Trump's role in GOP Senate primaries underscores his strength

Former President Trump’s outsized influence is already being felt in GOP Senate primaries, underscoring his grip on the party even as he faces numerous primary challengers in the 2024 White House race.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who’s running to replace Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), endorsed Trump’s presidential bid earlier this week. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), who’s running to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin (D), did the same — prompting his GOP primary rival Alex Mooney to point out that he had come out in support of Trump last year.

And prior to officially jumping into Montana’s contested Senate race last month, former Navy SEAL and businessman Tim Sheehy said he supports Trump “100 percent.” 

The public show of support for the former president is just the latest example of the political sway he continues to hold over Republicans, and could serve as a headache for party leaders who want the GOP to move on from him.

“Donald Trump continues to be the biggest elephant in the Republican tent,” said Mark Weaver, an Ohio-based Republican strategist. “Republican voters still want to see him as our party’s leader.” 

One Republican strategist described the strategy of endorsing Trump as “the path of least resistance.”

“In order to take back the Senate, you’ve got to win a couple of these key seats, and the only way to win back these key seats is to make it through the primary unscathed,” the strategist said. 

Some strategists see the endorsements as a sign of how the presidential primary is likely to shake out.

“This is a greater sign than ever before that Trump is most likely going to win the Republican nomination despite the noise in the media,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. 

“Endorsing Trump at this stage is one of the safest things a candidate could do,” he added. “This is more about the candidates trying to cozy up to him.” 

The eagerness from some Senate Republican hopefuls to embrace the former president comes after many of Trump’s endorsed candidates performed poorly in their general elections last cycle. 

“Former President Trump’s endorsement continues to be a boon in a primary and a bane in a general election,” Weaver said. 

The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (NRSC) is also taking a different approach in the 2024 cycle by playing a more hands-on role in some primaries. Like Trump, the committee’s Chairman Steve Daines (R-Mont.) has thrown his support behind Justice in West Virginia’s Republican Senate primary. 

While there has been tension and disagreement between Trump and Senate leadership, particularly on Trump’s unfounded claims that he won the 2020 presidential election, Daines has said he is working with the former president ahead of 2024. 

“We chat frequently. And he’s very thoughtful right now looking at these races. He understands it’s important we have candidates that can win,” Daines told CBS News in an interview earlier this month. “If you notice, there hasn’t been a wave of endorsements coming out so far, because I think we’re having these thoughtful conversations and getting on the same page.”

Trump has endorsed in less competitive GOP Senate primaries, like in Indiana, where he threw his support behind Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) a day after former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) announced that he would not run for the seat and after the NRSC endorsed Banks. 

And earlier this month, CNN reported that Trump told Mooney in West Virginia and potential Senate candidate Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) that he would not endorse them. Daines has endorsed Sheehy in Montana. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are seeking to use Trump’s endorsement against him in the general election, harkening back to Republican losses in 2022. 

 “Trump is looming over Senate Republicans’ primaries and making the GOP’s nasty infighting even worse,” said Tommy Garcia, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “As Republican candidates fight for Trump’s favor, they’re showing the voters who will decide the general election in their states why they should be rejected in 2024.” 

And not every Republican running for Senate is immediately tying themselves to the former president. In Nevada, Sam Brown, who has been endorsed by Daines, has yet to endorse Trump despite volunteering for his campaign in 2020. His primary opponent Jim Marchant, on the other hand, has endorsed Trump. Marchant has also said Brown is the GOP establishment’s choice, pointing to his endorsement from the NRSC. 

“Mitch McConnell & the establishment needed a candidate & found him in Sam Brown,” Marchant said in a tweet earlier this month. “We see Reagan’s ‘bold-colored differences’ between DC & the real America.” 

Weaver noted that while more anti-establishment candidates may try to use this attack line, there’s still much to be gained from an endorsement from the Senate GOP campaign arm. 

“Being endorsed by the Washington establishment can bring valuable contributions from interest groups around the country, but it can also bring some criticism for being too close to the Beltway,” he said. 

Others caution that endorsements should not be seen as integral to the success of a campaign. 

“Ultimately these candidates have got to focus on their message and they’ve got to focus on having the resources to disseminate their message,” the GOP strategist said. “They need to be able to actually run a functional campaign and no endorsement is going to matter if those things aren’t done,” the strategist added. 

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