More than 15 months removed from the White House, former President Donald Trump remains the most popular and influential politician in the GOP.
And Trump continues to play the role of Republican Party kingmaker in the party’s 2022 primaries as he also repeatedly flirts with making another presidential run in 2024.
Trump, who remains a fundraising giant as he continuously re-litigates his 2020 presidential election loss, has made dozens and dozens of endorsements this cycle and has crisscrossed the country the past couple of months, holding rallies for some of the top candidates he’s backing.
But the former president’s immense sway within the Republican Party is on the line this month, as some leading Trump-backed candidates face potential defeat in crucial GOP primaries over the next four Tuesdays.
Senate candidate JD Vance, left, greets former President Donald Trump at a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, Saturday, April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio, to endorse Republican candidates ahead of the Ohio primary on May 3. On Tuesday voters in Ohio choose between the Trump-backed JD Vance for an open U.S. Senate seat and several other contenders who spent months clamoring for the former president’s support. (AP Photo/Joe Maiorana, File)
“I want to pick somebody who’s going to win. And this man is going to win,” Trump said as he introduced GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance to the stage at a recent rally at Delaware County Fairgrounds in Ohio.
Trump’s rally came a week after he endorsed the former hedge fund executive and bestselling author in a crowded field of pro-Trump contenders in a race that had become a test of support and fealty to the former president. And it also came just 10 days before Tuesday’s primary in Ohio.
Vance is the first major test of Trump’s endorsement clout. Polling indicates that Trump’s support gave Vance a major boost, and among the major candidates that Trump’s backing this month’s primaries, Vance arguably has the best chance of securing a victory.
Longtime Republican consultant David Carney noted that while Trump’s endorsement remains extremely potent, “campaigns still matter….you still have to have a good campaign, a good message.
Carney, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns, noted that “the media will write the scorecard, the wins and losses…but this is really not all about [Trump].
If Trump-backed candidates lose in the coming weeks, Carney argued that “it would be unfair to say that there was some reduction in the president’s clout.”
Veteran Republican strategist and communicator Ryan Williams agreed that “regardless of the outcome, President Trump remains popular with a sizable number of Republican primary voters.”
But he argued that if Trump’s “endorsed candidates lose in significant numbers, it makes him less feared by Republican candidates and officeholders. Going against the former president won’t be seen as a fatal move, it will be seen as something that can be sustained and overcome and that erodes his power over the party and could weaken the iron fist that he’s ruled Republican politics with since securing the GOP nomination in 2016.”
Carney pointed out that even though the former president has made endorsements, other candidates in many of those races have continued to “run as the Trump candidate,” which he says has resulted in “Trump voters split among multiple candidates.”
Sen. Ted Cruz campaigns with GOP Senate candidate and former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel in Kettering, Ohio on Friday April 29, 2022.
That’s certainly the case in Ohio, where three other major candidates who didn’t land Trump’s endorsement – 2018 Ohio Republican Senate candidate Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland entrepreneur, real estate developer and investment banker; former Ohio treasurer and former two-time Senate candidate Josh Mandel; and former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken – have all continued to tout their fealty to the former president and strong support for his America First policies.
The former president did Vance no favors this past weekend, fumbling the candidate’s name at a rally in Nebraska, which holds its primary on May 10, as week after Ohio.
The battle to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska has turned into a heated three-way fistfight that has grabbed attention far beyond the Great Plains state’s borders.
Trump’s backing Charles Herbster, a multimillionaire agricultural executive, in the race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska. The contentious race also includes multimillionaire hog farmer Jim Pillen, who is backed by Ricketts, and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom.
Herbster, who in recent weeks has faced multiple accusations that he sexually assaulted eight women, is a longtime top donor and ally of Trump. The former president endorsed Herbster last autumn and held a rally with the candidate in Nebraska on Sunday.
“He’s been badly maligned, and it’s a shame. That’s why I came out here,” said Trump, who has denied the more than a dozen allegations of sexual harassment that he’s faced in recent years.
West Virginia holds primaries on the same day as Nebraska, and Trump’s prestige is on the line in an intra-party battle between GOP Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney. The state lost a congressional seat during the once-in-a-decade congressional reapportionment and both Republican incumbents were drawn into the same district. Trump’s backing Mooney in a race that’s partially turned into a test of the former president’s clout.
A week later, on Tuesday, May 17, Trump faces three more stiff tests.
Mehmet Oz, celebrity physician and U.S. Republican Senate candidate for Pennsylvania, center, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (Tristan Wheelock/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
(Tristan Wheelock/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The former president recently endorsed Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s jam-packed, expensive, and very high-profile GOP Senate primary, in a move that split Trump’s political world and millions of supporters across the country. Trump’s backing of the celebrity doctor known as Dr. Oz did little to temper suspicions among many in the Republican Party about the candidate’s conservative credentials. Polling suggests Oz is locked in a fierce battle with David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive, West Point graduate, Gulf War combat veteran, and Treasury Department official in former President George W. Bush‘s administration. Three other major GOP candidates are also on the primary ballot.
In Idaho, Trump is backing far-right Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is one of seven primary challengers running against incumbent Republican Gov. Brad Little, whom polling suggests is the clear front-runner.
Trump has his best shot of victory on May 17 in North Carolina, where last summer he endorsed Rep. Ted Budd in the state’s open GOP held Senate seat race. For months, Budd was unable to leverage the former president’s endorsement to boost his poll numbers and fundraising figures. But in recent weeks, Budd has surged to front-runner status in the increasingly contentious primary showdown that also includes former Gov. Pat McCrory, and former Rep. Mark Walker.
GOP Rep. Ted Budd, who is running for U.S. Senate, joins the stage with former President Donald Trump during a rally at The Farm at 95 on April 9, 2022 in Selma, North Carolina.
((Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images))
But a week later, the former president could suffer a major setback in his nearly year and a half long bid to oust Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia.
Four years ago, with the support of Trump, Kemp narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams to win the governorship. But Kemp earned Trump’s ire starting in late 2020, after the governor certified President Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia in the presidential election following multiple recounts of the vote. Trump, who had unsuccessfully urged the governor and other top Republican officials in the state to overturn the results, has now returned to Georgia twice to campaign against Kemp.
Trump for months urged former Republican Sen. David Perdue to challenge the governor, and late last year he endorsed Perdue a day after the former senator launched his bid. Perdue declared his candidacy a few days after Abrams, a voting rights champion and rising star in the Democratic Party, launched her second straight bid for governor.
But regardless of Trump’s endorsement, with three weeks to go until Georgia’s primary, Kemp enjoys large leads over Perdue in two key campaign metrics – public opinion polling and fundraising.
Former President Donald Trump shakes hands with former Sen. David Perdue, who’s primary challenging GOP Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, at the former president’s rally in Cumming, Ga. on March 26, 2022
(David Perdue campaign)
Trump has made scores of endorsements this election cycle – unprecedented for a former president – that range from high-profile Senate and gubernatorial contests all the way down the ballot to state representative races.
“The democratic process has never before seen the kind of power that President Trump’s endorsement has heading into the primary season,” Trump communications director Taylor Budowich told Fox News earlier this year.
Pointing to the enormous number of endorsements made this cycle by Trump, Williams emphasized that “this is a path he chose. He did not need to endorse in primaries. He could have stayed out of them and only weighed in when he thought he could be impactful and a sure winner.”
And Williams, a veteran of now-Sen. Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, argued that Trump has “endorsed in so many races at this point, he’s stuck his neck out for little gain but significant downside.”
Paul Steinhauser is a politics reporter based in New Hampshire.