By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – Donald Trump’s ongoing effort to play Republican kingmaker faces fresh tests on Tuesday as voters in five states choose candidates in high-profile races for U.S. Congress, governor and other offices ahead of November’s midterm elections.
In Arizona and Michigan, candidates who have embraced the former president’s false claims of voter fraud could win the Republican nominations for governor, even as some in their party worry they could be too extreme to win on Nov. 8.
Kansas voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow the Republican-controlled legislature to ban or limit abortion, the first such ballot initiative since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the nationwide right to abortion in June.
Two Republican U.S. representatives who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by his supporters, Peter Meijer of Michigan and Jamie Herrera Beutler of Washington, also face Trump-endorsed primary challengers.
On Monday, Meijer published an opinion piece decrying Democrats for running ads to boost his far-right opponent after warning such candidates are dangerous, part of a risky political strategy to improve Democrats’ chances of victory in November.
With an economy teetering on the brink of recession and inflation surging, just 37% of Americans approve of President Joe Biden’s job performance. That is weighing on Democrats heading into the November general election, when Republicans are favored to win control of the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate.
Control of either chamber would give Republicans the power to stymie Biden’s legislative agenda while launching politically damaging hearings.
Democrats have also been dealt a spate of policy defeats by the heavily conservative Supreme Court, particularly on abortion, that they were powerless to stop even with control of Congress and the White House.
As he continues to flirt publicly with the possibility of running for president again in 2024, Trump has endorsed more than 100 candidates in this year’s elections. Most are safe bets — incumbent Republicans in conservative districts — but even in competitive races he’s had a winning record.
Trump-backed nominees have won Republican primaries for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio, though his picks lost nominating contests for Georgia governor and for U.S. House in South Carolina.
“Trump remains really popular with Republican primary voters. I don’t think you can underestimate how he has remade the party in his image,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “Republicans who run against Trump tend to get trampled.”
On Tuesday, Arizona voters will pick between Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Karrin Taylor Robson, who has the backing of Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence.
Lake, a former news anchor, echoes Trump false claims that his 2020 election defeat was the result of fraud and has said she would not have certified Biden’s statewide victory in 2020. At a recent campaign stop, Lake claimed without evidence that fraud has already occurred during early voting, suggesting she may not accept a defeat on Tuesday.
The race for secretary of state – the state’s top election official – also includes a Trump-endorsed candidate, state Representative Mark Finchem. Finchem, who was present at Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, speech in Washington that preceded the U.S. Capitol attack, wrote on Twitter on Thursday, “Trump won,” prompting a Democratic candidate, Adrian Fontes, to call him a “traitor.”
Arizona Republicans will also pick a challenger to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, seen as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Blake Masters, a former tech executive who has backed Trump’s false fraud claims, has Trump’s endorsement and the backing of tech billionaire Peter Thiel. He is leading in polls against Jim Lamon, a former power company executive, and Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whom Trump blames for not reversing Biden’s 2020 statewide victory.
Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican strategist in Arizona, said there’s “no doubt” that candidates such as Lake and Finchem will have a harder time winning in November.
His firm conducted a recent poll that found two-thirds of Republican voters believe wrongly that the 2020 election had serious integrity problems – but the general electorate will look quite different, he said.
“To win a statewide election in Arizona, you have to win unaffiliated voters,” he said. “Those people do not like Trump.”
In Missouri, former Governor Eric Greitens, who resigned in the midst of sexual assault and campaign finance fraud scandals, is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate despite calls from many within his party to withdraw out of concern that he might cost Republicans a safe seat in November.
Having promised to endorse in that race, Trump on Monday recommended voters choose either Greitens or one of his rivals, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, with a statement that simply endorsed “Eric.”
In Michigan, a chaotic Republican campaign for governor will draw to a close, with several candidates vying for the right to take on Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who became a frequent target for conservatives after her aggressive approach to shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trump last week endorsed former Republican commentator Tudor Dixon in the race. But at a rally this weekend in Troy, some Trump-supporting backers of one of Dixon’s rivals, businessman Kevin Rinke, said they would not be swayed.
One attendee, Steve Moshelli, 57, said he voted for Trump twice but was sticking with Rinke.
“Honestly, I think his star is kind of fading,” Moshelli, a businessman from Royal Oak, Michigan, said of Trump, adding that he thought the Jan. 6 committee’s hearings had chipped away at Trump’s power. “It’s his credibility. It’s starting to fade.”
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, additional reporting by Moira Warburton in Washington and Nathan Layne in Troy, Michigan; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)