Donald Trump sounds like he’s ready for a GOP civil war. But he’s also eager to play a leading role in Senate Republicans’ battle for the majority.
The former president is dialing up GOP senators to back their campaigns and talk strategy, weighing how to approach primaries in critical open seats and making sure he leaves an imprint on the midterm elections. Trump’s involvement, revealed in interviews with a dozen GOP senators, shows how far the 50-member conference has come two months after they weighed a clean break with the former president following the insurrection at the Capitol by his supporters.
These days there’s a growing recognition that the Senate GOP and Trump need each other as Republicans fight to win back the majority and Trump mulls another run for the White House. His behind-the-scenes engagement also contrasts starkly with his public break from Republican campaign committees, including the Senate GOP’s, which received cease-and-desist letters from attorneys asking them to stop using Trump’s name.
In reality, the GOP’s worst-case scenario would be running campaign operations at odds with Trump in must-win states across the country next year. With that in mind, Republican senators are making a fresh effort to ensure they and Trump are aligned as much as possible — especially given lingering tensions between the ex-president, their leadership and the seven GOP colleagues who recently voted to convict him at his impeachment trial.
“He brought a bunch of new voters into the party that we want to keep,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is running for reelection and has spoken recently to Trump. “He’s the most influential Republican in America. He’s not going to ride off into the sunset, write his memoirs and open a library.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is trying to arbitrate Trump’s beef with GOP senators he views as insufficiently loyal. While he conceded there’s no way to stop Trump from going after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted to convict him in the impeachment trial, Graham told Trump this week that he needs to back as many of the Republican incumbents as possible.
“Endorse as many incumbents that you can. Come out for the folks that you can come out for,” Graham recalled telling Trump when they spoke on Monday. “Play team ball to the extent it’s possible.”
Trump’s even working on incumbent retention. He spoke recently to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is undecided on running again next year. Johnson said it would “probably be an accurate statement” that Trump would like to see him run for a third term.
Before GOP Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas announced his campaign for a third term this week, Trump had already assured the soft-spoken Republican that he’d back his reelection campaign. And Trump has had multiple “very positive” conversations with Sen. John Hoeven about his reelection, the North Dakota Republican said.
“He’s showing more enthusiasm and involvement than most former presidents have,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has discussed the midterms with Trump. “It’s going to be different. It’ll be sort of a shadow [presidential] campaign going on. I don’t know if he’ll run again, but I think he’s definitely going to be involved in 2022.”
Trump has already officially endorsed Boozman, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Jerry Moran of Kansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana; in addition, Hoeven said Trump is supportive of his campaign. Trump is also encouraging former NFL running back Herschel Walker to run against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).
Senate Republicans are also hopeful that Trump will spare Senate Minority Whip John Thune his vitriol after he threatened to go after the South Dakotan for disparaging Trump’s plans to challenge the election results.
Meanwhile, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) is expected to meet with Trump this weekend. Scott was a stalwart ally of Trump’s over the last two years but has a tough job triangulating between Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. During an NRSC lunch on Wednesday, attendees said McConnell highlighted that his own super PAC has out-raised Trump’s, a detail first reported by the New York Times.
But Republicans also reported that donors they call are no longer really talking about Trump.
The former president remains livid at McConnell for criticizing his “dereliction of duty” on Jan. 6 as his supporters stormed the Capitol and Trump was slow to call them off or call in military reinforcements. Trump has dinged McConnell’s handling of a December debate over stimulus checks and even tried to take credit for McConnell’s re-election. The two are not on speaking terms.
And they appear headed for a collision course in some of the party’s five open Senate races following the retirements of GOP Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina. Republicans are most worried about Pennsylvania and North Carolina, two of Democrats’ best pick-up opportunities and states where Trump-inspired candidates could in theory be more vulnerable in general elections.
Those vacant seats will reshape the Senate GOP, as allies of McConnell are either replaced by Democrats or — especially in red states — Trump acolytes. In Missouri, Alabama and Ohio, candidates have a good chance to win primaries by cloaking themselves in the Trump mantle and running at odds with Republican leaders, then easily go on to prevail in general elections.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) discussed the open seat in Missouri this week with Trump and said his phone has been ringing off the hook with interest from candidates.
“This is a state that voted for President Trump by almost 20 points in 2016 and 17 this last time around. So I expect you’ll see that reflected in the primary field,” Hawley said.
Toomey, who voted to convict Trump and does not talk to the former president, said he may endorse a candidate in what’s certain to be a crowded primary in his state. But he said there are limits to how much he can guide the direction of the Pennsylvania GOP, where a centrist like former Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) could face off against Republicans that challenged the election results in the House.
“I don’t have the ability to keep someone from winning the primary. That’s something that Pennsylvania Republican voters are going to decide,” Toomey said. He said candidates have a “wide range” of potential approaches to Trump.
Whether Trump gets more opportunities to make his mark on the Senate GOP depends on whether Johnson or Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) or someone else in the party retires. Murkowski said the only reason she hasn’t officially said she’s running is “if I tell you one way or the other, then I have no announcement.”
The prospect of seven or more retirements in a 50-member conference is daunting to Senate Republicans who aren’t used to such extreme turnover. More open seats means more potential conflict with Trump in GOP primaries — battles that Republicans are intent on avoiding.
So as Trump shows up on their caller IDs, they’re trying to make sure that Blunt’s retirement announcement this week is the last one they’ll hear.
“RonJohn and Grassley are feeling extreme pressure to stay put,” said one Senate Republican.