But while the Kentucky senator promised to work to elect Republicans who have the best chance of winning, regardless of their political views, he and other party leaders appear to be repeating the same strategy that failed for them in 2022: supporting pro-Donald Trump extremists. Even more extreme candidates are lining up to run in primaries, including prominent election deniers.
McConnell served as majority leader in the 116th Congress from 2019 to 2020, with a 53-47 GOP majority. Over that time, he dubbed himself the “Grim Reaper” for his practice of blocking hundreds of bills that had passed in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives from even getting a vote in the Senate.
Voters responded in the general election in November 2020 and in two January 2021 Georgia runoff elections by electing three more Democratic senators. With Vice President Kamala Harris able to break ties in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats held a narrow majority for the 117th Congress.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the campaign arm of the Senate Republican caucus, promised a 2022 “red wave,” and its chair, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, predicted a GOP majority of at least 52 seats. They targeted Democratic incumbents in swing states, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire, and an open GOP-held seat in Pennsylvania, but the anti-abortion, pro-Donald Trump, election-denying Republican nominees in those races all lost. Some, including Mehmet Oz and Herschel Walker, were attacked as carpetbaggers after moving from out of state to run.
In the end, Democrats picked up one seat and gained a 51-49 majority in the current Senate. McConnell blamed the losses on poor candidate quality and Trump’s meddling. “Our ability to control the primary outcome was quite limited in ’22 because the support of the former president proved to be very decisive in these primaries,” he told reporters in December 2022. “Now, hopefully, in the next cycle we’ll have quality candidates everywhere and a better outcome.”
With Montana Sen. Steve Daines as the new chair of the NRSC, McConnell and his party are hoping for better nominees in 2024 to win back the Senate majority. To do so, they’ll need to gain at least two seats if Democrats hold the White House or one seat if Republicans win the presidency and vice presidency.
McConnell told CNN on May 5, “We don’t have an ideological litmus test” for GOP nominees. “We want to win in November.”
He explained: “I think it’s important to go into this cycle understanding once again how hard it is to beat the incumbents, no incumbent lost last year. Having said that, if you were looking for a good map, this is a good map.”
Later in the same interview, McConnell added:
We do have the possibility of screwing this up and that gets back to candidate recruitment. I think that we lost Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire because we didn’t have competitive candidates [last cycle]. And Steve Daines and I are in exactly the same place — that starts with candidate quality.
But the candidates McConnell and Daines are reportedly backing include election deniers, right-wing extremists, and those who recently moved from other states. Some even more extreme candidates have indicated that they will also run in Republican primaries, even without the support of national GOP leaders.
According to the Cook Political Report, eight seats held by members of the Democratic caucus are considered highly competitive in 2024.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent who gets committee assignments from the Democratic caucus, is up for reelection. While she has not announced whether she’ll seek another term, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego is running for the seat.
Mark Lamb, a right-wing sheriff with ties to the debunked QAnon conspiracy theory movement and a history of defending the January 2021 Capitol insurrection, has already announced he’ll run for the seat. Unsuccessful 2022 Senate nominee Blake Masters and unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, both election deniers, have also indicated they might join the race.
Michigan (lean Democratic)
With Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow retiring, this seat is open. Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin and former Democratic state Rep. Leslie Love are running to replace her. Right-wing Michigan State Board of Education member Nikki Snyder has also announced her candidacy, and election denier and unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon is one of several other Republicans who have expressed interest in joining the race. Daines has encouraged John Tuttle, the vice chair of the New York Stock Exchange and a New York City resident as of last September, to run.
Montana (lean Democratic)
Sen. Jon Tester (D) is running for reelection. No major Republicans have jumped into the race yet. Daines is reportedly hoping to recruit wealthy Bridger Aerospace CEO Tim Sheehy for the race, though others, including election-denying GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, are also reportedly potential candidates.
Nevada (lean Democratic)
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D) is seeking a second term. Unsuccessful 2022 secretary of state nominee and election denier Jim Marchant announced on May 2 that he’ll seek the GOP nomination. Daines and national Republicans reportedly prefer small-business owner Sam Brown, who unsuccessfully sought the 2022 Senate nomination and attacked opponent Adam Laxalt for not doing enough to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory over Trump.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is running for reelection. Right-wing millionaire Bernie Moreno, who believes white Americans are owed reparations, and millionaire state Sen. Matt Dolan are both seeking the GOP nomination. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, an election denier, has reportedly told donors he plans to run as well.
Pennsylvania (lean Democratic)
Sen. Bob Casey (D) is seeking reelection. McConnell and Daines have reportedly urged millionaire Connecticut hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, who narrowly lost the 2022 Senate nomination to Oz, to run again. He too comes from out of state and has a long record of flip-flops and false claims. Election denier Doug Mastriano, the unsuccessful Republican nominee for governor in 2022, has also said he may run.
West Virginia (toss-up)
Sen. Joe Manchin (D) has not announced whether he will seek reelection. Daines and McConnell have touted conservative Republican Gov. Jim Justice, a former billionaire who recently put his family’s coal business up for sale, for the seat. But election-denying Republican Rep. Alex Mooney, who served as a Maryland state legislator until 2021, has also announced he will run and is accusing Justice of not being conservative enough.
Wisconsin (lean Democratic)
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is seeking reelection. Though no prominent Republicans have yet announced their candidacy, election deniers Rep. Tom Tiffany and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke are on a long list of potential candidates reportedly mulling the race.
Fifteen other seats held by members of the Democratic caucus are considered to be safe.
“The GOP Senate primaries are going to be a summer of slugfests and whichever candidate manages to crawl out of their intraparty fights will be deeply damaged and out of step with the voters that decide the general election,” Nora Keefe, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told the American Independent Foundation.
A study released April 28 by the nonpartisan group States United Action said that candidates who espoused election denial positions in the 2022 elections were penalized by voters: “Our research shows that in races for state offices that oversee voting, Election Denier candidates received 2.3 to 3.7 percentage points less of the vote than expected, compared with similar candidates in similar races.”
According to Cook’s ratings, no Republican-held Senate seat up in 2024 is likely to be especially competitive. Seats held by Sens. Ted Cruz (TX) and Rick Scott (FL) are rated as likely Republican; the other nine GOP-held seats are rated as solidly Republican.
Reprinted with permission from American Independent.