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A Power Trio of Rivals

The Incentives for a New-Lineup in the Senate

Michael Cohen
Published in
8 min readFeb 5, 2017

Much has been written over the past two weeks about the new Trump administration’s populist membership, many of whom followed him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from the ’16 campaign. Excellent insider accounts of this team of rivals can be found in this Washington Post piece or this Time magazine perspective.

The in-White House analogy doesn’t hold, though. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s classic Team of Rivals describes how Lincoln not only brought in different people who disagreed with him on various policy matters but many of them ran against him for president. Obama nominating Hillary Clinton to join him as Secretary of State is the apt analogy.

Banishing Enemies, Embracing Non-Threats

Trump’s top two contenders returned to the Senate. Ted Cruz will never live another day wondering why people do not believe him (Lyin’ Ted) when he says his father did not help Lee Harvey Oswald kill JFK (as some people say). Marco Rubio, once the Republican face of optimism and forward demography, has shrunk (Liddle Marco) back to his office in Russell Senate Office Building, right where Trump wanted him.

To date, only Ben Carson and Rick Perry have been nominated to serve in the lower rungs his cabinet. Carson was a threat to Trump for about five minutes until he unmasked the mild-mannered surgeon’s temper. Instead of Health and Human Services or even Surgeon General, Carson is set to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, something he did not focus on during his campaign for President of the United States.

Rick Perry infamously could not remember the third department he wanted to eliminate in a 2012 presidential debate but returned in 2016 for another race. His reward is that he can now sleep soundly knowing that he won’t have to worry about remembering that department since Trump nominated him to be its leader (it’s the Department of Energy). Here’s the memory:

This is Trump banishing, even trolling, his rivals, not bringing them on as teammates. While his team rivals for Trump’s attention, the president’s potential rivals now work elsewhere.

Rivals Down the Road

With Cruz and Rubio back in their place — they both voted for him after they said they’d vote against him for POTUS — the question returns to who could rival Trump with a bit more authenticity.

The House of Representatives is led by Paul Ryan who, like Cruz and Rubio, have been emasculated by Trump. Ryan had famously taken on Trump until he, too, announced he’d vote for him even after Trump casually supported someone against him in the GOP primary. With Trump’s instruction to the Freedom Caucus to support Ryan, the Speaker now has far less independence than if he won the chair without him.

So it’s back to the Senate. Some criteria is in order.

  1. Freedom from reelection: Preferably a couple of years away from being reelected so they could wait out Trump’s current hold on the primary electorate.
  2. Incentives to take on Trump: A good reason to take shots at the Oval Office, the more personal the better.
  3. Conservative credentials: Moderates would be helpful but need not apply. Potential so-called RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) like Susan Collins would distract from a cohesive conservative resistance.
  4. Access to media: Points to those who can get in front of a camera and get coverage in the mainstream media, on top network news programs, and the big three cable news channels. Trump pays attention.
  5. Might work well together: The trickiest part of this is figuring out the incentives for cohesion, even in the face of opposition. Why would the group stick together when it’s easier to stay out of a specific clash?

Because the Senate is controlled by the GOP 52–48, and Vice President Pence has only one vote, three of the following can block anything on the administration’s legislative agenda. They have the power to stop the Trump Train in its tracks. Let’s break down the incentives.

The Grizzled Maverick

Sen. John McCain of Arizona is the likeliest candidate to lead a Team of Trump Rivals in the Senate. His six-year freedom ticket was punched on November 8, likely his last, makes him the man without something to lose. Trump attacked McCain during the campaign, saying that he liked war heroes who weren’t captured by the enemy. For this, POLITICO led with “Donald Trump might have finally crossed the line.” It didn’t stop Trump and you can be sure McCain did not forget.

After years of attempting to win the GOP nomination, scaling back his maverick brand, and fighting one last battle for reelection last year, this might just be the moment for McCain to reemerge as the independent, common sense, conservative he always was. McCain has been a member of various Gangs-of-[Insert Number Here] on different bipartisan proposals and was most recently the leader of the McCain-Graham-Ayotte troika.

He also has the largest megaphone of anyone in the Senate and over two million followers on Twitter. A sign that he is ready to engage Trump? This week, he focused Trump’s comments about Putin.

The Independent Sidekick

McCain’s current teammate in the Senate is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and was, perhaps, the funniest person running for President in 2016. Graham won reelection two years ago, giving himself a buffer from the Trump hordes who may turn on him, eventually.

