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‘I’m a gambler’: Trump plunges into GOP primaries with risky picks

If his chosen candidates don’t win, the former president’s desired image as a kingmaker will be put in doubt

Mehmet Oz, a Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania who has been endorsed by Donald Trump, speaks at a campaign event in Old Forge, Pa., on Jan. 19. (Christopher Dolan/AP)
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On a recent Wednesday afternoon at his Mar-a-Lago Club, former president Donald Trump bragged about a guest dining on his patio: David McCormick, the former hedge fund CEO running for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, who was there for a 4 p.m. meeting seeking his endorsement.

McCormick, who had been at or near the lead in recent polls, left the meeting saying it had gone well. But days later, Trump endorsed his rival, Mehmet Oz, the longtime “Dr. Oz” television personality who had launched his own massive lobbying effort that marshaled the likes of Melania Trump, Fox News host Sean Hannity and hotelier Steve Wynn.

Trump’s decision, against the advice of some of his advisers, plunged the former president deep into a messy primary — sparking an internecine fight among some of his own advisers along with considerable backlash from many other Republicans.

“I’m a gambler,” Trump said, explaining to one adviser why he wanted to get into the Pennsylvania race, according to a person who heard his comments and who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

With his endorsements of Oz, Senate candidate Ted Budd in North Carolina, gubernatorial hopeful David Perdue in Georgia and, on Friday, author and Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio, Trump has leaped into the middle of several competitive primaries that could put his desired image as a kingmaker at risk.

In key contests, Trump’s statements have not cleared the field like they once did — and some advisers fear he has diluted his endorsements by backing hundreds of candidates, some for low-level positions, because of their willingness to support his false claims of a fraudulent election.

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The fate of his candidates is being closely watched by his own party, including potential rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination, as a measure of how strong a force he remains in the GOP. Trump has taken a different tack than many other presidential hopefuls, jumping into messy races and angling for fights in critical states, instead of making safe endorsements and staying out of charged Republican primaries. At times, he has picked candidates trailing in the polls and has taken advice from a hodgepodge of informal and formal advisers, real estate friends, consultants, Mar-a-Lago members, and others to make selections.

“The biggest way to defeat him is to electorally chip away at the notion he is the most powerful endorsement in the country. He still is, but smart operatives need to play against him in races where he’s made dumb endorsements,” said Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former White House communications director under Trump, who has become a critic.

In at least one high-profile case, Trump has shown caution, dropping Alabama Senate candidate Mo Brooks as an endorsee when Brooks faded in the polls, after watching his first Pennsylvania endorsement, Sean Parnell, withdraw from the race.

But in other races, he continues to lean in. He is likely to endorse candidates in several more competitive primaries, even as some people around him say he is willing to take risks they would not. Advisers say he wants to hold rallies in almost every key state where he has made an endorsement.

Trump endorsed Vance in Ohio on Friday afternoon against the wishes of some of his advisers — who are working for other candidates in the race and argued against an endorsement by citing negative comments Vance made about Trump in the past. Candidates and operatives also lobbied more than two dozen GOP county chairmen in Ohio to sign a letter opposing a Vance endorsement. Trump received so many calls that he stopped taking them Friday, an adviser said.

“I don’t want him to make a misstep for his sake,” said Dave Johnson, the chair of the Columbiana County Republican Party and a Trump supporter who makes ceramic tiles with the former president’s likeness on them. “I think it will backfire on Trump, and if he’s running in 2024, I want Ohio to stay strong Trump country,” he said.

It is a crowded race, and Vance has trailed in many polls. But Vance has the backing of the president’s namesake son and billionaire tech guru Peter Thiel, among others, and Trump was willing to take the risk because he believes he can get Vance over the top, an adviser said.

“It is all about winning! … Like some others, J.D. Vance may have said some not so great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades. He is our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race,” Trump said in a statement.

He added, “This is not an easy endorsement for me to make because I like and respect some of the other candidates in the race — they’ve said great things about ‘Trump’ and, like me, they love Ohio and love our Country.”

More than 10 months after leaving office, former president Donald Trump maintains a powerful hold over the Republican Party. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

Trump’s endorsement maneuvers have also pitted many of his longtime advisers — including several on the payroll for the uber-wealthy McCormick — against his preferred candidates in other races. The Pennsylvania and Ohio nods effectively place his name on the ballot in two of the hottest primaries in the country.

Several advisers said his myriad endorsements were posing challenges to his political operation, which has a small number of employees. Even though Trump has more than $120 million in his PAC, he has a bare-bones staff and is loath to spend money, advisers say. “Hopefully he will slow down now,” one person close to him said.

But Trump has been described by multiple advisers as determined to keep his dominant status in the GOP — and believing that he can affect races like no one else can. He also likes endorsing against candidates, advisers say, just to see their numbers go down.

The former president trumpeted the cavalcade of endorsement-seekers in an April 6 interview with The Washington Post at Mar-a-Lago, ticking through how many visitors he had — and how much they wanted from him. “I’m the king of endorsements,” he said, with unverified numbers about how much political candidates both foreign and domestic go up in the polls when he backs them. “Everyone wants one.”

While he says he has not made a decision on running for president in 2024, he has signaled to advisers that he will — and that he believes the key to keeping his foothold in the party is showing that he can buttress his favored candidates and vanquish his enemies. “Rice is getting crushed in South Carolina,” Trump said in the Post interview, speaking of Rep. Tom Rice (R), who voted to impeach him. He then bragged about how he was defeating, or would defeat, everyone who voted to impeach him, but did not address the struggles of some of his backed candidates.

