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The Looming Presence Of Trump Is Affecting Republicans Up For Reelection

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All signs point to former President Trump still looming large over the Republican Party. Some GOP lawmakers are fending off attacks from Trump and his allies while simultaneously seeking reelection. Other establishment Republicans are planning to leave Congress. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: A growing list of veteran Senate Republicans are hitting the exits, even as the GOP says they'll win back control of the House or the Senate in 2022. This month, Missouri's Roy Blunt said he wasn't interested in adding more years to a 26-year run in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROY BLUNT: It's an eight-year decision, and I wasn't prepared to make that eight-year commitment.

GRISALES: The popular incumbent joins Richard Burr of North Carolina, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio now in their final terms. Blunt disagrees his departure is a sign the party's Trump wing has swallowed up its establishment wing again.

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BLUNT: I don't know that my leaving has a whole lot of impact on that one way or another.

GRISALES: Still, Trump is taking his time handing out endorsements for 2022, fighting to funnel GOP donations only his way and keeping an iron grip on the party's use of his name. Now, Republicans who bucked Trump after the January 6 insurrection are fighting for survival. Trump has not been in public much recently, but last month, he reminded voters the 17 Republicans who voted against him during this year's impeachment should get the boot.

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DONALD TRUMP: The Democrats don't have grandstanders like Mitt Romney, little Ben Sasse, Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins.

GRISALES: He's threatened to travel to campaign against Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, who's up for reelection next year. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says his party will support Murkowski's bid and lambasted Trump for his role in the Capitol attack. Then, after initially brushing off questions that the former president could be the GOP's nominee again in 2024, McConnell told Fox News he'd support Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

MITCH MCCONNELL: The nominee of the party? Absolutely.

GRISALES: But some old-guard party members say rather than moderate Republicans leaving, it's Trumpism that needs to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL STEELE: What we've said to the country over the last five or six years is, now we crazy as hell.

GRISALES: That's Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee and a longtime Trump critic.

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STEELE: I don't think that's the message that we should be taking (laughter) out there.

GRISALES: Steele says Trumpism has encouraged the party to embrace extremism, including white supremacists and QAnon, and it could break the party up.

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SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: I have full faith in the party. I'm not worried about the party breaking up. That's the least of my worries.

GRISALES: That's West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who says she's lost count the times she's been asked if Republicans will survive. Capito says the GOP will recover.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOORE CAPITO: The Republican Party is stronger than one person. And I think we're going to do our best to bring in our large party that's much larger because of President Trump.

GRISALES: It will dictate if Republicans take back control in Congress, where Democrats operate under tight margins. For now, Trump ally and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham argues the GOP can't afford a divorce with Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Hang together or we'll hang separately.

GRISALES: But how can governing Republicans do that while sustaining attacks from Trump and his allies? Graham says it's clear the GOP must do it by rallying...

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GRAHAM: Around policy.

GRISALES: Republicans will have to see if they can unite around policy and transcend Trump's larger-than-life personality.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY'S "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.