the point gop senate retirements
These Senate retirements show why Trump is still powerful
06:30 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is quietly maneuvering to field a slate of GOP Senate candidates in critical battleground states, attempting to avoid a repeat of election cycles a decade ago when candidates emerged from primaries only to implode and deny his party the chance to take back the majority.

This time around, the wily Kentucky Republican has a high-spending super PAC and he’s prepared to use it.

With 20 GOP seats to defend – including five open seats where Republican senators are retiring – compared with 14 seats that Democrats have to defend, McConnell is making clear he’s not taking any chances. And he’s signaling he has little regard as to whether GOP prospects are loyal to former President Donald Trump, who himself is beginning to take an active role in Senate GOP primaries.

“What I’m looking for is somebody who can win in November,” McConnell told CNN. “I don’t care who they like or don’t like. Can they win in November? So it’s not an ideological thing. It’s not a ‘who do you think is going to be the nominee in ’24’ thing. It’s can you win in November?”

And asked if his allied super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, will drop big bucks in primaries to help his preferred candidates, McConnell said bluntly: “Only if necessary.”

Republicans say it might be necessary. With a growing number of messy primaries emerging, and Trump eager to prop up candidates who fit his brand of politics, top Republicans are keenly aware that intra-party wars could produce weak general election candidates and undercut their efforts to take back the Senate majority, something that occurred in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Privately, GOP sources say that McConnell is wooing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to consider a run even though the Republican governor – whom Trump furiously attacked over certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory there – has said he won’t challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.

In other states, McConnell and other top Republicans are closely monitoring the decisions of candidates who could bring together the warring wings of the party, such as Gov. Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who Republican sources say is considering a run against Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

Fears over a candidate in Missouri

But as McConnell and other top Republicans closely watch the crowded primary fields emerge in North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Pennsylvania, there are also new concerns about the open Missouri seat caused by the retirement of GOP Sen. Roy Blunt.

The state’s scandal-ridden former GOP governor, Eric Greitens, has prompted worries among an array of Republicans in Missouri politics and in Washington, as he has been courting pro-Trump voices in the media and hinting at a potential bid.

The fear: Greitens could emerge from a crowded primary field and put at risk a safe Republican seat, much as Republican Todd Akin did when he lost to Democrat Claire McCaskill nearly a decade ago.

“There’s a lot of concern for what happened in the past,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican who is considering a run for the seat, told CNN when asked about Greitens. “So I would hope that Missouri would have someone where those issues won’t be distractions and focus on the priorities of the people of the state.”

Others sidestepped questions about Greitens’ perceived vulnerabilities and touted their own strengths.

“I think I’m the best candidate,” Rep. Jason Smith, a Missouri Republican who is eyeing a run, said when asked about Greitens.

How Trump responds remains to be seen. Blunt told CNN that the former President had privately encouraged the senator in recent days to run again and said, “I’ll do anything I can to help you” win, and called Blunt again after the veteran Republican surprised the political world when he announced his retirement earlier this week.

After those calls, Trump was on the phone with Sen. Josh Hawley, the junior GOP senator from Missouri and past Greitens critic, where the two discussed the open Senate seat.

In an interview with CNN, Hawley avoided criticizing Greitens – even though Hawley had called on the governor to resign when he was serving as the state’s attorney general in 2018.

“I think at this point, I think it’s way too early to say,” Hawley said when asked about Greitens’ viability as a candidate in a general election. “I don’t think the field has taken shape. I don’t have any well-formed thoughts on any candidates.”

Hawley, who is undecided whether to back a candidate in the race, also says he doesn’t know if Trump will endorse a Republican for Blunt’s seat.

“There’s no math for us that I can think of where we lose Missouri and regain the Senate – not with the other seats we have to defend,” Hawley said. “So, we have to hold that seat, and I think it’s fair to say the former President shares that view.”

Greitens, who resigned from office in 2018 following a probe into alleged sexual and campaign misconduct, has since claimed that he was “exonerated” and noted that an investigator in his case was charged with perjury and evidence tampering. He did not respond to requests for comment but said on a local radio show Thursday that he wasn’t deterred by the opposition.

