GOP loses top Senate contenders

GOP loses top Senate contenders
© Greg Nash

The 2018 Senate midterm elections presents Republicans with a host of opportunities, but the party has already lost several top-tier candidates to fill the seats.

GOP Reps. Sean DuffySean DuffyFlood insurance overhaul is progressing in House Puerto Rico statehood bid a total failure GOP rep dismisses Mueller probe: 'What the hell are we investigating?' MORE (Wis.) and Pat Meehan (Pa.) both recently announced that they’ll run for reelection instead of mounting Senate runs in blue-leaning states where President Trump pulled off upset victories.

Republicans are losing out on potential challengers in safely GOP states, too. Indiana Rep. Susan BrooksSusan BrooksBipartisan lawmakers give blood in honor of Scalise Female lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement Overnight Cybersecurity: Nunes recuses himself amid ethics probe | Surveillance uproar puts GOP in a bind | Dem bill would reinstate internet privacy rules MORE ruled out a run. Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke will likely be confirmed to lead the Interior Department, taking a top competitor out of the mix in that deep red state.

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“The House [members] are generally pretty politically savvy people,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a politics website that handicaps elections. “They know midterms are often — not always — bad for the president's party.” 

“Trump is off to a historically weak start in terms of his approval. … You got a lot of members of the House who are in relatively safe seats. Maybe they’re making the determination that this might not best year to run for Senate.”

While a few star GOP contenders have bowed out, Republicans are shrugging it off. They point to a deep bench of other credible candidates who they believe are just as capable of taking on vulnerable Democrats.

Republicans argue that it’s too early to tell whether Trump’s performance or midterm election dynamics are impacting House members’ decisions against Senate bids. While the first few weeks of his administration have been chaotic, they say voters in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin may view the president differently than those within the Beltway. 

“It’s kind of hard to see the ‘this caused that,’" because what is “happening in the states is a lot different than what’s happening in our view,” said a national Republican operative.

Democrats will mostly be on defense in 2018, with 10 of their seats up in states Trump carried. But even with a rough map, the party of the incumbent president historically sees losses during the first two years in office.

“The folks that are saying they don’t want to run right now, I’m happy they're doing it,” said a national Democratic operative focused on Senate races.

“They’ve got deep benches in a lot of these states, so we’re prepared for them to put forward credible challengers, and we’re getting ready for tough races all over the map,” the operative said, adding that all of the vulnerable Democratic incumbents are “experienced, dedicated, hardworking.”

In Pennsylvania, Meehan was seen as a top contender, but his spokesman noted the prominent role on the House Ways and Means Committee that he would have to give up to run. 

Meehan had nearly $2 million to mount a credible run and, while his district is considered only GOP-leaning, he’s won each reelection with at least 60 percent of the vote since he came to Congress in 2010. 

Even though Trump ended up pulling off a razor-thin victory in Pennsylvania, Meehan had called on him to end his campaign after a 2005 tape was leaked in which Trump bragged about groping and kissing women without consent. Meehan said he would instead cast a vote for Trump's running mate, then-Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMike (Michael) Richard PenceCornyn: Passing Senate healthcare bill by July 4 ‘optimistic’ Pence officiated Mnuchin's wedding: report Collins: 'It's hard for me to see the bill passing this week' MORE.

GOP strategists in the state say it was disappointing to see Meehan pass on a Senate bid, but they say other “serious” contenders are eyeing the seat to take on Democratic Sen. Bob CaseyBob CaseyLive coverage: Senate Dems hold talkathon to protest GOP health plan Ryan Phillippe to visit Capitol Hill to advocate for military caregivers Dem senators seize on Senate press crackdown MORE.

“I think you’ll see several serious contenders emerge over the course of the next few weeks,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania GOP strategist.

Casey, who is seeking his third term in the upper chamber, is considered a tough competitor to beat by both parties. Still, Republicans believe he has shifted from being a moderate to a “hard left” Democrat over the years. 

“I think there is a growing feeling that Bob Casey is vulnerable and that the opportunity to capture that seat is very real,” Gerow said. “It will be an uphill battle, but it’s one that is increasingly seen as winnable.” 

State Sen. Rick Saccone has already filed to run for the seat. There are other GOP House members from Pennsylvania who could run, including Reps. Mike Kelly and Charlie Dent.

In Wisconsin, Duffy passed on a promotion, citing his family. He has eight children, and GOP strategists in the state stress that his decision was based on family reasons rather than political calculations.

Duffy, an early backer of Trump, was seen as a top challenger and some possible candidates were waiting on him to make a decision. But the Wisconsin congressman has recently made some controversial statements while defending Trump’s travel ban.

“If he’s going to not run, it is helpful for him to step aside early so things coalesce around someone else because there are other talented people who could be good candidates,” a Wisconsin Republican operative said. “It’s helpful he made that clear early. 

Wisconsin strategists say Eric Hovde, a businessman who unsuccessfully ran in the GOP primary for Senate in 2012, is a “clear option” to take on Democratic Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy BaldwinDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Overnight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Dems urge Sessions to reject AT&T-Time Warner merger MORE. Other names that have been floated include businessman and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and a few state legislators.

Baldwin is running for her second term and recently scored a spot on Senate Democratic leadership. She served in the House from 1999 to 2013 before she was elected to the upper chamber as the first openly gay senator.

This is her first time on the ballot during a non-presidential year, which makes Republicans argue that she rode the wave of former President Obama’s 2012 reelection. And with Trump eking out a win in the Badger State, they believe Baldwin’s politics don’t match those of the states’ voters.

“Tammy is understood to be so deeply vulnerable,” the GOP operative said. “Tammy won with tidal wave turnout thanks to Obama in 2012. She’s not going to have that level of turnout in 2018.”

In Indiana, Brooks ruled out a run, but other House members have been showing interest in challenging Democratic Sen. Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyLawmakers sport LSU gear at baseball game in honor of Scalise Senate votes to continue arming Saudis As Yemenis suffer the consequences Overnight Defense: Mattis defends Trump budget | Senate rejects effort to block Saudi deal | Boeing to cut 50 executive jobs MORE. GOP Rep. Luke Messer is “seriously” considering a Senate run and GOP Rep. Todd Rokita also wouldn’t rule it out.

And in another deep red state, behind the scenes maneuvering helped Democratic Sen. Jon TesterJon TesterOvernight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Trump's 'regulatory czar' advances in Senate Gianforte causes stir after becoming newest House member MORE lose a formidable opponent in Montana. Zinke was being groomed to take on Tester in a state Trump won by more than 20 points. Instead, the president tapped him to helm the Interior Department.  

So far, no other candidates in Montana have emerged.

A number of other House GOP members are still sitting on the sidelines as they consider waging Senate bids, including GOP Reps. Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Ann Wagner (Mo.), Evan Jenkins (W.V.) and Barbara Comstock (Va.).

With a little under two years to go and a nascent presidential administration, Kondik said lawmakers may bide their time and assess the political environment in the coming months. He also noted that House members who initially passed could still reverse course over the next two years like then-Rep. Cory GardnerCory GardnerKoch political leader says GOP healthcare bill not conservative enough Motorcycle officer in Pence motorcade injured after crash Pence meets with Koch brother in Colorado MORE in 2014 and Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioElection hacking fears turn heat on Homeland Security Will Republicans stand up to the NRA's insurrection rhetoric? The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE running for reelection in 2016.

“I think you could have a situation where there are a number of members on both sides who are trying to take the temperature of the environment over the next many months,” Kondik said.

“It’s possible for someone who says no now will decide later to do it.”