Leading GOP candidates for Senate seats across the country who once harshly criticized Donald Trump are now jockeying for his endorsement, a display of the former president’s near-total grip over the Republican primary electorate.
The candidates include leading contenders for open seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina and a top-tier potential challenger to an incumbent Democrat in New Hampshire. All are likely to see GOP rivals weaponize their past comments to damage them in the eyes of Trump himself, allies who could influence him and Republican primary voters who overwhelmingly approve of the former president.
Democrats, who have the smallest possible Senate majority and are likely to lose ground in the midterm elections if historical trends continue, are hoping chaotic intra-GOP squabbles for Trump’s favor alienate swing voters, cause clashes with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or lead to weaker candidates winning the Republican nomination.
“Across the Senate map, Trump is escalating GOP primaries and making the Republican infighting even worse,” said David Bergstein, the 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 whomever emerges from these intraparty fights will enter the general election badly damaged and out of step with the voters who will decide the race in their state.”
Some of the comments are harsh: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, arguably the party’s top Senate recruiting priority, said it was “clear” Trump’s deserved blame for violence on Jan. 6. Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory suggested Trump was “destroying democracy” with his false allegations of voter fraud following his 2020 loss.
Other criticisms date back to the 2016 election: Then, 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 an endorsement from a Ku Klux Klan leader.
“Like it or not, Donald Trump is still going to be a big player in Republican primaries,” said Michael Ahrens, who was the communications director for the Republican National Committee during Trump’s 2020 election bid. “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 Capitalize?
A vivid illustration of the potential risks happened earlier this month, when Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd over McCrory at the North Carolina GOP convention. It’s not clear if Trump knew about McCrory’s past criticisms ― during his speech, he mentioned 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 2016 gubernatorial reelection ― but one Republican closely watching the race said other Republicans in the state opposed to McCrory’s nomination had worked to highlight the comments (which were featured in a CNN article earlier this year) to Trump allies.
McCrory’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but Trump’s decision to endorse Budd is the clearest threat yet to McCrory’s front-runner status in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr.
“I’m disappointed that President Trump has endorsed a Washington insider who has done more to oppose the Trump agenda than anyone in this race,” McCrory said in a statement after Trump’s endorsement, which he had to sit through as a convention attendee. “If supporters of President Trump want his agenda to be supported in the U.S. Senate, they should not vote for Ted Budd, who has opposed him at every turn — and who would lose to the far-left next November.”
Allies of Budd attributed the endorsement in part to the friendship the congressman developed with Lara Trump ― the former president’s daughter-in-law and a native North Carolinian who considered making her own run for Senate ― while campaigning in 2018 and 2020.
Budd’s success influencing Trump through his family could provide a road map for other GOP candidates who are trying to navigate the oft-confusing information flow surrounding the president, and the maze of different advisers ― including former campaign managers Brad Parscale, Corey Lewandowski, and Bill Stepien ― surrounding the former president.
Democrats are outwardly delighted at the chaos Trump’s endorsement generated. Just a few hours before Trump endorsed Budd, the delegates at the GOP convention backed a third candidate ― Rep. Mark Walker ― in a straw poll. On Monday, Budd’s campaign released an internal survey showing the endorsement vaulting him past McCrory once Republicans knew of Trump’s endorsement.
But in state, neither Democrats nor Republicans view Budd, a member of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus, as a significantly weaker general election candidate than McCrory.
So far, despite intense intraparty jockeying, Budd is one of just two candidates Trump has endorsed in Senate races. The other is Rep. Mo Brooks in deeply conservative Alabama. He’s also declared his opposition to GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection bid in Alaska.
Trump’s relatively light footprint so far leaves open the possibility his endorsements won’t do much to hurt Republican chances of taking back the upper chamber. 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 incumbent GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.
There are two candidates Democrats are hoping to clearly separate from Trump: Sununu and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Sununu said in 2016 it was “foolish” to say the president defines the GOP, and later said much of the president’s rhetoric was “disgusting” and “intolerable.”
Sununu, who has a high approval ratings in blue-tinted New Hampshire, is considered the GOP’s best ― and perhaps only ― hope of beating Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in 2022.
Brnovich isn’t as central to GOP hopes, but as a statewide office-holder, he’s considered a top-tier challenger to Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly. Trump has attacked him in the past for not more aggressively supporting GOP lies about voting fraud. But a source close to Brnovich said the two men talked before the attorney general announced his run this week and had a “positive conversation.”
Loyalty To Trump vs. Trumpism
The battle for Trump’s endorsement in the Ohio race to replace GOP Sen. Rob Portman, meanwhile, asks whether personal loyalty to Trump or a record of support for his nationalist policies matters more to both the president himself and to voters.
J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist-turned-author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” is considered all-but-certain to announce a run for the GOP nomination. But he is already on the receiving end of an anonymous text-message campaign informing Republican voters in Ohio about Vance’s numerous disparaging comments about Trump during the 2016 race, including a time he called Trump an “idiot.”
During the 2016 race, Vance also said he “couldn’t stomach Trump,” that Trump was “unfit” for the presidency, and that his policy proposals ranged from “immoral to absurd.”
An ally of Vance’s noted to HuffPost, however, that many Republicans did not support Trump in 2016. The Vance confidante, who asked for anonymity for professional reasons, said that Vance’s support for reshoring American manufacturing, tougher immigration enforcement and cracking down on the power of Big Tech show 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, declared 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 doggedly for him in 2020.
“While some candidates may like to talk about supporting President Trump, I am the only candidate in this race who has a record of delivering results for President Trump,” Timken said in a statement to HuffPost. “I’ve been previously 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 bid, however, Trump reportedly backed off plans to endorse her after close advisers urged him to wait longer before settling on a favored candidate.
If Timken touts her relationship with Trump in traditional ways, Josh Mandel, the former Ohio state treasurer, is courting the most hardcore, right-wing elements of the MAGA crowd with stunts like posting a video of himself lighting a face mask on fire.
In early February, while still serving as state party chair, Timken said Gonzalez was an “effective legislator,” while acknowledging, “I don’t know if I would have voted the way he did.”
Of course, Mandel has not always been a Trump loyalist. 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 at a July 2016 speech to Republican state leaders and instead saying he was “focused on” reelecting Portman.
Mandel has also hewed closer to the pro-corporate trade and industrial policy stances of groups like the Club for Growth, which has backed him in the past, than Trump.
When Trump Gets Over It
Still, there’s plenty of evidence Trump does not always hold negative comments against the speaker forever. 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 Pittsburgh City Paper reported earlier this month, Parnell called on Trump to release his tax returns and repeatedly expressed dismay at his rhetoric. But it’s clear Trump has 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,” the younger Trump on Twitter wrote after Parnell announced his campaign for Senate. “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 mob.”
But just because the Trump family is willing to forgive, it does not mean your political opponents are. Jeff Bartos, a businessman running against Parnell for the GOP nomination, released digital ads declaring Parnell “sided with liberals” by asking Trump to release his taxes.