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Why the Trump Conviction Shakes Up Senate Leadership Races

And how both insurgents and the establishment are licking their chops for a harder line.

Sen. Cotton Holds Capitol Hill Press Conference To Discuss Ongoing College Campus Protests

For many on Capitol Hill, the former President Donald Trump’s guilty verdict didn’t come as much of a surprise. For those on the left, of course the former president is guilty of much more than paying off a former mistress; some still even believe Russia is to blame for Trump’s ascent. On the right, most agree Trump was doomed from the start: A George Soros-backed district attorney with help from high powered former DOJ lawyers brought the case in an uber-progressive jurisdiction and argued it in front of a far from unbiased judge.

The Trump wing sees the Democratic Party as behind an attempting jail of the nation's opposition leader. The more pressing, and more divisive, question for Republicans is what to do about it. For the Senate GOP, Trump’s conviction has given leadership races new meaning.


Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he’ll be stepping down as the Senate GOP’s leader after the November election. The senator will cement himself as the longest-serving leader in the chamber’s history. Until then, however, McConnell is a bit of a lame duck, his powers reduced by the conference’s crumbling faith in his leadership after several legislative miscues (on the border, Ukraine aid, and appropriations, to name a few). McConnell has been equivocal in his support for Trump following the convictions.

“These charges never should have been brought in the first place. I expect the conviction to be overturned on appeal,” McConnell tweeted. But McConnell hasn’t been willing to offer much more than tweets of support for the former president. When asked directly whether or not he stands behind Trump after the conviction, McConnell refused to answer and simply reiterated the tweet.

“What an inspiring response from the Senate GOP Leader, shining in its passivity, conceding that Dems can lock up the presumptive GOP presidential nominee and he will do…wait for it…nothing,” the Conservative Partnership Institute’s Rachel Bovard tweeted.

“There is plenty the Senate GOP can do to to this verdict, even as a minority. Block easy consent confirmations for Biden nominations, vote against the ones that do come to the floor, and 41 of them should refuse to vote to fund this weaponized Dept of Justice,” Bovard added in another tweet.

In the conversations that The American Conservative has had with Republican senators after the conviction, all expressed their outrage with the verdict, but most have come to the conclusion that tweets from GOP leadership won’t cut it. Nevertheless, even some senators willing to act in the wake of Trump’s conviction question the extent to which Republicans can disrupt Senate Democrats before the election.


“I think there was certainly an understanding by many Republican senators that what happened was outrageous, certainly should be commented on, certainly shouldn't be taken just lying down,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told TAC. “In the Senate, with the Democrats as a majority, they control the agenda, they control the floor, and there’s literally limited things we can do.”

The sentiment expressed by Johnson only raises the stakes in the upcoming leadership elections where Johnson and others are looking for leadership candidates to follow words with action.

As it stands now, Sens. John Thune (R-SD), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Rick Scott (R-FL) have their eyes on the top spot. Each have been more assertive in their response to Trump’s conviction.

Thune, the Senate GOP’s second in command as current Republican Whip, has been more verbose than McConnell in his repudiation of Trump’s conviction. “This case was politically motivated from the beginning, and today’s verdict does nothing to absolve the partisan nature of this prosecution,” Thune said upon hearing Trump was found guilty in New York. “Regardless of outcome, more and more Americans are realizing that we cannot survive four more years of Joe Biden,” Thune added. “With President Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, we can finally end the disastrous Biden-Schumer agenda that’s crushing American families and businesses.”

Cornyn, who preceded Thune as the Senate GOP number two, released a statement following the verdict. “This verdict is a disgrace, and this trial should have never happened. Now more than ever, we need to rally around President Trump, take back the White House and Senate, and get this country back on track,” it read. “The real verdict will be Election Day.”

Meanwhile, Scott, the former National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chair who is considered the conservative underdog in the leadership race, tweeted, “This was a sham trial and the clearest example we’ve ever seen of election interference. I am furious and no American is safe from Democrat political persecution.”

“Joe Biden and the Democrat machine manufactured a legal case against Trump to win an election. I went to New York to stand with President Trump and the American voters will stand with him this November,” Scott added.

Saying something in a leadership race is one thing. Following through is another.

In a rather clever maneuver, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) put together a statement that seeks to not only to exact revenge on Democrats for attempting to imprison Trump but also test the mettle of leadership candidates before the conference makes its choice.

