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Trump’s endorsement power will be put to the test as May primaries approach

By Gabby Orr and Michael Warren, CNN

Donald Trump has raised an unprecedented sum of money in his post-presidency. He has maintained powerful alliances with top Republican leaders. And he has continued to attract large crowds as he holds rallies across the country.

But all that could change next month, when the former President faces the first real test of his political prowess since leaving office. With more than 10 states hosting primary contests and 22 candidates competing who have received Trump’s endorsement, allies of the former President said the month of May will clearly define both the depth and limitations of his influence.

“May will set the tone for the remainder of the election cycle,” former Trump campaign adviser Bryan Lanza, who remains close to Trump, told CNN. “Candidates endorsed by Trump will either feel the wind behind their sails or they will feel he’s an anchor.”

The prospect of Trump ending the month with an unblemished record of endorsements looks increasingly improbable as many of his chosen candidates struggle to compete in contentious primaries, often against Republican opponents who are better funded, have avoided getting bogged down in divisive messaging about the 2020 election or have benefited from establishment support.

Trump appears to be aware of the problem and is already hedging his bets.

Ahead of Alabama’s May 24 primary, he withdrew his endorsement from floundering Senate candidate Mo Brooks less than a week after telegraphing his displeasure with the congressman’s weak performance in the race. Brooks quipped in a radio interview the same day that Trump yanked his endorsement that he might end up endorsing all three candidates in the race just so “he’s assured of being able to say that he won.”

While advisers say Trump is highly unlikely to endorse more than one candidate in a primary, Brooks’ comment underscores the almost singular focus the former President has placed on maintaining a sterling track record of endorsements in the 2022 cycle. Trump was quick to boast of his “33-0” scorecard in the Texas primary last month, even though many of his endorsed candidates were GOP incumbents in uncontested races. May is far more likely to illuminate how and where the power of a Trump endorsement matters.

“We know that he can fundraise but in terms of utilizing that and seeing how important his endorsement power is, I think it could be make or break for the rest of the campaign season,” said one Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

In North Carolina, Trump has told allies he is nervous about Rep. Ted Budd finishing second in the May 17 primary, behind former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who has proved to be a superior fundraiser and enjoys establishment support.

Trump hinted at those concerns during a speech to GOP donors in March, telling the crowd gathered in New Orleans, “We’ve got to get (Mark) Walker out of that race,” according to one attendee. Walker, a former congressman and pastor, has refused to exit the contest despite trailing Budd and McCrory — a development that has left Trump and his team worried that he is siphoning off support from Budd.

And in competitive Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania that lack clear front-runners, Trump is so far withholding his endorsements. Other states could offer mixed results for him, as some of his chosen candidates appear poised to skate through their primaries while others are barely competitive against the incumbents they’re challenging.

In Georgia, for instance, Senate hopeful Herschel Walker rocketed to the front of the Republican pack after receiving Trump’s endorsement last September, while David Perdue, who is challenging incumbent GOP Gov. Brian Kemp with Trump’s blessing, has failed to gain significant traction in that primary.

“Based on how some of these races are shaping up, Trump appears to be on the verge of a very embarrassing spring primary season, where the test of his might within the party will be on full display,” said a Republican operative working on several races, some where Trump and the operative are aligned and others where they are opposed. The operative requested anonymity to speak freely. “If he comes out on the wrong side of the battles in this cycle, that will open the floodgates for a lot of challengers in the party in 2024.”

But other Republicans said Trump’s potentially rough start to the 2022 primaries won’t reflect his waning influence so much as his poor political judgment.

“What it tells me isn’t that Trump has lost his touch, but that he made some objectively questionable picks that didn’t pay off,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist. “In some cases he made picks on a lark, in some he made them because he had a personal ax to grind. There are still a number of messy primaries where his input could make a big difference.”

Trump’s most promising openings

Despite some of the high-profile struggles, Trump will be able to tout a number of successful endorsements in relatively noncompetitive races.

A football legend from his University of Georgia days, Walker is a clear front-runner in his Senate primary, thanks in large part to his universal name ID in the state. And if Walker succeeds in the May 24 primary, Trump can also claim victory in Georgia over Mitch McConnell, whose political operation failed to find an alternative candidate and came around later to Walker.

Another early Trump champion is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as White House press secretary. Sanders has all but cleared the field in the Arkansas gubernatorial primary on May 24.

And in Texas, Trump is likely to notch one more victory when Attorney General Ken Paxton faces off against challenger George P. Bush in a runoff contest May 24. Though the scandal-plagued Paxton, who was endorsed by Trump last July, fell short of the 50% support needed to avoid a runoff in the March 1 primary, he finished 20 percentage points ahead of Bush, who is widely considered the underdog.

