HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump was facing the strongest test yet of his ability to shape a new generation of Republicans on Tuesday night, as voters rallied around one of his hand-picked choices for a critical U.S. Senate seat and were considering another.
In North Carolina, Trump picked up an easy victory with U.S. Rep. Ted Budd winning the Republican Senate primary. Trump elevated the little-known congressman using a surprise endorsement nearly a year ago.
Budd will face Democratic former state supreme court justice Cheri Beasley, who is aiming to become North Carolina’s first Black senator.
But much of the attention centers on Pennsylvania, where Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman easily secured his party’s nomination for an open Senate seat, despite being forced off the campaign trail by a stroke. The 52-year-old cast an emergency absentee ballot from the hospital and later tweeted that he’d successfully undergone surgery to install a pacemaker and was “on track for a full recovery.”
One of the biggest questions of the night is who will compete against Fetterman in the fall. Trump’s preferred candidate, Mehmet Oz, has divided conservatives and faces what looks like a far tougher race. Some are suspicious of the ideological leanings of the celebrity heart surgeon who gained fame as a frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. Oz has spent much of the campaign in a heated fight with former hedge fund CEO David McCormick.
That’s allowed commentator Kathy Barnette to emerge in the final days of the primary as a conservative alternative to both Oz and McCormick. Should she win the primary and general election, Barnette would be the first Black Republican woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Trump, who has held campaign-style rallies with Oz, insists he is the best candidate to keep the Senate seat in Republican hands in the fall. Given his level of involvement in the race, a loss would be a notable setback for the former president, who is wielding endorsements as a way to prove his dominance over the GOP ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run.
The year’s midterm primary season is entering its busiest stretch with races also unfolding in Kentucky, Oregon and Idaho.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Attorney General John Shapiro, who was unopposed for his party’s governor’s nomination, tweeted that he had mild COVID-19 symptoms that were forcing him from the campaign trail.
Tuesday’s contests could ultimately determine how competitive the general election will be this fall, when control of Congress, governor’s mansions and key elections posts are up for grabs. That’s especially true in the perennial political battleground of Pennsylvania, where some Republicans are already worried that state Sen. Doug Mastriano is too extreme to woo moderates who are often decisive in general elections.
“There’s definitely some concern in large factions of the party,” said Pennsylvania Republican strategist Vince Galko.
More fundamentally, Tuesday’s primaries could test voters’ commitment to democratic principles. Barnette is running even further to the right than Oz and participated in the January 2021 rally that turned into an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Then there’s Mastriano, who was also outside the Capitol during the mob attack and would appoint Pennsylvania’s chief elections official if he becomes governor. He has pledged to take the extraordinary step of requiring voters to “re-register” to vote — even though that’s barred by the National Voter Registration Act and likely violates significant protections under federal, and possibly state, law.
Mastriano made Trump’s lies about widespread electoral fraud costing him the presidencya centerpiece of his campaign — and has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Capitol riot following his efforts to name a slate of alternate Electoral College electors in Trump’s favor.
Stacy Steinly, a 51-year-old school bus assistant, cast her ballot in the town of Hamburg, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles west of Allentown. She said she chose Mastriano because “he was sticking by President Trump and saying that everything was fraudulent.”
“Everything he was talking about was making sense,” said Steinly, who wore a black T-shirt that said “Biden is not my president (or anyone else’s) based on legal votes.”
Trump’s safest bet might have been Budd, who overcome a slow start to emerge from 14 Republican primary candidates, including former Gov. Pat McCrory, as the winner of North Carolina’s Republican Senate primary.
While much of the attention during the opening phase of the primary season has focused on Trump’s grip on the GOP, the contests also serve as a referendum on President Joe Biden’s leadership of the Democratic Party. In the president’s native state of Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate in the mold of Biden, was handily beaten by Fetterman.
Lamb said Tuesday he had detected “frustration” among Democratic primary voters, a feeling he said he shared as the party has struggled to accomplish much of its policy agenda. But he argued that moderates helped Democrats retake control of the House in 2018 and that the party should “double down” on that approach this year.
“What I’ve been trying to do throughout this campaign is talk about the fact that no matter how difficult it is, we actually know as a party what it takes to be successful,” Lamb told a Pittsburgh radio station.
Fetterman, known for his hulking, 6-foot-8 stature and tattoos, and for championing causes such as universal health care, has appealed to many Democrats with an outsider image.
Robert Sweeney, 59, also from Hamburg, said he voted for Fetterman because “he seemed like a decent guy and knows what he’s doing.”
Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam contributed from Hamburg, Pennsylvania.