“May will set the tone for the remainder of the election cycle,” former Trump campaign adviser Bryan Lanza, who remains close to Trump, told CNN. “Candidates endorsed by Trump will either feel the wind behind their sails or they will feel he’s an anchor.”
The prospect of Trump ending the month with an unblemished record of endorsements looks increasingly improbable as many of his chosen candidates struggle to compete in contentious primaries, often against Republican opponents who are better funded, have avoided getting bogged down in divisive messaging about the 2020 election or have benefited from establishment support.
Trump appears to be aware of the problem and is already hedging his bets.
“We know that he can fundraise but in terms of utilizing that and seeing how important his endorsement power is, I think it could be make or break for the rest of the campaign season,” said one Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
In North Carolina, Trump has told allies he is nervous about Rep. Ted Budd finishing second in the May 17 primary, behind former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who has proved to be a superior fundraiser and enjoys establishment support.
Trump hinted at those concerns during a speech to GOP donors in March, telling the crowd gathered in New Orleans, “We’ve got to get (Mark) Walker out of that race,” according to one attendee. Walker, a former congressman and pastor, has refused to exit the contest despite trailing Budd and McCrory — a development that has left Trump and his team worried that he is siphoning off support from Budd.
And in competitive Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania that lack clear front-runners, Trump is so far withholding his endorsements. Other states could offer mixed results for him, as some of his chosen candidates appear poised to skate through their primaries while others are barely competitive against the incumbents they’re challenging.
“Based on how some of these races are shaping up, Trump appears to be on the verge of a very embarrassing spring primary season, where the test of his might within the party will be on full display,” said a Republican operative working on several races, some where Trump and the operative are aligned and others where they are opposed. The operative requested anonymity to speak freely. “If he comes out on the wrong side of the battles in this cycle, that will open the floodgates for a lot of challengers in the party in 2024.”
But other Republicans said Trump’s potentially rough start to the 2022 primaries won’t reflect his waning influence so much as his poor political judgment.
“What it tells me isn’t that Trump has lost his touch, but that he made some objectively questionable picks that didn’t pay off,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist. “In some cases he made picks on a lark, in some he made them because he had a personal ax to grind. There are still a number of messy primaries where his input could make a big difference.”
Trump’s most promising openings
Despite some of the high-profile struggles, Trump will be able to tout a number of successful endorsements in relatively noncompetitive races.
Another early Trump champion is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as White House press secretary. Sanders has all but cleared the field in the Arkansas gubernatorial primary on May 24.
Misfires and head-scratchers
“I don’t see a path for Perdue right now unless something dramatically changes,” said Lanza, the former Trump campaign adviser.
“Most people in Georgia know that something untoward happened in November 2020. In fact, I’ll just say it, Bryan: In my election and the presidential election, they were stolen. The evidence is compelling now,” Perdue said.
Lanza predicted that the former President would finish with a “60% overall” success rate, noting that Perdue, Brooks and Budd are the least likely among Trump’s preferred candidates to prevail.
Other Trump endorsements have prompted head scratching among Republicans. The former President has backed Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, in her primary challenge to sitting Republican Gov. Brad Little, who won his first term in 2018 and remains popular in the state. In a statement, Trump called McGeachin a “true supporter of MAGA since the beginning.”
Outside groups like the Republican Governors Association, which has committed to supporting Republican incumbents in primaries, don’t expect McGeachin to put up a serious fight, despite the nominal Trump support.
“The endorsement alone is not enough to make or propel the campaign,” said a second Republican operative working on several races across the country, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the former President.
Elsewhere in upcoming primaries, there’s no guarantee Trump’s candidates can pull it out, especially where they have credible or well-funded opponents.
Redistricting in West Virginia has pitted two incumbent US House Republicans against each other in a May 10 primary. Trump has backed longtime ally Rep. Alex Mooney over Rep. David McKinley, who has the backing of Gov. Jim Justice. Mooney, who is facing a congressional ethics investigation for possible campaign finance violations, has fallen far behind McKinley in fundraising.
And in Nebraska, Trump’s preferred gubernatorial candidate, Charles Herbster, has so far failed to break out of the pack in a crowded May 10 primary that includes Jim Pillen, whom retiring Gov. Pete Ricketts is behind.
If May does not pan out well for Trump, some of his allies said, he won’t be the right person to blame. Ultimately, the success or failure of candidates who have received his support, these people argued, will depend more on their campaigns and reputations than it will on Trump’s involvement.
“A candidate who has run a good campaign may go further than a candidate who didn’t run a good campaign but had an endorsement from President Trump,” said Jim McLaughlin, a longtime pollster for the former President.
“A guy like Herschel Walker got catapulted to the front of that race because he was Trump’s guy. Other races, like Perdue and Kemp, already have their own definitions in the eyes of voters, so that also matters,” he said.