The Biggest Question Marks on the Senate Map

The Republican fields are still developing in three key races: Ohio, North Dakota, and Florida.

Rep. Kevin Cramer with Donald Trump as Trump meets with some of North Dakota delegates to the Republican National Convention on May 26, 2016, in Bismarck, N.D.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Jan. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Ohio Republican Josh Mandel’s dropped challenge to Sen. Sherrod Brown has created the latest question mark in a still-evolving Senate map.

Mandel’s exit Friday afternoon deprived Republicans of their highest-profile challenger in a state that President Trump won handily in 2016, and it came just a month before the Feb. 7 filing deadline for candidates. Elsewhere, a major recruiting hole remains in North Dakota, where Republicans are aiming to draft Rep. Kevin Cramer, and in Florida, where the GOP is banking on a bid by wealthy Gov. Rick Scott.

Taken together, the three races are critical components of the GOP’s effort to pad its narrow two-seat majority and lend greater uncertainty to a year in which Republicans are expected to face difficult headwinds despite a favorable map.

“It’s particularly important this cycle for Republicans to add to their majority because next cycle, the map switches,” said Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s not going to be enough in my view to break even this cycle and still hold the majority in 2020.”

For now, Republicans are grappling with the fallout of Mandel’s exit from a race that was expected to be one of the cycle’s marquee matchups. Mandel had picked up endorsements for his rematch with Brown from groups and elected officials across the GOP spectrum.

“We’ve still got almost a whole year,” Ohio-based Republican strategist Bob Kish said. “But this is a complete shock.”

One Republican already in the race, investment banker Michael Gibbons, pledged to spend another $5 million out of pocket “if needed” after Mandel’s announcement in an effort to keep others from entering the race. But GOP operatives see plenty of room for a more prominent challenger to step in, with Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, and state party chair Jane Timken drawing buzz as possibilities. The state’s primary is May 8.

In North Dakota, Republicans are searching for a more viable challenger to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Cramer stoked speculation that a Senate bid was more likely after a meeting last week with Trump, though Cramer emphasized in an interview with National Journal that he remains undecided.

Trump’s “support couldn’t be stronger,” Cramer maintained, recounting what he said was a 30-minute discussion with the president in the Oval Office. “But he wasn’t high-pressure. He made the case that we need every senator we can get.”

Republicans already have a candidate in state Sen. Tom Campbell but see Cramer as a much stronger contender against Heitkamp, who is highly popular. Cramer said Campbell has told “several people” that he will run for Cramer’s House seat if Cramer challenges Heitkamp, though Campbell’s campaign did not return a request for comment. (In September, Campbell told National Journal that he would stay in the Senate race if Cramer jumped in.)

In the National Journal interview, Cramer cited the grueling nature of a Senate campaign and his current seniority as critical factors he is considering, as well as his preference for the culture of the House.

“They eat off china, for crying out loud,” Cramer said of senators. “We eat Chick-fil-A.”

Cramer said he has seen about a half-dozen polls that show him beating Heitkamp by anywhere from 4 to 11 points. But with no clear nominee in the race, some GOP strategists are urging Trump to begin criticizing Heitkamp, whom he has praised as a “good woman.”

“There is certainly the ability of the president to step into that void, and help Republicans message that race,” Walsh said.

Republicans also face an uncertain nominee in Florida, though Scott is viewed as a likely candidate to take on Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott has repeatedly said he is in no rush to decide, and Florida Republicans aren’t expecting him to do so publicly before the state’s legislative session concludes in March.

Scott’s allies are making it clear that he will not be swayed by the entreaties of Trump or other Republicans to join the race.

“This is a decision that Rick Scott will make, and his immediate family are his only influencers,” Scott adviser Joanna Burgos said.

Democrats are privately fretting about the millions in personal money that Scott can dump into the election. One strategist who works on Democratic Senate races also said it is “deeply concerning” that Nelson does not yet have a campaign manager.

While Scott mulls a bid, Democrats have begun hammering him on several issues, including his economic record as governor and a Hurricane Irma-related nursing-home death scandal.

Scott’s indecision is freezing the GOP field. Republicans suggested a number of candidates who could run if he doesn’t, including Reps. Francis Rooney and Tom Rooney, as well as state Senate President Joe Negron and state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is viewed as a likely gubernatorial contender.

Still, none would boast the combination of Scott’s enormous wealth and name identification. That reality leaves Florida Republicans hoping that the governor won’t wait long to declare his intentions.

“It is incumbent upon Rick Scott to make his decision very soon,” Florida-based GOP strategist Adam Goodman said.

There are some unknowns beyond those three races. Former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. ended his campaign last week. While Young was the best known candidate in the primary, Republicans are optimistic that John James, a businessman and Iraq War veteran, can now more easily consolidate support in a three-candidate field to face Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

And GOP strategists hope former Gov. Tim Pawlenty runs for an unexpected opportunity in Minnesota, though so far only state Sen. Karin Housley has declared a special-election campaign.

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