If there is one thing on which all sides can agree when it comes to Donald Trump, it is that he does not tolerate criticism or disloyalty from anyone, especially Republicans. That’s why it was almost shocking to hear that the 45th president has issued endorsements for two candidates in critical and highly competitive Senate primary races whose loyalty to Trump over these last years has not gone unquestioned, especially since they are challenging self-professed Trump loyalists.
In Pennsylvania, Trump generated considerable controversy by throwing his support behind the TV celebrity physician known as Dr. (Mehmet) Oz. And on April 23 in neighboring Ohio, the former president took the occasion of his latest rally to endorse the author of the wildly popular book Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance. Both candidates are challenging more experienced career politicians in multi-candidate primaries, attempting to maintain seats held by retiring Republicans.
Why are these endorsements so meaningful and controversial? Well, both candidates were trailing at the time of the Trump endorsement, so where they go from here may largely depend on how voters process their attachment to the former president. The issue is not just whether these candidates win out in the end. The GOP may well need one or both candidates to succeed in order to take control of a Senate now split 50-50, with Democrats staggering to keep their grip, but the real issue in play is whether Trump’s influence continues to endure. If one or especially both of these underdog, upstart candidates are propelled to victory in their primary races against more experienced opponents, it will demonstrate not only that the Donald continues to matter, and that he remains at the center of the Republican Party seven years after he first emerged as a presidential contender, but also that his support is significant enough to actually change the course of a primary or even a general election.
Already, the signs of Trump’s impact are striking, even in the wake of the lingering ugliness and attendant hand-wringing over 1/6/21. In fact, his endorsements have reframed and changed the trajectories of both races. Dr. Oz has jumped from as many as nine points behind front-running David McCormick, former US under secretary of the treasury for international affairs, a self-described “America First candidate,” to a three-point lead in the latest poll by Trafalgar Group in the race to retain the seat currently held by Trump critic Pat Toomey. Meanwhile, after polling at 8% and 11% respectively in February and March, Vance has more than doubled his support since receiving Trump’s backing and is now at 23%, according to Trafalgar, in the race to hold the seat occupied by centrist Rob Portman. Vance has narrowed a large deficit to pull within striking distance of the front-runner, former State Treasurer and State Representative Josh Mandel.
What has Trump critics so hot under the collar is that Vance had been critical of Trump in the past while Mandel has been fiercely loyal to the 45th president, supporting his claims about the 2020 election and basing his campaign around a return to the MAGA agenda. Mandel’s backers believe he earned — and deserved — Trump’s support.
The Republican establishment, such as it exists in the Trump era, has objected loudly to these endorsements. McCormick ran an ad campaign throughout Pennsylvania accusing Oz of being a “Hollywood liberal.” The group Ohio Value Voters urged a boycott of Trump’s rally, issuing a statement calling Trump’s endorsement of Vance a “terrible decision” that “can only be attributed to very poor advice from people around the former president … Booing is entirely appropriate!”
Trump’s response to that statement at the rally was telling and might represent a change of strategy by the man who famously punches up, down, and all around whenever he is criticized. Speaking directly about the call for boycott and his previous blanket refusal to support anyone who disparages him, he said, “Ultimately, I put that aside. I have to do what I have to do. We have to pick somebody that can win.”
In the end, these bold, risky endorsements and Trump’s stated willingness to waive past slights beg some intriguing though as yet unanswerable questions: Might, just might, this mean Trump has decided to focus more on the future than the past? Might he be willing to let at least some bygones be bygones? Might he have decided that winning with an imperfect candidate who was less than fully loyal to the cause is more important than marginalizing frenemies and making his point about the last election?
~ Read more from Tim Donner.
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