Oct 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

The old GOP's last stand: the Senate

Illustration of an elephant knocking over a column with its trunk and tusks.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the MAGA wing of the Republican Party dominant in the presidential race and the speaker-less House of Representatives, the Senate is looking like the last bastion of old-school Republican influence.

Why it matters: The party's leaders are looking to keep it that way by quietly boosting the prospects of more mainstream Senate candidates.

The big picture: Republicans hold solid odds of winning back the Senate in 2024, with a historically favorable map putting Democrats on defense in numerous red-state and purple-state battlegrounds.

  • So far, Senate Republicans — and those working to elect future GOP senators — have been successful in creating one remaining safe space for normalcy in a party that's grown increasingly nihilistic.
  • The odds are growing that Republicans flip the Senate but lose control of the dysfunctional House in 2024.

What to watch: If Senate Republicans have a good night in the 2024 elections, their majority would likely be powered by traditional conservatives like Gov. Jim Justice in West Virginia, military veteran Tim Sheehy in Montana, businessman Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania and former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers in Michigan.

  • These are all candidates that would fit in well in the pre-Trump Republican Party. The list of GOP Senate recruits is heavy on military veterans, business experience and political know-how.
  • McCormick, in a striking sign of party unity, won the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and all GOP lawmakers in the state's congressional delegation — from moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick to Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Scott Perry.

Driving the news: Some Senate Republicans are growing increasingly optimistic that businessman Eric Hovde will enter the race against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), giving the party a more credible and well-funded challenger than other right-wing alternatives.

  • Hovde unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2012, losing to former Gov. Tommy Thompson in the GOP primary.

Between the lines: If Republican donors critical of former President Trump don't know where to spend their money — and are holding their donations as a result — the emerging lineup of traditionally conservative Senate candidates is looking like a safer bet.

  • While top GOP donors are growing resigned to the likelihood of a Trump nomination and the House looking vulnerable to a Democratic takeover, the prospect of maintaining a check on Democratic power with a GOP-controlled Senate will look enticing.

Zoom in: Many of the GOP's touted candidates face right-wing primary challenges — offering a critical test of National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Steve Daines' (R-Mont.) effectiveness in getting electable candidates nominated.

  • Former Detroit police chief James Craig, positioning himself to the right of Rogers in the Michigan Senate race, announced his candidacy against the former congressman this month. Craig's launch video featured glowing commentary from former Fox host Tucker Carlson.
  • Justice is also facing a right-wing primary challenger from Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.). Trump endorsed Justice this week, giving the governor a clear advantage in the race.
  • Sheehy boasts party backing and numerous endorsements from GOP senators, but still faces the possibility of a primary threat from Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), one of the eight House Republicans who voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Reality check: The overall trendlines are all pointing to the GOP moving in a much more populist and isolationist direction, even in the establishment-minded Senate.

  • At least two-thirds of Republican voters are backing presidential candidates touting the MAGA line — Trump, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
  • Even some of the more traditional candidates have made nods to the rising populism within their party. Rogers, for instance, slammed the Department of Justice as "politically motivated" in a campaign video this month — all but echoing Trump's conspiratorial view of his indictments.
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chair of the GOP conference, endorsed MAGA favorite Kari Lake in Arizona's Senate race last week.

The bottom line: That's why the top Senate races will be critical in charting the future direction of the Republican Party.

  • If the traditional wing of the GOP can maintain its beachhead in the Senate, it would bode well for its ability to still have a strong voice despite the party's MAGA-aligned orientation.

Disclosure: I am the editor in chief at Jewish Insider, which is linked to in one instance in this report.

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