Former President Donald Trump is testing his clout with Republican voters, moving to reshape the GOP from the ground up with key endorsements in emerging 2022 congressional primaries.
On Wednesday, Trump waded into a competitive Republican primary for Senate in Alabama, backing Rep. Mo Brooks over Lynda Blanchard, a close ally whom he appointed as ambassador to Slovenia. Trump is popular in ruby-red Alabama — so much so that some GOP insiders in the state predicted his endorsement had won the primary for Brooks 13 months before the vote. Whether that forecast bears out will be revealing.
Given the former president’s presumed sway in Alabama, a Blanchard upset would signal that his influence with Republican voters post-White House is waning, casting doubt on his ability to refashion a GOP long dominated by traditional conservatives into an “America First” populist party. But at this early stage of the midterm election cycle, at least, Trump remains a powerful figure in the party and is in a position to dictate terms.
“Trump still packs an electoral wallop,” said Republican pollster John Couvillon, who keeps tabs on GOP primary voters. “He maintains the strong support of Republicans and conservative independents.”
Couvillon was the campaign pollster for Rep.-elect Julia Letlow, a Louisiana Republican who won a special election to fill her state’s red 5th Congressional District after her husband, elected to the seat last November, died from COVID-19. Couvillon said voter support for Letlow jumped significantly after Trump’s endorsement. “You could substitute quite a few conservative electorates for Louisiana 5 and project how much popularity Trump might have next year,” he explained.
Blanchard, 61, and Brooks, 66, are competing for a seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, who is retiring after 36 years in the Senate, plus eight in the House.
Both are close Trump allies and made sure to emphasize that fact, above all else, upon entering the primary. Blanchard, who launched her campaign in February, reminded voters the 45th president had appointed her as the U.S. ambassador to “first lady Melania Trump’s home country.” Brooks, who announced his campaign late last month, touted his unwavering backing for Trump’s border security policies.
Blanchard is a wealthy businesswoman and well thought of in GOP circles. But Trump’s endorsement of Brooks, many Republican insiders believe, is simply too much for her to overcome.
“Words cannot appropriately define how big this is for Mo Brooks,” said Terry Lathan, the former chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party. “I have been wrong many times; when voters get involved, they can put egg on your face. But this is really a perfect storm for Congressman Brooks.”
“As long as Mo drives this home, I don’t see how there’s any other scenario than Mo winning the primary outright,” added a veteran Republican operative in Alabama.
Some Alabama Republicans are skeptical. Politics is unpredictable, and anything can happen in a year.
There also is the cautionary tale of the 2017 Alabama special election for Senate to replace Republican Jeff Sessions, who resigned to become Trump’s first attorney general. In the special GOP primary, Trump endorsed appointed Sen. Luther Strange, only to see him fall to former judge Roy Moore (Brooks finished third in that race). Then, after Trump endorsed Moore in the special general election, Moore lost in a shocker to Democrat Doug Jones.
Blanchard clearly would have preferred Trump’s backing, and her allies acknowledge that Brooks has gained an initial advantage in the primary campaign. But the Blanchard campaign remains confident she can overcome the odds and win the nomination. On Wednesday, after Brooks unveiled the Trump endorsement, Blanchard announced that she closed the first quarter with $5.2 million in her war chest, raising $300,000 in six weeks while lending her campaign another $5 million in personal money.
“We are running a marathon, not a sprint,” Blanchard said in a statement. Added one of her supporters: “It’s not the end of the race. Mo is a flawed vessel.”
Before Trump went public with his Brooks endorsement, sources close to Blanchard say the 45th president telephoned to give her a heads-up. Trump told her he would be happy to support her for anything else but that, in this instance, he had to throw his support to the congressman. Some Republicans speculate that the endorsement was a favor to Stephen Miller, a former official in the Trump White House who is backing Brooks.
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