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Trump could shake up key Senate races with endorsements

Taking sides in North Carolina is a sign he could do so in other states

Former President Donald Trump, here at a 2019 rally in Montoursville, Pa., largely stayed out of GOP primaries in prior election cycles, but his approach may be changing.
Former President Donald Trump, here at a 2019 rally in Montoursville, Pa., largely stayed out of GOP primaries in prior election cycles, but his approach may be changing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former President Donald Trump’s recent endorsement in the North Carolina Senate race is the latest sign that he is looking to influence primaries in competitive states, in a shift from recent election cycles. 

During the 2018 and 2020 elections, Trump often supported Republican incumbents and the eventual GOP nominees in open races. But he rarely took sides in Senate primaries in targeted states. If the North Carolina race is any indication, that’s starting to change as Trump looks to wield his influence over the GOP now that he is out of office and no longer tethered to the party infrastructure. 

“He’s looking at a couple of the seats that are very much key to our comeback,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally who has discussed Senate races with the former president, said in a brief interview Wednesday. Graham noted Trump could back Herschel Walker if the former football player decides to run for Senate in Georgia. 

It may be hard to predict where Trump will weigh in next. On Saturday, he made a surprise announcement that he was endorsing Rep. Ted Budd, one of several GOP candidates in North Carolina’s open Senate race. Trump said he informed Budd about 15 minutes before announcing his pick at the state party convention. 

The endorsement also came as Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, has encouraged Trump to hold off on endorsing candidates until after primaries are over. 

“I’m not going to get involved in primaries. I just think that we ought to let the voters decide,” Scott said Wednesday. “But he’s not the only person endorsing in primaries. Lots of people are endorsing in primaries.” 

Primary player

Trump, however, likely carries more weight than other party leaders when it comes to energizing his core supporters to donate and support his preferred candidates. 

“In the only three days since the Trump endorsement, our online donations have doubled what we had done in the previous six weeks,” Budd campaign spokesman Jonathan Felts said. He wouldn’t give dollar figures but said the campaign had been using what he called “unconventional” ways to attract attention during an “aggressive push for low-dollar online folks” since Budd announced he was running.

Felts acknowledged it would take time for Budd to close a gap in name identification and fundraising to catch up with former Gov. Pat McCrory, a rival for the GOP nomination whom he expected would file a sizable fundraising report at the end of the month.

McCrory and former Republican Rep. Mark Walker, who is also in the race, have both said they’re staying in despite Trump backing Budd. 

Walker said in a lengthy statement posted on Twitter that Trump had received “bad advice” from his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and that it was difficult to watch Trump’s speech at the convention. Budd belongs to the House Freedom Caucus, which Meadows led when he was in Congress. Walker previously led a larger GOP group, the Republican Study Committee.

Multiple GOP strategists were not surprised that Trump’s endorsement has not cleared the field in North Carolina, given McCrory’s and Walker’s political experience and ambitions. And it may not clear the field in other states. 

In Georgia, Trump has encouraged Walker to challenge Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. But state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he would not drop out of the race if Walker launched a campaign, saying that while he would like Trump’s support, “I’m running no matter what.” 

And Trump’s decision to take sides in a primary may not stop debates over which candidate is the staunchest Trump ally. It certainly hasn’t in North Carolina. 

After Trump’s announcement Saturday, McCrory slammed Budd as “a Washington insider who has done more to oppose the Trump agenda than anyone in this race,” highlighting Budd’s votes on which he broke with Trump.

“They all know the Trump endorsement is really, really important,” said David McIntosh, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, which has endorsed Budd. “And so McCrory … is trying to make lemonade out of a very bad situation for him.”

McIntosh said his group has not yet put a poll in the field in North Carolina following Trump’s endorsement, but recent polling in House races where Trump backed candidates in Ohio and Texas showed support for his preferred candidates increased.

“A Trump endorsement, with Republican primary voters, will give that candidate a 20- to 25-point boost,” McIntosh said. “Now, it depends on the location, depends on the candidate, what they know about him and where they’re at already. But it’s a very significant positive for a Republican candidate in a Republican primary.”

More to come?

Trump has signaled he could weigh in on primaries in other competitive states. Republicans need a net gain of one seat to win back the Senate. Trump won just two of the states, North Carolina and Florida, holding Senate races in 2022 that are currently rated competitive by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales

Trump won North Carolina by just 1 point last fall and Florida by 3 points. Joe Biden carried the six other Senate battlegrounds — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire.  

Trump has shown interest in Arizona’s Senate race, vowing to campaign against Republican Gov. Doug Ducey if he runs, since Ducey pushed back on Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Ducey ruled out a Senate bid earlier this year, but Scott recently told reporters he believes Ducey could still jump in the race. Trump has also criticized Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is also a potential candidate for the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly

Weighing in on open Senate primaries in targeted states would be a departure for Trump, who had previously backed incumbents or candidates in safe Republican states. In 2018, Trump did discourage voters from supporting former energy executive Don Blankenship in West Virginia, where Republicans were targeting Democrat Joe Manchin III, warning that Blankenship could not win in November. 

Graham said he did not know why Trump was getting more involved now. Asked if party leaders had discouraged Trump from taking sides when he was in office, Graham said, “It’s probably a mixed bag,” before jumping into an elevator at the Capitol. 

Democrats believe Trump’s decision to endorse candidates in competitive states will work to their advantage. 

“By fighting over Trump, Republican Senate candidates are showing general election voters that they’re out of step with their interests,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

“They’re attacking each other and exposing the flaws in each of their potential nominees. And they’re raising the length and the cost of their primary campaigns, which will ultimately leave their nominee more badly damaged,” he added. 

Scott disagreed.

“This election is going to be about the Biden agenda,” he said. “The Biden agenda is not popular.”

Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College, said Trump’s effect on the general election is unpredictable, especially in North Carolina, which did not have any nonjudicial statewide contests during the 2018 midterms. Bitzer noted that Trump drove record-breaking turnout from both parties in 2020 when he lost his bid for reelection. 

“Whether he will still have that kind of influence next year — we’ll just have to wait and see,” Bitzer said.

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