Leading Republican Senate candidates across the country who have previously chastised Donald Trump are now vying for his support, demonstrating the former president
's near-total control of the Republican primary electorate.
Leading candidates for open seats in Pennsylvania
, and North Carolina
, as well as a top-tier potential challenger to an incumbent Democrat in New Hampshire
, are all likely to see GOP
rivals weaponize their previous comments to harm them in the eyes of Trump, allies who could influence him, and Republican primary voters
who overwhelmingly approve of the former president.
Democrats, who have the smallest Senate majority possible and are expected to lose ground in the midterm elections
if historical trends continue, are hoping that chaotic intra-GOP squabbles for Trump's favor alienate swing voters, cause clashes with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
(R-Ky.), or result in weaker candidates winning the Republican nomination.
“Across the Senate map, Trump is escalating GOP primaries and worsening Republican infighting,” said David Bergstein, communications director for Senate Democrats
’ campaign arm. “In each race, GOP Senate candidates are fighting with each other over who can suck up to Trump the most, and whoever emerges from these intraparty fights will enter the general election badly damaged and weakened.”
Some of the comments are harsh: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, arguably the party's top Senate recruiting
priority, said Trump was "clearly" to blame for the Jan. 6 violence. Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said Trump was "destroying democracy
" with his false allegations of voter fraud after his 2020 loss.
Other criticisms date back to the 2016 election
, when venture capitalist and likely Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance
said Trump was “unfit” for the presidency, and Pennsylvania candidate Sean Parnell said he was not surprised Trump would not disavow a Ku Klux Klan
“Like it or not, Donald Trump is still going to be a big player in Republican primaries,” said Michael Ahrens, the Republican National Committee
’s communications director during Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. “Even if he doesn’t get involved in the race directly, there are a lot of voters who will view past support for him as a litmus test.”
Can Democrats Profit from Their Position?
A vivid illustration of the potential risks occurred earlier this month, when Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd over McCrory at the North Carolina GOP convention. It is unclear whether Trump was aware of McCrory's previous criticisms; however, during his speech, he mentioned that he could not endorse a candidate who had lost the state twice, a clear reference to McCrory's losses in a 2008 Senate race and a 2016 gubernatorial race.
McCrory's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but Trump's endorsement of Budd is the clearest threat yet to McCrory's front-runner status in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
“I am disappointed that President Trump has endorsed a Washington
insider who has done more to oppose the Trump agenda than anyone else in this race,” McCrory said in a statement following Trump’s endorsement, which he had to sit through as a convention attendee.
Budd supporters said the endorsement was due in part to the congressman's friendship
with Lara Trump
, the former president's daughter-in-law and a native North Carolinian who considered running for Senate in 2018 and 2020.
Budd's success in influencing Trump through his family could serve as a model for other Republican candidates attempting to navigate the often-confusing information flow surrounding the president, as well as the maze of different advisers surrounding the former president, which includes former campaign managers Brad Parscale, Corey Lewandowski
, and Bill Stepien.
Democrats are ecstatic about the uproar caused by Trump's endorsement. Just hours before Trump endorsed Budd, GOP convention delegates backed a third candidate, Rep. Mark Walker, in a straw poll. On Monday, Budd's campaign released an internal poll showing the endorsement vaulting him past McCrory once Republicans
learned of Trump's endorsement.
However, neither Democrats nor Republicans see Budd, a member of the House
Freedom Caucus, as a significantly weaker general election candidate than McCrory in the state.
Despite intense intraparty bickering, Budd is one of only two candidates Trump has endorsed in Senate races
, the other being Rep. Mo Brooks
in deeply conservative Alabama
. He has also declared his opposition to GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski
's reelection bid in Alaska
Trump's relatively light footprint so far suggests that his endorsements won't do much to hurt Republicans' chances of regaining control of the Senate. In 2018, Trump ally Steve Bannon
relentlessly hyped a showdown between Trump-backed candidates and McConnell allies. In the end, Trump and McConnell agreed on every contested GOP Senate primary, and Trump even helped clear the field for i
Sununu and Arizona
Attorney General Mark Brnovich are two Democrats hoping to clearly separate themselves from Trump. Sununu said in 2016 that it was "foolish" to say the president defines the GOP, and later said much of Trump's rhetoric was "disgusting" and "intolerable."
