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McConnell has a good week in battle to retake Senate majority

Maryland, Montana and Wisconsin races break the way he wanted

Candidate announcements in several states broke Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's way in recent days as Republicans work to pick up two seats needed for a majority next year.
Candidate announcements in several states broke Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's way in recent days as Republicans work to pick up two seats needed for a majority next year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — On policy and politics, it was a good week for Mitch McConnell.

First, the Senate Republican leader, who has long opposed an isolationist approach to foreign policy, helped shepherd a $95 billion bipartisan foreign aid package through a thicket of GOP opposition fomented by former President Donald Trump.  

Then McConnell’s quest to regain control of the Senate received a boost, first from news that his preferred candidate in Wisconsin, Eric Hovde, would be getting into the race to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and then when a candidate he preferred not to see run, Rep. Matt Rosendale, dropped his Montana Senate bid. That cleared the way for the McConnell favorite, businessman Tim Sheehy, to mount a challenge to Sen. Jon Tester. 

McConnell’s behind-the-scenes push to convince Larry Hogan to jump into Maryland’s open Senate seat also yielded fruit last week when the popular former governor entered the race.  An Emerson College poll released Thursday showed Hogan tied at 42 percent support with Democratic Rep. David Trone, even as the state’s voters preferred President Joe Biden over Donald Trump, 55 percent to 32 percent.

McConnell’s positive week stands in contrast to headaches endured by House Speaker Mike Johnson, who saw his already slim majority grow even slimmer following a Republican loss in New York’s 3rd District, the defeat of another rule on the House floor and a delay in holding votes on legislation to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. 

It’s a shift of political fortunes for McConnell, who turns 82 next week and had faced questions about his health following two episodes of freezing on camera last summer, in addition to sharp divisions within the Senate Republican Conference and sometimes withering criticism from Trump.

“Regaining a Senate majority is an absolute priority for Leader McConnell,’’ said John Ashbrook, a former McConnell aide who remains close to the Kentucky Republican. “He and [National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman] Sen. [Steve] Daines have worked tirelessly to recruit excellent challengers across the map. And right now the Republican candidate stable is full of thoroughbreds.”

Democrats, meanwhile, say the GOP has recruited an array of inferior candidates, some with tenuous ties to the states they are seeking to represent.

“Republicans are putting forward a roster of Senate recruits with disqualifying flaws and each day this week brought fresh revelations about their baggage and toxic policy positions,’’ said David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “On the Hill, Republicans’ votes against securing our border and strengthening America’s national security handed Democrats potent lines of attack against their candidates. All of these dynamics will lead Senate Republicans’ campaigns to defeat in 2024.”

Rosendale, who made a long-anticipated jump into the Senate race last week, abruptly pulled out on Thursday, citing both McConnell and Trump, who had endorsed Sheehy last week.

“This race was already going to be tough, as I was fighting against Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment in Washington,” he said in a statement. “But I felt like I could beat them, as the voters do not agree with them choosing who would be the next U.S. Senator from Montana. However, by my calculations, with Trump endorsing my opponent and the lack of resources, the hill was just too steep.”

Rosendale said he made the decision after discussions with fellow Montanan Daines, and would “prayerfully consider” his future. The deadline to file in the June 4 primary is March 11, but several Republicans had already been raising money to run for Rosendale’s 2nd District seat in anticipation he would run for Senate. 

Although Montana Republicans will avoid an expensive and bitter Senate primary, Rosendale had been attacking Sheehy, which could in the long run help Tester, a former governor.

“Rosendale spent months making the case that Tim Sheehy has no place representing Montana in the Senate and he was right: Sheehy is an out-of-state tech millionaire completely out of touch with Montana’s way of life,’’ Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party.

The 2024 cycle started with an electoral map that strongly favored Republicans, who only need a net gain of two seats to take the majority, or one if the party also wins the White House since the vice president’s vote breaks 50-50 ties. 

Democrats, who effectively have a 51-49 majority now, have to defend 23 seats this cycle, compared with 11 for Republicans. Many of those races are in states that range from purple to deep crimson, and the party was dealt a blow when Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III opted not to seek reelection, virtually ensuring a GOP victory in West Virginia.

Still, some feared Republicans would squander their chances of winning a Senate majority due to infighting between the establishment candidates and those aligned with Trump. But in several key races, including Pennsylvania, Republicans have united around a single candidate, avoiding the divisive intraparty squabbles that have hurt them in the past.

The GOP still faces a competitive primary in Ohio, where three Republicans — Secretary of State Frank LaRose, businessman Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan — are vying to run against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, a top Republican target.

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