Next test of Trump's influence on the Republican Party: a crowded GOP primary fight for an Ohio House seat

Former president Donald Trump speaks with Republican congressional candidate Mike Carey at a rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds on June 26 in Wellington, Ohio.
Former president Donald Trump speaks with Republican congressional candidate Mike Carey at a rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds on June 26 in Wellington, Ohio.Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

A GOP primary Tuesday to fill a congressional seat outside Columbus is shaping up to be a test of former president Donald Trump's influence over the Republican Party, coming after his preferred candidate lost a Texas House campaign last week and some of his allies aligned with other candidates in the competitive Ohio race.

Tuesday's contest - in which 11 candidates are vying to replace longtime GOP congressman Rep. Steve Stivers - has caused serious consternation among the former president's advisers and even Trump himself, according to people familiar with the private discussions.

Trump railed at aides after Susan Wright, the candidate he backed in a special Texas Congressional race to replace her late husband, Rep. Ron Wright, lost to a state Republican lawmaker last week, they said.

The defeat was an embarrassing setback for the former president, who has sought to flex his hold on the party by making a slew of endorsements since leaving the White House, inserting himself into GOP primaries and going after political enemies.

In a bid to avoid a second straight loss, Trump is now making last-minute moves to bolster support for coal lobbyist Mike Carey, his pick in the Ohio special election, including hosting a get-out-the-vote telerally for him Monday night. A super PAC run by Trump's allies made a last-minute buy of $350,000 in text messages and other ads for Carey last week, according to a federal filing. Carey's campaign has also been given access to some data from Trump's political operation, according to people with knowledge of the arrangement.

Trump has made his preference clear, issuing slashing statements in which he has complained that other candidates are suggesting to voters that he supports them rather than Carey, a close friend of Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager who advisers say helped secure the endorsement.

"Numerous candidates in the Great State of Ohio, running in Congressional District 15, are saying that I am supporting them, when in actuality, I don't know them, and don't even know who they are," Trump said in a statement last week. "But I do know who Mike Carey is - I know a lot about him, and it is all good. Mike Carey is the only one who has my Endorsement and he's the one I feel will do the best job for Ohio, and for the United States. Please vote for Mike Carey next Tuesday, and let there be no further doubt who I have Endorsed!"

Aides say Trump is hypercompetitive about the races he's involved in and regularly brags about his endorsement record while in the White House. His decision to tap a slate of candidates for state party positions, congressional seats and other races has been an unparalleled move for a former president.

Trump has disregarded advice from advisers, who have warned that getting involved in races such as the special elections this year in Texas and Ohio and a contested Republican primary for a North Carolina Senate race could blemish his record, fueling the perception that his prominence is fading.

"There's no reason we should have to be worrying this much about a congressional special in Ohio," said one Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, like others interviewed for this report. "It's just crazy and totally unnecessary."

The latest test of Trump's clout comes as polls show that his standing among Republicans has softened slightly since last year. In November, 90 percent of GOP voters were favorable of Trump, including 73 percent who were strongly favorable, according to an Economist/YouGov poll. Last month, 82 percent of registered Republicans said they had a favorable view of him, including 62 percent that held him strongly favorable, the poll found.

While much of the GOP continues to echo the former president's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, there are signs of the limit of his reach on other issues. Last week, after Trump railed against a Senate infrastructure package and threatened to primary Republicans that support it, the bill moved forward with the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump has a sizable war chest he can unleash in GOP primaries: His PACs ended June with more than $100 million in cash. But people familiar with his political operation said that donations have trailed off in recent months.

Four party strategists said some top donors have grown frustrated that Trump wants to continually re-litigate the election and have instead begun expressing more interest in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and others who carry a similar message, without the baggage.

Still, Trump is telling advisers he is "definitely running" in 2024, according to two people who spoke to him in July. "He wants to be relevant every day," one adviser who recently spoke to Trump said. "He wants to be in the middle of everything."

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he told Trump that his path back to the nomination is to "show that he can pick winners."

Among his main targets: GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyo., a frequent critic who voted to impeach him. Trump plans to wade into the fight to unseat her, interviewing candidates at his New Jersey golf club last week, and signaled to advisers that he particularly liked state Sen. Bo Biteman. He is expected to make an endorsement later this year.

There are plenty of signs that Trump still has strong sway over the Republican Party. GOP candidates fear he will endorse their rivals, even hiring his advisers to keep it from happening, according to people familiar with such moves. Republican lawmakers regularly trek to Trump's private clubs to pay him homage. "They beg like you'd never believe," one adviser in Trump's operation said.

