The Republican contests next month in Indiana and West Virginia will kick off a four-month stretch of unpredictable primaries all key to the party’s hopes of holding and expanding its Senate majority.
In a couple of the nastiest intraparty fights on the map, those May 8 results will set the tone for the remainder of the most closely watched nomination fights in Montana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona.
Republicans are projecting confidence in Indiana that any of their three candidates could defeat Sen. Joe Donnelly. But there is mounting concern about the primary in West Virginia, where some Republicans fear that a victory by ex-con coal magnate Don Blankenship could torpedo the party’s odds against Sen. Joe Manchin.
”We have, obviously, environmental and historical trends running against us,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “To take off one of the prime pickup opportunities would be really problematic.”
Senate Republicans have a favorable map, with races in 10 states that President Trump won in 2016. Still, at a time when the landscape is highly chaotic—and margins of victory could be razor-thin—GOP strategists say it is more important than ever that the right nominee breaks through.
Some Republicans say Blankenship, who was convicted of conspiring to violate mine-safety laws at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners, is not that candidate. He is locked in a bitter primary with state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins, and his campaign insists that criticism from the establishment is only fueling his momentum.
“The same people who said Trump couldn’t win are now the same people saying that Don Blankenship can’t win,” Blankenship consultant Greg Thomas said.
Of the party’s four other unsettled primaries to watch, Republicans worry most about Arizona, where the polarizing Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio are squaring off against Rep. Martha McSally, the establishment favorite.
Adding to those concerns: The Aug. 28 primary leaves the eventual nominee little time to recalibrate before the general election, in which Democrats have fielded arguably their best recruit this cycle, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
“Most people realize our best chance is with McSally,” Arizona GOP strategist Brian Murray said. But, he added, “Republicans are going to have a tough fight against Sinema no matter who the nominee is.”
In an interview, Arpaio shrugged off criticism, projected confidence about winning the primary, and noted he has never lost one before.
“When you look at my résumé, my 24 years also as the Maricopa County sheriff, I think I know what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m out here to win it, and I will win it.”
Ward’s team cast her as the best fit for Arizona’s conservative electorate.
“You have a candidate much in the shape of a Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee in Kelli Ward that actually understands the will of the Arizona voters,” Ward strategist Eric Beach said.
Looming large over the cycle is the memory of the GOP’s nominating troubles in 2012, when this class of Senate incumbents was last on the ballot, and two controversial Republican candidates who, in the view of many party strategists, cost the party winnable races in Missouri and Indiana.
While Republican Josh Hawley is viewed as the clear front-runner for the nomination in Missouri, Indiana is hosting a wide-open race. But strategists express optimism that any of their candidates—Rep. Todd Rokita, Rep. Luke Messer, or former state Rep. Mike Braun—would be stronger than 2012 nominee Richard Mourdock, even as the trio engages in one of the most heated primaries.
After Indiana, Republicans anticipate an uncertain June 5 contest to face Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. State Auditor Matt Rosendale, Air Force veteran Troy Downing, and former Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg are the leading candidates, though none is a clear favorite.
Republicans are also staring down a jumbled primary in Wisconsin, where state Sen. Leah Vukmir and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson are fighting to take on Sen. Tammy Baldwin. And in Michigan, a state viewed as a reach for the GOP, neither Sandy Pensler nor John James holds a commanding lead for the chance to challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Despite the unpredictability of those matchups, not all GOP strategists are concerned; some argue that the party can still benefit from larger environmental trends. Trump remains popular in several deep-red states on the Senate map, even amid his low approval ratings nationally.
“Given where Trump’s numbers are, the Senate appears to be a bright spot,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director at the Republican National Committee.
And the GOP fields in several Senate races are far more solidified. In addition to Hawley in Missouri, Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota is expected to face Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania is primed for a general-election matchup with Sen. Bob Casey, as is Rep. Jim Renacci with Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is the heavy GOP favorite in Tennessee’s open-seat Senate race. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott is widely expected to formalize his challenge to Sen. Bill Nelson next week.
Some potential wild cards include the Mississippi open-seat Senate race, which for now isn’t viewed as a realistic Democratic target. But GOP strategists are monitoring the race, particularly the possibility of the contentious Chris McDaniel advancing to the runoff from the November all-party special election.
Republicans pointed to Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’s stunning victory in Alabama as an example of the instability in the current political landscape. The nomination, they add, of alleged child molester Roy Moore in that race—and the fallout that ensued—underscores how strongly candidates matter.
At the same time, some Republicans are warning against nominating moderates, predicting they would fail to draw enough of their voters to the polls in November.
“If Republicans are going to overcome the 10-point enthusiasm advantage that Democrats consistently have in polling, we’re going to have to give our base voters something to turn out and vote for,” said Chris Wilson, a GOP strategist working on several Senate races.