Trump's political revenge tour takes on Republicans who broke with him over Jan. 6
South Carolina Republican congressional candidate Russell Fry released a TV ad this week called "Villains Anonymous." It features the Joker, a pirate, Maleficent and Satan, all sitting in a circle in a sort of support group.
Joining them is an actor playing Rep. Tom Rice, a congressman from the state's 7th Congressional District.
Fry is challenging the incumbent Rice for the Republican nomination, and Donald Trump is a major focus of his campaign. In the ad, Rice's admission that he voted for Trump's impeachment draws groans of disgust from the group of villains.
Trump is also very focused on people like Fry these days, which is to say those running to unseat other Republicans Trump dislikes.
Trump remains focused on loyalty and Jan. 6
Rice is one of 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and Fry was chosen as a featured speaker at a Trump rally in Florence, S.C., on Saturday night.
Katie Arrington was chosen as another featured speaker. Trump is backing her against Republican Rep. Nancy Mace in the neighboring 1st District. Mace did not vote for impeachment, but did heavily criticize Trump after Jan. 6, saying that he "put all of our lives at risk."
The way Trump is intervening in primaries is unprecedented, according to Republican strategist Doug Heye.
"Other Republican presidents certainly have gotten involved in political races," he said. "But they certainly haven't gone on a grievance tour and done so throughout the campaign cycle."
Trump's prominence in the GOP — and the fact that those who praise him the most also often get opportunities in the spotlight — was visible at the Conservative Political Action Conference held in Florida last month.
The conference, for example, did not feature Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, a staunch conservative who is also a vocal Trump critic, as it had in the past. However, it did feature Harriet Hageman, who is challenging Cheney with Trump's support.
In his CPAC keynote speech, Trump exhorted the crowd to "fight and work hard to elect candidates who believe in the principles and policies that we hold so dear."
Hageman, who once was strongly anti-Trump, now does hold Trump dearly enough to get his endorsement. And she is heavily stressing her allegiance to him in this run.
One of her ads is called "Ride For The Brand" — in it, cowboys explain to the camera that those who ride for the brand are loyal "to the person who hired them, to the one who paid them." Cheney, they add, is not loyal because she is "fighting against President Trump."
Trump money draws other donors to MAGA candidates
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.
In the grand scheme of campaign money, that may not be a lot, but Trump's power to boost a candidate goes well beyond one PAC.
"What Trump's endorsement does, first and foremost, is it brings attention," Heye said. "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."
Drew McKissick is the chair of the South Carolina GOP. Trump endorsed McKissick in 2021 over another Trump-hugging candidate, and McKissick is also set to speak on Saturday. He credits Trump with reenergizing the party in his state.
"I mean, there were several counties there where when I got elected four and a half years ago, we didn't even have a county party organization," he said. "After Trump's victory, we had 50 to 60 people show up to organize a county Republican Party."
The 2022 primaries will test the endurance of Trump's influence
Trump is still, by far, the most powerful Republican in the party — so much so that some candidates he loudly opposes still seek to tie themselves to him.
Mace, for example, posted a video of herself in front of Trump Tower last month, talking about how long she had supported Trump and her time working for his campaign. She didn't mention any of her past Trump criticism.
I’m standing in front of Trump Tower with a message this morning…#SC01 #LowcountryFirst pic.twitter.com/CpmMYA63qt— Nancy Mace (@NancyMace) February 10, 2022
And while Rice has been willing to criticize Trump, he also doesn't totally divorce himself from the former president, telling voters about how he helped draft the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and that he overwhelmingly voted with Trump in Congress.
Even while Trump remains the center of the Republican universe, Heye sees his power possibly ebbing.
"What we're starting to see is he doesn't dominate the political stage like he used to," Heye said. "And as he's had some rallies, we've seen more empty seats, and that's what's going to be interesting to see where it is — does he remain the draw that he's been for five years now?"
It's also becoming clear that a Trump endorsement doesn't make or break a campaign. He endorsed Rep. Ted Budd in the North Carolina Republican Senate primary, for example, and Budd has reportedly disappointed Trump in his polling and fundraising.
Meanwhile, a Trump-backed bill failed this week in Wyoming, which was aimed at preventing people from changing parties ahead of primaries. That's something that could allow Democrats to help Cheney in her primary fight.
For Rice, though, the concerns are much deeper than winning.
"If we are going to have a scenario where the president can try to intimidate Congress into doing what he wants, well shoot, we might as well have a monarchy," he told South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen last month.
Trump was already taking swings ahead of taking the stage on Saturday. On Friday, he put out a statement promoting the candidates running against "absolutely horrendous Nancy Mace" and "'doesn't have a clue' Tom Rice."
NPR's Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.