String of May Republican primaries to test Trump's staying power in the GOP

  • Donald Trump and his endorsed candidates are preparing for a challenging set of primaries in May.
  • Republicans endorsed by Trump have contested primaries in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia.
  • As he ponders another presidential run, Trump's aura could be dimmed if some of his candidates lose.

WASHINGTON – As Donald Trump prepared to the take the stage recently at a North Carolina rally, he took time out to place another bet on another Republican candidate in another state.

In a statement emailed shorty after 7 on a Saturday night, Trump announced his support for senatorial candidateDr. Mehmet Oz in a GOP race in Pennsylvania, upping the ante in a series of May primaries that will test the former president's real remaining strength in the Republican Party.

After praising his North Carolina candidates – notably U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, now a Senate contender – Trump told the crowd in the Tar Heel State that he endorsed Oz in part because of their shared history as television hosts.

"That's like a poll," Trump said. "You know, when you're in television for 18 years, that's like a poll. That means people like you."

The depth of Trump's remaining likability within the Republican Party will be put to the test in May, with potential implications for control of Congress, the 2024 presidential race and beyond.

Trump-backed candidates, including Oz and Budd, face competitive Republican primaries in important swing states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio. Trump has endorsed challengers to incumbent governors in Georgia and Idaho. The Trump brand will also touch Republican-leaning states like Alabama and Texas.

All of these are states Republicans need to win if they are to win control of the Senate in 2022 and the presidency in 2024.

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The May primaries could also dictate the Republican agenda for fall races against Democrats. The more Trump-endorsed candidates win, the more they will echo his false claims about the 2020 presidential election, and the more they will try to downplay the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by Trump supporters who tried to block President Joe Biden's election.

Republicans across the country are anxious to see how the May primaries shake out, especially those who see signs of slippage in Trump's base of support. They said even two or more losses by Trump candidates will undercut his reputation as he ponders another presidential bid in 2024.

"He’s likely to have a mixed showing, and this pierces his aura of invincibility," said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who opposes Trump and co-founded the Lincoln Project political action committee.

"Trumpism," Madrid said, "requires an iron grip on the party. Loyalty at all costs. If candidates he opposes win, he loses considerable cache."

Trump and allies, of course, predict a clean sweep in May and beyond.

"This is all about winning elections," Trump said in his written statement endorsing Oz.

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Trump and Oz

Trump's decision to endorse "Dr. Oz" may be his riskiest May gamble.

The surgeon and television show host trails in many polls to the more establishment GOP candidate, former hedge fund CEO David McCormick. He and others have criticized Oz for more liberal views in the past on issues like immigration and gun control, even after Trump made his endorsement.

Oz is "not even close to conservative or America First," tweeted Sean Parnell, a Republican who had Trump's endorsement in the Senate primary before he dropped out amid domestic abuse allegations (which he denied).

McCormick has a number of former Trump administration aides working with his campaign, such as former spokeswoman Hope Hicks. McCormick is married to former Trump deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. These backers and the candidate himself reportedly lobbied hard for the presidential endorsement.

Of course, Oz has supporters of his own in Trump's world, including former first lady Melania Trump. In announcing his endorsement of Oz, Trump said the former television host "has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected, and smart."

The Republican candidates are vying to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn.

Trump is also using Pennsylvania to test the power of his opposition. He has publicly called for the defeat of former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain in a GOP primary for governor, saying McSwain did "absolutely nothing" on allegations of voter fraud after the 2020 election.

The Pennsylvania primary is scheduled for May 17, as is the one in North Carolina .

A Budd in North Carolina

Trump traveled to North Carolina this month to mark one of his earliest endorsements of the 2022 cycle: Budd, a Republican congressman who is now seeking to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.

Budd is now the favorite, building big poll leads over his two most prominent challengers: Fellow congressman Mark Walker and former GOP governor Pat McCrory. The RealClearPolitics website compilation of recent polls gives Budd a lead of more than 12 percentage points.

“I’m very proud of that man,” Trump said of Budd during the rally.

Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC)  joins fellow Congressional Republicans for a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House May 08, 2020 in Washington, DC.

The Ohio crowd 

Trump Friday made one of his most disputed endorsements in one of the most crowded and complicated races of the year: The Ohio Republican Senate primary, scheduled for May 3.

The ex-president wound up endorsing writer and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, despite objections from other candidates and Republican officials in Ohio that Vance is a turncoat who could lose the fall election.

Five candidates were bunched within 15 percentage points of each other at the time Trump made his announcement, according to an average of polls compiled by the RealClearPolitics website.

