Trump looks to install loyalists across state legislatures
(The Hill) – Former President Trump is weighing in aggressively in state legislative races across the country as part of his far-reaching effort to reshape the modern GOP and exert greater control over the administration and outcome of elections.
While the former president’s highest-profile endorsements have come in the U.S. House and Senate contests that will help determine control of Congress next year, he has endorsed dozens of statehouse candidates, with an emphasis on Arizona, Michigan and Texas.
These state legislative contests are often overlooked at the national level, but the outcomes will play a crucial role in shaping state policy, especially pertaining to the voting process and how elections are conducted, counted and certified.
Republicans have worked for well over a decade to make gains in state legislatures. But multiple party strategists and operatives noted that it’s unusual for a former president — or really any federal elected official — to weigh in so aggressively on races that are typically decided at the local level.
“It is unusual. Honestly, it’s unusual for a senator to have that level of involvement in these races,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “They typically stay out of these things for various reasons. But obviously for Trump, he’s trying to build a farm team and the way you join that team is by being all Trump all the time.”
Heye and others cautioned against reading too far into the endorsements, noting that they’ve come sporadically and are often prompted by Trump’s own desire to exact political revenge on Republicans whom he perceives as insufficiently loyal.
“I think it’s all pretty simple and transparent,” Heye said. “Trump wants people who are as Trump-y as can be and go after people who are disloyal. That’s it. And that could be a senator, or it could be a dog catcher.”
Just last week, Trump came out in support of former Arizona state Sen. David Farnsworth, who is challenging state House Speaker Rusty Bowers in the GOP primary for Arizona’s 10th Senate District. Bowers testified before Congress last month about the intense pressure he withstood from Trump to help reverse the former president’s 2020 electoral loss in the state.
In a statement, Trump hammered Bowers as “WEAK on Borders, Election Integrity, and everything else” before throwing his support behind Farnsworth, who has echoed Trump’s baseless claim that he was robbed of reelection in 2020 because of widespread fraud.
On paper, Bowers appears to be the much stronger candidate. He’s raised more than $320,000 to Farnsworth’s roughly $70,000 and has the clout that comes with serving as the state House Speaker.
Nevertheless, Trump’s willingness to intervene in state legislative elections tracks with his repeated assertion that state lawmakers should be able to wield outsized power in determining the outcome of elections, a belief that came to the fore after his 2020 loss to President Biden when he and his allies pressed top state lawmakers to overturn the election results in states that his opponent won.
State legislative races also tend to be low-information contests, where voters tend to know less about who’s running and place a higher premium on party affiliation and endorsements.
“It could be very valuable in a race where people aren’t paying a lot of attention,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist and opinion contributor for The Hill. “These endorsements, these sort of celebrity endorsements, they’re more effective the less people are paying attention to the race.”
Whether Trump is weighing in to legislative races as part of a grand strategy to reshape statehouses across the country or is simply seeking to boost loyalists no matter which office they’re running for, the moves could have very real consequences.
With Republicans relegated to the minority in Congress, state legislatures have emerged as centers of GOP power, where lawmakers have pressed ultra-conservative policies on everything from voting rights and election administration to education and abortion rights.
The composition of state legislatures could also take on a new sense of urgency in the coming months and years. The Supreme Court is set to take up a case next term that could expand the independent power of state legislatures to set election rules with few checks against overreach.
While Trump has issued endorsements in only about two dozen state legislative contests so far, the former president has already shown a desire to exert more control over how elections are administered. He’s backed a handful of GOP secretary of state candidates in battlegrounds like Georgia, Ohio, Michigan and Arizona, albeit with mixed results.
At the same time, one longtime Republican operative and former state GOP chair said that there’s only so much room for Trump to make gains in state capitols, noting that Republicans control 30 of the country’s 49 partisan legislatures, and many state lawmakers are already closely aligned with the former president.
“Republicans who are running for legislatures are more reflective of what the party is,” the operative said. “And right now, the party is more populist.”
“What I see is him trying to take out anyone who’s not 100 percent on his side,” the operative added. “Most Republican state senators, state representatives are, so I think to him it’s more about getting rid of anyone who’s even remotely disagreed with him in the past.”
That strategy gets at perhaps the biggest focus of Trump’s post-presidential strategy: retaining his hold on the GOP as he weighs a potential comeback campaign for the White House in 2024.
“Trump is politics. He’s not policy,” Heye said. “Ultimately, he is going to find the argument that best suits him. And if that’s in the legislatures, then great. If that means supporting the state House candidate or secretary of state that’s going to fight for him, he’s going to do that too.”