This month is a test of Donald Trump's political power
Competitive batch of primaries to gauge ex-president's sway over voters as he considers a comeback
Tuesday marked the start of a month-long political experiment with real stakes: A test of Donald Trump's power as he contemplates a political comeback.
A series of primaries in May will probe his continuing sway over Republican voters more than a year after he left office under a cloud of scandal.
The former president has flung himself into the upcoming contests by making clear which candidates he wants running in this year's midterm elections.
Republican voters across the country are choosing their preferred nominees for state- and federal-level races, with May 3, 17 and 24 being especially important.
If Trump has a good month, his power will only grow. A bad month will provide detractors with new ammunition to argue that he's beatable, as he risks being labelled with that most-dreaded noun in Trump's lexicon: Loser.
That test of clout began well for Trump. His favoured candidate won the Senate primary in Ohio, due in no small part to Trump's endorsement.
Leading up to the vote, Trump's allies cast it as a broader showdown.
"We don't want a circumstance where the establishment could claim that they defeated Trump," said Congressman Matt Gaetz, speaking alongside fellow firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene. "So President Trump's brand is on the line. The MAGA brand is on the line."
They were speaking at an event for J.D. Vance, the Trump-endorsed lawyer, venture capitalist and author of the hit novel Hillbilly Elegy.
It's the first of three significant dates this month: After the Ohio primary on May 3, there's a May 17 contest in Pennsylvania, then one in Georgia on May 24.
What makes these contests consequential is Trump's repeated hinting that he plans to run for president again.
Polls suggest he'd romp to his party's nomination, with all the ground-shifting implications that entails for American politics.
There aren't many opportunities to rattle him early and disrupt the calculus that he'd be on an easy glide path to secure the 2024 nomination.
State of play in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia
One political scientist who studies political opinion and voter behaviour at Ohio State University said he was skeptical anything could weaken Trump's hold on the Republican Party — especially if this month goes well for him.
"[This is] a fascinating test of Trump's endorsement power," said Thomas Wood, of Ohio State University.
Trump has endorsed candidates for different reasons, ranging from their celebrity to their loyalty to him, his ideas and his election lies.
If Trump's candidates do well, Wood said, it would solidify his role as presumptive nominee in two years.
If his candidates flop, he said, other ambitious Republicans might sense an opening to prepare a 2024 run. "It shows massive opportunity for other elites in the party to take him on," said Wood.
The early indications are promising for Trump. He demonstrated his power by almost single-handedly pulling Vance from also-ran status to victory in the race for a U.S. Senate nomination.
The businessman-author was polling in third place — even after months of friendly coverage and prime-time appearances on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show. But Vance's support suddenly shot up last month as Trump endorsed him; the ex-president's son, Donald Trump Jr., also began campaigning for him.
Wood said the campaign was basically about Trump: "It's almost been devoid of issues."
Because several candidates agreed on issues like taking a hard line on immigration, trade and China, the race devolved into a contest for Trump's endorsement.
"We endorsed J.P., right? JP Mandel. ... I think Vance is doing well."<br><br>-- Donald Trump 5/1/2022 in Nebraska rally <a href="https://t.co/x3BPSuAOUQ">pic.twitter.com/x3BPSuAOUQ</a>—@HowardMortman
The one real contender in the race who wasn't running as a Trump heir is Matt Dolan, a state senator whose family owns Cleveland's Major League Baseball team. He's criticized Trump's election lies and is polling near the top.
The next big batch of primaries comes in two weeks: In those races, Trump has endorsed a celebrity candidate for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, and a primary challenger to the Republican governor of Idaho.
'May 17 is going to tell us a lot'
"May 17 is going to tell us a lot," said Jessica Taylor, an elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.
Look no further than the near-comical number of references to Trump to assess his importance in the Pennsylvania Senate race.
Trump infuriated many of his allies by ditching more conservative candidates and endorsing TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz.
There's no guarantee of Oz prevailing, as rivals have hammered him as a Hollywood liberal, wildly out of step with the Republican Party. Oz's self-defence is that only he has Trump's backing and he's backed the former president in casting doubt on the 2020 election.
"Trump made some risky bets here," Taylor said.
A fundamental contest: Georgia
The riskiest bet perhaps comes a week later, with Trump on a personal mission to take down the Republican governor of Georgia.
The issue in this race is fundamental: It's not a policy issue, but rather about the basic question of certifying a democratically run election. Trump has set out to end the career of Brian Kemp and other state officials who certified Joe Biden's 2020 election win.
We'll know whether he's succeeded after the May 24 Georgia primary. (Or a month later, if that initial vote goes to a runoff.)
Lest there be any doubt of the fundamental issue of this race, Kemp's challenger doubled-down on it in his opening remarks during a candidates' debate last week.
Former senator David Perdue led off with Trump's fraudulent claims about the 2020 election — and he blamed the governor for it.
"First off, folks, let me be very clear tonight: The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen," said Perdue. "Our governor caved. … He sold us out.
"I'm proud to have President Trump's endorsement."
At tonight’s GA GOP governor’s debate, David Perdue pushes the Big Lie in his first sentence: “The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen.”<br><br>“All of that started in Georgia when our governor caved…”<br><br>Despite losing himself, Perdue says Kemp “cost us the majority in the Senate.” <a href="https://t.co/YweszE9xb7">pic.twitter.com/YweszE9xb7</a>—@HeartlandSignal
Perdue essentially blamed the election concession for all that followed: low Republican morale, his own Senate seat being lost, and everything from inflation to the threat of war with Russia.
If Democrats are watching one race closely, this is it. A liberal writer at the Washington Post made clear he's rooting for the humiliation of Perdue, whom he derided as an anti-democratic liar, sycophant and reprobate.
Polls show Trump's candidate way behind.
What comes after May 24
Needless to say, the former president would not just meekly admit defeat.
Trump can just as easily point to his other candidates winning, said Taylor, including former NFL star Herschel Walker, who has widespread party backing and is expected to easily win the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Georgia.
"It takes some of the shine off if his candidates don't win. But I don't think it completely renders him irrelevant," said Taylor.
"Because he's already controlling the [Republican] electorate. Trump is essentially all that these primary candidates are talking about. Even though he may not have endorsed them, they are angling for Trump voters; they are cozying up to him; they are praising him," she said.
"In the most recent [Republican] debates … it's all been about, 'I am the Trumpiest. Here's how I would implement Trump's policies. Here's why I think Trump is the greatest president ever.' So he's the driving force still."
That perception that Trump is running the show could actually backfire later in the November general elections, said Taylor. Some of these pro-Trump positions are likely to anger moderate voters, even if they help persuade Republican voters in the midterms.
In the meantime, Trump has scores to settle in the primaries.
At the end of this month, on May 28, he's off to a campaign rally in Wyoming, where he hopes an August primary ends the career of a rare Republican who stood up to him on Jan. 6, 2021: Congresswoman Liz Cheney.