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Two GOP Senate races capture the party’s dilemma over Trump

A man in a suit and tie raises his hands while seated behind a placard that says Sen. Johnson
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asks questions during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel hearing in July 2021.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times )

The final two Senate Republican incumbents who had not revealed their 2022 reelection plans announced last weekend that they plan to run again — and their races provide a look at the opposing efforts the GOP is taking in regard to Donald Trump as it fights to recapture the Senate majority.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who previously said he would not seek a third term, has embraced the former president, even suggesting — without evidence — that the FBI had advance knowledge of the Jan. 6 insurrection and did nothing to stop it.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican who was heavily lobbied by his party against retiring in 2022, squared off against Trump in late 2020 over the presidential election results, prompting the former president to seek out a primary rival against him.

This spring, Republican voters in states with contested primaries will determine whether the remaining slate of GOP Senate candidates look more like Thune or Johnson, with broad implications for the future makeup of the Senate Republican conference.

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The 50-50 split in the Senate means Republicans need to net only one additional seat to regain control of the chamber, and with it, significant power to shape President Biden’s legislative agenda and judicial appointments for the second half of his term.

With midterms historically disfavoring the president’s party, Republicans have a strong chance to reclaim the Senate, said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist with close ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), especially if they keep their message tightly focused on Biden, whose approval rating is in the low 40% range.

“Given Biden’s approval rating and Democrats floundering, you’d be foolish to go outside of that and try to invent something when the answer to your political questions are so very obvious,” he said. “Keeping this as a referendum on Biden and the status of the country is exactly the right thing, politically.”

Thune, a potential successor to McConnell, incurred Trump’s ire in late 2020 when he dismissed the former president’s efforts to overturn the electoral college, saying it would go down in the Senate like a “shot dog.” Trump has since tried to gin up a Senate primary challenger to Thune, but no significant candidate has taken up his call.

Johnson, on the other hand, has always been somewhat of an outsider among Senate Republicans, a position cemented in 2016, when the party abandoned his reelection campaign as a lost cause. In recent years, he has also taken controversial positions, such as questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and emphasizing their rare side effects.

“There’s certainly an audience for what he’s doing, but is it enough to win in a purple state? No, I would say it’s a dangerous game he’s playing,” Jennings said. “But you know, the counter argument to that is: Is the political environment so bad for Democrats that people just walk into the polls and say, ‘You know what? I don’t love everything I’ve heard from this guy, but the country’s in the crapper. We’ve got to do something about it.’”

Johnson probably will be the most endangered Republican incumbent as he tries to win reelection in a state Biden flipped in 2020.

On the other hand, in conservative South Dakota, Thune will have to ensure he can get through a primary.

“Even though they’re both from Midwestern states, they’re very different politicians: their character, their personalities, where they sit inside the party is very different,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked for both lawmakers or their campaigns. “It’s a reflection that the Republican Party is a big tent, at least in the Senate. You had Leader McConnell pushing for both Ron Johnson and John Thune to seek reelection.”

So far, Republicans are trying to strike a tone of unity. In two states with open GOP primaries — Georgia and Nevada — both Trump and McConnell have lined up behind the same candidates. Senate Republicans’ official campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is officially neutral in primaries.

But in several other states, including Arizona, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania, the primary fields are still wide open, with plenty of room for Trump or establishment Republicans to try to influence the outcome.

The state that could provide Republicans the most heartburn is Missouri, where several Trump supporters are contending for the nomination — and the endorsement.

Among them is former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in 2018 over investigations into claims that he sexually assaulted and blackmailed his hairdresser. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt pleaded with Trump last month to not back him, expressing confidence that if Greitens got the nomination, Republicans would lose the seat.

A Trump-backed Republican candidate in Pennsylvania, Sean Parnell, dropped out in November when a judge granted his estranged wife — who had accused him of spousal and child abuse — primary custody of their children.

There are several candidates who have already garnered endorsements from Trump in contested primaries, including Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina.

Even if Trump-favored candidates don’t make it through primaries or end up losing their races, the conference is all but certain to be more closely aligned with the former president than it is today.

Several of the GOP senators who chose retirement kept varying degrees of distance from Trump and are close with McConnell, including Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama. Toomey and Burr voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial.

“In some of the safer seats, who replaces them is going to matter,” said Jessica Taylor, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “These are all people who would not make McConnell’s life easy by any means. He’d be getting more [Sens.] Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz types than he is John Thune types, certainly.”

Jennings brushed that concern aside. McConnell is “only interested in making sure we have 51 [seats] and getting there however we can — supporting all of his incumbents and to beat the Democratic incumbents.”

The GOP’s battle over how to handle Trump is likely to continue beyond the 2022 election, Conant said, as some Senate Republicans begin looking ahead to the 2024 presidential race.

“You’ll have several Republican senators potentially running against Trump in the presidential election or, at least, preparing to run their own presidential campaigns in case Trump doesn’t run,” Conant said.


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