The absolute fealty to Trump is only part of the change this class of candidates would herald. There are institutional implications for the Senate as well. The bipartisan infrastructure deal Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman helped broker? Six of the top GOP candidates vying to replace him have rejected it.
At least five current House members have announced they are running for the open Senate seats, nearly all of whom are more hard-line conservative than the senators they’d replace.
Most of the newcomers would accelerate the GOP’s transition from tea party to Trump party, complicating the job of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who broke with Trump after the Jan. 6 riots that led to the president’s second impeachment.
“Trump has reshaped the Republican Party. We’re now a blue-collar party. We’re an America first party,” said Michael Whatley, the chair of the North Carolina GOP. “It’s a different party than it was when [retiring Missouri Sen.] Roy Blunt and Richard Burr first got elected. And I don’t think the party is going back. It’s tough on China, protect the border, fight for the Second Amendment, fight for life. That has been an enormously popular agenda with the base.”
McConnell has already indicated his willingness to intervene in GOP primary battles — even against Trump-backed candidates — if he perceives there are electability issues that might endanger the party’s chances of winning the seat. It’s an acknowledgment of a Senate landscape where Republicans have little room for error in their bid to win back the majority in the evenly divided chamber.
Already that dynamic is leading to tensions in Missouri, where GOP officials worry the candidacy of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens — who resigned office amid a 2018 sex scandal — will jeopardize the party’s chances of holding Blunt’s seat.
Greitens, the Republican primary frontrunner, made it clear in a March radio interview that he has no intention of following in the footsteps of Blunt, a deal-maker and close McConnell ally.
“Unfortunately, Roy Blunt has been out siding with Mitch McConnell,” the former governor said. “He’s been criticizing the president of the United States over what happened on Jan. 6. He’s been criticizing the president of the United States for not coming to Joe Biden’s inauguration, where obviously, everyone in Missouri, saw Roy Blunt there.”
All of the Republicans seeking the Missouri Senate seat are different in style and tone from Blunt, said Republican former state Sen. John Lamping.
“Roy is a super-super insider and that’s not what the base wants,” Lamping said. “No one is running to be a Roy Blunt senator. They’re running to be a Donald Trump senator. If somebody becomes a serious threat, they’ll be accused by their opponents of being more like Roy Blunt.”
The change in the composition of the GOP conference might be even greater than expected. Beyond the five senators who have announced their retirements, questions are swirling about the plans of three additional Republicans in the chamber — South Dakota’s John Thune, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley — who have not formally announced their candidacies and could be replaced by more Trump-aligned candidates. Thune and Murkowski have run afoul of Trump, who has already endorsed Republican Kelly Tshibaka against Murkowski.
Though a Trumpier Senate could cause McConnell fits, a top Republican strategist involved in Senate campaigns downplayed the risks to McConnell but acknowledged a change would come if the MAGA firebrands replace the five retiring senators.
“All of these [retiring senators] are good communicators, but their style is different. They enjoy moving legislation along behind the scenes. That’s what they’re good at and that’s why they’re in the Senate,” said the strategist, who spoke freely on condition of anonymity. “Politics certainly on our side — and I think across the board — is becoming more of a very public, very vocal fight over the issues. Sometimes that can lead to results, but it’s less about what’s happening behind the scenes and moving the football a yard at a time down the field and it’s more, maybe, of a Hail Mary on every snap.”
Those stylistic distinctions are glaring in Alabama, where Trump has endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks for retiring Sen. Richard Shelby’s seat. Brooks, a House Freedom Caucus member, is best known for speaking at the Jan. 6 rally in Washington that preceded the Capitol riots and urging the crowd to “start taking down names and kicking ass.”
Shelby, who’s chaired both the Appropriations and Banking committees, is Alabama’s longest-serving senator. In a sign of his productive relationship with current Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Leahy released a statement upon Shelby’s retirement describing him as “a true statesman, and a man of his word.“
Trump paired his endorsement of Brooks with criticism of McConnell and Shelby, who is backing his former chief of staff, Katie Britt, in the race.
“I see that the RINO Senator from Alabama, close friend of Old Crow Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby, is pushing hard to have his ‘assistant’ fight the great Mo Brooks for his Senate seat,” Trump said in a recent written statement that used the acronym for a “Republican in name only.”
McConnell responded by saying that being called an “Old Crow” was “quite an honor” because “Old Crow is Henry Clay’s favorite bourbon.”
Trump has also backed North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd, another House Freedom Caucus member who voted against certifying the presidential results and, along with fellow Senate candidate and former Rep. Mark Walker, joined a lawsuit to overturn the presidential election.
While Trump’s endorsement is a major boost in a GOP primary, it’s not always determinative. In Alabama’s 2017 special primary runoff for Senate, Trump endorsed appointed Sen. Luther Strange over former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who won the race only to lose in the general election.
Brett Doster, who worked for Moore’s campaign, said candidates like Moore have prevailed in some primaries over Trump-endorsed candidates when the GOP electorate believed in their conservative bonafides.
“What’s happened inside the Republican Party, for now, is that people are waiting around to see if Trump will be around or not, but he remains a litmus test,” Doster said.
Pennsylvania stands alone among the GOP primary contests because it’s a swing state that Trump lost in 2020 — and one that Democrats have reasonable hopes of flipping. In a sign of the ideological variation, Toomey’s vote to convict Trump has become an issue in the primary campaign — and not every prospective Republican in the race condemns him for it.
Trump’s allies have vowed to punish one potential candidate in the race who has stood by Toomey, former Rep. Ryan Costello. A one-time aide to former party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter, Craig Snyder, also joined the race as an anti-Trump Republican, though most party insiders don’t see him gaining much traction.
Some believe that Trump’s relentless efforts to overturn the election results in Pennsylvania could backfire in a general election because the electorate is “more anti-Biden than pro-Trump,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Phil English, who acknowledged that Trump’s influence is still a powerful force in the party.
But former state GOP Chair Rob Gleason cautions against any belief that Trump’s influence has waned in primary politics. He said Biden’s recent declining poll numbers amid the deadly withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the increase of Covid cases nationwide has led to a renewed sense of energy among Trump supporters.
“Primaries have low turnout but you can count on the Trump people because they’re still coming to rallies, they still fly Trump flags, they still wave Trump signs,” Gleason said. “In all of these states we’re talking about, Trump supporters are still really active and because of all the problems with this presidency now, they don’t just feel more energized. They feel vindicated.”