Republicans tasked with taking back the Senate in 2022 are preparing for a contentious primary season, fearful that former President Donald Trump could use his popularity inside the party to back candidates who could struggle in statewide races.
Trump has long been drawn to backing candidates who have shown unending allegiance to him and Republican operatives believe that desire, especially after losing the presidential election in 2020, will be unchanged two years later. But the fear among some operatives is that Trump will be even more of a free agent outside of the White House, less willing to bow to pressure that party leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put on him to back candidates they believed have better chances to win statewide races.
Compounding this issue is a Senate map that is shaping up to test the Republican Party. Of the 34 Senate races in the country next year, Republicans will be tasked with defending 20 seats, compared to 14 for Democrats. And of those 20 seats, two will be in states where President Joe Biden won — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and four will be in traditional battleground states — Florida, Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina. Democrats’ most endangered seats will be in Georgia and Arizona, two states where the party won special elections in 2020.
The Trump dynamic, operatives said, could play out in very dramatic ways: While the party apparatus may subtly back certain candidates in key Senate primaries, Trump could weigh in to back candidates who have been openly loyal to him, creating a clear rift between party leaders and the former President.
“It is incredibly complicating,” said a top Republican who has worked on Senate races. “It was incredibly complicated over the last few years and we had at least a seat at the table. He has left the building, so any leverage that Senate Republicans possibly had that they could possibly utilize to get him on the same page are no longer options.”
With the Senate map beginning to take shape, Republicans now see numerous opportunities for Trump to give in to the urge to wade in, especially in open seats or states where Democrats are playing defense.
And Trump made clear Thursday, after meeting with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, that he has no plans to relinquish control. “President Trump’s popularity has never been stronger than it is today, and his endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time,” according to a readout provided by Trump’s political action committee. While he remains popular among Republicans, Trump left office earlier this month with the lowest approval rating of his presidency, according to a CNN poll.
Vulnerable seats for Republicans
The most vulnerable seat for Republicans will be an open race in Pennsylvania, a state Biden won in 2020, after Republican Sen. Pat Toomey announced he would not run for reelection. The list of possible candidates in the state is long, but one matchup that could create headaches for Republicans would be between moderate former House members like, Ryan Costello or Charlie Dent, and a more conservative candidate that could catch Trump’s eye.
The party could find itself in a similar scenario in Wisconsin, another state Biden carried. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson has yet to say whether he will run for reelection but has left the door open to a possible retirement. The party will also be defending open seats in Ohio and North Carolina, two states Trump won in 2020, but where the Republican primaries will be key to gauging the party’s ability to hold the seats.
Sources indicated to CNN on Thursday that Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a Trump favorite, would not run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Rob Portman, who opted against running for reelection. That clears one hurdle for Republicans since Ohio operatives believed that if Jordan had run, Trump would have undoubtedly supported his candidacy. But Jordan’s decision could still lead to a divisive primary if the field remains large and unwieldy.
And with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley yet to announce his 2022 intentions, Republicans could be left defending another open seat should the 87-year-old senator decide to retire.
The two places where Republicans feel a far right challenge is most likely are Georgia and Arizona, both of which Biden carried.
Biden became just the second Democrat since 1948 to win Arizona. But the party’s Republican apparatus remains deeply loyal to Trump and the possibility for a candidate aligned with the far right of the party to square up against more moderate options appears likely to some operatives.
And in Georgia — where Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in 28 years — Trump has scores to settle, angry at the three top Republicans in the state for not backing up his bid to overturn the election result. One source who had been in meetings with Trump over the last four years described him as “incredibly vindicative” when it came to using his political power, making it all but certain that if it’s possible for Trump to make life more difficult for Republicans in Georgia, he will do it.
Trump’s hold over the GOP
Trump’s grip on the Republican Party was only strengthened over his four years in office. And just a few weeks removed from his presidency, there are few signs — if any — that Republicans are preparing to move away from the former President.
“That agenda is not going to change. We are not going to go back to the Republican Party agendas of Mitt Romney and John McCain,” said Michael Whatley, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.
Whatley argued that the issue for Republicans is more about getting Trump’s base to turnout, not how involved the former President will be.
“We saw in 2018 a pretty big drop off in Republican turnout with Trump not being on the ticket and we had phenomenal turnout in 2020. So, we just need to make sure that we can convert those Trump voters into reliable voters,” he said. To Whatley, that means “there is always going to be a role for the (former) President just because he animates so much of the Republican base who loves him, and we saw that in North Carolina.”
This would not be the first time that primaries have presented issues for Republicans — the party has, over the last decade or so, had unwieldy Senate primaries.
The clearest example of this was the Tea Party movement after President Barack Obama’s election that took over swaths of the Republican Party. Those candidates helped propel Republicans into power in the House in 2010, where gerrymandered districts were more conservative. But many of those Tea Party-inspired candidates also struggled in statewide races and denied Republicans the chance to take back control of the Senate.
Republicans worry the same could happen in 2022 if the party is not careful.
“The key is going to be navigating primaries,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist. “That is going to be the issue. And making sure we are getting candidates that can run statewide and appeal to folks statewide.”
Democrats are eager to watch this possible drama play out, hopeful that Republican infighting could save their slight Senate majority and distract Republicans from a general election that, if history is any guide, should be bad for Democrats.
“We know the environment could be challenging,” said JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC. “But the caveat to that is Trump and the division within their own party — it is real and I don’t think Republicans know yet what it means and how it is going to play out.”
Poersch added: “Trump is likely to loom here in a way we have not seen a former president cast a shadow in a remarkable amount of time.”