Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made one thing very clear: He is going to work very hard to make sure that the strongest general election candidate emerges from contested GOP primaries for the Senate next year.
“There’s no question that in order to win, you have to, in most states that are going to determine who’s in the majority next time, you have to appeal to a general election audience,” McConnell told conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt on Monday. “And some of the candidates who filed in these primaries clearly aren’t. I’ll be keeping an eye on that. Hopefully, we won’t have to intervene. But if we do, we will.”
McConnell’s statement is rightly understood as a warning to former President Donald Trump, who has said repeatedly of late that he wants to play a very active role in the 2022 campaign.
While Trump hasn’t set out any sort of guidelines for which candidates he will endorse and why, we have some strong clues. Trump likes people (and politicians) who like him. The more you praise Trump (and adhere to his increasingly-wild conspiracy theories), the more favorably inclined he is toward you.
Which, you will notice, has nothing to do whether a candidate has the best chance of winning a seat in next November’s general election. Trump is about Trump – and his endorsements seem very likely to echo that self-focus. McConnell, like him or hate him, has long been focused on the Party, and securing as many seats as possible for the GOP.
Those two views will, inevitably collide.
In fact, it’s already happening in Alaska. Trump has gone after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) over and over again – following her vote to impeach him for his actions (and inaction) during the January 6 US Capitol riot. “I think she will be met very harshly by the Alaska voters in 15 months, and I will be there to campaign against her!” Trump promised in a statement last week. Trump has not yet endorsed a candidate against Murkowski, but Kelly Tshibaka, a former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner, has announced her candidacy and is openly casting herself as a Trump-ier alternative to the incumbent.
That’s a problem for McConnell. Because senators ALWAYS support senators running for reelection except under extreme circumstances. And the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC close to McConnell, has already endorsed Murkowski – saying that she “embodies the long Alaska tradition of effective Republican leadership that gets results for the state and its citizens.”
While Alaska is the only Senate race where McConnell and Trump are at odds at the moment, it seems very unlikely it will be the last.
Take Missouri. The GOP field in the open-seat race to replace retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R) is getting very crowded, with Rep. Vicky Hartzler the latest entrant. That sort of jumble within the GOP field plays into the hands of former Gov. Eric Greitens, the controversial former governor who resigned following the testimony of a woman who felt forced into sexual acts by him and alleged that he had threatened to release explicit photos of her if she revealed their relationship. (Greitens previously denied that he had ever blackmailed or threatened the woman.)
Greitens has overtly positioned himself as the Trump candidate in the race. “I think that now the people of Missouri need a fighter in the United States Senate,” Greitens said in a video announcing his candidacy earlier this year. “They need somebody who’s going to go as I will, as I’m committed to do, to defending President Trump’s America First policies and also to protecting the people of Missouri from Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s radical leftist agenda.”
“In a worst-case scenario for Greitens’ opponents, a large primary field without a strong anti-Greitens alternative could fracture the vote and allow the former governor to win with only 20%. Missouri Republicans would be left with a nominee loathed by a significant portion of the party as control of the Senate hangs in the balance.”
A Trump endorsement of Greitens would likely ensure the former governor would be the GOP nominee – and the race would immediately be more competitive for Democrats in the general election.
Earlier this month at a rally in North Carolina, Trump surprised, well, everyone by endorsing Rep. Ted Budd (R) in the race to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R). In choosing Budd, Trump not only passed over former Gov. Pat McCrory but also took a shot at him in his speech. “You can’t pick people that have already lost two races,” said Trump of McCrory. “You can’t pick people that have already lost two races, that do not stand for our values.” (McCrory lost governor’s races in 2008 and 2016). McCrory is widely regarded as the GOP candidate with the broadest appeal in a general election.
In Pennsylvania, Trump favorite Sean Parnell has announced his campaign and is campaigning for a Trump endorsement in a crowded primary. (Parnell, who lost to Rep. Conor Lamb in 2020, spoke at the Republican National Convention.) In Georgia, Trump has suggested his preferred candidate is former NFL star Herschel Walker, who does not currently live in the state. (Walker was at Trump’s New Jersey golf club on Monday night to celebrate the former president’s 75th birthday.) In Arizona, Trump has badmouthed attorney general Mark Brnovich, who is running for Senate already, and Gov. Doug Ducey, who most Republicans believe is their strongest potential candidate against freshman Sen. Mark Kelly.
In short: There are a WHOLE lot of races where Trump has either already begun to meddle or where the ground for his involvement is fertile. The real question is not whether Trump will pick sides in these races. He will. The real issue is how hard McConnell (and his aligned super PAC) push back – and who wins.