Many GOP senators still speak regularly with Trump as he asserts outsized influence in party primaries and this fall’s battle for control of the chamber. In fact, most Republicans are still hesitant to say anything on the record that might put them in the crosshairs of their presumed 2024 frontrunner — which explains the reluctance to address why they decided not to see him in the Sunshine State.
Some Republicans who traveled to Florida for the National Republican Senatorial Committee event said they weren’t snubbing Trump, who has pushed in vain to depose Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and would be visiting with him soon. And several wouldn’t be welcome, since some senators who voted to convict the president at his second impeachment trial were among those wooing donors at the NRSC events.
But other Republicans said hanging out with their onetime commander-in-chief is the furthest thing from their minds.
“I went down there to meet with National Republican Senatorial Committee supporters and honestly never even gave it a thought,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), whom Trump has called a “jerk” for saying the 2020 election was fairly decided.
“Our focus is on winning this cycle and then winning the presidency back. And to go back in and to try to rehash 2020 is not what we’re doing,” Rounds added. “We’re focused on bringing the party together, to bring the rank-and-file members who had questions back in, so that they feel we’re being honest with them and we’re providing a sense of integrity.”
Rounds is one of a handful of members speaking more freely in a 50-member Senate GOP that’s now at a crossroads, especially compared to the far more Trump-friendly House Republicans. Led by McConnell, who’s single-mindedly focused on taking back the Senate, Republicans are yet again treading carefully with Trump — and, in some cases, quietly tiptoeing away from him.
Senate Republicans want his supporters and don’t want to fight with him. But they want the midterms to be a simple referendum on President Joe Biden’s leadership — not on whether the party of Trump will rise again or whether the election was rigged.
A Trump spokesperson made clear there’s no love lost between the president and some quarters of the Senate GOP.
“Nothing screams ‘RINO Loser’ louder than a couple career politicians anonymously claiming to ‘snub’ the most popular Republican in America at a sold out event. Who cares?” said Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich.
Trump has made no secret of his frustrations with McConnell — whom he calls the “Old Crow” — as well as other various senators from his own party. And advisers to the former president say he has made clear he wants to usher in a new crop of GOP senators who wouldn’t thwart a MAGA agenda should he become president again. But his desire to reward loyalty with endorsements and support has, in some instances, worked against Senate leadership’s designs to win back the majority with viable candidates.
“It speaks volumes about how McConnell is trying to keep his caucus in line, so these senators are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said one former Trump adviser, granted anonymity to speak frankly. “I don’t think [Trump] necessarily cares. I think the main thing he cares about is that the candidates he’s endorsed do well. That’s what he’s focusing on and then in 2022, having a good record.”
Republican senators observed the public sentiment is moving away from Trump at the edges of the party — but not in the base. That makes the relationship with the former president tricky, particularly in a Senate Republican conference that ranges from Never Trump Republicans to diehard supporters.
“The polling shows that there’s been a little [dip]. But he represents, especially, the bloc of base voters who are anti-establishment. And I don’t think there’s been any loss among them,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who did not attend fundraising events in Florida over the weekend.
The group of senators invited to the NRSC event at The Breakers ranged from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted to convict the president of inciting an insurrection, to Trump stalwarts such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). The Trump event happened on Friday afternoon, before the NRSC program officially began, so senators may have had scheduling conflicts.
But some Republicans said they had a very clear takeaway about an event they believed would have welcomed far more than the trio of Republicans that attended.
“Over 20 senators down there. … They had an event at the property with the president attending, and only three went. I guess you can draw your own conclusions,” said a second Senate Republican who went to Florida and was granted anonymity. “Everybody can draw their own interpretations but certainly, given the number of people down there, you can’t argue it was a really well attended event.”
NRSC Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) were the three senators that did an event with Trump. Daines said the confab was an “intimate” roundtable and described it as a “great event.”
Cruz, another attendee at The Breakers, said he would visit Trump next week on his own. And Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said things are “all good” with Trump, whom he saw briefly on the links.
“I just didn’t have time to go over there. But I saw him at the golf course,” Tuberville said. “He’s doing a good job of raising money, I know that. Everything is positive.”
Scott has made managing the relationship with Trump a central part of his job directing the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. He has to balance the president’s own endorsement with McConnell’s focus on not nominating candidates that could lose a general election. It’s certainly possible that this year’s elections add more Trump-friendly senators to the GOP, and that the current crop of Republicans will look a lot different when GOP senators including Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina retire at the end of the year.
One Trump adviser mocked the idea that some Republican senators would go out of their way to avoid the former president. “Oh yeah, these Senate Republicans, who are all vastly less popular than Trump wouldn’t stop by,” the adviser said. “So, yeah, I’m sure Trump was so upset that John Thune didn’t stroll over and say hi. You guys really got him.”
A number of Senate Republicans said enthusiasm isn’t particularly high in their conference to talk about Trump or to visit with him. Asked why he didn’t talk to Trump while in Florida, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) jokingly implored another reporter to “save me” from the inquisition.
“I hadn’t thought about it. But I was down there,” Shelby said of visiting with Trump. “I know what you’re getting at.”