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Republicans banking on the road less traveled to Senate majority

Key candidates have not been in general elections before, and are facing scrutiny

Dave McCormick, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, reaches out to shake hands with a voter after a campaign rally at Beerded Goat Brewery in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 25.
Dave McCormick, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, reaches out to shake hands with a voter after a campaign rally at Beerded Goat Brewery in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 25. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — It’s going to be difficult for Democrats to maintain control of the Senate, but they have a window of opportunity because of Republicans’ reliance on wealthy outsiders now facing the intense scrutiny of competitive U.S. Senate races.

After a couple disappointing cycles, Republicans are determined to capitalize on yet another opportunity to win the majority by recruiting wealthy challengers who can compete with Democrats’ prolific fundraising. The GOP strategy was encapsulated by a March 2023 Politico headline: “Republicans are looking for Senate candidates who are filthy rich.” 

It’s a reasonable strategy considering Democratic candidates outraised GOP candidates by a sizable margin in past races from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Arizona and Georgia, leaving the National Republican Senatorial Committee or the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund to make up the financial gap and inefficiently pay higher rates for TV ads. 

Beyond financial resources, wealthy outsiders can also be preferable because voters are more skeptical of longtime politicians, and candidates who haven’t held previous elective office don’t have legislative voting records that can be mined for attack ads. 

But a consequence of the strategy is that Republicans are heading into battle with a crop of candidates who have not experienced an intense general election, at a time when Democrats’ best path to maintaining control of the Senate is to make their Republican challengers look unqualified for the job.  

The Senate battleground map is skewed in Republicans’ favor. Democrats are defending nine of the 10 states rated as competitive by Inside Elections, and the only vulnerable Republican seat, in Texas, currently held by incumbent Ted Cruz, is on the outskirts of the competitive spectrum. 

Republicans need to gain just two seats for a majority, but they can control the Senate by gaining one seat and winning the White House, because then the new Republican vice president could break tie votes. 

In 2020, President Donald Trump won four of the 10 states hosting competitive Senate races this cycle, and could win as many as nine of those 10 states if President Joe Biden can’t replicate his narrow victories in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In recent years states have voted for the same party for president and Senate with few exceptions.

Considering Biden is an unpopular incumbent running for reelection, Democratic Senate candidates will likely need to overperform the president at the top of the ballot. 

One way to do that is to question the authenticity and biographies of the challengers, and top Republican candidates have been feeling the heat in the media in the past few weeks. 

In Montana, Republican Tim Sheehy has had to explain his differing stories about the origin of his gunshot wound, according to The Washington Post. Sheehy will face Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. 

The challenger to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Republican Dave McCormick, has been criticized for the lack of time spent in the Keystone State; a New York Times story questioned the authenticity of his western Pennsylvania upbringing; and Democrats are highlighting his business connections to China.

In Wisconsin, Republican Eric Hovde has faced questions about how much of his adult life he’s spent in the Badger State and questions about his bank being named as a co-defendant in an elder abuse case. Hovde is running against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. And in Ohio, Republican Bernie Moreno has faced questions about his biography and business background in his effort against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. 

Other top Republican candidates, including Kari Lake in Arizona and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, also face challenges. Lake’s claims that the 2020 and 2022 elections were stolen, and Hogan’s GOP label in a Democratic state, are liabilities this cycle, but they’ve been through some vetting via their competitive races for governor. Sheehy has never run for office before and McCormick, Hovde, Moreno and Nevada Republican Sam Brown have never made it out of a primary. 

Few Political Rookies

The political outsider strategy looks good on paper, but is not a common route to the Senate. Just 15 of the current 100 senators never held office before getting elected to the Senate and two of those, Democrats Laphonza Butler of California and Michael Bennet of Colorado, were appointed. Of the 13 others, just eight had to win a competitive general election initially, including Democrats Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia. Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Republicans J.D. Vance of Ohio and Rand Paul of Kentucky also won competitive general elections but had the partisanship of the state on their side.

Republican Susan Collins of Maine won a competitive race in 1996 and hadn’t held elective office, but she lost a competitive race for governor just two years earlier. Similarly, Democrat Jon Ossoff had never held office when he was elected in Georgia in the 2020 cycle, but he endured intense scrutiny in his unsuccessful House campaign in the high-profile 2017 special election for the 6th District.

The GOP archetype is Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a wealthy businessman who was a first-time candidate when he defeated Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold with 50 percent in the Republican wave of 2010. That is a path, but it’s not the easiest or most traveled.

There’s a contrast between the political resumes of Republican challengers and the Democrats. Democrats are rallying behind a slate of current House members: Colin Allred in Texas, Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, and potentially David Trone in Maryland (whose primary is in two weeks). Allred and Slotkin have weathered attacks in competitive general election fights while Gallego and Trone have prevailed through competitive primaries. They each have potential liabilities, but their biographies have received more scrutiny in past races than the average GOP Senate candidate this cycle. 

Democrats are trying to amplify the various national stories in local media, but it’s still a multi-step process before it’s clear any of the questions are resonating with voters. Democrats will have to decide when and where to put various critiques in TV ads, which will reach a broader segment of the electorate than Washington Post or New York Times stories. And at the same time, the Democrats will have to deal with the incoming GOP attacks. 

While the five vulnerable Democratic senators have endured millions of dollars of attacks in previous elections, Republicans are introducing new information that the incumbents haven’t faced before. 

Republicans are criticizing Tester for violating his own ethics pledge, as detailed by CNN. NBC News revealed tax violations that weren’t part of Brown’s previous campaigns. Republicans are making the case that Casey has used his office to enrich his family. And they criticized Baldwin for purchasing a $1.3 million condo in Washington, D.C. Those stories landed in 2023, but will be part of the 2024 conversation. 

Even though the Republican candidates are taking their lumps in the media more recently, there are at least two pieces of good news for the GOP. Candidates are facing this criticism in the spring rather than the fall. They’ll have time to respond, pivot or counterattack. And all of these Republican candidates don’t have to be stellar. The GOP can afford to have a couple crash and burn and still take control of the chamber because of the map.

A likely takeover in West Virginia — after Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III opted not to run again — combined with a Trump win is enough to give Republicans control of the Senate. If Trump loses, Republicans just need to win one of their eight takeover opportunities, assuming Cruz wins as well. Those are good odds.

But we’ve seen Republicans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before, and biographical questions give Democrats an opportunity to shift key races into personal contrasts rather than partisan contests. It’s a narrow, but still plausible, path for Democrats.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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