In several 2024 Senate races, the Republican establishment has intervened early to back the candidates it thinks are most viable in a general election—Montana's Tim Sheehy, West Virginia's Jim Justice, Nevada's Sam Brown—potentially against primary challengers backed by the insurgent Club for Growth.
In Virginia, it's more of a cold war. Neither side has officially offered its backing to a candidate, but if the Club for Growth had to choose, one would guess it would cast its lot with Scott Parkinson, the former Hill staffer who is now the club's government advocacy staffer. And if Sen. Steve Daines (R., Mont.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had his pick, he would probably back Hung Cao, a Navy combat veteran, Vietnamese refugee, and fundraising powerhouse seen as a rising star in the Republican Party.
Although a Republican hasn't won a U.S. Senate race in Virginia in two decades, Republican governor Glenn Youngkin's victory in 2021 signaled that the party can compete statewide.
Parkinson, for his part, told the Washington Free Beacon last week that leadership power in the Senate "is too consolidated at the top." If he can make it through a primary to unseat Democratic senator Tim Kaine next year, he wants to use his knowledge of Senate procedure and operations to weaken the top brass—currently Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on the Republican side—and give more power over votes and agenda-setting to rank-and-file senators.
"When you have a legislative body that includes everyone, I think you get better outcomes," said Parkinson. "Senators want to be a part of the legislative process, they want to offer amendments, they want to be able to have their voice be heard, and not just be told [by leadership], 'Well, you're not going to get your vote.'"
Parkinson's Senate bid comes amid a broader battle between McConnell and Club for Growth, which is backing challengers to GOP leadership-preferred candidates in multiple states. On Wednesday, Club for Growth released an ad slamming West Virginia's Justice—who is running for Democratic senator Joe Manchin's seat—as "the establishment's handpicked candidate" and "McConnell's man, not West Virginia's."
A Club for Growth spokesman said "we have not endorsed in the race and [have] nothing to announce at this time." An NRSC spokesman said that it also "hasn’t weighed in on the Senate primary in Virginia."
While the Club for Growth hasn't yet backed a candidate in the Virginia Senate race—the endorsement process is ongoing—Parkinson serves as vice president of government affairs for the group.
Parkinson said he would like to strengthen the "Breakfast Club," a small group of gadfly conservative senators opposed to McConnell, and push back against Republican leadership in a similar way to how the House Freedom Caucus earlier this year forced concessions out of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.).
"The Freedom Caucus meets a lot more frequently, and is more organized," said Parkinson. "If I'm elected senator, I've got the ability to bring people together and build coalitions in the Senate."
Parkinson also wants to fight what he calls "lies from the cloakroom"—the tactics that party leadership uses to rein in members on difficult votes. Parkinson said he saw these tactics for years while working as an aide to three senators and later as chief of staff to then-representative Ron DeSantis of Florida.
"They'll say, 'Oh, Senator XYZ is dropping his objection, you're the last senator [holding up the vote],'" Parkinson said. "They'll say, 'We can all get out of here five hours earlier if you just lift your hold.'"
"When you understand how to confront the lies that are sometimes brought out of the Senate cloakroom, and use your power as a senator on the floor, they can't stop you," Parkinson said.
Senators who repeatedly buck party leadership tend to be unpopular in a chamber that has traditionally valued collegiality and runs on horse-trading. But Parkinson said he doesn't mind losing friends in the pursuit of his values, particularly economic freedom and constitutional rights.
"That means objecting, even when you're the so-called turd in the punchbowl, and it's unpopular," he said. "I want to be the voice that is willing to stand up and be remembered for trying to preserve America, because I think that the constitutional framework that we have is greatly threatened by the left."
Update Aug. 27, 10:34 a.m.: A previous version of this piece referred to Parkinson as a lobbyist for Club for Growth. Parkinson is a government advocacy staffer for the group.