Primary elections for Republican congressional candidates in the United States on Tuesday are posing a strong test of former President Donald Trump’s continuing political influence.
Trump’s choices for two US Senate seats are facing the judgment of voters in preliminary contests in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. A handful of candidates backed by Trump for other offices are poised for wins in Kentucky, Oregon, and Idaho.
Winners of Tuesday’s primaries will go on to campaign against Democratic candidates in the November midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress, as well as governorships in many states.
Trump has endorsed more than 150 candidates in Republican primary contests as he tries to assume the role of kingmaker. Last week, Trump’s support helped author JD Vance win the Ohio Senate primary, but a favoured candidate in Nebraska lost.
In Pennsylvania, celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz has divided conservative voters who are typically in lockstep with Trump. Some are suspicious of Oz’s ideological leanings.
Oz gained fame as a frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and has been attacked in television ads by Republican rival, former hedge fund executive David McCormick.
A third Republican candidate, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette has surged in the final stretch of the campaign with a message opposing abortion in all circumstances.
Barnette’s position comes as the US Supreme Court appears ready to reverse a 1973 ruling that legalised abortion nationwide.
Trump held rallies with Oz, including a virtual campaign event for Oz on Monday.
“I think he’s tough. He’s very smart. He’ll be helpful,” Trump said on a Philadelphia radio show. “And I also think he’s the one that’s gonna win the election. You know that’s not an easy election to win.”
In North Carolina, congressman Ted Budd – also backed by Trump – is expected to beat a field of 14 Republican rivals for the party’s nomination to run for Senate.
Among the rivals that Budd appears to have bested is former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.
“Trump is the most important factor,” David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College in North Carolina told The Associated Press. “Trump’s endorsement turned the tide for him.”
The former president’s support may help congressman Madison Cawthorn’s race to keep his seat despite blunders in Washington, DC, and a strong challenge by a political novice, Bo Hines.
Frustrations with Biden
For some Democrats, primary contests on Tuesday are a referendum on President Joe Biden’s leadership of the Democratic Party.
In Pennsylvania, congressman Conor Lamb – a moderate Democrat like Biden – is trailing progressive politician John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor who has dominated the Senate race.
A hulking, 6-foot-8 (two metres) man with visible tattoos, Fetterman has championed progressive causes including universal healthcare – which Biden has resisted – and appealed to many Democrats with an outsider image
Lamb said Tuesday he had detected “frustration” among Democratic primary voters, a feeling he said he shared, that Democrats in Congress had not accomplished much of what they had campaigned to enact in 2020.
In the closing days of the campaign, the 52-year-old Fetterman suffered a mild stroke and remains hospitalised, but has said he is expected to make a full recovery.
In Oregon, Biden used the power of incumbency to back Democratic congressman Kurt Schrader against progressive challenger, Jamie McLeod-Skinner.
Wider Trump influence
In Idaho, Trump-endorsed Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin who is attempting to unseat Republican Governor Brad Little.
McGeachin had issued executive orders banning mask mandates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when Little was travelling out of state. In television advertisements, she has touted the Christian Bible and gun rights.
In Kentucky, the former president has praised as a “first-rate Defender of the Constitution” Republican congressman Thomas Massie just two years after disparaging Massie when Trump was president over COVID-19 relief funding.