The month of May is a consequential one for former President Donald Trump. In the twelve states that hold primaries that month, the former president has endorsed Republican candidates for Governor, Senate, and/or House in all but two. Some of those endorsements — and one “un-endorsement" — have garnered national attention. Those include the open Alabama Senate GOP primary (where Trump rescinded his support for GOP Rep. Mo Brooks) and the Georgia gubernatorial primary between Trump's least favorite governor, Brian Kemp, and the man Trump has endorsed, former Senator David Perdue.
Other primaries in which Trump has weighed in have gotten less national attention. In Idaho, Trump endorsed the sitting Republican Lt. Governor in her race against Gov. Brad Little. While in Arkansas, Sen. John Boozman proudly touts his endorsement from Trump in his primary contest against a former Arkansas football player.
On Thursday night, news broke that Trump is expected to endorse Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance in the crowded and contentious Ohio Senate primary.
At the end of the month, most of the attention will be focused on Trump's record of success in these intra-party contests. Much will be made about his continuing, or waning, influence on the party based on those results.
But just looking at the scorecard misses the bigger picture. These primary fights aren't between the 'pro-Trump' wing versus the 'anti-or Never-Trump' wing of the GOP. Candidates are not debating whether the GOP should continue to associate with or make a clean break from Trumpism. GOP candidates are not debating the future identity or ideology in the post-Trump era. Instead, these primary contests have only helped to illuminate that in both style and substance, the current GOP remains Trump's party.
The best way to see that the party remains fixed in the Trumpian mold is to, well, see it. In hundreds of TV ads, GOP candidates and outside groups that support them, are highlighting their commitment to Trump's policies and persona. The advertising analysis firm AdImpact captures and categorizes political ads from around the country. Since the beginning of the year, the term "Trump" appears in 164 ads that collectively total $26M worth of spending. Almost all of those ads — 152 of them — and that spending ($24M) came from the Republican side.
Most of these GOP ads feature not just images of the former president, but also many of the terms associated with Trump, like "fighter," "conservative outsider," and "America First." Many feature pledges to complete or finish "Donald Trump's wall" at the southern border and to defeat “radical socialism.”
In the contests where Trump hasn't endorsed, GOP candidates eagerly present their Trumpian bonafides in their advertising. In the Alabama Senate race, where Trump has yet to endorse another candidate after rescinding his support of Brooks, candidate Mike Durant boasts that he is a "conservative, pro-Trump" candidate who is "ready for the fight." Katie Britt, the former chief of staff to retiring Sen. Richard Shelby, bemoans the high level of illegal immigration and promises to 'finish Trump's wall" at the southern border.
In Ohio, ads for and by the major Senate candidates have a noun, a verb and a Trump reference. Businessman Mike Gibbons boasts that he's a "Trump tough job creator," former state GOP chair Jane Timken is a "Trump conservative," while former state Treasurer Josh Mandel calls himself the "pro-God, pro-gun and pro-Trump" candidate in the race. Even Matt Dolan, a state Senator and wealthy businessman who is the only candidate in the race not courting Trump's blessing, tells Ohio voters that he will "finish the wall" to curb the flow of illegal immigration.
Even many Republicans running against Trump-endorsed candidates feature Trump in their advertising. In West Virginia, Trump has endorsed Rep. Alex Mooney in this member versus member showdown in the newly drawn 2nd CD. But, that hasn't stopped GOP Rep. Dave McKinley from trying to grab the Trump mantle. Not only do McKinley's attack ads call Mooney "bad for Trump's agenda," but his most recent commercial featured an endorsement by Gov. Jim Justice who testifies that "McKinley stands with Trump." In the Pennsylvania Senate race, where Trump just recently endorsed TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, businessman David McCormick has been running ads in which he pledges to "fight for America First energy policies like Donald Trump" and to "fight for what Trump and Reagan showed us all — the world is safest when America is strongest." A recent ad for Gov. Brian Kemp, which attacks Perdue for "outsourcing jobs" to China while he was in the private sector, features clips of Pres. Trump admonishing politicians for failing to stand up to China.
Democrats are happy to see GOP candidates attach themselves to Trump, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, arguing that the Trump brand remains toxic among swing voters. "Presidents' parties have never been rewarded for their policies, goals or accomplishments," one Democratic strategist told me the other day, "But they have survived when their opponents disqualify themselves with their extreme agendas."
However, President Biden is as unpopular in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania as the man he defeated in 2020. This allows GOP candidates to, as one GOP consultant put it, "post-up" on Biden on issues where he is underwater, like inflation, the economy, crime, and immigration. In other words, while Trump may still define the party, the midterm election will be a referendum on the actions of the current president.
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