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May primaries set to test Trump’s touch as GOP kingmaker

<i>Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images</i><br/>Former Sen. David Perdue
Getty Images
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
Former Sen. David Perdue

By Maeve Reston, CNN

Former President Donald Trump’s ability to pick winning candidates will be put to the test as the primary calendar kicks into high gear this month with a series of contentious contests starting Tuesday in Ohio.

Most of this month’s GOP candidates have tried to appeal to Trump during their campaigns, which is already a victory for the former President. But clearing the field and sailing toward a potential 2024 White House bid will hinge in part on his capacity to prove that he remains the unrivaled kingmaker of the GOP.

The Ohio GOP Senate contest is a prime example of how genuflection to the former President is driving the debate in many Republican primaries throughout the country. Trump upended what was already a topsy-turvy race by backing J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and onetime Trump critic, who has since recanted. But even after Trump threw his weight behind Vance — describing him as “a warrior” against what the former President falsely calls the “rigged and stolen presidential election” — several of Vance’s Republican rivals have clamored to prove they are more aligned with Trump’s values.

That’s been a common dynamic throughout many of the contests holding primaries this month. Fealty to Trump will play a major role in a US House race in West Virginia the following week when the Trump-backed candidate, Rep. Alex Mooney, will face GOP Rep. David McKinley in the first incumbent-versus-incumbent primary of the cycle. Mooney endeared himself to Trump by objecting to the Pennsylvania electoral count as Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s general election victory. McKinley voted to certify Biden’s win and backed the formation of an independent commission to investigate the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol — an effort killed in the Senate.

One of this year’s most expensive Senate showdowns will unfold in Pennsylvania on May 17. Trump’s candidate, celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz, is in a heated race against, among others, David McCormick, a former hedge fund chief executive who has pounded Oz for the ideological inconsistencies he displayed throughout his television career.

Finally on May 24, Trump will get his opportunity to avenge Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for rebuffing his 2020 election schemes. The President lured former Sen. David Perdue into the race against the sitting governor, spawning an internal party brawl that many in the GOP saw no point in having.

The May contests encapsulate the long shadow that Trump’s personal grievances continue to cast over his party and the extent to which he has trapped his GOP loyalists in a time warp as he encourages them to keep pushing his baseless claims of 2020 voter fraud at a time when many Americans have more pressing concerns.

Voters are struggling with soaring gas and grocery prices as inflationary pressures shows no sign of abating. There are new indications that the economy could be headed toward a recession. And the President’s approval rating registered at a 41% in CNN’s latest average of recent national polls — a predicament that has historically led to steep losses in the House for the party in the White House.

But Trump has never shown much concern about the way his personal ambitions have derailed his party’s most effective messaging opportunities — and 2022 has given him a chance to hand-pick candidates who are as relentless as he is about continuing to sow doubt about the 2020 results, even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

The drive to please him and his base has contributed to the gravitational pull of GOP primary candidates farther to the right, a vulnerability that Democrats plan to capitalize on this fall as they seek to hold onto the suburban and moderate voters that Trump alienated.

“These primaries are really crucial because it’s the first test we have of Trump’s endorsement and whether some potentially weaker candidates that he has backed could end up as the nominee,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.

“He’s the one driving the narrative. In that way, he’s already won. All of these candidates, regardless of whether they’ve gotten Trump’s endorsement or not, are feverishly trying to make themselves into the MAGA mold.”

May 3: Heated Ohio Senate primary

Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan has largely consolidated his party’s support behind his quest for the nomination to fill the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman.

That has meant most of the drama has been in the crowded Republican Senate primary, centering in the final days on whether Vance deserved Trump’s imprimatur. While the former President was willing to look beyond Vance’s past critiques, the political arm of the Club for Growth is wielding those statements as a weapon as it tries to boost former state treasurer Josh Mandel — even though those moves have angered Trump.

