President Donald Trump has spent the three weeks since he lost the election savaging a pair of GOP governors for not backing his claims he was robbed.
Republicans are worried it’s just the start of what’s in store from the soon-to-be-former president.
Trump’s attacks on Govs. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Mike DeWine Ohio — both of whom are up for reelection in 2022 — has led to broader concerns within the party that he will use his post-presidency to exact revenge on perceived enemies and insert himself into races in ways that are not helpful.
While the 2022 midterm elections are a ways off, the president’s broadsides are giving fuel to would-be primary challengers in both states — raising the prospect that Republicans will be forced into ugly and expensive nomination fights that could jeopardize their hold on the two governors’ mansions.
Trump’s intrusions into Georgia and Ohio provide an early test case for how he might use his stranglehold on the conservative base to control the party long after he leaves the White House. Never mind that Trump will no longer be in power: Cross him, and you will pay.
“The president’s jabs at Govs. Kemp and DeWine could invite primaries, and that’s exactly the chatter he wants to start,” said Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who oversaw Chris Christie’s successful New Jersey gubernatorial campaigns.
“The power the president holds over elected Republicans is due to his strength among GOP primary voters in every state and district right now. He may be able to make or break candidates in GOP primaries for years to come,” added DuHaime, who formerly served as a senior adviser to the Republican Governors Association.
Trump lashed out at DeWine after the governor’s appearance on CNN on Nov. 15, when the Ohio Republican called Joe Biden the president-elect and said that for “the country’s sake it’s important for a normal transition to start.”
Trump responded on Twitter, writing: “Who will be running for Governor of the Great State of Ohio? Will be hotly contested!”
The president has repeatedly gone after Kemp, imploring him to intervene to stop what Trump has baselessly claimed are irregularities in the state’s vote count. Trump complained on Twitter that “the whole process is very unfair and close to meaningless,” adding: "Where is @BrianKempGA?"
He also retweeted polling that show Kemp’s approval rating taking a hit. “Wow! Governor Kemp will hopefully see the light before it is too late. Must finally take charge!" he wrote.
Then he tagged Kemp in a tweet in which he demanded that Republicans “get tough.”
Trump allies have joined the pile-on. Fox News host Sean Hannity said Kemp is “cowering in fear,” and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz accused the governor of failing to ensure the integrity of the election.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, meanwhile, devoted part of his podcast on Thursday to blasting Kemp.
Trump’s influence in Republican primaries could extend beyond Georgia and Ohio. He has already vowed to campaign against Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a sometime Trump critic who said in June that she was “struggling” with the question of whether she supported Trump.
“Few people know where they’ll be in two years from now, but I do, in the Great State of Alaska (which I love) campaigning against Senator Lisa Murkowski,” Trump tweeted at the time.
He added: “Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you!”
Republicans view Kemp as more vulnerable to a primary challenge than DeWine, noting that the Georgian has seen an erosion in support among conservatives.
He came under fire over his decision to appoint Kelly Loeffler to Georgia’s Senate seat over a Trump favorite, Rep. Doug Collins. And after endorsing Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial contest, Trump has openly clashed with Kemp over his handling of the coronavirus. During an April news conference, the president said he was “not happy with Brian Kemp, I will tell you that.”
Trump allies have already begun to encourage Collins to challenge Kemp in 2022. When Hannity raised the idea during an interview on his radio show, Collins, who is leading Trump's recount effort in Georgia, chuckled in response.
Kemp has seen his approval rating dip to 37 percent, according to a survey released last week. Republicans worry that a damaging primary could leave him hobbled in a potential general election rematch against former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, whom he narrowly defeated in 2018.
Kemp on Friday certified the state's 16 electoral votes for Biden, though he offered an olive branch to the president's supporters, saying it was "unacceptable" that "thousands of uncounted ballots" were found in a post-election audit.
Trump, meanwhile, has long regarded DeWine as insufficiently loyal. During his 2018 race, the Ohio governor frequently skipped the president’s rallies in the state. It did not go unnoticed at the White House.
While DeWine has high approval ratings, he’s drawn opposition from Trump supporters over coronavirus restrictions he’s implemented. The 73-year-old governor was booed during a September appearance at a Trump rally.
Among the names being mentioned as a potential primary opponent is Max Miller, who’s played key roles in the Trump White House and on the reelection campaign. Miller, who’s from Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, and hails from a prominent Ohio political family, declined to comment.
Rep. Jim Jordan, another staunch Trump loyalist, has also been floated as a potential challenger to DeWine — though many Ohio Republicans think he wants to remain in Congress. Still, Jordan has drawn attention for his pointed criticism of the governor's coronavirus response.
Former Ohio Rep. Jim Renacci, who aligned himself with Trump during an unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid, said he was open to challenging the incumbent governor. He criticized DeWine for calling Biden president-elect.
“I believe the least he should have done is allow the president to work through the legal process afforded to him under the law and assure all legal votes are counted,” Renacci wrote in a text message.
Trump has shown himself to be a powerful force in GOP primaries. His endorsements of Kemp and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2018 vaulted them to statewide office. The same year, he turned his fire on then-Rep. Mark Sanford, sinking him in his GOP primary contest.
And against the wishes of party leaders, Trump endorsed Kansas Republican Kris Kobach over a sitting Republican governor. Kobach defeated the appointed incumbent in the primary, then lost to Democrat Laura Kelly in the general election.
Trump’s deep base of conservative support virtually ensures that he’ll remain a force once he leaves office. And the fact that many of his backers are convinced the election was stolen from him could intensify their loyalty.
But party strategists worry that could spell trouble in upcoming elections.
“In the short term, President Trump’s attacks on these governors serves his interest in casting doubt on the election results. But if it invites serious primary challengers, it could hurt Republicans in the long run and drain valuable resources that would be used for a general election,” said Jon Thompson, a former top RGA official.
It isn’t the only way Trump could handcuff the GOP. The president’s flirtation with a 2024 comeback bid threatens to freeze out other would-be GOP candidates who’ve begun laying the groundwork for a national campaign.
All of which has heightened GOP fears that Trump’s post-White House political activities will make it impossible for the party to turn the page.
“I’d be thinking in terms of how do you help reelect Republican governors. Donald Trump doesn’t think that way. His worldview starts and stops with his own personal interests at the exact moment he’s typing out a tweet,” said Tucker Martin, who was a top aide to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
It’s an open question how involved Trump will get in future Republican primaries. People close to the president say he’s keenly interested in down-ballot races, and they expect him to play a kingmaker role.
Former Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) was skeptical that Trump would target Kemp. But who knows, he said.
“The president,” Westmoreland said, “is pretty unpredictable.”