senate.

“This is a tradition that in my party runs back to Theodore Roosevelt,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and another possible candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024, told Yahoo News. “It's a tradition that says that we should look very carefully at securing America's national security, that we should pursue a foreign policy that is focused around our national interests, and our overriding national interest is always to prevent any one nation from growing powerful enough to dominate us.”

The Reagan coalition is shrinking, but remains potent

In Georgia, Republican voters appear likely to hand Trump his biggest loss yet: supporting the incumbent, Gov. Brian Kemp — whom Trump pressured, unsuccessfully, to overturn the 2020 election results in the state — over Trump’s anointed candidate, former Sen. David Perdue. With Perdue’s loss imminent, Trump has abandoned the longtime Georgia politician, whom he recruited to run less than a year ago.

Former Sen. David Perdue, as Gov. Brian Kemp listens, speaks at a podium marked The Atlanta Press. Club Inc.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and former Sen. David Perdue at a Republican gubernatorial primary debate on May 1 in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/Pool via AP)

The old establishment has racked up some surprising wins over the MAGA-verse, protecting the governor’s seat in Idaho and beating back a Trump donor and Jan. 6 organizer, Charles Herbster, in Nebraska. Veteran Republicans even succeeded in ousting North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who got a late burst of support from Trump but was unable to recover from a deluge of scandals.

Reagan’s namesake foundation in California has been hosting a series of speeches featuring potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders, from former Vice President Mike Pence to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Notably, it has left Trump off its rostrum.

“Whether they result in a win, a loss or a race that’s too close to call, the numbers for Vance, Cawthorn and Oz paint a strikingly similar picture, one that suggests two things: The size of the Trump base among GOP primary voters is consistent, but small; and Trump’s endorsement, while helpful, is nowhere near being a golden ticket,” one veteran Republican strategist, Doug Heye, wrote after this week’s Republican primaries.

The protagonist over the brand

When a candidate walks in with some celebrity appeal, broad recognition and polish — like Vance and Oz — the official Trump branding of MAGA approval is usually enough to carry them over the finish line. But branding isn’t always enough.

“The strength and the skill of the politician matters. I mean, look what happened in Idaho,” Cole said, referring to the governor’s race, where Gov. Brad Little, supported by Idaho’s top Republicans, handily beat Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who was backed by Trump.

Janice McGeachin gestures emphatically in a room covered with posters.
Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin at a Republican primary celebration in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday. (Kyle Green/AP)

“He’s got enormous influence,” Cole said of Trump. “I don't know any incumbent that wants the president on the other side of him in a Republican primary. I can tell you I certainly don't. So I think he's still the most important figure inside the Republican coalition, but nobody defines the entire Republican Party by one man, any more than any one figure would define the entire Democratic Party.”

Gentry Collins, a longtime Republican strategist and CEO of the new AmFree Chamber — which formed as a counterweight to former GOP stalwart the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — said he’s seeing a lot of voter discontent over inflation, gas prices and other stressors. That means that candidates seeking support from any wing of the modern GOP need to bring more than just a label to their races.

“I don't think it's just enough to be, like, ‘I’m the not-Trump candidate.’ That doesn't work this time. But I think we're also seeing in these primaries that if I've got nothing to offer but being the Trump legacy candidate, that's not quite working, either,” Collins said. “I just fundamentally think people are really worried about bread-and-butter issues, quite literally, and are looking for people that are serious about how to fix that.”