Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking perhaps the most obvious stance by avoiding former President Donald Trump. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Most Senate GOP leaders are confronting a dilemma they hoped to avoid: With Donald Trump barreling toward victory in the Iowa caucus next week, do they endorse him or keep holding out?

There’s a striking split in the Capitol at the start of primary season, as House GOP leaders line up behind the party’s clear frontrunner while most of their Senate counterparts remain neutral in the presidential race. Senators could attract the prolonged wrath of the loyalty-obsessed former president if they delay an endorsement too long.

Trump’s allies warn that holdouts in Senate leadership may be taking a huge political gamble.

“The biggest risk is that voters see them as disloyal to the party’s core message going in 2024,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), a 2016 Trump skeptic who is now one of his biggest boosters. “That is a real risk. And that’s why I’ve encouraged a lot of folks to endorse the former president.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking perhaps the most obvious stance by avoiding Trump. The two have had no relationship since the Capitol riot of 2021. Trump rarely misses a chance to take personal potshots at the Kentuckian, while McConnell only occasionally even discusses anything about Trump at all.

So while it’s no surprise that McConnell is steering clear of a Trump endorsement, the former president could again try to force McConnell out of party leadership later this year, if he reclaims the White House. Vance warned that the former president may direct his wrath at senators who fail to get behind him, saying that it depends “how much Donald Trump wants to keep a grudge.”

The potential risks of holding out became clearer as more rank-and-file GOP senators
got behind Trump
in recent weeks. They crystallized on Tuesday night, after Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso (Wyo.) — one of McConnell’s potential successors — endorsed Trump on Fox News. The move drew immediate praise from the ex-president.

The House GOP’s No. 2 and No. 3 GOP leaders, Steve Scalise (La.) and Tom Emmer (Minn.), endorsed Trump within the same 24-hour period last week. Some Republicans privately saw that as either a sign of the pressure mounting on their top brass to back Trump rather than face his wrath or a politically expedient move.

Now, the attention has moved to the Senate.

“You need to talk to them [about] what their problem is. I don’t always understand what the Senate’s logic is over there,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who chairs the Republican Study Committee. “The Senate always surprises me.”

The most urgent decision belongs to Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the No. 4 Senate Republican who could find herself at the top rungs of conference leadership in the coming years. Ernst is staying unaligned as the Iowa Caucuses approach, and she’s not sure what she will do next week if Trump translates his polling leads to a win in her state.

“We’ll see,” Ernst said in an interview. “I just have to remain neutral through the caucuses. And then we want to see who the nominee is actually going to be. But there’s a lot to be decided between now and then.”

Hailing from an early-voting state and known for an occasional tendency to diverge from her party’s pack (she
removed herself from Trump’s vice presidential search
in 2016, for example), the timing of any Ernst choice will be instructive when it comes to the former president’s hold on Senate Republicans. So, too, will that of No. 5 GOP leader Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a similarly neutral Republican who hails from one of the reddest states in the nation.

A former House member, Capito chalked up the schism between the two chambers’ Republican leaders to the long-term perspective that senators are free to take, thanks to their six-year terms.

“I obviously supported President Trump and his policies. We’re just starting the season, so let’s see what the results are,” Capito said.

Ernst’s and Capito’s endorsements may be the most up for grabs among Senate Republican leaders. The top two GOP senators, McConnell and his deputy John Thune (R-S.D.), both seem highly unlikely to endorse Trump anytime soon.

Trump once threatened Thune with a primary challenge after the South Dakotan panned his push to overturn the 2020 election, but that effort fizzled and Thune easily won reelection in 2022. This presidential cycle, Thune supported Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who later dropped out, and has praised former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Thune said on Wednesday that “everybody’s going to come to their own conclusion” but that he’s staying neutral.

Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), a former Trump aide and staunch supporter, said he absolutely expected that there would be “pressure” on all Republican leaders to endorse the former president. As for the Senate, he doesn’t know “why people are taking their time.”

“I don’t see why not every single Republican is backing Donald Trump at this point,” Miller said in an interview. “All these people know he’s gonna be the nominee. And they’re holding out hope for what? Nikki Haley? Get out of here!”

And Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who has endorsed Haley, recalled Trump warning him that his backing of the former South Carolina governor would come with repercussions.

“He just said: ‘It’s gonna hurt you.’ So? Let’s let the people decide,” Norman said. But he also downplayed the importance of presidential endorsements: “People are not gonna vote for Nikki Haley because of Ralph Norman.”

Trump’s first backer in Senate GOP leadership wants the party to get behind him ASAP, though he’s not quite as direct about it as Miller is.

Trump is “going to be the nominee and the next president of the United States. So I’d like to see more of my colleagues continue to endorse the president,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chair of the party’s campaign arm. Daines said he respects his fellow senators’ decisions but “would encourage and urge them to endorse President Trump.”

Senate GOP leaders count a far higher number of Trump skeptics in their conference than House chiefs. That diversity of opinion makes it more logical for top Senate Republicans to hold out a little longer. Falling in line fast could split the party in a different way, with several GOP senators essentially ruling out support for Trump.

Assessing the groundswell of support on the Hill for the former president, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lamented that “Republicans are giving up … why shouldn’t we demand the best this country can offer?”

“There is room for an alternative to Trump versus Biden if we make that space, but we so pigeonhole ourselves into thinking that those are our two choices. We’ve already done that before a single primary has happened,” Murkowski said. “Makes you wonder why we do the primaries.”

However, Trump’s weaker foothold in the Senate is in some ways a lagging indicator of the party base. GOP senators are less susceptible to primary challenges than their House colleagues, many of whom hail from red seats where MAGA-friendly foes can quickly emerge. Murkowski, for example, dispatched a Trump-aligned challenger just last year.

Then there’s the special case of Speaker Mike Johnson, who surprised no one when he recently backed Trump. When former Speaker Kevin McCarthy wavered on endorsing Trump last year, it only made his standing in the GOP more precarious.

“It is like betting on a horse when the horse is 20 lengths ahead,” Rep. Rich McCormick (R-Ga.) said of his leader endorsing Trump.

McCormick is the rare House Republican who still favors Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the primary, but he added that “I’m a realist. I understand how this works. Everybody wants to cheer for the winning team, and I know how bandwagons work.”

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