MINDEN, Nev. — Surrounded by a half-dozen construction cranes hoisting floodlights, loudspeakers and American flags into the chilly desert twilight, Joe Lombardo stood in front of an attentive audience at a Trump rally and delivered a warm tribute.
“We’re here to rally for the Republican ticket, and who’s going to help us?” Lombardo, the party’s nominee for governor of Nevada, told a crowd on the Minden airport tarmac that outnumbered the town’s population of 3,500. “The greatest president, right? Donald J. Trump!”
But the praise from Lombardo, a longtime Clark County sheriff, contrasted sharply with his tepid testimonial of Trump a week earlier.
Seated in a Las Vegas television studio with his hands pressed tightly together in his lap, Lombardo demurred when asked during his only scheduled debate with Gov. Steve Sisolak, the Democratic incumbent, if Trump had been a great president.
“I wouldn’t use that adjective — I wouldn’t say great,” Lombardo answered. “He was a sound president.”
Heading into the final weeks of the midterm campaigns, Republican candidates locked in close races, as Lombardo is, have twisted themselves into political contortions as they puzzle out how to handle their party’s most powerful figure — and its most controversial — while toggling between the debate stage and the rally stage.
The challenge confronting Republican contenders across the country is how to win over moderate and independent swing voters without alienating the party’s base of Trump loyalists — or the former president. Trump often views politics in deeply personal terms and is known to respond in kind to acts of defiance, even when retribution could jeopardize an election for his party.
Democrats are similarly trapped in an awkward dance with President Joe Biden, whose low approval ratings have forced candidates to keep him at an arm’s distance. But polls show that Biden’s political brand is not as polarizing as Trump’s. To like Trump is to love him, while disapproval is often on par with disdain.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll last month, more than half of the voters who said they viewed Trump favorably said they viewed him very favorably, while 4 out of 5 who had unfavorable opinions of the former president said they viewed him very unfavorably.
Striking the right balance — or not — could decide whether Republicans win control of the Senate and capture several governor’s offices in key battleground states.
That calculation is complicated by political terrain that varies by state. A winning Republican coalition for J.D. Vance in the Senate race in Ohio — a state that Trump easily won twice — will most likely require a smaller proportion of independent voters than statewide contests in Nevada, which Trump narrowly lost twice, political strategists said.
In North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd emerged from a crowded Republican Senate primary on the strength of an endorsement from the former president. Budd carried out a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz that prominently featured Trump’s backing, but he held few public events and skipped all four Republican primary debates.
But while Trump won North Carolina twice, his victory two years ago was by fewer than 75,000 votes out of 5.5 million ballots cast.
At a rally on Sept. 23 in Wilmington, North Carolina, Trump’s first event in the state during the general election, Budd teased a potential third Trump presidential campaign in 2024.
“He made America great, and who knows, folks?” Budd said to thousands of Trump supporters. “He might just do it again.”
But when Budd was asked at his debate Friday with Cheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee for Senate, whether he wanted Trump to open another campaign for the White House, he would not say.
“I’m going to exclusively focus on this one right now,” Budd said of his own race. “We have 32 days on this one. Let’s get on the other side of this and let’s have that conversation then.”
Budd also hedged on his support for Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Budd voted to overturn the results after a mob of Trump supporters rioted in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and signed a letter after the election urging the Justice Department to investigate allegations of voter fraud and other irregularities.
In late 2020, Budd also spread bogus claims that voting machines used in some states came from a company with ties to liberal billionaire George Soros, according to text messages obtained by CNN that Budd sent to Mark Meadows, then the White House chief of staff.
But during the Friday debate, Budd said he had voted to overturn the 2020 election in order to “inspire more debate.”
“Debate is healthy for democracy,” Budd added, without explaining what needed to be debated at the time of the vote. At that point, the Trump campaign had made several unsuccessful court challenges and each state’s Electoral College delegation had already met and cast its ballots.
Similarly, in Arizona, Blake Masters won the Republican nomination for Senate with the help of Trump’s endorsement, which arrived months after Masters recorded a social media video in which he looked directly into the camera to tell viewers, “I think Trump won in 2020.” At the time, Trump made clear he was snubbing another Republican candidate who the former president believed had not done enough to support the lie that the election was rigged.
But at a debate last week with Sen. Mark Kelly, the Democratic incumbent, Masters agreed that Biden had been legitimately elected. He said that Biden had probably won because social media companies suppressed negative news about Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
But pressed on whether he thought there had been a problem with the counting of votes in 2020, as Trump has claimed, Masters declined.
“I haven’t seen evidence of that,” he said.
Three days after the debate, Masters mingled with attendees before a Trump rally in Mesa, Arizona. In a brief interview as he shook hands and posed for pictures, Masters said he stood by his position on election fraud.
Asked which position, Masters replied, “Both.”
“Completely consistent,” he said.
Masters smiled, turned and headed toward the stage where he would soon stand side by side with the former president.
© 2022 The New York Times Company
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