For more than a year, former President Donald Trump has berated Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, savaging him for refusing to overturn the state’s presidential results and vowing to oppose him should he run for the Senate this year.
In early December, though, Mr. Ducey received a far friendlier message from another former Republican president. At a golf tournament luncheon, George W. Bush encouraged him to run against Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat, suggesting the Republican Party needs more figures like Mr. Ducey to step forward.
“It’s something you have to feel a certain sense of humility about,” the governor said this month of Mr. Bush’s appeal. “You listen respectfully, and that’s what I did.”
Mr. Bush and a band of anti-Trump Republicans led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are hoping he does more than listen.
As Mr. Trump works to retain his hold on the Republican Party, elevating a slate of friendly candidates in midterm elections, Mr. McConnell and his allies are quietly, desperately maneuvering to try to thwart him. The loose alliance, which was once thought of as the G.O.P. establishment, for months has been engaged in a high-stakes candidate recruitment campaign, full of phone calls, meetings, polling memos and promises of millions of dollars. It’s all aimed at recapturing the Senate majority, but the election also represents what could be Republicans’ last chance to reverse the spread of Trumpism before it fully consumes their party.
Mr. McConnell for years pushed Mr. Trump’s agenda and only rarely opposed him in public. But the message that he delivers privately now is unsparing, if debatable: Mr. Trump is losing political altitude and need not be feared in a primary, he has told Mr. Ducey in repeated phone calls, as the Senate leader’s lieutenants share polling data they argue proves it.
In conversations with senators and would-be senators, Mr. McConnell is blunt about the damage he believes Mr. Trump has done to the G.O.P., according to those who have spoken to him. Privately, he has declared he won’t let unelectable “goofballs” win Republican primaries.
History doesn’t bode well for such behind-the-scene efforts to challenge Mr. Trump, and Mr. McConnell’s hard sell is so far yielding mixed results. The former president has rallied behind fewer far-right candidates than initially feared by the party’s old guard. Yet a handful of formidable contenders have spurned Mr. McConnell’s entreaties, declining to subject themselves to Mr. Trump’s wrath all for the chance to head to a bitterly divided Washington. [Continue reading…]