By Susan Milligan
Donald Trump is not on the ballot this midterm election year. And yet, he is, as voters go to the polls to decide whether to nominate scores of Trump-endorsed candidates in races that will show just how powerful the former president is after his 2020 defeat.
Ohio is the first test of Trump’s national influence, as primary voters go to the polls Tuesday to choose among a pack of contenders hoping to be the Republican nominee for the Senate. The former president has endorsed J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author of the autobiography “Hillbilly Elegy” who was also once a fierce Trump critic.
Trump’s backing of Vance was something of a shock in Ohio, since Vance, during the 2016 election season, made no bones about his distaste for Trump calling him “reprehensible” and an “idiot.” Political observers predicted that Trump might instead put his support behind Josh Mandel, a former Ohio state legislator and state treasurer with strong right-wing credentials.
Trump, too, seemed to mix it up over the weekend when he mused about how the fates of his endorsees would be perceived in the media he despises.
“Trump was humiliated – that’s what they’re waiting for. They’re waiting for that one race,” Trump said at a Sunday rally in Greenwood, Nebraska, where he was campaigning for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Hebster. Hebster has been accused of sexual misconduct.
“We’ve endorsed – JP, right? JD Mandel, and he’s doing great. They’re all doing good. They’re all doing good. And let’s see what happens,” Trump said, mixing up the names of his rejected and anointed candidates.
Trump backed Vance not in spite of the Senate hopeful’s previous criticism, but perhaps in part because of it, says David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron.
“He likes to collect people who were critical of him at first and then bend to his will,” Cohen says. “He loves loyalty, but what is even more of an aphrodisiac to him is loyalty with submission. It’s like a drill sergeant breaking a recruit.”
Vance’s primary opponents have slammed him for his past criticism of Trump, casting him as a MAGA man come lately. Still, “I think Trump’s endorsement has had a huge impact,” Cohen says.
“Vance was pretty much dead in the water” before Trump gave his seal of approval, and now leads narrowly in polls in a field with five credible candidates, Cohen says. “There’s no question that the Trump bump has helped.”
A Vance loss on Tuesday night would make other GOP contenders rethink how much they want to cater to the former president for an endorsement, experts say. And even if Vance captures the nomination – something he could do with a small plurality of the vote – Trump candidates face tough races later in the month and in the nomination season.
In Georgia, which holds its primary May 24, Trump has aggressively campaigned against the sitting governor, Brian Kemp, who refused to help out when Trump asked him to find a way to overturn the 2020 election there. President Joe Biden narrowly won the state, the first time a Democrat has claimed the Peach State since Bill Clinton won it in 1992.
But polling shows Kemp way ahead of his Trump-endorsed challenger, former Sen. David Perdue. A Perdue loss would be an especially harsh slap at Trump because of Kemp’s direct refusal to subvert the election.
“Trump has made so much out of hating Kemp,” says University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, but the university’s polling has shown that Trump’s backing of Perdue has moved the needle just two percentage points towards Perdue – nowhere near enough to catch up with Kemp, who is 26 percentage points ahead of Perdue in a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution survey.
Trump has endorsed seven candidates in Georgia, and for down-ticket contenders, the distinction is more helpful, Bullock says, since the candidates are less well known. Candidates for lower-level office can see an improvement of 30 or more percentage points with a Trump stamp of approval, Bullock says.
“The problem with these candidates is that they don’t have the money to get the word out that they’re Trump endorsees,” Bullock says. “It’s not going to show up on the ballot.”
The former president has made 144 endorsements for the 2022 election season, according to Ballotpedia. Some are motivated by a lack of loyalty from the incumbent: he’s endorsed the primary challengers of both Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Cheney voted for Trump’s impeachment, while Murkowski voted to convict the former president.
Celebrity, too, seems to appeal to the former host of “The Apprentice.” He is backing Mehmet “Dr.” Oz in the Pennsylvania primary for the open U.S. Senate seat there, and former NFL player Herschel Walker in the Georgia contest for U.S. Senate.
But for Trump, who is mulling a 2024 presidential run, the question will be, “what is his batting average?” after the midterms are over, Bullock says. It’s a test not lost on Trump’s most fervent supporters.
“President Trump’s brand is on the line. The MAGA brand is on the line,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, said at an event for Vance over the weekend.