NEW YORK – Donald Trump's post-presidency enters a new phase this month as voters across the U.S. begin weighing the candidates he elevated to pursue a vision of a Republican Party steeped in hardline populism, culture wars and denial of his loss in the 2020 campaign.
The first test comes on Tuesday when voters in Ohio choose between the Trump-backed JD Vance for an open U.S. Senate seat and several other contenders who spent months clamoring for the former president's support. In the following weeks, elections in Nebraska, Pennsylvania and North Carolina will also serve as a referendum on Trump's ability to shape the future of the GOP.
In nearly every case, Trump has endorsed only those who embrace his false claims of election fraud and excuse the deadly U.S. Capitol insurrection he inspired last year.
“The month of May is going to be a critical window into where we are,” said Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a Trump critic defending incumbent GOP governors in Georgia, Ohio and Idaho against Trump-backed challengers this month. “I’m just concerned that there are some people trying to tear the party apart or burn it down.”
Few states may be a higher priority for Trump than Georgia, where early voting begins on Monday ahead of the May 24 primary. He's taken a particularly active role in the governor's race there, recruiting a former U.S. senator to take on the incumbent Republican for failing to go along with his election lie. For similar reasons, Trump is also aiming to unseat the Republican secretary of state, who he unsuccessfully pressured to overturn President Joe Biden's victory.
While the primary season will play out deep into the summer, the first batch of races could set the tone for the year. If Republican voters in the early states rally behind the Trump-backed candidates, the former president's kingmaker status would be validated, likely enhancing his power as he considers another bid for the presidency. High-profile setbacks, however, could dent his stature and give stronger footing to those who hope to advance an alternate vision for the GOP.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz predicted a strong month of May for Trump and his allies.
“The voices in Washington that want him to fade into obscurity or to be silenced are engaged in their own form of wishful thinking," Cruz said in an interview. "That’s not going to happen. Nor should he.”
As Republicans grapple with Trump, Democrats are confronting their own set of revealing primaries.
Candidates representing the Democrats’ moderate and progressive wings are yanking the party in opposing directions while offering conflicting messages about how to overcome their acute political shortcomings, Biden’s weak standing chief among them. History suggests that Democrats, as the party that controls Washington, may be headed for big losses in November no matter which direction they go.
But as Democrats engage in passionate debates over policies, Republicans are waging deeply personal and expensive attacks against each other that are designed, above all, to win over Trump and his strongest supporters.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the GOP's effort to retake the Senate, described the month of May as a brutal sorting period likely to be dominated by Republican infighting instead of the policy solutions or contrasts with Democrats he’d like to see.
“The primaries too often become sort of character assassinations,” Scott said in an interview. “That’s what has happened.”
He added, “Hopefully, people come together."
No race may be messier than the Republican primary election for Georgia’s governor. Trump has spent months attacking Republican incumbents Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. He blames both men for not working hard enough to overturn his narrow loss in the 2020 presidential election.
The results in Georgia were certified after a trio of recounts, including one partially done by hand. They all affirmed Biden’s victory.
Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
Georgia Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a frequent Trump critic who is not running for reelection, described Trump’s decision to back former Sen. David Perdue against Kemp an “embarrassing” waste of time that could undermine the GOP’s broader goals this fall.
Duncan predicted Trump would ultimately win some races and lose others this month, but he was especially optimistic about Kemp’s chances to beat back Trump’s challenge.
“If a sitting governor is able to defeat that whole Donald Trump notion by a huge amount — and others down the ticket — I think we’re gonna send a message that it’s gonna take more than a Donald Trump endorsement to call yourself a Republican,” he said.
For now, however, Trump is unquestionably the nation's most powerful Republican as even those who find themselves on opposite sides of the former president are careful to note their loyalty to him. Cruz, who is backing opponents of Trump-endorsed Senate candidates in Ohio and Pennsylvania, downplayed any disagreement with him in an interview. Cruz noted he made his picks long before Trump did.
“For the four years he was president, Donald Trump had no stronger ally in the Senate than me,” Cruz said.
Six months before the general election, the Republican candidates in key primaries have already spent mountains of campaign cash attacking each other as Democrats largely save their resources — and sharpest attacks — for the November.
With early voting already underway in Ohio, a half-dozen Republican candidates in the state's high-profile Senate primary and their allied outside groups have spent more than $66 million this year combined on television advertising as of last week, according to Democratic officials tracking ad spending. The vast majority of the ads were Republican-on-Republican attacks.
Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland real estate developer and investment banker, spent $15 million alone on television advertising as of last week. That includes an advertising campaign attacking Vance highlighting his past description of Trump as “an idiot."
The pro-Vance super PAC known as Protect Ohio Values, meanwhile, has spent $10 million on the primary so far, including a recent barrage of attack ads casting Cruz-backed candidate Josh Mandel as “another failed career politician squish.”
On the other side, the leading Senate Democratic hopeful, Rep. Tim Ryan, has spent less than $3 million so far in positive television ads promoting his own push to protect Ohio manufacturing jobs from China.
The spending disparities in high-profile Senate primaries in Pennsylvania and North Carolina were equally stunning.
In Pennsylvania, where Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund executive David McCormick are locked in a fierce fight for the GOP nomination, the candidates and allied outside groups have spent more than $48 million on television advertising so far. Democrats spent just over $10 million.
And in North Carolina, Republican forces have spent more than $15 million on a divisive primary pitting Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd against former Gov. Pat McCrory. Democrats, who have united behind former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, spent just over $2 million.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who leads the effort for Democrats to keep the Senate majority, said Republicans are essentially creating the Democrats' general election ads for them. He described the intensity of the Republican infighting in several states as “toxic for the character of the Republican candidates.”
“They’re trying to compete to see who is the Trumpiest of the Trumpsters," Peters said. “They’re not talking about issues that people care about.”
At the same time, Peters acknowledged his own party's challenges, particularly Biden's low popularity. He said it would be up to every individual candidate to decide whether to invite the Democratic president to campaign on their behalf.
“I think the president can be helpful,” Peters said of Biden. But “this is about the candidates. They’re running to represent their state in the United States Senate. And they have to rise and fall by who they are as individuals.”
Follow AP for full coverage of the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and on Twitter, https://twitter.com/ap_politics