Squint hard, and you might just see the outlines of an anti-Donald Trump coalition forming in the Senate GOP.
It started coming together well before the former president’s latest indictment, when seven Republican senators voted to convict after his second impeachment trial. Now as the party’s 2024 primary field is nearly set, Republican discomfort with Trump is coming more into focus.
Trump leads the field in Senate GOP endorsements, with 10 officially on board and potentially more on the way. But some Republican senators are quietly making moves: Four have endorsed non-Trump candidates, a couple more say they want a different nominee, several others grimace when asked about his electoral prospects and even some staunch defenders are staying formally neutral so far.
That includes Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), a longtime Trump ally who — as of now — will only say that “I’ve endorsed his policies.”
“An official endorsement, I have not. I’ve been pretty clear I’d like to see someone articulate for the Republican Party what we’re going to do policy-wise,” added Braun, who’s running for governor of his bright-red state. He said he wouldn’t endorse one of Trump’s rivals and is waiting for the former president’s approach to “crystallize.”
In total, the number of senators who say they want someone other than Trump or who voted to bar him from office is equal to the number endorsing him. And while the primary won’t be won in the Senate GOP, Trump’s critics there represent a considerable swath of the party base, including donors, that want a different standard-bearer to take on President Joe Biden.
Take Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who won his seat in 2016 with Trump on the ballot and then ran the Senate GOP’s campaign arm alongside Trump in 2020. He has exactly one criteria in mind for a GOP presidential endorsement: “Whoever can beat Trump.”
Inside the Senate, the former president has already lost the Dakotas. Both South Dakota senators, Minority Whip John Thune and Mike Rounds, are backing Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Thune’s the highest-ranking Republican lawmaker who has endorsed in the primary.
And the two North Dakota senators, Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven, are supporting Gov. Doug Burgum (R-N.D.). Hoeven didn’t explicitly connect that to worries about Trump’s electability, saying instead that Burgum is “a success at everything he does.”
“Our conference consists of smart people who realize that any nominee other than Trump is likely to win. And Trump is at best a 50/50 shot and most likely, less than 50/50. So, in their heart of hearts, they would love to see someone besides Trump be our nominee,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the only GOP senator who voted to convict Trump in both impeachment trials.
On the other hand, Romney acknowledged, Senate Republicans “also recognize he’s overwhelmingly the favorite [in the primary]. And there’s no upside in going out and saying that.”
Reflecting that attitude, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to say Tuesday whether he would support Trump if he earned the Republican nomination, or whether Trump did anything wrong: “I simply am not going to start commenting on the various candidates we have for president.”
The Kentuckian has not spoken to Trump since the 2021 Capitol riot. Former whip and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who’s close to McConnell, says the GOP needs to “do better” than Trump in order to win a general election.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) chose her words carefully, saying she wants Scott’s forward-looking message to be “elevated” in the primary and that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who has no Senate endorsements, “has hit upon issues people want addressed in this election cycle.”
Lummis doesn’t plan to endorse yet, but she’s attaching a warning label to Trump’s potential nomination.
“If Trump is our nominee, I’ll support him. But it’s so difficult to talk about him in the context of issues because he’s so wrapped up in legal proceedings,” she concluded, adding that her constituents don’t think much of the 37-count federal indictment.
Many Senate Republicans, even those not backing Trump, railed against the DOJ charging him with improperly retaining highly sensitive materials. But that’s not a unanimous view, and a significant number of GOP senators see Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case as damaging.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the No. 5 GOP leader, said that post-indictment, Trump’s looking at general-election prospects that could differ from his pole position in the primary: “He seems to have hardened, at least early on, his support in the primary. I don’t know if it stays or not.”
“These are serious charges. And they need to be taken seriously by everybody. And as these things unfold, they tend to get bigger because there’s additive information,” Capito said of the most recent indictment. Politically, she added, “I think it’ll be difficult for him.”
Senate Republicans did not talk about the indictment at their party lunch on Tuesday, according to two people familiar with the discussion who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Just two of the GOP senators who objected to certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, are officially backing Trump. The other Trump backers are mostly first-termers, save for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who chairs the conference’s campaign arm this election cycle. Trump’s base of support on Capitol Hill remains the House, where he’s racked up endorsements and seen just a handful of defections.
“When all is said and done, if we’re not all on the same page, we can’t win. And you got people that dislike President Trump for this and that,” Tuberville said. “We all gotta forget the past experiences and go on.”
Another Republican senator who objected to Biden’s certification, John Kennedy of Louisiana, said he’s not even talking about the primary for the moment: “I don’t have anything for you on that.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a leader of those objection efforts, said simply: “I’m going to stay out of it.”
Yet no Republican senator who voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trials is offering an endorsement yet either, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Romney said that at some point he “may endorse someone, but at this stage it would be the kiss of death.”
Describing his ideal candidate, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said simply: “One who can beat Biden.” And Trump, he added, cannot.
“He loses in four of the five swing states. His endorsed candidates all lost, and plausibly they lose because of his endorsement,” Cassidy said. “I’ve been trained as a physician to see things as they are, not as I wish them to be. And that seems to be as they are.