Politics

How Hard Will Senate Republicans Fight for Trump?

The winners look for a way out of the loser’s endgame.

Mitch McConnell makes a closed-mouth smile in front of U.S. flags.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Monday. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Joe Biden has been the projected winner of the presidential election since Saturday, on track to win 306 electoral votes. Donald Trump is taking the news as poorly as expected. While he lashes out at the media for having called the race and argues, with no factual basis, that he won the most “LEGAL VOTES,” his band of lower-level stooges are spreading rumors that get more risible the further down the barrel they scrape. So far, the secondhand story of the Nevada “whistleblower” alleging that people opened and refilled ballots in a van marked “Biden-Harris” is the best, and a sign of what we’re working with.

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But where does this leave the rest of the president’s party? To the extent that there’s been a consensus reaction among other prominent Republican politicians to Trump’s meltdown, it’s to keep their heads down. They don’t need to crawl down into the bottom of the barrel with their soon-to-be-former president; they’ve already gotten what they want.

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While Trump blew his own reelection, the rest of the Republican Party positioned itself well for the future. They have a strong chance of retaining the Senate, they gained ground in the House of Representatives, and they maintained a powerful grip on governorships and state legislatures ahead of a redistricting cycle. They’ve restocked the federal judiciary, capstoned with a 6–3 conservative Supreme Court, so they can knock down whichever aspects of Biden’s agenda the congressional GOP itself doesn’t block. They’ve set the table for the next couple of years, and there’s no seat for Donald Trump.

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But that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable abandoning Trump just yet. Some members spent years, often unsuccessfully, trying to repair their connection with the Republican base after denouncing Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016. Forthrightly congratulating President-elect Joe Biden for his victory is something that Trump’s supporters would not easily forget and could provoke a 2022 primary challenge from some truer believer. And playing along with Trump’s narrative of a stolen election could be a necessary prelude to waging a successful 2024 presidential primary campaign—with one big caveat.

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As of Monday afternoon before the Senate came back into session, just a few Republican senators had congratulated “President-elect Biden.” They were the usual small set of Republicans who occasionally will nod toward a functioning polity. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who torched whatever uneasy relationship he had with Trump weeks before the election, congratulated “the next president, Joe Biden,” on Sunday. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said on CNN Sunday that “given the fact that the statisticians have come to a conclusion at this stage, I think we get behind the new president.” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who will soon have a choice to make about whether she wants to run in a Republican primary, run as an independent, or not run at all in 2022, congratulated the winning ticket and said she “will be ready to work with their administration when it takes office.” And comfortably reelected Maine Sen. Susan Collins also congratulated Biden on his “apparent victory,” while observing that Trump should “be afforded the opportunity” to challenge any discrepancies he sees in court. It’s delivered like a pat on the head to a guy who’s going through some stuff.

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Members of Republican leadership, however, haven’t acknowledged Biden’s win yet. It would be viewed as treachery to much of the Republican base were they to ditch Trump while votes are still being counted, while there could still be recounts, and while Trump is still conjuring new lawsuits to throw up a cloud of illegitimacy. The leaders know he has little case to make up for his deficits in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, or Michigan, but they need to keep base energy high ahead of runoff elections in Georgia to determine control of the Senate. So they’re letting it play out.

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“The core principle here is not complicated,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday, reiterating his lone tweet on the matter from late last week. “In the United States of America, all legal ballots must be counted; any illegal ballots must not be; the process should be transparent or observable by all sides, and the courts are here to work through concerns.”

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“Our institutions are built for this,” he continued. “We have the system in place to consider concerns. And President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.” He went on to read a few quotes from Democrats that he considered gravely hypocritical. One line near the end of the speech, though, indicated that he doesn’t see much likelihood of the results changing: “Suffice to say, a few legal inquiries from the President do not exactly spell the end of the Republic.”

Other leading Senate Republicans thought it was fine for Trump to exercise his rights but didn’t sound as if they expected much—or wanted to be too associated with it. “There is a process that is available, and I don’t begrudge the president for availing himself of that process but in the end, they’re going to have to come up with some facts and evidence,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said. And South Dakota Sen. John Thune said Trump had a “constitutional right” to any legal challenges he wanted to make but once those were played out, “we’re going to have a result before long.”

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To the extent that there are ardent supporters of the president’s hollow case, beyond deep-red House members like this nutcase filming horror videos of himself babbling in the dark, they share a specific trait: ambitions in a Republican presidential primary. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has been making television rounds promoting Trump’s path to victory, arguing for a little help from the Supreme Court, and spreading debunked conspiracy theories about irregularities with Michigan voting machines. When Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that 2024 hopefuls weren’t defending Trump enough, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley sprang to action. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted out a link to donate to Trump’s “legal defense fund,” which says in the fine print that 50 percent of donations are designated toward the Trump campaign’s debt retirement. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem called Mitt Romney a “DC Elite” for congratulating Biden.

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The aim is to remind base voters that these loud ones stood with the president when “the media” had rushed to push him out of office in an election they’re pretending involved mass fraud. It would be a prerequisite to the 2024 primary. But there’s a catch. If Cruz, Hawley, and friends help convince the Republican primary voters that Trump isn’t really a loser, but a winner from whom the Deep State (Philadelphia election officials, the deepest of them all) stole reelection, then Trump himself will have a great fake rationale—revenge—for running again in 2024, an entry that could clear the primary field.

And yes, Trump’s already talking about it.

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