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The May primaries will test Trump’s role as GOP kingmaker

<i>Allison Joyce/Getty Images</i><br/>Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on April 9
Getty Images
Allison Joyce/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on April 9

By Gabby Orr, CNN

In the hours after Donald Trump announced his backing of J.D. Vance in the heated Ohio Senate Republican primary, he began asking allies which contest he should disrupt next.

Vance, once a fervent critic of Trump during the 2016 presidential race, had cemented his status as the poster boy of MAGA conversions when he earned Trump’s coveted endorsement on Good Friday, and the former President was “very pleased” with his decision to back the conservative author after many months of closely watching the Ohio race, according to a person close to Trump.

“Because he pulled the trigger in (Ohio), I think you’re going to see him do the same in other messy primaries that were once off the table,” this person said.

How soon Trump delivers his next big endorsement could shed light on his mindset as May approaches and offers the first real test of his political clout with a series of high-profile primaries. As he looks to use the midterm map to validate his status as the de facto leader of the Republican Party ahead of 2024, every move he makes and candidate he supports puts that goal at risk, particularly his endorsements in highly competitive contests.

Nevertheless, by Monday evening, Trump had apparently settled on the contentious Senate GOP primary in Arizona as his next target.

“I will be making an Endorsement in the not too distant future!” he wrote at the end of a statement criticizing state Attorney General Mark Brnovich for his failure to prosecute so-called “election crimes,” dashing any hope for Trump’s support that the Senate candidate might have had.

The odds of Trump entering next year with a clean record of winners also diminishes with every high-risk move he makes, hence the advice he’s received from some in his circle to hit the pause button on an endorsement in Arizona.

One Trump aide, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said the former President is currently feeling bullish and has talked about throwing his weight behind a candidate in the Grand Canyon State before the end of this month, long before the August 2 primary. But others in Trump’s orbit have recently counseled him to wait to see how the next month plays out, arguing that the odds of Trump entering next year with a clean record of winners diminishes with every high-risk move he makes.

These advisers openly admit that Trump is gearing up for a third presidential bid in 2024 and have told him that the best way to improve his positioning out of the gate is to enter this fall with a clear track record of picking winners.

“”You don’t want to ride the golden escalator again, you want to be surrounded by all the new Republicans that you elected,'” one adviser claimed he told Trump.

But the odds of Trump finishing the 2022 midterm cycle with an unblemished track record of endorsements looks increasingly unlikely as some of his candidates have stumbled on the campaign trail, others have failed to outraise their incumbent opponents and a few remain in competitive primaries. The odds of Trump entering next year with a clean record of winners also diminishes with every high-risk move he makes, hence the advice he’s received from some in his circle to hit the pause button on an endorsement in Arizona.

Three Senate candidates whom Trump has endorsed — Vance in Ohio, Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina — remain locked in tight primaries and are fighting for survival in their final weeks.

The same can be said of former Georgia Sen. David Perdue in his gubernatorial bid, which could deliver a stinging loss for Trump on May 24 if incumbent GOP Gov. Brian Kemp’s lead in recent polling lead translates at the ballot box. In an effort to prevent that scenario, Trump recently funneled $500,000 from his Save America PAC to Get Georgia Right PAC, a group that is working to defeat Kemp in the primary, according to a person familiar with the donation.

Still, other Trump-backed candidates on the ballot next month who are more likely to deliver good news to the former President include former NFL star-turned-Georgia senate candidate Herschel Walker and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is heavily favored to win his runoff contest against Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

“Whether or how he will play in the rest of the calendar year will depend a lot on what happens in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio,” said longtime GOP strategist Rob Stutzman.

“I don’t think he’s going to have a clean narrative that he single handedly drove the congressional Republican majorities that will get elected in 2022 but he could have some success if his endorsement can propel come-from-behind candidates.”

‘You could see him retreat’

Trump’s rush to prove his sway over the GOP has left him in a vulnerable spot if the gubernatorial and down-ballot races he is counting on to drive momentum next month fail to deliver his desired results.