“The White House has made a mockery of the rule of law and fundamentally altered our politics in un-American ways,” the statement reads. “As a Senate Republican conference, we are unwilling to aid and abet this White House in its project to tear this country apart. To that end, we will not 1) allow any increase to non-security related funding for this administration, or any appropriations bill which funds partisan lawfare; 2) vote to confirm this administration’s political and judicial appointees; and 3) allow expedited consideration and passage of Democrat legislation or authorities that are not directly relevant to the safety of the American people.”

So far, 14 members of the Republican conference have signed on to the pledge: Senators Lee, Vance, Tuberville, Schmitt, Blackburn, Rick Scott, Marshall, Rubio, Hawley, Johnson, Ernst, Paul, Daines, and Hagerty.

Lee expects the list of signatories will continue to grow. For Lee, the pledge as a way to strike a balance between ensuring the Senate focuses on its necessary work, holding Democrats accountable for partisan lawfare, and sending a message to constituents that they are willing to strongly react to the effort to jail Trump.

“This can’t just be business as usual. We can’t see the conviction and just proceed as if nothing has happened,” Lee told TAC in a phone interview. “In the areas where [Democrats] need us to do them a favor, either by doing something that they want and we might be willing to support, procedurally or by confirming their nominees, or otherwise, we're not going to be doing any extra favors.”

TAC asked Lee whether or not he has been satisfied so far with the current leadership’s response. “Every member, including members of leadership, are going to make their own decisions about what they think is the appropriate response,” Lee replied, adding, however, that he hasn’t seen leadership come up with a response “that does what I think needs to be done.”

“To the extent they’ve offered a response, their spoken responses have been focused on suggesting that members are focused on inflation and border security,” Lee added. “But focusing on inflation and border security doesn’t obviate the need for us to point out that something significant has happened.”

“Mike Lee recognized that we had to comment on that and that was what he came up with in the hopes of finding some kind of consensus in our conference,” Johnson, a signatory, told TAC. “Obviously, there’s not a consensus in our conference. There rarely is.”

As Lee’s pledge gains more signatories, conservative senators are hatching plans to follow through on the promises made in the pledge. On Thursday, five of the former president’s closest allies in the upper chamber announced they’ll be working to block confirmation of nearly four dozen Biden political appointees.

Vance will spearhead the effort to force the Senate into a longer process to confirm Biden appointees and hamstring legislative business Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wishes to advance. Five other signatories of the Lee statement, Hagerty, Marshall, Schmitt, Tuberville, and Lee himself, have joined this spinoff effort. As has Sen.

“In a continuing response to the current administration’s persecution of President Donald Trump, we will not allow the fast-tracking of any Biden Article III court judicial nominees, as well as Biden U.S. attorney nominations,” the senators claimed in a statement. “Further, we will not permit the fast-tracking of nominees who have suggested the Trump prosecutions were reasonable, endorsed President Trump’s guilt in these sham proceedings, joined or supported organizations that celebrated the indictment of President Trump, supported the “get-Trump” candidacy of Alvin Bragg, or supported lawfare or censorship in other ways.”

Some of the more notable of the approximately four dozen holds on Biden appointees include Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-CA) nomination to represent the U.S. at the UN General Assembly, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s nomination to the WHO Board.

Only one of the three candidates for GOP leader, Scott, has signed on to Lee's original pledge. “This is not insignificant what they did: to indict a former president and convict a former president, Biden's number one political opponent,” Scott said of his decision to sign on to Lee’s statement. “We all have to stop and say to ourselves, ‘What are we going to do to make sure that we change the conversation, to stop what's going on?’ We cannot continue as a country if every election cycle, each party is going after their political opponent and trying to put them in jail.”

“If you talk to Republican voters, they want to know what am I doing to fight against the radical left and their commitment to destroy this country. They want to know, what are we doing to fight. Are we going to block their nominees? Are we going to stop this wasteful spending? What's our message and what do we stand for?” Scott continued. “What I plan to be doing by signing [this statement] is to say that I know that this is not business as usual. Indicting the number one political opponent of a sitting president is not business as usual. We’re going to make sure everybody understands that we take this seriously, and we're going to do everything we can to block the Democrats until this ends.”

