Ninety seconds after former president Donald Trump shocked North Carolina politics with a surprise endorsement last month, the money started to flow. Advisers to his chosen U.S. Senate candidate, Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), were standing offstage at the Greenville convention center, watching a phone that registered an email every time someone made a donation online.
“People had Googled Ted,” Budd adviser Jonathan Felts said of the C-SPAN viewers watching Trump speak. “It was like ‘Ding, ding, ding.’ Donations had already started coming in.”
Many of Trump’s political advisers were less enthused. They feared the unplanned endorsement of a candidate trailing in the polls, which Budd only heard about minutes before Trump went onstage, could give the former president another black eye in North Carolina after he had endorsed a losing House candidate there in a primary in 2020.
How aggressively the former president should involve himself in the 2022 midterm elections is a question gripping his orbit as he positions himself for a potential run in 2024. His endorsement is the hottest ticket in Republican primary politics in many states, strategists say. But some around him and in senior positions in the party want Trump to give them sparingly, fearful that losses and a diminished brand could backfire by allowing Democrats to maintain control of the House and Senate and weaken his standing before the next presidential contest.
At a Saturday night rally before a huge crowd in Wellington, Ohio, Trump spoke for about 90 minutes at the rural county fairgrounds, reviving his trademark rallies for the first time since leaving office.
He repeated his endorsement of former aide Max Miller, who is challenging the Republican House incumbent, Anthony Gonzalez. The choice reflected Trump’s penchant for rewarding personal friends and those who further his false contention that the 2020 presidential election result was fraudulent or, alternately, punishing Republicans who voted for his impeachment, including Gonzalez.
Gonzalez asked for a ride on Air Force One more than once, “and then he impeached me,” claimed Trump, who spoke about the incumbent more than about Miller. He called the congressman “a sellout” and a “fake Republican and a disgrace to your state.”
But he did not announce an endorsement in the state’s Senate primary. Advisers have worked to dissuade Trump from endorsing in the race, which includes former state GOP party chair Jane Timken, even after he summoned the candidates backstage to a private meeting at his Florida club.
“President Trump’s primary endorsements can be make-or-break, but he need not go to every place or get involved in every race,” Kellyanne Conway, his former counselor and 2016 campaign manager, said via text when asked about Trump’s involvement. She is working as an adviser to Bernie Moreno, a businessman also running for Senate in Ohio.
“Withholding an endorsement (Jane Timken, Ohio ’22) can be as powerful as granting an endorsement (Ron DeSantis, Florida, 2018). Regardless, candidates are duty-bound to connect with voters and make the case on their own,” she wrote.
That has not stopped candidates across the country, in local, congressional and statewide races, from seeking out the former president’s favor. Aspiring candidates have bombarded Trump’s office with requests for meetings, made pilgrimages to his properties and delivered public displays of their fidelity to his leadership in campaign ads and televised appearances. Conversely, however, Trump’s imprimatur has done little to discourage unendorsed candidates, even those strongly supportive of Trump, from continuing to seek the same offices.
The backstage dramas and prospect of complicated primaries are enveloping Republican politics as Trump moves to weaponize his remaining power over fellow Republicans more than a year before the next elections. Deprived of his social media outlets and stripped of his governing pulpit, the former president has found new strength by weighing in on local, district and statewide contests.
“The first thing that everyone would want in a primary is for Trump to endorse,” said one Republican consultant, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect client confidentiality and reflect private conversations. “The second thing is for him not to endorse their opponent. The third is, if he endorses their opponent, then he doesn’t fly in to do a rally.”
An adviser said Trump had taken “40 or 50” endorsement meetings with candidates since leaving office, but a more structured approach has come into play since Susie Wiles, a longtime Florida strategist, began managing his political operation. Wiles has circulated a spreadsheet with candidate names and details — and has tried to curb some of the candidate meetings.
Candidates are now vetted for their previous comments about Trump and what they have said on social media. The former president is given the same slide deck on endorsements that he was given in the White House, which featured a candidate’s polling standing, biographical details and other top-line indicators. One polling and endorsement meeting last week at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club included advisers Justin Clark and Dan Scavino, along with Wiles and former 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien, among others. Some of the candidates Trump endorses have been allowed to rent his valuable donor list, advisers say.
