When is it too late to run for Senate?
Republicans still need candidates for some takeover opportunities
ANALYSIS — Judging candidate recruitment in the middle of an evolving election cycle, without the benefit of results, can be a futile exercise. But six months into this cycle, Republicans have some distinct candidate holes.
Considering the favorable Senate battlefield, narrow Democratic majority and an unpopular Democratic president running for reelection, Republicans are cautiously optimistic that they’ll win the majority in 2024. And yet Republican candidates are not clamoring to run.
GOP strategists declare that there’s plenty of time and are confident they’ll be able to avoid the primary pitfalls and problematic candidates of the past. But that’s a tall task based on the party’s track record.
Meanwhile, Democrats are close to filling out their slate of Senate candidates.
They convinced nearly all of their vulnerable incumbents to seek reelection. That’s key, considering the party expanded its majority in 2022 on the backs of strong incumbents and their fundraising. They filled vulnerable open seats quickly. Rep. Elissa Slotkin quickly emerged as the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination in Michigan, where Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow is retiring. And they even have a strong candidate for a long-shot offensive opportunity in Texas, where Rep. Colin Allred recently announced his challenge to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.
The two biggest holes for Democrats are West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin III has not yet announced whether he’ll run again, and Florida, where Democrats don’t have a candidate yet against Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who won his initial Senate race in 2018 by less than two-tenths of 1 percent.
Republicans have yet another good opportunity to win control of the Senate in 2024, but they have a lot more gaps in their recruitment effort.
The GOP needs a net gain of just two seats for a majority, but they can control the Senate by gaining a single seat and winning the White House, because the new vice president could break tie votes. The odds are in Republicans’ favor since the initial Senate battlefield consisted entirely of vulnerable Democrat seats (eight of them) and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat in Arizona. With Allred in the race, Texas should be considered competitive now as well.
Republicans have an even better chance of gaining control of the Senate than they did in 2022, but the party proved last cycle that it’s possible to fumble good opportunities, particularly with underwhelming candidates.
“Cory Gardner did it!”
It’s been almost a decade since the Colorado Republican’s 2014 run, and yet he still gets mentioned as a blueprint, or sometimes an excuse, for candidates entering Senate races late in the cycle.
Gardner officially announced his Senate candidacy in March of the election year. Most of the candidates dropped out of the race, Gardner romped through the state nominating process in April, and eventually defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in the general election.
“If there’s an ideal circumstance, that would be it. But that’s not always the case,” Gardner said in an interview this week. “If you’re waiting until February or March or April, how serious is your primary situation?”
Gardner entered a field without a heavyweight contender and at a time when major outside groups and influential individual donors weren’t already committed to other primary candidates. He also had a united party in Washington and Colorado that was focused on winning. That’s not easily replicable today, when electability is not a priority for today’s GOP primary voters and candidates with the whiff of being the establishment choice are derided.
This cycle, Republicans would love to deploy an army of self-funding candidates late in races in order to give Democrats less time to attack and match Democratic senators’ financial muscle.
“The strategy only works if everyone is in on it,” one veteran GOP strategist said.
Republicans’ 2024 field
Democrats’ path to retaining the majority relies on the strength of their incumbents, as it did in 2022. Their demonstrated electoral success and fundraising are critical, and delays in GOP candidates entering the race or competitive GOP primaries could allow Democratic incumbents to exploit those advantages once again.
“It wasn’t people getting in late. It was a function of divisive, bloody primaries,” one GOP strategist said, contrasting the past and current cycles. And Republicans firmly believe that won’t happen again. But that confidence is often rooted in neophyte candidates who have yet to announce, even after a 2022 cycle that saw their first-time candidates struggle in the general election, and in an ability to keep some of the party’s most problematic candidates on the sidelines.
Even though Republicans have at least eight offensive targets, the GOP is laser-focused on three states: West Virginia, Ohio and Montana. They have announced candidates that they think can win in the first two states, albeit with competitive primaries starting to take shape.
Republicans successfully convinced Gov. Jim Justice to take on Manchin in West Virginia, but he’ll have to first get past Rep. Alex X. Mooney in the primary. Republicans are likely headed for a three-way primary in Ohio between state Sen. Matt Dolan, businessman Bernie Moreno and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Rep. Warren Davidson could run as well. Republicans lack a top challenger to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in Montana.
But there’s a surprising dearth of Republican candidates in states that Joe Biden carried narrowly in 2020 and will be presidential battlegrounds again in 2024, including Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, GOP strategists prefer wealthy hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, who has yet to announce his campaign. According to conventional wisdom, he’s trying to avoid a replay of last cycle, when he lost a long, drawn-out battle with Mehmet Oz for the 2022 GOP nomination.
But it was actually a short campaign. McCormick and others entered the race late after frontrunner Sean Parnell imploded and dropped out close to Thanksgiving 2021. Then McCormick and Oz spent a few weeks brutalizing each other with TV ads. Oz won the primary but was damaged goods in the general election.
McCormick could face another competitive primary with 2022 gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano looming over the race. In spite of his unwillingness to run a traditional campaign, Mastriano would be a strong contender in a Senate primary with his grassroots support, but he’s a proven liability in the general election.
