GOP Senate campaign arm will focus on "quality" candidates in 2024
Montana Senator Steve Daines, the head of the Republican Senate campaign arm, made it clear he plans to pick and choose where to put National Republican Senatorial Committee's influence and support in trying to win back the Senate in 2024.
It's a departure from the approach taken by Florida Senator Rick Scott, the last chair of the NRSC, who followed a strict committee policy to stay out of primaries. The 2022 midterm election results disappointed Republicans, who failed to capture the majority, in part due to "candidate quality" or farther-right candidates winning their primaries but not the general election.
In the West Virginia Republican primary between Gov. Jim Justice and Rep. Alex Mooney, Daines is picking Justice, who's a popular figure among the state's voters.
"He's been a proven governor in West Virginia. He's a very known entity, Alex has represented half the state, Justice, the entire state. You look at the polling data, [Justice] is up over 20 points in the general election," Daines told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett in an interview Thursday. "He'll be the next senator from West Virginia." Sen. Joe Manchin is the Democratic incumbent.
In Ohio, Daines said he's staying out of the Republican primary that will determine who takes on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Major candidates in that race there include businessman Bernie Moreno (who was endorsed by Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance), state Sen. Matt Dolan (whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team) and Secretary of State Frank LaRose (who hasn't officially entered the race, but Daines predicts he will).
"When you have three candidates, [where] anyone could win the general election, we don't stay up late at night worrying about that," he said.
In his own state of Montana, Daines voiced his support for former Navy SEAL officer Tim Sheehy in the Republican primary. "The veteran population will be a very important voting block in Montana," said Daines, who told Garrett he's had "honest and productive" conversations with Rep. Matt Rosendale about whether he should get into the race.
"That'll be Matt's decision. Boy, if we can avoid a contentious primary, that'd be the best thing to do," Daines told Garrett, indicating he'd prefer to see Rosendale forego a bid
The Democratic Party, which has a slim 51-seat majority in the Senate, has 23 seats to defend in the 2024 cycle. This includes the three seats held by independents (Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont) who caucus with the Democrats.
Meanwhile, Republicans are able to go on offense with just 11 incumbents to defend.
Daines said there are still questions surrounding the potential Republican candidates in Michigan and Wisconsin, where he noted the committee is trying to recruit Rep. Mike Gallagher.
"We never thought we had a real strong shot at getting Mike to run for the United States Senate, but it was important to have a serious conversation," Daines said, adding to "stay tuned" with recruiting attempts in Wisconsin.
Daines was noncommittal about backing a candidate in Arizona, despite meetings with 2022 gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake about her potential candidacy. While she has not officially declared her reelection bid, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's switch to the independent party and Democrat Rep. Ruben Gallego's campaign is expected to create an interesting three-way race in a state where at least 34% of voters don't identify as Democratic or Republican.
Daines predicted it'd be "difficult" for an independent run by Sinema to be successful and believes the dynamic would be favorable for a Republican to take the seat if Sinema runs.
"I think to win Arizona as a Republican, it's a very winnable race, you wanna make sure you're focused on the future. They don't want to hear about grievances of the past. They wanna know what are you gonna do to address the problems of this country and looking forward," Daines said, in an indirect reference to the election denialism associated with Lake.
Lake filed a litany of unsuccessful and baseless legal challenges after her 2022 loss, and has supported former President Donald Trump's unproven claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Daines said that all across the map, he believes that "looking backwards is not a winning strategy."
"[Lake's] very smart. She's very articulate," Daines said. "If she focuses on the future of this country and the problems we face in this nation and less about what happened in the past, I think that'll be a competitive race."
Daines left open the possibility of backing Lake if she runs, but also showed some support for Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb's candidacy.
"Ultimately we'll see what happens. You've got Sheriff Mark Lamb in that race– he's a good guy. You find that sheriffs can become statewide elected officially. We saw that happen with Sheriff Lombardo in Nevada, who is now Governor Lombardo. When you think about a border state like Arizona, a sheriff kind of bio with the out of control situation on the Southern border is a pretty good appeal to voters," Daines said.
While Trump put his thumb on the scale throughout the 2022 Republican Senate primaries with his endorsements, Daines said he's working more collaboratively with the former president in 2024. Daines has endorsed Trump in the 2024 presidential race.
"We chat frequently. And he's very thoughtful right now looking at these races. He understands it's important we have candidates that can win," Daines said. "If you notice, there hasn't been a wave of endorsements coming out so far, because I think we're having these thoughtful conversations and getting on the same page."
Aaron Navarro is a digital reporter covering politics.