Trump is the GOP's de facto leader — and biggest election risk

Mario Parker and Mark Niquette
Bloomberg News (TNS)

Donald Trump’s endorsement of talk-show host Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary has deepened GOP angst over whether the former president’s picks can win a statewide general election.

Republicans aiming for a rout come November are anxious that Trump is backing candidates who appeal only to party faithful. The fear is that in a general election, when the candidates must compete for moderates and independent voters, a seal of approval by Trump will be a negative.

Trump’s surprise backing of “Dr. Oz” over former Bridgewater Associates Chief Executive Officer David McCormick was met with dismay by party grandees and strategists. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was clearly dismayed in what is becoming a test of the billionaire mogul’s enduring hold on the party.

More:Trump endorses Oz in Pennsylvania's Senate primary race

More:Trump's endorsement is no guarantee of success for Dr. Oz in Pa. Senate race

More:Warnock, Ossoff win in Georgia, handing Dems Senate control

FILE - Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, speaks during a town hall campaign event at Arcaro and Genell in Old Forge, Pa., on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. Former President Donald Trump is endorsing Oz in Pennsylvania’s crowded Senate primary, ending months of jockeying for Trump's support. Trump says in a statement that his decision is “all about winning elections” as he backs the celebrity heart surgeon best known as the host of daytime TV’s “The Dr. Oz Show.” Trump had previously endorsed Sean Parnell in the race, but Parnell withdrew amid allegations of abuse from his estranged wife. (Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune via AP, File)

“You can’t nominate somebody who is just sort of unacceptable to a broader group of people and win,” McConnell said at a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce event in Louisville. He said they had nominated “bizarre people that got through the primary who couldn’t win in November.”

Trump is spoiling that mainstream vision by endorsing 18 candidates among Republican Senate hopefuls that fulfill very specific prerequisites. They include public allegiance to his false claims that he was robbed in the 2020 presidential election, personal loyalty and support for his America-First vision.

This spring, states are beginning to hold their primary elections to determine the major-party candidates for all 435 House seats and one-third of the Senate. Republicans would have to keep all their current Senate seats and flip just one Democratic seat to gain control of that chamber.

The party that woos moderates is more likely to win. A January Gallup poll showed that the majority of Americans view themselves as middle-of-the-road, followed by conservatives and liberals.

In Georgia, Trump is backing Herschel Walker, a former Heisman trophy winner who has acknowledged a battle with mental illness and said he played Russian roulette with a loaded gun. His ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, has said that he once pointed a gun to her head and threatened to shoot her. Polls show Walker with a big lead in the May 24 GOP primary.

Current polls show Walker would have a tight race with Democratic incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock. But even Trump said Walker would be hurt if former U.S. Senator David Perdue, Trump’s choice for Georgia governor, doesn’t unseat the incumbent. Governor Brian Kemp holds a wide lead, according to most polls.

“If Kemp wins, I think Herschel Walker is going to be very seriously and negatively impacted, because Republicans that happen to like Donald Trump — MAGA Republicans — are not going to go out and vote for this guy Kemp,” Trump said.

In Pennsylvania, Trump first backed Sean Parnell, who quit the race last year amid allegations that he physically and verbally abused his ex-wife and their children.

Now he backs Oz, even though McCormick had hired a number of former Trump White House aides and traveled to Florida to seek Trump’s endorsement.

Oz narrowly trails McCormick in an average of recent polls. He’s been criticized for having recently moved back to Pennsylvania, and for past public comments that run counter to conservative stances on gun rights, reproductive rights and China.

Dave Ball, GOP chair in Pennsylvania’s Washington County, where Trump trounced Biden by about 23 points in 2020, said voters are mystified by Trump’s Oz endorsement.

“Oh, lots of them. I probably have had 30, maybe more by now,” Ball said of the calls he’s received. “And their basic comment is, ‘What?’ These are the president’s supporters.”

In Nevada, polls show Trump-endorsed Adam Laxalt, who has seven opponents and backs Trump’s false 2020 election claims, in a tight race with incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.

Trump has yet to endorse in the Arizona Senate GOP primary. He claimed that two-time Governor Doug Ducey, whom McConnell had recruited to run for Senate, decided to sit out the race because Trump wouldn’t endorse him. Like Kemp in Georgia, Ducey refused to overturn the 2020 results in Trump’s favor. One candidate seeking the seat, Blake Masters, tweeted that he had been at Mar-a-Lago recently and chided opponent and state Attorney General Mark Brnovich for not properly investigating the election results.

A Ducey spokesman declined to comment.

Trump’s also flirted with an endorsement in Missouri’s Republican primary. He’s issued statements name-checking Representative Billy Long, and also former Governor Eric Greitens, whose wife has accused him of beating her and their pre-school son. Greitens denies the allegations.

Even some of his supporters express reservations about his picks. Heidi Sipes of Winston-Salem, a finance assistant analyst who attended Trump’s North Carolina rally last weekend, said she doesn’t think Trump “is necessarily a good judge of character like that.”

He hasn’t yet made a pick in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary, but the power of his endorsement looms in the campaign ads and coarse rhetoric of top contenders. Recently, JD Vance and Josh Mandel both released ads declaring they were not racists for backing a U.S.- Mexico border wall or opposing anti-racism public school curricula.

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich has called Trump’s endorsement the most sought after in politics and downplayed any concerns that candidates backed by Trump will be vulnerable in general election races.

The Republican Party has been counting on President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating and the highest inflation in decades, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and through-the-roof gasoline prices, for a smooth takeover of Congress in 2022.

Ken Spain, who oversaw Republicans’ successful communication strategy in the 2010 midterms, said the dour environment for Democrats outweighs any vulnerabilities among Republicans.

“What could ultimately bail out some of the more flawed Republican candidates is that the environment is just so overwhelmingly positive that some of the shortcomings of these candidates fade to the background,” Spain said.