Sununu, who enjoys high approval ratings in blue-collar New Hampshire, is widely regarded as the Republican Party
's best, and possibly its only, hope of unseating Democratic
Sen. Maggie Hassan in 2022.
Brnovich isn't as central to GOP hopes, but as a statewide officeholder, he's considered a top-tier challenger to Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly. Trump has chastised him in the past for not more aggressively supporting GOP lies about voter fraud, but a source close to Brnovich said the two men talked before the attorney general announced his candidacy this week and had a "positive conversation."
Trumpism versus Trump Loyalty
Meanwhile, the battle for Trump's endorsement in the Ohio race to replace GOP Sen. Rob Portman raises the question of whether personal loyalty to Trump or a record of support for his nationalist policies is more important to both Trump and voters.
J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist-turned-author of "Hillbilly Elegy
," is widely expected to announce a run for the Republican presidential nomination. However, he is already the target of an anonymous text-message campaign informing Republican voters in Ohio about Vance's numerous disparaging comments about Trump during the 2016 campaign, including one in which he called Trump an "idiot."
During the 2016 campaign, Vance stated that he "couldn't stomach Trump," that Trump was "unfit" for the presidency, and that his policy proposals ranged from "immoral to absurd."
However, a Vance confidante told Stardia that many Republicans did not support Trump in 2016. The Vance confidante, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional reasons, said that Vance's support for reshoring American manufacturing, tougher immigration
enforcement, and cracking down on Big Tech
's power demonstrate his commitment to Trump's ideas.
Jane Timken, an attorney who married into the Timken steel fortune and chaired the Ohio Republican Party during Trump's presidency, stated in her announcement video that she was running to "defend the Trump agenda without fear or hesitation." Timken took over the state party in January 2017 thanks in part to Trump's endorsement and campaigned tenaciously for him in 2020.
“While some candidates may talk about supporting President Trump, I am the only candidate in this race who has a track record of delivering results for President Trump,” Timken said in a statement to Stardia. “I have previously been endorsed by President Trump, worked tirelessly to advance his agenda, delivered him Ohio in 2020, and will continue to run the only true America First campaign.”
When Timken sought Trump's endorsement for her Senate campaign, Trump reportedly backtracked after close advisers advised him to wait longer before settling on a preferred candidate.
While Timken promotes her relationship with Trump in traditional ways, Josh Mandel, the former Ohio state treasurer, is courting the most hard-core, right-wing elements of the MAGA
crowd with stunts like posting a video of himself lighting a face mask
Mandel, who served as state treasurer from 2010 to 2018, has chastised Timken for failing to censure Rep. Anthony Gonzalez
to impeach Trump in January while serving as party chair.
Timken said Gonzalez was an "effective legislator" in early February, while still serving as state party chair, admitting, "I don't know if I would have voted the way he did."
Timken resigned as party chair a few days later, in preparation for her Senate run, and a few weeks later, as a Senate candidate, she called for Gonzalez to resign.
Mandel, of course, has not always been a Trump supporter. He boasts of being the first statewide elected Republican in Ohio to endorse Trump, but during the 2016 campaign, he appeared to be hedging his bets, declining to mention Trump's name in a July 2016 speech to Republican state leaders and instead saying he was "focused on" reelecting Portman.
Mandel has also been more aligned with the pro-corporate trade and industrial policy positions of organizations such as the Club for Growth, which has previously backed him, than Trump.
When Trump Has Had Enough Of It
Still, there is evidence that Trump does not always hold negative comments against the speaker indefinitely. Sean Parnell, an Army veteran who lost a close race to Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania in 2020, was harshly critical of Trump during the 2016 primaries.
As the Pittsburgh
City Paper reported earlier this month, Parnell demanded that Trump release his tax returns and expressed his displeasure with his rhetoric; however, Trump has clearly moved on: he openly encouraged Parnell to run against Lamb, and Donald Trump Jr
. has become friends with him.
“Sean is a friend and a strong conservative fighter with a spine of steel,” Trump Jr.
said on Twitter
after Parnell announced his Senate campaign. “He’s 100% rock-solid America First and isn’t afraid to stand up and fight back against the radical Biden
agenda and the leftwing media
However, just because the Trump family
is willing to forgive does not mean your political opponents are. Jeff Bartos, a businessman running against Parnell for the Republican nomination, released digital ads declaring Parnell had “sided with liberals” by asking Trump to release his taxes