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On The Trail: Trump threatens a Tea Party redux

In the months before the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans, stuck deep in the minority in the U.S. Senate, began to see the glimmerings of a path back to the majority. Rising voter anger over a glacial economic recovery handed the GOP an unlikely win in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, and polls showed other Democratic incumbents in trouble. 

But a vein of unrest had opened among Republican voters upset with leaders in Washington they saw as insufficiently conservative or conspiratorially aligned with Democrats. 

The nascent Tea Party movement upended mainstream Republican candidates in a handful of key states, replacing them with archconservatives who promised to burn down the establishment. And in the process, they cost Republicans control of the Senate.

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In 2010, Republicans gained a net six U.S. Senate seats. But inept and far too conservative candidates in states such as Colorado, Delaware and Nevada lost winnable races, costing Republicans control. Two years later, Democrats won races in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota — all states Republican presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt Romney Eugene Goodman to throw out first pitch at Nationals game White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain On The Money: Consumer prices jumped 5 percent annually in May | GOP senators say bipartisan group has infrastructure deal MORE carried by wide margins — to pad their majority.

In five of those seven states — with the exceptions of Montana and North Dakota — the candidates preferred by national Republicans lost primary elections to conservative upstarts. 

“Ten years ago, Republicans effectively handed over five Senate seats to the Democrats solely because of bad candidates who were backed by national Tea Party groups that didn’t have the purest of motives,” said Brian Walsh, who led communications at the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. “We ultimately won back a couple cycles later the seats in Indiana and Missouri, but Delaware, Colorado and Nevada are all still blue today.” 

Just over a decade later, some Republicans see the seedlings of another internecine war that will have political consequences.

In one corner is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMaher goes after Manchin: 'Most powerful Republican in the Senate' Supreme Court confounding its partisan critics Why the Democrats need Joe Manchin MORE (R-Ky.), denied his majority title at the hands of suburban voters who punished his party for its association with a poisonous president. In the other is that now-former president, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE, desperate to maintain his hold over voters who adore him. 

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The latest round erupted this week when McConnell once again tried to distance his party from the former president. Trump, McConnell wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “bears moral responsibility” for the Jan. 6 insurrection that claimed five lives at the U.S. Capitol. 

“His supporters stormed the Capitol because of the unhinged falsehoods he shouted into the world’s largest megaphone,” McConnell wrote.

Trump’s response was as predictably venial as it was packed with self-serving misinformation. But buried within the juvenile attacks was a line that should send shudders through those Republicans who have been around long enough to remember the near-misses in 2010 and 2012. 

“Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First,” Trump wrote in a statement released through his PAC. “This is a big moment for our country, and we cannot let it pass by using third rate ‘leaders’ to dictate our future!” 

Though Trump is not known for using his largesse to help anyone not named Trump, his promise to create trouble for those eager to divorce the GOP from its former leader is not empty. Trump’s Save America PAC had more than $31 million in the bank at the end of 2020, money he could use to finance those intraparty challenges. Another PAC, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, ended the year with almost $60 million in cash. Trump’s campaign account reported $10 million more on hand.

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Midterm elections are not typically friendly to an incumbent president’s party, and Republicans need only one seat to reclaim a majority in the Senate. 

But the early evolution of next year’s Senate battlefield looks primed for a repeat of the Tea Party challenge that upended Republican hopes of claiming control a decade ago.  

Retiring Republican senators are leaving seats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama and Ohio, all of which will draw crowded fields vying to be the loudest pro-Trump voices in the room. All four states have elected Democratic senators in the past six years, and both Pennsylvania and Ohio have one Democratic incumbent.

Other incumbents such as Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyHouse unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Iowa governor questions lack of notice on migrant children flights to Des Moines Senate crafts Pelosi alternative on drug prices MORE (R-Iowa), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP Rep. Vicky Hartzler launches Missouri Senate bid Cryptocurrency industry lobbies Washington for 'regulatory clarity' Bipartisan group prepping infrastructure plan as White House talks lag MORE (R-Mo.) and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanSenate GOP opens door to earmarks Arkansas governor quietly bucking GOP's dive into culture wars Trump allies line up ahead of potentially bruising primaries MORE (R-Ark.), all north of 70, also face reelection. Boozman has said he will seek another term. A spokeswoman for Blunt said he would too. Grassley has been conspicuously silent. Open seats would certainly invite crowded fields, though in redder territory safer for Republicans. 

Republicans are certain to target Sens. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Bipartisan senators introduce bill to protect small businesses from cyberattacks MLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game 'political theatrics' MORE (D-Ga.), Mark KellyMark KellyArizona AG Mark Brnovich launches Senate challenge to Mark Kelly Arizona Democrats launch voter outreach effort ahead of key Senate race McGuire unveils Arizona Senate campaign MORE (R-Ariz.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanProgressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack MORE (D-N.H.), all of whom represent states President BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE won in 2020 and where schisms between Republican factions run deep.

In Georgia, former Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsGeorgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor The Hill's Morning Report - Census winners and losers; House GOP huddles MORE (R), a Trump ally who finished third in the race for Warnock’s seat, has signaled his interest in a future run for office, though it is not certain whether he would choose a rematch or a primary challenge to Gov. Brian KempBrian KempNorth Carolina county reverses course, ends coke machine ban MLB All-Star game to stay in Denver, judge rules MLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game 'political theatrics' MORE (R). In Arizona, state Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward, one of Trump’s most prominent allies, is said to be considering a bid. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris SununuChris Sununu9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 Sununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Overnight Health Care: Johnson & Johnson delay prompts criticism of CDC panel | Pfizer CEO says third dose of COVID-19 vaccine 'likely' needed within one year | CDC finds less than 1 percent of fully vaccinated people got COVID-19 MORE (R) — a vocal Trump critic — has hinted he may run, though others are already in the race. 

The Republican path back to a Senate majority is clear, but it is fraught with primary peril. Another season of mayhem like those of 2010 and 2012 will make the path all the more difficult to navigate. 

The biggest difference between the past and the present is the logical evolution of the Tea Party movement: Trump himself. He represents a rallying point for angry conservatives who have retrenched around a personality voters decisively rejected, and he starts out with $100 million to prove his power — even if that power comes at the ultimate expense of the party he once led. 

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.