By Ted Barrett, Alex Rogers and Paul LeBlanc, CNN
Republican senators are grappling to find the reasons why they failed to take back the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections despite President Joe Biden’s unpopularity and fears about the state of the US economy, saying on Monday that candidate recruitment and Donald Trump’s election lies hurt their ability to gain power.
At the same time, Senate GOP leaders are pressing forward with a mid-week vote to affirm their control of the conference, even though some conservatives are pushing for changes at the top.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN’s Manu Raju that he has not yet decided whether he will challenge Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving Senate Republican leader. For months, McConnell and Scott warred over how the party should try to win the Senate.
“I haven’t made a decision yet,” Scott said.
Democrats not only held the 50-50 Senate, but could even strengthen their grip of it on December 6, when Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock faces Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker in the Georgia runoff election.
Republican senators who returned to the Capitol on Monday evening for the first time since Election Day were flummoxed by how the party squandered its opportunity.
“There’s no one single factor,” said Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, ticking off the growing pains of “first-time candidates,” a “confusing political environment” and “a combination of issues.”
The future of democracy was also a top issue after Trump lied for two years that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said that it’s clear “relitigating the 2020 election is not a winning strategy.”
“We’re going to have a very robust and candid conversation over the course of the next couple of days,” Thune said. “I think that there’s no question that we didn’t achieve expectations in this election.”
Asked if Trump played a role in hampering Republicans’ success, Thune offered, “I mean, I think there is never any one thing.”
West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito also said that candidates who dwelt on the past did not do as well as those who discussed the future.
“I think looking forward is always a better campaign strategy,” Capito said. “Looking back to 2020 obviously didn’t work out. So I think we need to look forward. That’s what our candidates should, and wanted, to do, and some of them just fell short.”
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman declined to blame Trump for the GOP’s underwhelming performance, stressing the need for “better candidate recruitment” and “sticking with the issues.”
Trump, Portman noted, “got J.D. Vance through the primary, and then J.D. won the general election by eight points,” referring to the Ohio Senate Republican nominee, who beat Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. Portman said the Republican Party ran some candidates that “more independent-minded voters just couldn’t support.”
“So we have to do a better job on candidate recruitment and then sticking with the issues,” he said. “On the issues, we were fine.”
But some Republicans recognized that their position on one key issue — abortion — may have cost them.
“I think abortion was a bigger issue, and more difficult for my party, than we had anticipated,” said Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
Some GOP senators tried to find the silver lining.
“The results were disappointing, but in the end, we basically got Republican control of the House,” Cornyn said. “I think that may be the cause of the Democrats’ excitement because they said it could have been so much worse.”
“I don’t know why the Biden administration considers that a victory,” Cornyn added. “It’s kind of like the old saying, there’s nothing so exhilarating, as being shot at and missed.”
CNN has not yet projected that the Republicans will take the House, but Republicans appear on track to hold a narrow majority, which would flip the chamber.
Trump is expected to announce a comeback bid for the White House on Tuesday but some Republicans in the House and Senate did not appear ready for a repeat.
“The former president is going to do whatever he wants to do, and I don’t think he’s going to listen to what my thoughts are on it,” South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds said. “I want someone who is going to unite our party. That’s the way we win elections.”
“A reasonable person that can unite the party,” he added.
Asked if he wants Trump to be the 2024 GOP nominee, Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson told CNN, “Let’s see who runs. Personally, I don’t think it’s good for the party.”
“I think his policies were good. I just don’t need all the drama with it,” he added.
Romney, a Trump critic who voted to remove him from office when Trump was president, called the former president “an albatross around Republican necks.”
“I think he’s been on the mountain too long,” added Romney. “We’ve lost three races with him. And I’d like to see someone from the bench, come up and take his place and lead our party and help lead the country.”
Along with the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Simpson said one of the reasons why some Republicans underperformed was their connection to the former president. “I think we had some candidates that were too tied to Trump,” said Simpson.
Thune said the party now needs to set its sights on winning the Georgia Senate runoff election, even as Democrats have already clinched the majority in the chamber.
“There’s a huge difference, as you all know, between a 50-50 Senate and 51, so we really need that seat and that’s where all our efforts ought to be devoted,” he said.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer touted the Democrats’ victory on the chamber floor.
“With our democracy at stake, with our fundamental liberties on the line, and with a clear choice between moving America forward or holding it back, the American people spoke loud and clear: Democrats will retain the majority in the Senate,” Schumer said.
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