Trump Is Mapping Out a More MAGA Senate

6 minute read

Last year, Republican insiders expected Indiana to be the epicenter of a GOP civil war. An open Senate seat set the stage for a clash between two of the party’s rival wings: Rep. Jim Banks, a MAGA stalwart, and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a traditional conservative.

But the war ended before it even began. As soon as Donald Trump’s allies coalesced around Banks, Daniels announced he wouldn’t run, and Trump endorsed the hard-right congressman, scaring away potential contenders. Now, Banks is running for the GOP nomination unopposed, which in ruby red Indiana, all but guarantees him a glidepath to a Senate seat.  

“There is no more important endorsement in American politics today,” Banks tells TIME. “His endorsement cleared the field.”

It’s not just Banks. Many of Trump’s handpicked Senate candidates across the nation are facing no serious primary threat. The Trump-loving former broadcast anchor Kari Lake is running virtually unopposed to be the GOP nominee for Arizona’s open Senate seat. Former West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice faces no viable opponent in his race to replace Sen. Joe Manchin. And the ex-Navy seal Tim Sheehy is cruising toward Montana’s Republican Senate nomination. Pundits expected a bruising primary between him and Rep. Matt Rosendale. Trump had other ideas. He endorsed Sheehy on the day Rosendale launched his campaign. Days later, Rosendale dropped out.

Trump's control of the Republican Party is reshaping it in ways that are poised to outlast him. With the power of his endorsement, he is not only determining GOP nominees in races nationwide, he is creating an incentive structure for Republican politicians to embrace the MAGA creed. “This is the easy path now in the Republican Party,” says Reed Galen, a Never Trump strategist who co-founded the Lincoln Project. “Why take the hard path?”

Even the most well-funded dissenters have failed to overcome the pull of Trump’s patronage. In Tuesday’s Ohio Senate primary, GOP voters overwhelmingly elected the Trump-backed businessman Bernie Moreno over the wealthy Ohio state senator Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians. Dolan was running as a self-styled Trump critic with the backing of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the state’s former Sen. Rob Portman, both of whom hail from the old-line establishment. While the polls were tight ahead of Election Day, Moreno trounced Dolan by nearly 20 points.  

Trump’s chosen candidates will ultimately test the strength and durability of MAGA right-wing populism. They are part of a larger effort to purge the party of Republicans who represent a bygone era and replace them with a brigade of Trump loyalists. Part of their pitch is to keep the flame of Trump’s “America First” doctrine burning on Capitol Hill, regardless of whether Trump himself returns to the White House.

Republicans have tried this before. In 2022, Trump endorsed MAGA diehards in midterm races throughout the country, ensuring their primary victories. Many went on to lose in November. That was costly: Democrats won critical governors’ contests, maintained their Senate majority, and lost fewer House seats than expected. “MAGA doesn't work as a general election political strategy,” argues Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic operative who worked in the Clinton Administration. 

After the midterms, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to reach the same conclusion. When asked about his party’s poor performance, he lamented a “candidate quality” problem in Trump’s picks. “Our ability to control the primary outcome was quite limited in ’22 because the support of the former President proved to be very decisive in these primaries,” he told reporters. 

But the efforts of prominent conservatives to move on from Trump were fruitless. He swiftly vanquished any heretics who tried to wrest the party from his grip. Trump launched his presidential campaign early, fending off would-be rivals; waged war on his most formidable challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, making him a pariah among the MAGA base; and turned his avalanche of legal woes into a political advantage.

By April 2023, nine months before Republican voters would cast ballots, most of the GOP was already closing ranks around him. That included a pivotal endorsement from Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who runs the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. The two collaborated to select Trump-aligned candidates they thought could win general elections in crucial Senate battlegrounds, according to sources familiar with the matter. Daines, a hunting companion of Trump’s eldest son Don, Jr., had another objective: to avoid bloody primary fights that could scar the eventual nominees. 

Trump’s dominance only made that easier. As Trump raised money and rose in the polls with each indictment, fewer Republicans wanted to get crosswise with the party standard-bearer. They also thought it would be futile. “The reason these people are facing either no opposition or any sort of tough opposition is because it would be a waste of their time and their donors’ money,” says a Trump operative working on the re-election effort. “The primary came and went and the conclusion of it is: the Republican Party is the Party of Trump.”

For some Democrats, that offers a glimmer of hope. While early polling has Trump leading President Joe Biden in the seven swing states most likely to tip the election, Rosenberg sees signs that Trump’s GOP takeover is alienating swaths of Republicans and independents: the 2022 midterms; ballot initiatives in the conservative states of Ohio and Kansas in which voters rejected attempts to criminalize abortion; Democrats flipping the New York House seat vacated by fabulist George Santos; and well-known Republicans refusing to endorse Trump. “MAGA has consolidated its hold of the Republican Party,” Rosenberg says. “But the flip side of that is that there's a big chunk of the Republican Party that's now been loosened.” 

Some of the most prominent GOP defectors are from Indiana: Daniels, Sen. Todd Young, and, most notably, Mike Pence. Trump’s former Vice President recently announced on Fox News that he would not support his old boss this time around, saying Trump was “articulating an agenda that is at odds with the conservative agenda we governed on during our four years.” 

Trump has vowed in a second term to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants; initiate a trade war by imposing tariffs on foreign goods; send the National Guard into cities struggling with violent crime; and implement an isolationist foreign policy. 

Whether those proposals will resonate with most American voters come November remains to be seen. But in marquee Republican Senate primaries throughout the United States, nobody has been able to stop the inexorable march of MAGA.

“Our voters want us to support the Trump agenda,” Banks says. “In the new Republican Party, there's no room for old-school Republicans who don't align with that agenda.”

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