Graham’s run-in with Trump occurred in the heat of the fight for the nomination, Trump tried to do just that, calling Graham a “disgrace,” a “nut job” and “one of the dumbest human beings” he’s ever seen. Graham, no fan of Donald J. Trump, found all kinds of ways to try to needle him and is one of the few GOP elected officials to go on record saying that he didn’t vote for Trump on Election Day.

Sen. Graham has solidified his conservative credentials since the campaign endorsing all of Trump’s cabinet picks (even embattled Education Secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos) and his roundly-hailed, in conservative circles, nominee for the Supreme Court.

Graham’s media lately joins with others in the Trump administration who happen to disagree with previous statements. Sen. Graham is a big fan of Nikki Haley, writing this profile on her last year before she was chosen to be the U.S. Representative to the United Nations. In contrast to Trump’s generally pro-Russia rhetoric, Graham joined Haley’s caution on rebooting a relationship with Putin. Here’s Sen. Graham posting to his 173k followers on Twitter to side with Secretary of Defense Mattis on torture, contradicting what Trump said during the campaign and five days after his inauguration.

McCain and Graham are media favorites because they are independent and funny. They have both been attacked, personally, by President Trump and have the leeway by their recent elections to revert back to independent form. But they lost their relatively straightlaced partner, Kelly Ayotte, in November, so there is room for another to join them. Two isn’t enough. With a big three, you get a legitimate power trio. There is a new option and there is, well, the other one.

The Young Upstart

The most likely replacement is Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska who could, perhaps, be the most intriguing person on this team. Also elected in 2014, he is new to the Senate, young, and telegenic. Being from fly-over country, it’s easy to get overlooked but his profile is elevating, landing him spots on the Sunday shows, which we know POTUS closely monitors. If there is a post-Trump reset, Sasse may see himself as the young leader of it.

Sasse does not appear to have a specific personal beef with Trump. He just seems to be outraged by how Trump acts and how Trump has governed so far. What is fascinating is that I could not find (please supply in the comments if you can) a single tweet or clip that has Trump attacking Sasse. Here is the Nebraska Senator reading Mean Tweets from Trump supporters.

For all of the incoming Trump has taken from Sasse, it’s striking that he’s been so silent. It is clear that he does not consider Sasse a threat. That could change.

Sasse is a clear conservative, with amen support from RedState, and his access to media is growing, meaning, he will show up on Trump’s radar soon. Moreover, he has every incentive to become the replacement for Ayotte, to join with two senior Senators, in moments of resistance against the Trump agenda, when it suits them all. Sasse is young enough that working with older, respected Senators would be a win for him.

On Twitter, Sasse is making the most of his 87k followers, leveraging his pointed opposition to President Trump in a clear, authentic, and legitimately funny. Here’s one quick shot up Pennsylvania Avenue that is likely making way around the West Wing.

The Other Guy

Jeff Flake is the other Senator from Arizona, which he related to Trump personally when he met him on the campaign trail. Flake voiced consistent opposition to Trump in primaries and Trump responded with various tweets. Flake is up again in 2018 and has drawn McCain’s failed 2016 challenger, Kelli Ward, who believes that Flake’s lack of “hero status” could give her a better shot this time. In October last year, Brietbart framed this as a consequence of opposing Trump.

All of the incentives, therefore, are wrong for Flake to join the Team of Rivals. He has a race to run, he needs to defend his conservative and pro-Trump credentials against Ward, he has access to media but he is not as engaging as McCain, Graham, or Sasse. Finally, he may not have an incentive to subjugate his own immediate political needs for the good of a team. On Twitter, he has only 43k followers and he’s putting out cautious tweets such as this one:

To be sure, there will be others who will enter the mix when circumstances and issues align. Rubio has engaged on the Muslim ban while Cruz backs it. Susan Collins of Maine plans to vote against on Devos for Education Secretary. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska will vote no, too. Clearest of all, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already nixed term limits, chided Trump on the judges’s blocking of the Muslim Ban, and pushed back on eliminating the filibuster.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if Ben Sasse joins McCain and Graham as the core of a Team of Trump Rivals. The only hesitation he might have is independence. McCain and Graham’s stars are brighter now but they may not be in two or four years. If Sasse wants to move down the street someday, he might want help from two guys who have been there. Today, for all concerned, the incentives and opportunities are there to regroup the power trio with a new face.

If you enjoyed this article, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium. Follow me on Twitter @michaelcohen. You can follow our research on this website or on Twitter @PEORIAProject, which is funded by a generous grant from Mark R. Shenkman. To learn more about the Graduate School of Political Management visit our website or follow us on Twitter @GSPMgwu.



Michael Cohen

Founder of Cohen Research Group. Publisher of Congress in Your Pocket. Lecturer at Johns Hopkins. Author of Modern Political Campaigns