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Donald Trump recalibrates his standing in GOP after primary setbacks

The former president is seeking out information on potential 2024 rivals after defeats for his chosen candidates raise questions about his continued dominance of the Republican Party

Former President Donald Trump dances as he leaves the stage during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce, Ga., March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin/AP)

ATLANTA — Donald Trump has long been the dominant force in Republican politics, but as he has faced a spate of setbacks in recent weeks — punctuated Tuesday night by the defeat of his favored gubernatorial candidate here in Georgia — the former president has been privately fretting about who might challenge him.

Trump has been quizzing advisers and visitors at his Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida about his budding rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, including his former vice president, Mike Pence, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Among his questions, according to several advisers, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations: Who will actually run against him? What do the polls show? Who are his potential foes meeting with?

He also had revived conversations about announcing a presidential exploratory committee to try to dissuade challengers, they say, even as some party officials and advisers continue to urge him to wait until after the midterm elections to announce that he’s running.

Trump’s deliberations follow prominent defeats this month for his chosen candidates in Idaho, Nebraska, North Carolina and now Georgia, where former senator David Perdue was defeated Tuesday by Trump’s arch-nemesis, Gov. Brian Kemp, who refused his entreaties to overturn the election he lost in the state in 2020. The defeats were driven by rival Republican power centers amid a growing sense that Trump may not hold the dominant sway he once had over the party.

Of the many states running primaries or runoffs on May 24, Georgia took center stage. Here’s what you need to know. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Throughout Georgia, Republican voters said they simply dismissed Trump’s sharp criticisms of Kemp and overwhelmingly elected the incumbent governor, delivering a remarkable repudiation of the former president by giving Kemp a victory margin of about 50 percentage points.

“I voted for him twice. Would I do it again? No!” said Vijay Bahl, a 65-year-old developer who attended Kemp’s election night party Tuesday at the College Football Hall of Fame. “Trump’s divisiveness hurt Perdue here, and his endorsement backfired. It wasn’t really his content but his delivery. And Trump can be a very vindictive person.”

Over the din of a lone country crooner on the stage, Jim Braden, a 62-year-old developer, stood near the front of the makeshift indoor football field and said it was an easy choice to pick Kemp for governor.

“We’re not like the rest of the country that’s going to follow the lie,” he said of Trump’s false claims of winning the 2020 election.

In his victory speech, Kemp did not mention Trump and barely mentioned Perdue. “Even in the middle of a tough primary, conservatives across our state didn’t listen to the noise. They didn’t get distracted,” he said. “Georgia Republicans went to the ballot box and overwhelmingly endorsed four more years of our vision for this great state.”

That Trump spent more than $2.5 million on behalf of Perdue, held a rally in Georgia and relentlessly attacked Kemp but was still defeated was the latest sign that his influence over the Republican Party, while considerable, has receded somewhat in recent months. In another defeat, Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who resisted Trump’s calls to “find” votes in 2020, defeated his opponent, Trump-backed Rep. Jody Hice.

The Republican Governors Association steered $5 million to defeat Perdue after backing victors against Trump picks in Nebraska and Idaho. The emerging field of 2024 rivals has grown increasingly bold in showing a willingness to campaign against his interests. And in the Senate, all but 11 Republicans joined with Democrats on a recent military aid bill for Ukraine, despite Trump’s criticism of the measure as a misplaced priority given the domestic baby formula shortage.

“Donald Trump is truly the leader of the party right now, but there are many people, particularly those in elected office, who also stake a claim to the ‘America First’ agenda,” Trump’s former White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, said Tuesday during a Washington Post Live event when asked about the growing dissent within the party.

The former president has also found himself fighting in races in Ohio, Alabama and Pennsylvania against the Club for Growth, a deep-pocketed conservative group that once advised him. His candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, is locked in a tight race headed for a recount after the May 17 primary there and has ignored Trump’s repeated calls to declare victory before all ballots are counted. And Trump’s pick for governor in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, found his primary victory marred last week by a statement from the RGA suggesting that the group did not see him as a competitive candidate.

