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A Trump-McConnell power struggle creates landmines in GOP quest to retake Congress

It’s forcing congressional leadership to tread lightly and avoid setting off an explosion that does real damage to the party.
Image: Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell
Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, take questions in the Rose Garden of the White House, on Oct. 16, 2017.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Republican primaries for the 2022 midterms are fast becoming a battlefield for control of the party.

Most presidents — particularly a defeated one-termer — slip quietly away and allow the highest-ranking elected officials in the party to take the reins. Not Donald Trump.

After laying low in the months after he left office in January, Trump has in recent weeks increased his public presence. He has trashed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a "son of a bitch," endorsed primary challengers against sitting Republican members of Congress he deems disloyal and attempted to divert GOP fundraising away from the party and into his own political organizations.

For congressional Republican leaders responsible for winning back the House and the Senate, the post-Trump landscape is becoming a treacherous minefield with no historical playbook to help them navigate it. The growing power struggle could have repercussions in the 2022 elections, when the party hopes to seize control of Democrats’ narrow majorities in the House and the Senate.

Party officials recognize that Trump retains loyalty among the Republican base and that his endorsements carry weight. They fear he could anoint loyal but unelectable candidates in primaries, who then squander winnable seats. They also worry he may sabotage nominees he dislikes by withholding his endorsement, or by demotivating party voters with groundless claims about election fraud, like in the Georgia runoffs that gave Democrats Senate control.

Trump’s antics are a distraction, senior members of the party say, and dilutes their message in a way that helps Democrats.

“Everyday we re-litigate 2020, Joe Biden wins because we’re not talking about his record and the bad policies he’s trying to implement,” Matt Gorman, former communications director for the NRCC, the House GOP campaign arm, told NBC News.

McConnell has tried to keep his party focused on criticizing Biden’s agenda, including opposing the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill and Democrats’ proposal to raise taxes to pay for a far-reaching infrastructure bill.

“A midterm election is always run on basically just an opposition to the sitting president. That is what the Dems did successfully in 2018, they just said, ‘We hate Trump, vote for us,’” a longtime Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak frankly about strategy, said. Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House and handed Nancy Pelosi the speaker’s gavel once again.

Instead, this cycle, Trump is focused on repeating false claims about the 2020 election. Speaking to a room full of Republican donors recently, Trump attacked McConnell for not objecting to the Electoral College count on Jan. 6. The Senate leader also gave a fiery speech suggesting the former president could be criminally charged.

Trump is attempting to tip the scales in select primaries. He endorsed Max MIller, a former aide, to run against Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio. He has also vowed to campaign against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming. All of the incumbents he is challenging voted to impeach him for incitement of insurrection earlier this year.

In the open Missouri Senate race, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is dating the former president's son Don Trump Jr., is the new “national chair” of Eric Greitens campaign. Greitens is a former governor who resigned in 2018 amid a scandal where he was accused of blackmailing a woman with whom he had an affair. Senate Republican campaign officials say Greitens could have a difficult time winning a general election in a state that should easily be won by a Republican.

In the open Senate race in Alabama, Trump has already endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks, a loyal Trump ally who helped lead the effort in Congress to object to certifying the 2020 election.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who is also in charge of the Senate Republican campaign arm and has 2024 presidential ambitions himself, is trying to keep Trump in the fold. He recently appeared alongside Trump to give him an award — an honor that the NRSC created to give Trump .

Scott acknowledged the division between McConnell and Trump, adding he tries “to bring everybody together.” He has visited with Trump twice since the former president left office and has spoken on the phone with him once. He said that in his meetings, he tells the former president to focus on Democrats and Biden and to hold off on party endorsements.

“My goal is … for him to let the voters pick and then support the (Republican candidate) after the primary,” Scott told NBC News. “Clearly that’s not what he did in Alabama.”

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and oil-and-gas executive, said that at the event where Trump attacked McConnell, several party donors he spoke to told him they left during Trump's remarks and called it "giantly awkward" for 2022 candidates.

"All this weekend did was to confirm for most that the party has to keep moving forward, build on the successes of the Trump era (of which there are many) but stay out of the trap of orbiting around Trump,” he added.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., sidestepped a question about whether Trump is hurting the GOP's task of recapturing control of Congress by bad-mouthing party leaders.

"We're very focused on taking back the House next year. And frankly, when you look at the socialist agenda being pushed by Speaker Pelosi and President Biden, people are turning away from it," he said at a press conference.

Even as McConnell gives the feud no oxygen by ignoring questions about Trump's criticism, some Republicans wish the spat would simply disappear.

"Hopefully there'll be some sort of truce," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., McConnell’s deputy, told reporters. "It's hard to hard to predict or expect what might happen there but I think it's in everybody's best interest, I think — including the former president if he wants to continue to stay viable politically — to help us win the majority in 2022," he said. "And that means working with Senate Republicans and not against them."

Thune is particularly attuned to the power struggle. His seat is up for re-election, although he has not said if he will run again. Trump has suggested that Gov. Kristi Noem should challenge Thune in a primary after the South Dakota senator criticized his role in the Jan. 6 riot.

As House Republicans prepare to gather in Orlando for their annual retreat this weekend, Rep. Cheney, who is running the retreat, said it will be focused on “what we have to do as Republicans is get back to being the party of ideas and the substance and the policy of conservatism.”

Is Trump attending? “I haven’t invited him,” she said.