“Nobody knows anything.”
Whenever you find yourself overwhelmed with uncertainty, just remember William Goldman’s maxim for the film industry, which can easily apply to so much else.
Watching the nation’s prognosticators weigh the current political strength of former President Donald Trump, and just how attached Republican voters remain to him, I was constantly reminded that “nobody knows anything.”
For as much effort as we put into surmising possible outcomes, there’s just no substitute for hard data. We’re in luck, then, that the heart of the 2022 primary calendar is here. For the first time since Trump left office, we’ll finally see some much-needed tests of his hold over the GOP.
The month of May will feature eleven primary contests where the former President has gotten involved in a competitive Republican primary. A poor record could indicate Trump’s hold over the base is loosening, while a strong performance would lead his intraparty opponents to once again defer their fire heading into 2024.
Ohio Senate Primary
We’ll start off with the most contentious race of them all. March’s second-most cringeworthy confrontation, after Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars, was the Josh Mandel-Mike Gibbons debate shouting match. After Gibbons accused Mandel of not knowing anything about the private sector, Mandel got in his face and called him a “pussy” as the two men nearly came to blows.
Among those turned off by the incident was Trump, who bypassed both participants to throw his support behind bestselling author J.D. Vance. Despite a litany of damning Vance quotes denouncing Trump during the 2016 election, it appears Trump decided to endorse Vance for two main reasons.
The first is that, as a celebrity himself, Trump will always prioritize supporting someone famous like Vance. The other factor to keep in mind is that Vance is a protege of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Given that Thiel is a fount of political dark money and Trump is a notorious skinflint, Trump can’t afford to alienate someone willing to fund a 2024 run.
While Mandel continues to lead the crowded field in the polls, Vance already moved ahead of Gibbons into second place before Trump’s endorsement. So far, though, we’ve yet to see a post-endorsement survey which would show what kind of bounce Vance received.
Nebraska Gubernatorial Primary
In the open Nebraska Governor’s contest, agribusinessman Jim Pillen scored the support of the state’s political and conservative establishment. Donald Trump, however, broke from the pack and chose to back a different agribusinessman, Charles Herbster.
Perhaps due to Trump’s endorsement, Herbster held the polling lead over Pillen and State Senator Brett Lindstrom these past few months. Yet a survey released last week found Pillen and Lindstrom tied for the lead with 27% while Herbster fell to third at 23%.
Furthermore, that poll was conducted before a Nebraska Examiner report which featured eight women accusing Herbster of groping them. Trump, with his own long history of similar allegations, can’t exactly abandon Herbster now either.
West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District Primary
West Virginia was the one deep red state to lose a seat during the reapportionment process after the 2020 Census. As a result, two incumbent Congressmen were forced into one district to battle for survival. This particular contest features Rep. Alex Mooney against Rep. David McKinley.
As opposed to most of the other races included here, Trump is actually supporting the consensus candidate. Mooney, his chosen contender, also has the backing of conservative juggernauts like Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. McKinley, on the other hand, is relying mainly on the support of maverick Democrat-turned-Republican Governor Jim Justice.
Idaho Gubernatorial Primary
Normally, you wouldn’t expect incumbent Governor Brad Little to face a primary challenge. Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin is far from normal, though, given that she twice sought to usurp the powers of the Governor.
Last May, while Gov. Little was attending an RGA conference in Nashville, Acting Governor McGeachin used the occasion to issue her own anti-masking executive order. Then in October, she issued another executive order to ban vaccination requirements and even inquired about sending the Idaho National Guard to the southern border. Little rescinded all these acts upon his return but the uproar apparently got McGeachin noticed.
In November, Trump endorsed McGeachin despite Little having done nothing to attract his ire. Yet a December poll found that Trump’s intervention had little to no effect on the electorate, as Little still led McGeachin by 41 points. Now this race looms as one Trump likely hopes we all just forget.
North Carolina Senate Primary
Given the other major races held on May 17, we very well may forget all about Idaho. Take North Carolina’s Senate contest for example. Former Governor Pat McCrory was the early favorite to be the Republican nominee, but Trump decided last summer to instead throw his weight behind Rep. Ted Budd.
For months, as McCrory maintained his lead in the polls, that decision looked like a serious mistake. Over the past few weeks, however, the tide’s turned in Budd’s favor. Budd is even leading in hypothetical general election match-ups against likely Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley. Ultimately, Budd’s success or failure in November will seriously shape how national Republicans view Trump’s influence on the 2022 midterms.
Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Primary
In the Keystone State’s crowded GOP gubernatorial primary, Trump delivered more of anti-endorsement. Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain was starting to get a bit of traction in the polls this spring, until Trump issued a blistering statement denouncing McSwain and claiming he wasn’t there for Trump during the former President’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
This sudden intervention even caused one candidate, State Senator Jake Corman, to reverse his decision to drop out of the race. All the while, Trump still hasn’t actually endorsed anyone in the GOP field. That’s likely because front-runners Lou Barletta and Doug Mastriano are both natural Trump allies.
Barletta was an early supporter of Trump’s and received his enthusiastic backing in 2018. Barletta then went on to lose by thirteen points to Sen. Bob Casey, however, which may be scaring Trump off. Meanwhile, Mastriano is a major proponent of Trump’s aforementioned plan to overturn the 2020 election. I’d imagine Trump will wait to see who wins then act as if he supported that person all along.
Pennsylvania Senate Primary
Facing a similar situation in the commonwealth’s Senate primary, Trump felt no such hesitation. Even though hedge fund manager Dave McCormick is married to former Trump Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, the former President chose to back Dr. Oz instead.
“I’m a gambler,” is how Trump reportedly explained his decision. If so, then he’s betting on the guy most like himself. The former Celebrity Apprentice host is a famous TV addict, so it makes sense that he would back the TV doc.
“You know, when you are in television for 18 years, that is like a poll. That means people like you,” Trump reasoned at a recent rally.
Back during the 2016 campaign, Oz had Trump on his TV show to supposedly reveal his medical records. Trump went out of his way to mention this appearance, and Oz’s endorsement of his health, in his endorsement. Oz also reportedly had the support of Melania Trump. Conversely, Donald Trump was upset after viewing a 2021 video of McCormick praising Biden at Trump’s expense.
We’ve yet to see a poll conducted after Trump’s Oz endorsement, and despite a huge name ID edge, Oz is neck-and-neck with McCormick. Since both candidates have ample war chests, this may come down to how they perform in the debates. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on this race.
Alabama Senate Primary
In the PA Gov race it was an anti-endorsement, in the Alabama Senate contest it was a withdrawn endorsement. After putting his support behind Rep. Mo Brooks last April, Trump then rescinded that backing eleven months later.
Trump was seemingly motivated by two factors. First, he was upset that Brooks once urged supporters to put the 2020 election behind them. Second, Brooks was steadily fading in the polls and Trump was afraid of another loss on his record.
Even while dropping Brooks, Trump did not pick a new favorite. If I had to guess, this is due to the fact that two candidates, Mike Durant and Katie Britt, are both rapidly gaining ground. It would be much easier for Trump to just wait and let this contest play itself out.
Georgia Gubernatorial Primary
If there’s one race that stands above all the others on this list, it would have to be the fight for the Republican nomination in Georgia’s gubernatorial race. Especially when you consider that, for all intents and purposes, this primary is only happening because of Donald Trump.
Enraged by Governor Brian Kemp’s refusal to help him overturn the election, Trump set out to make an example of Gov. Kemp and ensure no one crosses him again.
Trump helped convince former Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp, even as a far more enticing Senate race was open to Perdue. In fact, despite having Trump’s full-throated support, Perdue has yet to catch Kemp in the polls. On top of that, the incumbent is even flirting with the 50% threshold that will allow him to avoid a June 21st run-off.
If Perdue can somehow overtake Kemp, it would suggest that Trump’s hold on the GOP remains iron-clad. Should Kemp prevail, however, the whispers that Trump’s grip is slipping will become louder than ever.
Georgia Senate Primary
Speaking of the Peach State, Trump had a major impact in their other major statewide contest. In this case, Trump’s support of former NFL player Herschel Walker allowed Walker to essentially clear the field and leave him as the overwhelming front-runner.
The importance of this development will only be fully realized in November. If Walker combusts on the campaign trail and Raphael Warnock wins a full term, the GOP will’ve blown one of their best shots at a pick-up. Such recriminations will become especially pointed if Republicans wind up a seat short of a Senate majority. Try to imagine Mitch McConnell’s fury if Donald Trump costs him the opportunity to once again become Majority Leader.
Texas Attorney General Run-Off
OK, on the face of it, the race to determine the next Attorney General of Texas doesn’t seem to be as important as these other Gubernatorial and Senate contests. Well, I must admit that’s correct. Nevertheless, I’m still intrigued by what will happen here.
On the one hand, there’s incumbent Ken Paxton, who’s running with the full support of Donald Trump. Paxton’s also still facing a 2015 indictment, as well as a separate FBI investigation. On the other hand, there’s George P. Bush, son of Jeb Bush. Even despite all Trump said about his father, Bush still desperately and unsuccessfully sought Trump’s endorsement.
Sure, a Bush victory would probably be due more to the public being sick of the scandal-ridden Paxton than anything else. Still I think it would be notable if the Bush family dynasty emerges again at the expense of a Trump-backed candidate.