MAGA, Inc: How GOP Candidates Use The Trump Brand To Run Long-Shot Races

(Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Varun Hukeri General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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President Donald Trump’s signature campaign slogan “Make American Great Again” appealed to many Republican voters’ deep-seated resentment towards the establishment, viewed by many of the president’s supporters as the source of American decline.

American Mind editor Christopher Buskirk noted in a 2019 essay that Trump’s presidency brought forth a challenge to the “elite opinion makers on the Right” often referred to by its detractors as Conservative, Inc. One criticism of this group is their failure to enact conservative policy goals while still taking in enormous sums of money from the donor class.

Trump will likely remain a kingmaker in conservative politics long after his term ends, as polling data shows Republicans almost unanimously approve of him and most would back him in the 2024 primaries. One effect of the GOP’s transformation in the wake of Trump’s presidency is arguably the emergence of MAGA, Inc.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19: U.S. President Donald Trump walks out of the White House before departing July 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to New Jersey to host a fundraising dinner and spend the weekend at his Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump walks out of the White House on July 19, 2019 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

MAGA, Inc. refers to the ecosystem of opinion makers in the post-Trump GOP who attempt to use the president’s popularity and populist brand to advance political goals. But much like their Conservative, Inc. counterparts, they are criticized by detractors for failing to secure meaningful victories while still enjoying the fruits of campaign contributions and media space.

Kim Klacik was one Republican congressional candidate who attached herself to the Trump brand during her candidacy for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. The deck was stacked against Klacik from the start, as the district is home to the Baltimore — a major Democratic stronghold — and the seat was once held by the late Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings.

Klacik previously ran for the seat during a special election earlier this year but only garnered 27% of the vote, according to WBAL-TV. She once again lost to incumbent Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume during the Nov. 3 general election.

But her campaign strategy during the 2020 cycle was highly effective even if she was not expected to win. Klacik released a viral campaign ad in August blasting Democratic Baltimore leaders for the city’s high crime rate and high rates of black poverty. A Federal Election Commission filing showed her campaign raised a record $6.4 million in just three months.

Klacik’s campaign incorporated issues like border security and defending law enforcement that are widely backed by Trump voters. Her association with the Trump brand may have paid off even without an election win. Donald Trump Jr. once dubbed her the “MAGA Candidate of the Week” and she earned a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.

Joe Collins was another Republican congressional candidate who ran in a long-shot race against incumbent Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters to represent California’s 43rd Congressional District. (RELATED: California GOP Endorsed A Man Who Said His Bodily Fluids Were Worth $15 Million)

Waters has represented the district since 1991 and Collins only garnered 28% of the vote in November’s election according to the California elections board. But Collins held a 10-to-one fundraising advantage over Waters and raised more than $10 million throughout the campaign, according to OpenSecrets. Small-dollar donors giving $200 or less made up 81% of contributions.

Collins depicted himself as a pro-Trump candidate running against a polarizing Democrat, and his association to the Trump brand paid off. He was photographed at a Hamptons fundraiser with Donald Trump Jr. and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in August, according to OpenSecrets. Trump also endorsed Collins in October.

A number of GOP candidates ran similar races against Democratic incumbents in 2020. Among them were Errol Weber, who lost to incumbent Democratic California Rep. Karen Bass with only 14% of the vote, and Lacy Johnson, who lost to incumbent Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar with only 26% of the vote.

Some of the candidates faced further scrutiny for taking in contributions — particularly from small-dollar donors — to ultimately run in races they were guaranteed to lose. Klacik later said after the election she planned to use leftover campaign funds to investigate unproven claims of voter fraud in her district, according to the Baltimore Sun.

But running long-shot races is not entirely ineffective. Candidates like Klacik and Collins represented legitimate grievances about how Democratic rule in places like Maryland and California has led to adverse outcomes for those communities. (RELATED: Kim Klacik Congratulates Opponent, Says ‘Prepare To Be Held Accountable Like Never Before’)

Although a Republican candidate will likely not unseat Waters or Bass for the foreseeable future, they do give disaffected Republican voters in those blue districts and states an opportunity to participate in the electoral process.

Klacik told the Daily Caller in a November interview she plans to continue challenging Democratic rule in Baltimore.

“We have Sinclair broadcasting and other folks across the country that want to start taking on corruption in some of these major inner cities,” she said. “So we will be going around the country and then of course spending a lot of time in Baltimore just to kind of show and expose a lot of the corruption we see on a daily basis.”

Among Trump’s notable electoral accomplishments was capturing a greater share of votes from racial minorities, with many of these communities found in American inner cities. Exit polls show that Trump gained four points with blacks, three points with Hispanics and five points with Asians when compared to 2016, according to the Guardian.

Some political observers note that a voter realignment is already underway, but it was the authentic expression of Trump’s brand that transformed the GOP and expanded the party’s electorate in 2020. Avoiding the MAGA version of Conservative, Inc. may be crucial in ensuring that the party secures meaningful victories in 2022 and 2024.