Trump’s endorsement calculation, according to three advisers, usually comes down to his impression of how loyal they’ve been to him, what they’ve said about him in the past, whether the candidate is running against someone he despises and whether the candidate can win.
Later this summer in New Jersey, Trump is expected to meet with three candidates running to replace Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the incumbent he is most determined to unseat, because of her lancing public criticism of him and vote for impeachment. “The goal is to settle on one,” an adviser close to Trump said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A separate group of conservative activists and Republican donors in Wyoming has started to vet the Cheney challengers, looking into their military records and work histories.
“We’re interviewing, vetting, studying, doing due diligence to recommend two candidates to the president for him to decide who to choose,” said Jeff Wallack, a Republican who recently moved to the state and became active in pro-Trump politics.
Cheney brushed the effort aside. “The people of Wyoming will have a choice next year between someone who is loyal to the Constitution and the rule of law or someone who is loyal to Donald Trump,” Cheney said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I look forward to having that debate.”
Trump recently met with Heidi St. John, a challenger to Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), another impeachment supporter. St. John has been endorsed by a group run by Debbie Meadows, wife of former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Another Republican in that race, Joe Kent, met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago this spring, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
Other candidates he has met with include Herschel Walker, a former football running back and longtime Trump friend, who the former president has touted for a Senate seat in Georgia. He has also endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, whom Stepien is advising. Tshibaka is running against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a longtime Trump target who also supported Trump’s impeachment.
Some of the early involvement has caused concern among House and Senate Republican leaders who worry that Trump will push weaker candidates to the general election and give Democrats an advantage.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is leading the Republican effort to reclaim the Senate and has vowed to support GOP incumbents but otherwise stay out of primaries, has encouraged Republican leaders to stay neutral in open-seat contests such as the ones in North Carolina and Alabama, where the former president has made endorsements, and Missouri, where former governor Eric Greitens has been courting Trump’s backing by hiring a coterie of his former advisers and publicly suggesting that the former president might be reinstated to office later this year. Greitens left the governorship in scandal, and some Republicans worry that his presence on the ticket would be problematic in the general election.
“I say, ‘I think we should let the voters decide.’ I wish they had done that in my race in 2010,” Scott has told others, recounting his first race when a slew of Republican leaders endorsed his rival in the primary. “And then as soon as we win the primary, then go all-in, campaign, do everything.”
But those desires clash with the party’s continued dependence on Trump. Last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Scott leads, pitched potential donors on VIP seats to a Trump rally if they gave money, even as he defied Scott’s wishes and endorsed incumbent Murkowski’s opponent in Alaska, according to an email reviewed by The Washington Post.
Seeking to limit his output, some of the former president’s advisers have reminded Trump how much he loves to brag about his endorsement record — “123 and zero,” he regularly says, though that is false.
“If you endorse some of these people, and they lose, it will look bad on you,” one of his advisers said.
The advisers are encouraging him to endorse safe Republicans in gubernatorial and lieutenant governor races — so his winning percentage is higher — and not get involved in all 10 House races in which Republican incumbents voted to impeach him. Two impeachment supporters, Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.) and Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), in particular, represent Democratic-leaning districts that party leaders worry would flip if another candidate wins the primary.
Trump’s endorsements have done little to clear crowded primary fields because candidates who share the former president’s politics bet that voters will still make their own decisions. Trump’s endorsement of former senator Luther Strange (R-Ala.) in the 2017 special election primary did not stop former Alabama judge Roy Moore from winning the nomination and then losing in the general election after Trump belatedly backed him.
A third Republican running against Gonzalez in Ohio, Jonah Schulz, said he would attend Saturday’s rally with a group of about 100 supporters and volunteers to cheer on the president they continue to support, even if he has made clear he supports another candidate.
“When I talk to most people, what they have told me is that the Trump endorsement is a perk to them,” Schulz said. “It is not the be-all, end-all.”