Even his critics say Trump’s endorsement remains the most influential in the Republican Party. The intense jockeying for his backing among candidates and operatives has only heightened in recent months, as those looking to kiss Trump’s ring flock to visit him in Palm Beach, Fla. Those with his endorsement often tout it repeatedly in advertisements.

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“I’m the Trump-endorsed candidate for governor,” Kari Lake, the Arizona candidate who has espoused Trump’s false claims about the election, said when introducing herself in one ad.

In Georgia, Perdue, Trump’s recruited and endorsed candidate for governor, is struggling to raise money and trailing Gov. Brian Kemp by a large margin.

“I think a lot of Trump supporters are willing to forgive Trump being mad at you as long as you don’t fire back. Because if you attack Trump, you are no better than the left,” said one Republican operative loyal to Kemp.

The Trump endorsement, even in states with significant Republican power, is not a slam dunk. A recent poll by the University of Georgia found little change in Republican primary voters’ preference in the governor’s race when people were informed of Trump’s endorsement. Kemp’s support declined by 1.7 percentage points among voters told of Trump’s backing, still leaving him with a seven-point lead over Purdue.

The governor’s race in Georgia is not the only contest in the state where a Trump endorsee could go down when Republicans go to the polls on May 24. Trump’s endorsed candidates for lieutenant governor, insurance commissioner, attorney general and Congress are all facing tough primary challenges. Trump’s candidate for secretary of state, Rep. Jody Hice, is also fighting a tough race to topple the incumbent, Brad Raffensperger.

“It’s notable in Georgia, which is still a pretty Republican state, he’s probably going to get Herschel Walker, and that may be it out of all his endorsed candidates. Brad Raffensperger looks like he’s going to win,” said Erick Erickson, a prominent Georgia conservative and radio show host. “It’s Georgia Republicans saying it’s time to move on.”

“Even the people who don’t really agree with him on the election — they really do think it was stolen — they still like Kemp’s policies and like him. It’s one of those things where people understand it’s sour grapes with Trump here. As much as they like Trump, they aren’t going to stand by Trump’s man when Brian Kemp has been their man.”

Budd, Trump’s candidate in North Carolina, has improved in the polls, but Trump’s efforts to clear the field and force others to drop out have not worked.

Advisers to several other potential presidential candidates said they were watching Trump’s endorsements closely to assess signs of weakness. “If he loses in Pennsylvania and he loses in Georgia, you have a much weaker Trump in 2024,” one person from a rival camp said. Some McCormick allies have begun highlighting all the backlash to his endorsement — hoping to overcome it.

Alabama’s Brooks, whose campaign was recently hobbled by Trump withdrawing his endorsement, has tried to find political advantage in the Oz endorsement by feeding the argument that Trump has lost his edge, becoming a captive to his advisers.

“Everybody telling Trump who to endorse in primaries works for The Swamp,” Brooks wrote in a tweet, referring to Washington. “They played him.”

In the Post interview, Trump said he dropped Brooks particularly because he changed his mind on voter fraud. “The reason he went down is he got off the 2020 election fraud,” Trump said. But he has not gotten into the race for another candidate, though he had said he would.

After his meeting at Mar-a-Lago, McCormick told others that it went well and that Trump had not made a decision, according to people familiar with the matter. A second Trump adviser described the meeting as “fantastic” and said Trump had been repeatedly encouraged by McCormick’s team to at least stay neutral.

In the Post interview, Trump asked a reporter what he should do in the Pennsylvania race — and noted that “a lot of my people” are working for McCormick.

Earlier: Trump endorsements slow, prompting a scramble by candidates

But as Trump headed to North Carolina last Saturday, he decided to jump in, without any particular precipitating factor, advisers said. Oz had lobbied him aggressively and sent others on his behalf to Mar-a-Lago. Oz learned only just before it was public that he had scored the endorsement, people familiar with the matter said.

Some advisers showed Trump a video from 2021 in which McCormick, being interviewed on Bloomberg, praised Biden and blamed Trump for polarization in the country. Trump did not like the video, a person who discussed it with him at his club said.

Both sides had ferociously lobbied Trump for the endorsement, with each accounting for more than a dozen meetings and phone calls, advisers said.

Some McCormick emissaries had pushed Trump not to endorse at all, arguing that both leading candidates in Pennsylvania would be champions of America First policies. There has been considerable backlash among traditional Trump allies after the pick, including a number of officials in Pennsylvania GOP circles who have said Trump made a mistake. Soon after the endorsement, Jeff Roe, the McCormick strategist, issued a scathing video of Oz’s previous statements and vowed to beat Oz.

“A lot of people that were paid to help make McCormick fake his way into being a conservative are attempting to create fake outrage. Real conservatives like Sean Hannity, Rick Perry, and Ted Nugent have applauded President Trump’s endorsement,” said Brittany Yanick, an Oz spokeswoman.

Oz’s supporters could be more aggressive. Trump described Hannity as “relentless” in conversations with others in his arguments that the former president should endorse Oz, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

Oz has particularly high name identification, but a lot of the associations in Pennsylvania are negative, according to polls, and some McCormick advisers fear that Trump could improve his perception in the state. A Franklin and Marshall College poll released Thursday, but mostly conducted before the endorsement, found Oz with 16 percent of the Republican primary vote, McCormick with 15 percent and 43 percent undecided.

“There is no rhyme or reason to anything he does. I would have thought he would have endorsed McCormick,” Farah Griffin said of Trump. But, she added, “he loves celebrities. Dr. Oz is a fixture of the South Florida country club scene. He’s at every charity event.”

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, called the endorsements “idiotic.” “His goal is to reward sycophants or upset the apple cart,” he said.

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