WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s cavalry is coming to Washington.
With the election of six new Republicans this month and a runoff victory Tuesday for staunch Trump ally Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, the U.S. Senate will now be more pro-Trump than ever.
In 2016, many Republicans had hoped to win despite Trump, rather than because of him. In 2018, it was Trump’s endorsement and repeated rallies in their states that helped propel GOP candidates to victory.
Now lawmakers owe him and will be eager to champion the president's agenda. Depending on the outcome of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, they might even provide a bulwark protecting Trump from impeachment.
“These are the individuals who embraced the Trump agenda, ran with Trump and had unwavering support,” Trump’s former campaign manager and current adviser Corey Lewandowski told USA TODAY. “That is going to translate when they get to Washington to help Trump be successful.”
North Dakota senator-elect Kevin Cramer, who had been his state's sole congressman, was personally recruited by Trump to run for Senate and served as the Trump's energy adviser during the presidential transition.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who will be the first woman senator from Tennessee, was a top surrogate during Trump’s campaign.
Incoming Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the state’s current governor, was one of the first prominent Republican politicians in the nation to back Trump's candidacy in 2016 and has known him for decades.
Indiana businessman Mike Braun and Missouri’s Josh Hawley, the state’s attorney general, unabashedly praised the president on the trail.
Hyde-Smith, who beat Democrat Mike Espy in a runoff election, strongly supported Trump in the Senate since being appointed this year to fill an open seat. The president defended her after she made "public hanging" remarks many considered racially insensitive.
They were all rewarded during the campaign with frequent visits from the president, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump family members.
"He made my candidacy better just by being connected," Cramer told USA TODAY during an interview on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
The GOP also has a wider 53-47 margin after the midterms, thanks to Republicans flipping four Democratic seats while holding onto two open seats. Democrats picked up two GOP seats, giving Republicans an overall two-seat gain.
The incoming group may end up being Trump’s final protection against impeachment. The House flipped to Democratic control earlier this month likely picking up 40 GOP seats. Democrats are expected to open investigations into the president and his administration as soon as they take over committee gavels. That could lead to impeachment proceedings, though Democratic leadership denies it’s their goal.
Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host who is now vice chairwoman of a pro-Trump super PAC, said it's “hugely important” to have allies to provide “strong support” for the president in impeachment proceedings and say "listen, the country doesn’t need this."
Guilfoyle traveled the country with her boyfriend, the president's son Donald Trump Jr., in the final weeks campaigning for Republicans, including Cramer, Braun and Scott.
Divided government also means there likely will be showdowns over legislation on immigration, government funding and protections for special counsel Robert Mueller.
Already, Congress is at an impasse over government spending because of Trump’s demand for increased border wall funding. Some of Trump’s judicial nominations have been blocked over unrelated demands to bring up a bill that would protect Mueller. If those fights spill over into the next Congress, new senators will have a say in how to proceed.
Some of the group have echoed the president’s characterization of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt.” Cramer said he doesn't think the president should fire Mueller, but said the investigation has failed to restore confidence in the justice system. This summer, Hawley said the president’s assertion he could pardon himself was “an open question.” And he said he understood why Trump was frustrated with the probe, according to The Kansas City Star.
The Mueller investigation could very well reach a boiling point. On Thursday, Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime lawyer, pleaded guilty to lying to congressional committees about plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen had told lawmakers the discussions on a Russia project ended in January 2016 but his plea agreement with Mueller said the talks actually lasted further into that year.
The wider GOP margin, stacked with Trump allies, could also widen the leeway for tough votes and help usher through the president’s picks for the court and administration.
But there is one new Republican senator who worries some Trump allies with his independence.
“I think that Mitt Romney is going to be a thorn in the president’s side,” Lewandowski said. The former Massachusetts governor who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012 was critical of Trump during the 2016 election, calling him “a phony” and “a fraud.”
Romney and Trump eventually patched things up and he was briefly considered as Trump’s secretary of State. Trump endorsed Romney for his Utah Senate run, but Romney has kept the president at arm’s length.
Trump's allies may have reason to be concerned. An Associated Press poll out Thursday found that 64 percent of Utah voters wanted to see Romney confront the president. About half of Romney's supporters wanted Romney to push back on the president.
Democrats worry that replacing some of the most moderate senators in the chamber with Trump allies will make it harder to make deals. “Voters and Americans thought that there was gridlock in the Senate and in Congress before. I think that is only going to get worse,” said Tara McGowan, the head of ACRONYM, a progressive digital startup.
Others say these new members will act like Republicans, not Trump clones.
”A lot of Republican senators in the senate had come to a pretty stable conclusion that they were going to ignore (Trump) on the legislative side, but they were going to defend him,” said Matt Glassman, senior fellow at the Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute.
But defending Trump may have limits, even for some of his strongest supporters. When the president attacked two cable news hosts and said one had been bleeding from a facelift, Blackburn said the tweets were “were a step too far.”
Scott, who won by a tiny margin in Florida after a recount, ran a Spanish-language ad during the campaign that said he didn’t always agree with the president. Trump has insulted Hispanics with his immigration stance and by calling those who cross the border illegally "animals" and "rapists." Scott also said he disagreed with the president's assessment that Democrats had bolstered the Puerto Rican death toll for political reasons.
Chris Harline, a spokesman for Scott, said he has "shown that he’s willing to break with the president.”
Cramer left open the possibility of himself breaking with the president on issues that require compromise with Democrats, such as immigration. But he added he thinks the president has offered up a fair solution.
"My comfort will be determined by what I believe to be in the best interest of North Dakota and the country," Cramer said. "He's popular out there, but so am I." Cramer said he likes to remind Trump his margin of victory was higher than the president's in 2016.
Cramer pointed out newly elected members could have opportunities for compromise. As if on cue, Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a progressive Democrat, interrupted the conversation to congratulate Cramer on his Senate win. "I love him," Cramer said as Welch walked away.
Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor but no fan of Trump, said, “Just because you act like a Republican does not mean you’re Trumpian. It just so happens that Trump is acting like a Republican when it comes to the Trump agenda."
The president should have an easier time directing his party, now that two of his most vocal GOP critics are on their way out. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who didn't run for re-election, will be replaced by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Outgoing Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker's spot went to Blackburn.
“I hope that senators will show independence. That’s usually why you have six-year terms. And this institution has a lot of oversight responsibilities with the administration, obviously,” Flake told USA TODAY. “I’m sure some of them will.”