A third recently had his Twitter account temporarily suspended when the Ohio hopeful referred to some of the people crossing the southern border as “Muslim Terrorists” and “Mexican Gangbangers.”
And that could be just the beginning.
More than a year ahead of the first state primaries, hard-edge pro-Trump conservatives are rushing into Republican Senate races that have been upended by the impending retirements of veteran lawmakers — heralding a long battle ahead over the direction of the GOP, with not only control of the Senate but the tenor of the nation’s politics at stake.
This week, former Missouri governor Eric Greitens entered the race to succeed fellow Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, declaring himself “exonerated” of the wrongdoing that sparked his resignation and committing himself to “defending President Trump’s America-first policies,” while Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) announced plans to run for the seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby at an event where he was flanked by Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, former state treasurer Josh Mandel is running hard to the right on a Trumpian agenda, taking a hard line on immigration, attacking big technology companies and questioning public health guidance surrounding the pandemic.
All three are credible candidates with proven fundraising mettle, and similar potential candidates are waiting in the wings in other states, including key Republican targets such as Arizona and Georgia.
“You have candidates that want to keep re-litigating the past instead of litigating what Democrats are doing now — that is a very problematic approach for Republicans,” said Jessica Taylor, who handicaps Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “You’re running against a unified Democratic control with history on your side for winning back seats, and they could very well squander that.”
The early entrance of so many zealously pro-Trump candidates — all of whom have endorsed Trump’s bogus claims of rampant election fraud — is an early challenge for top Republican leaders in Washington as they seek to regain the Senate majority from Democrats and deal with their own internal divisions between those in the party who remain loyal to Trump at all costs and those who want to forge a GOP identity distinct from the former president.
In interviews last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said his primary concern for 2022 Republican candidates was whether they could beat Democrats.
“My goal is, in every way possible, to have nominees representing the Republican Party who can win in November,” McConnell told Politico. “The only thing I care about is electability.”
Trump, meanwhile, has fingered McConnell as being part of the problem and said in a blistering statement last month that he would back primary candidates where “necessary and appropriate,” setting up a potential power struggle between the former president and the Kentucky Republican over who will guide the party through key Senate races.
In the past, McConnell was able to get Trump to mostly back his preferred candidates by selling him on the idea that they represented the best chance for victories. But the animus between the two men following McConnell’s denunciation of Trump as being “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol makes that type of cooperation unlikely going forward.
“We need better than Mitch McConnell,” Trump said in a podcast interview with Fox News host Lisa Boothe released Monday.
Several GOP operatives, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe internal thinking, said the emerging field of Republican candidates is raising concerns, although they believe the issue is manageable since Brooks, Greitens and Mandel are running in favorable states for Republicans. But other pro-Trump stalwarts are eyeing races in other states where Republicans are trying to wrest power from Democrats.
In Arizona, where Republicans are hoping to oust freshman Sen. Mark Kelly, possible candidates include state Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward and Rep. Andy Biggs, leader of the House Freedom Caucus — and key amplifiers of Trump’s unfounded voter fraud claims. In Georgia, GOP hopes of ousting Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) could rest in the hands of a primary voter base that remains squarely focused on the results of the 2020 election.
The picture is more unsettled in the key swing states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina — where longtime GOP Sens. Patrick J. Toomey and Richard Burr, respectively, are departing — but among the rumored potential candidates in the latter state are Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law.
Democrats are eyeing the emerging Republican primary landscape with close interest, knowing that their candidates could benefit from extreme GOP nominees and a toxic party message.
“You give Democrats an opportunity when you run candidates that are that divisive and that contentious,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of the Senate Majority PAC, the largest Democratic super PAC focused on the Senate. “The fact that this stuff is breeding in these [Republican] states tells you that there’s a danger of it occurring across several states.”
In Missouri, the fears of nominating the wrong Republican are especially high, with memories of the 2012 race between Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rep. Todd Akin (R) still fresh in many GOP minds.
Akin was dogged by his defense of his position banning abortion even in cases of rape, saying in an interview shortly after he won the GOP primary that a “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy. Democrats, who had already taken note of his hard-line positions and moved to ensure he won the GOP nomination, immediately seized on the comment, and McCaskill went on to win a second term.
Greitens resigned the governorship in 2018 after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman with whom he’d had an affair by taking a photo of her tied up and partially undressed. That led to a felony charge of invasion of privacy and a state legislative probe that found the allegations of misconduct credible, prompting impeachment proceedings. A separate investigation also was underway at the time into Greitens’s fundraising practices.
Key aspects of the accusations against Greitens subsequently unraveled, and the criminal charges against him were dropped, with a key investigator himself charged a year later with lying under oath. The state ethics commission, meanwhile, fined Greitens’s campaign $178,000 but found no personal wrongdoing by the ex-governor, closing the fundraising case and paving the way for a political comeback.
