Republicans have a huge opportunity to gain seats in the Senate in 2018. They just need to find the candidates.
Rep. Ann Wagner’s decision not to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a matchup Missouri political observers had anticipated for years, is the latest in a string of thanks-but-no-thanks moves from candidates Washington Republicans thought were locks to run for Senate next year. It’s an unwelcome sign for the GOP despite staring down a tantalizing Senate map, with 10 Democrats up for reelection in states President Donald Trump carried last year and an opportunity to win eight states and a filibuster-proof majority.
First there was Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who jumped from the House to Trump’s Cabinet instead of running in Montana as expected. Republicans thought they had a replacement to challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in state Attorney General Tim Fox — until Fox surprisingly counted himself out. In Wisconsin, GOP Rep. Sean Duffy went on a statewide tour early in 2017 before deciding he wouldn’t challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Democrats say the situation is clear: Republicans are afraid of a political environment poisoned by an unpredictable president and a widely disliked GOP health care plan.
“They have an unpopular president and they are pushing unpopular policies, which makes for difficulty recruiting,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “The map is favorable for the GOP, but they are trying to sell the public something it really doesn’t want, and the public is rejecting it.”
But the red-tinged Senate map means there are few races where Republicans believe they need a single exceptional, heaven-and-earth-moving recruit to win in 2018. And some GOP strategists say there’s plenty of time to get things set up for next year’s Senate elections, citing NRSC Chair Cory Gardner’s decision to begin his 2014 Colorado Senate run in February of that year.
“All of the hand-wringing and consternation about recruiting is largely manufactured,” said Kevin McLaughlin, a former deputy executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I can’t think of a reason right now, like literally any, for someone to get in at this stage.”
Yet top Republican strategists privately admit they are intensely focused on two people: Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, as an alternative challenger to McCaskill who many Republicans now insist they prefer, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who could self-fund an expensive campaign against Sen. Bill Nelson. If those two men pass, Republicans admit their 2018 recruiting class could quickly go from solid to disappointing.
Here’s the current state of play in nine top Senate races Republicans want to flip in 2018:
FLORIDA (Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson)
Like Missouri, the GOP recruiting efforts here are focused on one man: Gov. Rick Scott. Scott is seen as the only Republican with the name identification and fundraising prowess (or, really, self-funding prowess — Scott is a billionaire) to compete in the nation’s largest swing state. If Scott passes, the GOP could turn to Rep. Francis Rooney, a wealthy former ambassador, or Rep. Ron DeSantis. For his part, Scott has told national Republicans he’ll make a decision on his own timeline, which, Scott has suggested, will stretch into next year.
INDIANA (Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly)
GOP Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are very similar members of Congress, and that similarity is breeding contempt. Neither has officially declared a Senate campaign, but the two have already begun attacking each other. Messer has assembled an impressive fundraising apparatus highlighted by Greg Pence, the vice president’s brother. But Rokita has already won statewide, having served two terms as secretary of state. Even with Messer and Rokita in, some Republican strategists still pine for Rep. Susan Brooks, who said no earlier this year. Other strategists see room for a third candidate, perhaps Attorney General Curtis Hill or an outsider-style businessman.
MISSOURI (Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill)
Wagner’s shock decision to pass — she had hired a campaign manager and lined up a communications director for a Senate run — has put all eyes on Hawley, the state’s 37-year-old attorney general, who was elected last year. Republican elders and donors in the state have been pushing Hawley to run for months, arguing he had outside credentials Wagner lacked. But Hawley has ducked direct questions on the Senate, and Democrats are already prepared to attack him as an overambitious young man on the make. Rep. Vicky Hartzler also announced she was still considering a bid.
MONTANA (Democratic Sen. Jon Tester)
First, Zinke took a job as Trump’s interior secretary rather than challenge Tester. Then, Fox decided not to run, eyeing a 2020 gubernatorial bid that looked like a better option after Rep. Greg Gianforte, who had been expected to run for governor again in three years, assaulted a reporter. There are already three Republican candidates in the race, but national Republicans are now eyeing state Treasurer Matt Rosendale as a possible standard bearer.
NORTH DAKOTA (Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp)
Republicans still don’t have a candidate in this Trump-friendly state, and Trump failed to lure Heitkamp into his administration to open the seat. National Republicans are lukewarm on Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Trump-like lawmaker — unscripted or out of control, depending on your perspective — who made national news earlier this year for criticizing female Democrats’ clothes. State Sen. Tom Campbell could run for either the Senate or Cramer’s seat, but Cramer is keeping everyone guessing and said in an interview that jumping in early “may even harm me” politically. “I don’t feel an urgency to get in,” Cramer said. “Getting in the race in September or October or November handicaps me the same as if I got in it in May.”
OHIO (Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown)
Treasurer Josh Mandel came within five points of beating Brown in 2012. But not all Republicans wanted to see a rematch between vocal Trump supporter Mandel and Brown, though that’s what they are likely going to get. The more centrist Rep. Pat Tiberi bowed out this spring and cleared the path for Mandel, who has now accrued endorsements from the likes of GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida. Investment banker Michael Gibbons, a longtime Republican donor, has also jumped into the contest and is looking to offer a political-outsider contrast to Mandel.
PENNSYLVANIA (Democratic Sen. Bob Casey)
GOP Rep. Pat Meehan has long been tipped for statewide office, but he took a pass on challenging Casey, who has become an increasingly strident liberal during the Trump era. Meehan is battle-tested and easily won reelection in a Hillary Clinton district after bailing on Trump late last year and voting for Mike Pence. Reps. Mike Kelly or Lou Barletta, both early Trump backers, could change the race by getting in, though a national Democratic official said they are “tainted by the House healthcare vote.” If they don’t run, the national GOP may have to let the crowded primary sort itself out. The field lacks a front-runner and is a mix of people like businessman Jeff Bartos and state Reps. Jim Christiana or Rick Saccone.
WEST VIRGINIA (Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin)
GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat, is disciplined and has battleground-race experience. But Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is considering running a GOP primary campaign to Jenkins’ right. Republicans don’t want a messy fight, but one might already be underway, with negative stories surfacing about Morrisey’s wife and Jenkins warning Morrisey not to run. Trump didn’t help the GOP cause by courting Manchin for his Cabinet — but not selecting him. Manchin is the last Democrat left in the state’s congressional delegation as it has swung right.
WISCONSIN (Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin)
Rep. Sean Duffy bowed out early, and Republicans haven’t had a clear candidate to take on Baldwin since. Nicole Schneider, a former social worker who also happened to be the heiress to a major trucking company, attracted the attention of the NRSC due to her ability to self-fund, but she’s also decided not to run. Businessman and Iraq War veteran Kevin Nicholson has an attractive resume, though he was a past president of the College Democrats of America. Businessman Eric Hovde, who finished second in the 2012 GOP primary, is still considering a bid, as is state Sen. Leah Vukmir.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.