In Arizona, Republicans are on a three-race losing streak in what should be a competitive state. Maricopa County Sheriff Mark Lamb is in the race, but GOP strategists are open to other candidates. Former local television anchor Kari Lake is strongly considering the race and would be tough to beat in the primary, but she’s been roundly blamed for losing a very winnable race for governor in 2022.
“If for some reason we don’t get a fair outcome in our [2022 gubernatorial] election, I will run for Senate, most likely,” Lake told talk show host Piers Morgan recently. And she’s making the rounds in Washington this week, including a meeting with the NRSC. Former President Donald Trump could boost GOP chances of winning the majority if he chooses Lake to be his running mate, keeping her away from the Senate race.
Time is ticking away
“We’re a long way off,” according to a second GOP strategist. But is that the case?
Three of the six non-incumbent candidates to win Senate races in 2022 had already announced by this point in the 2022 cycle: Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman (February of 2021), Missouri Republican Eric Schmitt (March) and North Carolina Republican Ted Budd (April). Alabama Republican Katie Britt announced in June, and Ohio Republican J.D. Vance announced in July. Vermont Democrat Peter Welch didn’t launch his campaign until November 2021, after Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy announced his retirement.
According to one GOP strategist, Schmitt, Budd, Britt and Vance had to get in earlier because they needed to navigate competitive primaries, while potential GOP candidates this cycle can wait longer because they won’t have the same pressures. But that’s far from certain.
In Wisconsin, GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher might be in the position most similar to Cory Gardner’s in 2014. He’s a telegenic member who is being encouraged to run for Senate, and there isn’t a crowd of contenders already in the race. The filing deadline isn’t until June 1, 2024, ahead of the Aug. 13 primary.
But that’s a long time for the field of GOP challengers to remain static and empty. Rep. Tom Tiffany is publicly considering the race, and real estate developer Eric Hovde was specifically mentioned in Politico’s story about “filthy rich” potential candidates. Eight months from now, what if Gallagher agrees to enter the race but Hovde has already invested millions of his own money into the effort? What if Hovde doesn’t run and Gallagher decides to remain in the House where he can chair his select committee on China? That could leave Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin without a serious challenger.
In Montana, Republicans are courting retired Navy SEAL/wealthy government contractor Tim Sheehy, who falls into the party’s category of candidates who can afford to wait. But if he doesn’t run, the party will look to state Attorney General Austin Knudsen.
Self-funding doesn’t appear to be an option for Knudsen, who raised just $411,000 in his 2020 race, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. The most recent competitive Senate race in Montana was in 2020, when GOP Sen. Steve Daines defeated Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, even though Bullock outspent Daines $49 million to $34 million.
The filing deadline in Montana is in March, ahead of the June 4 primary. So if Knudsen entered the race next spring, he’d likely need to raise at least $10 million per quarter before Election Day.
For some context, no Republican candidate took in more than $7 million in the second quarter of 2022. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, who is one of the best fundraisers in either party, raised $13.6 million from April through June of last year.
Knudsen might also have a competitive primary. GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale is still considering a challenge to Tester. Even though Rosendale’s early fundraising has been abysmal, he could have outside support from the Club for Growth. Now-NRSC Chairman Daines’ portfolio presumably includes making sure a competitive primary doesn’t materialize. But that’s easier said than done.
Democrats are waiting, too
Democrats aren’t relying on self-funders, but they are waiting on candidates in two key races.
Manchin said he’ll announce his decision toward the end of the year. That’s par for the course for him. The senator waited until mid-January 2018 to tell his colleagues he’d run for reelection. Even though Democratic strategists would like to know what he plans to do, they don’t have a choice. Manchin is the only Democrat who can win statewide in West Virginia, and it’s not clear he can pull it off again in a state that keeps shifting toward Republicans. Without Manchin, Democrats will lose the seat.
Florida’s no longer a swing state but should still be a presidential battleground. And yet Democrats are at the point where one prominent Democratic donor is playing up the possibility that NBA legends Dwyane Wade or Grant Hill make a run at Scott. Former Rep. Stephanie Murphy could be a better, more experienced, possibility.
Republicans also don’t have candidates in Michigan, though strategists believe New York Stock Exchange vice president John Tuttle will be a great fundraiser. The filing deadline in Michigan is April 24.
GOP strategists also believe they have time in Nevada, where the filing deadline is in March. They think disabled Afghanistan War veteran Sam Brown can build off his unsuccessful 2022 Senate run. For now, the main candidate in the race is former state Assemblyman Jim Marchant, who peddles the unfounded claims that some of the 2020 and 2022 elections were stolen.
Getting in late decreases the window of time to be attacked, but it also decreases the opportunity to raise money. Within the first day of his announcement, Allred’s name and campaign popped up in numerous fundraising emails from other Democrats, including Slotkin, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. But that’s one key reason why Republicans are looking for self-funders who don’t have to be worried about building a fundraising list.
There’s also a human toll as a result of long campaigns. “Candidates are miserable when they’re running for a long time, and when they’re miserable, it leads to bad decisions,” according to the first GOP strategist. “[After a few months] it’s not Candidate Fantasy Camp anymore.”
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.