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When we’ll know how much Trump’s support is worth

Ex-president has already begun wading into competitive Senate primaries

Rep. Ted Budd speaks on June 5 at the North Carolina Republican Party convention in Greenville, where former President Donald Trump endorsed his bid for Senate.
Rep. Ted Budd speaks on June 5 at the North Carolina Republican Party convention in Greenville, where former President Donald Trump endorsed his bid for Senate. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images file photo)

ANALYSIS — Early 2022 Senate primaries will be a good test of whether Donald Trump’s strength within the Republican Party endures into the midterm elections.

Up to this point, the former president’s grip on the GOP via his popularity with base voters shows little sign of waning. Eighty-four percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Trump, according to a May survey by Quinnipiac University.

As more evidence, all but a handful of Republicans seem to go out of their way to refrain from criticizing Trump in any way, for fear of alienating him or his supporters. And both GOP elected officials and candidates are making pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, N.J., to seek Trump’s blessing in future races.

While Trump likes to boast about the successes of candidates he has endorsed in the past, that won’t guarantee future victories. He is wading into more crowded and competitive races than in the past, and it’s up to the candidates to translate Trump’s support into votes (including raising enough money to communicate it to voters). 

By the time school is out next year, we’ll have a good idea of whether Trump’s endorsement is the most important résumé item in a Republican primary. So let’s walk through the early 2022 calendar.  

March 8

The first competitive Republican Senate primary is scheduled for March 8 in North Carolina, and it’s one of the best tests of Trump’s influence within the party. 

For months, there was speculation that the former president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Lea Trump, would run to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard M. Burr. But, in what felt like a last-minute decision in mid-May, Lara Trump declined to run, and Donald Trump endorsed 13th District Rep. Ted Budd at the state GOP convention in Greenville. 

The situation offers some evidence that Trump’s involvement doesn’t always scare off other candidates. Lara Trump’s potential bid didn’t prevent former Rep. Mark Walker or former Gov. Pat McCrory from getting into the Republican race. And Trump’s endorsement of Budd didn’t persuade either of them to immediately get out. 

For someone so focused on winning and his success record, Trump’s support for Budd is more of a risk and looks like a departure from previous races in which the former president endorsed the front-runner. According to Budd’s own polling, he’s trailing McCrory in initial ballot tests but could vault to the top as the campaign informs voters of Trump’s backing. 

Budd has also been endorsed by Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth PAC, which are typically helpful in competitive GOP primaries. But if he prevails, Trump’s support will be a key reason. 

May 3

Trump hasn’t endorsed a candidate yet in the crowded Republican primary in Ohio for the seat GOP Sen. Rob Portman is vacating. But he’ll receive pressure to step in at some point over the next 10 months. 

Politico detailed a spicy meeting at Mar-a-Lago in March, in which former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, former state GOP Chair Jane Timken, technology company executive Bernie Moreno and investment banker Mike Gibbons all vied for Trump’s endorsement. “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance recently announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination as well.

[Trump could shake up key Senate races with endorsements]

Mandel is the initial front-runner, considering he’s held and run for statewide office multiple times, but he doesn’t have the nomination locked up. Endorsing a candidate could put Trump’s win-loss record at risk, but it could also help someone break away from the field if the former president’s popularity among GOP voters is transferable. 

May 17

Donald Trump Jr. has endorsed retired Army Ranger/2020 House GOP nominee Sean Parnell in the Pennsylvania Senate race, but only time will tell when or if his father will follow suit. Parnell’s proximity to Trump World caused other Republicans looking to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey to consider their options before entering the contest, but it wasn’t enough to clear the field. 

Former state party finance chairman/2018 lieutenant governor nominee Jeff Bartos is running, and former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands looks poised to enter the race. Former southeast Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan A. Costello is still considering a bid as well. 

May 24

With Trump’s endorsement, Rep. Mo Brooks is the front-runner in Alabama for the seat GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby is vacating. The congressman still faces Trump’s former ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, and Katie Britt, a former Shelby chief of staff and recent president of the Business Council of Alabama, in the GOP primary. But considering how things currently stand more than a year before the actual race, a Brooks loss would signify a shift in party dynamics.

In Georgia, Trump’s support for former University of Georgia and Dallas Cowboys star running back/“Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Herschel Walker has limited the size of the GOP field to take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock so far, even though Walker hasn’t announced whether he’ll run. Trump’s choice could complicate Republican efforts to win the seat, considering Walker lives in Texas and has been public about his serious mental health struggles, including years ago when his former wife says he once held a gun to her head in the middle of an argument.

Other Republicans are running, including state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Atlanta businessman/Air Force veteran Kelvin King and banking executive/retired Navy SEAL Latham Saddler. And former GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler is considering a bid as well. But with the current dynamic, it’s hard to see them getting enough traction in a primary without Trump’s blessing.

The rest

Even though the Arizona Republican primary isn’t until Aug. 2, Trump has already influenced the race by making known who he is opposed to instead of who he is endorsing. 

On paper, Republicans’ best challenger against Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is outgoing, two-term Gov. Doug Ducey. But Trump despises Ducey because he believes the governor didn’t do enough to deliver the state’s Electoral College votes last fall, leaving Ducey with few options but to stay out of a primary race he can’t win. 

“[Ducey] could not get the nomination after failing to perform on the Voter Fraud in Arizona. Also, there is no way he would get my endorsement, which means his aspirations would be permanently put to rest anyway,” Trump said in a recent statement.

Missouri will also host a competitive primary on Aug. 2, but Trump has so far declined to get involved. A handful of candidates are running, and the former president’s stance could change over the next year. 

And finally, Trump has made his preference known in the Aug. 16 primary in Alaska. He hates the state’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, and has endorsed former Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka. But because of a change to the state’s election process, Murkowski can survive.

Instead of traditional party primaries, all candidates will run in an all-party primary, and the top four vote-getters will progress to the general election, which is then decided by ranked-choice voting. That means Murkowski doesn’t have to face a GOP-only electorate, or rely on GOP base voters who are sympathetic or loyal to Trump to win in November. She can win without them, as long as enough unaffiliated and Democratic voters support her.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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