A new crop of GOP Senate candidates grapples with Trump-skeptical pasts

When Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose called into a local radio show this month, the host grilled the Republican Senate hopeful over his past disdain for former President Donald Trump — like how he positioned himself as “Never Trump” before the 2016 election and how he described Trump’s 2019 social media tirade against Black members of Congress as racist.

LaRose was ready with excuses for Bob Frantz, one of the state’s most influential right-wing voices. He said he had been “fooled” by the state’s anti-Trump former governor, John Kasich. He claimed to be the victim of a “false narrative” from a GOP primary rival. And he insisted he had never accused Trump of racism, offering a cleaned-up answer that didn’t match the quote that The Cincinnati Enquirer had printed after an editorial board interview.

For good measure, LaRose mentioned that he and Trump had dined together recently: “My Trump credentials are golden, rock-solid,” said LaRose, who has endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign. “It doesn’t mean that I’ve agreed with him on everything. But I’m a strong supporter.”

LaRose is among the many Republican Senate contenders over the past eight years — and among a crop of newer candidates who have emerged since Trump left office — who have struggled to reconcile their political brand with the former president’s. Their efforts to explain past criticism, often from before Trump’s brand and the GOP’s merged, have become fodder for opponents, even those with their own inconvenient Trump-bashing records.

Few Republicans can totally ace the Trump purity test. But many go to great lengths to be graded ahead of the curve.

“Who wasn’t a skeptic of Trump in 2015, 2016? We have to always remember that,” said Jai Chabria, a GOP strategist and former top Kasich aide who helped JD Vance — who after renouncing years of Trump criticism landed Trump’s endorsement — win Ohio’s other Senate seat last year. “It was pretty much the entire party.”

The dynamic is again notable in races that will determine which party controls the Senate after the 2024 election. Republicans need to flip two seats, and their top targets are Democratic incumbents in states Trump won twice: Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana. Several swing states that backed President Joe Biden in 2020, including Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania, are also competitive.

Some candidates — like LaRose and primary rival Bernie Moreno, who previously called Trump a “lunatic” and “maniac” — were on record trashing Trump in 2016. Some, like Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania, voiced disapproval after Trump refused to concede the 2020 election and riled up supporters who stormed the Capitol. Others have yet to endorse him in 2024, even as polls show he’s the GOP front-runner.

“If you do believe there was value to what Trump did, you have to own up to the mistakes you made and what you said before, because even most voters were against him at the beginning,” said Chabria, who is not involved with any of the Senate campaigns. “They can understand that. There’s room for forgiveness.”

A source close to Trump, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told NBC News that “it has not been lost on the Trump team that candidates like Frank LaRose have not defended President Trump” or embraced his claims about the 2020 election.

“That’ll be a big inflection point throughout the election,” the source added.

Justice prevails with Trump endorsement

Trump has not yet waded into 2024 Senate races with the same zeal he did in 2022, when several of his preferred candidates won primaries but lost general elections. An exception came Wednesday night, when he endorsed West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice over Rep. Alex Mooney in that state’s closely watched contest. 

Both Justice and Mooney have endorsed Trump in 2024, and Trump endorsed Mooney in a tough House primary last year. But a friendly relationship with Trump, who fondly calls him “Big Jim,” gave Justice the inside track for the Senate endorsement.

None of this, however, is stopping Mooney from portraying Justice as insufficiently loyal. 

Justice was elected as a Democrat in 2016, the same year Trump won the White House, but switched parties and embraced Trump the next year. Justice expressed mild disapproval in Trump’s behavior after the 2020 election and in one interview with CNN even said, “We should celebrate our new president, President Biden, coming in.”

But as he prepared for his Senate bid, Justice reinforced his support for Trump. In a letter he released after Trump’s March indictment in New York, Justice offered a shoutout for his “huntin’ buddies, Don Jr. and Eric,” and a word of encouragement for their father: “Pour it on CHAMP!” His campaign also has called attention to Mooney’s support from Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that launched an anti-Trump offensive this year.

“Gov. Jim Justice strongly supports, endorses, and looks forward to campaigning with President Donald Trump,” Justice’s campaign manager Roman Stauffer wrote in an email to NBC News. “West Virginia voters know Gov. Justice is with President Trump and Alex Mooney and his out-of-state campaign funders are not.”

Mooney’s campaign manager John Findlay fired back: “Congressman Mooney is the only pro-Trump candidate with a proven conservative record. … [Justice] is nothing but a Democrat in sheep’s clothing.”

Reluctance in Montana and Nevada

In other key states, GOP Senate prospects are getting pressed on their reluctance to endorse Trump. 

