Senate GOP lines up behind Trump-backed candidates

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Senate GOP lines up behind Trump-backed candidates
© Clara Longo de Freitas/Getty Images/iStock Former president Donald Trump and Herschel Walker

Republican leaders are getting on board with Donald Trump’s growing list of Senate endorsements after months of hand-wringing over the former president’s picks.

Despite early concerns that Trump could tip the scales toward untested primary candidates who could jeopardize the GOP’s mission to recapture control of the Senate next year, many Republicans are now expressing ease – even excitement – about the former president’s endorsements.

“Six months ago, I would have told you that he should stay out of it, just let the primaries play out,” one Republican consultant who has worked on Senate campaigns said. “I don’t see a lot of daylight anymore between who he’s picked and who can actually win.”

In the latest sign that GOP leaders in Washington are coming around to Trump’s slate of candidates, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) endorsed former football star Herschel Walker’s Senate bid in Georgia on Monday, calling him “the only one who can unite the party” to defeat Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) next year.

That endorsement came two days after the No. 2 Senate Republican, Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), became the upper chamber’s first GOP leader to officially back Walker, who jumped into the Georgia Senate race in August after months of prodding by Trump.

The endorsements from the top rungs of Republican leadership embody the GOP’s willingness to quickly coalesce behind a candidate in what is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races of the 2022 midterm elections.

The party needs a net gain of just one seat next year to recapture its Senate majority and is particularly eager to avoid an expensive and divisive primary season, worrying that it could distract from the general elections.

But some Republicans noted that the endorsements also underscore Walker’s success in allaying concerns about allegations of a turbulent past extending into his business history and personal life. While some GOP leaders and operatives were once fearful that those allegations – and Walker’s political inexperience – could prove damaging to his campaign, they have since put those worries to rest.

“It’s not like he’s someone we don’t know about at all. People are comfortable with him,” one Georgia Republican strategist said. “He’s been pretty deliberate about everything. He doesn’t look like the erratic kind of person the Democrats want to make him out to be.”

Trump has so far come out in support of six nonincumbent Republican Senate hopefuls, in some cases upending otherwise competitive primaries and dashing the hopes of other candidates of securing the former president’s endorsement.

In addition to Walker, Trump has already endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks (R) in Alabama’s Senate race, Rep. Ted Budd (R) in North Carolina, Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania, Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska and Adam Laxalt in Nevada.

There are still some points of friction between Senate Republicans and Trump. For instance, Senate GOP leaders have pledged to support Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) reelection bid next year, putting them at odds with Trump.

Likewise, some Republicans have become wary of Trump’s early endorsement of Parnell in the GOP primary to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania after a rival candidate revealed that Parnell’s wife had sought protective orders against him in 2017 and 2018.

Beyond that, establishment-aligned Republicans have expressed a sense of ease about the current slate of Trump-backed Senate candidates.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has vowed to keep both himself and his committee out of the primaries and previously urged Trump to do the same. But speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Scott suggested that he was pleased with the current slate of candidates, expressing optimism that the former president had put together a winning roster.

“If you look at who he’s endorsed, he’s endorsed Sean Parnell, Budd, Herschel, Mo Brooks, Tshibaka in Alaska,” Scott said. “I think all those candidates can win.”

Perhaps just as notable as whom Trump has endorsed is whom he hasn’t. The former president has so far stayed out of the GOP Senate primary in Missouri, where a crowded field of Republicans are vying to replace retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R) in 2022.

Some establishment-aligned party operatives feared that Trump could hand an early endorsement to disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens, a divisive figure within the GOP who has aggressively pursued Trump’s backing. But that endorsement has yet to materialize.

Greitens, who resigned in 2018 midway through his first term amid scandal, has brought in a handful of Trump World figures – former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani among them – in an effort to prove his ties to the former president.

The former president has also so far stayed out of the chaotic Senate primary in Ohio, where a crowd of Republicans are duking it out in one of the most contentious nominating contests of the 2022 election cycle. Ohio Democrats, meanwhile, have largely united around Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D-Ohio) bid to succeed Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who’s not running for reelection.

But the battle for control of the Senate is still far from settled.

Democratic Senate candidates are dominating many of their Republican rivals in the money race, including in competitive states like North Carolina and Georgia. And the GOP still has to contend with a more challenging map than Democrats do; Republicans are defending 20 seats, including five open ones, while Democrats are defending only 14.

Speaking to reporters this week, Scott said Trump would undoubtedly be involved in the midterms, recalling how the former president told him that he wants to be “helpful” to the GOP’s efforts to recapture the Senate.

“I think being helpful is making sure that if he’s going to endorse, make sure it’s somebody who will win the general election,” Scott said. “I don’t just say that to him, I say it to everybody: Pick people that you believe can win a general election.”

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