COLUMBUS, Ohio – Republicans hoping to emerge from crowded primaries this year stacked up on operatives with ties to former President Donald Trump, betting those connections would give them a leg up on landing critical endorsements that would help them win.
But as Trump wades into some of the most competitive primaries, the strategy is proving a bust.
In Ohio and Pennsylvania, two states that will kick off a more frenzied phase of the midterm campaign next month, the former president passed over candidates who hired some of his most prominent aides and allies. He instead endorsed contenders including Mehmet Oz and JD Vance, who were relatively new to politics but boasted high-wattage profiles tied to television and books.
As Trump seeks to assert himself this election year as the GOP’s undisputed kingmaker, the endorsements are a reminder of the traits that are often most important to him. While he demands loyalty of those around him, he rarely returns it in equal measure. And the former reality television star-turned-president remains dazzled by the power of celebrity in politics.
“Obviously Donald Trump is very mercurial about how he does things, right? So we might know now, with 20/20 hindsight, that that was not the best bet to make,” said longtime GOP strategist Doug Heye of the campaigns’ Trump hires. “But at the time,” he said, the hiring "made the most sense.”
The dynamic is especially clear in Pennsylvania, where Trump endorsed Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon best known as the host of daytime TV’s “The Dr. Oz Show," over former hedge fund manager David McCormick.
McCormick hired two of Trump's most trusted aides: domestic policy adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller and longtime communications aide and counselor Hope Hicks. (Miller dropped McCormick as soon as Trump announced his support for Oz.) McCormick is also married to Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, Dina Powell, and had the backing of other allies, including former Trump campaign adviser David Urban and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor in Arkansas.
Kellyanne Conway, who managed Trump's 2016 campaign and served as White House counselor, also works for McCormick’s super PAC, Honor Pennsylvania, which paid her firm $15,000 last month.
Trump's alliance with Oz sparked deep frustration among some on his team who signed on with McCormick and believed the former president would, at worst, stay neutral in the primary. But Oz shared a longstanding relationship with Trump, having known him for years and having similarly risen to fame with a television show. In announcing his endorsement, Trump noted Oz "has lived with us through the screen.”
“He’s somebody that had great success on television, which is like the ultimate poll," Trump told supporters at a teletownhall last week. He noted Oz had the support of Fox News host Sean Hannity, and made the case that Oz, who also had the backing of former first lady Melania Trump, was simply best positioned to win the general election this fall.
Trump gave a similar rationale in Ohio, where he ultimately chose to back Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and venture capitalist who became a fixture on Fox News and conservative podcasts. He impressed Trump with his performance in a recent GOP debate.
At a rally Saturday night, Trump said he studied the race “very closely" and ”liked a lot of other candidates." But, he said, “we have to pick the one that’s going to win.”
For now, the power of Trump's endorsement is unclear. His backing opens his chosen candidates to a flood of money, attention and, sometimes, an appearance with the former president at one of his signature rallies. In Ohio, it might have helped lift Vance ahead of the May 3 primary. A Fox News poll released Tuesday found Vance slightly ahead of rivals Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons after trailing them in March.
Polls in Pennsylvania conducted in late March and early April suggested Oz was locked in a tight race, though there’s been little recent polling to detect if Trump’s endorsement has made a difference.
But in Georgia, another state where Trump has invested heavily, his chosen candidate for governor, David Perdue, is lagging in polls and fundraising. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Tuesday found incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp leading Perdue 53% to 27% among likely voters. That just barely puts Kemp above the 50% threshold he would need to avoid a runoff.
Any major loss could deflate Trump's image as the most powerful force in the party as he weighs a 2024 presidential run.
But such concerns do little to temper efforts among Republicans to win over Trump. Vance and his Ohio rivals, for instance, spent months traveling to Mar-a-Lago, mimicking his style, and running ads that painted each other as insufficiently loyal. They also brought on a coterie of Trump aides to help with their efforts.
Former Ohio Republican Chair Jane Timken, in particular, invested big, hiring Conway as well as two longtime Trump allies, Corey Lewandowski and Dave Bossie. Lewandowski was hired even though he was accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward a GOP donor, leading to his brief excommunication from Trump's circle.
Records show Timken paid Lewandowski $20,000 in March and also paid thousands to another Trump ally, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik. When Trump was president he pardoned Kerik, who had pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud and other charges that put him behind bars for three years.
Hiring Lewandowski and Kerik briefly became a campaign issue when Timken was pressed on the decision during a debate.
Meanwhile, investment banker Mike Gibbons, who fashioned himself as a Trump-style businessman, also tapped into Trump's network, hiring the firm run by Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Bill Stepien, which was paid $20,000 earlier this month.
Mandel, the former Ohio state treasurer who most aggressively adopted Trump’s shock jock tactics, has been campaigning with Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. He was pardoned by Trump after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.
While Vance brought on some in Trump's orbit and had the backing of Trump-allied megadonor Peter Thiel, he also had the support of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, along with Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
At an event last week in Ohio, Trump Jr. noted those working for rival candidates.
“Trump person, speaks really favorably about someone that JD is opposing. Yeah, because they’re being paid $20,000 a month to do that. That’s their job. Doesn’t mean they actually believe it,” he quipped.
Trump has endorsed more than 100 candidates for offices up and down the ballot. Allies say he's driven by a long list of factors — sometimes spite, sometimes personal rapport or even an appealing television appearance. After leaving the White House, he was eager to back those who offered to challenge GOP incumbents who voted for his impeachment, and also backed those who have parroted his election lies.
Trump has, at times, expressed frustration with former aides profiting from perceptions that they can sell his endorsement, and has made clear that those lobbying him needed to disclose their clients, according to a person familiar with his recent comments who requested anonymity to discuss them.
But allies say that anyone who believed they could buy a Trump endorsement was fundamentally mistaken.
“You hire consultants to coach you, to guide you on how to get the Trump endorsement,” said Bryan Lanza, a former Trump adviser who helped launch a pro-Vance super PAC but is no longer involved in any of the contests. “They help explain Trump, how he processes information, what he looks for, what he’s looking for in candidates.”
Still, Lanza said, those hires don’t guarantee Trump's favor.
While there are advantages to hiring Trump whisperers, Lanza said, “I wouldn’t hire two. I’d certainly hire one.”
AP National Political Writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.