Republicans' efforts to regain control of the Senate improved this week amid signs the party’s preferred candidate in Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), is beginning to shore up support and establish himself as the clear alternative to Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuFive unanswered questions after Trump's upset victory Pavlich: O’Keefe a true journalist Trump’s implosion could cost GOP in Louisiana Senate race MORE (D-La.), considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this cycle.
Democrats lost a high-profile recruit for the open Senate seat in Montana this past weekend, giving Republicans an easy shot at another top pickup opportunity. But their path to the majority still winds its way through five other red states in the South and West currently held by Democrats, including Louisiana.
With a six-seat deficit in the upper chamber, Republicans will have to win most, if not all, of those red states to hope to regain the majority.
In preparation for attacks from both the left and the right, Cassidy stepped up his fundraising and organizing efforts to emerge from the second quarter in a strong position, his campaign manager, Joel DiGrado, said.
"This last quarter, we were incredibly focused on putting out a good number to show that Bill is the top-tier challenger to take on a sitting senator,” he told The Hill.
Republicans in the state took notice. One unaffiliated Louisiana Republican operative said the fundraising haul was an early indication Cassidy is solidifying support.
“Cassidy's locking up all of the Republican donors, including all the Jindal donors,” the operative said, referring to Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. “It'll be very difficult for anybody else to get in the race and launch a credible campaign.”
But Louisiana remains a tossup at best.
Landrieu also raised a hefty sum, bringing in $1.7 million and ending the quarter with nearly $5 million cash on hand. And Democrats believe more Republicans could challenge Cassidy from the right, potentially weakening him or fracturing the GOP field.
The state’s jungle primary system, in which every candidate is on the ballot in November, means that multiple Republican candidates could split the GOP vote and force the top vote-getter — potentially a weaker candidate — to a runoff with Landrieu.
The verdict is still out on whether this would be a good or bad outcome for Republicans. While some believe the low turnout in a runoff would benefit the GOP, others point out that a gaffe-prone first-timer could make it to the runoff and endanger the party’s chances against the more seasoned Landrieu.
Cassidy has long suffered criticism from conservative groups and rates poorly on conservative scorecards, with one prominent outside group that backs Republican primary challengers, the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), saying multiple times that it hopes to back a primary challenger.
One other Republican, Rob Maness, has entered the race and is running to Cassidy’s right, seeking the backing of the SCF, which he says is “a strong supporter of my campaign.”
Few others have floated the option at this point, and Maness was only able to raise a little more than $40,000 in the six weeks since he launched his campaign. He insists, however, that Republicans shouldn’t ignore him yet.
“Those that are trying to write us off as insignificant are much, much too premature,” he told The Hill.
He said that comparing his haul to Cassidy’s was like “comparing apples to oranges, comparing a Washington insider’s effort to mine.”
Maness was in Washington this week, meeting with conservative organizations ranging from Susan B. Anthony List to the American Conservative Union to Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump to speak at CPAC Trump to interview four candidates for national security adviser Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at CPAC MORE (R-Texas), a Tea Party favorite whose support Maness said he’s looking to lock down.
He’s previously spoken to FreedomWorks, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, and had a meeting planned with Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Rand Paul: We’re very lucky John McCain’s not in charge Rand Paul: John Bolton would be a 'bad choice' for national security adviser MORE (R-Ky.), which he said he had to reschedule.
None of those groups have yet come out to endorse him, though. And if he posts another dismal fundraising quarter, and Cassidy again surges, the threat of a challenge from the right — which would make it difficult for Cassidy to appeal to centrist voters — continues to diminish.
Also working in Cassidy’s favor is the increasing red tint of the state. It’s grown more Republican over the years, driven partly, according to Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster that works with candidates in both parties, by an influx of white Democrats defecting from their party.
Pinsonat said Landrieu is now "swimming against a tidal wave as Louisiana pushes away from the Democratic Party." "She's still a U.S. senator, she can still win, but in this election it’s much different than before."