If Donald Trump’s continuing grip over the Republican electorate was ever in doubt, the early success of his endorsed candidates in 2022 primaries — including a close victory by Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio — might appear to put those questions to rest.
But there’s a long election season ahead. Trump’s unconventional slate of more than 180 endorsements will be put to the test in more key races starting on Tuesday, when Pennsylvania Republicans choose whether to nominate Trump-endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz as their next Senate candidate.
More than three-quarters of Trump’s congressional endorsements are Republican incumbents who already had a clear path to victory. But in a small handful of contested races, each win or loss brings a new opportunity to evaluate the strength of Trump’s grip on the Republican Party.
“If there is an establishment Republican Party, we’ll find out over the next couple of months in terms of who’s winning these primaries,” said Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University. “It’s slowly but surely trying to move beyond Trump — at the same time, keeping the enthusiasm of Trump voters for the general election.”
The primaries are unfolding less than two years after the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when the Republican Party’s congressional leaders signaled publicly and privately that they were ready to end their relationship with Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky condemned Trump as “practically and morally responsible” for the deadly insurrection in the U.S. Capitol in a February address. “I’ve had it with this guy,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California told colleagues in a Jan. 8 phone call with other GOP leaders, adding that he planned to recommend the president resign, according to a recording obtained by the New York Times.
Nevertheless, Republican primary candidates are continuing to vie for Trump’s support and the financial and electoral boost that comes with it. Grid is tracking Trump’s 2022 political endorsements and making the endorsement data publicly available.
At the time of Trump’s April 9 endorsement in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Oz trailed his chief opponent, investment banker David McCormick, by 6 points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls. He leapfrogged over McCormick, and now most polls show him in the lead as he fends off a late surge from political commentator Kathy Barnette.
Two races in North Carolina’s primaries on Tuesday will also test the power of Trump’s endorsements. In the race for an open Senate seat, polls show Trump-endorsed Rep. Ted Budd with a double-digit lead over former governor Pat McCrory. In the contest for the seat Budd is vacating, Trump endorsed 26-year-old former college football player Bo Hines in a crowded GOP primary.
The influence of Trump’s endorsement of Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and investment banker, was widely seen as decisive to Vance’s close victory in a crowded primary. When Trump endorsed him on April 15, he sat in third place with 10.5 percent, behind former state treasurer Josh Mandel and investment banker Mike Gibbons, according to polling averages by RealClearPolitics. Vance won the May 3 primary with 32 percent of the vote, fending off Mandel, Gibbons and a late surge from state Sen. Matt Dolan who was the sole candidate in the race who criticized Trump for spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election.
Two Trump-endorsed candidates also scored wins in contested races in Texas’ March 1 primaries. Wesley Hunt and Monica De La Cruz both decisively won their primaries and will advance to the general election in newly drawn, Republican-leaning districts.
Republican pollster Glen Bolger sees a mixed track record in Trump’s endorsements.
“I think more than most party heavyweights of either party in recent decades, Donald Trump allows emotion to cloud his judgment on some of these endorsements, no question about it,” he said. “Some of them have proven to be extremely weak candidates. But he’s also true that he’s helped some out.”
Already, some of Trump’s picks have proved embarrassing. Trump-endorsed Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster lost the state’s May 10 primary amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted multiple women. The ex-president’s original pick in Pennsylvania was not Oz but Sean Parnell, a state senator who dropped out of the race in November after allegations of physical and verbal abuse emerged during a custody battle with his estranged wife. Trump also withdrew his endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks — a longtime ally and speaker at the “Stop the Steal” rally — for a Senate seat in Alabama in March after polls showed him trailing behind opponents Mike Durant and Katie Britt.
But by and large, Trump’s picks are charting a safe route to the party’s nomination with almost no daylight between his endorsements and the GOP establishment.
Out of 121 Congressional endorsements Trump has made, 95 — more than three-quarters — are for Republican incumbents running for reelection. These are largely safe seats, and wins here won’t give us much to measure Trump’s influence on the party.
That leaves 26 races where a Trump-endorsed Congressional endorsement faces a major challenge — and where the results may provide an indication of his power within the party.
Out of Trump’s more than 180 endorsements since leaving office, about two dozen are for candidates vying for contested federal seats. These races are likely to be the best measure of the power of Trump’s favor. We break them down into three categories:
- Races where Trump has endorsed a Republican candidate for a seat currently held by a Democrat (3): Senate candidates Herschel Walker in Georgia’s May 24 primary and Adam Laxalt in Nevada’s on June 14, and House candidate Jim Bognet in Pennsylvania’s Tuesday primaries.
- Candidates running for open seats (16): Six of these candidates have won their primaries already, leaving 10 to watch. Nearly all of these are also backed by the Republican establishment.
- The revenge ticket (7): Trump is backing challengers to Republican incumbents, all of whom voted to impeach or convict him on the charge of “incitement of insurrection” in the first two months of 2021.
