As former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis air their disinterest in more U.S. aid to Ukraine, a number of Senate Republicans are open about wanting a GOP standard-bearer who takes a different approach.
“I want a Ronald Reagan when it comes to national security. Peace through strength,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. He prefers a candidate who won’t “kowtow to the isolationist wing of the Republican Party.”
The former president and the Florida governor, their party’s presidential frontrunners, are taking a hard line against providing more funding to Kyiv in its year-long bid to ward off a deadly Russian invasion. If either Trump or DeSantis claims the GOP nomination while the war is still going on, their vocal disinterest in maintaining current levels of support for Ukraine could pull the rest of the party in that direction.
At the moment, GOP senators say they are overwhelmingly in favor of still supplying Ukraine with lethal aid, arguing it’s a deterrent against both Russian President Vladimir Putin and China.
And some of those Republicans want a presidential nominee who shares their point of view — potentially putting those senators at odds with their party’s conservative base, provided they concur with Trump and DeSantis.
Cornyn, a former whip and party campaign chairman, name-checked GOP White House contenders who align with his thinking: “There’s a number of them: [Mike] Pompeo, [Mike] Pence, [Nikki] Haley, Tim Scott if he gets in. I think that’s still where the significant majority of the party is.” Cornyn does not plan to endorse in the presidential primary.
While Senate Republicans’ long-hawkish identity on foreign policy has certainly grown more diverse in recent years, most of them have overwhelmingly supported helping Ukraine, including in a standalone vote last year. And to hear some Republicans tell it, it’s not a matter of politics. They realize many of their voters are warmer toward Trump and DeSantis’ position — but insist that backing Ukraine is the right thing to do for the United States’ survival as a world power.
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Even a fresh infusion of new GOP senators, including Ukraine skeptics like newly elected Ohioan J.D. Vance, has not significantly shifted the balance of the 49-member conference. And Vance freely admits that many of his colleagues don’t see eye-to-eye with him, his top presidential choice Trump, or DeSantis.
“The weight of public opinion within the party is on our side, and it’s shifting in our direction. I think the fact that you have the two people — almost certainly one of them will get the nomination in ‘24 — leading on this issue is a good sign,” Vance said. “Trump and DeSantis together are far more skeptical of our posture towards Ukraine than Senate Republicans.”
Yet some of Vance’s new colleagues, like, freshmen Sens. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) and Katie Britt (R-Ala.), take a different view. Britt said that her constituents want “accountability” for money spent but that Alabamans also “understand what’s at stake as far as security, and that Russia’s aggression is unacceptable.”
“It’s going to be important that whoever the next president is continues to support Ukraine,” Ricketts said. “Anybody who is skeptical of Ukraine should certainly ask questions, but I think it’s also up to us as senators to be able to present the case for Ukraine.”
In interviews this week, Republican senators like Ricketts, Cornyn and Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Mitt Romney of Utah said that support for Ukraine was an important criteria for the next GOP president. Still more said they have their own view, and that the aid skepticism from Trump and DeSantis has not moved them.
Another telling example on the widespread position of Senate Republicans: Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who often aligns with his party’s conservative wing. At a recent party lunch, he argued in favor of funding Kyiv even while breaking from President Joe Biden’s overall management of the conflict, according to a person briefed on the meeting.
“I respect President Trump’s and Governor DeSantis’ opinions. They certainly have a right to them,” Kennedy said in an interview. “I’ve never viewed Ukrainian aid as charity; I have viewed it as an act of self-preservation.”
Polling released this week from Gallup found that 62 percent of Republicans rate the war between Russia and Ukraine as a critical threat to U.S. interests, an increase of six points since 2022 — and a higher level of GOP buy-in than among Democrats and Independents. Romney said Trump and DeSantis’ positions are “not the prevailing view, apparently, with the Republican voters at large.”
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is perhaps the most vocal Republican on the issue, visiting Ukraine and even pushing for more aid than requested by the Biden administration. McConnell is sidelined for now by a concussion, so top deputy Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) spoke for the conference on Tuesday by asserting that a majority of Senate Republicans see a “vital national security interest” in defending Ukraine.
That said, roughly a quarter of the GOP conference takes a doubtful or negative view of Ukraine aid, according to one GOP senator. And on the House side, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he won’t support a “blank check” to Ukraine, reflecting far more skepticism on that side of the Capitol.
“I’m aligned with [Trump and DeSantis],” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who supports Trump. “All along, I’ve not voted for one dime to give to Ukraine the way we’ve done it. I wouldn’t mind giving a little at a time.”
In all, Congress signed off on approximately $113 billion in military and economic assistance for Ukraine in 2022, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. That included a dedicated $40 billion emergency aid package in May 2022, which passed the Senate, 86-11.
September’s upcoming government funding fight will likely involve a showdown over additional assistance, as Republicans confront a party divided over whether to provide more.
DeSantis made waves in Republican circles when he claimed on a questionnaire to TV host Tucker Carlson that “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia” was not a “vital” national interest. Trump’s answer: U.S. involvement was not in the nationvs interest, “but it is for Europe” — followed by a demand that European countries pay more to aid Ukraine.
“I disagreed with what [DeSantis] said,” Capito said, adding that “our national security — defeating Putin — is tremendously important, and it’s not a territorial issue.”
Still, there is no doubt that some Senate Republicans want Europe to contribute more to the fight. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said he’d like to see that addressed before doing more to help Ukraine.
“I wonder if either or both of them is taking that position to try and encourage the other NATO countries to just cowboy up and pay your share,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said of Trump and DeSantis. “I don’t know that the Republican Party has settled on a position on [Ukraine that] is very clear.”
And that speaks to Republicans’ fear: that Putin might wait out the 2024 election and hope its victor shrinks the bipartisan pro-Ukraine coalition in Congress. Plus, there’s the more immediate concern the party’s two presidential frontrunners will take up all the oxygen the next time the U.S. tries to send a new tranche of aid to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Unless people speak up, and we have a genuine debate about it, Republicans may think: ‘Well, there’s only one side to the story,’” Cornyn said. “And there’s obviously not.”
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