WASHINGTON ― A second Donald Trump presidency could be more unbound thanks to the changing face of the Republican Party, where traditional GOP stalwarts are gradually being replaced with hard-charging MAGA loyalists eager to defend and amplify his tactics.
During his first term in office, Trump squared off with the likes of John McCain, Bob Corker, and Mitt Romney, establishment Republican senators who were often a thorn in his side. Now, many of the lawmakers most likely to push back against his worst instincts are either gone or heading for the exits, and a favorable electoral landscape for the GOP next year could install even more dutiful Trump allies in the upper chamber, who will be more eager to help his promised campaign of revenge than hinder it.
It’s an open question as to how long 81-year-old Mitch McConnell ― the Senate GOP leader who Trump loathes ― will stick around after battling ailments this year. There is growing evidence that his once-dominant influence within the conference is waning amid numerous challenges from a wing of conservative and MAGA-allied senators who are eager to flex their muscles and forge closer ties to the de facto leader of their party.
Trump’s campaign already has the backing of over 100 Republicans in Congress ― including 17 of 49 sitting GOP senators ― despite him facing historic criminal charges in four separate cases and his being impeached twice, including for trying to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.
That number is only expected to grow as Trump continues his march toward the GOP presidential nomination. With just a few weeks until voters begin to cast their ballots, he dominates in polls of the 2024 race by a wide margin. The field has yet to consolidate behind an alternative; it may be too late by the time it even does. A resounding win in the Iowa caucuses could help seal the deal early for Trump, making the following primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina less relevant and setting him up for a glide path to victory.
Trump’s allies believe it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the party gets behind the program ― and that this time, if he wins, his agenda, which could include massive camps to hold immigrants awaiting deportation, further corporate tax cuts and an economically disruptive 10% tariff, would be much easier to enact.
“A lot of people are politically cautious, they don’t want to get involved in the primary while it’s going on, but my view is the primary is effectively over, and I’ve encouraged my colleagues to get on board,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), a top MAGA supporter in Congress.
“The more populist or America First side of [the GOP] will have more of an upper hand the second time around than it did in the first,” he predicted. “But it’s going to be a work in progress. These things take time.”
Trump has been open about seeking vengeance in his second term, vowing to weaponize the government against his opponents if he returns to power. He has suggested that he would direct the Department of Justice to open investigations into President Joe Biden, his family and others. His allies have also described sweeping plans to expand the presidency and give Trump more power than ever if he is elected to the White House again.
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), a top MAGA supporter in Congress, says the GOP presidential primary is already over.
Many of those plans will hinge on support from his party in Congress. Some Republicans have expressed uneasewith the idea of restructuring federal agencies or the civil service, but there’s no telling what Trump could accomplish by pushing the bounds of executive power on his own, especially with a conservative 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court.
The Senate will, at least, have a say in approving who leads Trump’s executive agencies if he wins again. An extreme choice for attorney general like Stephen Miller, who is known for his anti-immigration views, for example, would face difficulty with the current GOP leadership, but the math gets better for such a scenario with each year more Trump loyalists fill the Senate.
In 2022, Trump gained several new allies in the Senate who are now enthusiastically backing his 2024 bid. Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) replaced Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who was one of a handful of Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Vance replaced Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former George W. Bush administration official, and Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) replaced veteran dealmaker Roy Blunt.
Trump stands to gain even more allies next year, with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice almost certain to replace Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and several other Trump acolytes vying for seats, including businessman Bernie Moreno in Ohio and veteran Tim Sheehy in Montana, both in states represented by vulnerable Senate Democrats facing reelection.
Meanwhile, GOP resistance to Trump in the Senate is fleeting, and there are even signs of fatigue among some anti-Trump senators. If he wins the nomination, Trump will once again dominate questions to GOP lawmakers about his many rants, incendiary threats against opponents, or his racist comments. Some lawmakers have already taken to refusing to answer questions about the 2024 campaign entirely.
Romney, Trump’s loudest critic who voted to convict him in both his impeachment trials, is retiring next year and the odds seem low that Utahns will elect someone as committed to battling the former president as he did. Even he seems a bit worn out from denouncing Trump all the time.
“Donald Trump says so many absurd things,” Romney said recently in response to a Trump interview in which he said he would only be a dictator on “day one” of his presidency.
“I sort of laugh at what he’s saying,” he added. “The other day, he was saying, ‘We’re going to get rid of Obamacare.’ It’s like, really, what have you got? You said that when you were president, did you ever introduce a plan to replace Obamacare? No. So at some point, you realize you don’t have to take him literally, and you don’t have to take him seriously either.”
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) isn’t jazzed about the prospect of his party nominating Donald Trump for president again.
Asked about Trump’s much-criticized comments that migrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) replied sarcastically: “Looks like I’m looking forward to another year of answering these questions.”
Earlier this year, the Indiana Republican vowed not to support Trump in the 2024 GOP race, saying that conservatives would not be well served “by electing someone whose core competency seems to be owning someone on Twitter.” Now he, too, seems to be dreading the odds that Trump wins the nomination again.
“Horse race? Is it a horse race? No,” Young said earlier this month when a reporter tried to ask him about another Trump 2024 campaign-related question.
Of course, Republicans could have avoided this scenario had more of them voted to convict Trump after Jan. 6, 2021, which would have disqualified him from holding future elected office.
But a second Trump presidency, if it comes to pass, wouldn’t be entirely free of GOP detractors. Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska aren’t expected to leave Congress any time soon, and they’ve both shown a willingness to criticize the former president and join Democrats in voting against his priorities in Congress.
Murkowski, for example, recently condemned Trump for making “hateful” comments about immigrants, saying that it is his rhetoric that is “poisoning our country.” The Alaska Republican won reelection to another six-year term last year and is more insulated from political pressure than most of her colleagues.
Which Republican eventually succeeds McConnell in the Senate as leader could also help determine the fate of a possible second Trump presidency. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the minority whip and No. 2 Republican in the Senate, is considered a possible successor in the mold of McConnell. Thune backed Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the 2024 race and has made positive comments about former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Another possible successor, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), on the other hand, has backed Trump and is more aligned with the MAGA wing of the party.
Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama, a rising star at age 41 who had been mentioned as a possible face of the GOP post-Trump, recently endorsed his 2024 bid.
It’s not hard to tell which way the wind is blowing, however. The McConnell-backed freshman Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama, a rising star at age 41 who had been mentioned as a possible face of the GOP post-Trump, recently endorsed the former president’s 2024 bid. In an op-ed, Britt framed the choice as between Trump and Biden, even though there are several other (and younger) choices in the GOP race.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who once called Flordia Gov. Ron DeSantis the “leader” of the Republican Party, acknowledged that the GOP is “in transition” right now.
“I do think that what I would call the ‘neocon’ part of the Republican Party is all but gone, and so there is more pragmatic thought on matters that involve not only the Department of Defense but the U.S. role in foreign conflicts,” Lummis said. “I do think in that regard President Trump has influenced some of the thinking. It’s healthy.”
And Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), another Trump-skeptical Republican who had endorsed Scott’s failed 2024 bid, pointed out that the Republican base doesn’t see an alternative to Trump right now, even with other GOP candidates in the race.
“You’ve got 16 or 17 senators who’ve committed to the former president, which means a supermajority has not,” Rounds said with a vaguely hopeful note. He added that “there is still time” for them to coalesce around someone else.”
With less than three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, time is running very short.
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