Trump disciples out to revolutionize Mitch McConnell’s Senate

If Senate Republicans seem conservative now, just wait until next year. The 2022 midterms could usher in a wave of full-spectrum MAGA supporters who would turn the GOP conference an even deeper shade of red — and make the Senate a lot more like the fractious House.

In the five states where Republican senators are retiring, the primary election fields to succeed them are crowded with Donald Trump supporters who have made loyalty to the former president a cornerstone of their campaigns.

The three top candidates to succeed Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina have all denounced his vote to convict Trump in his last impeachment trial. In Pennsylvania, the four leading candidates to succeed Sen. Pat Toomey — who, like Burr, was formally rebuked by the state party for his impeachment vote — have embraced Trump’s calls for an “audit” of the state’s presidential election results, to varying degrees.

The absolute fealty to Trump is only part of the change this class of candidates would herald. There are institutional implications for the Senate as well. The bipartisan infrastructure deal Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman helped broker? Six of the top GOP candidates vying to replace him have rejected it.

At least five current House members have announced they are running for the open Senate seats, nearly all of whom are more hard-line conservative than the senators they’d replace.

Most of the newcomers would accelerate the GOP’s transition from tea party to Trump party, complicating the job of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who broke with Trump after the Jan. 6 riots that led to the president’s second impeachment.

“Trump has reshaped the Republican Party. We’re now a blue-collar party. We're an America first party,” said Michael Whatley, the chair of the North Carolina GOP. “It’s a different party than it was when [retiring Missouri Sen.] Roy Blunt and Richard Burr first got elected. And I don't think the party is going back. It’s tough on China, protect the border, fight for the Second Amendment, fight for life. That has been an enormously popular agenda with the base.”

McConnell has already indicated his willingness to intervene in GOP primary battles — even against Trump-backed candidates — if he perceives there are electability issues that might endanger the party’s chances of winning the seat. It’s an acknowledgment of a Senate landscape where Republicans have little room for error in their bid to win back the majority in the evenly divided chamber.

Already that dynamic is leading to tensions in Missouri, where GOP officials worry the candidacy of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens — who resigned office amid a 2018 sex scandal — will jeopardize the party’s chances of holding Blunt’s seat.

Greitens, the Republican primary frontrunner, made it clear in a March radio interview that he has no intention of following in the footsteps of Blunt, a deal-maker and close McConnell ally.

“Unfortunately, Roy Blunt has been out siding with Mitch McConnell,” the former governor said. “He’s been criticizing the president of the United States over what happened on Jan. 6. He’s been criticizing the president of the United States for not coming to Joe Biden's inauguration, where obviously, everyone in Missouri, saw Roy Blunt there.”

All of the Republicans seeking the Missouri Senate seat are different in style and tone from Blunt, said Republican former state Sen. John Lamping.

“Roy is a super-super insider and that’s not what the base wants,” Lamping said. “No one is running to be a Roy Blunt senator. They’re running to be a Donald Trump senator. If somebody becomes a serious threat, they’ll be accused by their opponents of being more like Roy Blunt.”

The change in the composition of the GOP conference might be even greater than expected. Beyond the five senators who have announced their retirements, questions are swirling about the plans of three additional Republicans in the chamber — South Dakota’s John Thune, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley — who have not formally announced their candidacies and could be replaced by more Trump-aligned candidates. Thune and Murkowski have run afoul of Trump, who has already endorsed Republican Kelly Tshibaka against Murkowski.

Though a Trumpier Senate could cause McConnell fits, a top Republican strategist involved in Senate campaigns downplayed the risks to McConnell but acknowledged a change would come if the MAGA firebrands replace the five retiring senators.

“All of these [retiring senators] are good communicators, but their style is different. They enjoy moving legislation along behind the scenes. That’s what they’re good at and that’s why they're in the Senate,” said the strategist, who spoke freely on condition of anonymity. “Politics certainly on our side — and I think across the board — is becoming more of a very public, very vocal fight over the issues. Sometimes that can lead to results, but it's less about what’s happening behind the scenes and moving the football a yard at a time down the field and it’s more, maybe, of a Hail Mary on every snap.”

Those stylistic distinctions are glaring in Alabama, where Trump has endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks for retiring Sen. Richard Shelby’s seat. Brooks, a House Freedom Caucus member, is best known for speaking at the Jan. 6 rally in Washington that preceded the Capitol riots and urging the crowd to "start taking down names and kicking ass."

Shelby, who’s chaired both the Appropriations and Banking committees, is Alabama’s longest-serving senator. In a sign of his productive relationship with current Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Leahy released a statement upon Shelby’s retirement describing him as “a true statesman, and a man of his word.“

Trump paired his endorsement of Brooks with criticism of McConnell and Shelby, who is backing his former chief of staff, Katie Britt, in the race.

“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,” Trump said in a recent written statement that used the acronym for a “Republican in name only.”

McConnell responded by saying that being called an “Old Crow” was “quite an honor" because "Old Crow is Henry Clay's favorite bourbon."

Trump has also backed North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd, another House Freedom Caucus member who voted against certifying the presidential results and, along with fellow Senate candidate and former Rep. Mark Walker, joined a lawsuit to overturn the presidential election.

While Trump’s endorsement is a major boost in a GOP primary, it’s not always determinative. In Alabama’s 2017 special primary runoff for Senate, Trump endorsed appointed Sen. Luther Strange over former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who won the race only to lose in the general election.

Brett Doster, who worked for Moore’s campaign, said candidates like Moore have prevailed in some primaries over Trump-endorsed candidates when the GOP electorate believed in their conservative bonafides.

“What’s happened inside the Republican Party, for now, is that people are waiting around to see if Trump will be around or not, but he remains a litmus test,” Doster said.

