How The GOP Could Pass On A Massive Senate Majority

Can the party capitalize on a once-in-a-decade chance to screw over Senate Democrats? At the moment, it’s not looking so good for the GOP.
Republicans are focusing on a relatively small number of states for Senate races in 2024.
Republicans are focusing on a relatively small number of states for Senate races in 2024.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

For Senate Democrats, 2024 has long loomed as Year Zero.

That’s when the party faces the daunting task of defending seats across nearly half of the country — in reliably red states, light blue states and states with suddenly wide-open races.

For Republicans, it’s a chance to capitalize on a once-in-a-generation map that massively empowers their base of rural white voters to build a sustainable GOP majority that could take a decade or more for Democrats to reverse.

The GOP, however, is already suggesting its focus may be much, much narrower.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN in May that the party is concentrating on a relatively small number of races where its chances of victory are greatest: Montana, Ohio and West Virginia — states where former President Donald Trump won by eight percentage points or more in 2020 — and Pennsylvania, where party operatives believe former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, who lost last year’s primary to Mehmet Oz, could make a formidable challenger to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.

The rest of the map is at risk of becoming irrelevant.

“I don’t think anyone sees a real possibility for us in Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada of winning those races,” said a Republican who has worked on Senate races and requested anonymity to speak candidly, referring to three presidential swing states where Republicans should, theoretically, be in contention.

McConnell, always known for choosing his words carefully, left the impression the party was all but giving up in some perennial battlegrounds, either because their benches are too MAGA or because McConnell can’t find the recruits that fit his preferred profile — a boardroom Republican with a business or military background who also has millions available to self-fund a campaign.

With just two seats standing between McConnell and a GOP Senate majority, the Kentucky Republican may not have to think that big to get what he wants.

“The philosophy of McConnell and his world has always been to think smaller, that you put all your eggs in the basket that you’re most likely to win, rather than going on the offensive trying to find new baskets,” the Republican operative said, noting that Republicans’ attempts at going big backfired spectacularly in 2022.

“We really thought it was going to be an opportunity to go on the offensive and win a big majority, and that didn’t work,” this person said. “So for survival’s sake, the party can’t afford to posture that way, because people are going to compare it to what happened last cycle.”

McConnell himself acknowledged there’s still room for Republicans to “screw it up” ― his swipe at the slate of unelectables who killed the GOP’s hopes for a Senate majority in 2022. Who could forget Oz, the celebrity doctor who didn’t seem to know anything about the state he was running in? Or Herschel Walker, who lied about having fathered two secret children? Or weird tech guy Blake Masters, who touched a political third rail when he talked about privatizing Social Security?

For JB Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC and a chief political lieutenant of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), McConnell’s comments revealed not a lack of ambition but an acknowledgment that there isn’t much the GOP establishment can do to avoid the nomination of politically toxic candidates in certain states.

“I’m not sure this is an exercise in interest as much as dealing with the minefield of Donald Trump and MAGA-right candidates,” Poersch said.

He added a note of caution for Democrats, whose own expansive ambitions have crashed and burned in the past: “There’s a lot about this map that remains unsettled. There are a lot of places where we don’t know who the [GOP] candidates are or what that looks like.”

Already, some top Republicans have passed on running rather than competing for MAGA votes or tussling — perhaps literally — for Donald Trump’s endorsement. Fortunately for McConnell this time around, Trump doesn’t seem to have much interest in playing kingmaker as he runs for president and confronts mounting legal challenges. But Trump could again blow up the Senate map for his party by elevating candidates based solely on their loyalty to him.

Earlier this month, Rep. Mike Gallagher, Senate Republicans’ best bet in Wisconsin, a state that President Joe Biden won by a percentage point, declined the pressures on him to mount a campaign for the seat. That potentially leaves Republicans with a dearth of electable options to take on Democrat Tammy Baldwin, namely businessman Eric Hovde, right-wing firebrand and ex-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke or Rep. Tom Tiffany, a staunch Trump ally who voted against certifying the 2020 election results in Arizona and Michigan.