While one or two losses could be chalked up to fundraising difficulties or personality issues, one former Trump campaign official said the former President will be forced to recalibrate the midterm strategy he’s developed from his Palm Beach perch if voters reject multiple candidates who are competing with his stamp of approval. Alternatively, this person said, the major risks that Trump has taken — both in recruiting insurgent candidates to challenge Republican incumbents and diving into crowded primaries — could deliver major rewards if the bulk of those contestants prevail.

The earliest barometer of Trump’s influence will happen May 3 in Ohio, when voters in the Republican primary will decide whether to send Vance to the general election contest, where he is likely to face Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. Should one of the other Trump-aligned candidates vanquish Vance, aides expect Trump to become more reserved in choosing which remaining primaries to wade into. He has not yet endorsed in gubernatorial primaries happening between June and August in Nevada, Wisconsin or Michigan, nor has he endorsed a Senate candidate in Arizona, Missouri or Alabama, where he yanked his support from Rep. Mo Brooks in March while promising to re-endorse before the May 24 primary.

“You could see him retreat a bit if things don’t go well next month,” said one Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“For instance, I wouldn’t expect him to go endorsing (Blake) Masters if Vance loses in Ohio,” the adviser added, referencing the Arizona Senate candidate who, like Vance, has been bankrolled by conservative tech billionaire and Trump confidant Peter Thiel in his primary.

The person close to Trump described the next 30 days as “pivotal” to the former President’s future inside the GOP, especially if he decides to run again in 2024. Some Trump aides have privately joked that a successful run in May will finally give him something to talk about besides the 2020 election, this person said.

Setting expectations in advance

Publicly, Trump has appeared confident about his candidate choices so far. In his endorsement of Vance, he repeatedly cast the “Hillbilly Elegy” author as the only Republican capable of taking down Ryan in the general election.

“I’ve studied this race closely and I think J.D. is the most likely to take out the weak, but dangerous, Democrat opponent — dangerous because they will have so much money to spend,” Trump said in a statement last Friday.

But behind the scenes and occasionally in public, he has already begun lowering expectations.

The former President, who was persuaded to endorse Vance by a slew of longtime allies — including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk — has acknowledged to some in his circle that he is worried about Ryan, not because of the massive war chest he is likely to have at his disposal but because the Ohio congressman has made a point of reaching rural and white working-class voters whom Democrats have overlooked in past cycles. One recent campaign ad from Ryan also blamed America’s current economic woes on China, echoing Trump’s posture toward Beijing.

Nowhere, though, has Trump engaged more blatantly in expectation-setting than in the race for governor in Georgia.

Less than a month before his PAC contributed half a million dollars to help defeat Kemp, who drew Trump’s ire in the wake of the 2020 election for refusing to indulge his voter fraud conspiracies, the former President told a right-wing news outlet that he endorses “a lot of people that are long shots” in response to a question about Perdue. Instead of stopping there, he went so far as to suggest that he could lose the Georgia gubernatorial primary — marking a rare acknowledgement of weakness by Trump.

“Hopefully David Perdue is going to win. These are not sure things. If I lose one along the way, which you have to, right, they’re going to say, ‘This is a humiliating experience.’ I could be 100 wins and one loss, and they’d make it sound like this is humiliating,” Trump said in the March 29 interview with Real America’s Voice.

Should the May primaries tarnish his endorsement record, some Republicans expect Trump to waste no time blaming everyone but himself for the unfavorable outcome. After all, when the former President announced his plan last month to withdraw his endorsement from Brooks in Alabama, he claimed the congressman had made himself unwinnable by refusing to spend the bulk of his campaign talking about the 2020 election.

“Mo, you just blew the election,” Trump said he thought to himself after Brooks told a crowd in Culman, Alabama, last August to move on from 2020.

That’s the kind of reaction Perdue can expect if he loses his May 24 primary to Kemp, said Stutzman.

“His (modus operandi) is to turn on all of these people. Look at Mo Brooks. He’ll blame others and none of it will be his fault,” Stutzman said.

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