Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Trump, emboldened after Ohio victory, faces challenges ahead

Mehmet Oz locked in tight primary race for U.S. Senate in Pa.

- By Jill Colvin

NEW YORK » Fresh off a victory in the first real test of his power as GOP kingmaker, former President Donald Trump enters the next stretch of the midterm campaign emboldened — and facing new risks.

Trump’s late-stage endorsemen­t of JD Vance in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary catapulted the “Hillbilly Elegy” author to victory in last week’s election, reinforcin­g the deep ties the former president holds among the most loyal Republican voters.

“Every single candidate that I endorsed won their primaries on Tuesday,” Trump crowed at a Friday night rally in Pennsylvan­ia, where he held up Vance as a trophy of his achievemen­t. “Tuesday’s primary results are just the latest proof that we have transforme­d the face of the Republican Party. Thank goodness.”

With Trump trying to assert his dominance over the party ahead of another potential presidenti­al run, some allies say the Ohio victory could encourage him to step up his involvemen­t in other bitter primary fights from Arizona to Missouri, where a former governor and current U.S. Senate candidate, Eric Greitens, is facing allegation­s of abuse. But there’s also caution that the coming phase of the campaign, which continues today with a tight GOP race for governor in Nebraska, could be more complicate­d for Trump.

“Round one to Trump, but I think it gets an awful lot harder from here,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who spent time last week at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. “I think it’s going to encourage him to get even more involved, and it’s also got to worry him,” Eberhart said, pointing to questions about what it will be like “the day after Pennsylvan­ia or the day after Georgia?”

In some respects, Trump’s allies acknowledg­e, Ohio was a uniquely favorable state for him.

Trump carried Ohio by more than 8 percentage points in the 2016 and 2020 elections. The candidates running to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Rob Portman desperatel­y courted his endorsemen­t while trying to paint themselves to voters as the Trumpiest of the bunch. The field was crowded, meaning that even a small bump would have been enough to make a difference. And Trump’s endorsemen­t addressed what had been Vance’s biggest vulnerabil­ity in the race: his past criticism of Trump.

“It clarified things, consolidat­ed the vote and helped JD overcome a trust deficit with primary voters,” said Luke Thompson, who ran Vance’s super PAC. “That happens because Trump’s endorsemen­t told conservati­ve voters: You can trust this guy because I do.”

Yet even in that environmen­t, there were warning signs for Trump. More than two-thirds of Republican voters who cast ballots in the race voted for Vance’s rivals. And nearly a quarter chose Matt Dolan, the only candidate who did not seek Trump’s nod.

For now, however, Trump is riding high. And allies say the former president may be willing to take even greater risks now that he has notched a major victory.

That could mean an endorsemen­t soon in Arizona’s competitiv­e Senate primary, where Republican­s will choose a candidate in August to take on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, a top target for Republican­s.

Trump was already seen as favoring Blake Masters, a young conservati­ve, who, like Vance, has the backing of billionair­e and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, but lacks Vance’s celebrity appeal. Masters is running against Attorney General Mark Brnovich and businessma­n Jim Lamon. Trump has repeatedly railed against Brnovich, accusing him of not fighting hard enough to overturn the will of voters in the 2020 election.

The rest of the month’s calendar will be more challengin­g for Trump, especially in races with incumbents.

Today, Republican­s will vote in Nebraska, where Trump had endorsed Charles Herbster, who was seen as a strong front-runner through much of the race but is now fighting accusation­s that he groped at least eight young women at public events. Nearly all of Nebraska’s GOP establishm­ent leaders have lined up behind businessma­n Jim Pillen.

Meanwhile, in West Virginia, a race in the 2nd Congressio­nal District between Republican Reps. Alex Mooney and David McKinley will serve as another barometer of Trump’s clout in a state he won twice by large margins. Trump endorsed Mooney the day President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastruc­ture bill into law last year. He has repeatedly condemned McKinley and 12 other House Republican­s for voting with Democrats, though the bill provides $6 billion in infrastruc­ture spending for West Virginia.

Next week, Trump’s pick for an open Senate seat in North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd, is well positioned against former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker after a rocky start. But in Pennsylvan­ia, celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz is locked in a tight race with ex-hedge fund CEO David McCormick and conservati­ve activist Kathy Barnette, according to the most recent Franklin and Marshall College poll, despite Trump’s late-stage endorsemen­t.

Trump’s decision to back Oz earned the doctor a wave of media attention and a rally Friday night, where Trump trumpeted the impact of his Vance endorsemen­t (“He was like a rocket ship,” Trump said, with sound effects, praised Oz and eviscerate­d McCormick as a “liberal Wall Street Republican” who is “absolutely the candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishm­ent.”

But Oz has not seen the same kind of poll bounce that Vance enjoyed in the days after Trump waded in. And that resistance was on display in the rain and mud Friday, with some in the crowd booing at the mention of Oz’s name before Trump’s arrival and others standing and turning their backs to him when he walked on stage, according to video of the event.

Vance made the case to voters that even if they didn’t support Oz, the race was a referendum on Trump himself.

“It’s not about Dr. Oz,” Vance said. “It’s not about anything other than you and Donald Trump. These people are trying to make it so that Trump-endorsed candidates get defeated because when they do the fake news media back there will say, ‘Well, Donald Trump’s endorsemen­t doesn’t matter,’” he went on. “We need to support the candidates who are endorsed by Donald Trump. That’s why I’m here.”

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