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Senate Republicans, including members of leadership and even Trump allies, say former President Trump should stay out of the 2024 Senate primaries, hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s disappointing midterm elections.
They view Trump as becoming more of a political liability in next year’s Senate races as his legal problems mount.
The Manhattan district attorney charged the former president Tuesday with 34 felony counts related to payments to two women, and he could face additional charges from federal prosecutors and Georgia’s Fulton County district attorney.
GOP lawmakers and strategists fear Trump will mire GOP candidates in debates over his pet issues such as election fraud and defunding the Department of Justice instead of issues that more voters care about, such as the economy, inflation and health care.
And they worry that Trump’s endorsements again will be more driven by how he perceives candidates’ loyalty to him and his agenda than on their electability in November.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who has stood in for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) while he recuperates from a concussion, said it would be better if Trump stays out of the way.
“Sure seems like that would be helpful based on our lack of success in 2022,” he said.
Even Trump’s strongest allies would like to see next year’s Senate races play out without Trump’s thumb on the scale.
“If I were him, I’d focus on his own election, but I doubt if he’ll take that advice,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Trump announced his presidential campaign in November.
He had a mixed record supporting gubernatorial, Senate and House candidates last year.
He had a losing record in the six states where his super PAC spent money on behalf of Republican candidates gubernatorial and Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
He compiled a 1-6 record in those states, where only Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), whom Trump endorsed in the primary, won.
And the candidates Trump endorsed in the five most competitive House races lost.
Many Senate Republicans think Trump hurt Republicans’ chances in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania by endorsing candidates whom Republicans in Washington did not view as the candidates with the best chances of winning the general election.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted twice to convict Trump on impeachment charges, said the consensus in the Senate Republican conference is that Trump would do more harm than good if he tries to play kingmaker in next year’s primaries.
“I hope he stays out because him getting involved last time led to us losing key Senate races we could have won,” he said. “I think it’s viewed [that way] by almost every single member of the caucus, if not all of them, but I think few will say it because they don’t want to get the wrath of Donald Trump.”
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former Senate leadership aide, said Trump didn’t have a good record picking winners in last year’s toughest races.
“Trump has a very poor track record of backing top-tier candidates that can get elected to the Senate. It’s no wonder that Senate Republicans want Trump to stay away from the primaries as much as possible because he’s been radioactive in the general elections.”
Some Senate Republicans thought Trump dragged down candidates in the general election by making it tougher for them to appeal to moderate and swing voters.
Retired Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who twice won election statewide in Pennsylvania, blamed Trump for the loss of his seat.
“President Trump had to insert himself and that changed the nature of the race and that created just too much of an obstacle,” Toomey told CNN in November, explaining why he thought celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, whom Trump backed in the primary, lost to now-Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.).
Toomey was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump on the impeachment charge of inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that he lost the 2020 presidential election because of widespread fraud became a litmus test in some Senate Republican primaries and came back to haunt those candidates who embraced those claims in the general election.
In New Hampshire, where at the start of the 2022 election cycle Republicans thought they had a good chance of knocking off vulnerable Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), Republican candidate Don Bolduc won the primary after embracing Trump’s election fraud claims. That turned out to be a liability in the general election, and Bolduc tried to back away from that stance after winning the primary, telling Fox News in September that he concluded after doing research on the matter that the election was not stolen. He wound up losing to Hassan by 9 points.
Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist based in Ohio, where Republicans are hoping to defeat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) next year, said Trump’s endorsement is a liability for GOP candidates in a general election.
“In the general election, a Trump endorsement is always going to hurt because he will always be a red cape to the Democratic bull, and I don’t see independents growing any fonder of Donald Trump,” he said, referring to the energizing effect Trump has on Democratic voters.
Some Republican strategists outside the Beltway, however, see Trump as an asset for Republican candidates in battleground states such as Ohio.
Mehek Cooke, a Republican strategist and attorney based in Columbus, Ohio, said Trump’s endorsement is “a very net positive” in a general election.
“I think there’s a lot of support for President Trump in the state of Ohio,” she said. “If the Senate Republicans in Washington really want to win against Sherrod Brown, they’re going to come together and work with Trump or any other candidate, rather than continuing the division we see in our country.”
Trump carried Ohio in 2016 and 2020 with 51 percent and 53 percent of the vote, respectively.
Now, Trump is dividing Republicans over another controversy: his call to defund the Department of Justice and FBI in response to federal investigations of his role in the incitement of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and his handling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.
A Senate Republican aide told The Hill that idea won’t get any significant traction in the Senate GOP conference, while House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) says Congress should use its power of the purse to push back on federal investigations of Trump.
Jordan on Thursday subpoenaed Mark Pomerantz, who formerly worked in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, citing Congress’s interest “in preventing politically motivated prosecutions of current and former presidents by elected state and local prosecutors.”
Bonjean, the GOP strategist and former leadership aide, said that Trump shifts the debate in Senate races away from the topics that GOP leaders want to emphasize: inflation, gas prices, crime, the border and federal spending.
“When Trump injects himself into these primaries, then our candidates have to talk about Jan. 6, Stormy Daniels, stolen elections and those are not matters that Main Street voters really want to hear about,” he said.
“They want to know how you’re going to solve their problems and if you’re actually relatable as a politician, as an elected official, and those issues aren’t very relatable to general election voters,” he added.