“For a lot of the insiders, the cabal, the establishment, this is their little profit system,” said Greitens. “It doesn’t surprise me that there are insiders and lobbyists and establishment folks who don’t want to see us in but we don’t work for them.”

Trump planning more endorsements of Senate candidates

Even as Trump’s intentions in Missouri are unclear, the former President is planning a wave of endorsements. He met with Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, at his golf resort on Thursday, and Trump is planning to put his weight behind Republicans he believes fit his mold and showed loyalty to him while he was in office.

Whether they end up being the same ones McConnell wants remains an open question. The two are not speaking after McConnell blamed Trump for fomenting the January 6 Capitol riot, even though the GOP leader voted to acquit him during his impeachment trial.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who speaks frequently with the former President, said Trump planned to be very involved in the GOP effort to take back control of the Senate.

“I think you’re going to see him endorse more and more Republicans up for reelection,” Graham said. “There are some he won’t go there, but most of them he’s going to be for, I hope.”

But when asked whether Trump would change his mind and endorse Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who voted to convict him during his second impeachment trial, Graham said, “Well, I don’t know about that one.”

Trump has publicly and privately expressed his opposition to Murkowski’s reelection – even as McConnell has vowed to support her. Yet the veteran Alaska moderate was coy this week when asked by reporters if she would run again.

“Well, I have to do it before 2022, right?” she said about making a decision.

In the past week, the former President blamed McConnell for losing the Senate in 2020 and called him “the most unpopular politician in the country.” Trump then urged his supporters to give to his own political apparatus, and told the Republican campaign committees in Washington to stop using his likeness for fundraising.

And Trump pitched former NFL running back Herschel Walker, who lives in Texas, to run for Senate in Georgia, injecting a dose of uncertainty into the still-emerging field there.

Trump called former Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler in February after she announced a new group called Greater Georgia, according to a source familiar with the call. Loeffler, former Rep. Doug Collins and other Republicans like Walker are considering running against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia in 2022.

Republican strategists warn that the former President’s continued effort to impose his will on the Republican Party, shaping primaries across the country with the candidates most loyal to him, could hurt their effort to win back the Senate.

Already, four Republican senators in addition to Blunt – Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard Shelby of Alabama – have decided to retire. And many of the Republicans running to replace them are even more beholden to Trump.

“We’re losing some real talent,” McConnell told CNN. “We’ll be trying to get the majority back with more new faces than I had hoped.”

“But I think we’ve got a good shot,” the GOP leader added. “I think this administration has turned out to be extremely left, which is a godsend for us in terms of checking off the ’22 environment.”

Yet Democrats are hoping that Republicans’ embrace of Trump will help them win pick up seats, even in states like Ohio that have trended Republican in recent years.

“If the Republicans continue to go down the road of Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, they’re going to go off a cliff,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat who told CNN he’s “very interested” in a Senate run and will make a final decision “in the next few weeks.”

The Senate Leadership Fund spent more than $476 million last election cycle and might intervene in 2022 primaries if necessary. In 2020, McConnell’s allied super PAC intervened in the Kansas Senate primary to help McConnell’s preferred candidate – and might do so again if the situation warrants it.

Officials with the Senate Leadership Fund said their posture about intervening in primaries hasn’t changed from past cycles.

But that’s different from Scott’s plan, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman vowing that he is “not getting involved in primaries,” meaning his group won’t endorse candidates or spend money in races where non-incumbents are running in primaries.

Despite Trump’s demand that GOP party committees not use his image in fundraising solicitations, while pushing money for his own political organization, Scott said the NRSC’s February fundraising was an “impressive haul” and that Republicans’ stances would bring them back to power.

“The ’22 election is going to be about issues,” Scott said. “Americans are not supporting those men playing women’s sports. They don’t want open borders. They don’t want to close schools. They don’t want to get rid of fossil fuels.”

McConnell is running a playbook similar to the one he had as minority leader when Barack Obama was president, seeking to keep his party united against the Democratic agenda, as he did when all Republicans voted against the $1.9 trillion relief bill signed into law this week.

Whether that tactic succeeds in giving him back the majority leader title remains to be seen.

Asked if he would run for leader again in the next Congress, McConnell kept his cards close to his vest.

“I think I’ll not answer that at the moment,” he said with a chuckle.

CNN’s Olanma Mang and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.