COLUMBUS, Ohio - Donald Trump's special election scorecard: A win, a loss, and a great deal of debate over how much influence the ex-president will wield over the 2022 races that will decide control of Congress.
Trump-backed coal lobbyist Mike Carey won a crowded GOP primary in Ohio on Tuesday, one week after the ex-president's candidate lost a congressional race in Texas.
"Tonight, Republicans across Ohio’s 15th Congressional District sent a clear message to the nation that President Donald J. Trump is, without a doubt, the leader of our party," Carey said in a statement. "I could not be more grateful for his support, and I am proud to deliver this win to advance his America First agenda."
Carey's win demonstrates that reports of Trump's diminished clout after the loss in Texas were exaggerated, political analysts said. They also said that two low-turnout special elections in the summer of 2021 are not enough of a sample to determine how much real power Trump will wield in 2022.
"Trump will tout it as a big win for him and will boast that his brand remains strong in the Republican Party," said Robert Alexander, a political science professor at Ohio Northern University; GOP candidates will continue to seek his endorsement, especially in the wake of Carey's win in Ohio.
"In reality," he said, "it is very hard to determine how much Trump’s endorsement actually affected the outcome given the paltry turnout and large number of candidates."
Trump has influence, but for how long?
Carey must still win a November general election in the race to replace former U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, who left Congress in May to head the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Carey will face state Rep. Allison Russo on Nov. 2, after Russo defeated retired Army Col. Greg Betts for the Democratic nomination.
Carey's Republican primary win in Ohio is "very good news for Trump," said Henry Olsen, an elections analyst and senior fellow with the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. "He doesn’t run the party, but he’s re-established himself as it’s single most influential figure."
Looking to next year, Trump is talking about backing a series of Republican primary challengers, especially against lawmakers who backed impeachment over the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, or opposed his attempts to overturn his election loss to President Joe Biden.
Trump's political activism – unprecedented for an ex-president – threatens to divide the Republican Party ahead of elections that will determine control of Congress.
Trump's endorsement will likely be an asset for his candidates in all-Republican primary races, analysts said. The former president could also be a hindrance to Republicans in general election races against well-funded Democrats, given his lack of popularity with moderate and independent voters.
In the Ohio race, Carey won with less than 40% of the vote, said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. "Trump continues to have influence over a plurality, but not the majority of the party," she said.
That won't make any difference in solidly conservative congressional districts, Brown said, but "it may well prove problematic in competitive ones that are likely to be fiercely contested in the general election. This will be especially true if the Democrats can overcome their own factional divisions and can unify behind their candidates."
Democrats remain hopeful of flipping Republican-leaning district
Stivers' retirement from Congress in May inspired a flurry of GOP candidates to vie for a seat that leans Republican by 9 percentage points in the Cook Partisan Voting Index. That leaves Russo with an uphill battle, but her campaign touted a $273,000 fundraising haul before the primary as a sign that she can make the race competitive.
"I’ve won really tough districts before because I took the time to listen to Ohioans about what’s important to them, campaigned on issues that would help working families, and advocated for good ideas no matter which party they came from," Russo said in a statement.
Trump endorsed Carey after his former aide and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski stumped for Carey in the district, but Trump himself never visited. He instead spoke briefly during two phone calls for Carey's campaign and brought Carey on stage during his rally 100 miles from Columbus in Lorain County — an event geared toward an entirely different congressional candidate.
Even with Trump's backing, the race went weeks without garnering national attention. State Rep. Jeff LaRe trotted out an endorsement from Stivers, while candidates like state Sen. Bob Peterson focused more on support from local leaders. Former state Rep. Ron Hood, who was absent on the campaign trail, emerged as a wildcard thanks to a boost from Sen. Rand Paul and the libertarian Protect Freedom PAC.
Primary seen as test of Trump's influence over GOP
The game changed last week. Trump's endorsement power took a hit after the loss of his chosen candidate in a Texas special election, as Susan Wright lost to Jake Ellzey in a race for a U.S. House seat.
Trump aides reportedly became concerned about the outcome of the 15th District, and Central Ohio suddenly became a test for Trump's continued relevancy in Republican politics.
After Carey's victory in Ohio, the former president was quick to take a victory lap.
"Great Republican win for Mike Carey," Trump said in an email. "Big numbers! Thank you to Ohio and all of our wonderful American patriots. Congratulations to Mike and his family. He will never let you down!
Still, the results come with a large caveat: Turnout. Special elections in off years tend to attract fewer voters, and the primaries in the 15th District were no exception. A little more than 66,000 votes had been counted between the two primaries with 99% of precincts reporting; about 560,000 voters were registered to vote in the district.
No one knows what Trump's political strength posture will be when regular elections roll around next year.
The ex-president remains under investigation by prosecutors in New York over past financial dealings, and he has expressed concern about possible charges he claims would be politically motivated.
Members of a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection are talking about subpoenas for Trump and former advisers in his White House. The committee is seeking to learn more about Trump efforts to overturn his election loss, as well as his actions before and during the Jan. 6 riot by supporters seeking to stop the count of Biden's electoral votes.
Future revelations could take a toll on Trump's political stock, though some observers said they could just as easily strengthen him among Republican voters.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who now opposes Trump, said the Ohio vote demonstrates that Trump still runs the Republican Party, He noted that Ellzey, the winner of last week's race in Texas, was always a Trump backer and had wanted his endorsement.
"There’s no split in the party," Walsh said. "To win a primary, you must be a big supporter of Trump's. As well, most of the candidates he endorses will win."
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump-backed candidate Mike Carey wins primary for House seat in Ohio