Donald Trump's favorite in the Alabama Senate race is treading water. His pick in Pennsylvania just bowed out of the GOP primary after losing custody of his children. In Alaska and North Carolina, two other Trump-endorsed Senate candidates are behind in primary election polls.
Trump may still have an iron grip on the Republican Party, but the limits of his powers are being exposed in 2022 Senate primaries. A number of his preferred Senate candidates are discovering that the former president's endorsement is no guarantee of success in a crowded primary, leaving Trump to decide just how much political capital to further expend on their behalf.
"I think that Trump voters are ready, willing and able to take his word on a particular candidate they don't know much about," said Greg Keller, a Republican political strategist who maintains that a Trump endorsement is "highly effective." "But if and when he has made political mistakes along those lines, it's been on behalf of the wrong candidate or not at the right time."
Trump has endorsed in 15 Senate contests to date. While roughly half are for incumbents who are expected to cruise to the GOP nomination, he's also waded into other nomination fights where his imprimatur was once thought to be determinative. So far, it hasn't worked out that way.
In Alabama, where Trump remains extremely popular, Rep. Mo Brooks has struggled despite Trump's endorsement. Brooks, a veteran congressman who lost in a 2017 Senate primary bid, has raised less than half of the $3.7 million his primary opponent Katie Britt has received. Britt has also earned the endorsement of the state's largest farm organization, the Alabama Farmers Federation - a group that represents one of Trump's key constituencies.
Polls this month show Britt, a former chief of staff to retiring GOP Sen. Richard Shelby and a first-time candidate, neck-and-neck with Brooks.
Trump in recent months has expressed disappointment over Brooks' performance in the race, concerns echoed by others in his circle, according to a source familiar with the conversations.
At a briefing with reporters this fall, Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it remains to be seen how crucial the Trump endorsement will be for candidates in 2022 primaries. Scott said earlier this year that he asked Trump to stay out of primary races beyond supporting incumbents, but was unsure if the former president would heed the suggestion.
Trump ignored that request in Alaska, where he has made a priority of ousting Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict him in his second impeachment trial - and the only one up for reelection in 2022.
Despite Trump's endorsement of Kelly Tshibaka, the former commissioner of the state's Department of Administration, Murkowski has jumped to a 20-point lead in the race and has more than 10 times the amount of cash on hand.
In North Carolina, 52 percent of Republicans last month said the former president's preference would make no difference in who they support, according to a Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted for Pat McCrory, the former governor whose opponent, Rep. Ted Budd, has the Trump endorsement.
Budd has been outraised by McCrory, who lost his reelection bid in 2016, and trails him in recent polls - McCrory's internal polling shows him with a 15-point lead, while data from a pro-Budd super PAC has McCrory ahead by just three points.
Mark Walker, a conservative former congressman who is also seeking the GOP Senate nomination, has criticized Budd for his failure to command a lead after receiving both Trump's backing and major funding from the Club for Growth's super PAC, which plans to spend $10 million on Budd.
"They've made a commitment to already spend $3 million on TV because the Trump endorsement for Mr. Budd did not push the needle like it has in some other states," Walker said during a radio interview with WBT in Charlotte in September. "At some point, people have to ask why."
Budd's campaign says their fundraising rapidly accelerated after the Trump endorsement in June, not just from small-dollar contributions but from donors who were previously uninterested in their campaign. Budd learned of the endorsement just minutes before Trump announced it onstage at the North Carolina Republican Party's annual convention this summer, raising questions in state political circles about why Trump decided to support Budd so early in the race and while his name recognition remained low.
Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd's campaign, said the Trump endorsement has been key to Budd's ability to catch up with McCrory. They expected it would take from Budd's May Senate campaign launch until at least March 2022 to close the fundraising and name ID gap between Budd and McCrory. Now, the campaign is nearly there, campaign officials say.
"What we had planned to do in 10 months we got done in six months, thanks to Donald Trump's endorsement," Felts said.
The downside, however, is that Budd's backing from the polarizing former president risks turning off some moderates, a voting demographic Republicans in North Carolina and other competitive states need to win in November.
Trump has yet to endorse in Arizona, another swing state that is pivotal to the battle to capture the Senate majority. But he appeared at a fundraiser for candidate Blake Masters at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month - one day after Masters released a video declaring that "Trump won in 2020," a statement made in an apparent attempt to secure Trump's backing.
In recent polls, Masters trails well behind state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whom Trump continues to publicly taunt for not doing enough to overturn Biden's win in Arizona.
The first primaries of the year are still three months away - and Arizona's is nine months away - so there's time for Trump's Senate endorsees to build enough momentum to overtake their opponents. At least one of them, retired football star Herschel Walker in Georgia, already has a wide lead and a considerable fundraising advantage in the GOP primary.
But the apparent lack of extensive vetting of some of the endorsed candidates could get in the way - in either the primary or the general. Walker has faced allegations of domestic violence; Sean Parnell, Trump's pick in Pennsylvania, was also accused of abuse by his estranged wife before suspending his campaign on Monday after a judge ruled he would lose legal custody of his children.
Trump endorsed Parnell, who lost a 2020 bid for Congress, at the urging of his son, Donald Trump Jr., and without awareness of the domestic violence allegations made against him, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.
"If he spent a little more time and resources vetting and researching where he can have an impact and a little bit less time shit-posting, he could actually help his own legacy and move the ball forward," said one Republican strategist.
Prior to Parnell's departure from the race, Trump's endorsement failed to scare off many potential GOP candidates. One of them, Jeff Bartos, made the protective orders taken out by Parnell's wife a news story by publicly discussing them immediately after Trump announced his pick.
Parnell's other opponent, Carla Sands, responded to the Trump endorsement by using $1 million of her money on an ad buy highlighting her work as a Trump administration economic adviser and ambassador to Denmark.
A GOP operative familiar with the dynamics in Pennsylvania noted that while Parnell's child custody situation was unique, it proved that a Trump endorsement still doesn't translate to "complete victory" for a flawed candidate - and other candidates believed it was worthwhile to remain in the race, despite Trump's involvement.
"You've got to just fight the fight for the candidate you want to win," the operative said. "It's not like when Trump endorsed Sean Parnell we all packed up our bags and went home."