Republicans fret over divisive candidates
Republicans are sounding the alarm that divisive candidates running across the country could cost them key Senate and gubernatorial races next year.
The party is concerned that disruptive contenders could hurt their chances of keeping Senate seats in Missouri, Alabama and Wisconsin and flipping the governor’s mansion in Virginia. Republicans are also nervously watching primaries for open Senate seats in North Carolina and Ohio and Democratic-held seats in Arizona and Georgia.
Nearly a dozen GOP strategists and donors almost unanimously said former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R), who resigned in disgrace in 2018 and is running for Senate, carries the most baggage out of any midterm candidate.
But there are also concerns over Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who pushed objections to the Electoral College and is running for Senate; Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), who hasn’t said if he’s running for reelection but has voiced provocative views on Black Lives Matter and the Jan. 6 insurrection; and Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase, who describes herself as “Trump in heels,” could backfire in an increasingly blue state.
Operatives are mainly worried that their support with a die-hard primary electorate might not translate to statewide appeal.
“I think some of these places are going to have primaries and it’s really for Republican voters to think hard about what they’re doing and to consider the implications of their nominees. And to me, the onus is on primary voters to balance their desires for certain kinds of personalities, their desires for certain kinds of policies, but also their desires to win,” Scott Jennings, a former adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told The Hill.
The controversies over the candidates pose a distinct challenge for Republicans. Democrats control the 50-50 Senate due only to Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote, which means the GOP must flip just one seat to win control.
“Any one race can have an enormous impact on what the makeup of the Senate is going to be. And so if you take one seat off the table that shouldn’t be, then you’ve got a real problem … because you can’t depend on making it up in another seat,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
It is precisely that dynamic that has Republicans on edge over nominating the wrong candidate in any of the 20 Senate seats they’re defending in the midterm elections.
The GOP is particularly alarmed over Greitens, who strategists said is the only candidate who could put Missouri’s open Senate seat in play for Democrats.
The former governor resigned in 2018 after his hairstylist accused him of taking nude photos of her without her consent, blackmailing her and sexually assaulting her, claims the Missouri state House of Representatives determined were “credible.”
Greitens has admitted to an affair but denied the woman’s claims, though that has done little to quell GOP concerns.
“Eric Greitens has some folks scared, and he is a disaster of a general election candidate,” said one national GOP strategist.
Republicans have not voiced as significant concerns about Brooks or Johnson but concede that their candidacies could make their states’ Senate races more competitive.
Brooks spearheaded the challenge to the Electoral College results after saying the presidential race saw “the worst election theft in the history of the United States.”
And Johnson has touted his support for former President Trump in a state Trump lost in 2020 and spouted controversial claims about the Jan. 6 insurrection, such as saying he did not feel unsafe during the riot but might have if Black Lives Matter protesters were on Capitol Hill.
“Some folks are a little concerned about Mo Brooks. Some folks are a little concerned about Ron Johnson,” the strategist said.
On the gubernatorial side, Chase sparked concern after she called for martial law to be used to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
“I would imagine most folks write off Virginia” if Chase wins the GOP nomination, said another strategist who has worked on Senate and gubernatorial campaigns.
Beyond the contenders who have already launched bids, a number of potential candidates could pose similar risks for the GOP.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who has attended white nationalist conferences, has expressed interest in running for Arizona governor. And Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the chair of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, has floated a challenge to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).
Strategists acknowledge there are key differences between Greitens’s controversies and those surrounding other contenders.
But the GOP is desperate to not repeat past mistakes when deeply flawed candidates cost them winnable Senate seats.
Among the Republicans who still haunt the party are former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, whose comments on “legitimate rape” handed a Senate seat to Democrat Claire McCaskill in 2012, and Indiana’s Richard Murdock, who that year unseated former Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary only to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the general election after saying pregnancies produced by rape are a “gift from God.”
“Because they very clearly nominated somebody that was completely unacceptable to voters, we lost those seats, and the political conversation would have been very different over the past few years if we had won those seats,” Heye said.
“There’s no reason to think it can’t happen,” he warned.
Given the midterms’ high stakes, Republicans expect watchful party leaders and donors to get off the sidelines should a potentially unelectable candidate gain traction.
“One thing about being a donor is that you want to donate to someone that you are ideologically aligned with and someone that you connect with, but you also want to donate to a winner, and a winner is a general election winner, not the primary winner,” said GOP donor Dan Eberhart.
Republicans say they are also concerned about how some candidates can gobble up resources.
Most strategists say that Brooks should be able to win the general election in Alabama if he clinches the primary given the state’s ruby red hue. But the party could be forced to divert funding away from tighter Senate races in Pennsylvania and North Carolina toward Brooks should his candidacy make the race close.
“It’s not necessarily about having to answer for their policies, it’s about having to use resources that otherwise could have been used elsewhere,” said another GOP operative familiar with Senate and gubernatorial races. “That’s where it becomes a map-wide problem because ultimately you can’t necessarily spend in other states when you’re having to spend in states that have a problematic candidate that should be off the map and not a problem.”
Democrats could face their own problem candidates — for instance, Republicans point to a potential comeback bid from former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who resigned over a sex scandal in 2019.
But Republicans concede they’re fielding more statewide candidates with baggage.
Most of the candidates have rebutted criticism by casting themselves as vocal defenders of Trump and maintaining the doubts are just evidence of the “swamp” being out to get them.
Brooks said in a statement to The Hill that it was “laughable” that the “Never Trump wing of the Republican Party” would question his candidacy, while Greitens’s campaign said detractors “were wrong about President Trump, they are wrong about Eric Greitens.”
Aligning themselves closely with Trump could be key to clinching the GOP nomination.
“If you plan to run in 2022 and ignore the Trump coalition or Donald Trump specifically, I don’t think you’re going to be that successful in a Republican primary,” one former Trump administration official said.
Still, Republicans are hinting that strategy may have its limits.
In a viral interview last month, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt swatted away claims from Greitens that attacks against him were the work of the “mainstream media” and the “establishment.”
“You’re talking to a Republican,” Hewitt said. “I just want to win the Senate, Eric. And I’m afraid you’ll be Todd Akin 2.0.”