WASHINGTON ― In the halls of Congress, Republican lawmakers often shy away from questions about former President Donald Trump, his attempts to overthrow the 2020 election, and the threat his continued lies pose to American democracy.
But it’s a different story on the campaign trail, where GOP candidates are actively jockeying for Trump’s endorsement, party committees are using his name and likeness to raise funds ahead of the 2022 midterms, and top GOP senators are joining him at campaign rallies.
The split dynamic played out Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who called Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the violent Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, gently urged his party to focus on the future rather than the past.
“It’s my hope that the ’22 election will be a referendum on the performance of the current administration, not a rehash of suggestions about what may have happened in 2020,” McConnell said when asked about Trump’s recent statement urging Republicans to question Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.
But Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), one of the senators at McConnell’s side at Tuesday’s press conference, hasn’t exactly embraced that ethos.
The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Scott voted to object to Biden’s electoral victory based on Trump’s false claims of fraud. He has put Trump at the center of the party’s efforts to retake the Senate next year, stroking the former president’s ego with made-up accolades and mimicking his voice in appeals for funds.
Last week, Scott even invited Trump to address GOP senators at a donor retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, otherwise known as Trump’s backyard, where the former president continued to spout false allegations of election fraud. The reason why isn’t surprising: Trump remains overwhelmingly popular among Republican voters despite his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
And in terms of money, the strategy appears to be working. In the third quarter of the year, the NRSC hauled in over $25 million.
“What I’m trying to do is make sure we win elections,” Scott said Tuesday when asked about the NRSC using Trump’s image to raise funds.
But embracing Trump as a way to raise funds also means giving him a bigger platform to spread his lies about election fraud. Those sorts of lies could backfire on the party as it seeks to retake control of Congress next year.
Trump suggested last week that Republican voters would stay home in the 2022 midterms unless every Republican official follows him down the rabbit hole by questioning the integrity of U.S. election systems. Some Republicans fear that this kind of rhetoric could depress voter turnout and cost the party at the ballot box, as was the case in Georgia earlier this year. Biden carried Georgia in November and Democrats later went on to win control of the Senate after two runoff elections.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican who is up for reelection next year, said “nobody should be discouraging people from voting.” He predicted that Republican voters would be very motivated in the 2022 midterm elections because of the Biden administration’s economic and foreign policy record.
GOP senators who have been the most outspoken in criticizing Trump over Jan. 6 didn’t seem to mind that the party’s campaign arm, which they contribute to, is relying on Trump’s image to raise funds.
“I wouldn’t have invited him, but I can’t speak for the leadership,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), who voted to convict Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection, said about Trump’s appearance at the NRSC retreat last week.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), another vote against Trump in his impeachment trial earlier this year, similarly shrugged off Trump’s invitation to the NRSC retreat last week. “Republicans can give speeches and raise money for other Republicans. I don’t necessarily agree with all the things the president has to say,” Romney told HuffPost.
Republicans are bullish about their chances in key swing states as Biden’s approval ratings with independent voters plummet and congressional Democrats squabble over their legislative agenda, which is currently mired in divisions between the progressive and centrist wings of the party.
Even relatively safe GOP incumbents like Chuck Grassley (Iowa) aren’t taking any chances in their bid to retake control of the upper chamber. The Iowa senator appeared last week at a rally with Trump in Des Moines, where he enthusiastically accepted the former president’s endorsement, even after the events at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year.
“I was born at night but not last night,” Grassley said at the rally. “So if I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91% of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart. I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.”
“GOP Senate candidates are spending their time sucking up to Trump, viciously attacking their Republican primary opponents or just talking about whatever they think Trump cares about, like the 2020 election,” said David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “In doing so, they are demonstrating how out of touch they are with the concerns of voters who will decide the general election in their states.”