Parnell exit threatens to hurt Trump's political clout

Republican Sean Parnell’s exit from the hotly contested Senate race in Pennsylvania is the latest development threatening to deal a blow to former President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE’s political clout as he looks to maintain his grip over the GOP.

Parnell, who emerged as the leading Republican candidate in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.) after winning an early endorsement from Trump, made the decision to suspend his campaign on Monday after a judge ruled that his estranged wife should get primary custody of their three children in a case in which she accused him of physical and verbal abuse.

Parnell has forcefully denied the allegations against him. Still, the controversies surrounding his personal life and his decision to remove himself from contention are likely to raise further questions about Trump’s political instincts and status as a kingmaker within the Republican Party.

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“Trump’s got no strategy. He’s got no plans,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican consultant who has worked on several statewide races in Pennsylvania. “He just wants to punish his enemies and reward his most loyal sycophants.”

“He doesn’t really have anything positive to say,” Naughton added. “It’s all nonstop negativity and trying to assert control over a political party that’s not really that controllable, and I think it’s getting worse by the day.”

Trump threw his support behind Parnell, a retired Army Ranger and former congressional candidate, in September before details of his family history were widely publicized. The former president had been encouraged by his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to endorse Parnell.

But after the allegations of abuse surfaced, Trump didn’t revoke his endorsement of Parnell, even as Republican leaders expressed concerns about his overall electability.

“I think the people around him led him to believe that Sean Parnell was the best candidate,” one Pennsylvania Republican said. “But he had every opportunity to pull back, he had a million off-ramps, and he didn’t take any of them.”

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His exit from the Pennsylvania Senate race came as a relief to some Republicans, who feared that having Parnell as their nominee could jeopardize the party’s chances of holding Toomey’s seat in one of the most competitive Senate races of the 2022 midterm election cycle.

Republicans need to net just five seats in the House next year to recapture the majority, a goal that appears well within reach given the historical headwinds facing Democrats and the heavy edge the GOP has in the decennial redistricting process.

The battle for control of the Senate, on the other hand, is expected to be a more even fight. The GOP needs to net only one seat to win back its majority, meaning Democrats can’t afford to cede any ground next year. And while Republicans are defending more seats and dealing with a spate of retirements, Democrats — who were already facing a difficult political climate — have seen their poll numbers erode in recent months.

There’s little doubt among Republicans that Trump remains a towering figure in the political landscape, especially in GOP primaries that will likely be decided by the party’s most conservative voters.

Still, some Republicans have begun questioning the extent to which Trump’s desire to elevate loyalists in competitive primaries is compatible with the party’s need to nominate candidates capable of appealing to a broader swath of general election voters, many of whom rejected Trump in the 2020 presidential race.

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For many in the party, Republican Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - New vaccine mandate in NYC; Biden-Putin showdown Republicans eye gains with female voters after Virginia rout Activists preparing for midterms with abortion as a key issue MORE’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race earlier this month illustrated the benefits of nominating such a candidate. Youngkin managed to run a two-tiered campaign that allowed him to appease Trump’s conservative base while keeping enough distance from the former president to court many of the suburban and swing voters who drifted away from the GOP under Trump.

Trump has bristled at the notion that he was not the Republican kingmaker in Virginia, a Democratic-leaning state that President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE carried by 10 points last year. He has complained that he has not been sufficiently credited for Youngkin’s win, insisting earlier this month that Youngkin “would have lost by 15 points or more” without him.

While fealty to Trump was once seen by Republicans as a political necessity, especially in primary fights, there’s some evidence that that may no longer be the case.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who strongly embraces the former president or that it would have no impact on how they vote. Nearly 3 in 10 Republicans said that it makes no difference if a candidate strongly embraces Trump.

Still, Parnell’s exit from the Senate race in Pennsylvania leaves the GOP primary field without an obvious front-runner or favorite. More than a half-dozen other Republicans are still vying for the nomination, including real estate developer Jeff Bartos and Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands.

There are also a number of others who could jump into the race now that Parnell is out. Former Rep. Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloParnell exit threatens to hurt Trump's political clout Parnell allegations roil GOP bid to keep Pennsylvania Senate seat Rep. Brendan Boyle decides against Pennsylvania Senate bid MORE (R-Pa.), a moderate who has been highly critical of Trump, is said to be considering a Senate bid, as is Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician. Some Pennsylvania Republicans are also encouraging hedge fund executive David McCormick to jump into the contest.

Not all of Trump’s preferred candidates are worrying party leaders. In Georgia, for instance, former football star Herschel Walker has quickly emerged as the leading Republican contender to challenge Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockTrump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race Perdue announces bid for Georgia governor, setting up primary against Kemp Perdue to challenge Kemp in Georgia governor primary: report MORE (D) despite allegations of a controversial personal life and business history.

Walker, who jumped into the race in August after months of prodding by the former president, has since scored the endorsements of the top two Senate Republicans, Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer tees up key Thursday vote on debt deal House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE (Ky.) and Minority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike McConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal McConnell 'confident' 10 GOP senators will back debt deal MORE (S.D.).

While there’s broad agreement within the GOP that Trump will play a critical role in the 2022 midterms — especially in the Republican primaries — one Republican strategist said that the party’s voters may be looking for more than an endorsement as they begin to sort through the roster of midterm candidates.

“No candidate who wants to win can afford to isolate Donald Trump. It’s about more than that now,” the Republican operative said. “I think voters are paying more attention to the big picture — whether a candidate is viable, whether they can win in the general — than they are to the Trump factor.”