After Two Trump Wins, Congressional Republicans Again Fall in Line

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), shown talking with reporters on Capitol Hill in November, joined a number of remaining GOP holdouts in endorsing and rallying around Trump.

Last spring, a veteran of Republican Senate leadership said that former president Donald Trump’s time had “passed by” and that the GOP needed to “come up with an alternative.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) also questioned Trump’s ability to win a general election, arguing that the former president didn’t understand “that when you run in a general election, you have to appeal to voters beyond your base.”

Less than a year later, Cornyn joined a number of remaining GOP holdouts in endorsing and rallying around Trump after his decisive victories in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

“I have seen enough,” Cornyn said in a statement Tuesday after it became clear Trump would win his second Republican nomination contest in two weeks. “To beat Biden, Republicans need to unite around a single candidate, and it’s clear that President Trump is Republican voters’ choice… I will be continuing to work to elect a Republican Senate majority and to elect President Trump in 2024.”

Cornyn was once among a minority of GOP senators on Capitol Hill who tried to shepherd Republican voters toward a new presidential candidate after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and a disappointing GOP performance in the 2022 midterms. But between retirements and electoral losses, and lawmakers who have come to embrace the unshakable leader of the Republican Party, that minority has dwindled. In the span of a month, a rash of Republicans have endorsed Trump amid primary season victories that have left only one of his GOP opponents – former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley – still standing.

House and Senate lawmakers across the ideological spectrum have issued statements ranging from glowing endorsements to milquetoast tweets of support after Trump trounced his opponents in Iowa and beat Haley by 11 points in New Hampshire. The fitful U-turns have become a familiar ritual for some establishment Republicans who have at first resisted Trump’s resurgence, only to switch course as his march to the nomination appears increasingly inevitable.

“The writing’s on the wall here; the primary is effectively over,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who was once a vocal Trump critic before switching his views when he ran for Senate. “I think the natural evolution of this thing will be Trump will be the nominee and everybody will support him.”

Lawmakers who were aghast after Trump encouraged his supporters to march to the Capitol in a failed attempt to hold onto power after losing the 2020 election are now firmly back in his cheering section. They were again dismayed after a “red wave” in 2022 midterms failed to materialize, stunning Republican lawmakers who had bet on a large governing majority. Many Republicans and analysts attributed the disappointing performance, in part, to Trump-backed hard-right candidates who lost swing and Republican-leaning districts and states to moderate Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) publicly blamed Trump for the underwhelming performance, saying he ignored “candidate quality” when endorsing, and other senators questioned Trump’s ability to attract votes beyond his core base. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said at the time he hoped voters would have many other “options” to pick from for a presidential nominee.

McConnell declined to engage in the conversation about the presidential primaries on Wednesday. But Thune, who is a leading contender to replace McConnell as Republican leader, offered his tepid backing.

“I’ve said all along I’ll support the nominee,” said Thune. “So if he’s the nominee, I’ll do what I can to help the team with the presidency and the Senate and put an end to the Biden-Schumer agenda.”

Thune declined to say if Trump at the top of the ticket would help Republicans win back the Senate after many blame him for losses in 2018, 2020 and 2022. “The best thing [Trump] and all of us have going for us is that Biden is just in as much trouble out there.”

Now, the former president facing 91 felony charges is heading into the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary next month with the overwhelming backing of Congress, including onetime foes.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), whom Haley endorsed in 2022 against a Trump-backed GOP challenger, threw her support behind Trump this week after coming to Washington in 2021 with declarations of becoming a “new voice” for the Republican Party.

Mace was so angry at Trump during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol that she discussed with aides the prospect of confronting the rioters so she could get punched and become the face of anti-Trump Republicans, according to former staffers familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

Mace – who also declared to her staff during the riot that she was a “never-Trumper” – made the comments while she was hiding with staff in her office in the Cannon House building as they watched rioters march through the Capitol on television. If there was video of her challenging rioters on social media, it could give credence to her anti-Trump position, these people said of Mace’s thinking at the time. Staffers pushed back against their then-freshman boss, citing guidance from U.S. Capitol Police. Mace eventually set aside the idea, according to the people.

Asked for comment, Mace did not directly address the episode. “What you write doesn’t pass for real journalism,” Mace said.

