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Senate GOP enters critical stretch for fending off bad candidates

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The GOP is escalating its push to head off problematic nominees in a slate of critical states that could determine control of the Senate next year.

With the first intraparty contest now just three months away, Senate Republican leaders are entering a vital stretch as they work to nudge primaries toward their preferred candidates with public endorsements and campaign aid. By summertime, the GOP will learn whether its aggressive gambit paid off.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell averted some primaries and have all but locked up retiring Sen. Joe Manchin’s seat in West Virginia. Yet Republicans are still facing internecine battles in states like Arizona, Ohio and Montana that could upend their best-laid plans. So they’re working harder to ensure they make the most of next fall’s highly favorable Senate map for their party, believing they can effectively close off Democrats’ path to the majority if they succeed.

In Arizona, some Republicans want to clear the field for Kari Lake by urging her opponent to primary a House member instead. In Ohio, GOP Sen. J.D. Vance is trying to sell party leaders on his preferred pick in a three-way contest. And in Daines’ home state, he and his allies are looking to end the GOP primary before it starts.

Conservatives are smarting at some of the GOP leaders’ tactics, but Daines isn’t bothered.

“I like where we’re at,” Daines said in an interview. “There are groups outside that are keeping a close eye on these primaries and not afraid to get behind candidates they believe can not just win a primary but a general election.”

It’s all part of a broader strategy that breaks sharply from the GOP’s unsuccessful last election cycle, when Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) took an entirely hands-off approach to the primary season. Daines has already endorsed a half-dozen candidates, and has buy-in from allies that can help him follow through.

Montana is the biggest unknown. Republicans fear GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale, who lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018, could scramble their efforts to take back the Senate. Rosendale has not said whether he will enter the race, and a super PAC with ties to Daines is already hard at work trying to help Navy veteran Tim Sheehy edge Rosendale out.

Republicans at least avoided a repeat of an ugly primary in Pennsylvania. Republican Dave McCormick, the 2022 runner-up to Mehmet Oz, has the race to himself. But in other top-target states, the Senate GOP expects some brutal intraparty battles despite leaders’ attempts to winnow the fields. Ohio and Michigan are descending into bloodbaths as multiple self-funders vie for the nomination in each state. A similar dynamic could play out in Wisconsin.

“It’s a sort of volatile political season that we’re in,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “And so I think you could expect more people to run. People are motivated.”

With West Virginia all but certain to fall in their favor, Republicans only need to pick up one more Senate seat — or the presidency — to win the majority. Montana and Ohio are the ripest targets, with Ohio’s primary in March and suspense building around Rosendale’s will-he-or-won’t-he campaign.

“I would say he would be ill-advised to run at this point,” Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) said of Rosendale. He acknowledged the representative “rarely” listens to advice.

More Jobs, Less Government, a PAC formed in 2019 to aid Daines’ own reelection effort, has dropped over $1.1 million into efforts to boost Sheehy. The Navy veteran is also airing his own ads, and two Republican polls have shown Sheehy edging out Rosendale in a potential primary. Rosendale is emboldened by the NRSC’s opposition, seething in a three-minute video that “instead of using their resources to expose Jon Tester for the liberal that he is, they’re spending their time trying to keep me out of this race.”

In Ohio, Vance is trying to avoid a repeat of 2022, when he won a vicious primary that created a rift for the national GOP that lingered all the way into the fall. Democrats are enjoying it, to say the least.

“Usually what happens is the more extreme candidate wins. And a lot of damage is done to whoever emerges,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who runs the party’s campaign arm. “That’s going to be good for Sherrod Brown.”

Yet with Daines in favor of more aggressive tactics, Vance is pitching him on business executive Bernie Moreno over Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan. The idea is to bring the party together sooner rather than later.

“Bernie has the best chance of uniting the different factions of the party. Which is really important in a state like Ohio where you still have some of the old-guard Kasich-style Republicans, but a very powerful sort of Trump wing, too,” Vance said.

Daines said right now he believes all the state’s candidates could win a general election. Thune has also met with Moreno, as well as LaRose.

Yet Senate Republicans are flexing their muscles farther afield.

After Lake launched her bid, Arizona Republicans began plotting whether or not they could convince her primary rival Mark Lamb to instead consider running against a rabble-rousing first-term representative who helped depose ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), according to two people familiar with the conversations.

That would pit Lamb, the Pinal County Sheriff, against Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) and eliminate any primary for Lake. The goal is to shift the GOP’s focus fully to the general election. Lamb hasn’t bowed out yet, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the maneuvering, Daines said: “That primary will sort itself out. Kari Lake’s in a very strong position in Arizona.”

The NRSC chair has got work to do elsewhere, too. In Wisconsin, Daines appeared to jump out in front of a recruit’s launch when he announced that Eric Hovde, the NRSC’s preferred candidate, would soon enter the Senate race. That move was a thinly veiled warning to Republican Scott Mayer, another self-funder who could run against Hovde. David Clarke, a controversial ex-sheriff, is also toying with a run and leads the field in some public polling.

In Michigan, Sandy Pensler, a wealthy businessperson, jumped into a chaotic GOP primary for an open Senate seat, a race that already includes former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and former Reps. Peter Meijer and Mike Rogers. Adding to the concern on the GOP side: Democrats are coalescing around Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).

“We tend to feed on our own, unfortunately,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.)

The NRSC endorsed Rogers and urged Meijer not to run for Senate, creating a public spat with the former member. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) tried to convince Meijer to run for his old House seat after he lost a primary to a Trump-aligned candidate in 2022. Democrats picked up the seat.

Walberg endorsed Rogers and said Meijer’s Senate candidacy could create that dynamic again in 2024: “It’s always a real risk.”

Even a guaranteed pick-up is not without controversy. An establishment-aligned outside group is now running ads in favor of NRSC-backed West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who is facing conservative Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.). Justice was recruited as a strong general election candidate — but now that Manchin is retiring, conservatives are questioning the strategy.

“I don’t know one person in or out of the party who thinks that seat in West Virginia is going to go Democratic,” said Mooney supporter Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), questioning why the party would spend money to elevate Justice. “I don’t understand why it makes sense to do that.”