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Opinion Trump is gambling with his political future in Ohio and Pennsylvania

Former president Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines on Oct. 9, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Former president Donald Trump’s last-minute endorsements in the crowded Ohio and Pennsylvania Republican Senate primaries are gambles to show he can still drive underdogs to victory. Trump’s immediate political future now likely turns on whether those bets pay off.

Trump’s status as the GOP’s kingmaker already stands on shaky ground. His first endorsee in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Sean Parnell, dropped out after his estranged wife accused him of spousal and child abuse (which Parnell denies). And Trump’s pick in the Alabama Senate race, Rep. Mo Brooks, started in first place but gradually sank to third in the polls as he failed to keep up with two big-spending foes. Trump then withdrew his endorsement, apparently attempting to avoid defeat by abandoning ship. Savvy politicos nonetheless took note: Trump could command, but the GOP tides might not listen.

Other endorsees also looked doomed to defeat. Trump has it in for incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, accusing him of not acting to overturn the 2020 election result and deliver his state for Trump. Trump chose former Georgia senator David Perdue to oppose Kemp, even though Perdue had just run statewide himself and narrowly lost his Senate seat to Democrat Jon Ossoff. Kemp has led in almost every public poll, and his lead has grown over time.

Then there’s Trump’s pick in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, former state Rep. Katie Arrington, who has also stumbled out of the gate. Early polls show her foe, incumbent Rep. Nancy Mace, ahead. Mace also leads in cash on hand, as of March 31, by a $2 million to $754,000 margin. Arrington provided most of that money herself, giving her campaign a $525,000 loan.

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Other Trump endorsees are doing better, but almost none have cleared the field. Rep. Ted Budd now leads in North Carolina’s GOP Senate race, but he remains below the 35 percent he needs to win without a runoff. In the race for Georgia secretary of state, Rep. Jody Hice leads against incumbent Brad Raffensperger but is also well short of the majority he needs to avoid a runoff. Two of Trump’s endorsees for the House, North Carolina’s Bo Hines and Tennessee’s Morgan Ortagus, are under fire from local conservatives and party leaders as carpetbaggers with no substantial ties to the seats they want to represent.

Trump is clearly seeking to change the narrative with his recent endorsements of J.D. Vance and Mehmet Oz in the GOP primaries for the Senate seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively. But these were risky moves, as neither candidate was a clear front-runner before gaining Trump’s nod.

Vance, who is a friend and someone I have written about favorably in the past, was particularly in a difficult position, running third in the RealClearPolitics polling average. He faces four opponents who had outspent him by millions of dollars. Oz, whose general consultant is a friend, was running a close second but has been repeatedly hammered in television ads by the front-runner, wealthy businessman David McCormick. Trump’s decisions, therefore, have perplexed allies who believe he is getting behind losers.

But that is likely the primary reason Trump made his choices. If Vance and Oz end up the victors, Trump will claim — and perhaps even deserve — much of the credit. Two high-profile, unexpected wins will go a long way to bolstering his reputation against the likely losses elsewhere. Trump could then do what he always does in situations like this: Blame his losing endorsees for the defeats and minimize what the victors brought to the table. This is a classic Trump recipe — a little bit of fact folded into a lot of balderdash.

The risks to Trump’s standing are immense. If Vance or Oz loses, it will be clear that Trump’s blessing cannot move mountains. If both lose, it will amplify the growing sense that Trump’s political influence is like a fading television hit rapidly losing its audience. If that happens, it will be only a matter of time before the show is canceled.

Trump didn’t get to be president by playing it safe. His new high-profile endorsements show that he’s doubling down on the approach that got him there. Trump, like the warriors of ancient Sparta, will soon either come back with his shield — or on it.