House Republicans have largely stood behind Trump, serving as his first line of defense after the Trump presidency. They’ve served as messengers for his unsubstantiated claims that the Democratic Party has weaponized the government against the former president, and prioritized an impeachment of President Biden and top Cabinet officials, in part to avenge his two impeachment trials. And his loudest supporters spent the past year pushing back against moderates who helped clinch the House majority, arguing that MAGA policies should be embraced to keep the majority next cycle.

“If the Republican Party does not engage in his policies and adapt to them, and take them on completely, Republican voters are going to abandon Republicans after President Trump is no longer on the ballot,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a key surrogate who believes Trump will “drag” moderate Republicans with him to reelection this year.

But privately, many Republicans remain worried that Trump’s influence could limit their ability to grow their fragile five-seat majority, after moderate Democrats flipped several Republican-leaning districts with far-right GOP candidates. Some believe Trump-endorsed candidates for the Senate or governor’s offices also dragged down some GOP House candidates.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee and has endorsed Trump, said the “top of ticket clearly will have some impact” this cycle and defended House Republicans’ chances to do well if Trump is the nominee. He noted Republicans were able to expand their ranks in 2020 when Trump lost and notched the majority in 2022. But many lawmakers believe they could have built a governing coalition and avoided ideological battles if more pragmatic conservatives won their primary races.

Hudson said the NRCC has not told candidates whether they should endorse Trump, nor has he had a strategic conversation with Trump about where his endorsement could help or hurt. The chairman noted that Trump may not even visit certain key districts, particularly in blue states such as New York or California where Trump could motivate Democratic voters, and stressed that candidate quality is crucial in those races.

Even so, two Republican campaign strategists – who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about GOP recruitment efforts – said their effort to recruit pragmatic Republicans to challenge far-right incumbents has not been as successful given that many do not want to run when Trump is at the top of ticket.

For the pragmatic lawmakers currently in office, the choice to back Trump is out of fear of persecution from his loyal base in the party, many members say. Many of the 17 vulnerable GOP House lawmakers trying to hold on to their seats in districts Biden won have aligned themselves with Trump.

One Republican familiar with the Trump campaign’s tactics added that his team has prioritized consolidating support by “going state to state to strong-arm [elected officials] to endorse him.”

“They’re getting behind him because he’s going to be the nominee and they don’t want to feel the wrath of not supporting him,” said the person. “And they’re saying, ‘if you don’t, we will remember this and come for you.’”

The Trump campaign declined to comment.

Rep. Brandon Williams, one of the most endangered New York Republicans, and Rep. Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.) have endorsed Trump, arguing he is on the pathway to becoming the eventual GOP nominee and his policies are preferable to Biden’s.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) is another vulnerable member who did not hold back from criticizing the former president’s behavior after the 2020 election, and previously said he wouldn’t back Trump in a Republican primary. In June 2022, Bacon said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Republicans had to learn their lesson, particularly that “our president should have respected the conclusion” of the election. Trump, in turn, called Bacon a “bad man” and advised his followers to vote against him.

Now, as Trump appears on a glide path to the nomination, Bacon suggests he’ll back him.

“I’ll support our nominee and who primary voters select when all is said and done,” Bacon wrote to The Washington Post in a text message. “The choice will be between who can best secure our border, nominate the best Supreme Court judges, and promote energy independence.”

However, not all congressional Republicans plan to get in line.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 or 2016, said she’s not going to endorse him. “I would prefer a different candidate,” Collins said. But she has not gotten behind another candidate in the presidential primaries.

Sen. Todd Young (R), who won reelection in conservative Indiana in 2022, has since been more outspoken in his opposition to the former president. He has recently insisted he has “no intention” of backing Trump.

“I’ve never felt a need to join the establishment, you know, and so if I’m an outsider, I embrace that,” Young said when asked about his colleagues who have backed Trump.

Some Democratic senators expressed dismay at how quickly their Republican colleagues were coalescing around a candidate facing criminal charges – including conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of a congressional proceeding – for his involvement in the plan to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“These are people I know, these are people I respect, consider friends, to basically sell your soul,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a moderate who has not ruled out his own third-party presidential run. “They know who he is. Donald Trump is not making any bones about who he is and what he will do. … I just can’t understand how people can accept that as the leader of the free world.”