Scott told TAC that the conviction against Trump has heavily impacted the way he views the upcoming election on November 5, where Scott will fight to hold his senate seat, and the GOP Senate leadership elections that will follow. “We need to campaign and rally for our president,” Scott said. “We have to win in November. So what are we going to do to help make sure Trump wins the White House and we get a majority in the House and Senate?”

For Scott, who has developed a reputation for being a bridge builder between House and Senate conservatives, this means bringing people together. “As a leader, what you do is you bring your conference together, you find the best ideas, and you work together to have a unified message. You lead by bringing people together, you lead by getting the best out of everybody, you lead by making sure everybody is able to succeed.”

Scott’s view of leadership is fundamental to not only winning in November, but changing the status quo in the Senate GOP conference. “Everybody should be able to represent their state, everybody should be involved in the process up here, and everybody should be able to work to come together with the best ideas to fight for the issues that we believe in.”

That is a significant departure from the McConnell model, where legislation would frequently be handed down from on high just hours before senators were expected to vote. “We've got to be very bold,” Scott says of the changes he’d make as leader. “We cannot have a status quo. We need to make significant change if we're going to get a significant result.”

The other Floridian in the Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), had kind things to say about Scott’s bid during a recent appearance on Fox News’ Mornings with Maria.

“My home state colleague Rick Scott is in the race. I’m a big fan of his. I think he would do a good job,” Rubio said.

“I like the other two folks running as well,” Rubio continued. For now, Rubio isn’t getting too involved in the leadership race despite rumors that Rubio himself could launch a bid for one of the Senate GOP’s top three positions.

“I want to see how the elections go. I want to see how our party performs and I want to see what direction voters send our country and the Republican Senate after November,” Rubio added. 

As McConnell is on his way out and frequently siding with Democrats on major legislative priorities, a lot of the pressure to deliver a senate majority for Republicans come November rests on Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the current chair of the NRSC, the body responsible for helping Republican senate candidates get elected.

A Daines spokesperson told TAC that “Senator Daines is laser-focused on delivering a Senate majority so that Republicans will be able to elect a Majority Leader.”

Daines is among the 14 to sign Lee’s pledge and could potentially decide to launch a bid for GOP leadership himself, especially if Republicans can deliver big in November. TAC asked Daines about his decision to sign on to the Lee statement. He replied by email,

The trial against President Trump was a total sham and the entire country knows it. My colleagues, the American people and I are all outraged by the political weaponization of our judicial system and it only emphasizes what’s at stake in November. I joined my colleagues in a commitment to block Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden’s radical agenda because we cannot let the far-Left destroy our nation and undermine Americans’ trust.

With most of the attention focused on the top of the GOP leadership ballot, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) is quietly running unopposed for Whip. Underneath Barrasso, however, a tight contest between Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) is taking shape for Republican Conference chair. Ernst has signed on to Lee’s pledge, while Cotton, who has strained his relationship with some conservatives by his hawkish foreign policy stances, has not. 

“Iowans want to know what we are going to do to right the country,” Ernst told TAC of her decision to sign on to the Lee statement. “This is me exercising my responsibility as a senator to push back on an administration that my constituents and I believe has gone too far.” Cotton did not reply to a request for comment by publication.

“We’ve got a broad spectrum within our conference,” Johnson told TAC of the dynamics at play in the leadership fight. “There are those of us who recognize how the radical left, which is the Democratic Party, is destroying this country. We’ve got a lot of people that want to get results. We got a lot of people who like spending money; a lot of people that are primarily interested in building up our defense. We’ve got a broad spectrum of people who have different priorities.”

The GOP’s big tent can make governing a circus. “We continue to search for what we can do,” Johnson said. “What my recommendations are moving forward is to lay out very precisely and concisely what we will do if we obtain the majority.” Better to develop a difficult plan now than not have one come January 2025 if Republicans win back the majority.

“You need a leader that’s actually dedicated to shrinking the size, scope, and cost of the federal government, and we haven't had one.” Johnson said. When TAC asked if there is a candidate in the race committed to doing so, Johnson instantly replied, “Rick Scott.”

There’s no guarantee, however, that the trend McConnell started won’t continue, according to Johnson: “We still have members of Congress, or members of the Senate, that are happy to spend money and bring bacon to their constituencies.”