New targets emerge as Trump seeks to remain in politics

Last Updated 26 January 2021, 08:57 IST

Former President Donald Trump, determined to remain a force in GOP politics, is gaining new opportunities with a crucial Senate seat unexpectedly coming open in Ohio, an ally announcing for governor of Arkansas, and rising pressure on Republicans in Congress who did not stand with him during this month’s impeachment vote.

The surprise announcement on Monday by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio that he would not seek a third term sparked a political land rush, with top strategists in the state receiving a flood of phone calls from potential candidates testing their viability. One consultant said he had received calls from five would-be candidates by midday.

That opening, along with another statewide contest next year in which Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to face at least one Trump-aligned primary challenger, is likely to make Ohio a central battleground for control of the Republican Party, and an inviting one for Trump, who held on to Ohio in the election while losing three other northern battleground states.

Portman’s announcement came hours after Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s former White House press secretary, began her campaign for Arkansas governor. The Republican primary there already includes the state’s lieutenant governor and attorney general, but private polling indicates that Sanders is beginning well ahead, and Trump endorsed her candidacy on Monday night.

Trump has only been out of the presidential office five days and has little in the way of political infrastructure. He has told aides he would like to take a break for several months.

But the former president has remained the party’s strongest fundraiser, with tens of millions in PAC money at his disposal, and he retains an enduring base of Republican support across the country. Perhaps most importantly, he harbors a deep-seated desire to punish those he believes have crossed him and reward those who remain loyal.

So far he has focused primarily on Georgia, where he believes the Republican governor and secretary of state betrayed him by certifying his loss there. Both are up for reelection in 2022. And he took something of a test run over the weekend by getting involved in the leadership fight in Arizona’s Republican Party, after Kelli Ward, the firebrand chairwoman, asked for his help in gaining reelection, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Already there is a movement at the state and local levels to challenge incumbent members of Congress seen as breaking with the former president, starting with the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him earlier this month.

The overwhelming consensus among Ohio Republicans is that a Trump-aligned candidate would be best positioned to win a competitive Senate primary, and no potential candidate has a better claim to Trump’s voters in the state than Rep. Jim Jordan, who was Trump’s chief defender during his first impeachment trial and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the former president’s final days in office.

“Jim is well positioned if in fact he’s ready to take that leap; I’m not sure there’s anybody that would beat him,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and longtime Portman ally who last month served as an Electoral College voter for Trump. Referring to Trump’s legion of supporters, Blackwell added: “In Ohio, it’s going to be who has the track record to show that their agenda respects the newly realigned party base.”

Trump is now ensconced at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where aides are building something that can serve as an office. He’s been golfing several times, and was spotted by people at his club in Florida playing with the brother of former tennis star Anna Kournikova on Sunday.

His advisers have had discussions about whether to get him back on some form of social media platform, although they insist he does not need to be on Twitter or Facebook to raise money, and that his email solicitations continue to work well. On Monday he formally opened the Office of the Former President, to manage his “correspondence, public statements, appearances, and official activities.’’

As President Joe Biden’s inauguration approached, Trump began telling some allies that he was considering forming a third party if Republicans moved to convict him in the Senate trial. But by Saturday, after his own advisers said it was a mistake, Trump started sending out word that he was moving on from his threat.

“He understands that the best thing for his movement and conservatism is to move forward together, that third parties will lead to dominance by Democrats,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is a close ally of Trump.

Advisers to the president say he has just over $70 million in his PAC, Save America, with few restrictions on what he can do with it. For now, most of his staff is on a government payroll afforded to former presidents for a period of time after they leave office.

Officials are working to mend Trump’s relationship with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House minority leader, whom Trump called a vulgarity for his House floor speech denouncing the former president’s rally address before the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. A senior Republican said that aides to the two men were trying to arrange a meeting or a call in the coming days.

Trump would like to seek retribution against House members who voted against him, and he’s been particularly angry with Reps. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Fred Upton of Michigan, advisers said. He will also at some point focus on the governor’s race in Arizona, where Doug Ducey cannot seek reelection; Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection bid in Texas; and the Senate race in North Carolina, as places where he can show strength, the advisers said. (One adviser disputed that Trump would have an interest in the Texas race.)

In Ohio, Gonzalez faces a potential primary challenge from Christina Hagan, a former state legislator whom he defeated in a 2018 primary. Hagan lost in the general election last year to Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, in a neighboring district. She said in an interview Monday that she will decide which, if any, race to enter in 2022 after Ohio redraws its congressional districts; the state is likely to lose one seat and Republicans control all levers of redistricting.

“A lot of people elected what they thought was conservative leadership and now are witnessing somebody cutting against their values,” Hagan said, alluding to Gonzalez’s vote to impeach.

Gonzalez’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Trump’s deepest hostility is reserved for Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, advisers said, and they expect he will expend the most energy trying to damage Kemp’s reelection bid. The governor’s original sin was in choosing Kelly Loeffler over Trump’s favored candidate, Doug Collins, to fill a vacant Senate seat in 2019, but it evolved into something more consuming as Trump repeated his debunked claims of widespread fraud in the state and held Kemp responsible for not doing enough to challenge the election results.

Collins, a hard-line Trump backer, hasn’t decided whether to challenge Kemp or seek the Republican nomination against Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat who defeated Loeffler in a special election and will face voters again in 2022, or if he will choose not to run for anything, a Collins aide said Monday.

Next on Trump’s personal hit list is Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., people close to him said. Cheney was the only member of the House GOP leadership to vote to impeach. It’s unclear whether Trump will target her seat, or simply her leadership post in the House, but advisers said they anticipate he will take opportunities to damage her.

Sarah Longwell, the executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump group, said she and her colleagues plan to raise and spend $50 million to defend the 10 pro-impeachment House Republicans in primary contests and attack those who voted to object to the Electoral College results after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. She said the group would aim to defeat Jordan in an Ohio Senate primary if he runs against an establishment-minded Republican.

Jordan’s spokesman did not respond to messages on Monday.

The 2022 map will be the first real test of Trump’s durability in the party. While Sanders is running for governor in Arkansas, rumors that his daughter Ivanka would run for Senate in Florida are unlikely to develop further. And though his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, was said to be considering a Senate run in North Carolina, people close to the family say it is less clear what she will do now that Donald Trump lost.

Trump’s advisers are more focused on the looming impeachment trial. He is working closely with Graham, who has argued to his colleagues that Trump’s Senate trial sets a bad precedent.

Graham helped him retain a South Carolina-based lawyer, Butch Bowers, who is also working to fill out a legal team with colleagues from the state, Graham and others said. Bowers is expected to work with a Trump adviser, Jason Miller, on some kind of response operation.

Unlike his first impeachment trial, when the Republican National Committee engaged in a constant defense of the president, including paying for his lawyers, this time it is expected to focus only on rapid response, including calling the Senate trial unconstitutional and a procedural overreach, two people familiar with the committee’s plans said.

(Published 26 January 2021, 08:57 IST)

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