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May: The month that will decide Trump’s kingmaker status

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) speaks at a rally attended by President Donald Trump in December 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

For most of the past six years, Donald Trump’s assumed kingmaker status in the Republican Party has been a largely untested proposition.

He has overwhelmingly endorsed candidates who were going to win anyway. And those Republicans who did summon the gall to speak out against him have tended to head for the exits rather try to run again. “Here’s the bottom line,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in announcing his retirement in late 2017. “The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take.”

The 2022 election cycle is different, though. In seeking to assert his authority over his party and guide its course while out of office, Trump has endorsed several underdogs, and in a number of tight contests — including Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio and Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. As GOP strategist Liam Donovan said after the Vance endorsement, “This is the first time Trump’s political might has been tested on a level playing field among broadly acceptable candidates.”

Perhaps no month looms as large a test of Trump’s might as the next one, May. And thanks to some new polling, we have a sense of where things stand.

Let’s run through nine of the biggest tests of Trump’s kingmaker status in May, in order of importance.

1. Georgia governor primary — May 24 (potential runoff June 21)

This is the biggest one, both because it features two candidates of significant heft — Gov. Brian Kemp and former U.S. senator David Perdue — and because it centers on an issue near and dear to Trump: baseless allegations of a stolen election in 2020. Perdue has pushed the stolen-election claims, while Trump has isolated Kemp for supposedly allowing it to happen.

Despite Trump having gone all in on luring Perdue into the race and then supporting him, though, a poll this week showed Kemp ahead by 26 points. At the same time, a poll earlier this month suggested a tighter race — Kemp up 11 and sitting at 48 percent, just shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Whether Kemp can get across that 50 percent threshold is the big question right now. Were he to beat back Perdue’s challenge, it would be a significant blow to Trump’s quest to enforce a stolen-election litmus test in the party — and perhaps signal that this issue isn’t as vital to voters as it is to Trump.

2. Ohio Senate primary — May 3

This might have been Trump’s most surprising endorsement to date: Backing Vance, a former Never-Trumper who had heavily criticized Trump in 2016, over Josh Mandel and other candidates who’ve been quite solicitous of Trump and his base.

It’s certainly possible it could pan out for Trump. This has been a very tight race, but Vance appears to be moving up, with a new Fox News poll showing him going from 11 percent in early March to 23 percent today — and holding a slim five-point lead on Mandel.

A Vance win would be symbolically massive for Trump, pulling a candidate out of also-ran status and probably putting him in the Senate. It would also send a message to other Trump critics: If you come around to kiss the ring, look what I can do for you.

3. Pennsylvania Senate primary — May 17

Here, too, it’s possible that Trump can credibly claim that his endorsement made the difference.

Oz, the well-known TV doctor, trailed businessman David McCormick by nine points in an early March Fox News poll. But a Monmouth poll this week suggests Oz might have nabbed a slim lead, a la Vance. The poll showed Oz leading McCormick 20-16 on the question of who people think is the strongest on the issues they care about, and also a slight lead in the number who say they’re “very likely” to vote for him. These questions aren’t a traditional ballot poll, but they’re instructive.

There’s evidence Oz might have been gaining on his opponents before Trump’s endorsement: An early April poll from Franklin & Marshall College showed a virtual tie. But Oz is certainly a candidate with some liabilities, and getting him over the line would be a big win for Trump. From there, though, there’d be real questions about whether Oz could win a swing state.

4. Georgia secretary of state primary — May 24 (potential runoff June 21)

Behind Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), perhaps nobody has spoken out as much against Trump and still tried to live to tell the political tale like Brad Raffensperger.

While that Georgia poll didn’t show him doing nearly as well as Kemp, it did suggest he’s got a shot: Raffensperger was at 28 percent, compared to Rep. Jody Hice’s 26 percent. That’s not a position any incumbent wants to be in, and the image ratings of each man suggest Hice has more room for growth as people tune in to the race. But who knows?

Unseating Raffensperger and replacing him with an election truther like Hice would be symbolically important for Trump. It won’t be as high-profile as the governor’s race, but Kemp was never as outspoken against Trump’s stolen-election claims as Raffensperger was.

5. North Carolina Senate primary — May 17 (potential runoff July 26)

Despite some concern in Trumpworld — and apparently from Trump himself — about his chosen candidate, Rep. Ted Budd has led former governor Pat McCrory by 10-plus points in all recent polling this month. There isn’t one big, high-quality poll on the race, but these surveys might allay those concerns.

A Budd win would be big for Trump, especially since Budd was a somewhat surprising endorsement and he’s facing a former governor. McCrory was always going to be a bit of a tough sell for the Trump-era GOP, but he was the early favorite.

6. Idaho governor primary — May 17

This one has flown beneath the radar, in large part because it’s a smaller state out West, and it has been a somewhat sleepy campaign. But it could be a big setback for Trump.

Trump endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin back in November, when it wasn’t totally clear whether Gov. Brad Little would seek reelection. Little waited to officially enter the race until last month, and there’s not much sign he’s in real trouble. A poll from December showed him up 40 points.

There is evidence that Trump’s sway in the West isn’t as strong as it is elsewhere. This is perhaps the biggest early test of that — and potentially a big early embarrassment.

7. Nebraska governor primary — May 10

In another lower-profile race, Trump has picked businessman Charles Herbster in a crowded GOP primary for this open seat. The most recent polls suggest it’s a close race, though — Herbster faces University of Nebraska regent Jim Pillen and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, and Herbster was recently accused of assaulting several women.

Were Herbster to lose, it would be the second Trump endorsee potentially felled by such issues, along with former Senate candidate Sean Parnell of Pennsylvania. It would also suggest Trump might have less sway than local Republicans; Pillen is backed by outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts and former governor Kay Orr.

8. Texas attorney general runoff — May 24

Trump-endorsed state Attorney General Ken Paxton was forced into a runoff last month by Bush family scion George P. Bush. But the available (albeit lower-quality) polls and evidence suggest he’s in little trouble. He led Bush by 20 points in the March 1 primary, meaning Bush has lots of ground to make up.

Yes, Trump would have helped a candidate beat a Bush, which would make him very happy. But this is also an incumbent who, despite his own personal problems (including being under indictment), has always catered to the base. And he — even as an incumbent would have still required a runoff to get the job done in Trump’s GOP.

9. Alabama Senate primary — May 24 (runoff June 21)

Trump withdrew his endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks last month, making this one less illustrative. But it will be interesting to see how poorly Brooks does.

To be clear, Brooks’s endorsement was pulled because he was getting nowhere, despite Trump’s endorsement; on some level, Trump owns that. Brooks was in third place in polls before, and it seems likely that’s where he’ll end up. If there was a state in which Trump should be able to install a senator, you’d think it would be Alabama. And yet, more often than not it has failed.

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