Donald Trump’s post-presidency enters a new phase this month as voters across the United States begin to weigh the candidates he has elevated to pursue a vision of a Republican party rooted in pure populism and hard, the culture wars and denial of his loss in the 2020 campaign.
The first test comes on Tuesday when voters in Ohio choose between Trump-backed JD Vance for an open U.S. Senate seat and several other candidates who have spent months clamoring for the former president’s backing. In the coming weeks, elections in Nebraska, Pennsylvania and North Carolina will also serve as referendums on Trump’s ability to shape the future of the GOP.
In almost every case, Trump has endorsed only those who accept his bogus claims of voter fraud and excuse the murderous US Capitol insurrection he inspired last year.
“May is going to be a critical window into where we are,” said Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Trump critic defending incumbent GOP governors in Georgia, Ohio and Idaho against challengers backed by Trump this month. “I’m just worried that there are people trying to destroy the party or burn it down.”
Few states can be a higher priority for Trump than Georgia, where early voting begins Monday ahead of the May 24 primary. He has taken a particularly active role in the gubernatorial race there, recruiting a former US senator to confront the incumbent Republican for not coming to terms with his election lie. For similar reasons, Trump is also aiming to unseat the Republican Secretary of State, whom he unsuccessfully lobbied to undo President Joe Biden’s victory.
While the main season will run well into the summer, the first batch of races could set the tone for the year. If Republican voters in early states rally behind Trump-backed candidates, the former president’s kingmaker status would be validated, likely bolstering his power as he considers another run for president. However, high-profile setbacks could chip away at his stature and give a firmer footing to those hoping to advance an alternative vision for the GOP.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz predicted a good May for Trump and his allies.
“The voices in Washington that want him to fade into obscurity or be silenced are engaged in their own form of wishful thinking,” Cruz said in an interview. “It’s not going to happen. It shouldn’t either.
As Republicans grapple with Trump, Democrats face their own series of eye-opening primaries.
Candidates representing the moderate and progressive wings of Democrats are pulling the party in opposite directions while offering mixed messages about how to overcome their serious policy shortcomings, Biden’s weak permanent leader among them. History suggests that the Democrats, as the party that controls Washington, could suffer big losses in November regardless of their leadership.
But as Democrats engage in heated policy debates, Republicans engage in deeply personal and costly attacks on each other designed above all to win over Trump and his staunchest supporters.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who is leading the GOP effort to retake the Senate, described May as a brutal sorting out period likely to be dominated by Republican infighting instead of political solutions or contrasts with the Democrats he would like to see.
“Primaries too often become sort of character assassinations,” Scott said in an interview. “That’s what happened.”
He added: “I hope people come together.”
No race can be more messy than the Republican primary election for governor of Georgia. Trump has spent months attacking incumbent Republicans Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. He blames both men for not working hard enough to undo his narrow defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
The results in Georgia were certified after a trio of recounts, including one partially done by hand. They all claimed Biden victory.
Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general said there was no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s fraud allegations have also been flatly dismissed by the courts, including by Trump-appointed judges.
Georgia Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a frequent Trump critic who doesn’t run for office, described Trump’s decision to back former Sen. David Perdue against Kemp as an “embarrassing” waste of time that could undermine the broader GOP goals this fall.
Duncan predicted that Trump would eventually win some races and lose others this month, but he was particularly optimistic about Kemp’s chances of fending off Trump’s challenge.
“If a sitting governor is able to defeat this whole notion of Donald Trump by a huge amount – and others on the ticket – I think we’re going to send a message that it’s going to take more than an endorsement from Donald Trump to call you a Republican,” he said.
For now, however, Trump is unquestionably the strongest Republican in the country, as even those on opposite sides of the former president are careful to note their loyalty to him. Cruz, who backs opponents of Trump-backed Senate candidates in Ohio and Pennsylvania, played down any disagreements with him in an interview. Cruz noted that he made his choices long before Trump.
“In the four years he was president, Donald Trump had no stronger ally than me in the Senate,” Cruz said.
Six months before the general election, Republican candidates in the main primaries have already spent mountains of campaign money attacking each other as Democrats largely save resources – and the most vocal attacks – for the month. of November.
With early voting already underway in Ohio, half a dozen Republican candidates in the state’s high-profile Senate primary and their allied outside groups have spent more than $66 million this year combined on television advertising the last week, according to Democratic officials. expenses. The vast majority of ads were Republican-on-Republican attacks.
Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland real estate developer and investment banker, spent $15 million on television advertising alone last week. This includes an ad campaign attacking Vance pointing out his past description of Trump as “an idiot.”
The pro-Vance super PAC known as Protect Ohio Values, meanwhile, has spent $10 million on the primary so far, including a recent flurry of attack ads featuring the Cruz-backed candidate. Josh Mandel as “another failed career politician”.
On the other side, the top Democratic Senate hopeful, Rep. Tim Ryan, has so far spent less than $3 million on positive TV ads promoting his own drive to protect Ohio manufacturing jobs. against China.
The spending disparities in the top-tier senatorial primaries in Pennsylvania and North Carolina were equally staggering.
In Pennsylvania, where Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund executive David McCormick are locked in an uphill battle for the GOP nomination, candidates and allied outside groups have so far spent more $48 million in television advertising. Democrats spent just over $10 million.
And in North Carolina, Republican forces have spent more than $15 million on a divisive primary pitting Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd against former Gov. Pat McCrory. Democrats, who united behind former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, spent just over $2 million.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who is leading the Democrats’ effort to retain the Senate majority, said Republicans are essentially creating the Democrats’ general election ads for them. He described the intensity of Republican infighting in several states as “toxic to the character of Republican candidates.”
“They’re trying to compete to see who the Trumpiest of the Trumpsters is,” Peters said. “They don’t talk about issues that people care about.”
At the same time, Peters acknowledged his own party’s challenges, particularly Biden’s low popularity. He said it would be up to each candidate to decide whether or not to invite the Democratic president to campaign on their behalf.
“I think the president can be helpful,” Peters said of Biden. But “it’s about the candidates. They are running to represent their state in the United States Senate. And they have to go up and down depending on who they are as individuals.