Although Greitens has repeatedly declared himself “exonerated,” political reality is not so simple: The woman who made the claims against Greitens has not recanted them, and his allegations of a far-reaching conspiracy to unseat him as governor are circuitous and sidestep the affair and the seamy nature of the allegations.
In a combative interview Wednesday with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, a supporter of McConnell, Greitens struggled to swat away the findings of the state legislative report, compiled by a bipartisan panel commission by the state House’s Republican majority.
“They’re going to read into the record witness 1, 2, 3, and 4 in front of the Missouri legislature accusing you of ‘half-rape,’ of taking photographs. They’re going to do that. How are you going to survive that? How are you not going to be Todd Akin?” Hewitt said.
“Because, look, we have the people of Missouri with us,” Greitens said. “They’ve seen how the lies have been exposed. All of this is known to the people of Missouri, and it’s why the grass roots are with us.”
Asked to explain why he chose to resign instead of fighting the charges against him, Greitens cited the “tremendous toll” on his family.
Said Hewitt, “Thus far, you’re not overwhelming me with your response.”
Brooks, meanwhile, has doubled down on Trump’s voter fraud claims and has not only defended but embraced his own leading role in attempting to challenge the electoral vote count on Jan. 6 — which included a long speech that day at the “Stop the Steal” rally and proceeded even after the violent mob stormed the Capitol.
“In 2020, we had the worst voter fraud and election theft in history,” Brooks said at his campaign kickoff Monday, where he acknowledged speaking with Trump “three times in the last four weeks” about the Senate race.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, Mandel also has fully embraced the false election claims while also taking pains to target Trump’s enemies inside the GOP.
“I think over time, we’re going to see studies come out that evidence widespread fraud,” Mandel told Cleveland-based WKYC-TV last month. “I think when we look back on this election, we’ll see in large part that it was stolen from President Trump.”
In a tweet this month, Mandel called Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection, a “traitor” after Trump endorsed Gonzalez’s 2022 primary opponent.
Mandel’s rhetoric appears to have started a stampede to the right. A second candidate also vying for Trump’s endorsement — former state Republican Party chair Jane Timken — also called for Gonzalez to resign and endorsed a state legislative push to rename a state park for the former president.
Republican operatives are confident many more competitive candidates will emerge in each race, giving GOP voters options that will be more palatable in a general election.
A second prominent Republican entered the Missouri race on Wednesday — state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is positioning himself as a solid pro-Trump conservative without Greitens’s baggage. Schmitt is a much more palatable candidate to Republican leaders in Washington than Greitens and has already met with McConnell. Other Republicans — including Reps. Jason T. Smith and Ann Wagner — also are exploring runs.
In Alabama, Brooks’s main competition for Trump’s backing appears to be Lynda Blanchard, a prominent GOP donor who served as Trump’s ambassador to Slovenia. In her launch video, Blanchard declared herself a “proud member of the MAGA movement” and a “true outsider” without parroting the voter-fraud myths. Also publicly considering the race are Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and Katie Boyd Britt, a former Shelby aide who leads the Business Council of Alabama.
In Ohio, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance also is weighing a run for the seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Rob Portman, as are several others including Reps. Warren Davidson and Steve Stivers.
Despite McConnell’s comments, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) , the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters Tuesday that his organization would not seek to insert itself into GOP primaries and that he trusted Republican voters to “pick well.”
But another GOP arm with close McConnell ties, the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, has played in primaries, moving successfully to sideline firebrand conservative Kris Kobach in Kansas last year and to snuff out coal baron Don Blankenship’s campaign to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in 2018. An earlier SLF effort in Alabama, however, failed to derail the Senate campaign of Roy Moore, who won the nomination under a cloud of child sex abuse allegations and went on to lose to Democrat Doug Jones in 2017.
Scott’s comments came after he met earlier this month with Trump at the former president’s Florida estate — a discussion that Scott described as productive and focused on bringing Republicans together to win tough Senate races.
Although Scott said he asked Trump to get involved only after GOP voters select a nominee, he acknowledged that Trump made no commitment to do so. “I told him, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you what I like, and then you get to do whatever you want,’ ” he said. “It’s a choice he’s going to get to make, how he wants to be involved.”
Trump remains at odds with official Republican Party committees, including the NRSC, over the use of the name and likeness.
So far Trump has not waded into any Senate race, with one exception: In a brief statement earlier this month, he floated the candidacy of Herschel Walker, the star former running back.
“He would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL,” Trump wrote. “Run Herschel, run!”
Although Walker has backed Trump in the past and spoken at GOP events, he has not publicly acknowledged any interest in running for the Senate and currently resides in Texas.