Former President Trump loves celebrity — especially TV fame. But his enthusiasm is not working out so well for the Republican Party.
Trump has backed a host of candidates in party primaries who are famous or have a track record in television, or both. But many of his chosen stars are underperforming, complicating the GOP’s electoral chances.
Critics charge that Trump fails to recognize the downsides of elevating people for their celebrity status or media chops alone.
Some think he remains deeply attached to the world of tabloid fame and TV stardom from which he catapulted himself into office — and fails to see how others will struggle to replicate that success.
“When you look at Trump, you have to step back and view him through the lens of ‘The Apprentice,’” said Olivia Troye, who served in the office of then-Vice President Mike Pence during the Trump administration. Politics “is almost one big game show to him — except that it’s about the governing of our country.”
While president, Trump installed figures known at least in part for TV work, such as Omarosa Manigault Newman, Larry Kudlow and Anthony Scaramucci, into senior positions — often with tumultuous results.
He also sought outside counsel from media figures including Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, to the frustration of some White House aides.
The clearest recent example of Trump’s seemingly misplaced ardor for celebrities is Mehmet Oz, better known as TV’s “Dr. Oz.”
Oz was propelled to victory in a closely contested primary by Trump, who endorsed him in April. In the official announcement, Trump enthused that Oz “has lived with us through the screen.” Soon afterward, the former president mused that strong TV ratings are “like a poll — that means people like you.”
Even if there’s a grain of truth in that observation, Oz has struggled to unite GOP voters or make much headway in his campaign.
He is trailing his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, by almost 9 points in the RealClearPolitics average — despite the fact that Fetterman has not been able to hit the campaign trail since suffering a stroke in mid-May.
Oz now faces the very real possibility of losing a seat currently in GOP hands.
Several other Trump picks seem to spell trouble for Republicans’ chances.
On Tuesday, conservative Tudor Dixon, endorsed by Trump just before primary comment, easily became the GOP’s nominee for governor in Michigan.
Trump’s backing was even more crucial in propelling Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor, to a victory in the equivalent contest in Arizona. The close primary race in Arizona was called for Lake late Thursday evening.
Dixon, whose resumé also includes an appearance in a horror movie, is trailing incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by big margins — 11 points in a Detroit News/WDIV poll last month. That’s all the more galling for Republicans because Whitmer has long been a key target.
As for Lake, even if her TV chops are an asset, her election denialism is almost certainly not — at least in a general election. Lake has endorsed the former president’s claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate.
Backers of her opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson — a group that includes Pence and incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey (R) — have warned that Lake will struggle in the general election against Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D).
It’s in the Senate where Trump’s enthusiasm for famous figures could really haunt the GOP.
In addition to Oz, two key Trump picks, Herschel Walker in Georgia and JD Vance in Ohio, are stumbling.
Walker’s main calling card is his footballing fame — he won the Heisman Trophy while at the University of Georgia — while Vance is best known for his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which was turned into a movie.
Walker and to a lesser degree Vance have lagged behind their Democratic opponents in some polls, contributing to a tightening picture in the battle for the Senate that has caused Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to begin to play down expectations.
McConnell told Bret Baier of Fox News on Wednesday that when the “smoke clears, we’re likely to have a very, very close Senate still.”
Dan Judy, a Republican strategist but Trump critic, lamented that too many in his party — including Trump and his favored candidates — were failing to appreciate the gulf between celebrity and political prowess.
“The sort of success that makes you a celebrity does not necessarily translate to political skills — particularly if your first run is for the US Senate or for governor, where literally everything you say is recorded and blasted out for the world to see,” Judy said.
“We generally see this with successful businesspeople but I think it also applies to these more celebrity-type candidates,” he added. “They think it’s going to be easy. And running for office is really hard.”
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, noted that the trend of celebrity politicians did not start with Trump.
It includes movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stint as governor of California and former wrestler Jesse Ventura’s time as governor of Minnesota. Former President Reagan, of course, was known for his movie career and TV appearances long before he entered politics.
Trump “believes in the power of TV,” Zelizer said. “I do think at some level Trump believes that there’s no-one as powerful in American culture as The Celebrity.”
But, he added, “the reality is that politics isn’t television and many TV people can fall apart quickly by entering the political arena.”
Republicans are hoping that doesn’t happen this year.
But the omens are not good for Trump’s stars.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.