GOP senators rattled by radical conservative populism

Republican senators say they’re worried that conservative populism, though always a part of the GOP, is beginning to take over the party, becoming more radical and threatening to cause them significant political problems heading into the 2024 election.  

GOP senators are saying they’re being increasingly confronted by constituents who buy into discredited conspiracy theories such as the claim that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election or that federal agents incited the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.  

Growing distrust with government institutions, from the FBI, CIA and Department of Justice to the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health, make it more difficult for Republican lawmakers to govern. 

Republican senators believe their party has a good chance to take back control of the White House and Senate, given President Biden’s low approval ratings and the favorable map of Senate seats up for reelection, but they regularly face political headaches caused by populist members of their party who say the rest of the GOP is out of step with mainstream America. 

“We should be concerned about this as Republicans. I’m having more ‘rational Republicans’ coming up to me and saying, ‘I just don’t know how long I can stay in this party,’” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “Now our party is becoming known as a group of kind of extremist, populist over-the-top [people] where no one is taking us seriously anymore. 

FILE – Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asks a question during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)

“You have people who felt some allegiance to the party that are now really questioning, ‘Why am I [in the party?]” she added. “I think it’s going to get even more interesting as we move closer to the elections and we start going through some of these primary debates. 

“Is it going to be a situation of who can be more outlandish than the other?” she asked.  

Some Senate Republicans worry the populist winds are downgrading their chances of picking up seats in 2024.

“There are an astonishing number of people in my state who believe the election was stolen,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity to talk about the growing popularity of conservative conspiracy theories at home.  

As an example, some Republicans point to Arizona, where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), an independent who left the Democratic Party last year, is up for reelection.

Sinema is likely to face a challenge from the left in the likely Democratic nominee Rep. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.) as well as a GOP nominee. If that nominee is former TV anchor Kari Lake, who has embraced conspiracy theories about elections and lost a gubernatorial race last year, many in the GOP think they’re in trouble.

One senior Senate Republican strategist, assessing the race, lamented that “the Republican Party in Arizona is a mess.” 

Republican senators say they are alarmed at how many Republicans, including those with higher levels of education and income, buy the unsubstantiated claims that the last presidential election was stolen.  

A second Republican senator who spoke with The Hill said the growing strength of radical populism “makes it a lot more difficult to govern, it makes it difficult to talk to constituents.” 

“There are people who surprise me — I’m surprised they have those views. It’s amazing to me the number of people, the kind of people who think the election was stolen,” the lawmaker said. “I don’t want to use this word but it’s not just a ‘red-neck’ thing. It’s people in business, the president of a bank, a doctor.”  

The lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss the political challenge posted by surging conservative populism, accused some fellow Republicans of trying to exploit voter discontent to gain local or national prominence.  

“In my state there are a lot of folks who see Washington as disconnected, they see their way of life threatened. There’s something that generates discontent that elected officials take advantage of,” the senator said.  

Tuberville’s controversies

Some of the biggest populist-linked headaches recently have come from Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R), a staunch ally of former President Trump who is now holding up more than 260 nonpolitical military promotions to protest the Defense Department’s abortion policy.  

Tuberville caused an uproar early last week by defending the idea of letting white nationalists serve in the military and disputing the idea that white nationalism is an inherently racist ideology.  

Tuberville later reversed himself after Senate Republican colleagues ranging from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) forcefully denounced white supremacy and white nationalism.  

GOP senators also have to regularly distance themselves from the radical proposals of populist conservatives in the House, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who earlier this year proposed cutting Department of Justice and FBI funding in response to federal investigations of Trump.   

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Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) pushed back on calls to defund the Justice Department, telling reporters: “Are we going to get rid of the Justice Department? No. I think defunding is a really bad idea.” 

Thune later explained to The Hill: “There are seasons, swings back and forth in politics and we’re in one now where the dominant political thinking is more populist with respect to national security, foreign policy, some domestic issues.” 

But he said “that stuff comes and goes and it’s built around personalities,” alluding to the broadly held view that Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and his lasting influence over the party has put his brand of populism at the forefront.  

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an advisor to the Senate Republican leadership, said bread-and-butter conservative economic ideas still resonated with voters, but he acknowledged “the cable news shows” continue to keep attention on themes that Trump likes to emphasize, such as election fraud and the “deep-state” control of the federal government.  

“So there are some people paying attention to that but most people are trying to just get on with their lives,” he said. “There’s a lot of distrust of Washington, and who can blame people.” 

“It concerns me that people lose faith in their institutions, but this has been a long story throughout our history. It’s nothing new although it’s troubling,” he said. 

Waving off impeachment

Senate Republicans tried to wave off their House colleagues from advancing articles of impeachment authored by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) against President Biden and rolled their eyes at Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) attempt to expunge Trump’s impeachment record.  

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) warned, “I fear that snap impeachments will become the norm, and they mustn’t.” 

Asked about efforts to erase Trump’s impeachment record, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) quoted the popular show “Succession”: “Logan Roy made a good point. These are not serious people.”

Romney, who was the GOP nominee for president in 2012 before Trump took over the party four years later, last year called Greene and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) “morons” for speaking at a white nationalist event in Florida. 

Asked this week about Tuberville’s defense of white nationalism and how it reflected on the GOP, Romney said: “Our party has lots of problems, add that to the list.”  

The party of Reagan has transformed into the party of Trump, and to the dismay of some veteran Republican lawmakers, it doesn’t look like it’s going back to what it was anytime soon.  

One ascendent young conservative leader, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who supported objecting to certifying Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021, thinks the Republican Party’s embrace of populism is more than a passing fad.  

He says the new era of politics is more than a battle between Trump allies and Trump haters, or even between Republicans and Democrats. 

Speaking at the National Conservatism Conference two years ago, he declared: “We have been governed by a political consensus forged by a political class that has lost touch with what binds us together as Americans. And it has lost sight of the basic requirements of liberty.” 

“The great divide of our time is not between Trump supporters and Trump opponents, or between suburban voters and rural ones, or between Red America and Blue America,” he said. “No, the great divide of our time is between the political agenda of the leadership elite and the great and broad middle of our society. And to answer the discontent of our time, we must end that divide.”  

Tags DOJ Donald Trump Donald Trump FBI Jim Jordan Joe Biden Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune John Thune Josh Hawley kyrsten sinema Kyrsten Sinema Lauren Boebert Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowsk Lisa Murkowski Marco Rubio Marjorie Taylor Greene Mitch McConnell Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Paul Gosar Ruben Gallego Tommy Tuberville

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