The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP voters choose nominees with first loyalty to Trump, not McConnell

Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Newtown, Pa., on May 17. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)
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Mehmet Oz skipped past thanking his family or campaign staff for guiding him to the lead position, so far, in his first political campaign.

Instead, he began by thanking former president Donald Trump for his endorsement and support in Tuesday’s GOP primary for Pennsylvania’s Senate race. “God bless you sir, for putting so much effort into this race. I will make you proud,” Oz told supporters.

Earlier that night Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) took the more traditional path in thanking family and campaign volunteers for his resounding primary win in North Carolina’s Senate race, before pivoting to his main patron.

“Friends, I want to thank President Donald J. Trump,” Budd told supporters.

One by one, Republican candidates for Senate are lining up behind Trump in a manner that could alter the contours of an institution that prides itself on tradition and deference to elder statesmen.

While they still have to win their general election races — and Oz could still lose the GOP nomination to David McCormick as votes remain to be counted — this new crop of nominees projects to be the type of senators who could become problem children for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Not just because of their backgrounds, but also because they are trying to replace some of the most seasoned Republican policy hands who also serve as loyal soldiers to McConnell.

The Post’s Annie Linskey discusses former president Donald Trump’s uneven influence across key primary races on May 17. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

Last week, J.D. Vance, who transformed himself from an anti-Trump author into a fierce loyalist to the ex-president, won the GOP nomination for the seat of retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Oz, a surgeon and reality TV star, is seeking to replace retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), while Budd would replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Next week, Georgia Republicans are all but certain to nominate Herschel Walker, who played for Trump’s USFL football team in the early 1980s and was propelled into the Senate race by the ex-president.

Just a couple years ago, that Georgia seat was held by the late Johnny Isakson (R), one of the most genial senators on either side of the aisle. McConnell trusted him enough to make Isakson the top Republican on the ethics committee for many years.

McConnell anointed Portman and Toomey in 2017 as his point men on the nearly $2 trillion tax cut, and Portman served as the lead Republican on the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Biden signed into law late last year — with McConnell’s support.

Burr served as the GOP chair of the Intelligence Committee and, with McConnell’s support, moved last year into the top Republican slot on the health committee.

Portman, Burr and Toomey all voted to certify Biden’s election, what McConnell called the “most important vote” he ever cast, against Trump. Burr and Toomey also voted to convict Trump in the February 2021 impeachment trial for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

By contrast, Vance embraces Trump’s fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen. Oz, McCormick and Walker have flirted with embracing that false claim, while Budd voted against certifying Biden’s win.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who supported Trump’s effort to reject Biden’s victory and often votes against McConnell’s positions, said that he felt certain Vance would join the burgeoning wing that does not fall in line with GOP leaders.

“I urged him to run. I just think he’s going to be a great senator. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think that there’s a lot of alignment there,” Hawley said Wednesday.

Democrats agree that these nominees would alter the Senate’s landscape. “There’s no question that would be a negative development, I think, for the country,” Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Wednesday. “Which is why we have to win those races. It’s absolutely critical. People have to look at the candidates Republicans have put forward and understand that they’re very far to the right.”

Peters has spent the past year and a half chairing the Homeland Security Committee, turning it into a surprisingly bipartisan panel through his close relationship with Portman, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) labeled this collection of GOP nominees as “MAGA Republicans” that he predicted would be tied to Trump in the general elections this fall.

“It gives us a great deal of optimism,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday.

Republicans, however, believe these candidates can still win in a political environment where Biden is unpopular in battleground states and three-fourths of voters believe America is on the wrong track.

“We’ve got two great candidates. Either Dr. Oz or Dave McCormick will be excellent general election candidates, either one of them wins the general election,” Toomey said of Pennsylvania’s top contestants Wednesday.

Cook Political Report, an independent political analysis organization, rates Pennsylvania as a toss-up whether Oz or McCormick wins, with Walker also in a toss-up race in Georgia. Budd and Vance are slight favorites to win their races.

Despite Trump’s public pleas to oust McConnell, none of these GOP nominees has criticized him or suggested they would vote for someone else as leader.

They will all graciously accept McConnell’s financial backing both through the official campaign committee and a super PAC run by his close confidants so they can best position themselves for the general election. McConnell has won eight races for GOP leader by acclamation without any opposition and no Republican is planning a challenge after the November elections.

McConnell, who first took the reins in 2007, is on a relative glide path to breaking the record for the longest serving Senate leader when he crosses the 16-year anniversary in early January.

But this younger crop of Republicans include a half dozen or more agitators who can make his job more difficult, particularly if he’s the majority leader next year and has to craft some bipartisan deals with Biden.

The question will be, depending on which of these 2022 nominees make it to the Senate swearing in next January, how deferential will they be toward McConnell?

Their resumés couldn’t be more different from the current GOP senators. Portman spent more than 12 years in the House, then served as George W. Bush’s trade representative and budget director, before winning his Senate seat in 2010. Toomey did six years in the House and led the Club for Growth, a conservative political group, before winning in 2010.

Burr spent 10 years in the House before winning his Senate race in 2004.

Oz, Vance and Walker have never run for office before. Budd is in his fifth year in the House, with little distinction other than being close allies with Mark Meadows, the former GOP congressman who served as Trump’s final chief of staff.

Some Republican insiders believe Budd will not ruffle feathers and will largely be a good soldier. On Tuesday, however, he pledged his allegiance to Trump alone, as he recounted the call from the former president.

“Ted, I’m endorsing you because you never wavered on America First policies,” Trump told Budd. The crowd cheered.

“I will never waver,” Budd said, to more cheers.

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