Pro-Trump candidates are racing to launch gubernatorial campaigns across the country, posing a test for the former president’s political brand in a number of key states going into 2022.
Over the July 4 holiday weekend, former GOP Chairman Allen West became the second primary challenger against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), while Republican Geoff Diehl announced he was running for governor in Massachusetts, potentially sparking a challenge against Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who has yet to announce whether he is running for another term.
Meanwhile, in Maine, former Gov. Paul LePage (R) formally announced his campaign for a third term as governor, while Republican Dan Cox jumped into the gubernatorial race in Maryland.
These candidates join a growing list of Republicans with their sights set on the governors’ mansions in Ohio and Georgia.
“You’re going to see situations where people are trying to out-Trump each other,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “Ultimately, these candidates are making a bet, and the bet is Trump is powerful enough for them to be a vehicle to move into the governor’s mansion.”
But operatives note that the incumbents and candidates running face very different challenges in uniquely different states.
“These are statewide races, and they are specifically for state governments, so the issues are just a little different,” said one Republican operative.
But others point out that combative primaries can leave nominees bruised heading into a general election or even future races.
“A not-strong-enough showing in the state of Texas can also hamper your standing with donors in the national press when it comes to actually announcing a presidential campaign,” said one Republican consultant who has done work in Texas.
Abbott, a potential 2024 presidential contender, faces three primary challengers: West, former Texas state Sen. Don Huffines (R) and conservative political commentator Chad Prather.
A University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll released last month shows 44 percent of Texas voters saying they approve of Abbott’s job as governor, while 44 percent say they disapprove. But among Republicans, he enjoys a 77 percent approval rating.
The challengers are working to hit Abbott from the right, citing a number of hot-button conservative issues, notably border security. If elected, Huffines has promised to close all border crossings on the Rio Grande River as a means of pressuring Mexico to deal with the issue of undocumented migrants coming to the U.S.
“When it comes to primary rhetoric, it’s actually pretty good rhetoric, and he knows that Abbott won’t be able to go there or go that far,” the GOP consultant said.
But Trump, who has been vocal about the border since his 2016 presidential campaign, endorsed Abbott early last month. On top of that, the two appeared together late last month at the southern border, where they hit the Biden administration’s handling of the flow of undocumented migrants into the U.S.
“He didn’t leave any wiggle room for West or anyone else to say that Trump is not with the governor,” said the GOP operative.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is facing a challenge from former Rep. Jim Renacci (R). Renacci has aligned himself closely with the former president and even enlisted Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale as an adviser.
Ohio went for Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and the former president traveled to the state last month to hold his first rally since leaving office. DeWine notably drew the ire of Trump in November after he acknowledged Joe Biden as the president-elect.
“Who will be running for Governor of the Great State of Ohio?” Trump tweeted, appearing to hint at a primary challenger.
DeWine also faced some pushback from conservatives during the height of the pandemic for the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
Renacci’s allies have pointed to polls showing the former congressman leading the governor, while DeWine said last month he’s feeling “very, very good” about his reelection chances.
DeWine’s supporters also point to Renacci’s 2018 loss to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), which they say helped to put a major dent in his credibility with Buckeye State Republicans.
“There is some rumblings from the base,” said one Republican Ohio operative. “If it was somebody that was a more credible challenger, like, say, [Rep.] Warren Davidson [R-Ohio], I think that would be more of a cause for concern.”
DeWine’s allies also argue that Trump is focusing most of his ire in Ohio at Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R), who voted to impeach the former president earlier this year.
In Massachusetts, Diehl has appeared to distance himself from the former president. Diehl, who co-chaired Trump’s campaign in Massachusetts in 2016, told Politico that he’d rather leave national politics out of the race.
“I did want people to support the president back in 2016 because he was speaking to me about issues that I was trying to talk about here on Beacon Hill,” Diehl told Politico Massachusetts.
“At the time, I felt it was important to support him,” he added.
There are questions about the future direction of the Massachusetts Republican Party, as some state Republicans have criticized the governor for being too liberal.
“Maybe we’re better off without the governorship and we’re able to grow the party from the ground up,” Republican State Committeeman Steve Aylward said at a state committee meeting last month, according to NBC10 Boston.
It’s unclear whether Trump will get involved in the race or if Baker will even seek reelection. Regardless, polls show Baker in good standing with Massachusetts voters. A Suffolk University poll from May shows Baker with a 67 percent approval rating from voters in the state, while 71 percent and 58 percent of voters say they approve of his handling of the pandemic and vaccine distribution, respectively.
Up north in Maine, LePage, who has called himself “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” is launching his campaign against Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.
Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas praised LePage as a proven governor in an interview with WMTW on Wednesday, a sign of the state’s GOP establishment coalescing around him. LePage is the only major Republican who has jumped into the race.
“The way LePage governed was kind of Trump in style before there was a Trump, with a lot of what I would politely say are brash statements and getting into similar fights that Trump would, but he won,” Heye said, “There I don’t think it’s so much of a play for Trump’s base per se than LePage being LePage.”
Republicans say they are aware that Maryland will be an uphill battle for them as Gov. Larry Hogan, a noted critic of Trump within the GOP, leaves office.
Cox, a pro-Trump firebrand, gained attention for speaking out against the pandemic shutdowns and organized a bus to bring protesters to Washington on Jan. 6 but later said the group was not in the Capitol and did not take part in any violence.
Cox joins Hogan Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz in the Republican primary field.
“It’s an uphill climb for any Republican, and if you’re going down the Trump lane, your path gets very limited,” Heye said. “If Maryland Republicans want to have a shot at winning, they nominate Kelly Schulz or they lose.”
Republicans say the situation that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is facing is “a category of its own.”
Kemp has now long faced the ire of Trump for refusing to overturn Trump’s electoral loss in Georgia. Pro-Trump Republican Vernon Jones launched a challenge against Kemp in April and has claimed the presidential results in Georgia were “fixed.”
Jones’s campaign said he raised $650,000 in his first 10 weeks as a candidate. And while Trump has yet to endorse him, Jones has received shoutouts from notable Trump allies, including Donald Trump Jr.
Kemp’s backers warn that the GOP base needs to be united ahead of 2022, when Georgia will see highly contested races for the Senate and governor’s mansion. His supporters also say that Kemp’s election legislation that put new restrictions on voting in the state has helped unite the base.
“It’s kind of shored up the base for Kemp in a way that they see him as fighting for the state,” said the GOP operative.
Via The Hill