Football legend Herschel Walker has been friends with Donald Trump for nearly four decades and held a fundraiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for his Georgia campaign for Senate. But you wouldn’t know it from Walker’s opening campaign ad, which showcases his Peach State roots, athletic career and commitment to conservative principles like smaller government and a strong military.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican and staunch ally of Trump’s in Congress, launched his first TV ads last month, and they don’t mention Trump either. Instead, the ads show chaotic street scenes attributed to Democratic rule and closes with a grandfatherly looking Johnson, in a kitchen, saying, “I love America and Wisconsin – just like you.”
Dave McCormick, a GOP candidate for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, is married to a former Trump administration official and has several former Trump White House aides advising him. But his ads don’t talk about the GOP leader. Instead, they feature McCormick’s high school buddies teasing him about his youth and telling Keystone State voters that McCormick’s “Pennsylvania roots will keep him grounded.”
Such is the 2022 strategy for Republican candidates in not-so-reliably Republican states. They want – in many cases, need – the backing of Trump and his MAGA base primary voters. But they also need to collect votes from more moderate Republicans in the primary as well as independent voters in the general election, should they win their nomination bids.
McCormick, for example, wants Trump’s endorsement now that the former president’s original favorite, Sean Parnell, dropped out of the GOP primary race in Pennsylvania.
“President Trump in my mind did great things for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and promoting that agenda is really critical. I’m not sure what he’ll do, but I would certainly value and appreciate his endorsement. I’d be thrilled to get it,” McCormick said in a statement provided by the campaign.
Yet the former hedge fund CEO doesn’t make a direct MAGA appeal in his ads, which cast him as a hunting vest-wearing advocate for regular Pennsylvanians.
One of McCormick’s primary opponents, former “Oprah Winfrey Show” mainstay Dr. Mehmet Oz, also tries to walk the rhetorical line. He ran a video blasting the Biden administration for the loss of jobs in Pennsylvania – though the Bethlehem Steel plant where Oz stands in the ad closed 27 years ago. Another talks about his development of a heart valve and his commitment to taking on “the medical establishment.” He does not mention Trump.
But in other forums, Oz is more MAGA-like.
“Roses are red, violets are blue, Dr. Fauci lied to you,” Oz tweeted in a Valentine’s Day message to President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser.
McCormick’s campaign spokesperson dismissed Oz as an outsider who is more concerned with celebrity than service to Pennsylvania.
“It’s clear to Pennsylvania voters that Mehmet Oz stands for the Hollywood stars, while Dave McCormick stands for the Stars and Stripes,” says McCormick communications director Jess Szymanski. Oz’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Walker, meanwhile, is espousing a much broader campaign message, despite his very close ties to Trump. His biographical ad denounces “politicians [who] put American against American, rich versus poor, black versus white, urban versus rural. I don’t believe in that garbage,” Walker says in the voiceover, which does not include the word “Trump.”
But he doesn’t have to say the name, says Martha Zoller, a longtime Georgia GOP consultant and onetime candidate for Congress.
“They are actual friends. They are not situational-loyalty friends, like everyone else (Trump) is endorsing,” Zoller says. Walker, then, can make a bigger-tent appeal without publicly praising Trump, she adds, noting, “Herschel is the first person in my life I have heard in a Republican primary encourage Democrats to vote for him.”
Johnson, running for a third Senate term from Wisconsin, has infuriated Democrats with his allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 elections and his vaccine skepticism. “Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease? Why do we assume that the body’s natural immune system isn’t the marvel that it really is?” Johnson said in an interview on WISN-AM Radio.
Those issues don’t come up in Johnson’s new ads, when he explains why he is running again after pledging to be done after two terms. The new spots focus on crime, border security, inflation and the national debt.
“There’s a gap between the rhetoric that is in channels that will mostly have a conservative audience and the rhetoric that the first three ads have focused on,” says Charles Franklin, director of Marquette Law School Poll.
Some candidates, however, are unabashed in their embrace of Trump, especially in states where they are in competitive GOP primaries. The campaign website for Adam Laxalt, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Nevada, opens with a banner overlay touting Trump’s endorsement, and includes a separate reference to an endorsement by Donald Trump Jr.
In Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Sen. David Perdue is out with an ad that is entirely Trump, with the former president offering his support and criticizing incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, saying Kemp – who resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s election results, which awarded the state to Biden – “let us down.”
But while those who make an obvious play for Trump voters may secure the votes of that wing of the party in a primary, the strategy might come back to bite them in a general election in a swing state, experts say.
“The Trump faction is getting smaller. It all depends on how fast it gets smaller – does it get smaller before the primary or by the general?” Zoller says.
“We know from recent history that voters are maybe turned off by a full Trumpian message,” notes Matt Kerbel, head of the political science department at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. In Virginia, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe’s effort to tie the ultimate winner, GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, to Trump, was not successful. But then, Youngkin separated himself from Trump during the campaign, Kerbel says, making McAuliffe’s message weaker.
In swing state Pennsylvania, one venue where Democrats have a rare chance to flip a critical seat blue, “the issue is, how many candidates who run with a full-throated embrace of Donald Trump are going to have to run differently in a general election, appealing to voters beyond the Republican base,” Kerbel says.
McCormick isn’t taking any chances. After a series of Trump-less ads casting the Senate candidate as a regular Pennsylvanian, McCormick ran a spot during the Super Bowl that featured a series of criticisms of Biden’s performance. The voice-over was a loud chant in the feverish tones of sports fans.
“Let’s go, Brandon!” the voices said, a slogan repeated by Trump supporters that is a stand-in for a profane denunciation of the man who beat Trump in 2020. The ad ran only in Pittsburgh. But the pre-Super Bowl hype about McCormick’s spot got national attention – surely, in Trump’s home state of Florida.