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Does Donald Trump still control the GOP?: Three Senate races will give us an answer

In less than two weeks, we will have a strong indication as to who the 2024 Republican nominee for president will be.

Put another way, it will become clear whether the G.O.P. is beginning to move on from former President Donald Trump, or whether Trump’s grip on the Republican Party continues to endure.

By May 18, three general election battlegrounds — Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — will have held their Republican primaries for U.S. Senate. Each race represents a test of Trump’s strength with Republican voters, as he has backed candidates in all three primaries that were by no means shoe-ins for the nomination. 

While we won’t know anything for certain until North Carolina and Pennsylvania hold their primaries, the trajectory of these two races thus far — taken together with the outcome in the Ohio primary  — point to Trump remaining a dominant figure in Republican politics through 2024, and indicate that he could very well be the party’s presidential nominee.

Indeed, the result of the Ohio Republican primary for U.S. Senate, which was held this week, is telling of Trump’s primacy within the G.O.P., as his endorsement of J.D. Vance undoubtedly helped catapult Vance to victory in a seven-way race.

Prior to Trump’s April 15 endorsement, Vance’s position in the race was relatively weak — there were no public polls that showed him leading the field, and he often ranked in third place. Notably, a poll by Trafalgar Group released the day prior to Trump’s endorsement showed Vance trailing challenger Josh Mandel by 5 percent.

Following Trump’s endorsement, Vance jumped to the lead in every public poll conducted in the remainder of the campaign, and he won the nomination by 8 percent.

To be sure, the two other Trump-endorsed Senate candidates — Tedd Budd in North Carolina and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania — both also have a strong shot at securing their party’s nomination and have clearly benefited from Trump’s backing.

In North Carolina, all candidates in the Republican Senate primary were jockeying for Trump’s support at the outset of the campaign. Trump’s endorsement of Ted Budd, who tied himself to the former president in his campaign announcement, has propelled Budd to double-digit leads in most public polls, and he appears poised to secure the nomination.

Perhaps the most significant test of Trump’s power over the G.O.P base will come on May 17 in the Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania. Trump recently endorsed celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz over former George W. Bush staffer and hedge fund CEO David McCormick, causing intense blowback, even within the MAGA movement.

Both Oz and McCormick have tried positioning themselves as the “America First” candidate — deploying Trumpian rhetoric to that effect — and notably, McCormick has surrounded himself with former Trump staffers, including Kellyanne Conway.

In the weeks prior to Trump’s endorsement, an Emerson poll showed McCormick with a 6-point lead over the crowded Republican field, and Oz trailing him in second place, 27 percent to 21 percent. Following Trump’s endorsement, Oz jumped to a 3-point lead in the race, 23 percent to 20 percent, per recent polling conducted by Trafalgar Group.

It should be noted that, unlike in North Carolina, the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary is too close for us to be able to predict a winner at this stage, and it’s unclear how impactful Trump’s endorsement will ultimately be in this race. 

Roughly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Pennsylvania Republicans say that Trump’s endorsement did not change their opinion of Oz, per a recent Monmouth University poll. Just 22 percent said it made them view Oz more favorably — though, in a close contest, that number still may boost Oz’s prospects. 

Ultimately, if three of Trump’s handpicked Senate candidates running in battleground states prevail in their primary, it will indicate to the Republican rank-and-file that the G.O.P. is still Donald Trump’s party.

If this outcome comes to fruition, it would all but end the presidential ambitions of Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) or any other Republican planning on running in 2024 until Trump officially makes his intentions clear — that is, whether he plans to run for office again, or plans to put his full weight behind another candidate.

Though the Trump-endorsed challengers to G.O.P. incumbents in the Idaho and Georgia gubernatorial races will likely not prevail, if Oz and Budd win their primaries because of Trump’s endorsement — as Vance did — Trump is almost certain to be the nominee.

Candidly, many Republicans would likely welcome the chance to put Trump behind them. The G.O.P. establishment understands that their political prospects will be in jeopardy if the party continues to focus on Trump’s priorities — namely, his “Big Lie,” — rather than on their agenda for the future.

Indeed, relitigating the 2020 election is about the worst thing the Republicans can or should do if they are trying to build a strong base going forward into the 2024 election. Voters, and particularly swing voters, are focused on addressing the challenges of today — not fighting about alleged voter fraud in the last election. 

A forward-looking, moderate Republican agenda that offers solutions where Democrats have failed to provide them — while avoiding pandering to the party’s extreme fringes and relitigating past grievances — is essential for the G.O.P.’s prospects in 2022, 2024 and beyond.

Though only time will tell, if these three Trump-endorsed candidates ultimately prevail, Republicans might not be able to escape the ever-present shadow of Donald Trump. 

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” 

Tags 2022 midterm elections David McCormick Donald Trump Donald Trump josh mandel Mehmet Oz Politics of the United States Republican primaries Ron DeSantis Ted Budd

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