Donald Trump lost Nevada in 2020. He got beaten in Pennsylvania and Arizona, too. But in those swing states and more, the former president’s lingering hold on the GOP has the candidates running for governor crafting their campaigns in his image.
He came up regularly throughout a raucous GOP primary debate in Nevada last week, as candidates laid out Trump-like policy platforms, including frequent warnings about voter fraud. Pennsylvania Republicans are racing to hire staff who may have Trump’s ear and to roll out the support of those who have a connection to him.
And Trump’s potential endorsement is looming over primaries — starting with Arizona, where he will appear on stage with his anointed gubernatorial candidate during his first rally of the midterm year this weekend.
National politics seeped into governor’s races years before Trump came onto the political scene — and gubernatorial campaigns still have maintained a degree of unique detachment. But Trump’s influence over the GOP has rapidly pushed his signature policies and rhetoric into 2022 governor’s races — especially his false, conspiratorial claims that “election integrity” is under threat or even that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Republican candidates are parroting those claims while running for offices that will have significant influence over election procedures in their states, potentially including certification of future elections.
“I tell [Trump], the only way we can guarantee that, in 2024, we have a Republican president, is we need a leader here in the state of Nevada that understands our election laws and [is] willing to change them,” Dean Heller, a former Republican senator now running for Nevada governor, said during the recent debate. He called the state’s current laws “corrupt” and said that he will make the state elections “fair.”
“Republicans win when the process is fair,” said Heller, who occasionally clashed with Trump during the president’s first year but later pulled Trump close during his losing 2018 campaign. “I want a Republican president in 2024. It is going to take a Republican governor to make the necessary changes in order to make that happen.”
In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano — who rose to prominence by parroting Trump’s lies about the election and pushing for an election “audit” in his home state — trotted out two Trump associates during his campaign launch last weekend: former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis. Both have been among the most vocal proponents of conspiracies about the 2020 election.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano speaks to supporters of President Donald Trump as they demonstrate outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol. | Julio Cortez/AP Photo
A slate of operatives with connections to Trump are finding work in the state. State Senate President Jake Corman announced that his team included Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s final 2016 campaign manager, while former Rep. Lou Barletta hired the firm of Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, who led Trump’s campaign into Election Day 2020. Bill McSwain, who was a U.S. attorney during the Trump administration, hired former Trump campaign aide James Fitzpatrick to run his campaign.
Pennsylvania — where the primary field is so large that forum organizers had to cram two parallel rows of lecterns onstage at an event last week — typifies the expansive roster of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls running in swing states including Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada. Democrats control the governor’s mansion in all those states except for Arizona.
The exception to the crowded-primary rule has been Wisconsin, where former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is the only credible GOP challenger to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers so far. But even there, Trump tried to draft former Rep. Sean Duffy before he passed on a campaign last week, and former Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson is actively considering jumping into the race.
Candidates across the map are vying for Trump’s endorsement. So far, Trump has largely sat out open GOP gubernatorial primaries in the most competitive 2022 states — only weighing in in Arizona to back former TV anchor Kari Lake.
He is, however, giving Lake some early political muscle. Trump’s political committee announced on Tuesday that Lake would join the former president on stage at his rally in the state on Saturday — alongside prominent election conspiracy theorists Mike Lindell and state Rep. Mark Finchem, who Trump has backed for state secretary of state. It is Trump’s first rally of 2022.
But even for candidates who don’t score Trump’s endorsement, winning over the former president’s supporters will still be key in a Republican primary.
“Not only do you not run away from that, you embrace that without hesitance,” said Arizona-based Republican operative Barrett Marson, who is working for an outside organization supporting former Rep. Matt Salmon’s gubernatorial bid in the state.
Former Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who has been critical of Trump since leaving office three years ago, said there “will be a concerted attempt by some candidates to consolidate Trump-first supporters, so in that regard there’s a Trump lane.” But Costello warned that that many candidates vying for the same group of voters could fracture the vote in a primary, and that the field is unsettled in his state.
“It’s important to note not all Trump-first voters are reliable off-year primary voters,” he added.
It’s unclear whether Trump will endorse in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary. He previously backed Army veteran Sean Parnell in the state’s open Senate race, only to see Parnell suspend his campaign after he lost custody of his children following his ex-wife’s allegations of abuse. He is now staying out of that race for the time being, though that could change.
But Pennsylvania Republicans expect a Trump endorsement, if it comes, to play a big role in deciding the primary for governor, said former Trump administration official Mick McKeown, a Pennsylvania native.
“He’s still the biggest name in politics, whatever you think about him. And for Republican primary voters, I think he can still resonate with a significant portion of the base,” he said. “In a crowded primary like this, an endorsement from President Trump, while weighty, would carry even more weight.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have cleared a path to replace the term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro being functionally unopposed for the nomination.
Democrats across the battleground states have sought to further highlight the candidates’ ties to Trump. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party routinely refers to the GOP contest as the “super MAGA” primary. And Nevada Democrats warned on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that the Republican field continues “to embrace those dangerous lies and instill doubt about the integrity of Nevada’s elections.”
Republicans also warn that battleground candidates will need to do more than link themselves to Trump if they want to win in November.
Bill McCoshen, a well-connected Republican lobbyist in Wisconsin who briefly considered his own gubernatorial run, highlighted Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor-elect in Virginia who upset former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe late last year to flip the state, as having the “perfect template” for how to run in the general election in a battleground state.
“Take his endorsement, keep him at bay unless you absolutely have to have him for a rally, and run your own race,” McCoshen said.
And national Republicans argue that candidates tying themselves to Trump won’t come back to hurt them in what is shaping up to be a strong Republican year.
“The thing to keep in mind is right now the messaging and the issues that matter to voters are still on our side,” said Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association. “At the end of the day, we still think that regardless of who comes out of some of the most competitive races, we’re still going to have an effective message for them to carry into the general, especially when you’re looking at the states with incumbent Democratic governors.”
Trump’s influence isn’t just confined to open gubernatorial primaries in swing states. He has also increasingly sought to bring incumbent Republican governors to heel. Most consequentially, he endorsed against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, backing former Sen. David Perdue’s primary challenge.
Trump has been at war with Kemp, an otherwise down-the-line conservative politician, for not supporting his efforts to overturn Trump’s loss in the state. Even before endorsing Perdue, Georgia was expected to be one of the most expensive gubernatorial races this year, with Democrats rallying behind Stacey Abrams. But the endorsement there rips open still-healing wounds among the party in the state and could drain the bank account of whomever is ultimately the nominee.
But even with Trump playing an increasingly prominent role in gubernatorial races, some Republican strategists believe that it won’t last through the general election in November. There is still some delineation between the almost uniformly nationalized congressional races and gubernatorial contests, they say.
“In most cases, governor’s races are less Washington, D.C.-focused and thus less about the candidates’ Trump orientation,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant advising gubernatorial candidate Charlie Gerow in Pennsylvania. “Because governors have to, as the old saying goes, make the trains run on time.”