The cliffhanger House primary that reveals everything about Trump’s GOP

It’s a primary election that took an MRI of the modern Republican Party — revealing toxic backstabbing, desperate lunges for Donald Trump’s favor and the former president’s always festering sense of betrayal.

And no one knows how it will end.

Rep. Bob Good – an arch conservative whom Trump is trying to bump out of Congress for disloyalty – trails his GOP challenger, state Sen. John McGuire, by just over 340 votes after Tuesday’s election in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, with about 96% of votes in. The fate of Trump’s quest for revenge could ironically partly hang on mail-in ballots – a category of votes the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has often decried with his false claims of 2020 election fraud.

Trump is angry at Good, the chair of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, because he initially endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the GOP presidential race.

Kevin McCarthy also showed that Virginia is for vengeance by seeking his own bounty on Good, who helped to oust the California Republican as speaker last year. Good could become the first Republican incumbent to lose a House primary to a nonincumbent this year despite his frantic efforts to win back Trump’s support, which included a trip to support the former president at his hush money trial in New York.

McGuire told supporters Tuesday night, “I’m your Republican nominee,” and thanked Trump for his help, even though the race could be heading for a recount if the margin between the two candidates remains so tight and the losing candidate requests one. Good said on social media that he’d held off the “Washington swamp” and declared the race “too close to call.” CNN has not made a projection.

Defeat for Good would strangle a fast-rising congressional career born when he won a drive-thru GOP convention in a Lynchburg church parking lot during the pandemic. The staunch conservative was elected to chair the powerful Freedom Caucus in only his second term. But he authored his own demise by getting crosswise with two key forces in the riotous Republican House majority — the ex-president and McCarthy, whose still potent financial machine is on a revenge tour.

But the significance of the drama in this district – an area that produced presidents James Madison and James Monroe – goes far beyond a single, thwarted political arc. It shows that the real dividing line in the GOP is no longer a question of ideology. In more normal times, it would have been hard to imagine a conservative challenger getting to the right of Good. But in the modern GOP, the true acid test of political viability is total fealty to the presumptive nominee. And this race, which was the most expensive House GOP primary of the 2024 cycle so far, will also serve as the perfect emblem of a chaotic House majority that will be remembered far more for vicious internal fights and members trampling over one another to prove their devotion to Trump than for its legislative record.

Trump’s intervention

The ex-president has plenty of weightier worries amid a staggering confluence of legal crises following his first criminal conviction and three other indictments and with a potential second presidency to plan. But he also has a sensitive political radar that picks out even the merest hint of disloyalty.

It was therefore not surprising that Trump conducted a tele-rally for McGuire on primary eve and left his supporters with no doubt about who he favored and why.

“If he’s reelected, Bob Good will stab Virginia in the back, sort of like he did with me. He was against things that everybody would have wanted and always made it difficult,” Trump told supporters on the call. “He just let us down, he let us down very big. … As you probably know, he was against me for numerous years and then after I won the primaries, he became a big fan. But that’s not good enough, because those are the people that – they tend to leave you very quickly.”

Trump’s attempt to drive Good out of Congress sprung from the same reflex to exert power that he showed last week. In his first visit to Capitol Hill since his mob beat up police officers and smashed their way into the House and Senate on January 6, 2021, the ex-president gathered Republican lawmakers around him in a show of homage. The image of the day was a handshake offered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hasn’t hidden his disdain for the former president but who has never shirked from what needs to be done for the GOP to win and retain power.

While he was estranged from Trump, Good campaigned as though he and the former president were on the same side. He used signs that said: “Trump, Bob Good: Keeping America Great” – as he appeared alongside the former president’s final chief of staff, Mark Meadows, himself a former Freedom Caucus chairman. Speaking to CNN’s Manu Raju in March, Good dismissed questions about his backing of DeSantis, whose primary bid ended in January after a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. “Why don’t you get with the present? This is a time to rally behind President Trump,” Good said. “My opponent wants to continue to divide people based on the past. We’re all behind President Trump. He must win. The country can’t handle four more years of Joe Biden.”

The passport to power in Trump’s GOP

McGuire displayed the behavior required of anyone who wants a future in the Trump-era GOP in an interview with “CNN This Morning” on Tuesday just before polls opened in Virginia. He attacked Good for not being loyal to the party’s presumptive presidential nominee. “Obviously, he bagged Trump for an endorsement in 2022. And less than a year later, when the chips were down … he endorsed a different candidate.”

The retired Navy SEAL also upheld the former president’s claims of election fraud in 2020 by arguing that Trump was doomed by changes to voting arrangements that were introduced during the Covid-19 emergency. “I would say changing the rules in the middle of the game is cheating. And I think that that Trump was robbed,” McGuire said. A new law allowing no-excuse absentee voting was passed by Virginia’s legislature and approved by the governor in April 2020, seven months before the election.

McGuire also voiced Trump’s claims that the former president is a victim of a weaponized justice system following his conviction for falsifying business records to hide a payment to a former adult film star in 2016. Trump has made similar claims about his indictments over his attempt to overturn the election in 2020 and for alleged mishandling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort. “I’m not a lawyer, but I think all Americans, we go back to trust. You know, if we don’t have trust in our institutions, our country is going to fall apart. And there is evidence everywhere of a two-tiered justice system. Rules for thee, not for me,” McGuire said.

The candidate’s willingness to submit to the modern GOP’s trifecta — unflinching loyalty to Trump and acceptance of his election fraud conspiracies and legal persecution narrative could yet see him emerge as the district’s GOP nominee.

Good could only manage two of the three — and it could cost him his career.

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