(The Hill) — GOP senators are worried that former President Donald Trump could thwart their hopes of winning back the Senate majority next year with his support for controversial primary candidates who they fear could turn away women voters.
The latest bombshell to rock the 2022 Senate election landscape came this week when the estranged wife of Pennsylvania Senate candidate Sean Parnell testified in court Monday that he allegedly strangled her and hit their children.
The allegation in a child custody hearing would be enough to derail a Senate campaign, but Parnell is still considered the frontrunner in the Republican primary thanks to Trump’s powerful endorsement.
A similar dynamic is emerging in Georgia, where Trump has jumped in early to back candidates despite allegations from women of threatening behavior and sexual assault.
Some Senate Republicans privately worry that the controversies could hurt their party’s chances of picking up seats in key states and may even offset what they otherwise expect will be a favorable political environment next year.
“You can have the best political environment but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have good candidates,” warned one Senate Republican who requested anonymity to discuss anxiety within the GOP conference.
The lawmaker noted that Trump is endorsing candidates very early in some Republican primaries before they are fully vetted, such as former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, who is challenging Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — one of seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial.
Shortly after Trump endorsed Tshibaka in June, it emerged that Alaska Wildlife troopers were investigating whether she illegally obtained a resident sportfishing license in 2019 eight months after moving to the state. Alaska regulations require a person to live 12 consecutive months in the state before applying for the coveted license.
While the potential violation is only a misdemeanor, it raises questions about the candidate’s truthfulness and highlights her years of living out of the state after leaving Anchorage at age 15.
The bigger potential problem is in Pennsylvania, perhaps Democrats’ best opportunity to pick up a seat and add to their narrow 50-seat majority. Trump’s endorsement of Parnell in early September was viewed as giving him a major leg up in the crowded Republican Primary field.
But now his viability is in serious question after Laurie Snell, Parnell’s wife, testified that he once strangled her, slapped one of their children so hard that it left red welts and rained down physical and verbal abuse in other ways.
Parnell has disputed the claims, saying they do not have “any basis in fact or truth.”
This has now put Republican senators in the awkward position of having to respond to the allegations and questions about whether Trump should revoke his endorsement.
“He’s got to make a decision if he’s a viable candidate or not after the accusation,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, when asked about Parnell. “Again, it’s an accusation in family court. You take it seriously. He has a right to give his side of the story.”
Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whose seat is up for grabs in the next election, said he was following the developments but declined to comment on the latest news.
A third Republican senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the controversies, said the party needs to be careful to select candidates who won’t be derailed by character issues.
“If you can only win a Republican primary and can’t win a general election, you don’t serve the purpose,” the lawmaker said. “Who the candidates are matter and we ought to always be doing everything we can to make sure we have the best candidates.”
An in-depth investigation by the Associated Press over the summer raised serious questions about former NFL star Herschel Walker, the leading Republican candidate to challenge Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). The review of Walker’s public records found that in 2005, the candidate’s ex-wife secured a protective order against him on the basis of alleged violent behavior.
The allegations of Cindy Grossman included that her former husband pointed a pistol at her and threatened to shoot her.
Despite the controversy, Trump endorsed Walker in early September, building significant momentum for the candidate, who reported raising $3.7 million five weeks after launching his campaign.
The party establishment in Washington was initially uncertain about Walker and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) explored other options and met with former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) at his Capitol office in June.
Former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) was also mulling another run for the Senate but abruptly changed his mind after a February meeting with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida reportedly “did not go well.”
McConnell eventually acknowledged Walker’s strong momentum by endorsing him in late October. The GOP leader praised Walker as “the only one who can unite the party, defeat Sen. Warnock and help us take back the Senate.”
Trump’s endorsement and Walker’s celebrity status as a famous ex-Cowboys running back made it appear highly unlikely that any other Republican could beat him in the primary. But whether he’s the best general election candidate is another question entirely.
Central to the Republican plan for winning back the Senate in 2022 is winning back women voters in the suburbs, who flocked to Democrats in 2018 and 2020 when Trump had become a major liability for the party with that key block.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said 2022 is shaping up to be year of big electoral gains for Senate Republicans but warned candidate selection “is the biggest question at this point because you have to have a good candidate to capitalize on the moment and be able to raise the dough.”
“I think that’s really the remaining uncertainty is who the nominees are going to be,” he said.
He argued that the Pennsylvania and Georgia races are quite different because, “Walker is clearly the leading candidate” while “Parnell has a primary and after recent revelations I don’t know what his future is,” suggesting that another candidate may become the frontrunner in the Keystone State.
Cornyn said “Trump is going to be a factor” but argued, “It’s not just matter of him anointing a candidate, they’re going to have to win a race.”
“In some instances you’ll find Republicans unifying around a candidate like in Georgia but in other places there’s going to be a long, challenging primary process,” he said, predicting that Trump’s influence is going to “depend on the state.”
“Obviously the suburbs are the contested battleground,” he observed.
The good news for Republicans coming out of Virginia Tuesday is that women suburban voters, driven by concerns over school closings and curricula, are starting to migrate back to the GOP.
But that new trend could be stopped or reversed in key states if allegations of domestic abuse, sexual impropriety or serious character flaws become a major storyline.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), an outspoken Trump critic, said that Republicans should remember from Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race that the ability of candidates to win swing voters will be crucial to taking back the Senate in 2022.
“Glenn Youngkin was a candidate who ran a superb campaign, represented traditional Republican policies and values, by and large, and our success will depend on who we put up,” he said.
“I’m not going to give advice to President Trump on who and when he endorses but I know that for myself I try and wait as long as possible to determine who would be the best candidate and who has the best prospects for becoming a successful Republican nominee,” he added.
Another source of concerns is the Senate race in Missouri, where Trump hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate but the scandal-tarnished former governor, Eric Greitens, is making a concerted bid for his backing.
Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and the former president’s onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn have already endorsed Greitens in a sign of support from the candidate within Trump world.
Republican senators initially viewed Greitens as a toxic candidate after he resigned from office in 2018 after being barraged by allegations of sexual misconduct and campaign finance improprieties.
A woman who had an extramarital affair with him accused the candidate of assaulting her and taking a nude photograph of her without consent, allegations that surfaced in a bipartisan Missouri House committee report released in 2018.
Greitens disputed the report, which he dismissed as a “political witch hunt” filled with “lies and falsehoods.”
He has sought to turn around his political fortunes and win Trump’s favor by pledging to oppose McConnell for Republican leader after the 2022 election, if elected.
In a statement last month, Greitens said Trump has “proved to the Republican Party that the only way to meaningfully advance conservative policy is through strong, uncompromising leadership.”