Kari Lake, now a right-wing celebrity, is rumored to be considering a Senate bid in Arizona, all but guaranteeing that Republicans don't win a general election.
Kari Lake, now a right-wing celebrity, is rumored to be considering a Senate bid in Arizona, all but guaranteeing that Republicans don't win a general election.
via Associated Press

In Arizona, both sides are bracing for the return of Kari Lake, last year’s GOP nominee for governor, after ex-Gov. Doug Ducey declined to run.

Lake, who used her last election to propel her into the world of right-wing influencers, is expected to join the contest for the seat held by Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has confounded the political world by refusing to say whether she wants another term. Without mentioning Lake specifically, McConnell, who at times has found a useful ally in Sinema, suggested to CNN the party would abandon Arizona altogether if the right candidate doesn’t emerge from the primary.

Lake’s telegenic brand is strong among the GOP base, but she would almost certainly tank another general election, operatives on the ground warn. “I assume Lake’s constituency has shrunken since the time that she ran for governor because of the narrative that she’s been running on,” said Chuck Coughlin, a former Republican who runs a political consulting firm in Arizona, citing her prominent embrace of election lies to both further align herself with Trump and challenge her own electoral loss. “She’s in the wing-nut fantasy world.”

In Nevada, Republicans are relying on U.S. Army Capt. Sam Brown, who lost the 2022 Senate primary to ex-Attorney General Adam Laxalt by a whopping 20 points. Brown, who hasn’t yet declared a campaign, is nonetheless the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s pick to take on Democrat Jacky Rosen. The party’s dream candidate, ex-Gov. Brian Sandoval, never appeared to give the race serious consideration even though Biden won Nevada by a slim two-point margin.

Republicans’ biggest missed opportunity looks to be in Michigan, where the retirement of Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow is opening up a seat. The GOP there, hobbled by a party apparatus controlled by extremists, has yet to land any notable candidates in a state where expanding Democratic power threatens to wipe out Republicans.

“It’s pretty telling that nobody wants to be a sacrificial lamb, not even some front-bench legislator.”

- Michigan GOP consultant Dennis Lennox

The NRSC has nudged John Tuttle, the vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and a native of southeast Michigan, to enter the race. But Tuttle, who splits his time between Michigan and New York City, would have to overcome a steep lack of name ID. And he would likely be running in a general election against Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a moderate who has touted her knack for wooing Trump voters.

“It’s pretty telling that nobody wants to be a sacrificial lamb, not even some front-bench legislator,” said Michigan political strategist Dennis Lennox, who noted that Republicans have a better opportunity ahead of them in 2026, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other statewide Democrats will be term-limited and a Republican ticket could seesaw back into power.

The outlook is much brighter for Republicans in the states McConnell said he was targeting. Montana Republicans last week landed Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and the CEO of an aerial firefighting company, to take on Democratic Sen. John Tester. Sheehy will likely compete in a primary against Rep. Matt Rosendale, who lost to Tester in 2018, in a bare-knuckle contest for one of the party’s best shots at expanding its map.

Republicans also have a crop of viable candidates in Ohio and West Virginia — a mix of current statewide and congressional officeholders gunning to take on Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown and Joe Manchin, whom Republicans are hoping won’t be able to overcome the deepening redness of their neighboring states. Manchin, like Sinema, has added to the drama by not yet saying whether he’ll run for reelection in West Virginia, as he openly flirts with a third-party bid for president.

Democrats are also exploring the idea of expanding their own map in Florida and Texas, the only states with incumbent Republicans up for reelection where Democrats have either won or come close to winning within the last decade.

Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor at the Cook Political Report, cautioned that more candidates will make the jump in the coming months, potentially changing the outlook for Republicans in some second-tier states. Cook has so far rated Arizona, Ohio and West Virginia rated as toss-ups, and the remainder of the frontline Democratic seats as “leans blue” less than a year out from the first 2024 primaries.

“You kind of have to work with what you’re given,” she said, “and if you can’t get candidates in who would make the race more competitive, you’re sort of hamstrung.”

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