Some of the Senate GOP’s old bulls are hanging up their voting cards. And there’s a cadre of Trump-loving House members itching to take their place.
At least half a dozen of Donald Trump’s staunchest allies in the House are exploring bids for higher office, eager to carry the Trump mantle into the Senate — as well as into governors' mansions. A wave of retirements by veteran Senate Republicans has created fresh opportunities for the House’s hard-liners in deep red states such as Alabama, Ohio and Missouri. But even in states won by President Joe Biden, such as Arizona and Georgia, some of the former president’s most loyal devotees are willing to test their political fortunes, hoping to seize on a deep but baseless belief on the right that the election was stolen.
The potential crop of Trumpworld candidates could usher in a new era for the more reserved Senate, with negotiators traded in for bomb throwers. And should this new breed of conservative candidate succeed, it could spell even more bad news for Biden’s pledges of bipartisanship during the end of his first term in office.
“It’s pretty clear that our more liberal, establishment brethren in the Senate have not been faring well,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who is considering a bid for the upper-chamber seat of retiring Republican Richard Shelby. “Those were the only ones that lost in 2020. And our conservatives won.”
“So that’s a pretty good sign as to what the American electorate prefers,” he added.
During the Trump years, a cohort of House Republicans built national profiles and padded their war chests defending the ex-president throughout multiple investigations and impeachments. Now, amid an intense internal debate over the future of the GOP, some of those same lawmakers are looking to use their newfound stardom on the right as a springboard to higher office — even after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the GOP lost the House, Senate and White House under Trump.
Among the Republicans considering a Senate run are Brooks, who spearheaded the effort to challenge the election results while Shelby voted to certify Biden’s win; Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who chairs the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and hails from a state where the legislature amplified Trump’s false voter fraud claims; and Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, a hardliner who replaced former Speaker John Boehner in Congress.
“The Trump policy and platform is the direction of the party,” Biggs said. “So I think people that have embraced the America First policy. They really have a good shot at winning their constituencies.”
Davidson could seek the spot being vacated by centrist Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio); he could also mount a run for governor.
“It’s clear to me that the Make America Great Again coalition is the future of the party,” said Davidson, a Freedom Caucus member and critic of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus strategy in Ohio.
Yet another opportunity for ambitious Trump acolytes arose Monday when longtime Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and ally of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), announced his retirement.
No one has officially declared they'll seek the seat, though Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who has hugged Trump tightly and represents a rural part of the state, told reporters Tuesday that he's "considering it." (And more moderate Rep. Ann Wagner, who represents a district in the St. Louis suburbs, isn’t ruling out a run.)
Blunt, speaking in Missouri on Monday, took a subtle shot at lawmakers who refuse to compromise. “The country in the last decade or so has sort of fallen off the edge of too many politicians saying, 'If you’ll vote for me I’ll never compromise on anything',” Blunt said. “That's a philosophy that particularly does not work in a democracy."
Meanwhile, in Georgia, Republicans are jockeying to take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who clinched a special election in January but will need to win a full, six-year term in 2022. Former Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a Trump loyalist who mounted a failed Senate bid, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he may run statewide again. Collins is taking a look at challenging Warnock or Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who has become a reviled figure on the right for refusing to overturn Georgia's election results.
Two other hard-core Trump allies in the Peach State, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jody Hice, both signaled through their offices that they are focused on their work in the House.
Then there’s New York, where GOP Reps. Lee Zeldin and Elise Stefanik — who both were catapulted off the back benches of Congress after defending Trump during his first impeachment — are both reportedly mulling a potential bid for governor. A Republican hasn't led the state in 15 years, but some in the GOP see an opening with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo under fire for both sexual harassment and coronavirus scandals.
One factor that could be a tipping point in the decision-making process is a coveted endorsement from Trump. Both Biggs and Brooks said they’ve spoken either to Trump or people around him about a possible bid; Biggs has also been meeting with senators and outside groups to discuss “what it would look like” to run.
“In Alabama, a President Trump endorsement is gold,” said Brooks, who plans to make a decision this month or next.
So far, however, Trump has endorsed just one congressional candidate: Max Miller, a former White House and campaign aide who is running against GOP Rep. Anthony Gonzalez in what is now a safe red seat in northeast Ohio. Gonzalez likely put himself in danger after he voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot.
Not all the Senate contests where Trump allies may jump in are safe turf for Republicans. That's fueling concern that ultra-conservative candidates could win in primaries, especially if they earn Trump’s backing, and then complicate the GOP’s effort to win back the Senate majority.
The fear is especially acute in Arizona, where Biggs could be the front-runner in a primary but would likely struggle to oust Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former astronaut and fundraising juggernaut, in the general election.
“Given that [Biggs’] profile has been increasing significantly because of his alignment with Trump and the things that were happening leading up to [January] 6th, it makes him formidable in a primary. But it will make it very challenging for him in the general,” said Sean Noble, a GOP strategist.
“I would be shocked if he didn't get the president's support, and I would guess he would raise a significant amount of money," Noble added. "But I don't know whether he's got the ability to raise $100 million, which is what Mark Kelly raised last time.”
Brooks would have some competition in the Trump lane, which essentially takes up the whole highway in Alabama. Lynda Blanchard, Trump’s former ambassador to Slovenia, is the only candidate officially running so far, and her campaign announced that she has already poured $5 million into the race.
Yet Brooks said he’s seen polling that has him up by double digits against any potential GOP candidates in the state.
“I think Mo Brooks has positioned himself well,” said Chris Brown, a Republican strategist in Alabama. “We’re the Trumpiest state in the country and he’s the Trumpiest member of our delegation.”
And Brooks also noted that the Alabama GOP recently passed a resolution praising Brooks and the rest of the Republican state delegation — everyone, that is, except Shelby.
“There were two resolutions that they passed. One was strictly about me, the other was about our delegation, excluding Richard Shelby,” Brooks said. “So it complimented Tommy Tuberville, myself, and the other Republican House members from Alabama. And was silent on Richard Shelby, because Richard Shelby voted to support the election results.”
If some House Freedom Caucus lawmakers do land in the Senate, it wouldn’t be the first time that members of the hard-line group have graduated into higher-ranking roles. Other former HFC members include Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former White House chiefs of staff Mark Meadows and Mick Mulvaney.
“Say what you want to about the Freedom Caucus,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who himself passed on a Senate bid, “but I think that just shows people appreciate folks who tell them what they are going to do, and then get in office and do what they said.”
James Arkin contributed reporting.