Senate Republicans’ string of major recruiting wins could soon be coming to an end as the party prepares for less-than-welcome entries in two races that could help decide the fate of the Senate majority next year.
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake are widely expected to launch bids for the upper chamber in Montana and Arizona, respectively, in the coming months.
That’s creating headaches for GOP leaders in their quest to flip two seats and retake control of the Senate after four years in the minority.
Republican leaders in the Senate haven’t been shy about calling out “candidate quality” as a major issue for the party in 2022 and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) vowed to more aggressively recruit and back candidates with a better shot of winning a general election.
Thus far, those efforts have borne fruit in a number of key contests.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) is the leading contender to take on Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) next year (if Manchin runs), Tim Sheehy entered the race in Montana to unseat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sam Brown launched a campaign in Nevada. Manchin and Tester, who represent states former President Trump carried by a wide margin, are at the top of Republicans’ target list.
The party also has a number of acceptable candidates in Ohio to take on Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), though none are considered to be sterling by GOP operatives.
But it’s the potential coming pair of Rosendale and Lake that has Republicans worried.
“There are few election cycles when everything breaks your way. You want more balls bouncing in your direction than the other. It’s very rare you pitch a perfect game,” one GOP operative involved in Senate races told The Hill, describing the coming group of candidates as a “mixed bag.”
Led by Daines, top GOP figures heavily recruited Sheehy into the race in Montana in order to avoid a repeat of 2018, when Rosendale lost to Tester by 3.5 percentage points.
However, all signs point to Rosendale taking the 2024 plunge. He recently appeared at events in Montana’s 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), indicating that his political aspirations are statewide. He and his team have also repeatedly pointed to his support in a poll released by a Democratic firm earlier this summer, which they argue gives him the upper hand.
Republican operatives, however, believe that Daines and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are prepared to go to the mat in a primary battle between the two and spend whatever is necessary to get Sheehy, a businessman and a retired Navy SEAL, over the finish line to face Tester.
“If Daines and Mitch want Sheehy to be the nominee, he will be,” a second GOP operative said. “They’re just going to have to exert themselves to make sure.”
Rosendale was dealt a major blow last month as the Club For Growth indicated that it is stepping away from its initial plan to back him. The sitting congressman is considered by most Republicans to be a poor fundraiser, and losing the Club would do him major harm in a potential war over the airwaves with Sheehy, who can self-fund.
A Rosendale spokesperson told NBC News recently that Rosendale “has not made a decision yet” on a Senate bid and “is focused on his priority which is representing the people of Montana.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Arizona could present a different type of difficulty.
If Lake launches a campaign, she is expected to win the nomination.
Lake, who lost the state’s gubernatorial contest last year to Gov. Katie Hobbs (D), told reporters last month that she will likely make that decision in the fall.
Republican leaders are already dreading the possibility. Lake, an outspoken backer of former President Trump, has gone to great lengths to deny her loss last year. Multiple GOP operatives described her as a “disaster” for the party if she runs, but they concede there’s little anyone can do to stop her at the primary level.
“I don’t think anyone jumps in if she gets in,” one Arizona-based GOP strategist told The Hill. “It’s a sweet giveaway to the Democrats.”
While no recent poll shows how Lake fares in a three-way matchup against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is expected to capture the Democratic nomination, one survey pitting Sinema, Gallego and Pima County Sheriff Mark Lamb against one another shows that Sinema pulls more votes from Republican candidates than Democrats, spelling trouble for any GOP candidate if the incumbent senator goes ahead with a reelection campaign.
In addition, operatives believe that Blake Masters might launch a second bid in as many cycles for the Senate if Lake forgoes a run of her own. Masters, who had Trump’s endorsement in the state’s GOP Senate primary in 2022, went on to lose the general election to Sen. Mark Kelly (D) by 5 points.
“People are just like f—ing desperate, especially the business community. They’re desperate for a normal person, and they’re not going to get it,” the Arizona-based operative added.
All is by no means lost on the recruiting end for Republicans, however.
They still are hopeful that David McCormick will launch a bid to take on Sen. Bob Casey (D) in Pennsylvania, with the former Bridgewater Associates CEO taking all the proper steps toward a run. One source close to McCormick told The Hill that he is still deciding and remains uncertain about a second consecutive campaign.
“If he decides to get in, he’ll be a formidable candidate,” the source said. “But he realizes that running for Senate in any election year is no mean feat.”
The GOP also expects businessman Eric Hovde to run in Wisconsin and are waiting on the field in Michigan to sort itself out. National Republicans also believe former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is aiming to launch a bid after Labor Day.
However, the lion’s share of the focus remains on the trio of West Virginia, Montana and Ohio. Anything beyond that is gravy, some Republicans say.
“There’s three states that matters,” the second GOP operative said. “And then there’s everything else.”
–Updated at 8:17 a.m.