Former President Donald Trump has endorsed a slew of candidates this year who are about to face competitive Republican primaries. And should his chosen candidates wind up losing those races, the results could cause him serious trouble ahead of a likely 2024 presidential run.
Although Trump remains the early favorite for the presidential nomination, a number of other Republicans are mulling bids of their own. It’s a list that includes figures from his own administration — such as Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo — and prominent governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Maryland’s Larry Hogan.
These would-be Trump rivals will be closely watching what happens in the coming weeks, when a number of candidates who have received the former president’s support face primary voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Republicans considering running for president in 2024 “are clearly trying to figure out if running would be feasible with Trump in the race,” Yuval Levin, a leading conservative intellectual, wrote recently in National Review. “Could someone run against him and win? Could someone run while Trump is in the race but not explicitly run against him? Where are the boundaries?”
Levin, in a detailed analysis of Trump’s primary endorsements, argued that “almost regardless of how the primaries turn out,” the results are “likely to weaken [Trump’s] position and standing in the GOP” and “leave him diminished.”
That’s because, as Amy Walter argued in the Cook Political Report, most Republican candidates are already aligning themselves with Trump and his views even if Trump has not endorsed them, or even if he’s endorsed their Republican opponent in a primary race.
And so, because there is no real surge of anti-Trump Republicans standing for office, Trump is needlessly turning many of these contests into referendums on him and his political brand, Levin said.
“He could easily stand apart from the primaries in all these races and let essentially all the candidates claim him and thereby reinforce his dominance of the party. By choosing instead to endorse some candidates over others, he is choosing to narrow his reach and to constrain the meaning of Trumpism within the GOP,” Levin wrote.
“The working assumption in Republican politics is that the GOP primary electorate demands absolute, groveling fidelity to the guy who lost the party the last election,” Levin wrote. “But what if it turns out that this is no more true than the last supposedly binding orthodoxy? You would think that Donald Trump would want to avoid asking that question, and testing the strength of his hold on the party. Yet it is Trump who has launched this test.”
No primary election demonstrates Trump’s penchant for self-harm more than the one in Georgia, where he continues to rage against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp won his election for governor in 2018 with Trump’s help, narrowly defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Kemp remains highly popular among Republican voters in Georgia, and is about as conservative as Republicans get. But Trump has been trying to unseat him because the Republican governor refused to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
Kemp would not go along with Trump’s lies and fantasies about a stolen election, and so Trump lured former Sen. David Perdue into a primary challenge against Kemp. But after a rally Trump headlined with Purdue in late March, two polls have shown Kemp leading Perdue by large margins.
The Georgia primary is on May 24, just over a month away. Before that, the most imminent test for Trump on the calendar is also one of the most interesting. On May 3, Ohio Republicans will choose their nominee for U.S. Senate.
The Senate race has been a crowded, multicandidate contest in which everyone has bowed as low as possible to obtain Trump’s support. And last Friday he gave it to J.D. Vance, the author of the bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” and a protégé of tech titan and Republican super-donor Peter Thiel.
Almost as quickly as Trump endorsed Vance, new details emerged about the degree to which Vance opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016. He told a friend at the time that he thought Trump could be “America’s Hitler.”
Polling in the Ohio race has been sparse, but Vance has been in third place in most surveys. If he comes from behind to win the primary, it will bolster Trump’s argument that he still commands the loyalty of Republican voters, and that running against him in 2024 would be a hopeless enterprise.
But even if Vance wins on May 3, Trump is facing another headache on May 10, when Republicans in Nebraska choose their nominee for governor.
Trump has endorsed businessman Charles Herbster in that race, but a week ago a Republican state senator and seven other women accused Herbster of sexual assault and harassment.
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is not running for reelection due to term limits and is backing one of Herbster’s opponents in the race, has called on Herbster to drop out. Trump, meanwhile, announced Tuesday that he will appear with Herbster at a rally on April 29.
Trump will get yet another test on May 17 in Pennsylvania, where he has backed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in a race for the GOP nomination for Senate. Oz faces an uphill battle to defeat hedge fund CEO David McCormick, who was a top Treasury Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
But even if Oz loses, Trump may get some good news the same day from North Carolina, where he is supporting Rep. Ted Budd’s quest for a Senate seat. Budd is now favored to win the GOP primary after trailing former Gov. Pat McCrory for much of the year.
On May 24, Kemp and Perdue face off, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is also facing a primary challenge from Jody Hice, who has backed Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. If Kemp were to win and avoid a runoff, as he is trying to do, and Raffensperger survives to go to a runoff, or wins outright, that would be a significant blow for Trump.
The attention of Trump's Republican rivals would then shift to the big remaining contests in which Trump has put his name on the line, most prominently in Wyoming, where Rep. Liz Cheney is seeking a primary win on Aug. 16.
Cheney became one of Trump’s biggest critics in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and voted for his impeachment last year. Should she emerge victorious in her primary after a series of losses in other contests for Trump-endorsed candidates, it would be the most definitive sign that a large number of Republican voters in numerous states are ready to move on from the former president, even if they don’t reject him outright.
Trump, so far, has made it more likely that the GOP will separate itself from him by remaining fixated on the last election, said a national Republican political consultant connected to one of Trump’s potential rivals for the 2024 nomination.
“While a number of these endorsements are certain to backfire on Trump and expose his weakening grip on the party, nothing is or will be more destructive to his brand and popularity than his inability to talk about anything other than the 2020 election and Jan. 6,” the Republican consultant told Yahoo News. “Nothing.”