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Trump is campaigning against Republicans he dislikes for fall's midterm elections


Primary season is underway ahead of this fall's midterm elections. And as the most powerful voice in the Republican Party, Donald Trump is working hard to influence those races. Here he was at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.


DONALD TRUMP: I'm asking all of you to fight and work hard to elect candidates that believe in the principles and policies that we hold so dear.

MCCAMMON: This weekend, Trump will be out campaigning against some Republicans he believes don't hold him dearly enough, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: The first TV ad from South Carolina congressional candidate Russell Fry is called Villains Anonymous. It features the Joker, a pirate, Maleficent and Satan all sitting in a circle in a sort of support group. And joining them...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Tom Rice) Hi, I'm Tom Rice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Hi, Tom.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course, it's an actor playing Rice, a congressman from the state 7th District. Fry is challenging him for the Republican nomination. Here's the fake Tom Rice again.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Tom Rice) I support a tax increase. I even voted to impeach President Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As pirate) That's cold.

KURTZLEBEN: That was the pirate responding at the end there. Trump will be a major focus of Fry's campaign, and Donald Trump is also very focused on people like Fry these days. People like Fry are those running to unseat other Republicans Trump dislikes - for example, those who voted to impeach him. Fry will be one featured speaker at a Trump rally in Florence, S.C., this weekend. So will Katie Arrington, who Trump is backing against Republican Representative Nancy Mace in a neighboring district. The way Trump is intervening in primaries is unprecedented, according to Republican strategist Doug Heye.

DOUG HEYE: Other Republican presidents certainly have gotten involved in political races, but they certainly haven't gone on a grievance tour and done so throughout the campaign cycle.

KURTZLEBEN: Trump's power to determine who in the GOP gets the spotlight was visible at CPAC. The conference did not feature Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, a vocal Trump critic. However, it did feature Harriet Hageman, who is challenging Cheney and whom Trump has endorsed. Hageman took a Trump-ish tone speaking about American energy policy.


HARRIET HAGEMAN: What have we done? We have empowered the thugs of the world, and we have emasculated the countries that actually believe in freedom and in prosperity.

KURTZLEBEN: It's not just about endorsements, either. Trump has the power to direct large sums of campaign cash. His Save America PAC in 2021 gave $5,000 each, the legal limit, to a variety of candidates, including Hageman. That's not a lot, but then Trump's power to boost a candidate goes well beyond one PAC. Here's Heye.

HEYE: What Trump's endorsement does, first and foremost, is it brings attention. He's not writing a lot of checks. He's keeping all that money that he has to himself thus far. But he is sending signals to like-minded organizations - this is a candidate that they should back.

KURTZLEBEN: Drew McKissick is the chair of the South Carolina GOP. Trump endorsed him in 2021. McKissick credits Trump with re-energizing the party in his state.

DREW MCKISSICK: There were several counties there where, when I got elected 4 1/2 years ago, you know, we didn't even have a county party organization. But after Trump's victory, we had 50 to 60 people to organize a county Republican party.

KURTZLEBEN: However, it is becoming clear that a Trump endorsement doesn't make or break a campaign. His endorsee in the North Carolina Republican Senate primary, for example, Representative Ted Budd, has lagged in polling and fundraising. For Rice, the concerns are much deeper than winning. He told South Carolina Public Radio last month...


TOM RICE: If we're going to have a scenario where the president can try to intimidate Congress into doing what he wants, then, shoot, might as well have a monarchy.

KURTZLEBEN: Ahead of his Saturday rally, Trump put out a statement touting guest speaker Russell Fry, who is, quote, "running against doesn't-have-a-clue Tom Rice." Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.