ORLANDO, Florida | Sen. Rick Scott walked on stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference with a foot in two worlds — straddling the divide between the Republican Party establishment and the base that is wedded to former President Donald Trump.
In his new job as the leader of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, Mr. Scott is chief defender of the party’s incumbents. But it’s a role that puts him in the middle of the clash between Trump voters whose energy is indispensable in electing Republicans and the man their leader calls a “political hack” — SenateGOP leader Mitch McConnell.
The activists gathered at CPAC over the weekend wanted Mr. Scott to know that, in their Republican Party, loyalty to the former president surpasses loyalty to the longtime Kentucky senator — even if he is the highest ranking GOP official in the country.
“If he is trying to show allegiance to the base of the party then it is not going to be to McConnell,” said Jill Quentzel, a political activist and former broadcaster who lives in Florida. “We’re pretty confused about McConnell right now — whether he’s a traitor, whether he’s just a straddler, whether it matters about his wife’s Chinese shipping business.”
Mr. Scott’s mission is both straightforward and complicated: He needs to prevent GOP skirmishes from breaking out into a full-scale civil war that could tear apart the party and sink its chances of winning back a Senate majority.
“I wonder if Rick Scott, in his head, when he wakes up every once in a while says, ‘Why did I take on this job again?’” said Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.
On the CPAC stage here Friday, Mr. Scott joked, perhaps half-seriously, that he was named chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee because nobody else wanted the job.
“People say my job is to mediate between warring factions on the right and mediate the war between the party leaders,” the Florida senator told the crowd. “I got some news for you. I’m not going to mediate anything. Instead, I’m going to fight for our conservative values.”
He said those values — defending the Second Amendment, free speech, religious liberty, individual responsibility and freedom — would unite Americans.
When “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked the first-term Florida senator if the Republican Party is “still Donald Trump’s party,” Mr. Scott replied that the GOP is “the voters’ party” and “always has been.”
He also acknowledged that President Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.
If that happens, the former Florida governor could emerge from the 2022 elections with bragging rights as he possibly explores a White House bid of his own in 2024.
The GOP holds 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs next year, including four seats that will be open following retirements.
The risk, however, for Mr. Scott is if the GOP fails to retake the Senate and he gets caught in the crossfire of primary battles that ends up pitting him against a candidate preferred by the former president, who savors political vendettas.
“It is no secret that he would probably like to run for president himself,” Mr. Jewett said of Mr. Scott. “So that is weighing on his mind as well because, at least currently, I would say if you are a Republican who is not in Trump’s good graces you have zero chance of securing the Republican nomination for president as things stand now.”
Mr. Trump signaled he could be a team player this week when he endorsed Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas.
Mr. Scott confronted the intraparty battles head-on this week, telling his colleagues in a sternly worded two-page memo this week that “now is not the time for division” and “self-indulgent divisions.”
“The only way we can lose is if we stop ourselves by needlessly fracturing,” he said. “Save it for another day. The Republican civil war is now canceled.”
That could be wishful thinking.
Mr. Trump fired back.
“Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” he said.
Mr. Trump said: “Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.”
A major test of party unity could come in the form of Sen. John Thune’s reelection bid in South Dakota.
“I hope to see the great Governor of South Dakota @KristiNoem, run against RINO @SenJohnThune, in the upcoming 2022 Primary,” Mr. Trump tweeted in January. “She would do a fantastic job in the U.S. Senate, but if not Kristi, others are already lining up. South Dakota wants strong leadership, NOW!”
Ms. Noem has said she has no intention of running, though speculation picked up again after the news broke that Donald Trump Jr. was hosting a fundraiser for her at Mar-a-Lago.
“I told him I want to win in ’22 and said I am going to be very specific on where I think he can be helpful and he gets to make a decision on whether he wants to do it or not,” he said.
“Defeating Sen. Thune is not going to be the mission of his organization although I am sure he shares the sentiment of many conservatives that RINOs like Thune, [Sens. Susan M.] Collins, and [Mitt] Romney make Judas Iscariot appear loyal,” Mr. Doster said.
⦁ Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.
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