Senate Republicans are already in triage mode ahead of the 2024 elections, circling the wagons around a cohort of their preferred candidates in order to avoid messy primary fights, according to Politico.
What that really means is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wing of the party is going to war with MAGA base voters in an effort to head off yet another 2022-style disaster.
Over the past couple of weeks, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, chaired by Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, put its weight behind two candidates in Nevada and Montana in order to thwart the MAGA candidates who might otherwise emerge victorious in the primary.
In Montana, the McConnell wing is boosting the candidacy of former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy.
“After last cycle, there’s evidence that we’ve got to get the electable candidates on the field,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, who has endorsed Sheehy alongside Daines, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, and Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, among others.
But election denier and '22 Trump endorsee Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, who’s also eyeing a Senate bid, seems unfazed.
“Congratulations to Mitch McConnell and the party bosses on getting their chosen candidate,” he tweeted after Sheehy announced his run. “Now Washington has two candidates — Tim Sheehy and Jon Tester — who will protect the DC cartel," Rosendale said, referring to the pair as the "McConnell-Biden Establishment."
"Unfortunately for them, Montanans don’t take orders from Washington," Rosendale added in a follow-up tweet.
Doesn't exactly sound like a mecca of GOP comity in Big Sky country.
In Nevada, Daines & Co. are making a frenzied push to undercut Jim Marchant, a MAGA election denier who was widely viewed as one of the ‘22 midterm election’s most dangerous GOP candidates for secretary of state. Marchant, a former state Assembly member, won the Republican primary but lost the general election to Democrat Cisco Aguilar by a little over 2 points.
When Marchant announced his Senate bid in May, incumbent Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen happily welcomed him into the race with a reminder of Marchant’s substantial baggage: He’s an anti-democratic forced birther in a state where roughly two-thirds of voters are pro-choice.
“Nevadans deserve a Senator who will fight for them, not a MAGA election denier who opposes abortion rights even in cases of rape and incest,” she tweeted.
The NRSC's preferred candidate in Nevada is decorated Army veteran Sam Brown, who survived an IED attack in Afghanistan. In announcing the Republican committee's endorsement of Brown, Daines hailed him as "an inspiration to all Americans."
A spokesperson for Marchant, Rory McShane, retorted, “Jim Marchant has never lost a primary, outspent every time. Sam Brown has never won a primary despite his attempts in multiple states."
Senate Republicans also have primary trouble brewing in Arizona, Ohio, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, which along with Montana and Nevada round out their top-tier targets next year.
But unlike 2022, where Republicans failed to recruit serious alternatives to Trump's MAGA picks, McConnell thinks they've cracked the code this cycle with a more aggressive posture.
"Clearly, we need quality candidates to win, we learned that in ‘22, 2010, 2012," McConnell told Politico, harkening back to two other cycles in which nutty GOP right wingers doomed Senate Republicans' takeover dreams.
After consecutive missed opportunities in 2010 and 2012, McConnell rebounded in 2014 with a more interventionist approach that ultimately handed Republicans control of the upper chamber. In McConnell's view, Daines is re-running the GOP's 2014 Senate play.
But one major difference between this cycle and 2014 is the introduction of the MAGA base into the bloodstream of Republican primaries. While so-called establishment Republicans still held a decent amount of sway with GOP base voters in 2014, the McConnell wing is now reviled by the MAGA cultists who have overtaken the party.
That's why a MAGA candidate like Montana’s Rosendale is framing his NRSC-endorsed rival as the choice of the McConnell "establishment": It's a killer in today's Republican primaries—if he can make the label stick.
McConnell and Daines likely don't have a better hand to play, so they may as well take their shot at promoting Republican candidates whom they deem capable of prevailing in a general election. But establishment Republicans simply don't hold the juice with the base that they once did. Instead, they are hoping to jam their candidates down the throats of the MAGA base.
“You can play to win or you can play not to piss people off — you can’t do both,” explained Josh Holmes, a close adviser to McConnell.
Sounds smart, but it only applies to a party with base voters who are radically out of sync with mainstream Americans. Declaring war on one’s base in order to put up candidates who at least have a shot at winning a general election is a uniquely Republican problem.
For the most part, the Democratic base coalesces around candidates with a plausible path to victory, such as Joe Biden in 2020 and a slate of pro-democracy candidates across the country in 2022 who wildly outperformed expectations.
This distinction between the parties’ primary voters is exactly why McConnell remains in the minority today—Republican base voters, with Trump’s help, chose a slate of losers in 2022.
So whatever worked for McConnell in the pre-MAGA 2014 cycle is no silver bullet a decade later in the MAGA-dominated Republican Party of today.