CNN

It’s becoming the MAGA midterms – with or without former President Donald Trump.

Sixteen months after leaving office, he’s unquestionably still the figurehead of the red-hatted “Make America Great Again” brigades, but talented messengers running in this year’s midterm elections have sometimes been more effective in articulating that brand and where it is headed.

Trump is now facing a fresh test: not only whether he can vault his endorsed primary candidates to victory, but also whether he can maintain control of the movement he started as some candidates he spurned are claiming the MAGA label anyway and as his loyalists reject his chosen candidates.

The former President is sprinkling primary endorsements like springtime blossoms as he seeks to prove his power before a possible 2024 White House race. Rival Republican candidates are feuding over who truly epitomizes the “America First” mantle regardless of who the former President has backed. And President Joe Biden, hounded by high inflation and gas prices setting daily records, is trying to transform the election from a referendum on him into one on the democracy-threatening extremism of “MAGA king” Trump.

The battle to define the next phase of the MAGA movement reflects the huge role the 45th President plays in US politics – one that is especially extraordinary since the twice-impeached former commander in chief lost after a single term and left office in disgrace after attempting to mount a coup.

But even the Republicans who admit that he lost the 2020 election don’t see his legacy as tarnished. And as the dominant figure in the GOP, he’s shaping what increasingly looks like a likely Republican House majority next year into a political weapon by setting himself up as a puppet master for the party’s top leader in the chamber, Kevin McCarthy of California. The House minority leader on Thursday was subpoenaed along with four other GOP lawmakers by the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

The ex-President has backed winners in high-profile tests of his endorsement power in the Ohio Senate race and the first incumbent vs. incumbent House matchup of the year, even while his candidate fell short in the Nebraska gubernatorial primary.

But those early congressional primaries and rumblings of the 2024 presidential campaign are also elevating a corps of younger, radical candidates who are laying claim to the MAGA creed themselves, even without Trump’s endorsement, and are raising the question whether the movement that Trump invented is beginning to run out of his control.

This is most notably the case in Pennsylvania, where GOP Senate candidate Kathy Barnette has emerged as a major threat to Trump-backed Mehmet Oz and another top candidate, former hedge fund executive David McCormick, who has transformed himself from a conventional establishment Republican into a rabble-rousing acolyte of Trump – even without the ex-President’s endorsement.

And in Florida, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken Trump’s tactics to the next level by enacting a MAGA-like agenda. While Trump’s rally speeches center on his grievances about the 2020 election, DeSantis has used the unbridled power of the governor’s office to pillory the “woke” left and the press. He has targeted LGBTQ rights under the guise of “parental rights.” And he has built a national following and gigantic war chest by taking on liberals who he says are seeking to erase America’s cultural heritage and traditional values.

Meanwhile, some of Trump’s handpicked candidates – like J.D. Vance, Ohio’s newly minted GOP Senate nominee – have been able to frame the populist and nationalist goals of the MAGA movement more succinctly than the former President.

At a Trump rally in Pennsylvania for Oz last week, for example, Vance drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd as he described the movement as a struggle between “the people” and establishment Republicans, who he said would ship American jobs overseas and start “stupid wars that we have no business fighting.” Vance, once a harsh critic of Trump who used his endorsement to secure the GOP nod, called the midterms a “war for the soul of the Republican Party.”

And as Barnette, a conservative commentator, has touted her far-right credentials, she has bluntly said that “MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” hinting at the movement’s future beyond the former President.

“Although he coined the word, MAGA actually belongs to the people,” she said at a recent debate. “Our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”

Republican operatives in the Keystone State are scrambling to stop Barnette, believing she’s untested and unvetted – after a series of inflammatory past statements – and could hand a seat to Democrats in the fall that could determine which party controls the US Senate. Trump, who hates to be upstaged, isn’t taking kindly to Barnette’s surge, which could damage his kingmaker status if she triumphs over Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate primary on Tuesday.