During recent rallies in Ohio and Florida, he drew crowds that other Republicans salivate to attract - including thousands who stayed in pouring rain in Sarasota. Public polls show he would remain the favorite to win the GOP nomination if he ran. Some Republican eyeing potential 2024 White House runs have said privately that they will not run against him.

Despite that, Trump's endorsements have not cleared the field for his preferred candidates running in North Carolina and Alabama this year.

In a surprise move in June, Trump picked Rep. Ted Budd in the race for an open Senate seat in North Carolina over Rep. Mark Walker and former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, startling many in his orbit by announcing his preference onstage at a rally.

"The people of North Carolina will pick their own candidate," McCrory said at the time. "I think the president got some very bad advice."

In the Alabama Senate race, Trump has endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks, a vocal supporter of his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. But Katie Britt, a longtime aide to Sen. Richard Shelby, R, is providing stiff competition for Brooks in the campaign.

One major impediment for Trump is that he remains blocked from Twitter and Facebook after promoting false claims about election fraud, reducing the reach of his statements. And the former president isn't investing large sums from his PAC to support his favorite candidates.

One Trump adviser said that his endorsement power had diminished because "the cash isn't moving, the team isn't out there creating the memes, the ads, the fundraising pitches and everything else we used to do."

"He puts out a press release, cuts them a small check, and that's it. He's not on Twitter or Facebook. He's not spending money to really put muscle behind what he's doing."

Some of Trump's advisers have encouraged him to change his message from rants about the 2020 election being stolen, saying it no longer generates the same kind of response from crowds.

Earlier this month, thousands waited in the scorching heat all day to hear Trump in Ohio's Lorain County, packing a rural fairground chest-to-chest as far as the eye could see.

But when Trump took stage, the assembled crowd was silent for much of the speech as he riffed about President Biden and the 2020 election. Some people hollered that the screens were not working. Throngs left before he finished talking. Even Trump appeared to notice the subdued mood, suggesting at one point he might cut the event short.

Trump initially stayed out of the crowded Texas special election, which attracted several candidates who had worked in his administration, including Brian Harrison, a key member of his pandemic response team.

But he gave Wright his "complete and total endorsement" just days before the May 1 special election, after meeting with David McIntosh of the Club for Growth near the end of the early-voting period. The Club quickly rushed out radio ads declaring that the race could be a "key test of Trump's continuing power in the party."

Wright got 19 percent of the vote, leading the field, but revealed some signs of weakness. She struggled with voters who cast ballots early, but surged with election-day voters. Trump's clout with Republican voters had moved them to Wright, but the candidate hadn't been able to consolidate votes without him.

Over the 12-week runoff, Wright squandered her advantage. State Rep. Jake Ellzey raised $1.7 million, more than doubling Wright. She spent nothing on TV ads, leaving that effort to the Club for Growth, which spent nearly $1.2 million on material that mostly focused on attacking Ellzey. She declined to debate Ellzey and was criticized by both local and national conservative media for not being available for interviews.

"The establishment world just sort of presumed that Susan Wright, as Ron's widow, would just inherit that seat," Dallas-area conservative radio host Mark Davis told his listeners on Election Day. "Trump doesn't know Susan Wright from Susan Sarandon. Somebody from Club for Growth [got] a hold of his ear and said, 'Hey, she's going to win.' And Trump, God love him, said: 'Well, let's endorse her. It'll look like I did it.'"

Trump's team now fears losing two races in a row. His pick in Ohio, Carey, had less local support than some state legislators seeking the seat once occupied by Stivers, who resigned in May to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

Carey's campaign has made Trump's endorsement and his short speech at a Trump rally in July a centerpiece of his ads. His campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Jeff LaRe, who Stivers endorsed, said he is getting traction by focusing on issues such as fighting crime.

"There's only one Trump, just like there's only one Steve Stivers," LaRe said in an interview. "At the end of the day we're all individuals. An endorsement doesn't make the candidate."

Meanwhile, Debbie Meadows - wife of Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff - is backing with her Right Women PAC another contender: Ruth Edmonds, a conservative Christian activist. Debbie Meadows did not respond to a request for comment. And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is supporting yet another candidate, former state Rep. Ron Hood.

These endorsements have riled Trump, advisers say, who has been forced to engage in the race more than he had planned because of the heavily contested field.

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The Washington Post's Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington and Jared Leone in Sarasota, Fla., contributed to this report.