The shifts add up to the biggest challenge to Trump’s self-image — “The king of endorsements,” he recently boasted — since his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol thrust his party into temporary chaos. Few in the party still publicly oppose or criticize him while seeking elected office, but a growing group has been working overtime to show that he can be ignored and is not infallible.

Trump’s endorsements in the 2022 Republican primaries

Trump has publicly batted away such concerns as he has vowed to allies that he plans to run for president again.

“I looked at the polls, and I’m ahead by 60 or 70 points,” the former president said during a recent interview with The Post at Mar-a-Lago, when asked about his Republican opponents for the 2024 nomination, without citing a specific poll. He repeatedly bragged that he “made” several of them, or argued they owed him loyalty.

When asked about other Republicans, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who have repeatedly campaigned against his endorsees, Trump said he was watching closely.

“This is their prerogative,” he said. “People can do that, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

But privately, his team increasingly expects Republican challengers — potentially including DeSantis, Pence, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, along with others — to come after him in 2024. Among his advisers’ biggest concerns, though, is that DeSantis, who has dominated chatter among Republican operatives and donors, takes Trump on.

“My guess is a lot of people run against him,” said Tony Fabrizio, his longtime pollster, if Trump announces he’s running.

That view is now widely held in Republican circles.

“I think there is a very real and growing sense — albeit in hushed tones, private conversations, and rarely publicly but more publicly now than ever before — of people saying maybe not that he’s a paper tiger, but that his power is greatly diminished,” one person close to him said. “Privately, no one around Trump — and when I say no one, I mean no one, other than the handful of people who wouldn’t have any professional existence without him — wants him to run again.”

Another Republican operative who recently met with Trump said it is now clear that Trump will have to compete to win the 2024 GOP nomination, for which the former president remains heavily favored.

“It isn’t going to be a clear field for him. There’s a lot of people who want to go against him,” the operative said. “If he runs, Pompeo, Pence and Chris Christie all will consider running against him. Who knows what DeSantis will do? These guys are out there working, they are hitting every donor they can find, they want to run.”

Pence’s decision to campaign for Kemp, whom Trump has called “a disaster” for not overturning the 2020 election results, is particularly notable — an early sign of clear separation between the longtime allies. Pompeo, another potential 2024 contender, has also become increasingly vocal, criticizing Oz after Trump endorsed him and calling for the “counting of valid absentee ballots” in Pennsylvania after Trump suggested Oz declare victory over rival David McCormick before the primary ballots were counted.

In Georgia, results were in before 9 p.m. for Kemp and Perdue had already conceded. There was little suspense in either crowd.

Advisers have repeatedly had to talk Trump out of announcing a run for president ahead of the midterms, which Republican strategists worry would offer a jolt to Democratic prospects by shifting the focus away from frustrations with President Biden, whose approval rating hovers around 40 percent. Trump has privately raged against some of his former allies, such as Pence, and has been discussing how to attack potential 2024 foes.

On the ground in key states, Trump’s intervention has caused friction with some of his local supporters.

“You’ve got Republicans willing to go down there and campaign for Kemp, you’ve got 30 or 40 or 50 state party chairmen in these places criticizing Trump, you’ve got guys like [former state GOP chair] Rob Gleason, who delivered Pennsylvania for us in 2016, coming out against him,” said one longtime Trump adviser, who noted the anger that followed Trump’s endorsements of Oz for Senate and Mastriano for governor.

In Alabama, Rep. Mo Brooks (R) lost only two of his 67 county campaign chairs in his Senate race after Trump pulled his endorsement in March, according an adviser. Both later signed back up, as Brooks continued to campaign by arguing that Trump had been misled by the advisers around him. Brooks’ share of the vote in public polls more than doubled in the weeks after Trump withdrew his endorsement, as the other candidates in the race turned their fire on each other. After Tuesday’s primary, Brooks is now headed for a runoff against rival Katie Britt.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whom Trump has singled out as a foe in recent months, publicly celebrated in an interview with Politico the recent overwhelming vote to send more support to Ukraine as a repudiation of “some loose talk during the Trump years” about wavering Republican commitment to allies in Europe. Trump had released a statement a week earlier, describing the $40 billion effort as a move by “Democrats” that was improper, given the baby formula shortage. “America First!” he wrote.

