Dec 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

GOP tries to weed out extreme Senate prospects — with Trump's OK

Photo iIllustration of Donald Trump behind a chessboard.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez-Pool/Getty Images

Former President Trump is mostly keeping his distance from key Senate races in GOP primaries. But privately, Trump's team is working closely with the Republican Senate campaign group, which is trying to avoid fielding extreme, scandal-plagued candidates in 2024.

Why it matters: It's a strategy shift for Trump and the National Republican Senatorial Committee from last year, when several far-right, Trump-backed candidates lost winnable races and the GOP lost control of the Senate.

Zoom in: Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the new NRSC chair, has vowed to not repeat the GOP's mistakes in 2022.

  • So the NRSC is trying to thread a needle in 2024: For most races it's seeking conservative candidates who are acceptable to Trump — but not so far right that GOP moderates reject them.
  • The NRSC — namely Daines and the committee's executive director, Jason Thielman — are in close contact with Trump campaign manager Susie Wiles and Brian Jack, a senior Trump campaign aide.

In recruiting and supporting GOP contenders, Daines has been careful not to pick any "never-Trumpers," but also is rejecting some Trump loyalists.

  • In Montana, Daines' home state, the NRSC likes former Navy Seal Tim Sheehy over Rep. Matt Rosendale to take on incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D). The NRSC has called Rosendale — one of the far-righters in the House who voted to oust then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — "a plant from the Democrats" because of that vote.
  • In Nevada, the NRSC prefers retired Army Capt. Sam Brown over 2020 election denier Jim Marchant, who was part of Nevada's alternate slate of pro-Trump electors. The GOP primary winner will take on Sen. Jacky Rosen (D).
  • In Michigan, the NRSC recruited former House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers over the more-MAGA James Craig (who has one bankruptcy and multiple divorces) and former Rep. Peter Meijer, who supported Trump's 2021 impeachment.
  • In Pennsylvania, the NRSC backed hedge fund executive David McCormick while slamming MAGA firebrand Doug Mastriano, Trump's unsuccessful pick for governor last year. Mastriano considered a run for Senate but declined.

The intrigue: In Arizona, the NRSC hasn't officially weighed in on the GOP Senate contenders. But privately it's made clear that it's backing Kari Lake, a Trump loyalist who lost the governor's race last year.

  • Lake's resume — she's a conspiracy theorist and election denier — suggests that the committee is making at least one exception for a more extreme candidate with a clear advantage.
  • The NRSC is telling Trumpworld that it's trying to get establishment Republicans behind Lake. Thielman, Daines and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) were at a recent Senate GOP lunch, lobbying senators to get behind Lake, two people familiar with the episode told Axios.

Lake is among just three Senate GOP candidates Trump has endorsed. He's also publicly backed Jim Justice in solidly red West Virginia and Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana, another red state.

  • Justice, a former governor, is running to replace retiring Democrat Joe Manchin, while Banks is seeking to replace Sen. Mike Braun, who's running for governor.

Reality check: The NRSC's star recruit in Wisconsin, Rep. Mike Gallagher, decided not to run, so the committee is trying to recruit bank executive Eric Hovde to run against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D).

  • That's drawn a salty response from businessman Scott Mayer and former sheriff David Clarke, Republicans who are considering runs: "The NRSC does not elect people … If a candidate wants to lose, they contact the NRSC."
  • In Ohio, Daines has stayed out of the hotly contested GOP primary between Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, state Sen. Matt Dolan and car dealership owner Bernie Moreno, saying that anyone could win the general election.”

Daines' strategy of shaping the field by offering early endorsements and urging other potential candidates to stay out carries the risk that some voters could be offended by the party's heavy-handedness.

  • The NRSC's tactics have ticked off at least one close Trump ally: Steve Bannon, who's called Daines a "gutless coward" and said that all of the NRSC's picks need to be "weighed and measured" to see if they're truly loyal to Trump.

The other side: "Republicans have flawed and damaged Senate candidates who are fighting with each other in nasty primaries, publicly trashing the NRSC's recruitment, or sucking up to Trump at the expense of the voters who decide the general election," said Tommy Garcia, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Go deeper