GOP primary fights escalate after Trump's endorsements


Republican candidates who missed out on former President Trump’s endorsement aren’t packing it up. In some cases, they’re starting to hit back harder against their Trump-backed rivals.

In marquee Senate races in Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina, the former president’s endorsement has proved far from the field-clearer many expected it would be, and candidates running against Trump-backed Republicans in primaries are going on offense to try to offset their opponents’ advantage.

To be sure, the former president still wields significant sway over the GOP grassroots, and his endorsement is far and away the most coveted of any in Republican politics. Yet candidates with enough of a platform of their own who are running without his support are finding ways to maintain their footing against an onslaught from Trump’s allies — and at times flawed opponents. 

“Trump’s endorsement is obviously the biggest get that any Republican candidate can have. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But it isn’t determinative of what’s going to happen. It’s not a ‘Trump endorses, and therefore that’s the nominee,’ ” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “We still run these races for a reason.” 

That dynamic is playing out in several top battlegrounds heading into 2022, when Republicans must net just a handful of seats to flip the House and only one seat to control the Senate. 

Pennsylvania’s Senate race is increasingly being marked by that kind of back-and-forth. 

Sean Parnell, a former House candidate who is running with Trump’s endorsement for the open seat being vacated by Sen. Pat Toomey (R), has been hit with scandal over allegations of domestic abuse by his estranged wife, leaving Jeff Bartos, the most prominent Republican alternative in the race, with an opening. 

Parnell’s campaign has denied the allegations, saying they’re “unequivocally false.” However, the controversy surrounding him was first on reporters’ radars after the Bartos campaign dropped opposition research revealing temporary protective orders that were filed against Parnell by his wife. 

In Georgia, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker has coalesced support from the GOP establishment after first winning the backing of Trump, an old ally. There too, Walker has been accused of domestic abuse, including that he threatened his ex-wife’s life. 

Gary Black, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner and another GOP Senate candidate, had long been quiet about the controversy. But after several top senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), endorsed Walker, he released documents, including police reports filed regarding Walker, and gave a press conference calling Walker’s behavior “wrong.” 

In response, a source close to Walker pointed The Hill to polling showing him leading Black and noted that Walker enjoys a yawning fundraising edge thus far. 

But Black’s campaign insists that it’s worth discussing Walker’s baggage before the GOP primary while the party still has a choice to make about its nominee. 

“The Democrats will spend ... upwards of $100 million. Everybody in Georgia is going to know absolutely every detail, every comma and semicolon in those police reports by the time November comes around. Now, would it not be better for Republicans to all know that now so we can make an informed decision?” asked Black campaign spokesperson Dan McLagan. 

“I think it’s almost 100 percent likely that control of the Senate’s going to come down to this seat. So, are we really willing to wait until the general election for the Democrats to inform everybody about Herschel’s background?” he added. “It has potential to cost Georgia Republicans everything and America ceding the U.S. Senate to the Democrats again.” 

Besides Pennsylvania and Georgia, GOP primaries in other key races are being fought between Trump’s chosen candidates who lack the baggage of Parnell and Walker and others insistent on keeping their bids alive. 

In North Carolina, another state hosting a top Senate race, former Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is maintaining an edge over Rep. Ted Budd (R), who was endorsed by Trump in June. And in Nevada, where Republicans are hoping to knock off Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D), Trump-backed Republican Adam Laxalt is still trying to fend off first-time candidate Sam Brown, who raised more than $1 million in the third quarter of 2021. 

And it’s not just limited to Senate races. In Florida’s open 13th Congressional District, where Trump has endorsed 2020 Republican nominee Anna Paulina Luna, several other contenders have remained in contention.

“Luna lost last year, and so did Trump for that matter, so really what’s the incentive to just surrender to Luna?” said one Florida Republican strategist. 

In that and other races, the candidates who missed out on Trump’s backing are hinging their campaigns on the bet that their own profiles and records will be enough to overcome the loyalty much of the Republican base still feels toward the former president. 

“We have a candidate in Pat McCrory who is well-known to Republican primary voters in this state. He’s a candidate that can stand on his own two feet, isn’t reliant on endorsements,” said McCrory campaign strategist Jordan Shaw. “In a purple state, that’s going to help decide who controls the majority in the U.S. Senate. We’ve got to have candidates who can stand on their own two feet.” 

Still, contenders with Trump’s backing are enjoying a tailwind from his base and insist that his endorsement certifies their outsider bona fides — a message that resonates with voters of all stripes, not just Trump loyalists. 

“We are grateful to be endorsed by President Donald Trump and appreciate how much his endorsement has strengthened our campaign. But Gov. McCrory faces challenges in the current environment beyond just our Trump endorsement. Voters across the country are poised to reject thin-skinned, career politicians like Gov. McCrory in 2022, just like they did in Virginia in 2021,” said Budd campaign senior adviser Jonathan Felts, referencing the GOP’s victory in this month’s Virginia gubernatorial race over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). 

The back-and-forth in the GOP primaries has shown no signs of abating. And while primaries are still months away, leaving time for candidates to drop out or unforeseen developments to shake up the field, concerns are brewing over increasingly ugly nominating contests. 

Republicans are bullish that they’ll be able to ride a favorable environment to the House and Senate majorities next year, particularly after McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia and President Biden’s tumbling approval ratings. But brutal primaries in marquee contests could damage the ultimate GOP nominee and hand Democrats an edge in races. 

“I think anybody who’s looking at these things objectively would be crazy to say otherwise,” one Republican strategist told The Hill when asked about the concerns. “You’re already seeing some signs of that ... that there seems to be an element of the party that is more focused on beating Republicans than on beating Democrats.” 

Still, the source continued, letting the primaries move forward is important, saying that a flawed candidate could still fall short even in the most favorable of environments. 

“I do think that there’s some Republican thinkers who think that, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter how nasty these primaries get, it doesn’t matter who emerges as a nominee, because anybody can win,’ ” the strategist said. “I just don’t think that’s the case.”

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