Former President Donald Trump has taken his involvement in 2022 Republican primaries to a new level as he works to permanently mold the GOP in his image. Beyond Trump's public efforts to oust Republican incumbents he considers disloyal, he has quietly tried to clear potential GOP threats to his endorsed candidates and encouraged others to run against his enemies.
Earlier this month, the former President enlisted the help of North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn to persuade former Rep. Mark Walker to end his campaign for Senate and instead run for the House, which could help Trump's preferred candidate in the GOP Senate primary, Rep. Ted Budd, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump has also had conversations in recent weeks with MAGA-aligned Republicans who are considering challenging GOP governors with whom he has grown disillusioned. The former President urged former Georgia Sen. David Perdue to run against incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who resisted Trump's efforts to overturn his narrow 2020 loss in the state to then-candidate Joe Biden. And he has been receptive to the prospect of Alabama Senate GOP candidate Lynda Blanchard challenging Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.
The notoriously vengeful former President has told associates he blames Ivey for a decision by the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park Commission earlier this summer to prevent him from holding a July 3 rally aboard the retired World War II battleship.
Ex-presidents usually leave the limelight after leaving office, refraining from inserting themselves in their party primaries. But a person close to Trump likened the former President to the mob patriarch Vito Corleone in the "The Godfather" movie for his efforts to retaliate against Republicans who criticized him for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol or for voting to pass Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan. Trump has been "pulling strings behind the scenes and guiding candidates in the right direction," this person said.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said the former President's endorsement "is unquestionably the most powerful force in American politics" and that Trump continues to receive endorsement requests from Republican candidates up and down the ballot. "When he endorses candidates, they win," Budowich told CNN in a statement, while declining to comment on Trump's conversations with individual or prospective candidates.
US Senate seat in North Carolina
Cawthorn, a 26-year-old congressman who has positioned himself as a Trump acolyte on Capitol Hill, endorsed Walker's Senate campaign in February, four months before Trump surprised attendees of North Carolina's GOP convention with an endorsement of Rep. Ted Budd.
But at Trump's request, Cawthorn recently called Walker to urge him to run for the House rather than continuing to challenge Budd in the GOP Senate primary, according to people familiar with the matter. Recent polls have shown Walker trailing Budd and former Gov. Pat McCrory, another GOP Senate candidate, and Budd's supporters think that he could gain on McCrory if he doesn't have to split votes with Walker.
Budd earned Trump's endorsement after voting against the congressional certification of the 2020 election on January 6 and 7, and supporting a lawsuit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that sought to challenge the results of swing states Trump lost. (That case was rejected by the Supreme Court, which said Texas lacked standing to sue.)
Walker, who declined multiple requests for comment, is now considering running for the House, according to people familiar with his thinking. North Carolina's filing deadline is next month.
Georgia governor's race
In Georgia, the former President is said to be focused on creating a "Trump ticket," according to a GOP operative there, with endorsed candidates running for governor, Senate and other public offices. Trump has already endorsed former running back star Herschel Walker for Senate against Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and other GOP candidates, and Rep. Jody Hice against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who debunked Trump's claims of widespread fraud following the 2020 election.
Perdue lost his Senate seat to Democrat Jon Ossoff in a runoff election earlier this year. But he is now considering a run for governor against Kemp, even though some of his former supporters believe a costly primary could damage the party ahead of a potential 2022 matchup against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Perdue's allies, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have made the case that the former senator is the only Republican who can unite the party since Trump has blasted Kemp, saying in September that Abrams "might very well be better" than the Republican governor. Trump has assured Perdue that he would endorse the former senator in a primary race against Kemp, according to people familiar with the matter. Budowich declined to discuss Trump's "private conversations" with current or prospective candidates.
Alabama governor's race
And in Alabama, Trump has already endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks, a fierce ally who told Trump's supporters before the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, "Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass."
Despite Trump's early endorsement of Brooks, the Alabama congressman has suffered from lackluster fundraising and waning momentum in the Senate GOP primary, which the former President has noticed. Trump was not only annoyed when Brooks was booed at a rally he held with him this summer, but has recently complained about Brooks' campaign to allies, according to three people familiar with the situation.
To make matters worse for Brooks, Katie Britt, the former president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, has trounced Brooks in fundraising, coalesced the support of the Chamber of Commerce-wing of the party and received the endorsement of her former boss, retiring GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, whose seat she, Brooks and Blanchard seek. If Blanchard, a former ambassador to first lady Melania Trump's native Slovenia, leaves the Senate race to challenge Ivey, she could help Brooks unite Trump's supporters and overcome the threat posed by Britt.
Last month, Blanchard met with Trump at his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago. In a statement, she neither confirmed nor denied that they discussed a potential run for governor.
"It was my honor to be appointed by President Trump to serve as his Ambassador and I will continue to support the President and his America First Agenda," Blanchard said. "Our recent visit to Mar-a-Lago was great fun and we look forward to doing it again soon."
Republicans prepare for next year
The sharp rise in consumer prices, recent supply chain shortages and Biden's weakened approval rating has left Republicans feeling confident that they will regain both the House and Senate in next year's midterm elections.
But some strategists worry that Trump's desire to re-litigate the 2020 election could force the party to elevate candidates who look backwards, and embrace his dangerous falsehoods, rather than focusing on the most pressing issues facing voters in the 2022 midterm election.
His choices can put him at odds with the official party organizations devoted to winning governors' mansions, the House and the Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee do not support Republican candidates in open primaries, and the Republican Governors Association supports incumbents like Kemp.
"Republicans have a historic opportunity in 2022: Biden's presidency is falling apart, the generic numbers have never been this wide over the Democrats, and (House GOP Leader Kevin) McCarthy and (Senate GOP Leader Mitch) McConnell are recruiting good candidates," said longtime GOP strategist Scott Reed. "But you know, Trump keeps looking in the rearview mirror."
In at least two instances, Trump's endorsements have already caused a headache for party officials hoping to take back the Senate. Pennsylvania Senate candidate Sean Parnell, who received Trump's backing in September, suspended his campaign this week after a judge awarded Laurie Snell, his estranged wife, primary physical custody and sole legal custody of the couple's three children amid accusations that Parnell was physically abusive toward her and their children. And in Georgia, Walker, the Trump-backed Senate candidate, has faced domestic violence allegations from his ex-wife, an ex-girlfriend and a third woman. Walker and Parnell strongly denied the claims against them.
Budowich said Parnell spoke with Trump on Monday to inform him of his plans.
"#PASen remains a top priority for Pres. Trump & the '22 MAGA Map — rallying our movement behind the best America 1st candidate remains critical," Budowich tweeted.
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