Senate GOP works to avoid having ’22 war with Trump
Senate Republicans are hoping to avoid an intraparty bloodbath that would threaten their chances of taking back the majority in 2022.
Tensions within the party have been on full display since the ugly mob attack on the Capitol and the impeachment vote and Senate trial that divided Republicans and left former President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) trading charges in public.
Even on Wednesday, the tensions were evident when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, disagreed over Trump’s attendance at a conservative conference this weekend.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, acknowledged the current signs of disunity but predicted competing factions of the party would unify.
“I think there will be a lot more coordination than it might appear at the moment,” Thune said.
“The former president, the NRSC and Sen. McConnell and his team, I think, will be realizing that for us to succeed we’ve got to succeed as a team,” he added, referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who aligned himself closely with the former president, said he wasn’t convinced that Trump was ready to “blow up” the party.
“Donald Trump’s a pretty pragmatic guy. … I am just not that worried about it,” Cramer said, predicting that Trump would be “team builder and not a wrecking ball” within the party.
Republicans have grappled with how to move forward, including how to approach Trump and his vise-like grip on the party’s base, in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, where a violent mob of the president’s supporters breached the building in an effort to stop the counting of President Biden’s Electoral College win.
Those tensions peaked after McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor, unloaded on Trump, casting him as “morally responsible” for the attack after he spent months falsely claiming that the election was stolen.
Trump, never one to let criticism go unanswered, quickly fired back that McConnell was “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”
Temperatures have since been dialed down — or at least the focus has been on issues that unify the GOP.
McConnell declined to comment this week about his previous comments and Trump’s criticism, telling reporters that he didn’t “have anything to add on that subject.”
Pressed subsequently about divisions among Republicans, McConnell instead pivoted.
“Yeah, well I think what you need to focus on is how unified we are today in opposition to what the Biden administration is trying to do,” he said. “I’m interested in what we’re doing now and looking forward.”
Republicans have spent the week rallying behind a message hammering Biden and congressional Democrats for preparing to pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill likely along party lines.
Asked about McConnell’s comments, Cramer said it was likely an indication that folks were moving on.
“I think it’s out of his system and the president’s as well, I would hope,” he said. “Mitch doesn’t loiter any ways.”
McConnell has held his punches as Trump has been in touch with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of his biggest allies in the Senate, and Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), who is leading the Senate GOP campaign arm for the 2022 cycle.
“I just talked to him about elections. … I told him I want to win in ’22, and said I’m going to be very specific of where I think he could be helpful,” Scott told reporters.
Thune, asked about Trump’s threat to intervene in primaries, said that in order “to succeed he’s got to realize that he’s got to back candidates that are electable.” Based on the read outs from fellow GOP senators, Thune added, “I think he wants to.”
Scott is making a hard bid to unify the party, declaring in a video released on Wednesday that the “Republican civil war has now canceled.”
The McCarthy-Cheney public disagreement, which happened the same day, suggested that’s not quite the case.
Republicans are defending 20 seats in 2022, including at least four where GOP incumbents aren’t expected to run for reelection, making them fodder for potential intraparty fights. Republicans have blamed some past election losses on bitter primary fights that left them with weaker candidates.
“I would hope that President Trump and certainly we senators want to win, and so we’ve been through this before where the goal will be to make sure that the strongest candidate wins in the primary,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
They’re keeping a close eye on Trump’s upcoming speech this weekend as an early flavor of how he might approach them, and the party at large.
“There’s an audience for some of the things that he helped elevate in the conversation,” said Thune, who added he hoped Trump would make that the focus of his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Graham added that he urged Trump to focus on policy during their talk.
“I think what unites us is policy. My two cents was, ‘Mr. President, you need to come out with a good policy agenda,’ ” Graham said, adding that when “he speaks he needs to have the approach that ‘I’m the loyal opposition here.’ ”
Polling underscores the threat to Republicans who break with Trump.
A Morning Consult-Politico poll found that 53 percent of Republican voters would vote for Trump in the 2024 primary if it were held today. A Suffolk University-USA Today poll found that 46 percent said they would abandon the GOP and join the Trump party if the former president decided to create one.
“If we blow this it’s going to hurt the party for years to come, it’s going to hurt Trump’s brand, it’s in everybody’s interest for us to be successful,” Graham said about the stakes in 2022.
Cramer added that political necessity on both sides could force Trump and the Republican Party to stick together.
“The Republican Party cannot be successful without Donald Trump and Donald Trump can’t be successful without the Republican Party,” Cramer said. “So they better figure out a way to get along.”
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