The 2022 election cycle could extend the Republican Party’s embrace of former President Donald Trump, despite the fears of some Republicans who hope to return to a party organized around conservative principles rather than his personality.
Senate Republican candidates across the country are already portraying themselves as the next generation leaders of his movement, strongly defending Trump during his impeachment trial and echoing his baseless claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election.
If these candidates win their competitive primaries and make it to Washington, they’ll replace retiring conservative senators in Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania who all supported the certification of the 2020 election against the former President’s wishes.
Josh Mandel, the former Ohio state treasurer, announced his third bid for Senate on Wednesday in the middle of Trump’s trial, which he called in an interview a “sham,” “unconstitutional,” “fake,” “a complete waste of taxpayer money,” and something that “just makes my blood boil.”
Mandel told CNN he hoped to earn Trump’s support. He pledged that he would go to Washington “to fight for President Trump’s America First agenda, and to pulverize the Uni-Party,” which he defined as a “cabal of Democrats and Republicans who sound the same and stand for nothing.”
Mandel touted that he was “the first statewide official in Ohio” to support Trump in 2016, “stood strong” by him after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out and was “President Trump’s number one ally in in his reelection.” He said that he would not have voted to certify the 2020 presidential election. He claimed that it would be “years until we know the extent of the voter fraud in this election,” even though there is no evidence of widespread fraud and Trump’s many challenges in court failed. And he branded himself a “Trump conservative.”
The Ohio Republican’s unflinching support of the former President showed how Trump’s singular personality still has a strong hold on Republicans seeking to reach higher office. Mandel could face in a primary Jane Timken, who took over as Ohio GOP chair in 2017 with Trump’s backing. She recently stepped down from her position, and wrote in the Cincinnati Enquirer that she “completely transformed the party into a well-oiled, pro-Trump machine” from one that had been allied with former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican opponent of Trump’s.
The potential shift towards a Trumpier Senate reflects the rise of the Tea Party over a decade ago.
In 2010, new, more conservative Republicans replaced longtime GOP lawmakers. Mike Lee ousted veteran Utah Sen. Bob Bennett and Rand Paul won a seat in Kentucky left vacant by Sen. Jim Bunning, who had held elected office for three decades. Two years later, Ted Cruz won a seat left open by the relatively moderate Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who stepped aside to mount a failed bid for governor.
Over the past four years, strongly pro-Trump Tennesseans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty replaced Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, respectively, who occasionally clashed with the former President, while Republicans Josh Hawley and Tommy Tuberville defeated Democrats in Missouri and Alabama respectively by voicing their total support for Trump.
Some Republicans warn, however, that if candidates align themselves too much with the former President, they could share the same fate as Tea Party-inspired Senate candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who all failed against their Democratic opponents in the general election.
Fast forward to this year, when the Democrats flipped the Senate by winning two seats in Georgia, after Trump viciously attacked Republican state officials in charge of overseeing his loss in the state. The path to Senate control in 2022 runs through swing states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and again Georgia.
“There is bound to be a Trump lane (in every race) and frankly there will be a couple of them, and they will all try to out Trump each other,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican who is eying a Senate run in the commonwealth.
Costello argues that hewing too closely to Trump in a place like Pennsylvania, which chose Joe Biden for president in 2020, is a recipe for disaster. He said that anyone who proudly says they were against certifying the election is handing Republicans a “highly problematic general election issue,” especially in the suburbs where the former President struggled.
The Republican primary in Pennsylvania is far from settled, including a mix of candidates with varying degrees of affiliation to Trump. Besides Costello, real estate developer Jeff Bartos, Reps. Mike Kelly and Guy Reschenthaler, and Kenneth Braithwaite, Trump’s former Navy secretary, are among those considering Senate campaigns.
Costello, somewhat hopefully, believed that Republican primary voters, over a year removed from Trump’s loss, won’t “be bothered with the fact you spoke out against Trump’s tweets two and a half years ago.”
“I think a lot of Trump voters are similar to Trump. … They get over things pretty quickly,” Costello told CNN. “Who they are agitated by is very fleeting. It can change overnight.”
To date, though, Trump’s 2020 defeat has done little to break his grip on the party.
In the House, Trump’s presence is so strong that his desire to punish figures like Rep. Liz Cheney for backing his impeachment led the House Republican Conference to hold a vote on her leadership position, which the Wyoming Republican won 145 to 61. And in the Senate, Republicans have shown little appetite for convicting the former President on the charge of “incitement of insurrection” despite the violence they witnessed at the Capitol. In a speech before the deadly rampage, Trump urged his supporters “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” but also to “fight like hell,” “never give up” and “never concede,” and to “stop the steal!”
Republican leaders say the reason why they continue to support the former President is simple: The base of the party remains deeply loyal to him.
“In North Carolina, you are not going to find any candidate who is going to distance himself or herself from the America First agenda,” said Michael Whatley, head of the North Carolina Republican Party.
Whatley said that Trump inspired unprecedented enthusiasm and “brought new voters to the Republican Party that we desperately need.”
Trump narrowly won North Carolina in 2020, boosting turnout in the state’s rural areas to overcome Biden’s rise in the counties around cities like Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis also rode Trump’s coattails to victory, defeating Democrat Cal Cunningham, who was ensnared in a sex scandal in the final weeks of the campaign.
The belief among some Republicans in the state is that the best path to keep its other Senate seat is to again follow Trump to victory.
“We need those new votes,” said Whatley. “There is always going to be a role for the President just because he animates so much of the Republican base who loves him.”