GOP leaders, stung by losses, plan to wade into Senate races

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., questions Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as she testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A football legend who held a gun to his ex-wife’s head. Rivals who nearly brawled during a televised debate. A venture capitalist who voiced sympathy for the Unabomber. 

And that’s just to name a few. 

Republican Senate primaries in several pivotal states last year exuded a carnival-like aura, dominated by candidates whose ill-advised remarks and damaging personal baggage ultimately cost the party its chance of retaking a majority. But even as alarms sounded over a growing crisis of electability, party leaders mostly stood by, including Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the Senate GOP’s campaign chief, who insisted on remaining neutral in the nominating contests. 

Now, at the dawn of the 2024 campaign season, Republicans say they are taking steps to avoid a repeat. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Scott formerly led, intends to wade into party primaries in key states, providing resources to its preferred candidates in a bid to produce nominees who are more palatable to general election voters. 

“One thing I kept hearing when I took this job was that Republicans are sick and tired of losing,” said Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, the new chairman of the NRSC. “This is our last chance this decade to target red-state Democrats, so we’re going to do whatever it takes to recruit candidates who can win both a primary and general election.” 

The new approach was on display this month during an NRSC retreat at the Breakers, a luxury resort in Palm Beach, Florida, which drew senators and potential candidates, including Dave McCormick. The hedge fund CEO narrowly lost Pennsylvania’s 2022 Republican Senate primary to Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Trump-backed TV personality who was defeated in the general election by Democrat John Fetterman by roughly 5 percentage points. 

McCormick, who is considering another run in 2024, spoke at the multiday event, according to two senior Republican strategists, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the details of the private gathering. 

Later, before a crowded banquet room that included at least one other potential rival for the Pennsylvania seat, Daines singled out McCormick with praise, saying he would make an excellent candidate, according to one of the strategists. 

If he enters the primary, McCormick has also been promised support from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that spends millions of dollars on TV advertising, according to two other Republican strategists familiar with the matter. 

That serves as a warning to anyone else thinking about the race: If McCormick gets in, he would have the full weight and resources of the Senate Republican campaign operation behind him. 

Another example of recent intervention is the committee’s early endorsement of Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana’s Senate primary. Though Indiana is reliably Republican, a crowded primary, like in 2018, could sap resources better spent in competitive states. Banks has yet to draw a serious competitor. 

The move could also be viewed as a show of good faith to Trump, as well as the conservative group Club for Growth, who have often worked at cross-purposes with Republican Senate leaders. Banks is close with Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s oldest son, and he has also been championed by Club for Growth. 

Some Republicans contrast the new approach the NRSC intends to take with that of Scott. Consider his handling of Colorado’s Senate primary in 2022. Joe O’Dea, a moderate Republican and construction company owner, was viewed by many as the kind of candidate who could win in the onetime swing state during a good year for the GOP. 

But Scott pointedly declined to endorse O’Dea during a trip to the state, while also offering praise for O’Dea’s rival, a state legislator who espoused conspiracy theories, crossed police lines at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot and struggled to raise campaign cash. 

O’Dea ultimately lost the general election by nearly 15 percentage points. But the incident offers an example of power centers within the party working at cross purposes — in this case, Scott declining to get behind a candidate many viewed as the party’s only chance to win. 

It also helped fuel a feud between Scott and McConnell, which sowed chaos throughout the Senate Republican campaign effort and culminated in a failed challenge by Scott of McConnell’s position as Senate leader. 

“We need people running who can win,” said Steven Law, the CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund. “We’re raising the resources to ensure we have quality candidates.”