Republicans have made Mike Pence central to their midterm campaign strategy. At a summit at Camp David early this year, Donald Trump and party leaders green-lit a plan that has the vice president crisscrossing the country to save GOP control of Congress in a year when the party’s hold on both chambers is in jeopardy. As one of Pence’s long-time political advisers put it earlier this month, Pence represents the “tip of the spear” of the party’s midterm efforts.
All of which makes Tuesday’s results in a little-watched GOP primary a little embarrassing for Pence—and at least a little worrisome for the Republicans praying he can save them this fall.
In Texas’ 5th Congressional District, the candidate Pence endorsed, the amazingly named Bunni Pounds, lost her runoff to state Rep. Lance Gooden by 6 points, 53 percent to 47. The conservative district, which has been represented by retiring Rep. Jeb Hensarling for the past decade and a half, is all but guaranteed to stay red this fall. But it was the first open congressional primary that Pence publicly inserted himself into this year and, making things even more awkward, he appears to have done so without the blessing of his boss. As the New York Times reported, Pence got involved as a favor to Hensarling, his friend from his days in the House, only after Trump turned down Hensarling’s request to help anoint Pounds, a GOP fundraiser, as his successor.
Pounds also had the backing of Sen. Ted Cruz and other Tea Party types, along with a major fundraising advantage. Gooden, meanwhile, had the support of a wealthy local hotelier who has been his political benefactor for years, and who spent big attacking Pounds for her past work getting Wall Street to cut big-dollar donations to people like Hensarling.
Perhaps Pence will have more luck in future races. His older brother coasted to an easy victory in an Indiana congressional primary earlier this month, even without an explicit endorsement from his younger brother. And the vice president clearly retains his strong appeal among the Christian right and with the conservative donor-class. Nonetheless, Pounds’ defeat is still a small but significant blow to Pence personally. More importantly, it should upset the stomachs of those Republicans who are banking on the idea that the vice president will be able to give MAGA-style pushes to a variety of GOP candidates who will need them this fall.
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