The former president nonetheless remains a strong favorite if he chooses to run again, with a massive small-dollar fundraising operation and continued support within the party. A Post-ABC News poll released this month found that 6 in 10 Republican and Republican-leaning voters said party leaders should follow Trump’s leadership, compared with 34 percent who wanted to take the party in a different direction.

“I think he’s going to run. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t run. All the polling shows he would be the front-runner by a country mile,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “The day that Trump makes it clear he’s going to run — it would be a mountain to climb to beat him.”

Ed McMullen, a longtime Trump ally and former ambassador, recently attended a small fundraising dinner for DeSantis in South Carolina, his home state, raising eyebrows in the Palmetto State. But McMullen said he was for Trump all the way — should Trump run. “I’m supporting Trump in 2024, and I have no doubt he’s running,” McMullen said.

“When you look at states like Pennsylvania, everyone enveloped themselves and wrapped themselves in Trump policy,” he continued. “All the candidates are embracing the president.”

Fabrizio said he’d polled in five different states about whether voters would support Trump in a primary campaign, and over 50 percent in each of the states said they would vote for him “regardless,” if he entered the race.

But he said it would be easier said than done to defeat Trump.

“Just because people speak out and take him on doesn’t mean they can beat him. They have to beat him somewhere, not some candidate he endorsed. They have to beat him. I haven’t seen any data that showed any of these people are beating him anywhere. In fact, the person that comes closest is DeSantis, and all the rest of these people chattering on the sidelines can’t even break into double digits,” Fabrizio said.

Some of his opponents have been heartened by his electoral struggles. Christie, Pence and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — all potential 2024 candidates — appeared on behalf of Kemp. All three have told others they might run against Trump.

In the meantime, Trump has focused on directing the public’s attention to his own count of primary endorsement wins, which he tallied at 82 to 3, before Tuesday night, a statistic that includes dozens of uncontested races with little competition. It also leaves out races like the Alabama Senate contest, where he withdrew his endorsement of Brooks.

Taking account of only the prominent and heavily contested contests in May, his record is 6 to 4 after Tuesday, with one race still outstanding. Trump’s endorsements have lost in the Nebraska, Idaho and Georgia gubernatorial primaries, and one House primary in North Carolina, where Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) failed to win the nomination. His endorsements for two other House seats, in North Carolina and West Virginia, won, as did his picks in Senate contests in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, as well as his pick of Mastriano for governor of Pennsylvania. His pick for the Pennsylvania Senate, Oz, leads slightly in that race, with more ballots to tally and a recount pending.

Down-ballot in Georgia on Tuesday, Trump did poorly, with his pick for attorney general losing, along with his picks for insurance commissioner and secretary of state.

“There’s a lot of folks around him who think that he shouldn’t be endorsing in every single opportunity; just take a few endorsements that he feels great about and stick with those,” another person close to Trump said. “I think this is his way of gambling and he enjoys that part of politics.”

In Georgia, Trump repeatedly goaded Perdue into the race, even though he soured on his candidacy near the end of the campaign because be believed Perdue had run a lazy effort. Allies of Perdue say he only ran because Trump repeatedly told him he could win — and found it difficult to gain any traction or raise money.

Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative radio host and friend of Kemp’s who emceed the governor’s Monday and Tuesday night events, said Kemp didn’t want to fight with Trump — and had tried to stay out of it, knowing the former president remained popular with many Republican voters. “It shows his impact is waning,” he said, adding it didn’t have to be that way.

“Trump made it a rejection of Trump. Kemp didn’t,” Erickson said. “Trump did that. Trump chose to do that.”

Scherer and Parker reported from Washington.

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