Rep. Matt Rosendale, who is considering entering a primary against aerospace executive Tim Sheehy in Montana, seemed to suggest this week in an interview with a local radio station that he was doing Trump a favor by not endorsing him.

“Me and President Trump are — we are in communication, and what I say is that I want to make sure that I don’t do anything … that’s going to negatively impact anybody else’s race,” Rosendale told Aaron Flint of Montana’s KBUL. “And quite frankly, while there’s a lot of people across the state of Montana that continue to cheer for me, it’s not always in everybody’s best interest to have Matt Rosendale tagline on there, unfortunately.”

In Nevada, retired Army Capt. Sam Brown, who lost a Senate primary last year against a Trump-backed candidate, also has declined to endorse Trump. Two of Brown’s 2024 primary rivals — former Trump ambassador to Iceland Jeff Gunter and Jim Marchant, a 2020 election denier who lost a race for secretary of state last year — have emphasized their endorsements of Trump. 

“Under Joe Biden, we’re experiencing the American nightmare of unaffordable housing; high food and energy prices; wide open borders; failing schools; and a weak American economy,” Brown said in a statement emailed by his campaign that stopped short of an endorsement for the Republican nomination. “It’s clear that Americans would do much better under the leadership of President Trump and the America First policies that made the United States stronger and safer.”

A workaround: Praising Trump policies

Republican voters in two states that were key to Trump’s 2016 win but flipped to Biden in 2020 also will consider Trump skeptics as they choose Senate candidates. 

In Michigan, former Rep. Mike Rogers launched his bid after first weighing whether to run against Trump in the presidential primary.

“Trump’s time has passed,” he told The Washington Post last November.

But as a Senate hopeful, Rogers has praised Trump for his comments on the United Auto Workers strike and talked of a “broken system of justice” — a phrase that resonates with those who believe Trump is being prosecuted unfairly. Rogers has not endorsed Trump, but his main GOP rival, former Detroit police chief James Craig, has. (Craig was more ambivalent about Trump in the early stages of a short-lived run for governor last year.)

And in Pennsylvania, Dave McCormick has done little to distance himself from criticism that cost him Trump’s endorsement in the state’s 2022 Senate race.

In his March book, “Superpower in Peril,” McCormick describes meeting with Trump to encourage him not to endorse Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor who narrowly won the GOP Senate nomination last year but lost the general election. Trump was still sore over comments McCormick had made about the former president bearing responsibility for the Capitol riot and told him he could never win unless he said the 2020 election was stolen. 

The former hedge fund CEO praises Trump policies elsewhere in the book, but concludes with an unsubtle contrast. Reflecting on his concession to Oz, McCormick writes about “losing with honor and grace” and refusing to “fall prey to the politics of grievance and victimhood.”

McCormick might not have to defend those words in a primary. At the moment, he does not face a serious challenge or the threat of one from a Trumpier alternative. 

LaRose is not as lucky in Ohio.

Trump has encouraged, but not endorsed, Moreno’s candidacy despite the candidate’s past disparaging comments, which surfaced during his brief run in the state’s 2022 Senate primary. Moreno, who initially supported Marco Rubio and donated to Kasich in the 2016 presidential race, has since grown closer with Trump — a relationship fostered by his daughter, who worked for Trump, and by Vance, who has endorsed Moreno. A third GOP contender in Ohio, state Sen. Matt Dolan, also ran in 2022 and is sticking with a message that largely ignores Trump while showing little interest in courting the former president.

So far, LaRose’s campaign has had the hallmarks of a candidate worried about alienating Trump. His team attempted to clarify his remarks after an August interview in which LaRose spoke supportively of former Vice President Mike Pence’s role in certifying the 2020 election results. LaRose also recently fired the press secretary in his state office over personal tweets that made fun of Trump.

Then there was the interview on Frantz’s show this month, where after blaming Kasich for his early antipathy toward Trump, LaRose said he voted for Trump in 2016.

But in the final days of the 2016 race, after the old “Access Hollywood” footage of Trump bragging about sexual assault leaked, LaRose told The Akron Beacon Journal he would not vote for Trump. (As for the Kasich point, LaRose hired several veterans of the former governor’s administration after being elected secretary of state in 2018.)

LaRose spokesperson Ben Kindel did not answer questions about LaRose’s vote in 2016 or his evolution from Trump hater to Trump backer, though Kindel noted that the former president endorsed LaRose’s re-election campaign for secretary of state last year.

“Frank LaRose supports and endorses President Trump because he knows he’s the best leader to reverse the calamitous failures of the Biden administration,” Kindel wrote in an email. “We’ve seen a strong economy, strong national defense, and strong border security under President Trump, and nothing but weakness from President Biden.” 


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