Donald Trump isn’t in office anymore. But he remains the dominant figure of the 2022 midterm elections.
With two major primary days this month behind us – West Virginia and Nebraska voted Tuesday, following Ohio and Indiana earlier this month – it’s clear that the former President is the fulcrum on which the Republican Party still rotates. But the results also suggest that there are limits to Trump’s influence.
Start here: If you are a Republican running for office, you would much rather have Trump’s endorsement than not.
In Ohio’s Senate race, Trump lifted author J.D. Vance from the middle of the pack to a GOP primary victory. In West Virginia, Trump’s backing of Rep. Alex Mooney led to a crushing victory over fellow Republican Rep. David McKinley, who had the support of the state’s governor as well as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
“They wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s America First agenda,” Vance said in his victory speech, referring to the media. “It ain’t the death of the America First agenda.”
No, it is not.
At the same time, Trump’s record has not been flawless. He went all in for Charles Herbster in the Nebraska governor’s race, but Herbster was narrowly beaten in the primary by a candidate who had the endorsement of the state’s sitting Republican governor.
It’s a mistake to view the Herbster loss, however, as a straight referendum on Trump. Herbester faced allegations of sexual misconduct from eight women, which he has denied. (At a rally for Herbster, Trump called the allegations “malicious,” adding: “He’s been badly maligned and it’s a shame. That’s why I came out here.”)
Despite those allegations, Herbster came within a few points of beating Jim Pillen in the primary. But politics is about winning and losing, and Herbster’s loss is quite clearly an “L” for Trump.
What to make of the first two major primary days as it relates to Trump? A few things:
1. Trump is the prime mover in Republican politics. He acts – and everyone else reacts.
2. In the absence of any other major issues or vulnerabilities, a Trump-endorsed candidate is a good bet to win.
3. Trump is not a panacea. He can’t drag just anyone across the finish line – particularly if there are major mitigating factors for a candidate or in a race.
Next Tuesday will tell us even more about Trump’s sway within the GOP. Both North Carolina and Pennsylvania are holding Senate primaries where Trump has taken an active role.
In North Carolina, Trump has endorsed Rep. Ted Budd, who finds himself in a tight race with former Gov. Pat McCrory, who possesses residual name identification from his time as the state’s chief executive.
In Pennsylvania, Trump has sided with celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in a primary that remains deeply muddled despite – or maybe because of – heavy spending by Oz, as well as wealthy businessman Dave McCormick and their aligned super PACs. Kathy Barnette has also gained some late momentum in the race.
In two weeks, Trump will face what is likely his biggest – and highest-profile – test of his influence: the Georgia governor’s race. Trump, incensed by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp’s unwillingness to overturn the 2020 election results in the state, recruited and endorsed former Sen. David Perdue to run a primary challenge to the incumbent. Perdue has centered the entirety of his campaign on the false idea that the election was stolen – and has struggled to pull support from Kemp, who had compiled a conservative record during his first four years in office.
By the end of May, then, we should have a much better sense then of how all-powerful (or not) a Trump endorsement can be.
But here’s what we know now: Trump is the story. Still.