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Trump squeezes Republicans with eye on 2022 primaries

POLITICO logo POLITICO 12/24/2020 By Alex Isenstadt
Brian P. Kemp wearing a suit and tie: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is up for reelection in 2022 but has come under heavy criticism from President Donald Trump for not bending to his calls to overturn the election results. © Alex Brandon/AP Photo Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is up for reelection in 2022 but has come under heavy criticism from President Donald Trump for not bending to his calls to overturn the election results.

President Donald Trump has instructed his top political advisers to begin monitoring potential 2022 GOP primary targets, as he lashes out at fellow Republicans whom he deems disloyal.

With less than a month until Trump leaves office, his team has begun mapping out what his post-White House political infrastructure will look like. Until now, the planning has centered on deploying resources to defeat Democrats in midterm races. But advisers are now also keeping tabs on Republican incumbents.

Trump in recent weeks has used his Twitter feed to attack Republicans for failing to get behind his unfounded claims the election was stolen from him. But his team is now taking more formal steps — such as tracking their public comments — with an eye toward possibly marshaling the president’s political operation to replace them with more Trump-friendly figures, according to a person with direct knowledge of the deliberations.

The latest steps come amid growing concerns in the GOP that Trump’s political interests and the broader Republican Party’s will diverge when he leaves office. Already, the president has rankled Senate Republicans by using appeals about raising money for the Georgia Senate runoffs to send money to his newly formed political action committee. Trump also circulated a graphic suggesting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who is poised to become the highest-ranking Republican in Washington next month — owed his broad reelection margin to Trump.

Now, it’s becoming clearer that Trump’s cash-flush PAC could be deployed in two years against remaining Republican incumbents Trump doesn’t like. Trump’s tweets and public statements have already drummed some GOP officials out of office during his administration, but the PAC could be a potent new tool in his continued quest to shape the party.

The Trump forces sent up a warning flare on Wednesday when they launched a $5 million TV and radio advertising blitz calling on Republican-controlled state legislatures to hold hearings on voter fraud. Some of the commercials are running in Georgia, whose governor, Brian Kemp, is up for reelection in 2022 but has come under heavy criticism from the president for not bending to Trump’s calls to overturn the election results.

The ads urge listeners to call Kemp and legislators and “demand they inspect” voting machines “and hear the evidence.” Previously, Trump openly encouraged outgoing GOP Rep. Doug Collins to mount a primary challenge against Kemp during a recent campaign visit to Georgia.

The offensive comes ahead of the Jan. 6 congressional vote to certify the Electoral College, which would finalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November elections. Many Republicans are expected to vote in favor of validating the electoral votes, and people close to the president say that itself is not a litmus test for whether a lawmaker will get a Trump-endorsed primary challenge.

Rather, Trump advisers are turning their focus to the Republicans who have been vocal in speaking out against the longshot, Trump-backed challenge to the certification. The president and his team are particularly infuriated at Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, who said the maneuver “would go down like a shot dog” in the Senate.

Trump advisers say they are particularly paying attention to three Republicans facing reelection – Kemp, Thune, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski – whom the president has spoken out forcefully against. But they caution that no final decisions have been made as to whether they will work to defeat them in 2022.

“President Trump has the biggest social media influence and the biggest political war chest in the country, and he’s not going to be afraid to use it in 2022 to elect pro-Trump Republicans — even if that means wading into primaries,” said a senior Trump political adviser.

Trump advisers say they haven’t ruled out recruiting Trump-friendly primary challengers. They are also considering whether to launch a separate political action committee which would be focused on backing 2022 candidates, some of whom could be looking to oust Republican incumbents.

There’s not likely to be a shortage of money. Trump maintains a massive small donor list and since the election he has raised more than $200 million for a collection of interconnected political groups, much of it through appeals centered around the idea the election was stolen from him.

The exact outlines of Trump’s political apparatus are still being worked out, though some details are beginning to emerge. A policy-oriented operation, which is expected to be less focused on electoral activities, is expected to be headed up by White House domestic policy adviser Brooke Rollins and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.

Trump has a long history of exerting his control over the Republican Party through GOP nominating contests. His support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Kemp paved the way for their 2018 primary wins. Trump also weighed in that year against Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who would go on to lose re-nomination.

In 2018 he also endorsed Republican Kris Kobach in a primary over a sitting GOP governor, Jeff Colyer. Kobach ended up winning the primary before losing the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly.

Primaries could be a key vehicle Trump to maintain his influence over the party once he’s out of office. While his post-White House political plans are still being fleshed out, advisers say they envision him taking on a kingmaker-type role where he picks and chooses favored candidates.

Knocking off incumbents, however, may not be so easy. Thune has long been popular in South Dakota, where he was first elected to the Senate in 2004. After the president called for a Thune primary challenge in a Tuesday tweet, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, immediately took herself out of contention as a prospective opponent.

But Trump aides insist Republican lawmakers who don’t get behind the idea the president was a victim in the 2020 election are in a dangerous place. A USA Today/Suffolk University Poll released Thursday showed that 78 percent of Republicans believe Biden was elected illegitimately. In a Fox News poll conducted earlier this month, 68 percent of Republicans said the election was stolen from the president.

Trump’s post-election target list has included a long list of Republicans, including Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. The president’s attacks have raised broader fears within the party that his post-presidency will be destructive for the GOP.

Still, he has yet to commit to unseating anyone. For now, his electoral activity has been focused in Georgia, where he is set to campaign for Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler the day before the Jan. 5 runoffs, which will determine which party controls the Senate.

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