That sentiment is common among those who have not won his backing. Katie Boyd Britt, a former aide to retiring Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), recently entered the race to replace him in Alabama, earning the incumbent’s endorsement even though Trump has already pledged to support Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a Trump ally who has spread the baseless idea that the 2020 election was stolen and is working with some of Trump’s advisers.
In North Carolina, Budd’s two rivals for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr were sitting in the audience when Trump made his surprise endorsement. But neither former congressman Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who won the state party convention straw poll that weekend, nor former governor Pat McCrory (R), who Burr recently described as the only one who could beat Democrats next year, has backed down.
In fact, they have gone on offense, with Walker charging that an old dispute with Mark Meadows led to the Budd endorsement. A consultant for McCrory, Paul Shumaker, has been circulating a memo that uses private Republican polling to argue that the Trump’s endorsement will actually be a hindrance to Republicans in next year’s North Carolina Senate contest, largely because suburban and unaffiliated voters were repelled by Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results. (Trump won the state by only 1.3 percentage points last year, less than half his margin in 2016.)
Budd, who denounced the violence of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, was outspoken in supporting a challenge to the electoral votes that awarded Biden the presidency, even co-signing a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling for objections to the election count. The Budd endorsement came after a meeting at Mar-a-Lago and repeated outreach to Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, who also considered running for Senate in North Carolina.
“The midterms in my opinion are very simple. If they are about Trump, we lose,” said a second Republican consultant working on the midterm elections who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If they are about Democratic overreach, we win.”
Trump’s advisers say he is likely to make some pragmatic allowances for places where his approval is lower and could endanger the party in a general election.
“I think he’s going to sit out more than we all realize. I don’t think he’s going to jump into Ohio. He’s going to wait on Missouri, if at all,” said one adviser who recently discussed the issue with Trump.
Missouri is likely to be one of the most challenging endorsement decisions. Greitens has done well in early polling, despite the circumstances that forced his resignation as governor, which included testimony from a woman he had an adulterous relationship with who accused him of tying her hands, photographing her undressed without her consent and pressuring her for sex. The investigator in that case was later indicted on charges related to actions he took and the prosecutor is facing disciplinary proceedings, allowing Greitens to argue that he is a victim of the legal system.
Greitens has recently insisted that partisan ballot audits could soon show that Biden is an illegitimate president, clearing the way for the decertification of the 2020 election and Trump’s reinstatement in the White House — echoing Trump’s false claims.
“President Trump is the indisputable leader of the Republican Party and the MAGA movement,” said Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Trump in the White House who is advising Greitens. “Republican candidates running for office across the country can only win by focusing on the issues important to MAGA voters.”
Trump has grown angry after learning that other candidates have suggested endorsements that did not actually happen. In Pennsylvania, for instance, state Sen. Doug Mastriano touted his ties to Trump after meeting with him at Trump Tower, suggesting he had Trump’s backing in a race for governor. But Mastriano, a deeply unpopular figure among Trump’s political advisers, received a brushback pitch from the former president, who ordered Jason Miller, a former aide, to say he had not endorsed the candidate, Trump advisers said.
Trump has also been upset, four people with knowledge of the circumstances said, after learning that some of his political advisers are asking him to endorse clients without making their conflicts clear.
The former president has not made a decision whether to endorse in the Ohio Senate race, advisers say, with some counseling him to stay out because the field will be crowded with a number of candidates that he sees as acceptable. At his rally on Saturday, Trump complimented various Senate candidates and polled his supporters about whom they liked the most, although he did not mention Moreno. He changed the subject without giving a clue about his own preference.
All of the candidates have lobbied him for the endorsement in meetings and calls. “It’s the most important factor in the race right now,” a strategist on one of the campaigns said of Trump’s decision.
In North Carolina, it may take months to know the full effect of Trump’s endorsement. Budd raised as much money from small donors in the three days after Trump gave his nod as he had in the first six weeks of his campaign, according to Felts, his adviser.
“The Trump endorsement, I would compare it to a steroid injection,” Felts said. “You don’t get big and strong because of the injection. But it allows you to work out twice as hard and twice as long.”