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Jun 11, 2024, 6:18pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Can a Republican survive Trump’s wrath? Bob Good is about to find out.

David Weigel/Semafor
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The Scene

POWHATAN, Va. – Steve Bannon had a mission: Convince Republican voters, just this once, not to listen to Donald Trump.

It was Friday evening, one day after a federal judge ordered Bannon — Trump’s former White House adviser turned MAGA podcast mogul — to prison for defying subpoenas from the Jan. 6 committee. He was spending it in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, rallying with Rep. Bob Good, the chair of the hardline House Freedom Caucus who had thrilled Bannon and other anti-establishment Republicans by helping to bring down Kevin McCarthy’s speakership.

But Good had made the grave political miscalculation of supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president, a “stab in the back” that convinced Trump to endorse his primary opponent, state Sen. John McGuire. The incumbent had planned to run as an America First establishment-smasher; he and Bannon had to explain why Trump, who they called the greatest president of their lifetime, wasn’t with him this time.

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“We have unconditional support for President Trump,” said Bannon. “President Trump needs backup. We’re here today because these heroes fought McCarthy and the cartel and the establishment to a standstill.”

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David’s view

For the better part of eight years, Trump loyalty has been a shortcut to Republican victory, and disloyalty has been enough to sink an incumbent who’d otherwise be safe. Good’s race is a high-profile and multi-million dollar test of whether any amount of MAGA-credibility can overcome the black mark of committing a transgression against the former president.

It’s also one of several upcoming primaries set for the coming weeks where, in a role reversal, more establishment-friendly candidates are leveraging Trump’s approval to their advantage. McGuire has received help from McCarthy himself, who, working through a set of PACs, has been working on what Bannon and Good call a “revenge tour.”

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Trump, meanwhile, has backed several more mainstream choices over Freedom Caucus-style conservatives, aligning himself with likely winners over candidates who promise to kill the federal Leviathan. Last week, Trump-endorsed Montana state Auditor Troy Downing beat the candidate supported by Good, and will sail into a safe seat. In North Dakota, the former president endorsed state public service commissioner Julie Fedorchak over Rick Becker, a conservative who aligns with the Freedom Caucus; the Club for Growth quickly ended its support for Becker.

On Monday, Trump endorsed South Carolina Rep. William Timmons for re-election over Adam Morgan, a leader of the state legislature’s Freedom Caucus who’d run to Timmons’ right and promised to defend the ex-president from a weaponized legal system.

In Virginia, McGuire has portrayed Good’s willingness to block compromise bills — which put him at odds with McCarthy, but won him the adoration of commentators like Bannon — as a potential threat to the Trump restoration.

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“In 2016, Trump had the House and the Senate, but he had a few disloyal Republicans that kept rolling marbles under his feet, and trying to stop or slow down his agenda,” McGuire told Virginia radio talker John Fredericks after he scored the Trump endorsement. “We can’t have this. We need to get it right. Trump is our last hope.”

Trump hasn’t entirely thrown his weight behind the establishment. In South Carolina today, Rep. Nancy Mace is counting on her hard-won Trump endorsement to hold off a McCarthy-backed challenger, for instance.

If Good had his way, a House Freedom Caucus co-founder would be en route to the presidency. But DeSantis never won a single primary. Instead of a fellow traveler who would fight with them on everything, Good and his colleagues got a nominee who wants to win, and is comfortable tossing ideologues overboard if they hurt him. And they now face an electorate that may care more about fealty to Trump than old conservative litmus tests on issues.

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Know More

That fact has been magnified in the current crop of primaries, which have been dominated by the reaction to Trump’s felony conviction, with candidates jockeying over who would do more to protect the former president.

​​“Every Republican issues a statement of how bad it is, and then they don’t do anything,” Morgan, the South Carolina candidate Trump chose not to endorse, told Charlie Kirk on his podcast last week. “They don’t actually shut down the border. They don’t actually go at the budgets of these agencies that are undermining our constitutional republic.”

Good himself reacted to the indictment with all the requisite outrage. “This is a bogus charge, this is a bogus court, this is a corrupt judge,” he told supporters at another rally last week, with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. “This is Soviet-style: Show me the man, I’ll show you the crime. This is going after your opponents like a third world country, like a banana republic.” Bannon’s rally put an exclamation point on that, as the War Room host warned that Trump’s enemies were “either going to imprison or bankrupt all of us.”

Good’s opponents have nonetheless savaged him as a weak defender of the president. Last week, when McGuire campaigned with Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — who was pushed out of the Freedom Caucus — she mangled the history behind the DeSantis endorsement, claiming that Good backed Trump’s challenger “the very day that Alvin Bragg, that scumbag in New York, indicted President Trump.” Bragg indicted Trump on April 4, 2023; Good endorsed DeSantis 35 days later. Details, details; her point was that a Republican ready to pick his ideology over Trump was dangerous.

“We will never forget when Jeff Sessions recused himself,” said Greene. “We will never forget the Mueller investigation that carried on, and Republicans stepped back and allowed it to happen. We will never forget how they impeached President Trump wrongfully.”

Pro-McGuire forces had delivered this warning for months. Any criticism of Trump by Good was a warning that he might undermine a second term. In late January, as the DeSantis campaign wound down, a semi-anonymous YouTube channel started uploading video of Good explaining himself, in public and private comments.

“I was concerned about the legal persecution, the abuse of power towards our president and how that would hurt him, potentially, in a general election,” Good told constituents in a town hall meeting. In another clip, recorded without Good’s awareness, he explained that DeSantis had a better record than Trump on guns (“Trump did red flag laws when he was president”) and abortion (“Trump is saying we’re gonna need to back off”).

McGuire’s allies stapled those quotes to Good’s forehead. It doesn’t matter if a critique of Trump is right; what matters is that the congressman was disloyal. “Bob Good won’t be electable when we get done with him,” Trump campaign strategist Chris LaCivita said in January. The day after the Manhattan conviction, Trump’s campaign issued a cease-and-desist order to stop Good from displaying lawn signs that link the men together.

Good’s campaign hadn’t played along. On Friday, Powhatan’s courthouse lawn was surrounded by campaign signs that looked, until further examination, like endorsements: “Republican TRUMP/ BOB GOOD/ Keeping America Great!” (A couple walking past me and the rally speculated that Trump had chosen a running mate named “Bob Good.”)

At the microphone, Good told stories about the Freedom Caucus’ fight to stop spending and oust McCarthy. Navigating pro-Trump media, he needed to explain that the president made a mistake by opposing him — without ever saying those words.

“Are you back in good standing with the boss?” former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka asked Good on his radio show earlier that day.

“I’m doing everything I can to help the president win,” said the congressman. “He’s the best president of my lifetime.”

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Notable

  • In the American Conservative, Bradley Delvin asks why Good really became a Trump target: “the more moderate factions of the party are trying to minimize conservatives’ electoral success.”
  • In The New York Times, Richard Fausset covers a primary where one Republican apologized for his actions on Jan. 6, a move that has gone out of fashion. “His website recently noted his prosecution… as proof that he has ‘always stood for the conservative movement.’”
  • For NBC News, Bridget Bowman and Ben Kamisar run down all the Trump endorsement tests in today’s primaries, which can “further demonstrate his influence among the GOP base and shape the future of the party.”
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