With a view to the 2022 elections, Republicans are fighting for Trump’s blessing
© Reuters. Heidi St. John speaks to voters at the Cowlitz Republican Party headquarters in Kelso, Washington
By Nathan Layne, Steve Holland, James Oliphant, and Deborah Bloom
KELSO, Wa (Reuters) – In front of a crowd of mostly maskless, white and elderly voters in this rural Washington county south of Seattle, four Republicans spoke out in favor last week, Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican congresswoman who voted for the indictment to depose Donald Trump for inciting a mob who attacked the Capitol.
One by one, the candidates used their 15-minute pitches to promote their unwavering loyalty to Trump. Offstage, candidates said in interviews they all want his blessing to replace Herrnera Beutler, a 10-year-old incumbent, in Washington’s third congressional district next year.
Trump is “still responsible” for the Republican Party and his support would be “very important,” Joe Kent, a military veteran and one of the challengers, told Reuters. Kent said he was considering hiring a well-connected advisor to help get the support of the former president.
More than a year before the party primaries for congressional and state elections begin in 2022, Republicans are in a maddened battle for Trump’s approval. According to more than a dozen candidates and two Trump advisors who spoke to Reuters, dozens of hopefuls have already turned to Trump or are planning to seek his support.
Advisors say Trump has been so inundated with inquiries that he has set up a formal process to consider who to support. His son Donald Trump Jr. and longtime poll workers like Justin Clark and Jason Miller are involved in the review, the sources say.
A Trump spokesman declined to comment on the process and the people involved.
The emerging competition for Trump’s nod underscores the influence he continues to have over the Republican Party even after it has lost the White House and both houses of Congress on his watch.
Mainstream Republicans fear the race for the former president could lead to primary victories for extremist pro-Trump candidates who will fend off moderate and independent voters in general elections. Such voters played a key role in Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in November.
“The danger is that we are nominating people who say and do things that put off suburban voters without the magic sauce that Trump needed to raise voter turnout,” said Doug Heye, a former senior official at the Republican National Committee.
Trump has vowed to fight the 10 House Republicans who voted to indict him for inciting the January 6th Capitol uprising. Also targeted is Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only US Senator to be re-elected next year from among the seven Republicans who voted to try him in a Senate trial.
“Get rid of them all,” Trump said last month in a complaint at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. He also wants to handpick favorites in open Senate and gubernatorial races, advisors say.
A spokesman for Herrera Beutler – the house exposed to the onslaught of pro-Trump challengers in Washington state – said the congresswoman was “still a Republican and a Conservative and she’s not going anywhere”.
Political experts said Trump’s attempts to meddle in party competitions were unprecedented for a former president. Most, they said, stay above the struggle and only support general elections.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Marc Hetherington, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.
Hetherington said Trump’s approval is important because it can increase voter turnout among fans of the former president, the most energetic segment of the Republican Party. Still, he said Trump’s focus on Republicans, who are seen as disloyal, creates a division that could ultimately benefit the Democrats.
“That sucks your strength,” said Hetherington. “It’s all spilled into the public.”
A senior Trump adviser involved in the review process rejected the notion that Trump-backed candidates could be less competitive in general elections. With Trump at the top of the ticket in November, the party took seats in the House of Representatives, elected a record number of Republican women to that body and made strides with Latino voters.
Party officials have said they like their chances of flipping both chambers in 2022.
Trump “will not allow himself to be ridden out of the party,” said Sam Nunberg, who served as political advisor for Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Tom Emmer, a Minnesota congressman, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the main strategic and fundraising arm for house racing, declined to comment on the divisions within the party over support for Trump and said his organization would stay neutral in primary battles.
Trump has already contested a handful of competitions. He endorsed former White House adviser Max Miller, who will challenge Ohio Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of the ten Republicans who voted for impeachment in January.
Miller reached out to Trump for approval before running his candidacy, the senior Trump adviser told Reuters. Miller did not respond to a request for comment. Gonzalez’s office declined to comment.
Elsewhere in Ohio, Josh Mandel and Jane Timken, battling for the Republican nomination to retire Senator Rob Portman, are trying to battle each other over their allegiance to Trump.
On Monday, Timken said she supported a local legislative move to rename Mosquito Lake State Park in northeast Ohio to Trump. Timken, a former Republican Party leader, previously called on Gonzalez to step down in support of Trump’s impeachment.
Mandel’s campaign manager Scott Guthrie said his candidate likes Trump even more, calling Mandel “the only intrepid pro-Trump candidate in the race.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s luxury Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago, has become a magnet for party hopefuls seeking his blessing. The former US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, recently had dinner there with his former boss. The men discussed the possibility that Grenell is seeking, among other things, the Republican nomination for governor of California, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Grenell declined to comment.
COUNT ON TRUMP
Back in Cowlitz County, Washington state, Trump’s influence on the party was evident at the Republican forum last week who wanted to represent the third congressional district.
A life-size section of Donald and Melania Trump greeted the voters who entered the room. In the middle of the forum, a member of the audience asked the candidates, “What did the candidates actually do during the 2016 and 2020 elections to contribute to Donald Trump’s campaign?”
Republican presidential candidates have carried the sprawling district in the last three presidential elections. The fastest growing population center – Clark County, which borders liberal Portland, Oregon – chose Biden over Trump.
In 2016, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the third district by seven percentage points. But its profit margin there dipped to four points last November, underscoring the risk to the Republican Party in an increasingly competitive district.
Herrera Beutler, the district’s incumbent Republican, far surpassed Trump, winning the district by 13 points in November, suggesting she won the moderate Republican and Independent votes he didn’t get.
Herrera Beutler declined an interview request.
Rivals have labeled their impeachment decision “treason” and pushed Trump’s false claims of electoral fraud, which have been rejected by multiple courts and electoral officials across the country.
Herrera Beutler’s campaign spokeswoman Parker Truax said of her challengers, “It is not a successful campaign platform for Southwest Washington to tell big stories to explain a lost election no matter how many people try to run on it.”
In Pennsylvania, US Representative Mike Kelly says he can use his relationship with Trump if he replaces Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, who is on a temporary basis, or if he chooses to run for the seat of US Senator Pat Toomey advertise who is about to retire.
Kelly is one of Congress’s biggest supporters of Trump’s efforts to overcome his election loss. Kelly cited a failed lawsuit seeking to nullify millions of Pennsylvania postal ballot papers that went to the Supreme Court.
“I could call the president and ask for his help,” said Kelly.
Trump lost Pennsylvania in November due to a breakdown by moderates in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Still, its support would be “very strong,” said Kelly in certain parts of the state.