Two of Donald Trump’s staunchest allies are lining up against his favored candidate in an upcoming Ohio special election, angering some of the former president’s advisers and testing his ability to exert dominance over high-profile Republican primaries.
Trump last month announced his support for Mike Carey, a former energy lobbyist running for a vacant Columbus-area congressional seat. But Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is bolstering former state Rep. Ron Hood in the Republican primary, while Debbie Meadows, a prominent conservative activist and the wife of former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, is promoting church leader Ruth Edmonds.
Their intervention has rankled some senior Trump advisers, who regard it as act of disloyalty — and one that could lead to an embarrassing defeat for the former president, who has put his name on the line by getting involved. A late infusion of cash from groups aligned with Paul and Meadows, they worry, could complicate Carey’s prospects in the Aug. 3 contest, given that he is already at a financial disadvantage.
Allies of Meadows and Paul insist they are not intending to undercut the ex-president by backing Edmonds and Hood and are simply voicing their support for candidates, rather than opposing a Trump-endorsed hopeful.
But the turn of events underscores the conundrum confronting Republicans. With Trump picking favorites in primaries and looking to shape the party ahead of a potential 2024 comeback bid, he is forcing other Republicans to decide whether it’s worth crossing him by endorsing rival candidates.
“Organizations that endorse candidates against the president’s endorsement do so at their own peril and, like the Democrats, will fail,” said former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, a prominent Carey supporter and an informal adviser. “But it will be remembered.”
Representatives for Trump and Paul declined to comment. Debbie Meadows, whose organization has backed conservative female candidates such as Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), said in a statement: “Our job at Right Women PAC is to find the most conservative, pro-Trump women, even in fields with multiple pro-Trump candidates — and that’s what we did here. This is certainly not an ‘us versus them.’ I totally support President Trump and always have.”
Those in the former president’s orbit have been surprised to see Meadows and Paul break for other candidates given their closeness to Trump. Trump lavished praise on Meadows during a June appearance in North Carolina, noting that during the 2016 presidential race “she was a supporter of mine” even before her husband had been. Trump earlier this year endorsed Paul’s 2022 reelection bid, saying his golfing partner “has done a fantastic job for our Country, and for the incredible people of Kentucky.”
People familiar with Debbie Meadows’ group say it operates independently of Mark Meadows, who has yet to come out in support of any candidate in the race. They also point out that her endorsement of Edmonds came on June 4, four days before Trump announced his support for Carey.
Meadows’ Right Women PAC, however, has continued promoting Edmonds since Trump made his move, highlighting its support of her on social media platforms including Instagram and Telegram. Paul, meanwhile, announced his support for Hood in early July, several weeks after Trump came out for Carey.
It isn’t the first time Paul has broken with the ex-president: During the 2020 election, he came out in support of Tennessee Republican Senate candidate Manny Sethi over the Trump-backed eventual winner, now-Sen. Bill Hagerty. The Paul-aligned Protect Freedom PAC also waged an unsuccessful effort last year to defeat Texas Rep. Kay Granger, who had Trump’s support.
Some Trump aides have been particularly rankled by Meadows, complaining that she is lining up against the former president despite his past receptivity to candidates she has encouraged him to back. She recently helped arrange for him to meet with congressional candidate Heidi St. John of Washington State, even though some prominent Trump supporters have begun to gravitate toward a different Republican running against Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler: Army veteran Joe Kent. (Herrera Beutler is one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.) The St. John meeting drew eyerolls from some in the ex-president’s inner circle.
Meadows was also instrumental in persuading Trump to endorse one of her personal friends, Lynda Bennett, in last year’s election to fill her husband’s vacant North Carolina congressional seat. Bennett suffered a lopsided primary defeat to now-Rep. Madison Cawthorn, infuriating Trump, who until that point had frequently boasted about his perfect record endorsing winning primary candidates in 2020. The former president repeatedly griped at Mark Meadows over the loss, and he has continued to express regret in private for not endorsing Cawthorn, who has emerged as a staunch ally.
To some, Debbie Meadows’ support for Edmonds is only the latest sticking point.
“I am surprised that the wife of Trump’s former chief of staff is not supporting the Trump-endorsed candidate, Mike Carey. Loyalty seems like a very important character trait in the Trump orbit,” said Brian Darling, a former official at the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative organization.
Darling, a former Paul aide, distinguished Paul’s endorsement of Hood from Meadows’ support for Edmonds, noting that the Kentucky senator was narrowly focused on backing like-minded libertarian candidates.
Those close to Meadows, who has been a major force in her husband’s political rise, insist that by encouraging Trump to support certain candidates, she isn’t doing anything unusual. Trump is lobbied by an array of people of get behind Republican hopefuls, they point out.
Carey remains the strong favorite in the Ohio primary, those tracking the race say. A June poll conducted by Carey’s campaign found him far out ahead of the other 10 Republicans running. Carey has made Trump’s endorsement the centerpiece of his campaign, running ads spotlighting the former president praising him as a “wonderful man” who he’s known “for a long time” during a recent Ohio rally. Trump called the candidate onstage to speak during the event.
But Meadows’ and Paul’s involvement could be a factor in the final stretch, those involved in the race say. According to media tracking figures, Carey has spent and reserved just $171,000 on the radio and TV airwaves, less than several of his opponents. By comparison, the Paul-aligned organization, Protect Freedom PAC, has reserved $216,000 in advertising time to boost Hood.
The Meadows-run group, Right Women PAC, has yet to invest in ads, though there is speculation that it may. One Republican in the state noted the super PAC recently received a $1 million-plus contribution from Ohio-based donor Brenda Frecka, a substantial gift that could conceivably be used to fund a last-minute, pro-Edmonds barrage. Frecka and her husband, film packaging company founder David Frecka, are among the largest donors to a super PAC aligned with the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which Mark Meadows chaired during his congressional tenure.
Neither Debbie Meadows nor David Frecka would comment when asked whether the contribution would be used to bolster Edmonds. Meadows also would not say what activities she was planning for the final weeks of the contest.
Carey is also confronting an avalanche of spending from former GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, who vacated the seat to take a job overseeing the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Stivers has so far spent nearly $300,000 in remaining funds from his campaign account to buttress another candidate, state Rep. Jeff LaRe.
The pro-Trump cavalry, however, may be coming to Carey’s rescue. The Lewandowski-run Make America Great Again Action, the principal pro-Trump super PAC, is considering parachuting in to close the spending gap. It would represent the organization’s first investment in an election.
Whoever comes out ahead in the Republican primary is expected to win the general election, given that Trump comfortably won the conservative-leaning district in 2020.
While Carey hasn’t won the support of Meadows and Paul, he has earned endorsements from other staunch Trump allies, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and Citizens United, a group overseen by former Trump campaign adviser David Bossie. He also has the endorsement of a political action committee run by Ryan Zinke, who served as Trump’s Interior secretary.
Carey brushed off the support Meadows and Paul were giving to his rivals by highlighting his backing from someone else.
“I am proud,” he said in a text message, “to have President Trump’s endorsement.”
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