The new MAGA candidates
But those early congressional primaries and rumblings of the 2024 presidential campaign are also elevating a corps of younger, radical candidates who are laying claim to the MAGA creed themselves, even without Trump’s endorsement, and are raising the question whether the movement that Trump invented is beginning to run out of his control.
Meanwhile, some of Trump’s handpicked candidates — like J.D. Vance, Ohio’s newly minted GOP Senate nominee — have been able to frame the populist and nationalist goals of the MAGA movement more succinctly than the former President.
At a Trump rally in Pennsylvania for Oz last week, for example, Vance drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd as he described the movement as a struggle between “the people” and establishment Republicans, who he said would ship American jobs overseas and start “stupid wars that we have no business fighting.” Vance, once a harsh critic of Trump who used his endorsement to secure the GOP nod, called the midterms a “war for the soul of the Republican Party.”
“Although he coined the word, MAGA actually belongs to the people,” she said at a recent debate. “Our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said in a statement on Thursday. “She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted,” he said — a comment that seemed a bit rich given the considerable skeletons in the cupboard he overcame to become President.
But, characteristically, Trump left himself a way out and a possible avenue to coopting her success if she wins, saying that if Barnette can clear up questions about her past, “she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party—and I will be behind her all the way.”
Still, Trump ended his statement by reaffirming his support for Oz, whose fame and television stardom seem to have been largely behind an endorsement of a candidate Republican purists argue is not a true conservative.
“Dr. Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania. A vote for anyone else in the Primary is a vote against Victory in the Fall!” Trump wrote.
Trump can’t just order his supporters what to do
While the former President’s endorsement was widely credited with lifting Vance clear of the pack in Ohio, the idea that he simply barks orders and his followers jump is a caricature.
“People love Trump, but Kemp will win,” said Josh Brown, a 39-year-old from Rockmart, Georgia, on Thursday. Another voter, Jim Mayer, 65, of Rome, added: “The Trump endorsement means a lot, but I’ve followed Kemp a long time.”
Audrey Burch, 55, also of Rome, is undecided between Kemp and Perdue. She faults Kemp for not doing more to address Trump’s concerns about the 2020 election, but she lamented that she hasn’t seen Perdue out there campaigning.
“I hope he’s not planning on winning just because he’s associating himself with Trump,” she said.
Biden sees an opening
The rise of MAGA candidates who are in some cases more extreme than Trump is raising the stakes for Democrats who may end up opposing them.
Some voters who crowded into a bar in the southeastern Pennsylvania city of York on Thursday to see Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the front-runner for the Democratic Senate nod, are watching the GOP primaries with alarm.
But York resident Angela Stever predicted that a radical MAGA Republican nominee would drive Democrats to the polls.
“They are loud, they make a lot of noise, but we come out when it matters. Democrats always come out when it matters,” she said.
And after months in which Democrats have struggled to find a message, Biden has recently gone on offense to present the midterms as a choice between his agenda and what he now calls “ultra-MAGA” Republicans.
He’s also warned about the potential human costs of Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s 11-point plan, which would require all Americans to pay some form of income tax and could create an opening for cuts to Social Security and Medicare by sunsetting the programs every five years.
Though Scott’s plan has been rejected by many Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Biden charged that the GOP does not “want to solve inflation by lowering the costs; they want to solve it by raising taxes and lowering your income.”
But there’s no guarantee that running a fierce anti-Trump campaign will mitigate expected Democratic losses when Trump is not on the ticket.
That kind of model may not work everywhere since Youngkin, whose corporate image played well in the moderate Washington, DC, suburbs, was able to keep the ex-President at arm’s length. But it shows the risk that Biden is taking by going full anti-MAGA this early.
And headwinds against Biden and the Democrats are so strong this year, it’s possible MAGA candidates could be lifted into office on a red wave. Such a scenario could transform the Senate GOP conference as older, more establishment Republicans retire and younger, more extreme senators, surfing the anti-elite uprising stirred by Trump, replace them.
But with Trump so heavily involved in trying to pick winners and losers, the totality of the primary season will deliver a verdict not just on the power of the man, but also on the power of the movement and whether he controls the forces he unleashed.
If there are any signs of weakness, increasingly prominent figures like DeSantis are circling, ready to swoop in and carry the MAGA flag at a moment’s notice.
Simone Pathe contributed to this report.