In the months before the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans, stuck deep in the minority in the U.S. Senate, began to see the glimmerings of a path back to the majority. Rising voter anger over a glacial economic recovery handed the GOP an unlikely win in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, and polls showed other Democratic incumbents in trouble.
But a vein of unrest had opened among Republican voters upset with leaders in Washington they saw as insufficiently conservative or conspiratorially aligned with Democrats.
The nascent Tea Party movement upended mainstream Republican candidates in a handful of key states, replacing them with arch conservatives who promised to burn down the establishment. And in the process, they cost Republicans control of the Senate.
In 2010, Republicans gained a net six U.S. Senate seats. But inept and far too conservative candidates in states like Colorado, Delaware and Nevada lost winnable races, costing Republicans control. Two years later, Democrats won races in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota – all states Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried by wide margins – to pad their majority.
In five of those seven states – with the exceptions of Montana and North Dakota – the candidate preferred by national Republicans lost primary elections to conservative upstarts.
“Ten years ago, Republicans effectively handed over five Senate seats to the Democrats solely because of bad candidates who were backed by national Tea Party groups that didn’t have the purest of motives,” said Brian Walsh, who led communications at the National Republican Senatorial Committee during both the 2010 and 2012 cycles. “We ultimately won back a couple cycles later the seats in Indiana and Missouri, but Delaware, Colorado and Nevada are all still blue today.”
Just over a decade later, some Republicans see the seedlings of another internecine war that will have political consequences.
In one corner is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), denied his majority title at the hands of suburban voters who punished his party for its association with a poisonous president. In the other is that now-former president, Donald Trump, desperate to maintain his hold over voters who adore him.
The latest round erupted this week, when McConnell once again tried to distance his party from the former president. Trump, McConnell wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “bears moral responsibility” for the Jan. 6 insurrection that claimed seven lives at the U.S. Capitol.
“His supporters stormed the Capitol because of the unhinged falsehoods he shouted into the world’s largest megaphone,” McConnell wrote.
Trump’s response was as predictably venial as it was packed with self-serving misinformation. But buried within the juvenile attacks was a line that should send shudders through those Republicans who have been around long enough to remember the near-misses in 2010 and 2012.
“Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First,” Trump wrote in a statement released through his political action committee. “This is a big moment for our country, and we cannot let it pass by using third rate ‘leaders’ to dictate our future!”
Though Trump is not known for using his largesse to help anyone not named Trump, his promise to create trouble for those eager to divorce the GOP from its former leader is not empty. Trump’s Save America PAC had more than $31 million in the bank at the end of 2020, money he could use to finance those intra-party challenges. Another PAC, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, ended the year with almost $60 million in cash. Trump’s campaign account reported $10 million more on hand.
Midterm elections are not typically friendly to an incumbent president’s party, and Republicans need only one seat to reclaim a majority in the Senate.
But the early evolution of next year’s Senate battlefield looks primed for a repeat of the Tea Party challenge that upended Republican hopes of claiming control a decade ago.
Retiring Republican senators are leaving seats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama and Ohio, all of which will draw crowded fields vying to be the loudest pro-Trump voices in the room. All four states have elected Democratic senators in the past six years, and both Pennsylvania and Ohio have one Democratic incumbent.
Other incumbents like Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), all north of 70, also face re-election. Boozman has said he will seek another term. A spokeswoman for Blunt said he would, too. Grassley has been conspicuously silent. Open seats would certainly invite crowded fields, though in redder territory safer for Republicans.
Republicans are certain to target Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Mark Kelly (R-Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), all of whom represent states President Biden won in 2020 and where schisms between Republican factions run deep.
In Georgia, former Rep. Doug Collins (R), a Trump ally who finished third in the race for Warnock’s seat, has signaled his interest in a future run for office, though it is not certain whether he would choose a rematch or a primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp (R). In Arizona, state Republican Party chair Kelli Ward, one of Trump’s most prominent allies, is said to be considering a bid. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) – a vocal Trump critic – has hinted he may run, though others are already in the race.
The Republican path back to a Senate majority is clear, but it is fraught with primary peril. Another season of mayhem like those of 2010 and 2012 will make the path all the more difficult to navigate.
The biggest difference between the past and the present is the logical evolution of the Tea Party movement: Trump himself. He represents a rallying point for angry conservatives who have retrenched around a personality voters decisively rejected, and he starts out with $100 million to prove his power – even if that power comes at the ultimate expense of the party he once led.