2024 Is Make or Break for the Senate GOP

Column: The map favors Republicans. Will it be enough?

From L. to R.; Sens. Mitch McConnell, Steve Daines, Rick Scott
February 17, 2023

Senate Republicans begin the 2024 campaign cycle with an advantage. They need a net gain of two seats (or one if the GOP wins the presidency) to take control of the chamber. And they have plenty of targets. Of the 34 seats up for grabs, two-thirds are held by Democrats or by independents who caucus with Democrats. Republicans love this map.

Understandably so. Democrats must defend three seats in states that backed Donald Trump by considerable margins in both 2016 and 2020. The Democrats also must defend five seats in states that President Joe Biden won by less than 5 percent. In contrast, there are no Republican incumbents from Biden states and just two whose previous election margins were below 5 percent. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida come from states that Trump won twice and are more than likely to be red next year as well.

At first glance, then, Republicans are on their way to capturing the Senate. But looks can be deceiving. The last election cycle also seemed promising for Senate Republicans. They held 50 seats, enjoyed a favorable political environment, and eyed potential pickups in three states that Trump lost narrowly in 2020. They ended up losing one seat and have been squabbling with each other ever since.

Senate Republicans want to avoid a repeat. They know that they will be on defense in both 2026 and 2028, and that fewer seats will be in play. They also know that the Senate follows the presidential returns. Only five current senators belong to a different party than their state’s most recent choice for president—and most of them are Democrats who are up for reelection this cycle. Hence, unless the coming presidential election radically reshapes the map, the 2024 campaign is a make-or-break moment for Senate Republicans.

Seizing this opportunity won’t be easy. As always, candidate quality will be essential. A good candidate is likable, telegenic, fluent in the issues, quick on his feet, and appropriate to the culture of his state. Since the 2010 campaign, however, Republican Senate chances have run aground on the shoals of bad candidacies. The party has a knack for nominating individuals who strike voters as extreme or odd or blatantly unqualified.

To avoid a replay of 2010, 2012, and 2022, Republicans will not only have to put up a presidential nominee who can win the battlegrounds of Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. They will also have to choose Senate candidates whose personal traits and policy preferences don’t send independents screaming for the hills.

Consider the four races that the University of Virginia Center for Politics classifies as Lean Republican or as Tossups. The most vulnerable incumbent is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose seat is rated Lean Republican. The GOP hopes that the 75-year-old Manchin will announce his retirement, guaranteeing a pickup and freeing money for other contests. If Manchin does run, he faces an uphill battle, but the degree of difficulty depends on his opponent. For example, according to a poll released this week by the Senate Leadership Fund, Manchin would lose to Governor Jim Justice. But he would defeat congressman Alex Mooney as well as the state’s attorney general Patrick Morrissey, whom he bested in 2018. West Virginia is no slam dunk.

The new head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Steve Daines of Montana, has a keen interest in defeating his fellow Montanan Jon Tester. At this writing, Tester hasn’t said if he’ll run for reelection, but he sounded like a candidate when he made loud and angry criticisms of the Biden administration over the Chinese spy balloon.

Don’t underestimate Tester. Behind his good-ol’-boy persona is a shrewd politician who has impressed me since I first met him in 2006. The GOP primary is expected to draw in candidates such as congressman Matt Rosendale, who lost to Tester in 2018, and Governor Greg Gianforte. Be on the lookout, though, for a fresh face who could defuse Tester’s attacks and successfully tie him to the national Democratic Party.

Sherrod Brown of Ohio, like Manchin and Tester, is a Democrat who has thrived in a red state thanks to talent and luck. Brown’s talents include a knack for retail politics, an economic nationalism that appeals to populists of all stripes, and a constituent service program that is well-regarded on Capitol Hill and much appreciated at home. Brown’s luck is his timing. All three of his Senate campaigns took place in Democratic years. He draws opponents who lack personality and carry baggage.

Still, every winning streak ends. For that to happen to Brown, Republicans would have to nominate a strong presidential candidate, and Brown’s Senate opponent would have to replicate, at the least, Senator J.D. Vance’s 2022 coalition. Vance defeated congressman Tim Ryan by 6 points in an open-seat race.

State senator Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball franchise, has announced his candidacy against Brown. Others will follow. Dolan surged late in the 2022 U.S. Senate primary and placed third. He is less like Vance and more like Governor Mike DeWine, who won reelection last year by a whopping 26 points. Former state treasurer Josh Mandel, who came in second place in the Senate primary to Vance and who failed against Brown in 2012, has said he won’t run.

The final tossup, Arizona, features some familiar faces. Last December, incumbent Kyrsten Sinema switched her party affiliation to independent, though she caucuses with the Democrats and hasn’t said if she will run for another term. Congressman Ruben Gallego, a member of the left-wing Progressive Caucus, has entered the race for the Democratic nomination. He’s the favorite.

The GOP doesn’t have a frontrunner. Tech executive Blake Masters, who lost to Senator Mark Kelly last year by 5 points, is contemplating another bid. Former news anchor Kari Lake, who lost the governor’s race to Katie Hobbs last year by less than 1 pointmet with NRSC officials in Washington in early February. A lot of Republicans and conservatives, including me, would love to see former governor Doug Ducey run for Senate. He isn’t considering it.

An OH Predictive Insights poll from this week illustrates the Republican dilemma. Gallego is winning. And the GOP candidate who performed best in a head-to-head matchup against Gallego and in a three-way fight against Gallego and Sinema is Ducey. Who’s not interested in the job.

Complicating matters further is Sinema’s cheering section within the business community and among some Republicans, who like her independent spirit and opposition to tax increases. If the Arizona GOP nominates Lake or Masters or another Ultra-MAGA social media personality, a chunk of the party is likely to back Sinema. And the Democrats would be one step closer to keeping their Senate majority.

You can be sure, too, that Democrats will run ads for pro-Trump candidates in Republican primaries who they see as unelectable in a general election. They pursued the same strategy of reflexive control in 2022, and the strategy worked.

If Republicans are serious about winning the Senate, and potentially gaining unified control of the federal government, they need to select candidates for office who appeal not only to the grassroots but also to independent voters, and who understand that Americans want common-sense answers for pressing economic and social problems, not conspiracy theories, harsh rhetoric, and spite. If Republicans are serious about winning the Senate, they need to get serious about who represents their party. They’ve blown it before. Will they blow it again?

Published under: Feature , Senate