“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said in a statement on Thursday. “She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted,” he said – a comment that seemed a bit rich given the considerable skeletons in the cupboard he overcame to become President.

But, characteristically, Trump left himself a way out and a possible avenue to coopting her success if she wins, saying that if Barnette can clear up questions about her past, “she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party—and I will be behind her all the way.”

Still, Trump ended his statement by reaffirming his support for Oz, whose fame and television stardom seem to have been largely behind an endorsement of a candidate Republican purists argue is not a true conservative.

“Dr. Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania. A vote for anyone else in the Primary is a vote against Victory in the Fall!” Trump wrote.

While the former President’s endorsement was widely credited with lifting Vance clear of the pack in Ohio, the idea that he simply barks orders and his followers jump is a caricature.

In Georgia, for instance, Trump is highly popular among Republicans, but his effort to replace GOP Gov. Brian Kemp – who refused to sign up to his election-stealing scheme – with a handpicked candidate in ex-Sen. David Perdue appears to be backfiring.

“People love Trump, but Kemp will win,” said Josh Brown, a 39-year-old from Rockmart, Georgia, on Thursday. Another voter, Jim Mayer, 65, of Rome, added: “The Trump endorsement means a lot, but I’ve followed Kemp a long time.”

Audrey Burch, 55, also of Rome, is undecided between Kemp and Perdue. She faults Kemp for not doing more to address Trump’s concerns about the 2020 election, but she lamented that she hasn’t seen Perdue out there campaigning.

“I hope he’s not planning on winning just because he’s associating himself with Trump,” she said.

The rise of MAGA candidates who are in some cases more extreme than Trump is raising the stakes for Democrats who may end up opposing them.

Some voters who crowded into a bar in the southeastern Pennsylvania city of York on Thursday to see Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the front-runner for the Democratic Senate nod, are watching the GOP primaries with alarm.

But York resident Angela Stever predicted that a radical MAGA Republican nominee would drive Democrats to the polls.

“They are loud, they make a lot of noise, but we come out when it matters. Democrats always come out when it matters,” she said.

And after months in which Democrats have struggled to find a message, Biden has recently gone on offense to present the midterms as a choice between his agenda and what he now calls “ultra-MAGA” Republicans.

He’s also warned about the potential human costs of Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s 11-point plan, which would require all Americans to pay some form of income tax and could create an opening for cuts to Social Security and Medicare by sunsetting the programs every five years.

Though Scott’s plan has been rejected by many Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Biden charged that the GOP does not “want to solve inflation by lowering the costs; they want to solve it by raising taxes and lowering your income.”

But there’s no guarantee that running a fierce anti-Trump campaign will mitigate expected Democratic losses when Trump is not on the ticket.

Last November, Biden, former President Barack Obama and Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe tried to turn that state’s gubernatorial race into a referendum on Trump. But Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin carved out a narrow victory in a state Biden had won by 10 points the year before by addressing parents’ concerns about education.

That kind of model may not work everywhere since Youngkin, whose corporate image played well in the moderate Washington, DC, suburbs, was able to keep the ex-President at arm’s length. But it shows the risk that Biden is taking by going full anti-MAGA this early.

And headwinds against Biden and the Democrats are so strong this year, it’s possible MAGA candidates could be lifted into office on a red wave. Such a scenario could transform the Senate GOP conference as older, more establishment Republicans retire and younger, more extreme senators, surfing the anti-elite uprising stirred by Trump, replace them.

That dynamic has already surfaced in the House, where McCarthy has long struggled to keep MAGA firebrands like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida in line as they have repeatedly distracted from the GOP’s ability to drive a message.

But with Trump so heavily involved in trying to pick winners and losers, the totality of the primary season will deliver a verdict not just on the power of the man, but also on the power of the movement and whether he controls the forces he unleashed.

If there are any signs of weakness, increasingly prominent figures like DeSantis are circling, ready to swoop in and carry the MAGA flag at a moment’s notice.

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