The first big test of former President Donald Trump’s clout comes Tuesday in Ohio’s bitterly fought Senate primary, where J.D. Vance surged into the lead after winning Trump’s endorsement.
A Vance victory would remind his party that Trump is still king. But the acclaim will be fleeting.
The rest of May looks nowhere near as good for the former president, who has expended his political capital in a series of contests that are already laying bare the limits of his post-presidential influence on the GOP.
In a four-week stretch of primaries running from Nebraska and West Virginia to Idaho, Pennsylvania and Georgia, Trump-endorsed candidates are slogging through difficult races where the former president’s blessing hasn’t proved to be the rocket fuel some expected. In a few cases, his preferred candidates are running far behind.
His record in these contests is no small matter given his own past performance. In his only two appearances on a ballot, he lost the popular vote twice. On his watch as president, the GOP lost the House, Senate and the White House.
To continue in his role as his party’s apex politician — and to press his claim on the 2024 Republican nomination — Trump can’t afford a string of reminders that his defeats are starting to stack up, or that the party base is, on even limited occasions, willing to buck him.
“It’ll be a blow to his perceived power,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country. “He doesn’t single-handedly control the electorate unless he’s on the ballot. Is he still a very, very popular figure in the Republican Party? Absolutely, undeniably. But does he have the influence and weight in Republican primaries to be the decisive kingmaker? … Not definitively.”
Surveying the May primary calendar, one adviser to Trump said, “The president could have a couple of ugly nights.”
Even before polls close, the tightness of races Trump is engaged in is indicative of his limitations: His endorsements have not cleared primary fields. In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, opponents of Trump’s endorsed candidates are so comfortable crossing Trump that they are airing TV ads openly questioning Trump’s judgment in his endorsements.
“Trump made a mistake on this one,” says a character in one of the spots.
“President Trump is the most charismatic, popular figure in the GOP, and any association, affiliation with him can be beneficial,” said Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor and Trump adviser.
What the May primaries are making clear, Scott said, is that “there’s only so much he can do.”
In North Carolina, Trump’s endorsed Senate candidate, Rep. Ted Budd, has a comfortable lead. So does Herschel Walker, Trump’s favored Senate candidate in Georgia. But the Senate races in Ohio and Pennsylvania aren’t sure bets, and it will be a grind for Trump beyond that.
In Nebraska, Charles Herbster, with whom Trump campaigned on Sunday, is in a three-way toss-up after being accused of sexually assaulting eight women. The Trump-endorsed candidate in a high-profile House race in West Virginia is teetering in a close race. In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little is polling more than 30 percentage points ahead of his Trump-endorsed primary opponent, while in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp — one of Trump’s most well-worn punching bags — may not only beat Trump’s endorsed candidate, former Sen. David Perdue, but do so by a wide enough margin to avoid a runoff.
“Georgia’s the big one,” said Whit Ayres, the longtime Republican pollster. “Trump took on an incumbent Republican governor and recruited a recent incumbent Republican senator to challenge him. That is the biggest of the challenges where Trump has tried to force his will.”
He said, “If he’s able to take out an incumbent Republican governor, that’s a huge statement of his influence. But if he’s unable to take out an incumbent Republican governor with a recent incumbent senator, it’s a huge statement of his lack of influence on Republican voters.”
A mixed record in the primaries is something Trump can overcome. Despite his obsession with his win-loss record in the primaries, he will get a second chance to endorse — and campaign for — the party’s nominees in November. But because of his deeply polarizing nature, there are limits on the kinds of places where Trump’s support would be an asset in a general election.
Few politicians are as skillful as Trump at explaining away losses, whether in business or politics. And the party at large may benefit in November from a ticket that includes both Trumpist and more traditionalist candidates, inducing turnout from across factions of the GOP.
“If you end up with a muddle, there are some who believe that’s actually the best thing that could happen to the party this year, because it would force them to come together since you would have a general election ticket that is made up of people from both sides of the civil war going on, if you will,” said Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer who served as Trump’s ambassador to Luxembourg.
Still, the losses Trump is poised to take this month could still do significant damage to him — providing the first ballot-tested, post-presidential confirmation that Trump, while the most important animating factor in the GOP, is not the only force moving primary voters.
“Is Trump an important figure in the party? Yes,” said Ryan Horn, a Republican media strategist. “Is he the only figure in the party? No, and my guess is that we’ll see that.”
In West Virginia, where Trump-backed Rep. Alex Mooney is running narrowly behind Rep. David McKinley in the race for a redrawn House seat, political consultant Greg Thomas said, “It’s not like Trump’s the kingmaker here.” And in Pennsylvania, one longtime Republican Party official said, “What if his candidates don’t win? What does that say? I think it could be the beginning of the end of an era.”
The timing of the primaries are pivotal for the direction of the GOP — coming after Trump reshaped the party, in advance of expected gains and before a presidential election in 2024 in which he may assert himself again.
With Republicans all but certain to retake the House in November, scores of Republican candidates seized on the favorable climate, packing this year’s primary elections. Solomon Yue, the Republican national committeeman from Oregon, where 19 Republicans are running for governor in this month’s primary, said “everybody smells blood in the water, and sharks are circling looking for meat.”
That dynamic is giving primary voters more choices than ever. Trump has already chased four of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him into retirement, and two high-profile primaries against Republicans he has deemed insufficiently loyal to him — Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska — will not come until August. But what the May primaries will begin to reveal — and after that, the scores of primaries coming in June — is what kind of Republicans will emerge.
The fallout of the elections will not only factor in November, but set a mold for the party for a generation. Vance is only 37, Budd is 50 and Walker is 60 — all with decades of office-holding years ahead of them if they win. How significant a factor Trump will be, however — and how successful he will be in the primaries — is far less certain than it appeared at the beginning of the primary cycle.
By the end of the month, the picture will be clearer. But in the span of several weeks this month, Republicans in a fifth of the nation’s states will cast votes, representing red and blue states and nearly every region of the country.
The May primaries, said Phillip Stephens, a state GOP executive committee member in North Carolina, are “kind of like a fork in the road.”
“You’ve got a faction that wants to pull the party way to the right, and you’ve got a faction that wants to moderate it, and who wins, I don’t know,” he said.
“After the primaries, we’ll know which way we’re going.”