WORLD / AMERICAS
Eyeing 2022 elections, Republicans jockey for Trump’s blessing
Published: Mar 22, 2021 07:23 PM
Speaking before a crowd of mostly maskless, older, white voters in the rural Washington County south of Seattle mid-March, four Republicans made their case for trying to unseat Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican congresswoman who voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the Capitol insurrection. 

Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 4, 2020 . Photo: AFP

Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 4, 2020 . Photo: AFP

One after another, the candidates used their 15-minute pitches to tout their unshakable loyalty to Trump. Off the stage, the candidates said in interviews they all want his blessing to replace Herrera Beutler, a 10-year incumbent, in Washington's third congressional district in 2022.

More than a year before party primaries begin for congressional and state elections in 2022, Republicans are in a mad scramble to secure Trump's approval. Dozens of hopefuls have already reached out to Trump or plan to do so to seek his endorsement, according to more than a dozen candidates and two Trump advisers who spoke to Reuters.

Advisers say Trump has been so inundated with requests that he has set up a formal process for considering whom he should support. The emerging competition for Trump's nod underscores the influence he continues to wield over the Republican Party, even after it lost the White House and both chambers of Congress on his watch.

Mainstream Republicans worry that the race to appeal to the former president could lead to primary victories for extremist, pro-Trump candidates who will repel moderates and independent voters in general elections. Such voters played a key role in Trump's November defeat by Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump has vowed to campaign against the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him on a charge of inciting the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Also targeted is Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the only US senator facing re-election in 2022 among the seven Republicans who voted to convict him in a Senate trial.

A spokesman for Herrera Beutler - the House incumbent facing the onslaught of pro-Trump challengers in Washington state - said the congresswoman is "still a Republican and a conservative, and she's not going anywhere."

Political experts said Trump's attempts to interfere in intra-party contests were unprecedented for a former president. Most, they said, stay above the fray and endorse only in a general election.

Former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort where he resides after leaving the White House Photo: VCG

Former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort where he resides after leaving the White House Photo: VCG

Mar-a-Lago pilgrimage

A senior Trump adviser involved in the vetting process rejected the notion that Trump-backed candidates could be less competitive in general elections. With Trump at the top of the ticket in November 2020, the party picked up seats in the House, elected a record number of Republican women to that body, and made inroads with Latino voters.

Party officials have said they like their chances of flipping both chambers in 2022.

Trump "is not going to allow himself to be ridden out of the party," said Sam Nunberg, who served as a political adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign.

Tom Emmer, a Minnesota congressman who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, the chief strategic and fundraising arm for House races, declined to comment on the divisions within the party over support for Trump, saying his organization stays neutral in primary fights.

Trump has already waded into a handful of contests. He endorsed former White House aide Max Miller, who is challenging Ohio Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment in January.

Miller reached out to Trump to secure his endorsement before launching his candidacy, the senior Trump adviser told Reuters. Elsewhere in Ohio, Josh Mandel and Jane Timken, battling for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Senator Rob Portman, are trying to one-up each other over their fealty to Trump.

Meanwhile, Trump's luxury Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago, has become a magnet for party hopefuls seeking his blessing. Former US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell recently dined there with his former boss. The men discussed the possibility of Grenell seeking the Republican nomination for governor of California, among other topics, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Grenell declined to comment.

Former US president Donald Trump points at the end of a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, the US, on December 5, 2020. Photo: VCG

Former US president Donald Trump points at the end of a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, the US, on December 5, 2020. Photo: VCG

Counting on Trump

Back in Washington State's Cowlitz County, Trump's grip on the party was evident at last week's forum for Republican hopefuls looking to represent the third congressional district.

A life-size cutout of Donald and Melania Trump greeted voters entering the room. Midway through the forum, a member of the audience asked the candidates: "During the 2016 and 2020 elections, what did the candidates actually do to contribute to Donald Trump's campaign?"

In 2016, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the third district by seven percentage points. But his margin of victory there shrank to four points in November 2020, underscoring the risk to the Republican Party in an increasingly competitive district.

Herrera Beutler, the district's Republican incumbent, vastly outperformed Trump, winning the district by 13 points in November 2020, suggesting she won the votes of moderate Republicans and independents that he didn't get.

Herrera Beutler declined an interview request.

Rivals have called her impeachment vote a "treasonous act" and peddled Trump's false claims of voter fraud that were rejected by multiple courts and election officials around the country.

Herrera Beutler's campaign spokesperson, Parker Truax, said of her challengers that "telling tall tales to explain a lost election is not a winning campaign platform for Southwest Washington, no matter how many people try to run on it."
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