The Senate has not been a good launching pad for Republican presidential candidates. In the past 100 years, spanning 26 presidential election cycles, only four of the 17 GOP presidential candidates were sitting senators. The two most recent – Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 – were both older statesmen with large national profiles. (No sitting Republican senator has won the presidency since Warren G. Harding in 1920.)
The typical Senate presidential candidate is too locked up in Washington and too bogged down by his electoral record to make a powerful connection with voters. The ’24ers in the Senate – including Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Rick Scott – generally don’t look any different, with their stature further diminished by Trump’s long shadow.
Those five senators decided their future required emulating Trump and showing his loyalty to him, but that likely put them on a collision course with consummate loyalist Pence, or Trump himself. As of December 16, none of the five had publicly accepted Biden’s victory. Trying to validate Trump’s baseless fraud claims, Cruz offered to plead Trump’s case in the Supreme Court, and Hawley said on December 16 that although the Electoral College voted 306 votes for Biden, it did not plan to accept the result until January 6, saying Trump still had legal options until then. Beyond 2020, Rubio recently said, “If the president chooses to run again in 2024, I think he will be the Republican nominee,” and Hawley said he would back Trump if he ran, the two obediently indicating that they wouldn’t even try to do so. run against him.
Hoping to receive Trump’s torch and recreate his populist magic, the five often wage a culture war and tear China apart on Twitter. (And Scott starred in his own TV commercials in Georgia, apparently produced to help Republican incumbents win the next second round.) Some are promoting their own issues. For example, Hawley breaks with conservative orthodoxy by teaming up with Senator Bernie Sanders to tie up direct payments to most Americans in the pandemic relief bill – a move that, in theory, could endear working-class Americans, or create a topic of debate and publicity material for his 2024 opponents.
But despite all this fuss, none of them gained significant support among Republican voters; a recent POLITICO / Morning Consult poll had them all below 5% support, with only Trump and Pence in double digits. They have time to reverse these numbers. The problem is, the Senate has never been a good place to do it.
To watch for in 2021: When crowds of Democratic senators prepared for the 2020 primary, they often crowded around the same progressive positions, sometimes co-sponsoring legislation together, in the hopes of avoiding being labeled as a (gasp) moderate. But in doing so, they largely failed to stand out and obstructed the progressive ‘lane’ which made it easier for Biden to come back to the middle.
Will these Republican senators exercise a similar pre-primary detente? Or will the brawl start early, allowing the stronger fighter to emerge as the more plausible alternative to Trump or Pence?