Trump said in December that he planned on endorsing in the Ohio US Senate primary. He reiterated that pledge earlier this month in an interview with the Washington Examiner while also committing to backing a new Senate candidate in Pennsylvania after his first choice, Sean Parnell, ended his campaign in November. But even if Trump refrains from endorsing in those races, where the leading candidates have all charted Trumpian campaigns, aides to the former President also expect him to claim victory.

Longtime TV personality Mehmet Oz and former Bridgewater Associates CEO David McCormick — two of the Republicans vying for retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat in Pennsylvania — have cozied up to Trump in the primary in an effort to nab his endorsement, enabling him to claim a MAGA victory regardless of who survives the state’s May 17 primary.

Barring a come-from-behind victory for Trump-averse candidate Matt Dolan in Ohio, the same likely goes for that primary contest. All four of the leading contenders — Jane Timken, J.D. Vance, Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons — have cast themselves as America First candidates.

Misfires and head-scratchers

But in several important races, Trump’s attempted shows of strength have fallen flat. Nowhere else is this more clear than in Georgia’s governor’s race, where he has sought to depose the incumbent, Kemp.

The Trump-backed Perdue has struggled to raise money and gather support from party leaders. The GOP’s main committee for governor’s races, the Republican Governors Association, is running ads on Kemp’s behalf. And the Kemp campaign has already begun pivoting to a general-election message directed at Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams in its advertising. Kemp allies say the governor is within striking distance of winning an outright majority in the May 24 primary, which would avoid a runoff but also deliver a humiliating blow to Trump.

“I don’t see a path for Perdue right now unless something dramatically changes,” said Lanza, the former Trump campaign adviser.

Perdue’s last chance to change the dynamic may be Saturday, when Trump holds a rally with Perdue, Walker and others he’s endorsed in Georgia. Just days before the rally, Perdue leaned into talking up Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, saying during a Wednesday online radio interview that the election in Georgia had been “stolen.”

“Most people in Georgia know that something untoward happened in November 2020. In fact, I’ll just say it, Bryan: In my election and the presidential election, they were stolen. The evidence is compelling now,” Perdue said.

There has been no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election in Georgia that would have changed the outcome of races there. The state recertified its presidential election results, which Joe Biden won, following three separate counts of the ballots.

Lanza predicted that the former President would finish with a “60% overall” success rate, noting that Perdue, Brooks and Budd are the least likely among Trump’s preferred candidates to prevail.

Other Trump endorsements have prompted head scratching among Republicans. The former President has backed Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, in her primary challenge to sitting Republican Gov. Brad Little, who won his first term in 2018 and remains popular in the state. In a statement, Trump called McGeachin a “true supporter of MAGA since the beginning.”

But McGeachin’s campaign has been weighed down both by some of her unorthodox behavior — including her attempt to issue an executive order in her capacity as acting governor when Little was out of the state — as well as her association with far-right and White nationalist groups.

Outside groups like the Republican Governors Association, which has committed to supporting Republican incumbents in primaries, don’t expect McGeachin to put up a serious fight, despite the nominal Trump support.

“The endorsement alone is not enough to make or propel the campaign,” said a second Republican operative working on several races across the country, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the former President.

Toss-ups elswhere

Elsewhere in upcoming primaries, there’s no guarantee Trump’s candidates can pull it out, especially where they have credible or well-funded opponents.

Redistricting in West Virginia has pitted two incumbent US House Republicans against each other in a May 10 primary. Trump has backed longtime ally Rep. Alex Mooney over Rep. David McKinley, who has the backing of Gov. Jim Justice. Mooney, who is facing a congressional ethics investigation for possible campaign finance violations, has fallen far behind McKinley in fundraising.

And in Nebraska, Trump’s preferred gubernatorial candidate, Charles Herbster, has so far failed to break out of the pack in a crowded May 10 primary that includes Jim Pillen, whom retiring Gov. Pete Ricketts is behind.

If May does not pan out well for Trump, some of his allies said, he won’t be the right person to blame. Ultimately, the success or failure of candidates who have received his support, these people argued, will depend more on their campaigns and reputations than it will on Trump’s involvement.

“A candidate who has run a good campaign may go further than a candidate who didn’t run a good campaign but had an endorsement from President Trump,” said Jim McLaughlin, a longtime pollster for the former President.

McLaughlin cited Georgia to make his point. He noted that Perdue, who lost his bid for reelection in a runoff contest in January 2021, entered the gubernatorial primary with a well-defined reputation and plenty of baggage — in addition to Trump’s support.

“A guy like Herschel Walker got catapulted to the front of that race because he was Trump’s guy. Other races, like Perdue and Kemp, already have their own definitions in the eyes of voters, so that also matters,” he said.

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