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GOP senators facing reelection in 2022 keep mum on McConnell amid divisive fight with Trump

Republican senators are trying to stay out of the fray between former President Donald Trump and their leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell.

With Trump warning he will push primary candidates who fit his mold in 2022 Senate races, many Republican senators facing voters next year are not eager to pick sides following the former President’s blistering attack on the GOP leader after his impeachment trial.

CNN contacted the 16 Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2022 on Thursday about whether they still back McConnell — and just three responded.

Their lack of response doesn’t mean that McConnell is at risk of losing his spot atop the Senate GOP Conference, a position he’s enjoyed longer than any other Republican senator in history. But it’s a clear sign that Republicans are eager to avoid being caught in the middle of a divisive fight over Trump’s role in the party — after McConnell accused Trump of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” and being responsible for the deadly January 6 riot, despite the GOP leader’s vote to acquit Trump on the contention that trying a former president is unconstitutional.

While many Republican senators share McConnell’s view, others do not and are frustrated with the GOP leader for condemning the former President in harsh terms, arguing his comments have put them in a complicated position.

“It was the most uncharacteristic move for McConnell,” said one GOP source close to the Senate Republican leader.

Among the many Republican senators who did not respond when asked whether they still support McConnell were his Kentucky colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who’s been sharply critical of the GOP leader in recent radio interviews following McConnell’s remarks on the Senate floor.

Both Sens. Todd Young of Indiana and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who are close with the GOP leader, did not respond to inquiries — and may be wary themselves of inviting a possible primary challenger if they anger the former President.

The other GOP senators who did not respond: Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma; Mike Lee of Utah; John Kennedy of Louisiana; John Boozman of Arkansas; Mike Crapo of Idaho; Chuck Grassley of Iowa; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; John Hoeven of North Dakota; and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Murkowski is the lone GOP senator up for reelection who voted to convict Trump — something she has defended since joining six of her GOP colleagues and 50 Senate Democrats to find the former President guilty of inciting the Capitol insurrection. Murkowski herself may face punishment herself when the state party meets March 13, where it is expected to discuss her vote to convict Trump and debate any GOP effort to censure her.

Glenn Clary, the state party chairman, told CNN that “some people are angry and upset and some people say she voted her conscience.”

But he made clear that Trump still has deep support among the party faithful.

“President Trump is well liked up here,” Clary said.

For McConnell, no Senate GOP challengers have emerged who could knock him off his perch in the body, so there’s no immediate threat to his leadership position. But his attack on Trump — and Trump’s scathing response — could reverberate in Senate primaries where candidates are largely aligning themselves with the former President in an attempt to court his base, even as McConnell has vowed to employ his political operation to push candidates he views as most electable.

“I’m running for the US Senate to stand up for you, just like when I stood next to President Trump and supported his American First agenda,” said Jane Timken, the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party who announced Thursday she would seek the state’s open Senate seat in 2022.

While the lack of response from GOP senators over McConnell underscores the awkward spot Republicans find themselves in, some made clear they are behind the Senate Republican leader.

“Leader McConnell has my full support and confidence. No one understands the Senate better than he does,” Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican who faces voters in South Dakota next year, told CNN in a statement.

GOP Sen. Tim Scott’s office referred CNN to a recent Fox radio interview where the South Carolinian noted his support for the leader.

“I do,” Scott said when asked if he stands by supporting McConnell as leader. “There’s a very simple answer: Yes. The longer answer is: Definitely yes. Because at the end of the day we’re going to have to have someone in the party who understands how to fight fire with fire when it comes to Sen. (Chuck) Schumer if we’re going to win back the majority, which we will.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican facing voters next year, also confirmed through a spokesperson that he “supports Sen. McConnell as leader.”

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