One ad from Club for Growth Action in the final week featured an old clip of Vance referring to himself as a “never Trump guy” as an incredulous viewer asks, “Has Trump seen this?” and asserts that the former President is “getting it wrong” with his endorsement. (Vance has made a point of addressing his conversion on the campaign trail, asking voters to give him credit for admitting a mistake).

Before Trump weighed in on the race, Mandel, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve, and Mike Gibbons, a wealthy self-funding businessman, had appeared poised to lead the field — their own rivalry becoming so heated that they appeared on the verge of blows at one debate. Mandel has repeatedly made the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, telling reporters Friday that “we should audit (the election results of) every single state in the nation, including those that Trump won.”

But he is leaning on other conservative figures to help carry his campaign across the finish line, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Campaigning with Mandel in Ohio this weekend, Cruz mocked candidates who “have Donald Trump tattooed on my rear end” and said voters should instead consider the consistency of the candidates’ records as conservatives.

In the race for governor, incumbent Mike DeWine leads his Republican primary opponents, according to recent polling, even though he has been a frequent target of the pro-Trump wing of his party. The more restrictive approach that DeWine adopted to Covid-19 precautions, as compared with other GOP governors, triggered some conservatives and Trump, who blasted DeWine in a recent rally in the state as “terrible.” But Trump has not endorsed in the race.

Former Rep. Jim Renacci, who lost to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the 2018 Senate race, and farmer Joe Blystone, who has railed against Covid mask and vaccine mandates as well as what he views as DeWine’s government overreach, appear to be splintering the faction of GOP voters opposed to DeWine.

May 10: A controversial Trump endorsement in Nebraska

Trump has a track record of endorsing problematic candidates who have created headaches for his party — a dynamic at play in the Nebraska gubernatorial primary on May 10.

Trump has endorsed Charles Herbster, a rancher and businessman, and has stood by him even after the Nebraska Examiner reported in mid-April seven women, including Republican state Sen. Julie Slama, had accused Herbster of groping them at political events or beauty pageants, with an additional woman accusing him of kissing her forcibly. In six cases, at least one eyewitness corroborated the women’s allegations, the publication reported. Herbster has denied the allegations, calling them “100% false.”

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who had urged Trump to stay out of the race, endorsed one of Herbster’s GOP rivals, Jim Pillen, a hog farmer and veterinarian who serves on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. Ricketts described the allegations as “beyond horrible” and said Herbster should “seek treatment.”

At a rally for Herbster Sunday night, Trump claimed that Herbster was being “badly maligned.”

“I defend people when I know they are good; he’s a good man,” Trump said, hewing to his long-standing pattern of dismissing sexual harassment and assault allegations, including those that were lodged against him in his 2016 campaign when he said they were “all false stuff” and claimed he was “a victim.”

May 17: Tight races for Trump’s candidates in Pennsylvania and North Carolina

The race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania is on track to become one of the most expensive in the country as the commonwealth’s perennial swing state status makes that seat among the most likely to flip from Republican to Democratic control.

The bulk of the spending is on the GOP side. As Oz and McCormick and their outside allies have poured their resources into television ads, the race blew past the $100 million mark in late April. Trump is slated to appear on Oz’s behalf at a rally next weekend. And in a remarkable display of the thrall he holds over his party, most of the GOP candidates said at a recent debate it was too soon for their party to move on from the 2020 election.

McCormick hired a roster of former Trump aides and aggressively pursued his endorsement, lavishing praise on Trump-era policies as he and his allies have portrayed Oz as a RINO, or “Republican in name only.” One of McCormick’s recent ads argues that the former President endorsed the wrong guy by backing a celebrity doctor who has praised figures reviled by conservatives, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Biden’s top medical advisers.

Democrats have a competitive race of their own among Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. Fetterman has emerged as the candidate to beat by virtue of his fundraising and state-wide name recognition. Lamb, a centrist who has argued that his past victories in Republican-leaning districts demonstrate his ability to win statewide, has said that Fetterman’s more progressive profile would make him too much of a risk in the general election. Despite those attacks, Fetterman told CNN he sees no need to moderate his stances, which include advocacy for more gun control, abortion access and universal health care — especially at a time when Republicans in Congress have shown no interest in compromise.

