NEW YORK, (AP) -- Donald Trump's post-presidency begins a new phase as voters in the United States begin to weigh the candidates he has elevated to pursue a vision for a Republican Party steeped with hard-line populism and culture wars.
On Tuesday, Ohio voters will decide between Trump-backed JD Vanance for a vacant U.S. Senate seat or several other candidates who have spent months lobbying for Trump's support. The next weeks will see elections in Nebraska and North Carolina that will serve as a referendum about Trump's ability shape the future direction of the GOP.
Nearly all cases have shown Trump's support for only those who believe his false claims about election fraud and are willing to excuse the deadly U.S. Capitol Insurrection that he inspired last January.
"The month May will be a crucial window into where we stand," declared the Maryland Republican Governor. Donald Trump critic Larry Hogan defends incumbent GOP governors in Georgia and Ohio against Trump-backed challengers. "I am just concerned that some people are trying to destroy the party or burn it down."
Trump may have a greater priority than Georgia. Early voting began on Monday in Georgia ahead of the May 24-primary. Trump has played a prominent role in the race for the governor, recruiting an ex-Senator to challenge the incumbent Republican who refused to believe his election lies. Trump also wants to overthrow the Republican secretary-of-state, whom he unsuccessfully pressured into overturning President Joe Biden's win.
The primary season will continue well into the summer but the first round of races could set the tone. Trump's former president's status as a kingmaker would be confirmed if the Republican voters of the early states support the Trump-backed candidates. This could increase his power, which will likely boost his ability to run for another term. However, Trump's high-profile setbacks could damage his standing and give a stronger footing to those who want to promote a different vision for the GOP.
Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, predicted that Trump and his allies would have a strong May.
Cruz stated in an interview that "the voices in Washington that want him fade into obscurity, or to be silenced" are engaged in their own kind of wishful thinking. "That is not going to happen. He shouldn't."
While Trump is a problem for Republicans, Democrats face their own set of primaries.
The candidates representing both the moderate and progressive wings of the Democrats are trying to yank the party in opposite directions, while giving conflicting messages on how to overcome their serious political weaknesses, including Biden's weak position. History shows that Democrats, the party that controls Washington may suffer big losses in November.
While Democrats are engaged in passionate debates about policies, Republicans wage personal and costly attacks against one another that are designed to win over Trump's strongest supporters.
Florida Senator Rick Scott, who is leading the GOP's attempt to retake Senate, described May as a difficult sorting period that will be dominated more by Republican infighting than the policy solutions and contrasts with Democrats he would like to see.
Scott stated in an interview that "the primaries too often become kind of character assassinations." "That's exactly what has happened."
He said, "Hopefully people come together."
There is no race more messed up than the Republican primary for Georgia's governor. Trump spent months attacking Republican incumbents governors. Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, Secretary of State. He blames both men, blaming them for not working hard enough to reverse his narrow defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
After three recounts in Georgia, one of which was partially hand-written, the results were certified. All three confirmed Biden's victory.
Trump's attorney general and federal election officials have both said that there is no evidence of fraud in the election. Courts, including Trump's appointed judges, have also rejected the allegations of fraud made by former president.
Duncan was confident that Trump would win some races, and lose others, but he was particularly optimistic about Kemp's chances of winning back Trump's challenge.
He said, "If a sitting governor can defeat that whole Donald Trump idea by a large amount -- and other down the ticket -- then I think we're going to send a message to say that it's more than a Donald Trump endorsement for you to call yourself Republican."
Trump is the most powerful Republican in the country at the moment. Even those on opposing sides to Trump are careful to remember their loyalty to him. In an interview, Cruz, who supports Trump-endorsed Senate candidates from Ohio and Pennsylvania, downplayed any differences with him. Cruz said that he chose his picks years before Trump.
Cruz stated, "For the four years that he was president of the United States, Donald Trump had no stronger allies in the Senate than I."
Six months prior to the general election, Republican candidates in key primaries spent a lot of campaign money attacking each other. Democrats are largely saving their resources and making sharpest attacks for November.
Early voting in Ohio is already underway. A half-dozen Republican candidates in Ohio's high-profile Senate primaries and their allied outside organizations have spent more $66 million on television advertising this year, according to Democratic officials who track ad spending. The vast majority of the ads were Republican-on-Republican attacks.
Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland investment banker and real estate developer, spent $15 million on TV advertising alone last week. Vance was attacked in an ad campaign that highlighted his past comments about Trump as "an idiot".
Protect Ohio Values, the pro-Vance super-PAC, has spent $10 Million on the primary thus far. This includes a barrage of attack ads portraying Cruz-backed candidate Josh Mandel, "another failed career politician squish."
The leading Senate Democratic candidate, Rep. Tim Ryan has spent less that $3 million on positive TV ads to promote his push for Ohio manufacturing jobs from China.
Equally stunning were the spending disparities in Pennsylvania's and North Carolina's high-profile Senate primaries.
Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive, are locked in a fierce battle for the GOP nomination. The candidates and their allies have spent more $48 million so far on TV advertising. Democrats only spent $10 million.
In North Carolina, Republican forces spent over $15 million to support a divisive primary that pitted Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd and former Gov. Pat McCrory. Democrats who voted for Cheri Beasley as the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, have spent less than $2 million.
Michigan Senator Gary Peters, who is leading the effort to preserve the Senate majority for Democrats, stated that Republicans are creating general election ads for Democrats. He called the Republican candidates' character toxic because of the Republican infighting that he witnessed in many states.
Peters stated that they are trying to be the Trumpiest Trumpsters. "They don't talk about issues people care about."
Peters also acknowledged the party's problems, especially Biden's low popularity. He stated that it was up to each candidate to decide whether or not to invite the Democratic President to run for office on their behalf.
Peters stated that Biden was "a good president." This is not about the candidates. They are running to represent their state in Congress. They must be true to themselves as individuals.