Donald Trump has so far been unwilling to put his recent endorsement hot streak to the test in Tennessee’s GOP gubernatorial primary. According to Politico, the president “has no plans to get involved” in Thursday’s marquee contest, a somewhat curious decision given Mike Pence has personally endorsed Rep. Diane Black in the race and Trump himself has praised the Republican congresswoman in public.
Of course, since this is Trump, the report requires the usual caveat: We can’t rule out the possibility that the president will change his mind between now and when the polls close. He’s already proved willing to weigh in with an endorsement after day-of voting begins, as he did in South Carolina in June when he gave Katie Arrington a push in the final hours of her primary takedown of Rep. Mark Sanford.
Still, assuming Trump really does stay out of it, the GOP contest presents an interesting test case for a couple of this year’s early primary narratives, neither of which bode particularly well for Black. The first is that House Republicans looking for promotions this year have struggled mightily in contested statewide primaries. And the second is that Pence has yet to prove he can play kingmaker in a Republican primary all on his own.
Black began the race as the favorite, but she never pulled away in a crowded field. There hasn’t been much polling in the state this year, but the most recent surveys paint a blurry picture. An Emerson College poll from mid-July found Black with 27 percent of the vote, good for a narrow, within-the-margin-of-error lead on two of her rivals, entrepreneur Randy Boyd at 22 percent and businessman Bill Lee at 19 percent. A JMC Analytics poll released this week also found a statistical dead heat among the three, though with the order reversed: Lee had 26 percent, Boyd 20 percent, and Black 19 percent. With a fourth credible candidate, state House Speaker Beth Harwell, also sitting in the teens in both surveys, it is a safe bet that the eventual winner will come up well short of a majority of the vote.
And that’s why Trump’s silence is curious. He’s proved capable of swinging a GOP primary almost on his own—and taken great joy in doing so—including races like this one, where most of the major candidates are all trying to prove they love Trump the most. (See also: Brian Kemp’s come-from-behind stunner in Georgia’s gubernatorial runoff last month.) And Trump has already gotten involved in Tennessee’s other marque contest, endorsing Rep. Marsha Blackburn in her bid to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker, as well as in a contested House primary, in which Trump is backing Rep. David Kustoff.
Trump has also made it clear he’s a Black fan. He singled her out for praise in person and on Twitter last year for her work as chairwoman of the House Budget Committee and for her help passing the GOP tax cuts, and he gave her a shoutout at one of his MAGA rallies in Tennessee in May, all of which Black has gone to great lengths to remind Tennessee Republicans of. Pence, meanwhile, has been a loyal supporter. The veep’s PAC gave $4,000 to Black’s campaign last year—accompanied by a personal letter signed by Pence—and he tweeted his endorsement last week with his boss’s preferred #MAGA hashtag.
It’s tempting to look for a method to Trump’s madness. He could be sitting this one out for any number of reasons. The president might think Black can’t win, or that she shouldn’t. Or the White House could just be trying to get a better feel for how much Pence can move the needle on his own, something that could help determine how best to deploy him later this year. Regardless, here’s a safe prediction for how Trump will read the Tennessee results: He’ll either take credit for Black’s victory by pointing to Pence’s endorsement and his own kind words, or he’ll shrug off her loss by pointing out he didn’t give her his full backing.