The other marquee Senate contest on May 17 is the race to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina, where Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd, who backed the former President’s 2020 election maneuvers by voting to toss out the electoral results in Arizona and Pennsylvania in January 2021.

Trump’s endorsement nearly a year ago failed to clear the field for Budd, who has been boosted by Club for Growth Action running ads critical of former Gov. Pat McCrory.

McCrory, in turn, has accused Budd of being “reckless” with his words, putting out a misleading ad focused on Budd’s comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin and attempting to tie him in a recent digital ad to GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a polarizing figure in North Carolina politics.

Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to lead the North Carolina Supreme Court as chief justice, is heavily favored on the Democratic side.

Across the country, Trump also weighed into the May 17 intra-party fight in the Idaho governor’s race, backing Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin in her primary challenge to Gov. Brad Little. Showing a penchant for Trump-style theatrics, McGeachin briefly captured the national spotlight last year by using Little’s absence from the state to issue an executive order barring mask mandates. (Little later repealed the order, calling it “a self-serving political stunt.”) In October, Little accused McGeachin of attempting to deploy the state National Guard to the US-Mexico border while he was in the Lone Star State visiting the border. Despite Trump’s “complete and total endorsement,” McGeachin does not appear to have gained much traction.

May 24: Trump tries to avenge his Georgia loss

Trump’s defeat in Georgia has fueled his involvement in the Peach State — specifically his zeal to topple Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused Trump’s request that he “find” more than 11,000 votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the state. Trump has backed GOP Rep. Jody Hice, who embraced his election conspiracies, against him.

Georgia became the first state where the Trump-affiliated Make America Great Again, Again! PAC extended its efforts to the airwaves, according to AdImpact data. Its ad touted both Perdue, Trump’s choice for governor, and former NFL star Herschel Walker, who is backed by both Trump and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell for the GOP to take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.

While Trump’s commitment to Walker helped keep other top Republicans out of the Senate race, it’s not clear that his backing of Perdue has had the intended effect. The former senator’s efforts to fire up Trump loyalists by arguing Kemp could have done more to challenge the election results so far has not proved to be a winning strategy.

Kemp, who has won critical conservative victories on legislation restricting abortion and making it legal for most Georgians to carry a concealed firearm without a license, has been bolstered by groups like the Republican Governors Association, which aired ads touting him as a “proven conservative leader.” As a former secretary of state, he has rebutted Perdue’s attacks by arguing that he did not have the authority to alter the election results. Kemp noted in a late April debate that he would not “be lectured by someone who lost his last election,” referring to Perdue’s loss to Democrat Jon Ossoff in a January 2021 runoff.

Voters in Alabama also goes to the polls on May 24, but Trump is no longer directly involved in the GOP Senate primary there after he rescinded his endorsement of GOP Rep. Mo Brooks, once one of his most loyal lieutenants on Capitol Hill, irked both by the congressman’s flailing campaign and his assertion that voters should put the 2020 election behind them.

Two of Brooks’ rivals to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Shelby — former Shelby aide Katie Britt and Mike Durant, a veteran and aerospace executive — have led the GOP field.

Trump’s endorsement record

Many of the Republicans running in May primaries have styled themselves as Trump candidates, but this month’s contests will be the first test of whether Trump’s endorsement gambles pay off with victories.

But Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor, said that even if the former President ends up with a mixed record, he is likely to adopt what he called Trump’s traditional stance that “everything good that happens, I’m responsible for, and everything bad that happens is someone else’s fault.”

As the general election contests take shape, Jennings predicted that the focus on Trump’s 2020 election obsessions will begin to fade as connecting with voters’ economic concerns becomes the paramount objective for the GOP.

“My personal view is that if you’re not talking about inflation and gas prices, the economy, crime and schools in the fall — you’re an idiot,” he said. “It’s obvious what people are worried about. … Make the race a referendum on Biden on those issues.”

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