Pennsylvania stands alone among the GOP primary contests because it’s a swing state that Trump lost in 2020 — and one that Democrats have reasonable hopes of flipping. In a sign of the ideological variation, Toomey’s vote to convict Trump has become an issue in the primary campaign — and not every prospective Republican in the race condemns him for it.

Trump’s allies have vowed to punish one potential candidate in the race who has stood by Toomey, former Rep. Ryan Costello. A one-time aide to former party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter, Craig Snyder, also joined the race as an anti-Trump Republican, though most party insiders don’t see him gaining much traction.

Some believe that Trump’s relentless efforts to overturn the election results in Pennsylvania could backfire in a general election because the electorate is “more anti-Biden than pro-Trump,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Phil English, who acknowledged that Trump’s influence is still a powerful force in the party.

But former state GOP Chair Rob Gleason cautions against any belief that Trump’s influence has waned in primary politics. He said Biden’s recent declining poll numbers amid the deadly withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the increase of Covid cases nationwide has led to a renewed sense of energy among Trump supporters.

“Primaries have low turnout but you can count on the Trump people because they’re still coming to rallies, they still fly Trump flags, they still wave Trump signs,” Gleason said. “In all of these states we’re talking about, Trump supporters are still really active and because of all the problems with this presidency now, they don’t just feel more energized. They feel vindicated.”

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Gaetz, Greene plan national tour to call out RINOs

Matt Gaetz is going on tour. With Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Rocked by a steady stream of leaks about a federal investigation into alleged sex crimes, the Florida congressman is planning to take his case on the road by holding rallies across the nation with Greene, another lightning rod member of Congress.

Their targets? So-called RINOs and “the radical left.“

Together, they plan to attack Democrats and call out Republicans they deem as insufficiently loyal to former President Donald Trump, such as the 10 GOP House members who voted for his second impeachment after the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

Gaetz and Greene will kick off their barnstorming “America First Tour” on May 7 in the mega-conservative Florida retirement community known as The Villages, a must-stop for any Republican candidate hoping to win the state or generate grassroots excitement. The idea is to send a message from the two controversial Republicans: They’re not canceled, they’re not going to be quiet and the infamy their critics attribute to them is translatable as fame and power in the conservative movement.

“The radical left is coming for you. And they know I'm in the way. Come stand with me as we fight back together against this radical president and his far left agenda,” Gaetz says in a new radio ad rallying conservatives to The Villages event.

Gaetz’s decision to step forward comes after weeks of national headlines and top-of-the-news-hour TV coverage related to the revelation that he is the subject of a federal sex-crimes investigation.

Gaetz, who has not been charged, has consistently denied the two anonymous claims against him: that he had sex with a 17-year-old girl and paid for prostitutes. The accusations are linked to former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, a former friend who is thought to be trying to cut a deal with federal prosecutors on a 33-count indictment.

Greene, a first-term Republican from Georgia, in February was stripped of her House committee assignments due to her promotion of conspiracy theories and incendiary rhetoric preceding the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Normally voluble and ever-present on cable news as a Trump loyalist, Gaetz was off air for weeks recently as the news cycle took its toll on him.

Now, one of his biggest allies in the conservative news media, Fox’s Tucker Carlson, has begun publicly questioning whether Gaetz is the target of overzealous prosecutors under a Democratic administration that wants to silence conservative voices by smearing Republicans like Gaetz with allegations of sexual impropriety.

“That story essentially destroyed Gaetz, took him off the map completely as a rhetorical force,” Carlson said on his eponymous show. “Whatever his flaws, Gaetz is smart, articulate and brave. Matt Gaetz was one of the very few members of Congress who bothered to stand up against permanent Washington on behalf of his constituents. Now he’s a sex trafficker. So the question is, who exactly did Matt Gaetz sex traffic? We can’t answer that question because no charges have been filed. All that remains is the stigma.”

Gaetz is planning to reemerge publicly on television soon and is likely to appear on Carlson’s show, according to an adviser, who couldn’t give more information on what other cities Gaetz and Greene plan to visit as part of their tour.

One fellow Republican is sure to get a visit from Gaetz: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

Cheney was a leading voice who criticized Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots and voted for his impeachment. Gaetz responded by flying from Florida to Wyoming for an anti-Cheney rally.

"Defeat Liz Cheney in this upcoming election, and Wyoming will bring Washington to its knees," Gaetz said on Jan. 28. The Wyoming GOP later censured her.

Two months later, the news of the investigation into Gaetz dropped like a bomb. Cheney got a measure of revenge by calling the allegations against him “sickening” but refused to call on him to resign.

In batting the allegations against him, Gaetz said he was being targeted for his decision “to take on the most powerful institutions in the Beltway: the establishment; the FBI; the Biden Justice Department; the Cheney political dynasty; even the Justice Department under Trump.”

Gaetz refrained from calling out any Republicans in his initial announcement for “The America First Tour.”

“There are millions of Americans who need to know they still have advocates in Washington D.C., and the America First movement is consistently growing and fighting,” Gaetz said in a written statement provided to POLITICO. “The issues that motivate us include ending America's forever-wars, fixing the border Joe Biden broke on day one, prioritizing Americans, not illegal migrants, reshoring industries sold to foreign adversaries, ensuring real election integrity, and taking on the threat of the Chinese Communist Party. These issues are bigger than any one election and we remain ready to take our party and our country back.”

Alex Andrade, a Republican state representative who holds Gaetz’s old seat in the Florida House, said he’s not surprised with the congressman’s reemergence.

“Of course Congressman Gaetz is going about business as usual,” Andrade said. “He committed to fighting entrenched corruption when he first ran for Congress, and he’s not going to be deterred by anything we’ve seen to date. I know I wouldn’t have expected anything else from him.”

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