Vance and three others aggressively sought Trump's blessing: Josh Mandel, former legislator and state treasurer; Mike Gibbons, a businessman; and Jane Timken, former state GOP party chair. The fifth candidate, businessman Matt Dolan, is running as an anti-Trump candidate.

When news broke that Vance would likely get the nod, his opponents and other Ohio Republicans lobbied Trump against the idea, citing his relatively low poll numbers as well as his past attacks on the former president.

After the 2016 publication of his book "Hillbilly Elegy," a memoir about the problems in the Appalachian area where he grew up, Vance described Trump as "cultural heroin" and a demagogue who was leading "the white working class to a very dark place.”

Vance later became a fan of Trump and accepted the endorsement by predicting that Trump would become president again.

"He was an incredible fighter for hard working Americans in the White House, he will be again, and I'll fight for the America First Agenda in the Senate," Vance said on Twitter.

Trump said: "Like some others, J.D. Vance may have said some not so great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades. He is our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race."

Georgia on his mind

Trump's highest profile target next month may be incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp – and his highest risk may be David Perdue, the former senator whom Trump encouraged to challenge Kemp.

Polls give Kemp a distinct lead over his challenger.

As with other races in other states, Trump has targeted Kemp and other Georgia officials who refused to help him overturn his loss to Biden during the 2020 election. Trump is backing U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., in his challenge to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

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Gunner Ramer, political director for an anti-Trump organization called the Republican Accountability Project, said that Perdue may be an underdog, but Trump candidates down the ballot appear to be in strong positions.

"While the top of the ticket might not show Trump's influence, look what happens down the ballot," Ramer said. "I think Trump is going to do well."

Remer also said that, in Georgia and elsewhere, candidates who do not have Trump's endorsement are still running on Trump issues, from crackdowns at the border to complaints about the 2020 election. "A majority of the Republican primary voters are animated by the the issues Donald Trump talks about," he said.

Other states, other endorsements

Trump endorsements are also playing a role in less publicized races.

In Idaho, the former president is taking on another incumbent Republican governor, Brad Little. Trump has endorsed Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who has clashed with Little repeatedly during their terms in office. Trump called her a “true supporter" of his movement from "the very beginning."

A Senate primary in Alabama may reflect the implications of a Trump unendorsement. He had backed Rep. Mo Brooks in the May 24 primary but withdrew his support after Brooks talked about the need for Republicans to move past the 2020 election and look forward.

May 24 will also see primary runoffs in Texas, where the Trump factor could decide the fate of one of the nation's most historic political dynasties.

Trump is supporting Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is being challenged by attorney George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the nephew of President George W. Bush and the grandson of President George H.W. Bush.

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Trump candidates are also running for a string of down ballot races next month, some of them having to do with election administration. After his 2020 loss to Biden, Trump tried to pressure election officials in certain states to somehow overturn the results; Democrats believe he may try do the same thing in 2024, with the help of elections officials he is trying to put in office this year.

The Republican agenda

The May races are a way station for Trump and the 2022 elections. He also plans to be active in Republican primaries slated over the course of the summer.

His targets include House Republicans who voted to impeach or otherwise criticized him over the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, designed to block the counting of the electoral votes that elected Biden. The most-publicized race involves U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who faces a primary challenge from Trump-backed attorney Harriet Hageman.

Trump is often backing candidates who will echo his "Big Lie" of a corrupt election in 2022. As the un-endorsement of Brooks proves, Trump is quite willing to punish Republicans who deviate from the gospel of the Big Lie about a "stolen election."

Trump and allies are also trying to downplay and deflect blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, an argument likely to be echoed in the fall by the Trump candidates who prevail in upcoming primaries.

What if Trump wins a clean sweep in May? His grip on the Republican Party would likely be stronger than ever, analysts said, but expect that to happen.

Liz Mair, an anti-Trump Republican political consultant, said the power of a Trump endorsement "will depend race by race, and it could be on the margins in some cases."

She said two big losses would be enough to dent Trump's reputation. "Trump has less clout nationally than he did six months or a year ago," Mair said. "We’re seeing it wane and it’s not sufficient to overcome candidate vulnerabilities the way it used to be."

Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Penn., said that while Trump clearly remains the most popular Republican in the party, some of his polling numbers have trailed off in recent months. "There are signs of wear and tear," he said, and primary losses next month and beyond could "add up."

In Pennsylvania in particular, Borick said, Trump is betting his reputation that Oz will win the Senate race and McSwain will lose the gubernatorial primary.

"Those are far from sure things," Borick said. "He's really putting himself out there."