It’s Primary Day in Key States, and Trump Is Definitely on the Ticket
Primaries are happening today in important races in Pennsylvania that could decide the future make-up of the evenly divided Senate as well as which party controls the governorship when it comes time to certify election results in 2024. And there are also closely watched races in North Carolina where GOP extremists endorsed by Trump are facing off against more “establishment” Republicans. After tonight, we will have a clearer understanding of Trump’s apparent continued hold on the party, which could present a determinative factor in many races.
The Pennsylvania Senate Race
The stakes could scarcely be higher in the topsy-turvy race to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). Three Republicans are vying for the chance to challenge the likely Democratic front-runner, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman, whose own double-digit lead over his competitors received a jolt when he suffered a mild stroke over the weekend (he is expected to make a full recovery). A pick-up by the Democrats in Pennsylvania would make the math to a Senate majority a lot harder for the Republicans, who would then have to unseat not one but two Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada or New Hampshire, all states won narrowly by Biden in 2020.
Until recently, the establishment GOP candidate, hedge fund CEO David McCormick, and TV personality and physician Mehmet “Doctor” Oz, were seen as neck-and-neck in the race despite Trump’s endorsement of the latter, which many had advised him against. But Oz’s prior support of gun control and abortion rights has many in the MAGA world unhappy with his candidacy, as they rightfully observe that his flip-flops on these issues today show he will say anything to get elected.
This has provided an opening to a far-right candidate, Kathy Barnette, whose firebrand, MAGA extremist positions and regular attacks on LGBTQ+ and Muslim Americans have led many arch-conservative groups to back her. The polls now show she is surging among undecided Republican voters, with 45 percent of that critical group now saying they will vote for her. That means the race could go anyone’s way and is largely dependent on turnout from the base, despite McCormick and Oz having spent huge sums of their own money to win the primary. GOP insiders fret that Barnette is too extreme to defeat the popular and affable Fetterman in a two-way race, while Democrats gear up to portray whoever wins the primary as completely out of touch with average voters.
The Pennsylvania Governor’s Race
Another test of Trump’s power will be the Pennsylvania governor’s race, where unchallenged Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro will face one of several candidates running on the GOP side. A crowded field there means that far-right extremist state Senator Doug Mastriano, who is endorsed by Trump, could well emerge as the top vote-getter.
As with Kathy Barnett in the Pennsylvania senate race, state GOP leaders are concerned that the party’s failure to coalesce around a single candidate to challenge Mastriano will lead to a loss in the general election in November due to Mastriano’s perceived unelectability. Mastriano is a full-throated supporter of the Big Lie about the “stolen” election. He also attended the January 6 rally personally and helped bus participants to it, and he was heavily involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 results at the state level in Pennsylvania. His activity even led to a subpoena from the January 6 Committee (which he apparently has ignored while claiming there are “no legal issues” around it).
If Mastriano emerges victorious tonight, Trump will claim another win for his set of endorsements. But that also could set the GOP up to lose their one good shot at retaking the Pennsylvania governorship—which will be key to maintaining election integrity in 2024.
North Carolina Senate and Congress
The seat left vacant by retiring Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is considered an easier hold for the GOP than Pennsylvania, especially in a year believed to favor GOP turnout. Still, Trump’s presence is keenly felt in an 11-way primary for the seat, with his endorsed candidate Ted Budd narrowly leading the top three candidates, which also comprise former Governor Pat McCrory (the proponent of the infamous “bathroom bill” targeting trans people) and Congressman Mark Walker (R-NC). Like other candidates favored by Trump, Budd was also involved with conspiracy theories around the 2020 election. In text messages after the election, Budd falsely suggested to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that Dominion Voting Systems might have had a connection to the liberal billionaire George Soros. Budd is also endorsed by the anti-tax group “Club for Growth” which oft-times has been at odds with Trump-backed candidates. A win by Budd in North Carolina might result from rare agreement between Trump and that group on a candidate, but it would be a blow to the traditional wing of the GOP represented by McCrory and Walker.
Far-right Congressmember Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) is also facing a primary and has seen his share of troubles lately, including campaign finance violations, rumors he ignited over alleged cocaine-fueled GOP orgies, and leaked videos showing him in sexualized behavior with one of his male aides, which underscored the hypocrisy of his attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. He is running for reelection in a busy primary, where an establishment-backed candidate is hoping to unseat him.
Cawthorn got a lift over the weekend when former President Trump offered his endorsement. “When Madison was first elected to Congress, he did a great job,” Trump posted on “Truth Social,” the struggling social media platform he founded last year. “Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again…let’s give Madison a second chance!” Trump may be hoping that despite his myriad issues, Cawthorn will continue to be a problem for the current Congressional GOP leadership over which Trump must continue to assert control.
Trump likely will claim victory in at least two or three of these races today, giving him considerable continued leverage and power within the party. That said, the candidates who wind up at the top of the ticket could cost the GOP some key races in November, leaving GOP insiders doubly frustrated that they cannot seem to ride this particular tiger to electoral wins.