Bruised Republicans point fingers after failure to capture Senate

Senate Republicans, fresh off their loss in the Georgia runoff, began their post-mortem Wednesday after a dreadful midterm cycle that saw every Democratic incumbent win and resigned them to at least two more years in the minority.

Nearly a dozen Senate GOP members who talked to The Hill laid out a troubling picture for the party following Herschel Walker’s loss to Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), as it prepares to fight the 2024 battle on what is expected to be friendlier terrain. Most cited three preeminent reasons for the poor midterm performance: Candidate quality, the inability to look beyond the 2020 election results and the presence of former President Trump. 

“The voters made the final verdict,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters. “What they concluded in a lot of these states was, whether we talk about it or not, Trump was going to be a factor. … His obsession with the 2020 election became an albatross and a real liability for people that were running, especially in swing states.” 

While Trump is never shy about touting his record for candidates he endorsed, one stat he is not expected to note in the coming months is how those he backed in Biden-won swing states fared in the midterms. In Senate, gubernatorial and secretary of state races, Trump-endorsed candidates went 2-14, with only Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo (R) in Nevada and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) emerging victorious.

The question of candidate quality was also top of mind for a number of Senate Republicans. The item has been at the forefront for the GOP ever since Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) raised the issue in August as myriad Republican candidates struggled financially and polling-wise against Democratic incumbents across the map. 

“Candidates matter,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is retiring at the end of the year. “We lost two or three or four races we didn’t have to lose this year.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who ran the Senate GOP’s campaign arm this cycle, defended the party’s slate of candidates, including Walker, in the aftermath of the runoff. But that hasn’t halted the drumbeat for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to resume its previous practice of putting its finger on the scale to aid electable candidates. 

Scott repeatedly declined to intervene in primaries this cycle, citing the need to let the voters speak for themselves. 

“You can’t win a general election just appealing to your base,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a top McConnell ally who ran the NRSC during a tumultuous 2012 cycle where multiple candidates who were not ready for prime time — Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and former Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri — emerged from primary battles and lost in November. Democrats similarly expanded their majority that year. 

“That’s always fraught with difficulty,” Cornyn said of the committee inserting itself in primaries. “Whether it’s the national committee getting involved in the primary or whether it’s some of the outside groups … I think there needs to be a focus on: how do we nominate the most conservative person who can get elected in a general election.”

According to one leading Democrat, however, a major factor holding back the GOP was that voters just didn’t like what Republicans were offering this cycle. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the outgoing Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, argued that for all of the messaging on the GOP side, Republicans did a poor job at laying out remedies to problems. Specifically, he cited the Inflation Reduction Act, which every Republican voted against, and their opposition to efforts to lower prescription drugs for seniors, which Democrats were able to message on in the final weeks of the campaign. 

“The polls didn’t show that people particularly liked Republicans. It wasn’t like ‘let’s bring all the Republicans back,’” Peters said.

“That’s such an easy message,” he added about the prescription drugs issue.  

Structurally, Senate Republicans also pressed that the years-long effort by Trump and his allies to dissuade voters from mail voting is harming the party’s ability to win. On top of Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a number of lawmakers — including numerous Trump allies such as Sens. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and Scott — pressed that the party must convince its voters that voting by mail is safe and must be embraced.

Nowhere is that situation more acute than in Arizona, which took roughly a week to finalize its results due in large part because instead of dropping their ballots in the mail, a record number of voters dropped off their ballots on Election Day, causing an unprecedented delay in Maricopa County. Statewide GOP candidates who dismissed that idea, including gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, lost. 

“We’ve got two years to convince Republicans that we have a voting month and not a voting day,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who won his eighth term in November. “Election month, not an Election Day.”

Of the 33 seats up in 2024, 23 are held by Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). But the prospect of battling for these seats with Trump atop the ticket for the third time in three presidential cycles is something that is not appetizing for some lawmakers. 

“The data is just overwhelmingly consistent and compelling. The candidates whose primary qualification for running for high office was their loyalty to Donald Trump did very badly especially compared to, let’s say, more conventional Republicans, including many who had tension with Trump,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who voted to convict Trump for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021 and is retiring. 

“It’s so obvious that it’s stunning,” Toomey added.

Tags Donald Trump Gary Peters Georgia Senate runoff Herschel Walker John Cornyn Mitch McConnell Raphael Warnock Raphael Warnock Rick Scott Roy Blunt
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