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.
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.
Vulnerable seats for Republicans
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.
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.
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.”