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GOP senators face Trump civil war with McConnell retiring

The race to replace Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is laying bare the power struggle between pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republicans in the Senate.

GOP lawmakers aligned closely with the former president are urging any candidate wanting to succeed McConnell to embrace Trump. Other Republican senators want McConnell’s successor to keep a healthy distance from the controversial former president.

McConnell fell out bitterly with former President Trump after the 2020 election and hasn’t spoken to him for more than three years, creating an awkward tension in the party that many GOP senators want to dispel.

But Republicans are divided over how aligned their next leader should be with Trump.

Some, such as Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) want to elect a new leader who will be a cheerleader for Trump, flying with the former president to rallies around the country.

“It’s an imperative,” he said. “We got to get somebody now who’s going to energize our base all across the country for Senate Republicans and also going to be able to get on that airplane with Trump and stand up at a rally and say, ‘Listen, we need President Trump to win,’ and be very truthful about it.”

Other Republicans, who point to what they view as Trump’s spotty record endorsing Republican candidates who can actually win Senate seats in November — not to mention Trump’s failure to win re-election in 2020 — want to keep a healthy distance from Trump.

Some of those same Republicans are privately alarmed that Trump last month torpedoed a package of Ukraine funding and border security reforms because he wanted to deny President Biden a political win.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said many Republican senators have endorsed Trump out of a sense of political “self-preservation.”

But he said many GOP senators privately wish they had a different nominee for president.

“If you were to ask individuals: ‘OK, if you could choose anyone to be the Republican nominee,’ I don’t think he would be likely to get the majority of the caucus,” Romney said of Trump.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity said the leadership race is becoming a proxy battle between traditional Republican senators who were allied with McConnell and MAGA-aligned conservatives who are sharply critical of McConnell’s leadership and the former GOP establishment in Washington.

“There’s that faction of individuals who have really found voice through the MAGA group and the endorsement of Trump,” the senator said.

The two leading candidates to replace McConnell — Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) — have had an up-and-down relationship with Trump over the years.

Both helped enact his agenda as Senate GOP whip — a job Cornyn held for the first two years of Trump’s presidency and which Thune then held during Trump’s second two years in office.

Thune clashed with Trump immediately after the 2020 election when he opposed an effort by Trump’s allies to delay the certification of Biden’s victory in Congress. Thune predicted the push to overturn the election results would “go down like a shot dog.”

Trump retaliated by threatening that Thune would face a primary challenge in 2022, slamming him as a “Republican in Name Only.”

Cornyn has also clashed with Trump, who also called the Texas senator as a “RINO” after he negotiated a bipartisan deal to address gun violence after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Cornyn last year questioned Trump’s ability to beat President Biden in 2024, telling reporters in Texas: “I think President Trump’s time has passed him by.”

“I don’t think President Trump understands that when you run in a general election, you have to appeal to voters beyond your base,” he said, expressing concerns that many GOP senators shared at the time.

The mixed history that both Thune and Cornyn have with Trump has prompted speculation that a third Republican senator may jump into the race to pick up Trump-allied votes.

Trump urged Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to challenge McConnell as Senate GOP leader after 2022 midterm election.

Despite Trump’s support, Scott only collected only 10 votes in the race, losing to McConnell by 27 votes.

Politico reported on Thursday that Trump is now urging National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (Mont.) to jump in the race, though Daines says he is “laser-focused” on winning back the Senate majority instead of campaigning for votes to succeed McConnell.

“We’re going to make sure we got the majority, that’s my first and highest priority,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great slate of candidates.”

A person familiar with the conversation confirmed that Trump has urged Daines to consider a leadership bid, but noted they haven’t spoken recently.

Senate GOP colleagues say Daines would be at a disadvantage if he waits until after the election to run for the top leadership post.

Senate Republicans speculate that the race between Thune and Cornyn may boil down to which candidate can do a better job of courting Trump-allied colleagues.

But they also caution that Trump’s influence on the race would evaporate if he loses to Biden in November. The leadership election is currently scheduled for after the November general election although some senators are talking about moving it up.

Both Thune and Cornyn have spoken to Trump in recent days and are touting their record of helping to enact Trump’s agenda as Senate whip.

“I have not talked about the race with him. I think others have but the point I guess I would simply make is: I worked closely with him when he was president last time,” Thune said, referring to Trump. “I was one of the key negotiators in the Senate Finance Committee on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. We put through, I want to say, 154 judges when I was the whip on the floor under his administration.”

Cornyn called Trump after he announced his intention to run for Senate majority leader and emphasized that ability to work closely with Trump, who is leading Biden in the polls in key battleground states.

“I called him and told him that I’ve thrown my hat into the race and I mentioned to him again how constructively we worked together when I was majority whip, when he was president,” Cornyn said.

“The most important part is we need someone who can work with the former president and I think I can,” he said.

Cornyn endorsed Trump on Jan. 23 following his victory over former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in the New Hampshire primary.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who hasn’t endorsed Trump for president, acknowledged that Trump will have an impact on the race but argued that senators would be perfectly comfortable electing Thune or someone else not seen as especially close to Trump to the top leadership job.

“There are folks here who will clearly listen very [carefully] to what the former president said,” Rounds said, but he cautioned that Trump’s endorsement could both help and hurt a Senate leadership candidate. “It can influence both ways.”

Just as Trump’s endorsement could rev up Republican senators who have embraced his brand of conservative populism it could turn off GOP senators who view him as an erratic personality with a propensity for alienating moderate and women voters.

Rounds, who is backing Thune’s bid for leader, said Thune’s independence from Trump could be a selling point with colleagues.

“I’ve known John for 30 years. He doesn’t play games. He’s straightforward. What you see is what you get. He grew up in a time in which Ronald Reagan was a guy we both admired,” he said.

Rounds, who emphasized that Thune has endorsed Trump, also made the case that his South Dakotan colleague “is looking out for what is best for the Senate.”

“That’s what the Senate leader is supposed to do, is to look out what is best for his Senate conference and what’s best long-term for the institution,” he said.

–Updated at 7:46 a.m.

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