Former President Trump’s grip on the Republican Party will face its biggest test in Ohio after Friday’s endorsement of JD Vance in a crowded GOP primary to fill the retiring Sen. Rob Portman’s seat.
Trump’s endorsement has proved important in some races, but has done little to boost candidates in others, making his bet on the underdog Vance a risky one.
It might not be his only risk either. Strategists and neutral political experts say Trump could also roll the dice by making endorsements in two other competitive Senate primaries in Missouri and Arizona.
After a couple of high-profile failures in Alabama and Pennsylvania, Trump appeared to be proceeding more cautiously with his picks, before Friday.
Trump plowed ahead with the endorsement despite intense lobbying from Vance’s rival, former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, and dozens of state and county officials.
Trump will visit Delaware County, Ohio, this weekend to rally voters for Vance and Max Miller, who is challenging Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), who voted to impeach Trump in another primary.
Vance has trailed Mandel, the frontrunner, by between five and twenty points in recent polls, and will be hoping Trump’s nod is the difference maker.
A Republican official who requested anonymity to comment on the race noted that early voting started on April 5 and many ballots have already been cast, leaving Vance’s path to the nomination by no means easy.
“Nobody is really obviously the frontrunner,” the source said.
Who ever wins the nomination will likely face Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) in the general election.
“I think his endorsement certainly tilt win the race but there is uncertainty about whether that person would go on to win,” the official said of Trump’s nod.
Republican strategists say Trump’s record in trying to influence the outcome of races in key battlegrounds could be an early test of his viability in 2024.
“Trump’s influence does have an impact in these types of races,” said Matt Dole, a GOP political consultant based in Ohio. “Ohio is one of those states where he has outsized influence inside the Republican Primary in 2022.
“I think the endorsement matters in Ohio this year and that he can carry a guy like J.D. Vance,” he added.
If Vance fails to advance to the general election, “it would signal that Trump doesn’t have an open door to the nomination in 2024 if that nomination has to run through Ohio,” Dole said.
A Trafalgar Group poll published Friday showed Mandel leading the field with 28 percent support, Vance in second place with 22.6 percent and businessman Mike Gibbons in third with 14.3 percent. A Fox News poll published in March, however, showed Vance in third place with only 9 percent support.
Trump’s endorsements of Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania and Rep. Mo Brooks (R) in Alabama backfired earlier this election cycle.
Parnell dropped out of the race after being accused of domestic abuse and Brooks floundered in the polls, prompting Trump to rescind his backing.
Trump’s support of Alaska Republican Kelly Tshibaka, who is challenging Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in an open primary, doesn’t look promising either. Murkowksi has more than six times as much cash on hand as her rival and felt comfortable enough about her re-election to vote for President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
Trump’s backing David Perdue in the Georgia governor’s race isn’t having much impact. Incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp has a commanding lead in the polls and may score a big enough victory on May 24 to avoid a runoff.
“The basic problem is he has a bad record empirically,” said Justin Buchler, a professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The people that he endorses don’t have a particularly great winning record.”
A tally by NPR after the 2018 midterm election found that Trump endorsed 53 winners and 36 losers in that year’s races. Trump has endorsed nearly 130 candidates in this year’s midterm election.
Trump appears to have had a positive impact on candidates in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where he has endorsed Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz.
Budd is now the frontrunner among North Carolina Republicans but he has also been helped by a big advertising campaign by Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee, which says it has spent $8.4 million since the start of the election cycle to boost his chances.
Oz still trails businessman David McCormick in the polls but GOP strategists say the race appears to be tightening.
Bluchar said if Trump-backed candidates fall flat it hurts him “to some degree” but added “I’ve been fascinated so far by the fact that his endorsed candidates keep losing and people still keep paying attention.”
GOP strategists say Trump faces a similar conundrum in the Missouri and Arizona senate races as he does in Ohio’s crowded primary.
A Trafalgar Group poll conducted in late March showed three candidates roughly tied for the lead — state Rep. Vicky Hartzler, former Gov. Eric Greitens and state Attorney General Eric Schmitt — with Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) in fourth place with 8 percent support.
A GOP strategist said the candidates are lobbying hard for Trump’s endorsement.
“His endorsement is certainly impactful but candidates and campaign have to close the deal and you’re seeing that in a couple different races where he endorsed. You have to advertise and you have to get it around that he endorsed you. In certain cases where some of those candidates are struggling, I don’t know if they’ve done a good job getting the word out that he’s endorsed,” the strategist said.
The strategist noted that avoiding Trump’s ire is even more important, as his attacks have derailed campaigns such as former Sen. Jeff Sessions’s (R-Ala.) 2020 bid to return to the Senate.
“I think there will be a lot of ink spilled about how many of his candidates won and how many of his candidates lost,” the strategist predicted, but questioned whether a bad record would hurt Trump much if he runs in 2024. “He’s still popular among the Republican Party despite some decline over the past year.”
Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said Trump needs to persuade mainstream Republicans that he can win moderate and independent voters in a general election to win the 2024 GOP nod.
“His biggest problem is that there’s a large number of Republicans, many of whom once supported, who just don’t think he should run again, that it isn’t in the party’s long-term interest. He’s going to be divisive, he’s already lost a campaign, let’s go with someone new,” he said.
Smith said Trump “may have a hard time choosing” on a candidate in Missouri “and that might keep him out of it though he likes to be lobbied.”
He observed that Trump sometimes appears to prize personal loyalty over electability.
“His ego and the need to have his ego stroked may lead him to endorse people who maybe aren’t the best choices for the party,” he said.
Trump can take his time in Missouri since the primary won’t take place until Aug. 2.
The third Senate battleground with a crowded Republican primary where Trump’s endorsement could make a big difference is Arizona.
That’s a tough race to handicap as 44 percent of likely Republican voters in Arizona say they’re unsure about who to support, according to an OH Predictive Insights poll conducted in early April.
The poll found Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who hasn’t had the best relationship with Trump because of Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud in Arizona in the 2020 presidential race, with 21 percent support.
Businessman Jim Lamon, who is outspending Brnovich by large amounts, registered 16 percent support and venture capitalist Blake Masters had 9 percent.
“I don’t expect an endorsement any time soon or maybe never, depending on how the race goes,” said Constantin Querard, a GOP strategist and consultant based in Arizona.
“I’m sure all three are pursuing [Trump’s endorsement.] The challenge for Brnovich is the only way he can have any shot at it or even keep [Trump] neutral is to make progress on all these election integrity investigations that he’s supposed to be leading and they are proceeding very slowly,” he added.
He estimated that Trump’s endorsement could mean an improvement of 10 to 15 points for a candidate in the primary.
“Maybe it’s the Mo Brooks experience. Trump may want to wait a few months because we do have a late primary,” he said.
The Arizona primary is scheduled for Aug. 2.