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'The battle for party control': Republican candidates nationwide test the value of a Trump endorsement

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Corrections & clarifications: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to Trump's endorsement in the 2017 Alabama Senate primary.

DALLAS – Donald Trump says his endorsement is the most valuable commodity in Republican politics, but some GOP candidates seem willing to test that claim.

As conservative activists gathered over the weekend in Texas, the state's outgoing Republican Party chairman, Allen West, announced he will challenge incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott in a primary next year, even though Abbott has the coveted Trump endorsement.

Beyond Texas, the value of Trump's endorsement will be tested in North Carolina, Alabama and other states with competitive Republican primaries in which the former president has picked a candidate.

Some delegates to the Conservative Political Action Conference at a high-end Dallas hotel said they respect Trump, but he won't necessarily determine their vote in elections.

"It's a factor, but I don't know if it's going to be the decisive factor," said Deb Blencowe, 63, a community college teacher from nearby Collin County who leans toward West over Abbott in next year's GOP primary.

Michael Ward, 24, a meter reader technician from Henderson County, said Trump will be very influential in elections, but that doesn't mean nonendorsed Republican candidates should give up.

"It's definitely a challenge to beat a Trump endorsement," Ward said. "But that does not mean another candidate cannot be a challenger."

Testing Trump's influence

Trump put his influence on the line by backing primary challengers to Republicans who supported impeaching him over the insurrection by his supporters Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, or otherwise opposed his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.

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The former president discussed his 2022 campaign plans in a 90-minute address Sunday to CPAC, predicting Republicans will win back Congress thanks to him.

In an address that touched on familiar themes, particularly his false claims about election fraud in 2020, Trump told adoring delegates that "our endorsement has become – and it's really not just my endorsement, it's your endorsement – has become the most powerful weapon in politics."

The 45th president remains popular with Republican base voters who show up for primaries, political analysts said. Trump easily won a 2024 presidential preference poll at this weekend's CPAC, topping Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 70%-21%.

His endorsements will affect different races in different ways, and it's not known how strong the Trump brand will be when elections roll around over the next year and a half.

"I think the Trump endorsement is helpful but not determinative," said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

West, who spoke at CPAC on Sunday and received a warm welcome, is a decided underdog in his bid to unseat Abbott. He has said that although he supports Trump, "I don't serve President Trump," whose endorsement doesn't decide anything.

"I serve God, country and Texas," West said after his CPAC speech, surrounded by supporters. "An endorsement doesn't bother me. "

Don Huffines, a former Texas state senator who is also challenging Abbott in next year's primary, spoke at CPAC on Saturday and told delegates he is "the actual Republican" in the race.

Afterward, Huffines said he supports Trump, but the former president "just made a mistake" in backing Abbott. The endorsement has "had very little impact on my campaign," Huffines said, and supporters "love Trump, but they love me, too."

The Trump factor

Trump endorsements have already roiled several Republican contests, including the governor's race in Arkansas.

After Trump backed his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the GOP primary, another potential candidate – Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin – opted out of the race and decided to run for attorney general. (Attorney General Leslie Rutledge remains in the governor's race, though Trump's support solidifies Sanders' position as front-runner.)

Former President Donald Trump announces lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in Bedminster, N.J., on July 7, 2021.
Former President Donald Trump announces lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in Bedminster, N.J., on July 7, 2021.

In North Carolina, Trump's decision to jump into a Republican Senate primary did not force out other major contenders, at least not yet.

In a speech June 5 at the state Republican convention, Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd in the GOP primary for an open Senate seat. Two other prominent candidates – Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., and former Gov. Pat McCrory – are staying in the race.

Walker told the USA TODAY Network that former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows – a former North Carolina congressman – "orchestrated" the Budd endorsement without telling Trump about Walker's strong support among state Republicans, including a win at a straw poll conducted at the convention.

Budd promoted polling data showing that Trump's endorsement has helped him, though analysts said it's too early to measure the ex-president's effect on races that are months away.

Still hoping for support from Trump and his voters, Walker said North Carolina Republicans will make up their own minds: "I think over time you're going to see us performing so strong among grassroots conservatives that I think people will take a look at this race."

Both Budd and Walker spoke at CPAC over the weekend.

Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, said, "North Carolina could be a good test case of how lockstep these Republican voters are."

The Trump factor is also in play in an Alabama Senate primary.

Trump endorsed Congressman Mo Brooks, one of his most outspoken supporters of false claims of "voter fraud" in the 2020 election. Brooks, who spoke at CPAC on Friday, faces a well-funded opponent in Katie Boyd Britt, former chief of staff for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and a favorite among more old-line Republicans.

Olsen called the Alabama race "an excellent test" in what he called "the battle for party control between Donald Trump and the old establishment."

Trump will shape races, not decide them

Republican professionals are eager to see whom, if anybody, Trump endorses in crowded Republican primaries in Ohio and Missouri. Both states are key to GOP hopes of regaining control of the U.S. Senate.

An early test of Trump's political strength comes next month in Ohio: a special election to replace Rep. Steve Stivers, a Republican who retired from Congress to join the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

The ex-president endorsed Mike Carey, a longtime coal lobbyist who has never held public office. There are 11 candidates in the Republican primary Aug. 3, including members of the state Legislature.

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In an interview with Newsmax in April, Trump said, "Everybody wants the endorsement because if they don't get the endorsement they're not going to win, for the most part they're not going to win."

Some analysts said they would be surprised if Trump knocks off all 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him on a charge of inciting the riot Jan. 6 at the Capitol where his supporters tried to stop the confirmation of electoral votes.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump, has a fundraising advantage over Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka. (Murkowski has not officially said whether she plans to run.)

Trump has also targeted state officials he said didn't help him try to overturn Biden's election. That group includes Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Democrats watch all this with glee. They said Trump's support will produce far-right candidates who will lose general elections, helping Democrats retain control of Congress.

"Nothing speaks to the chaos of the Republican Party more than the radical right’s obsession with an endorsement from Donald Trump, whose incompetence cost hundreds of thousands of American lives," said Adonna Biel, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

In some cases, Trump's endorsement won't mean much because he is backing incumbents who are heavy favorites to win reelection – including Abbott of Texas, who appeared with Trump during a visit to the Texas-Mexico border.

Some Texas Republicans said West, who has frequently tangled with Abbott and other party members, will be beaten badly by the governor. "It's going to be ugly, it's going to be bloodless, and he's going to deserve it," said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican political consultant.

Mackowiak said Trump's endorsement is a valuable asset but won't put every candidate over the top in tight races.

"He may lose some of them," Mackowiak said. "The Trump endorsement doesn't decide these races, but it will shape them."

At CPAC, delegates such as Blencowe said some conservatives don't like Abbott, and West may have a chance – so might other challengers in other races in other states.

"Things may change," Blencowe said. "You never know – Trump could change his mind."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How much does a Trump endorsement help GOP candidates?

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