Senate Republican leaders have tried to put former President Trump in the rearview mirror, rarely mentioning his name and keeping focused instead on the Democratic agenda, but Trump’s iron grip on the party’s grassroots is making it tougher and tougher to keep ignoring him.
Mainstream Republicans are getting increasingly caught up in the party’s internal battle over Trump’s legacy, with even stalwart conservatives such as Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) getting called out as insufficiently loyal to Trump or “Republicans in name only.”
Trump again showed his lock on the party’s activist base over the weekend by winning the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll with 70 percent of the vote, crushing the second-place winner, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who came in a distant second with 21 percent.
Trump touted his strong showing by releasing a statement through Save America PAC: “98 percent approval rating at CPAC, the highest ever, by far. A new record!”
This makes it tougher for leading Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to keep on ignoring Trump.
McConnell during his tour of Kentucky during the July 4th recess kept to his months-long practice of not uttering Trump’s name, instead referring to events that occurred during the past four years as having happened during “the previous administration.”
Pressed by reporters on his views of Trump, McConnell has avoided the topic by saying he’s primarily focused on stopping Biden’s agenda.
But Trump keeps popping up in the national political conversation, even though he has been permanently banned by Twitter and suspended by Facebook, and major television networks have skipped carrying his rallies.
Trump on Monday warned that Republican candidates who don’t publicly embrace him are setting themselves up for failure in the next election.
“Four years ago, a man named Ed Gillespie ran for Governor of Virginia without ’embracing’ MAGA, or the America First movement. He tried to skirt the issue by wanting my endorsement, yet walking on both sides of the fence. The Trump base is very large in Virginia, they understood his game, and they didn’t come out for Gillespie, nor did I do anything to help or hurt. He got creamed!,” Trump said in a statement through his PAC.
Republican leaders have continued to urge their party members to focus on policy instead of Trump’s favorite topic, relitigating the results of the 2020 election.
“I think looking backward is a mistake. If Republicans are relitigating the last election, it means they’re not focusing on the next one,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) told reporters Monday when asked about heat Senate GOP colleagues face for not supporting efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
Thune suggested that while rehashing the results of the November election might rev up some primary voters, it’s not likely to be a winning message in a general election.
“And we have a job to do and if we want to put a check and balance in place against the Biden agenda, we’ve got to try and figure out how to get the House and Senate back in 2022 and that’s going to entail speaking to, speaking to those voters in the middle,” he said. “You’ve got a third of the voters who think that the last election ought to be relitigated, you got a third on [the Democratic] side who want to turn us into Europe, but there’s a big third in the middle who are going to decide this election.
“Most voters in the country are going to want to know what you’re doing to solve economic challenges, what you’re going to do to deal with safety in our streets and stronger borders,” he added. “I would hope that state parties all across the country, at least on our side, stay focused on those.”
Another key development came this weekend when the Alaska Republican State Central Committee endorsed Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) Republican primary challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, whom Trump endorsed in June.
Murkowski didn’t vote for Trump in November and was one of seven Senate Republicans to vote in February to convict him on an article of impeachment for the role he played in inciting a crowd that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
On Saturday, Trump took a shot at retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) over his support for his former chief of staff Katie Britt in that state’s Senate Republican primary.
“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. She is not in any way qualified and is certainly not what our Country needs or not what Alabama wants,” Trump said in a statement, reiterating his support for Rep. Mo Brooks in the primary.
Brooks helped lead the charge of House Republicans who objected to the Electoral College results earlier this year.
Shelby on Monday bristled at the notion that he’s a “Republican in name only.”
“I’m a Republican and I don’t think anybody questions that,” he said, adding that Britt is the “the best qualified” candidate in the race.
On Monday, former professional football player Jake Bequette announced he would challenge Boozman in the 2022 Senate Republican primary, proclaiming himself as “a true conservative who will advance the Trump conservative agenda.”
While Boozman already has Trump’s endorsement, Bequette sought to portray himself as a Trump-aligned outsider and Boozman as an ally of the GOP establishment in Washington.
“He’s been in Washington for over 20 years. He’s going on his third decade in Washington, in the swamp,” Bequette told the Associated Press.
In Oklahoma, Lankford, who is also up for re-election, is coming under pressure from pro-Trump forces. State Republican Party Chairman John Bennett has endorsed Lankford’s primary challenger, Jackson Lahmeyer, a 29-year-old pastor from Tulsa.
Lahmeyer has said he’d like to see Trump reinstated as president and believes he would be if battleground states followed Arizona and conducted audits of their election results.
The Oklahoma State Republican Party will vote later this month on a resolution censuring Lankford and Inhofe for not objecting to the certification of Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump crowd stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop the tally.
Trump’s power within the party is also clear in the Ohio Senate Republican primary, where candidate J.D. Vance, who previously called Trump “reprehensible,” is now styling himself as a pro-Trump Republican.
Vance apologized last week for saying “critical things,” telling Fox News: “I regret them and I regret being wrong about the guy.”
He candidly acknowledged in an interview with Tim that “I’m a flip-flop-flipper on Trump” and needed “to just suck it up and support him.”
Some Republican strategists think that McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders should follow Vance and do more to show their fealty to Trump.
Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide, said many Republicans who opposed Trump in the 2016 election have since reconciled with the former president.
“It’s possible to do. They just need to actually talk to him and listen to him and maybe go down to Mar-a-Lago and kiss the ring,” he said, referring to Trump’s Palm Beach resort.
Many Republicans including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) have traveled to Palm Beach to make a show of their allegiance and deference to Trump.
But McConnell, Thune and other senior members of the Senate GOP leadership have opted not to do that.