Earlier in the night, Rep. Ted Budd (RN.C.) took the more traditional route of thanking family and campaign volunteers for his resounding victory in the North Carolina Senate race, before turning towards its main patron.
“My friends, I want to thank President Donald J. Trump,” Budd told his supporters.
One by one, Republican Senate candidates are lining up behind Trump in a way that could alter the contours of an institution that prides itself on tradition and deference to senior statesmen.
While they still have to win their general election — and Oz could still lose the GOP nomination to David McCormick as the votes remain to be counted — this new generation of candidates project to be the type of senators who could become problem children for Senate Minority Leader. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Not just because of their track record, but also because they’re trying to replace some of the more seasoned Republican political hands who also serve as soldiers loyal to McConnell.
Last week, JD Vance, who transformed himself from an anti-Trump author into a fierce loyalist to the ex-president, won the GOP nomination for the seat of incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Oz, a surgeon and reality TV star, is seeking to replace retired Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), while Budd would replace retired Sen. Richard Burr (RN.C.).
Next week, Republicans in Georgia are almost certain to nominate Herschel Walker, who played for Trump’s USFL football team in the early 1980s and was propelled into the Senate race by the ex-president.
Just a few years ago, this Georgia seat was held by the late Johnny Isakson (right), one of the hottest senators on either side of the aisle. McConnell trusted him enough to make Isakson the top Republican on the ethics committee for many years.
McConnell named Portman and Toomey in 2017 as his lead men on the nearly $2 trillion tax cut, and Portman served as the lead Republican on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that President Biden has signed into law late last year – with McConnell’s backing.
Burr served as the GOP’s chairman of the intelligence committee and, with McConnell’s backing, rose to the Republican top spot on the health committee last year.
Portman, Burr and Toomey all voted to certify Biden’s election, what McConnell called the “biggest vote” he’s ever cast, against Trump. Burr and Toomey also voted to convict Trump in the February 2021 impeachment trial for inciting the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill.
In contrast, Vance embraces Trump’s fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen. Oz, McCormick and Walker flirted with that false claim, while Budd voted against certifying Biden’s victory.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has supported Trump’s efforts to reject Biden’s victory and often votes against McConnell’s positions, said he was certain Vance would join the fledgling wing that doesn’t match not to GOP leaders.
“I pushed him to run. I just think he’s going to be a great senator. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think there’s a lot of roster there,” Hawley said Wednesday.
Democrats agree that these candidates would change the landscape of the Senate. “There’s no question that would be a negative development, I think, for the country,” Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said Wednesday. “That’s why we have to win these races. It’s absolutely critical. People have to look at the candidates that the Republicans have run and understand that they’re very right wing.
Peters has spent the past year and a half chairing the Homeland Security Committee, turning it into a surprisingly bipartisan panel thanks to his close relationship with Portman, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) has called this collection of GOP candidates “MAGA Republicans” who he says will be tied to Trump in the general election this fall.
“It gives us a lot of optimism,” Schumer told reporters on Wednesday.
Republicans, however, believe these candidates can still win in a political environment where Biden is unpopular in battleground states and three-quarters of voters believe America is on the wrong track.
“We have two excellent candidates. Either Dr. Oz or Dave McCormick will be strong candidates in the general election, one or the other wins the general election,” Toomey said Wednesday of Pennsylvania’s top candidates.
Cook Political Report, an independent political analysis organization, sees Pennsylvania as a toss-up, whether Oz or McCormick wins, with Walker also in a toss-up in Georgia. Budd and Vance are slight favorites to win their races.
Despite Trump’s public calls to oust McConnell, none of these GOP candidates criticized him or suggested they would vote for someone else as leader.
They will all graciously accept McConnell’s financial support through both the official campaign committee and a super PAC run by his close confidants so they can better position themselves for the general election. McConnell has won eight GOP leadership races by acclaim without any opposition and no Republican expects a challenge after the November election.
McConnell, who first took the reins in 2007, is on track to break the record for longest-serving Senate leader when he turns 16 in early January.
But that younger generation of Republicans includes a half-dozen or more agitators who can make his job harder, especially if he’s majority leader next year and has to cut bipartisan deals with Biden.
The question will be, which of these 2022 nominees arrive in the Senate swearing next January, how deferential will they be to McConnell?
Their resumes couldn’t be more different from current GOP senators. Portman spent more than 12 years in the House, then served as George W. Bush’s Trade Representative and Budget Director, before winning his Senate seat in 2010. Toomey spent six years in the House and led the Club for Growth, a conservative political group, before winning in 2010.
Burr spent 10 years in the House before winning his race for the Senate in 2004.
Oz, Vance and Walker have never run for office before. Budd is in his fifth year in the House, with little distinction other than being close allies of Mark Meadows, the former GOP congressman who served as Trump’s last chief of staff.
Some Republican insiders think Budd won’t ruffle feathers and will largely be a good soldier. On Tuesday, however, he pledged his allegiance to Trump alone, as he recounted the former president’s appeal.
“Ted, I endorse you because you’ve never been shy about America-first policies,” Trump told Budd. The crowd cheered.
“I will never hesitate,” Budd said, to more cheers.