(CNN)The 2022 US Senate race in North Carolina could provide an early test of whether the Republican Party will continue to embrace President Donald Trump after his loss, potentially featuring Lara Trump, the President’s daughter-in-law, against a field of current and former Republican officials unwilling to step aside.
Her public interest in the seat has not scared off a number of Senate Republican aspirants, who are driven in part by the alluring prospect of running for an open seat in the first midterm election of a Democratic president, which usually favors the opposing party.
But Republican operatives warn that the family will still hold great political power over the party despite its patriarch’s devastating loss, saying Lara Trump could be a formidable candidate in a primary election for the seat that could determine the control of the Senate.
A Trump candidacy would be difficult for any Republican to challenge, since many of the party’s supporters are united by the President’s personality rather than ideological principles.
North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker announced his Senate campaign earlier this month, pitching himself in the purple state as both “a conservative warrior and a bridge builder.” He has already received the endorsements of GOP Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
When asked in a recent interview about Lara Trump’s potential candidacy, the Baptist pastor previewed one potential attack.
“There’s nothing against the law for somebody moving from New York state to North Carolina to run,” Walker told CNN.
“We’re going to stay focused on what we’ve accomplished,” he added. “I have nothing bad to say about the (Trump) family.”
Lara Trump was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, went to North Carolina State University and worked as a television producer for “Inside Edition” before advising the 2016 and 2020 Trump presidential campaigns. She and her husband Eric have two children, including a daughter Carolina named after her home state, and live in Westchester, New York.
In a recent interview on Newsmax, she did not rule out a North Carolina Senate bid.
“It will always be home to me,” she said. “I’ve seen the really positive ways that you can impact people’s lives thanks to this President, and it would be an honor to do it.”
A source who talked with Lara Trump about the upcoming race told CNN that she was “very strongly considering” a campaign, and called Walker’s comments implying she’d be a carpetbagger “ridiculous.” The source said that her father-in-law told Lara during the 2016 presidential race that he would give her the responsibility of winning North Carolina. Trump won, and took it again in 2020.
“I think she has a tremendous reservoir of goodwill among Republican voters but also among many North Carolinians,” said the source. “She’s well known in the state.”
North Carolina Republican strategist Paul Shumaker said Lara Trump’s situation is “not unlike” when Elizabeth Dole changed her residency from Washington, DC, to North Carolina before running and winning a Senate seat in 2002
“All candidates will have to manage and handle multiple issues,” Shumaker said. “How she handles the issues will ultimately determine her electability in both a primary and a general election.”
North Carolina will once again be a crucial battleground in the fight for control of the Senate in 2022. There are 21 GOP Senate seats and 13 Democratic seats up, and no matter who wins the two Georgia Senate runoffs elections, control of the chamber will once again be on the line.
Some Republicans fear that Lara Trump would be dominant in a Republican primary but vulnerable in a general election, especially after the President sowed discord in the country by baselessly challenging his loss.
“Everyone needs to be thinking about who has the best shot of holding the seat for the Republican majority in ’22,” said a second North Carolina Republican political strategist. “That’s got to be everybody’s driving focus, and whether the right person for that is from the Trump family or not, I think is a very, very important question that needs to be answered.”
In November, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, who saw his lead in public polls narrow after an extramarital affair became public in the final weeks of the campaign. Politicos in the state quickly turned their sights on the 2022 race for the seat left by the retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
Burr confirmed on Tuesday that he didn’t plan on running in 2022.
“I don’t have any plans to right now,” he said of a run for a fourth term.
Asked about Trump’s potential candidacy, Burr said: “I’m not going to get into what may or may not happen down there. I’m sure there will be 20 people in.”
Republicans are still mulling their own potential campaigns. North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd is considering running for the seat, according to a spokesman. Rep. Dan Bishop said in a statement that his “thoughts about the US Senate right now” are on winning the two Georgia elections, without mentioning his own aspirations. And former Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina state House speaker Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who recently lost the gubernatorial race against Democratic incumbent Roy Cooper, are also interested, according to the New York Times.
When asked if he would endorse anybody in the Republican primary, Tillis told CNN, “At the end of the day, we have to win the general.”
The senator said it’s “very likely” that there will be “anywhere” between seven and 10 candidates, “probably six of whom are friends of mine.”
Tillis added that it’s “hard to handicap” how much Lara Trump’s last name would help her in the primary, though he noted she has “a lot of appeal to the base.”
“Everybody knows who Lara Trump is,” Tillis said. “A great spokesperson, a great profile. But it depends on who else gets in the race.”
David McIntosh, the Club for Growth PAC president, told CNN that his group had already talked with a “few potential candidates” and is “happy to see a number of pro-growth conservatives” considering bids.
North Carolina Republican party chairman Michael Whatley projected confidence that they would be able to hold onto the seat. “North Carolina is still a center right state,” he said. “We have a strong track record of having Republicans in the Senate.”
North Carolina Democrats are coming off of a disappointing 2020. While Cooper won reelection, President-elect Joe Biden and Cunningham lost the state, and Republicans maintained their majorities in both state chambers.
But Democrats are still hopeful that they can win the Senate seat in 2022, noting that in the months up until his scandal, Cunningham held a firm lead in the polls.
State Sen. Erica Smith, who lost to Cunningham in the Democratic primary, plans to run again, and state Sen. Jeff Jackson is considering a bid, among others.
“There’s important work that needs to be done in bringing together our rural and urban communities and building an American Dream that’s within reach for every North Carolinian and American,” Smith told CNN.