By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) -Donald Trump’s effort to play Republican kingmaker faced fresh tests on Tuesday as voters in five states cast ballots in high-profile races for U.S. Congress, governor and other offices ahead of November’s midterm elections.
In Arizona and Michigan, candidates who embraced the former president’s false claims of voter fraud could win the Republican nominations for governor, even as some in their party worry they could be too extreme to defeat Democrats on Nov. 8.
Kansas voters were deciding whether to amend the state constitution to allow the Republican-controlled legislature to ban or limit abortion, the first such ballot initiative since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the nationwide right to abortion in June.
Two Republican U.S. representatives who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by the then-president’s supporters, Peter Meijer of Michigan and Jamie Herrera Beutler of Washington, also face Trump-endorsed primary challengers.
With an economy teetering on the brink of recession and inflation surging, just 38% of Americans approve of President Joe Biden’s job performance, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Tuesday. That is up one percentage point from the previous week but remained near Biden’s record low of 36% first hit in May. One in three voters said the biggest problem facing the United States today is the economy.
That is weighing on Democrats heading into the November general election, when Republicans are favored to win control of the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate.
Control of either chamber would give Republicans the power to stymie Biden’s legislative agenda while launching politically damaging hearings.
As he flirts publicly with the possibility of running for president again in 2024, Trump has endorsed more than 100 candidates. Most are safe bets – incumbent Republicans in conservative districts – but even in competitive races he has had a winning record.
Trump-backed nominees have won Republican primaries for U.S. Senate in Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, though his picks lost nominating contests for Georgia governor and for the U.S. House in South Carolina.
“Trump remains really popular with Republican primary voters. I don’t think you can underestimate how he has remade the party in his image,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “Republicans who run against Trump tend to get trampled.”
On Tuesday, Arizona voters were picking between Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Karrin Taylor Robson, who has the backing of Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence.
Lake, a former news anchor, echoes Trump’s false claims that his 2020 election defeat was the result of fraud and has said she would not have certified Biden’s statewide victory in 2020. At a recent campaign stop, Lake claimed without evidence that fraud has already occurred during early voting, suggesting she may not accept a defeat on Tuesday.
The race for secretary of state – the state’s top election official – also includes a Trump-endorsed candidate, state Representative Mark Finchem. Finchem, who was present at Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, speech in Washington that preceded the U.S. Capitol attack, wrote on Twitter on Thursday, “Trump won,” prompting a Democratic candidate, Adrian Fontes, to call him a “traitor.”
Arizona Republicans were picking a challenger to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, seen as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Blake Masters, a former tech executive who has backed Trump’s false fraud claims, has Trump’s endorsement and the backing of tech billionaire Peter Thiel. He is leading in polls against Jim Lamon, a former power company executive, and Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whom Trump blames for not reversing Biden’s 2020 statewide victory.
In Missouri, former Governor Eric Greitens, who resigned in the midst of sexual assault and campaign finance fraud scandals, is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate despite calls from many within his party to withdraw out of concern that he might cost Republicans a safe seat in November.
Having promised to endorse in that race, Trump on Monday recommended voters choose either Greitens or one of his rivals, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, with a statement that simply endorsed “Eric.”
In Michigan, a chaotic Republican campaign for governor was drawing to a close, with several candidates vying for the right to take on Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who became a frequent target for conservatives after her aggressive approach to shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trump last week endorsed former Republican commentator Tudor Dixon in the race. But at a rally this weekend in Troy, some Trump-supporting backers of one of Dixon’s rivals, businessman Kevin Rinke, said they would not be swayed.
One attendee, Steve Moshelli, 57, said he voted for Trump twice but was sticking with Rinke.
“Honestly, I think his star is kind of fading,” Moshelli, a businessman from Royal Oak, Michigan, said of Trump, adding that he thought the hearings by the House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot had chipped away at Trump’s power. “It’s his credibility. It’s starting to fade.”
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, additional reporting by Moira Warburton in Washington and Nathan Layne in Troy, Michigan; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)