Past criticism of Trump becomes potent weapon in GOP primaries

As Republican candidates jockey for position in contests for open U.S. Senate seats, support from former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE has become the most coveted prize to be won, an instant differentiator that can help them stand out from a crowded field. 

By the same token, opposition researchers are discovering the most potent weapon against potential rivals: past comments critical of Trump, or acknowledgement that Trump lost to President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE in the 2020 election. 

In key races across the country, those practitioners of the political dark arts are combing through radio and television interviews, Twitter feeds and public statements looking for any signs of apostasy among Republican contenders running for office. And while there are months to go before voters cast ballots, the earliest salvos in some key races have come against candidates who dared to criticize or question the ousted president. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Half a dozen Republican operatives involved in top Senate races this year spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal considerations of dumping opposition research and the new litmus test that Trump represents for the voters they are trying to win over. 

“This is oppo in 2022,” said one strategist involved in several top races this year. “Primaries are all about distinguishing your opponents. Everyone’s pro-Trump, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment. Or at least they pretend to be.”

The value of an opponent’s errant remark was apparent in North Carolina, where Trump offered a surprise endorsement to Rep. Ted BuddTheodore (Ted) Paul BuddTrump takes two punches from GOP Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up Pro-impeachment Republicans outpace GOP rivals in second-quarter fundraising MORE (R) while appearing at a state Republican Party fundraiser.  

Budd is vying against former Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and former Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerFirst hearing set for lawsuit over Florida's new anti-riot bill NRA appealing Florida ban on gun sales to people under 21 Trump's biggest political obstacle is Trump MORE (R) for the right to replace retiring Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R) next year. Trump wasn’t expected to announce an endorsement, but Budd allies worked quietly behind the scenes to make the former president aware of criticisms McCrory had leveled on his radio show and of Walker’s comments critical of Lara TrumpLara TrumpPast criticism of Trump becomes potent weapon in GOP primaries Trump endorsement shakes up GOP Senate primary in NC Lara Trump calls on Americans at border to 'arm up and get guns and be ready' MORE, who used the appearance to say she would not run for Burr’s seat. 

“Allegiance to Trump is the litmus test for Republican primary voters today. And a candidate who isn’t is no different than a pro-choice, anti-NRA Republican trying to win a GOP primary,” said one Republican strategist involved in the race, who asked for anonymity to be candid. “Unwavering support for President Trump has become one of the bedrocks of the Republican primary electorate.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Republicans need to pick up just one extra seat to reclaim control of the Senate. Trump won four of the five states where Republican senators are retiring, and Republicans also hope to compete for seats held by Sens. Mark KellyMark KellyHarris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Poll: Two-thirds of AZ Democratic voters back primary challenge to Sinema over filibuster MORE (D-Ariz.), Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockHarris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries ObamaCare 2.0 is a big funding deal Kaseya ransomware attack highlights cyber vulnerabilities of small businesses MORE (D-Ga.), Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Officers recount the horror of Jan. 6 Trump says he'd like to see Chris Sununu challenge Hassan Poll: Potential Sununu-Hassan matchup in N.H. a dead heat  MORE (D-N.H.), Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoBiden backs effort to include immigration in budget package Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Western US airports face jet fuel shortage MORE (D-Nev.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform For true American prosperity, make the child tax credit permanent MORE (D-Colo.) — all in states Biden won last year. 

But in most states, Republican primaries have become crowded affairs in which each contender is vying for the substantial portion of the party’s base that sees Trump as a lodestar. 

The reality for a party Trump took over by hostile means is that most candidates have said something to raise his ire, either during the 2016 primary election or during his presidency. 

“Every Republican has been tarred at one point or another. There are very few who were day one [supporters]. There’s a lot of people who like to pretend we were,” said a senior adviser to one Republican Senate candidate. “It’s like pointing out a bad ex-girlfriend. We’re all married now, so it’s an uncomfortable conversation.” 

In Pennsylvania, real estate developer Jeff Bartos and 2020 congressional candidate Sean Parnell, the two most prominent Republicans seeking to replace retiring Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.), are already at each other’s throats. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The Bartos campaign shopped screenshots of Parnell’s old tweets, sent during the 2016 election, in which Parnell called on Trump to release his tax returns. Sources close to Parnell point to recent comments Bartos made urging an end to Trump’s baseless claims about fraud in the 2020 presidential election. 

In Ohio, a super PAC backing former state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) has run advertisements critical of author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance for deleting tweets critical of Trump. Mandel, who backed Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE (R-Fla.) in the 2016 presidential contest, deleted thousands of his own tweets and Facebook posts in 2019.  

Conservative activists have rallied against Jane Timken, the former chairwoman of the Ohio Republican Party, for her own alleged failure to toe the Trump line. Timken initially defended Rep. Anthony GonzalezAnthony GonzalezSix takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Pro-impeachment Republicans outpace GOP rivals in second-quarter fundraising Governors' races see flood of pro-Trump candidates MORE (R), one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January, before reversing herself and calling on Gonzalez to resign. 

Plumbing the depths of social media posts and television interviews to come up with comments that can be dubbed anti-Trump is half of a two-part strategy, Republican strategists said. On one hand, candidates can use those comments to diminish a rival in the eyes of voters. On the other, they can use them to boost their own chances at winning Trump’s endorsement — a lobbying goal that has become a cottage industry in itself. 

“Everyone wants to kiss his ass and pretend that they were blindly loyal since the day he arrived on the scene,” the GOP strategist said. “This is just the next evolution of the age-old fight in Republican primaries.” 

Several people in Trump’s political orbit have acted as emissaries, ushering candidates to Trump’s retreats at Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, N.J., in a bid to win his support. The role itself has become as important as a campaign’s pollster or ad maker. 

“Everybody hires somebody to go get the Trump endorsement,” said another Republican involved in the North Carolina contest. “There’s a huge segment of people who are going to vote and that’s all they care about.”