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Upcoming primaries will gauge Trump's influence over GOP voters

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Donald Trump is weighing in on midterm elections like no former president before him, backing more than 140 Republican primary candidates so far. Tomorrow's the first big test of his power to persuade GOP voters this year. In Ohio, Trump backed author J.D. Vance for U.S. Senate.

And we wanted to know what these primaries may signal for Trump's influence, so we've brought in NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Hey, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Just a few years ago, J.D. Vance was a sharp critic of Donald Trump. So how did the former president come to get behind him in this race?

DAVIS: I think a couple dynamics are at play in this race. I talked to Jessica Taylor. She's a nonpartisan election analyst for the Cook Political Report, and she made this point.

JESSICA TAYLOR: Trump likes celebrity. He likes people like him that sort of can command attention.

DAVIS: Vance has also done what a lot of former Trump critics have done - they have completely abandoned any and all opposition to the former president. He's transformed himself into an absolute loyalist, and he's dominated a lot of the conversation online about this race. And, you know, Trump has tended to welcome the converted.

Vance was not even the leading candidate in the polls when Trump got behind him just a few weeks ago. The endorsement does seem to have had some effect on the race. Vance has led in about three polls taken since Trump's endorsement.

SHAPIRO: This is a high-profile race. If Vance does not win tomorrow, how much impact could that have on the party?

DAVIS: You know, one of the key things to know about this primary - everyone in it is a Trump loyalist. I mean, the primary fight was mostly dominated by a debate over who would be the strongest Trump ally and who should get his endorsement. And that's been a common theme in most Republican primaries this year. So in that regard, Trump will get an ally in the Ohio race no matter who wins tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: Is there even such a thing as an anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party at this point?

DAVIS: Not in any dominant way. I don't think so. There are certainly a handful of Trump critics on the ballot this year that Trump is also targeting for defeat. There's that small camp of Republicans who voted for impeachment that Trump would love to see beaten. That includes people like Congresswoman Liz Cheney in Wyoming, Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. They're going to face primaries later this summer. Trump just announced he's headed to Wyoming in a few weeks to campaign against Cheney.

He's also really focused on Republican officials who refused his efforts in their states to fraudulently overturn the 2020 presidential election. I think the best example of that is down in Georgia. It has a primary later this month as well. Trump's endorsed former senator David Perdue. He's running against incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp. Trump's also backing former Congressman Jody Hice against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Both incumbents very famously rejected Trump's efforts to overturn Georgia's results.

You know, in Kemp's case, it's an example of where Trump's endorsement hasn't really moved the needle. Kemp's in a pretty good position to win his primary despite yearslong efforts by Trump to undermine him. But he's probably more an outlier than the norm in this election climate. Trump's attacks could also undermine the party, though in the big picture in states like Georgia come November. If he keeps these attacks up against Kemp, if he's the nominee, it could really affect Republican turnout. And that is certainly what Democrats would like to see happen.

SHAPIRO: How much should these endorsements be viewed as an indicator of Trump's influence over the party or even as a sign of whether he'll run again in 2024?

DAVIS: One of the most important things to remember is that a candidate being on the ballot is treated very differently by voters than someone endorsed by that candidate. Think back to former President Barack Obama in the midterm elections, where he endorsed a ton of candidates, and Democrats just got absolutely shellacked in the 2010 midterms. But Obama went on to win reelection two years later, when he was the one on the ballot. So it's important not to read too much into what it might mean if Trump's endorsement scorecard, in the end, isn't filled with victories, especially if a lot of these candidates are pro-Trump anyway.

One other key dynamic we've talked about and always worth mentioning - nearly all of the Republican candidates that Trump is backing have actively supported, or at least don't contradict, Trump's ongoing false claims about the 2020 election. So there is a very good chance that there's going to be a considerable number of election deniers on the ballot this fall.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.