By Alexandra Ulmer
ATLANTA (Reuters) - The crushing defeat of David Perdue in Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary in Georgia likely delighted Donald Trump's adversaries, who have been keeping scorecards to measure the performance of election candidates backed by the former president.
Trump has weighed in on November's midterm elections like no former president, announcing more than 190 endorsements and holding rallies with his proteges. The success of his endorsees is seen as a key sign of his continued influence over the party as he hints at another run for the White House in 2024.
But political analysts and Republican strategists caution that any jubilation among Trump's enemies over Perdue's loss to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is short-sighted, and that any scorecard is a poor barometer for the state of Trumpism in the United States in 2022.
While Trump's candidates have had mixed success so far this year in party primaries, many Republican voters still embrace Trump's false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, as well as his right-wing, "America First" populist ideology. And failure to win Trump's endorsement has not stopped some Republican candidates from going hard-right to try to win over his base.
"In 2016, Trump was really the only candidate running as that sort of populist. Now it's increasingly what most Republican primary candidates sound like," said Republican strategist Alex Conant.
That underlines the continuation of the Trump-led metamorphosis of the Republican Party since he was voted out of the White House in 2020, even as some party leaders seek to move the party away from Trumpism, the strategists and analysts said.
"I think the No. 1 thing Trump has absolutely changed in the party is that Republicans don't even try playing nice anymore. My side has become more angry," said Republican strategist Chuck Warren.
'The People's MAGA'
Trump's kingmaker status was put to the test this month when several high-profile, Trump-backed candidates faced Republican primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia.
Around two-thirds of high-profile candidates backed by Trump triumphed in their contests in May, although some were running unopposed or against weak challengers. One race, the Republican senate contest in Pennsylvania between television personality Mehmet Oz, who received Trump's endorsement, and former hedge fund executive David McCormick, has yet to be decided.
In another race on Tuesday, for Georgia's secretary of state position, incumbent Brad Raffensperger narrowly avoided a run-off against Trump-endorsed Rep. Jody Hice.
In lobbying for the former president's endorsement, both men cast aside their elite backgrounds to espouse the Trump-style populism that now resonates with Republicans.
The primary was shaken up by Kathy Barnette, a conservative political commentator, who came from nowhere at the 11th hour to tighten a race that had until then appeared to be a two-man contest. While she finished a distant third in the primaries, analysts said she was emblematic of how Trump's Make America Great Again movement has expanded beyond his control.
"MAGA does not belong to President Trump," Barnette said during a Republican debate last month, even as Trump spoke out against her. "Although he coined the word, MAGA actually belongs to the people."
Republican voters in Pennsylvania also backed Trump-endorsed far-right candidate Doug Mastriano for governor, who supports abortion bans with no exceptions and backs Trump's false claims of election fraud. Mastriano won his contest.
In North Carolina, Republican voters powered Trump-backed Representative Ted Budd, who voted to overturn Biden's election win, to victory in the state's Republican Senate nomination.
Georgia's governor's race, where Perdue was pummeled on Tuesday by Kemp, shows how the Republican Party has shifted to the right, irrespective of how Trump-endorsed candidates perform in these primaries.
While Kemp did not entertain Trump's conspiracy theories of 2020 election fraud, he did enact sweeping voting restrictions, limited abortions and expanded gun rights.
But voters were only willing to follow Trump so far in backing flawed candidates in May's nominating contests.
In North Carolina, voters ousted scandal-plagued congressman Madison Cawthorn despite Trump's last-minute plea to give him "a second chance." And in Nebraska, Trump's choice for governor, Charles Herbster, lost amid accusations that he had sexually harassed several women.
With months of primaries still to come, it is much too early to know the final tallies on Trump's scorecard.
But what is already clear, analysts say, is that Trump's winning 2016 strategy to seize on the issues bitterly polarizing Americans is increasingly being emulated by Republican candidates this year and enthusiastically embraced by party supporters.
The spread of this right-wing populism may ultimately open the door for more challengers to Trump's vice-like grip on the party ahead of the next presidential election, said Conant, the Republican strategist
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)