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Carl P. Leubsdorf: Will Trump hand Senate to Democrats again?

He has helped nominate several conservative political neophytes with questionable general election prospects in the closely contested states that decided the 2020 presidential election.

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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kelly speaks to supporters during the Election Night event at Hotel Congress on Nov. 3, 2020 in Tucson, Arizona.
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Nineteen months ago, Donald Trump’s fixation on unproven allegations of election fraud played a major role in the Republicans’ loss of two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia and, with them, their Senate majority.

Now, the former president appears to be handicapping the GOP’s effort to regain that majority. He has helped nominate several conservative political neophytes with questionable general election prospects in the closely contested states that decided the 2020 presidential election.

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That dynamic was on display Tuesday when Arizona Republicans chose Blake Masters, a self-styled culture war fighter who has adopted Trump’s combative style, to run against freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, one of the more vulnerable 2022 Democrats. Masters, with Trump’s backing, defeated businessman Jim Lamon and state Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

Polls have shown Kelly, one of the best-funded Democratic incumbents, with a lead.

At the same time, the GOP may have gotten a break Tuesday in Missouri when the state’s controversial former Republican governor, Eric Greitens, lost the GOP senatorial primary to state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a more mainstream Trump backer who will be a heavy November favorite in the increasingly Republican state. Though Trump endorsed both Erics, many close to him backed Greitens, who resigned after a sex scandal in 2017.

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Three months before the Nov. 8 midterm elections, Republicans remain favored to upend the narrow Democratic majority in the House, though some recent polls show Democratic gains. But the Senate is far more in doubt.

A major reason is that Republican prospects are dimming in six key states, including four where Trump spurred the GOP to nominate conservative newcomers. Besides Arizona, they include Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the GOP is defending seats vacated by retiring Republicans, and Georgia, where Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is trying to hold the seat he narrowly won in January 2021.

The other two are battleground states where Trump strongly supports the GOP candidate -- Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson is seeking a third term, and Nevada, where freshman Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto is regarded as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, along with Kelly and Warnock.

Republicans probably need to win four of those six seats to regain the majority they lost in those two Georgia elections.

In Ohio, Republicans are increasingly concerned that author J.D. Vance, who won the May GOP primary with Trump’s support, is being out-raised financially and out-campaigned by Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, a moderate who has long been critical of the Democratic Party hierarchy.

They are running to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans fear television personality Mehmet Oz is off to a slow start in his bid to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.

A narrow primary winner, Oz has faced questions about his dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship and whether his actual residence is in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, suffered a stroke on the eve of the May primary and was off the campaign trail until recently. But polls show him with about a 10-point lead.

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Another Republican “celebrity” candidate encountering early problems is the former Heisman Trophy-winning University of Georgia football star, Herschel Walker, whom Trump recruited to oppose Warnock. Walker, who was living in the Dallas area until he started running, has given imprecise answers to questions about his policy positions, personal relationships and number of children.

Polls show Warnock slightly ahead. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who overcame Trump’s opposition in the GOP primary, is leading Democrat Stacey Abrams in their rematch of the 2018 race won by Kemp.

In Wisconsin, polls show Johnson, another outspoken Trump ally, in a close re-election race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. Barnes would be Wisconsin’s first African American U.S. senator.

Finally, in closely contested Nevada, another state that Trump narrowly lost in 2020 (like Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania), freshman Democrat Cortez Masto is trying to fend off former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

Senate races are not the only places where Trump’s strong GOP primary influence may be created general election problems for Republicans.

In Tuesday’s hotly contested Arizona gubernatorial primary, former television anchor Kari Lake, who strongly backs Trump’s unproven allegations of 2020 election fraud, was leading Karrin Taylor Robson, who had the support of current GOP Gov. Doug Ducey and former Vice President Mike Pence.

In a pattern mirroring the Senate race, polls show Lake trailing the Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

Trump was a mixed factor elsewhere Tuesday.

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In Michigan, Tudor Dixon, a conservative media personality backed by Trump, won the GOP primary but faces an uphill race against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

But two of three Republican House members apparently survived pro-Trump challenges stemming from their votes to impeach the former president after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler are both favored in November in their heavily Republican districts. The loser was freshman Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer.

In Kansas, Kris Kobach, a key figure in Trump’s failed voter fraud commission, won a comeback bid in a GOP primary for state attorney general. At the same time, Kansas voterd overwhelmingly to keep a state constitutional provision recognizing legalized abortion in the first major voter test of the issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

With a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll showing the issue is energizing Democratic voters, abortion looms as a potential problem for Republicans in November. So does Donald Trump.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com .

©2022 The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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