Senate GOP to primary voters: Don’t screw it up

Senate Republicans feel increasingly optimistic about their chances of winning back the majority in November — as long as they don’t self-sabotage with toxic nominees.

With primaries set to kick off in earnest this week, Republican senators are warning that the party could still screw up what they view as an advantageous political environment, with President Biden stuck in a polling slump and voters feeling restless, depending on who comes out on top in the states that will determine which party wins control of the Senate in the midterm elections. 

The concern is both an echo from previous cycles, where Republicans feel they got burned at the ballot box because less-electable candidates won a primary, and a recognition that with a 50-50 Senate, any one race could make-or-break who wins the majority. 

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, said his prediction that Republicans have a 50-50 shot of capturing the chamber is based, in part, on uncertainty on who will be the party’s candidate in key races. 

“It would be a lot higher than 50-50 if the primaries were over and we knew who our nominees were. …[There] are some very contentious, competitive primaries and in states, swing states, in a general election where you’ve got to have good candidates,” Thune told The Hill. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an advisor to Senate GOP leadership, said he is feeling “good” about the party’s November chances before caveating, “if we don’t screw up the primaries.”

“We’ve been there before. …We’ve shown our ability to do that and that’s why it’s important as always to nominate people who can win general elections, and it remains to be seen,” Cornyn said in a brief interview. 

The hand-wringing comes as Republican voters are set to start going to the polls in key states. 

A closely watched fight among Republicans in Ohio will come to a head on Tuesday, in an early test of former President Trump’s influence. 

Trump threw his support behind J.D. Vance, who gave high-profile criticisms of the former president during the 2016 race that he’s sought to distance himself from as he tries to win the GOP nomination. 

The Ohio contest has divided Senate Republicans and Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who came in second place behind Trump for the 2016 GOP nomination, has endorsed former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose retirement is creating the open seat, endorsed Jane Timken, the former Ohio Republican Party chair. 

“It looks like the [former] president has given J.D. Vance a little bit of a bump. We’ll see how long that lasts,” Cornyn said. 

Trump remains deeply popular with the GOP base, with Republicans spending several months privately and publicly jockeying for his backing. 

In addition to Vance — an endorsement that sparked a high-profile and frantic 11th-hour effort from some Ohio Republicans to change Trump’s mind — the former president also surprised Republicans last month when he endorsed Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, where GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring. 

Both Vance and Oz have attracted criticism from some Republicans over their past positions: Vance for his criticism of Trump and Oz for his previous positions on health care, in particular, including supporting insurance mandates. Those reversals would also likely be fodder for Democrats to seize on during a general election. 

Republicans acknowledge that Trump remains influential, and he’s still viewed by many as the de facto leader of the party even out of elected office. But the primary slate is viewed as a test of Trump’s king-maker status, and Republicans floated that while coveted by candidates, his imprimatur might not be determinative in every race. 

“It will be in some and not the others,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a Trump ally. “I think most of the Republicans would rather have Donald Trump’s endorsement than not … but it’s a lot of factors, people are paying attention.” 

Trump also flip-flopped on his endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who struggled in the polls. 

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), whose retirement is sparking that vacancy, has vowed to pour millions into supporting Katie Britt, his former chief of staff. 

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has pledged to remain neutral in the race but questioned whether Trump would get involved in a likely runoff. The Alabama race will go to a runoff election unless one of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote. 

“If he’s endorsing somebody, I think it would make a difference. How much I don’t know. ..It would be interesting to see if he gets involved in the runoff, because there will be a runoff,” Tuberville told The Hill. “I talked to him about it, he said he hadn’t made his mind up.” 

Trump hasn’t stepped into every race. So far he has stayed out of the Arizona primary, though he’s hinted he’ll throw his support behind someone, and a closely watched Missouri race, where national Republicans worry that former Gov. Eric Greitens clinching the nomination would upend what should be an easy win for them in a red state where GOP Sen. Roy Blunt is retiring. 

A GOP strategist told The Hill that they saw a backhanded reference to Greitens in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) recent comments warning that Republicans could bungle the party’s chances if they picked candidates who would struggle in the general election. Greitens faced sexual misconduct allegations in 2018 and his ex-wife has recently accused him of abuse, both of which he has denied. 

McConnell, speaking at a chamber event in Kentucky, said that 1994 had been the best election year for congressional Republicans, and that the atmosphere heading into November “is better than it was in 1994.” 

“From an atmospheric point of view, it’s a perfect storm of problems for the Democrats,” McConnell said. “How could you screw this up? It’s actually possible. And we’ve had some experience with that in the past.” 

“In the Senate, if you look at where we have to compete in order to get into a majority, there are places that are competitive in the general election. So you can’t nominate somebody who’s just sort of unacceptable to a broader group of people and win. We had that experience in 2010 and 2012,” McConnell added. 

In 2012, then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) won a crowded Republican primary to face off against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill only for his campaign to implode days later when he said, “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.”

McConnell has also struggled to recruit high-profile candidates into the Senate races this year. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu each passed despite overtures from the GOP leader and his allies. 

Not every Republican is worried that the party could repeat history depending on which candidates win the primary elections. 

“We have really good candidates,” said Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), who chairs the Senate GOP campaign arm, asked about the upcoming primaries. 

And despite months of chatter about high-profile fights between McConnell and Trump over the primaries, they’ve largely only diverged on one key race so far: Alaska. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sparked Trump’s ire by opposing Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and being the only Republican up for reelection this year to vote to convict him as part of the Senate’s 2021 impeachment trial in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, where a mob of his supporters breached the building. Trump has thrown his support behind Kelly Tshibaka in the race. 

Cramer, spotting Murkowski while he was chatting with The Hill in a Senate office basement, shouted out her race, saying that she was “solid as a rock” and that “she’s going to win.” 

Murkowski, hopping in the elevator with Cramer, quipped: “Handily.”

Tags 2022 2022 election 2022 midterm elections 2022 midterms Biden Election 2022 John Cornyn John Thune Richard Shelby Rob Portman Senate majority Ted Cruz Tommy Tuberville

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