Candidates running for open seats
Trump’s 16 endorsements for Congressional seats that are open, with no incumbent running, are so far on a winning track.
Five of those open seat picks — De La Cruz and Hunt in Texas; and Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, Max Miller and Vance in Ohio — have already advanced to the general election in November in early primaries. A sixth, California congressional candidate Connie Conway, finished first in an April primary for a June 7 special election to replace Devin Nunes, who left Congress to work for Trump’s fledgling social network business.
Tuesday’s primary elections in Pennsylvania and North Carolina will put three more Trump endorsements — Oz, Budd and Hines — to the test.
Trump’s remaining four open congressional seat picks so far are running in primaries scattered throughout the summer: Vernon Jones in Georgia on May 24, former interior secretary Ryan Zinke in Montana and Kevin Kiley in California on June 7, John James in Michigan on Aug. 2, Derrick Van Orden in Wisconsin on Aug. 9, Sarah Palin in Alaska on Aug. 16 and Anna Paulina Luna in Florida on Aug. 23.
By and large, Trump’s picks for open seats run on a parallel track with the Republican Party consensus.
Three of Trump’s endorsements for open Congressional races — Zinke, De La Cruz and Van Orden — are also among the small number of candidates targeted for support by the McCarthy-controlled Congressional Leadership Fund’s “Trailblazers Fund,” which “provides direct financial support to top-tier candidates, GOP rising stars, and key Members of Congress.”
The seven congressional races in which Trump has endorsed a challenger for a congressional seat currently held by a Republican all have something in common: an incumbent who voted to either impeach or convict him following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Trump-endorsed challengers will face off in primaries against Reps. Tom Rice and Nancy Mace in South Carolina on June 14, Peter Meijer in Michigan and both Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse in Washington on Aug. 2, and Liz Cheney in Wyoming on Aug. 16.
Cheney’s challenger in Wyoming, attorney Harriet Hageman, is the only revenge candidate running with the benefit of the Republican establishment’s explicit endorsement. McCarthy in February announced his support for Hageman in a move that, while extremely rare, surprised few. Cheney was ousted from party leadership due to her outspoken criticism of lies about the 2020 election and Trump’s role in the events of Jan. 6.
Three other House members who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021 — Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and John Katko of New York — have opted not to run for reelection. Rep. David Valadao of California is the only House member who voted to impeach Trump and is running for reelection without a Trump-endorsed challenger in the way, but he faces a difficult contest in California’s centrist new 22nd Congressional District.
Bolger, the GOP pollster, said between Trump’s incumbent-heavy congressional endorsement roster and the possibility of picking off incumbents, he’s likely to emerge from the 2022 primary season with a high success rate.
“Without going into specific names, yes, I think he will unseat some incumbents,” he said. “He’s going to have a pretty good win rate. But when you endorse a lot of incumbents, that’s going to be a natural outcome.”
Perhaps the only race that pits Trump directly against the Republican establishment is the Aug. 16 primary in Alaska, where he has endorsed challenger Kelly Tshibaka, the former leader of the state’s Department of Administration, against incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was one of seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial. Murkowski led Tshibaka by 10 points in an Alaska Survey Research poll conducted from April 16 to 21.
“Very strange” state and local endorsements
Trump’s picks extend far beyond Congress. He has taken the unusual step of endorsing foreign leaders Viktor Orban of Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
Closer to home, Trump has made endorsements for offices including state agricultural commissioner, lieutenant governor and district attorney. Local candidates he has endorsed range from Steve Bovo, a candidate for mayor of Hialeah, Florida, to Phil Sorrells, a district attorney candidate in Tarrant County, Texas. Trump has also endorsed at least 19 candidates for seats in state legislatures — all of them in Arizona, Michigan and Texas.
“It’s very, very unusual” for a former president to endorse way-down-ballot candidates, said Matt Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University of America. “I don’t have the numbers with me, but you didn’t hear about Barack Obama endorsing someone for state speaker, and if they did, it would be in the general election. To try to pick winners and losers in a party primary or a down-ballot race is very, very strange, very unusual.”
Several of Trump’s state and local endorsements are in races for statewide offices that serve as either the state’s chief election administrator or could be placed in a decision-making role in the event of an election dispute. They include Arizona State Rep. Mark Finchem, who is running to be Arizona’s secretary of state, and Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo, who was endorsed by the state GOP last month. Both have spread disinformation about the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Most notably, Trump has endorsed a full slate of candidates in Georgia in a bid to unseat five incumbent Republican statewide officials, ranging from Gov. Brian Kemp to Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King. Trump endorsed Rep. Jody Hice, who has spread election falsehoods, to replace incumbent Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Schiller said Trump’s endorsements are more about maintaining his status as an influence among Republican voters than about notching wins or losses for the party. And the Republican Party, desperate for strong midterm voter turnout, finds itself clinging to Trump.
“Trump keeps that flame alive,” she said. “But as with all flames, the Republican Party is trying not to get burned.”
Anya van Wagtendonk contributed to this story. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing.